From Church & State: Spring 2008, No. 92
Once Upon A Time In Tibet
In view of current Western outrage and concern about Chinese oppression of Tibet, it is as well to recall some earlier British/Tibet incidents. Below are two extracts from a collection called Frontiers Of Empire published by William Blackwood and Sons in the midst of the Second World War in 1942, when the Empire was still the Empire and Britain felt secure in holding India and still thinking of extending its influence to the east and to the north. It is clearly meant as light reading for the soldier, and the book could fit neatly in a jacket pocket. The extracts are introduced by a quotation from Brendan Clifford's introduction to Roger Casement's Crime Against Europe…
[Britain Attempting To Force Tibet Into The World Market]
Britain had since the 1870s been trying to open up trade with Tibet from India. Agreements were signed at various times, but Tibetans just didn't trade. At one point the Tibetans agreed that the British should build a trade mart on the Tibetan side of the border, but then built a wall behind it which blocked it off from the rest of Tibet. In 1904 an Army was sent in, commanded by Sir Francis Younghusband, who played a part in the aggravations leading to the Boer War. Younghusband killed about 600 Tibetans and captured Lhasa, the capital. Under British occupation Tibet made a trade agreement which led to some actual trade. Tibet was fined half a million pounds for having resisted.
Younghusband was a very great English Christian . . . His biography was written by George Seaver, former British Army officer and Dean of Ossary. Dean Seaver says that Tibet was governed by a "monstrous tyranny", between which and the ways of the Buddha "there was as little in common as there was between the sublime humanity of Christ's music and the debased inhumanity of mediaeval priest-craft". The monstrous tyrants mistook the leisurely British approach to them for weakness: "How often have the tolerance and easy good nature of the British—both individuals and as a race—proved liable to misconstruction…"
[From Brendan Clifford's Introduction to The Crime Against Europe, p55: the quotation is from Francis Younghusband, Explorer And Mystic by George Seaver, London 1952, p226.]
[An Unwanted Approach]
A postman is usually a welcome individual… In the days before the expedition to Lhassa, the Dalai Lama of Tibet was one to whom letters, those at least bearing an Indian postmark, were distinctly unwelcome—in fact he refused them. During Lord Lansdowne's Viceroyalty a tentative knock had been made on the Tibetan front door, tightly closed against India on the eastern side. Lord Curzon later on knocked more loudly and persistently, but with no result. The door did not move on its hinges. To be accurate, it opened one way only. Tibetans were freely allowed to pass south to sell their wool and shop in the bazaars of India, but the road was still closed against traders from the south. Other unfriendly and aggressive actions were proved against the Tibetan Government, breaches of the frontier and things of that kind. Then it came known that the Tibetan door on the north side had been opened wide. A Russian postman, the Buriat Dorjieff, travelled backwards and forwards carrying letters between his Holiness and the Tsar on all sorts of subjects, while the latter, by one of those occult metempsychoses common in Tibet, was reputed to have become an incarnation of a Tibetan Saint. It seemed certain, in short, that the Power which had recently absorbed, if not assimilated, vast areas in Turkestan, would shortly proceed to devour Tibet, thus bringing about a coterminous frontier with India, a prospect no Viceroy could view with unconcern.
[Kennion was secretly sent into Tibet by Curzon with a message, was discovered, and was interviewed by the Garpon of Gatak:]
…my boxes of sweet biscuits, crystallised fruit and such-like were opened, and under the influence of tea with tinned milk and lots of sugar the potentate thawed. The talk ranged from Royalties to railways, telephones to tea-gardens, elephants to aeroplanes—flying machines had even then left the earth—but of all the achievements of Western civilisation I described, one only seemed to arouse in him a sense of astonishment—a certain noble British cow that in twelve months had yielded 1000 gallons of milk!
"And why", he suddenly asked, "do you British living in this wonderful country wish to possess our poor land?"
"God forbid", I said; "my Government's one desire is for friendly relations between the two countries, that both should enjoy the benefits of trade and that Tibet should be independent and strong. What they do not desire is that Tibet should be absorbed by the Power that is yearly extending her boundaries in Asia." I might truthfully have added that, unlike the Russians, the British have not and never had had a policy a policy of expansion in the East. The fact that millions of Indians had now been brought under British protection and government—to their incalculable advantage—had entirely been brought about by the misgovernment and hostility of their former rulers…
[Kennion's letter from Curzon was returned by the Lhama with no reply:]
I have often thought that there was one who must have regretted the return of Lord Curzon's letter even more than I did—the Grand Lama himself. The next event was the bursting open of the front doors of Tibet by the Younghusband Mission, and in the following year a Treaty, dictated in the very Potala itself—but not with the Grand Lama, for he had fled.
[From A Country Postman by Lieut.-Colonel R.L. Kennion in Frontiers Of Empire]
[Britain's 1904 Invasion Of Tibet]
['Pousse Cailloux' then takes up the story of the Younghusband Expedition, in which he participated:]
…In 1903 Lord Curzon, Viceroy, was confronted with a situation critical to one to whom the safeguarding of India by the inviolability of her frontiers, and a strenuous antipathy to the Russ wherever found, were very stuff o' conscience. Briefly, Russia was trying to gain a protectorate over that mistily unknown and obstinately mediæval land of Tibet, whose steady exclusiveness had formed the principal safeguard of India's northern frontiers; while Tibet, like a scraggy elderly virgin, was beginning to simper in return. Within a very short space of time the Government at home—not yet undermined by hostile demagogues—had given permission that the matter might be undertaken; and Lord Curzon had sent for the one man whose past record and abiding steadfastness of character warranted his being chosen for a task the difficulties of which none could gauge, since they were unknown.
