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First Military Assault on Tibet - British plans - Part II

By: Dr Nachiketa Das
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(Dr Nachiketa Das is Special Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Systems Science, Hiroshima University; And Director, School of Kaya Yoga, www.kayayoga.net )

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British plans to capture Tibet

In the mid-nineteenth century Britain made repeated overtures to Tibet to open a land route for trade purposes, essentially a covert design to expand the plunder of China. The Tibetans were fearful of Britain, so they always rebuffed British offers. In the first two years of the twentieth century the British made up their mind to force open Tibet, instead of waiting for Tibetan consent.

The First Military Assault on Tibet - Part I
First Military Assault on Tibet - British plans - Part II

The meticulous planning to attack Tibet started when George Nathaniel Curzon was the Viceroy of British-India. A 28 year old Curzon who had embarked upon a tour of Asia in 1887, much to the dislike of his austere father who believed that landowners should stay on their land and not roam the world, continued travelling till 1895, and had been mesmerised by the wealth of the East. Four years after his travels in Asia, Curzon at the age of forty was picked from a junior governmental office in Britain to the British Raj on the 6th of January 1899. This ambitious man often described as an out-and-out imperialist, who would continue to hold the high office of Viceroy till the 18th of November 1905, desired to earn a name for himself, and chose to fulfil his ambition through the expansion of the British Raj by colonisation of the adjoining countries. Independent Tibet lying to the immediate north, strategically located between China, India and Russia, drew his attention. He strongly advocated the colonisation of Tibet on the pretext to create a buffer between powerful Russia and his British Indian Empire, but the real intention perhaps was to expand the lucrative opium trade in China, which had been subjugated by the British in the Opium Wars half a century earlier.

This very imperialist, Curzon, had applied the time-tested sinister British tactic of "divide and rule" to partition the most politically aware province of India, Bengal that had so vociferously clamoured independence. Partition of the state of Bengal on the 16th of October 1905 into two, East and West, along religious lines was designed to pit the Hindus against the Muslims, who spoke the same language of independence then. Let it be very clear that Curzon is the man who had sown the seeds of partition of India with the division of Bengal. The maestro Satyajit Ray in his movie Ghare Baire (Home and Outside) based on a dazzling piece of literature by the same name by Rabindra Nath Tagore, most artistically portrays the commencement of the communal hatred in the idyllic Bengali countryside of the first decade of the twentieth century.

Now let us return to the discussion on British planning for the invasion of Tibet. The opportunity to systematically plan the invasion appeared when some Tibetans carrying antique muskets, perhaps even less effective than bamboo staves, strayed in to the tiny principality of Sikkim, which was a British protectorate that nestled in the High Himalayas between Tibet and British India. And Curzon seized the opportunity instantly, and wasted no time in informing the British government of the violation of the Sikkimese border. Moreover, he most strenuously persuaded the British government to set out a British force to the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, and advised that its ultimate purpose of colonisation be kept an absolute secret. Towards the end of 1903, the British crossed the Tibetan frontier, an action stated by Geoffrey Moorhouse as "the final expansive thrust of the Raj."

Curzon found a perfect partner in crime in Francis Edward Younghusband, who was born in Murree in British India (presently in Pakistan) to a British military family in 1863. He was thus a contemporary of his mentor, Curzon, who was born in 1859. Younghusband was an ambitious army officer who in 1886-1887 had conducted an expedition through Manchuria, had crossed the Gobi Desert, and had pioneered a route from Kashgar and India through the uncharted Mustagh Pass. This pass is at a formidable altitude of about 5,422 m across the Baltoro Muztag range in the Karakorams, which includes the world"s second highest mountain of K2 with the highest peak elevation of 8,611 m. This military man who had demonstrated his prowess at adventure was a Major in the British army by the year 1902, when Viceroy Curzon appointed him as the British Commissioner to Tibet, an office he would hold from 1902 to 1904. Younghusband was thus handpicked by Curzon to lead the British assault on Lhasa.

A substantial British force, well over 10,000 men, armed with the latest and the very best of military hardware was organised for the invasion of Tibet. The British did not hesitate to include the most lethal piece of weaponry of the day, the Maxim gun, in their military campaign against Tibet. The Maxim gun was the first self-powered machine gun invented by the American-born Briton Hiram Maxim in 1884. The British had used the Maxim guns in the First Matabele War in 1893-1894 in South Africa with devastating effects, where in one encounter 50 British soldiers equipped with just four Maxim guns had massacred 5,000 African warriors. In fact the extreme lethality of the Maxim guns had brought about a rapid European colonisation of Africa in the late nineteenth century. The European military tactics in Africa then was to lure the native opponents into pitched battles in open terrains, and then to massacre them with the Maxim gun fire. The British adopted the same tactic - lure them out to the open and massacre them - to attack the Tibetans. Hilaire Belloc, a French-born prolific English writer of the early twentieth century who was closely associated with two famous writers G K Chesterton and G B Shaw, had composed a couplet boasting the European military supremacy owing to the possession of the powerful Maxim guns, as follows:

"Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not."

