The Younghusband Expedition (1903-1904)

By Jigme Duntak

In 1898, Lord George Curzon had been appointed as Viceroy of British India. By December 1903 Curzon had dispatched a British force of three thousand soldiers, heavily made up of Afghans and Gurkhas from British India, in order to deal with the harsh Himalayan terrain, along with seven thousand support troops into Tibet. The military contingent was led by Brigadier General J.R. MacDonald and Major Francis Younghusband under the public pretext of solving “trading difficulties” through a “peaceful mission”.[1] The same pretext had been used for British interventions in Burma, however, the actual reason and causes for this British expedition, which later developed into a violent military mission, were much more complex. Lord Curzon’s decision to orchestrate a forced entry into Tibet was based on his strong belief, that across the northern deserts, Russia had been intruding and exerting her influence in Tibet. The public portrayal of the expedition as a means of negotiating small frontier and trade disputes was also a legitimate motive for the British. The negotiations that took place upon the expedition’s arrival in Lhasa (September 1904 Lhasa Convention) are a testament of this. Tibet was a region that had been shrouded in mystery due to the isolationist policies imposed by both Tibet and its suzerain, China. Thus the expedition was also spurred out of European curiosities to explore a land that was highly romanticized in European minds.

The Great Game: Fears of Russian Encroachment

In January 1801, Tsar Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, “dispatched an invasion force of 22,000 Cossacks across the unmapped deserts and mountains of Central Asia towards India.”[2] It was no secret to the British that the Russians even before Paul’s reign had coveted British India, but this was the first time Britain had seen threatening actions on the part of Russia towards her imperial holding in Asia. The Tsar’s invasion eventually ended in failure and was recalled a few months later, however many historians view this event as the impetus for what came to be known as “The Great Game” (a term coined by British intelligence officer, Arthur Conolly). “The Great Game” was a struggle between the British and Russian Empire over control of Central Asia. It was an “undeclared war fought out in the lonely passes and deserts of Central Asia between Britain and Russia, and for a brief period Germany.”[3] Operatives would disguise themselves as horse-traders or even holy men, and young officers from both sides gathered political intelligence, explored and mapped secret passes, and sought the allegiance of powerful khans and tribal leaders.

“Throughout the nineteenth century Russia’s Asiatic policy had been canny, successful and (within a framework of opportunism) consistent.”[4] The Russian Empire conquered the crumbling Khanates of Khiva, Bokhara, Khokand, subdued the hill-tribes of the Caucasus and forced the kingdoms between the Black Sea and the Caspian to acknowledge Russian sovereignty.[5] “In Genghis Khan’s time it had been Asia’s armies that were better armed, better trained, and better led than any they encountered on the periphery of Europe; now the boot was on the other foot.”[6] By the nineteenth century this change of events for Russia was at its height and the stimulation of expansion previously under Peter the Great showed no sign of slowing down and had even carried the Russian Empire across the Pacific into Alaska. “What started as a quest for security, dictated by the need to drive back and contain the forces of Asiatic barbarism which had threatened Russia’s very existence for so long, had become a gigantic foray into empty or ill-defended lands.”[7]

The Russian expansion was anchored in a deep sense of national destiny, along with a diversity of impulses that ranged from a desire for more land for the serfs that numbered twenty-three million in 1861 when they were liberated, the piratical instincts of the free-ranging Cossacks, and a natural desire to keep up with the other European powers who were actively adding to their respective empires in Africa and Asia. Russian expansion was thus a product of the times, part of the pattern being conducted by her European associates. “[Russia’s] actions were based, perhaps, as much by the standards of the nineteenth century, legitimate; her belief that she was fulfilling her destiny may be called specious but it can hardly be called mistaken, for it is inconceivable that she could have behaved otherwise.”[8]

Of all the European powers, Great Britain was most directly affected by this large overspill of Russian expansion. “By the end of the nineteenth century Russia’s position in Central Asia conferred on her, vis-à-vis England, advantages of a peculiarly disturbing kind.” Russia’s border expansion had spread until they had become adjacent with India’s, and this created a large amount of tensions on British India while also giving Russia more influence in the West because of her holdings in the East. Mikhail Skobelev, a Russian general famous for his conquest of Central Asia, was famous for having stated at the time that, “the stronger Russia is in Central Asia, the weaker England is in India and the more conciliatory she will be in Europe.”[9] Russia expansion was continuing and few Englishmen believed that her eastward progression could be halted by prudence, exhaustion or any other cause. Her “dominant position, so swiftly and ferociously achieved, challenged British prestige and British interest all over Asia, and notably in India, still haunted by memories of a mutiny [The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857] which might not be the last of its kind.”[10] Near the eventual end of Victoria’s reign in 1901, a clash between both empires seemed highly inevitable.