The diplomatic aim was clear, that of obtaining an unconditional surrender from a Government composed of obstinate monks who had joined hands with our enemy. That the surrender could be brought about only by military force nobody, least of all the leader of the expedition, doubted for a moment; our history of unsuccess in verbal dealings with these people was notorious…
[A substantial expedition was put together by Younghusband, who succeeded in penetrating into Tibet despite the lack of concrete information about conditions there and the logistical difficulties. Eventually they met with the enemy.]
They settled in a swarm at a point some seven miles in advance of where sat Younghusband… With the Mongolian inborn faith in a wall, a faith dating from prehistorical times—whether the defence were across a valley, round a city, or about the fringes of an empire—these Tibetans built them a wall where the open plain was narrowed by a large frozen lake and an outlying spur of one of the ranges. From the edge of the lake to the bottom of the cliff they built it, thus barring the track by which we would advance. Inveterate builders, as all Tibetans are, they ran it up in a night. It was their equivalent for 'full stop'. No compromise…
It was, alas, a match to a powder magazine. Some hours later, the wall and the plain beyond it were a shambles. Pass quickly over what happened; many of you will have read of it in all its ghastly details…
Thereafter it was war, pure and simple. We passed over the wreckage of Guru and its wall, fought the fight of the Red Gorge, as spectacular a piece of mediæval warfare as could be wished, and presently found ourselves at the town of Guyantse. A town, save the mark; but one of three in all Tibet, the other two being Lhasa and Shigatse; none of them bigger than, say, the small township of Reigate, in Surrey. I say mediæval warfare, since we, a modern force, were stripped of half our advantage by the ever-present transport question which shortened our stride in even the simple war-gear of those days, particularly in ammunition for the mountain battery which proved later our main means of blowing an entrance into the extraordinarily solid buildings which the Tibetans defended against us; and in the rabbit-warren alleys between houses packed together for warmth, a gas-pipe gun was quite as effective as a rifle…
[If Younghusband had had to bring sufficient food for his expedition deep into Tibet, the expedition would have been made virtually impossible. However . . .]
…Those whose business it was to make inquiry into the habits and customs of the Tibetans had elicited the fact that of each yearly exiguous harvest of the village one quarter went direct to the monastery, in invariable excess of the requirements of the monks, who hoarded it, selfishly oblivious of the fact that the village population was habitually on short commons.
…it was a foregone conclusion that barley kept in the natural all-the-year-round cold storage of Tibet would not have deteriorated; and it was on this grain that our leader determined that we all, from himself down to the last mule of the transport, should live till we get to Lhasa…he argued, here were we in a holy land, among monks and monasteries; we were advancing on the Holy of Holies; a fortiori, the closer we got to Lhasa the holier would the land become, and the more frequent the monks and monasteries…
In short, we, in sufficient force and equipment to make our arguments decisive, were to cut loose from our line of communications and to launch forth across the roof of the world, independent of help or support or of anyone to come to our assistance if things turned out wrong…
Fifteen hundred men, three thousand mules, every man and beast laden to ultimate carrying power with every necessity from a cartridge to a box of medical comforts. Saving only food, we were a marching Army and Navy Stores, and, on the single file track, we measured eight miles from advanced guard to rearguard.
On the first evening our confidence in our leader had exact confirmation. At twelve convenient miles from our starting-point the valley opened out. There, in the middle, stood a small village by the river bank; and there, perched above it on the cliff side, the inevitable attendant monastery.
…Nor had we even to fight for what he wanted… there is little doubt that their past experience of defeat prevented their wasting their strength on the minor defences which would have made our daily task far harder.
It would leave a gap in our understanding of the state of affairs were we not to digress for a moment and see the wherefore of the supplies on which we counted. Tibetan Buddhism has little in common with the teachings of the Master; it is, in fact, nothing but a preaching of universal devildom; not a vague and collective demonology, but with a specified and particularised devil appropriate to every place, action and motive of the simplest daily life. Between the all-pervading aggressive demons and the simple and hard-living people who fear them, the lama places himself as the one and only shield.
The protection afforded is the vain repetition of endless and meaningless formulæ and the observance of set ritual; further, these things are of no value in themselves, but only as prescribed by, and with the direct sanction of, a lama… For all this protection full payment is exacted… which keeps these self-indulgent parasites in the inertia which glowers from their sodden and soulless faces…
In six weeks of patient persistence Younghusband worried a compete and comprehensive treaty out of the Tibetans. Their leaders, ecclesiastical and civil, fought him point by point. At every turn they were simply worn down by the firmness of a man of the very existence of whose type they had previously had no conception. Throughout it all, he never once had to threaten the destruction of Lhasa. Undoubtedly the power to do it lay in our hands; equally undoubtedly, the Tibetans knew it…
A few days later we started homewards, the treaty in our pocket…
[From A Footnote by 'Pousse Cailloux', Frontiers Of Empire]
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