Make no mistake our readers, the Maxim guns of the early twentieth century, on account of their extreme lethality could only be compared with nuclear weapons of the twenty-first century. And the British would happily unleash this pure terror on the unsuspecting hapless Tibetans.

Invasion of Tibet

Major Younghusband and his Brigadier-General James R L McDonald led the vast British force from the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok, on the 11th of December 1903 to invade Tibet. At the outskirts of the village of Khamba Dzong located some 25 km inside the Tibetan border, the local Tibetan governmental officials begged the British to halt, while they sought permission from Lhasa for them to proceed further. The British did accede to the requests of the Tibetan officials, and waited for nearly four months only to learn that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and his retinue of monks in Lhasa had no desire to meet with them. Younghusband was irritated to say the least, but retreated none the less to confer with Curzon back in India. Curzon contacted the British government led by the Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour, and received authorisation to invade Lhasa, by using whatever force necessary.

In March 1904, a ten thousand strong British force and an even bigger mix of pack animals, loaded with most up to date weaponry commenced the invasion of Lhasa. The British force marched through Tibetan villages to the absolute horror of the stupefied monks and villagers, who did offer mild protests but could never summon the courage to stop the invading army. On the 31st of March 1904 the British army was some one hundred km inside Tibet when they reached the Guru pass near Lake Bhan Tso. Having marched unobstructed thus far, the British were take aback when they came across mounds of boulders laid on their path as some sort of a crude obstacle to stop their advance. Several thousand Tibetans had amassed around the boulders to confront the British invaders.

The British ordered the Tibetans to remove the obstructing boulders "in fifteen minutes flat", and to disarm too. The leader of the rag-tag Tibetans was a monk, certainly not a general as the British literature would like to claim, in a singular display of chivalry left his position and came out to reason with the British commanders McDonald and Younghusband, despite the contemptuous British orders most arrogantly hurled at him. The British determined to employ their tactic of - lure them out to the open and massacre them - played the trick on the Tibetan leader into asking his rag-tag defenders to extinguish the fuses of their of antique muskets in order to initiate a friendly conference. The Tibetan leader was after all only an otherworldly monk who in his naivety succumbed to the British ploy. Moreover, the Tibetans ever so unshakable in their faith in their superstitious beliefs in the powers of the Buddhist charms, had fastened their amulets tight, and were absolutely convinced that they were magically protected. They did not hesitate in obeying the instructions of their monk into extinguishing the fuses, which once put out required considerable effort and time to ignite and brought to readiness for action.

Once McDonald and Younghusband successfully tricked the Tibetans into extinguishing the fuses, and lured them to the open, the British soldiers "knelt in well rehearsed drill formation" and opened fire. The Maxim Guns started pounding the hapless Tibetans causing vast casualties. After the initial shock of betrayal and the resultant confusion, the Tibetans came to their senses. Instead of turning their backs and scampering the Tibetans lit their fuses and fired their antique muskets. The brave challenge, however, was very ineffective and drew further retaliatory attacks from the British. In a short while around seven hundred Tibetans lay dead, and a couple of hundred of their brethren were wounded. In this utterly one sided battle of Guru which should actually be termed the Guru Massacre, the British sustained only 12 casualties. The Tibetans were commanded to clear the obstructing boulders which they did under duress.

The British invasion pressed ahead through the abandoned Tibetan defences at Kangma a week later. On the 9th of April 1904, the British faced a barricade and some resistance as they approached the Red Idol Gorge. In the ensuing massacre 200 Tibetans died, and the British losses were negligible. The same pattern of uneven contests would continue on the 5th of May when around 800 foolhardy Tibetans attacked the fortified British garrison at Chang Lo only to earn a swift retribution that killed 160 of them. There were no British casualties. Only on the 9th of May the contest would become somewhat even when the British attacked the Tibetan position at the Garo Pass at an altitude of about 5,800 m above sea level. Although the Tibetans suffered heavy casualties the British casualties were not negligible.

In the following two months the British consolidated their position near Chang Lo in preparation for their assault on the main Tibetan strong hold of the massively well protected fortress of the Gyantse Dzong that stood as a substantial obstacle on the invasion of Lhasa. McDonald carefully designed a strategy to storm the fortress by luring the Tibetans away from the section of the walls planned to be breached. The guileless Tibetans could never fathom the British strategy and the wall was breached on the 6th of July 1904. Gyantse Dzong was successfully stormed despite spirited resistance by the Tibetans who sustained heavy casualties. Perhaps a good few thousand Tibetans perished here. After the British seizure of Gyantse Dzong, the access to Lhasa was thrown open.