Viceroy Lord Curzon believed that “Tibet’s then ruler, the youthful and ambitious 13th Dalai Lama (and his coterie), was privy to a secret understanding with the Great White Tsar.”[11] Curzon also believed that, behind the backs of the British, the Russians had worked out an understanding with Tibet’s political masters, the Manchu rulers of China. And the land of the lama was now up for grabs. Lord Curzon “as a student of Russian aspirations for over fifteen years,”[12] believed that Russia had plans in dominating Asia. He wrote in 1901, ‘I assert with confidence-what I do not think any of [Russia’s] own statesmen would deny-that her ultimate ambition is the dominion of Asia;’ and he went on to argue that ‘if Russia is entitled to these ambitions, still more is Britain entitled, nay compelled, to defend that which she has won.’[13]

Therefore, to Viceroy Curzon the expedition into Tibet was a means of defending Britain’s colonial holdings on the Indian subcontinent and in Asia in general. Tibet was a vital geographic location, so near and capable of attacking India if it fell under Russian control. It had served as a natural barrier for the British against the great rival power of Russia and Viceroy Curzon dispatched the 1903 expedition with the intent of keeping it this way. In 1793 a Chinese army of over 70,000 men had crossed the Himalayas from Tibet into Nepal on the Indian side, via the Kirong Pass of about 16,000 feet, and had dealt a crushing defeat on the Gurkhas near their capital.[14] With this understanding the British knew Tibet could be used as a penetrable frontier to attack India and so it could not allow Tibet to be acquired by any hostile power.

If Russia was allowed to establish herself in the rich valley of Lhasa or exert influence in the region, then it would have far-reaching political effects all along the British eastern frontier for over a thousand miles, in the north from Ladakh to Kashmir and in the south from Nepal to Assam. This could have also possibly led to a combination of Himalayan states siding with the Russians against British India, and also could prove militarily costly for Britain who would have to go to enormous lengths to ensure that the eastern frontier was fortified, and that the standing army of tens of thousands of men would have to be substantially increased.[15]

Curzon’s convictions about the Russian involvement in Tibet were not based on academic studies or substantial material evidence but rather they were based on his experience with witnessing Russian policy at work on her Asiatic frontiers from Persia to Peking.[16] He was one of the first foreigners to travel along Russia’s new strategic railway from the Caspian to Samarkand in 1888 and noted that “the whole of Russian Central Asia was ‘one vast armed camp’ and that in the Russian newspapers photographs of this line were invariably captioned ‘On the Road to India.’”[17]

The reality of the Russian threat via Tibet was realistically never certain by the British at the time, but Lord Curzon remained adamant in his judgment derived from his suspicions. Agvan Dorgief, a Buryat Mongol from Russia’s Trans-Baikal region, who became the Dalai Lama’s ‘roving ambassador’ to the court of Tsar Nicholas II (r.1894-1917), was believed by Lord Curzon to be a ‘sinister figure’, ‘an eminence noire’, “who had wormed his way into the Tsar’s confidence as well as the Dalai Lama’s.”[18] Contrary to what Curzon believed, Agvan Dorgief was actually a man of great learning who had set his heart on teaching Buddhist values and had established a Buddhist temple at St. Petersburg. Dorjief also sought to persuade the Tibetan ruler and his people to inch closer together. “The compact he allegedly concluded on the Dalai Lama’s behalf and the arms and men the great white Tsar is said to have promised to fight Tibet’s battles against British aggrandizement, turned out to be no more than figments of a fevered imagination.”[19] The absence of any Russian Cossacks fighting alongside the Tibetan irregulars during the British expedition’s confrontation with the Tibetan forces, along with the old weaponry being used by the Tibetans, was the clearest confirmation for the British that Lhasa had not received any secret foreign assistance. According to historian Parshotam Mehra, the Lhasa expedition was one the ‘most pointless’ of British India’s military adventures and was also ‘a classic example of perceptions and misperceptions’ to dictate intelligence assessment.[20]

Frontier and Trade Disputes

The British in India were “inspired by a typically Western respect for exact frontiers and precisely determined international relations and regular trading arrangements with neighbors along so many hundreds of miles of effective frontier.”[21] The borders between Tibet and Sikkim were not being well respected by the Tibetans, and Lamas had even removed the boundary pillars erected under the treaty and made further advancements on Sikkim.[22] Thus, the British upon arriving to Lhasa negotiated the border between Tibet and Sikkim to be respected.

