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Why Did Britain Invade Tibet In 1904?

'The Great Game' was meant to be a contest between Britain and Russia - learn how Tibet got sucked in

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It’s probably the greatest British invasion you’ve never heard of. 

In 1904, British fears about a threat to her largest and most valuable colony, India, spilled over into war with India’s neighbour. The result was a Tibetan toll of about 628 dead, compared to a dozen of British injuries. Here, Riaz Dean, author of the recently published book ‘Mapping the Great Game’ explains why and how it happened.

Article by Riaz Dean

In 1899, Queen Victoria’s representative in India - Britain’s Governor-General, or Viceroy – was George Nathaniel Curzon, the 1st Marquess of Kedleston.

When he took up the position that year, India was Britain’s greatest colony. In order to ensure it stayed safely in British hands, Lord Curzon hoped for a close alliance with India’s eastern neighbour, Tibet. 

But instead, he began receiving worrying reports of Russian involvement there, and of a growing friendship between them. 

In the 1840s, ‘The Great Game’ between Russia and Britain had played out in Afghanistan, when the British were afraid that it too might become a proxy for its enemy.

Now, Curzon feared it was only a matter of time before Lhasa, the seat of government in Tibet, accepted a Russian envoy and the country became a protectorate of Russia’s ruling tsar. 

Central Asia map
Tibet (on the right) an the region today (image: Google)

As it happened, military advisors had told Curzon that a Russian invasion of the subcontinent through Tibet would be near impossible. But the Viceroy still believed that if the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s head of government - became aligned with the tsar, it would have grave implications for India’s defence.

From Curzon’s point of view, the other problem was that attempts to increase British influence in Tibet had already been rebuffed. 

Britain had signed an agreement with China some years earlier permitting trade between India and Tibet. But at that the time, leaders in Tibet were xenophobic and weary of foreign influence, and it bothered them that they had not been consulted before the treaty was signed. They simply wanted to be left alone, without any foreign interference, and especially to exclude Westerners from setting foot in their holy capital, Lhasa.

China, for its part, hadn’t been able to maintain any real control over Tibet’s affairs during the previous few decades. Ostensibly, Tibet was meant to be a province of China, but Curzon knew their control of the region was tenuous. He had said:

“We regard Chinese suzerainty* over Tibet as a constitutional fiction.”

(*Suzerainty is meant to equate to independence for internal affairs, but with a region’s foreign policy being controlled by a higher level of government – in this case, the Qing dynasty in Beijing).

Publicly, Curzon had insisted that British India’s dealings with its neighbour Tibet ought to be purely commercial in nature (i.e. about trade.) In reality, it is clear his intentions were essentially political. If Britain could ensure a sufficiently-pro-British regime was in Tibet, it wouldn’t have to worry about Russia. Thus, its goal was to establish direct relations with the government of Tibet, and to pressure them into acceding to British interests. 

Of course, this was entirely outside of the agreement Britain already had with China. Lord Hamilton, the British government’s Secretary of State for India, saw Curzon’s proposed invasion for what it was: 

“ … a gross exploitation and distortion of Britain’s treaty relations with China for a purpose which went well beyond the original intent of the treaties.” 

After a careful study of this episode, which was about to escalate into a mission forcing its way into Lhasa, historian Charles Allen has concluded that the "official reasons for (the invasion of Tibet in 1904) were almost entirely bogus … "

Officially, the invasion – which actually started in December, 1903, and ran until September, 1904 – was prompted by a border incursion into British India. As noted, the real purpose of the expedition was to get access to, and to force the hand of, the government of Tibet. In British eyes, the Chinese province had to remain a neutral, or even pro-British, buffer state separating Russia from British territory in India.

Mapping the Great Game by Riaz Dean cover image

Curzon personally approached Major Francis Younghusband to command the mission. 

A product of the elite Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Younghusband had already made his mark as an explorer, and was a recipient of the Royal Geographic Society’s coveted gold medal. He had impressed the viceroy with his earlier feats, despite being recently shelved by his government. 

When the call from Curzon came, Younghusband later recalled: 

“Here indeed, I felt was the chance of my life. I was once more alive. The thrill of adventure once again ran through my veins.”

When the time came to commence the invasion, the British column marched across the border without being challenged. Furthermore, not a shot was fired until they neared the small village of Guru, on the road towards the fortress city of Gyantse. 

Here, their force of 1,300 Royal Fusiliers, Gurkhas, and British Indian troops was confronted by around 1,000 to 1,500 Tibetan soldiers and militia, who had erected a stone wall to block their advance. 

They had asked before, but once again the Tibetans implored the British mission to turn around and go back home. The lamas at the barrier solemnly pointed out to Younghusband that, to preserve their religion, no European was to be permitted on their land, and any negotiations could only be held at the border. 

But, as much as both parties sincerely wished to avoid bloodshed, their irreconcilable positions soon became all too evident.

We are left with the tragedy of what happened. 

The Tibetans were armed mostly with swords and matchlock muskets – slow and primitive by comparison with the British state-of-the-art weaponry like the bolt-action Lee-Metford rifles and early machine guns.

Despite this imbalance, the Tibetan soldiers bore the Dalai Lama’s own seal, which they faithfully believed would protect them from foreign bullets. 

The British troops, with their two Maxim machine guns (each capable of firing close to 700 rounds a minute), quickly surrounded them; but, when commanded to disarm, they resisted. 

When things boiled over, many of the Tibetans were dead within minutes. The final Tibetan toll amounted to 628 dead and 222 wounded, compared to a dozen of the British injured. 

It was, as Younghusband penned to his father the next day, “a pure massacre”, and would long be remembered as a black day for Britain.

Within a few weeks, by August 1904, the British Army forced its way into Lhasa. 

Lhasa, Tibet, today (image: Balou46)
Lhasa, Tibet, today (image: Balou46)

Contrary to expectation, they found few signs of Russian activity, or any real evidence of the suspected treaty between the tsar and the Dalai Lama—who had previously left the capital rather than be forced to receive the British mission. 

His representatives were strong-armed by Younghusband into signing an Anglo-Tibetan Convention, which set out a number of commercial and political provisions.

To add insult to injury, the ‘agreement’ forced the Tibetans to bear part of the expeditionary force’s cost. This amounted to an indemnity in excess of £500,000—a staggering burden for such an impoverished country. 

On his return, London officially censured Younghusband for overstepping his authority by imposing such a harsh treaty, and proceeded to dilute it considerably; including the indemnity amount, which was reduced by two-thirds. 

As far as his government was concerned, Younghusband’s perspective in Tibet had been too narrow, and without consideration of its overall impact on ‘the Great Game’.

A few weeks before he had entered Lhasa, Curzon had written to him complaining of the government’s changed attitude towards Tibet, which they now considered to be “a nuisance and an expense; and all that they want to do is to get out of it in any way that does not involve positive humiliation”. 

When the two met again, on greeting him, Curzon wrung Younghusband’s hands and, with tears in his eyes, declared: 

“If your Mission had been anything but the most complete success it would have been the ruin of me. Remember, throughout the rest of my life there is nothing I will not do for you.”

Britain’s final imperial adventure left many at home wondering what, if anything, had been accomplished, and of the damage done to its international standing.  

What the mission had undoubtedly resulted in, though, was the violation of a holy city and its largely peace-loving people, who had only wanted to be left alone.

To learn more about Britain’s invasion of Tibet, and other aspects of British imperial history, read ‘Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in 19th-Century Asia’ by Riaz Dean, currently on sale at a discount for £15. And explore Casemate’s website for more military history titles.

Image of Lhasa, Tibet by Balou46