In 1901 and more strongly in 1902, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, heard rumours that seemed to justify his fears about Russian intervention on the north-east frontier of India with Tibet. The Russian government was supposedly sending agents and arms to the mysterious country up in the mountains.
There was nothing apparently to be done about this. Tibet lay nominally under the suzerainty of China, a power then so decrepit that it was unable to enforce is rights. When the British protested to China, they were apt to be told that the Tibetans were out of control. Conversely, when dealing with the Tibetan officials one was advised that all dealings should be through the Chinese government. At the end of 1902 the Viceroy tried to bring the issue to a conclusion. There was, exceptionally an adult Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tibet with whom business should be done; (normally Dalai Lamas were chosen as young boys and a regent was appointed until they were 18. It was frequently the case that the regent would be reluctant to hand over power and Dalai Lamas were inclined to die for one reason or another before reaching the crucial age).
Russia Protests - Scope of Mission Curbed. Whispers of a British intention to move into Tibet began to circulate in Europe. Russia protested; and members of the Cabinet, especially Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, were reluctant to do anything that would estrange Britain further from Russia. The most that the Cabinet would do was authorize talks with Chinese and Tibetan representatives, for the purpose of discussing certain minor border incidents involving herdsmen and their yaks. The two sides were to meet just on the Tibetan side of border. Curzon appointed Francis Younghusband, explorer, mystic, newspaper correspondent and student of religions, to lead the mission.
There was already a clear difference of purpose between the government of India and the government in London: the former wished to obtain a new treaty and the means to ensure its observance, the latter wished to obtain reparation for the border incidents and retreat without loss of face.
The Dalai Lama had fled to outer Mongolia, also a Buddhist country. Younghusband therefore had to negotiate with priests of the Buddhist hierarchy. The terms of the treaty which he eventually signed were very different from - and politically more dangerous than - those the home government had authorized.
The convention kept foreign agents out of Tibet and was the first occasion when Britain and Tibet had established direct relations. The Tibetans were to make a reality of previous agreements signed in 1890 and 94, but not observed, to allow trade marts.
Terms of Treaty with Tibet. They were to pay reparations for the border incidents over 75 years (instead of the three years that the cabinet in London had thought suitable) and the British were to occupy a tongue of border territory called the Chumbi Valley as a security.
There was good reason for Younghusband’s mission which, on the whole was was conducted with distinction and determination. It was also a prime example of the way in which a mere hint of Russian action could lead the British into international embarrassments. There is no evidence that Russia ever made any serious attempt to control Tibet; she had no claim, and little opportunity to intervene there; but the British were prepared to pay a considerable price to keep her out.
The Younghusband expedition was the “last throw of the dice in the GREAT GAME”.
Though always listening for a whisper of Russian influence in Afghanistan, the British had never worried about Russians in Tibet. But then, in 1901, disturbing rumours reached India about Russian penetration into the remote priest-ruled land.
As a result Colonel Francis Younghusband was given command of a mission to Tibet in 1903. Its ostensible purpose was to clear up trade and border disputes : in fact it was meant to counteract Russian influence. This ill-fated expedition, shackled by London’s hesitation about advancing and unable to locate either the ruler of Tibet (Dalai Lama) or any Russians, achieved only a treaty that quickly lapsed.
Stalemate at Khamba Jong. In 1901, strange reports began filtering out of Tibet concerning the friendship between a mysterious Mongol named Agvan Dorjieff, Russian by nationality, with the Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tibet.
The Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, was convinced that a demonstration of British power should be staged. Finally, London agreed, but anxious to avoid offending Russia, insisted that the mission led by Sir Francis Younghusband should go only as far as Khamba Jong.
Khamba Jong was just inside Tibet there to negotiate with the Tibetans and their nominal overlords the Chinese, but only about frontier questions and not about Russians. .On July 19th, 1903,
Younghusband’s mission reached Khamba Jong on July 7 and settled down to await the Tibetan and Chinese delegates. They made friends with the local inhabitants, and Younghusband spent long hours with a high-ranking abbot, the Panchen Lama, who took much trouble patiently explaining that the world was flat. No other official came.
Massacre of the Willing Victims. In the autumn of 1903, the Tibetans arrested two, very minor spies from the town of Lachung, just across the Indian border in Sikkim. The incident was just what Curzon needed to persuade London that the intransigent Tibetans needed teaching a lesson.
London agreed with him and preparations were made for a further advance, using force if necessary. However the march was sanctioned only as far as Gyantse, and not, as Curzon had wished, to the capital Lhasa, 100 miles farther on through the mountains.