The British sources of information and communication with the Tibetan government were also sorely lacking and so the expedition was also sent with the purpose of solving these problems by making direct contact with the Tibetan government and its officials. What had started off as a peaceful mission to negotiate small frontier and trade disputes turned into an armed expedition that ended in the deaths of thousands of ill-trained Tibetan forces, and a general outcry of disapproval back home in England and India.[23] The expedition eventually reached its destination of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, but only to discover that the Dalai Lama had taken flight to Mongolia and that the deposed ruler’s nominee and other such Tibetan authorities were ready to sign a settlement with the British. “The September 1904 Lhasa Convention, as it came to be called, had sought to establish a virtual British protectorate over Tibet but was modified in some material respects before it was ratified.”[24] Later in 1906, China watered down the terms further, making all that Curzon and Younghusband had sought to achieve during the expedition fail to materialize.[25]

A trade agreement was also agreed upon between the British and Chinese that finally allowed for a direct trade route to Lhasa to be opened from India, via Sikkim through the Chumbi pass. However, the trade agreement was later repudiated by Lamas who refused to recognize the agreement under the pretext that they had not been a part of the decision. “The Lamas effectually neutralised the opening of Yatung by preventing any Tibetan traders from coming to or settling in it, and by barring the valley beyond by building a strongly loop holed wall across.”[26] Behind this protest to the agreement by Tibetan Lamas, was an open secret that the Chinese were behind this stratagem to show Tibetans their diplomatic skill. While the Chinese were forced by the British to open Yatung, they had cleverly evaded the concession by building the block-house. In doing so, the Chinese had effectively stopped the most direct route to Lhasa for the British. The Chinese had economic interests behind this deceptive strategy in ensuring that all trade to Tibet was to be made through the Chinese province of Szechwan. In this manner the Chinese Viceroy of Szechwan could divert trade that previously flowed along this much shorter Indian route into the much longer and difficult route through Eastern Tibet which would subsequently travel through his province, in this way the Viceroy could benefit from the profits on European goods, and Chinese tea from the Tibetan merchants and Lamas.[27]

The Mystery and Fascination Surrounding Tibet

Tibet and Lhasa in particular, during Curzon and Younghusband’s time had been romanticized and portrayed by the west as being the “secret citadel of the “undying” Grand Lama…shrouded in impenetrable mystery on the Roof-of-the-World, alluring yet defying our most adventurous travelers to enter her closed gates.”[28] With all of this fascination and mystery, Tibet had held the Western imaginations as one of the last unexplored and most secret places on earth. It was this conception of Tibet that appealed to both Lord Curzon and Colonel Younghusband who were both the instigators of the British expedition and who were both explorers and Imperialist who favoured an adventurist foreign policy.[29] Both were determined to explore Lhasa but “had to find political ploys to justify their action.”[30]According to Professor Julia Trott:

“[The expedition] had no results of political importance. It derived its historical and cultural interest from the fact that, owing to the policy of exclusion that had been imposed for the past century by China as Tibet’s suzerain, foreigners’ perceptions of the isolated country were romanticized and their curiosity about the ‘mysteries’ of Lhasa, its capital, was intense. Therefore the experience of penetrating the Himalayan barrier and forcing entry to the capital had a more than military or diplomatic meaning for everyone concerned…[Curzon and Younghusband] wanted Britain to reach Lhasa first; they needed a small army to overcome the Tibetans’ resistance; and Curzon had the power to send one to escort his representative.”

The British expedition for Lhasa was therefore a gamble by Curzon at a time when imperialist actions by Britain were starting to be frowned upon back home.[31] As a result, Curzon seems to have cautiously selected the time upon which to launch the expedition since it happened to have been dispatched when the British Parliament had already sat, thus tough questions about the nature of the expedition could not be asked. Criticism was also heavy in India where many Indian newspapers condemned the expedition after word of the mass killings broke out and also over the fact that the expedition was funded with Indian money.[32] The expedition also represented “an encounter between people with extremely divergent perspectives, and as an exercise of the imagination.”[33] The British expedition to Lhasa can be compared to a chase or hunt for a chimerical beast according to Professor Trott. The West had heard many bizarre rumours about the Tibetan Grand ‘Llama’ god-king, who was shrouded in mystery and the expedition sought to quench this Western curiosity.

