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Tibet and Francis Younghusband, Episode 74 - 25/05/06


A British outpost in Tibet watches for reinforcements(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

A British outpost in Tibet watches for reinforcements
(Getty Images)
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At the start of the 20th century, the British still considered Tibetans as a mysterious Buddhist society high in the mountains and nominally, under the control of China. The then viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, believed that Tibet was a threat to British interests. Even incursions into British border territory by herdsmen and their flocks, was an irritation enough to become a diplomatic incident.

Curzon told the India Office in London that according to a secret agent, Tibet had decided on war with India and were relying on Russian and Chinese support. Curzon's decided in 1902 to send an emissary, Major Francis Younghusband, to Lhasa to negotiate with the Dalai Lama (who anyway, by this time had fled into Mongolia) and establish a British legation. In London, Broderick, the India Secretary was wary of the scheme. Prime Minister, Balfour was equally sceptical and did not want to do anything that would further weaken relations with the Tsar.

In the summer of 1903 Younghusband, with a military force of about 200 Sikhs and large reinforcements coming up, crossed the border. They waited in Khamba Jong for what they expected to be a large Tibetan and Chinese representation. Although Younghusband met the Panchen Lama, others failed to show. By the time Younghusband moved on from Khamba Jong, he had more than 1000 British and Sikh soldiers, artillery and machine guns and, apparently, as many as 7,000 labourers. But winter had arrived early and they were now fighting the cold rather than Tibetans. In March 1904 the Younghusband expedition with reinforcements of cavalry, infantry and pioneers in support and commanded by Brigadier General James Macdonald, halted before the small township of Guru.

They were faced by 2000 Tibetan soldiers. A shot was fired - it was later said by the Tibetan commander. Macdonald's machine gunners opened up. The Tibetans walked forward as a mass into the machine gun fire. It was a massacre. Younghusband entered Lhasa on 2 August 1904. A month later he signed an agreement that gave the British trading advantages and excluded, in theory, others from Tibet.

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Historical Figure

Major Francis Younghusband (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Major Francis Younghusband
(Getty Images)
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Major Francis Younghusband 1863-1942

Younghusband, although gazetted lieutenant colonel, he never commanded troops. He was born in Murree, India and became both explorer and administrator. His exploration of Manchuria in 1886 opened up routes before unknown to the British and he famously returned to India across the Gobi Desert and the Karakoram Range. He began work on the Tibet expedition in 1902 and the treaty negotiated two years later, gave the British and eventually others access to Tibet. After the Tibet expedition, Younghusband became British Resident in Kashmir. Outside India he is remembered as a thoughtfully religious man and the founder of the World Congress of Faiths (1936)

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Did You Know...

Younghusband was one of the first to champion the idea of climbing Everest.

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Contemporary Sources

The British Government view
Lord Broderick, the India Secretary, gave the government's cautious line in a letter to Lord Curzon, the Vioceroy of India.

"From Secretary of State for India to Viceroy. 28th of May 1903 Foreign. Secret. Tibet. His Majesty's Government have carefully considered the proposals contained in your telegrams of 7th of May and 21st of May. They concur with your wishing to promote trade facilities in Tibet and in ensuring that, in any fresh convention or treaty, the Tibetans should not be able to avoid or repudiate obligations entered into on their behalf. The complications and responsibilities, which such a political outpost might entail, outweigh in their judgement any advantage to be derived from it under conditions now known to prevail. The assurances recently received by the Foreign Office remove any apprehensions previously entertained of a development of political influence by Russia in that country. Nor do His Majesty's government desire that the proposals put forward should be accompanied by threats which would in any way bind them to a definite course of compulsion hereafter. Subject to these conditions, they authorise you to enter into communications with the Amban and Tibetan representative and to fix Khamba Jong as place for meeting, and they request that from time to time you will make them acquainted with the purport and progress of the negotiations."

Defending the borders
Major Francis Younghusband on the vulnerablility of the Indian bordersx

"While reducing the amount of the indemnity, His Majesty's Government wish also to limit the period of the occupation of the Chumbi valley. This is a very serious sacrifice of the interests of the Government of India. Chumbi is the key to Tibet. With Chumbi in our possession we have a clear run at Tibet, for the Tang La Pass across the watershed is an open plain several miles wide. With Chumbi in the possession of the Tibetans, the difficulties of an advance into Tibet are trebled. We got through it this time by diplomatic management, but the valley is full of difficult gorges and positions, greater than any on the further part of the road to Lhasa, and if we now give the valley up - "

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