Younghusband’s mission was expanded into a full scale military force consisting of about 1,200 British and Indian soldiers, four artillery pieces and two Maxim guns, 16,000 pack animals and 10,000 coolies. By early December, it was poised at the Jelap La Pass, the 14,000 foot entrance into Tibet the “roof of the world”. To the hazards of travel over some of the roughest and highest terrain in the world, was added sub-zero winter cold.
Conditions were frightful. The soldiers wrote home in pencil, since their ink froze. Rifle-bolts froze into the breaches, and subalterns kept the Maxims bolts warm in their own beds. The troops’ clothing, though lavish by the standards of those days, offered no real protection and was, in addition, too bulky to allow free movement for firing. Yet, although scouts kept reporting that they had sighted large Tibetan forces in the hills, Younghusband was not attacked. It was not until the two opposing forces reached the tiny village of Guru on March 31st, 1904, that they came into direct conflict.
On The Roof of the World. Some kind of engagement at Guru was inevitable. Two thousand Tibetan troops were waiting there, blocking the caravan trail, which the British had to follow if they were to get to Gyantse. On March 31,1904, the British reached the Tibetan fortifications.
The Tibetan general galloped up and told them to withdraw. Younghusband replied giving them 15 minutes to clear the way. A quarter of an hour passed, and nothing happened. Then, slowly the troops advanced until they were covering the Tibetans at point-blank range. Officers were taking photographs and the Daily Mail correspondent was already scribbling a dispatch describing a bloodless victory when Younghusband ordered the Sikhs to disarm the Tibetans. As the two forces wrestled with each other, the situation began to turn ugly. Then the Tibetan general fired a shot. Fighting broke out instantly. Volley after volley of British bullets crashed into the solid mass of Tibetans.
The Maxims chattered vindictively. A young officer wrote home that night “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased to fire”.
Worse still, the Tibetans did not flee. They walked slowly away, heads bowed, ignoring the bullets that continued to mow them down until nearly 900 were lying dead and wounded on the field. The British had six minor casualties.
Dead - End, at the Forbidden City. After the massacre at Guru, the British continued to Gyantse. There they waited, as at Khamba Jong, for the non-existent delegates.
Finally the Tibetans attacked fiercely. Younghusband managed to beat them off, and then he had a good pretext to continue to Lhasa, known as the “forbidden city” since so few Europeans had passed its walls. Grudgingly, the home government agreed to his proposals. The expedition marched on until it reached the plains before the city of Lhasa. Here Younghusband learned that the Dalai Lama had fled to Outer Mongolia.
When the British entered the city on August 2nd, they were in turn awed by the magnificence of the great golden citadel, the Potola, and disgusted by Lhasa’s squalor.
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Curzon desired to send a British mission accompanied by an armed escort into Tibet to negotiate with the Dalai Lama and to secure the appointment of a British agent to reside at Lhasa, the capital. He urged upon his unconvinced colleagues at home that if this policy were carried out firmly and decisively there would be no military risk. As Curzon pointed out, since Russia lay a great distance from Tibet this was one region in which the British held a distinct advantage.
As it happened the last stages of the advance took place without serious resistance and through smiling country. One day in early August the mission entered a pleasant valley of trees and cornfields. On a small hill they saw , iridescent in the sunlight, the golden roofs and pinnacles of the Potola Palace, home and sanctuary of the Dalai Lama. Younghusband, followed by Chinese and British soldiers, marched through the heart of Lhasa, the first Britishers to do so since the time of Warren Hastings. The Tibetans looked on with apparent apathy. They showed no sign of bitter hostility to the mission and indeed, in Younghusband’s words, did not seem to “Care a tuppenny damn whether we went there or not”.
The Russians naturally complained. The home government insisted that some of these terms be altered at once, not least because they believed that it was supremely important to behave well towards the Russians. Although the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 was raging at that moment, Russia was still extending her railways right up to the frontiers with Afghanistan and rumoured to be moving troops in central Asia. The British government was in a distinctly shaky position and anyway nearing the end of its term in office.
Younghusband, three other diplomats and a military escort of 200 Sikhs set off from Darjeeling. At the border they ignored the Tibetan commander who had come down to stop them. As they rode across into Tibet, he followed after them, muttering darkly that the British had better beware - even toothless dogs can bite.
Negotiations dragged on while the soldiers organized gymkhanas and football matches at their camp to pass the time. An agreement was signed at last in the Potala Palace on September 7th, but it was a hollow victory for Younghusband. He had gone looking for Russians and had found none. And the agreement giving the British great trading concessions was quickly repudiated by a nervous home government, sensitive about Russian reactions.
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