Causes of the Expedition

The British under direction of Viceroy Lord George Curzon launched the Younghusband expedition in 1903 under the strong perception that Russia had been meddling in Tibet in order to gain dominance in the region as a means to use Tibet as a gateway to threaten Britain’s imperial colony of India. Although this perception proved false in the end, the decision and judgement was built up primarily out of the Viceroy’s own suspicions and experiences with Russia’s Asiatic policies. Through the expedition Curzon also sought to establish a definitive northern border with Tibet so that British India could properly fortify its frontier and to make sure that the agreed borders would be respected. Free trade between Tibet and British India was also sought to be opened through the expedition which would seek the opening of the Chumbi route to Lhasa. Lastly, the expedition was spurred out of European curiosities for the Tibet region that had been shrouded in mystery due to the isolationist policies imposed by both Tibet and its Chinese suzerain.

[1] Parshotam Mehra, In the Eyes of its Beholders: The Younghusband Expedition (1903-1904) and Contemporary Media (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p.730-731

[2] Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game Revisited, Asian Affairs; Feb2002, Vol. 33 Issue 1, p58, 6p (Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 1

[3] Hopkirk p. 1

[4] Peter Fleming, Bayonets to Lhasa: The First Full Account of the British Invasion of Tibet in 1904 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961) p. 19

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, p. 20

[7] Fleming p.20-21

[8] Ibid p.21

[9] Ibid

[10] Fleming p.22

[11] L. Austine Waddell, Lhasa and its Mysteries: With A Record of the Expedition of 1903-1904 (New York: Freeport, 1906) p. 40

[12] Fleming p. 22.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Waddell p. 42

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fleming p.45

[17] Ibid p.45

[18] Mehra p. 726

[19] Ibid p. 727

[20] Ibid

[21] David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet (Boulder, Colorado: Prajana Press, 1980) p.233

[22] Waddell p.48

[23] Waddell p.235

[24] Mehra p. 726

[25] Waddell p.49

[26] Ibid

[27] Waddell p. 50

[28] Ibid p. 1

[29] Julia Bronson Trott, “One Turn of Pitch & Toss”: Curzon, Younghusband, & The Gamble For Lhasa 1903 to 1904 (University of Hawai’i, 2000) p. iii

[30] Ibid

[31] Mehra p. 727

[32] Ibid

[33] Trott p. iv

The Route of the Expedition
The British Expedition to Lhasa, 1904
A Glance at the Russian and British Indian Frontiers
The Great Game: A Glance at the Russian and British Indian Frontiers

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4 thoughts on “The Younghusband Expedition (1903-1904)”

  1. With the Field Force to Lahsa 1903-04

    In 1903, Captain Cecil Mainprise, a 30 year old Doctor in the recently formed Royal Army Medical Corps, accompanied General Sir Francis Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet. He was in charge of a British Field Hospital and recorded his experiences in about 50 letters home to his sister Delia and brother Bertie.

    They have been transcribed and posted by his great nephew Jonathan Buckley and from 26 November 2008, they are being published on the exact dates they were were sent some 105 years ago.

    The first letter is sent from the Rajput Mess, Alipore Calcutta on 18 November 1903. Thereafter 44 letters trace the expedition’s progress across the Talap Pass, into the Chumbi Valley, and on through Phari, Tuna (including a report of the massacre), Gyantse, Karola and then Lahsa. Another half dozen letters record the return.

    After Tibet he served in India and then in France during the First World War, being twice mentioned in despatches and awarded the DSO. He saw further active service in Salonika, Bulgaria and Afghanistan before returning to England. He was Commandant of the Royal Army Medical College from 1924 to 1926 when he retired with the rank of Major-General.

    The first letter is sent from the Rajput Mess, Alipore Calcutta on 18 November 1903. Thereafter 44 letters trace the expedition’s progress across the Talap Pass, into the Chumbi Valley, and on through Phari, Tuna (including a report of the massacre), Gyantse, Karola and then Lahsa.

  2. Very interesting to read as my great grandfather was a sergeant in the British Army on that expedition.

  3. A very enlighting article for me, My grandfather Sgt Edward Charles De’ath MM was a young Heliograph operator on this expedition and his Regiment was the East Surrey’s, I hold his Campaign medal and his MM to this present day.

  4. My Grandfather was with the horse drawn artillery in this expedition. He left England aa a Bombardier but don’t know what rank he was when this campaign ended. Charles Main.

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