Invasion of Lhasa and the uneven treaty

After the seizure of Gyantse Dzong, Younghusband assumed the command of the British invasion and led around 2,000 well armed British soldiers on their way to Lhasa. They crossed the Garo Pass again without any incident and reached Lhasa on the 3rd of August 1904 only to discover that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, then a 28 year old young man, in mortal fear of the advancing British army, had found no other alternative but to flee along with his retinue of monks to the neighbouring China. By the way his was no ordinary flight, for he kept fleeing for day in and day out for a full four months until he established the safe distance of an even one and a half thousand miles, which is 2,400 km, between Lhasa and him, presently lodged at Urga, the capital of Outer Mongolia. Then only he felt secured; needless to say such was his fear of the British! The Thirteenth Dalai Lama stayed in voluntary exile for four long years, and returned to Lhasa from Beijing, only after being convinced that the invading British had well and truly withdrawn.

Lhasa was the capital as well as the biggest centre of human habitation of Tibet, which holds true even today. The population of Lhasa at the time of British invasion was no more than 25,000, and the entire population of Tibet was perhaps around 50,000. The British massacres killed around 5,000 Tibetans, all of whom were essentially able-bodied men. In the process the British may have annihilated half of all the young men of Tibet. British casualties for the entire Tibetan campaign, by the way, were only 202 men killed in action (KIA). In the eyes of Francis Younghusband, decimation of the Tibetan population was, however, not a sufficient enough retribution. He methodically set upon extracting much more from the utterly impoverished land of Tibet, for his ultimate aim was colonisation.

In the absence of the Dalai Lama who was the supreme head of the country of Tibet, no Tibetan carried the authority to conduct negotiations with the British. Younghusband, however, had neither any scruples nor any respect for the niceties of diplomacy and international relations. He bulldozed his way through a mockery of a negotiation with some decrepit senior lamas of the National Assembly of Tibet who had stayed behind, perhaps too old to flee, and concluded a treaty. The utterly one-sided and uneven agreement, very much like the uneven treaties the Chinese were forced to sign following the Opium Wars, extracted an indemnity of 50,000 pounds sterling from the Tibetans for all the trouble they had caused by resisting the invading British army. Since Tibet was too impoverished and incapable of making the payment imposed on them, the treaty made a provision of very generously accepting the indemnity in 75 annual instalments (how very thoughtful!), which Tibet would be paying till 1980. In return the British offered nothing, and victorious Younghusband marched back to India.

Now in 2009, the amount of indemnity of 50,000 pounds sterling demanded in 1904 of a population of 50,000 Tibetans, which translated only to an even 1 pound sterling for each man woman and child, does not sound much at all. Let us analyse to see what this amount is worth now. If we use retail price index, 1 pound sterling in 1904 is worth 80 pounds sterling now, and based on average earning index, 1 pound sterling in 1904 is worth 420 pounds sterling now. In a comparable scenario with the role reversed for Britain, let us try to estimate the amount of money the British were to pay if an indemnity of this proportion were to be imposed in 2009 on Britain, which has a population of 60 million. The size of the British indemnity would be anywhere between 5 billion pounds sterling (60 million X 1 pound X 80 = 4,800 million; based on retail price index), and 25 billion pounds sterling (60 million X 1 pound X 420 = 25,200 million; based on average earning index). Just as surely this amount would bankrupt a recession ravaged Britain in 2009, we would like our readers to realise that the indemnity imposed on Tibet by Britain in 1904 was designed to financially ruin Tibet and keep her as a bonded colony of the British Empire for ever.

The British government had also received the reports that had said that the British army had reached Lhasa only to discover the "legendary place an unholy slum of open sewers, rotting rubbish and pools of mud, populated by monks in dirty and tattered robes." The report had made extreme poverty of Tibet abundantly clear. Yet, the out-and-out imperialist George Curzon would not disapprove of the huge indemnity imposed on the utterly impoverished Tibetans by his friend Younghusband. Only when Curzon"s deputy Oliver Villiers Russel (Lord Amthill) officiated as the pro tem Viceroy during Curzon"s absence for a period of time in 1904, he reduced the indemnity quite significantly, by as much as two-thirds, but did not waive it completely though. Incidentally Oliver Russel"s pro tem Viceroy position never became permanent as he was perceived to be increasingly siding with the nationalists of India in South Africa, East Africa as well as in India, which put him at odds with the British government. The "rapacious vandal" Younghusband in due course was rewarded for his successful invasion of Tibet with a knighthood and went on to occupy the lofty position of the president of the Royal Geographical Society, an office he had coveted.

The British added insult to Tibetan injury in 1906, while the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was still away in exile, by signing a treaty with China without Tibetan participation. The treaty recognised Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. Encouraged by this Sino-British treaty, China sought direct control of Tibet, by force if necessary for the first time in ten centuries. The ensuing Chinese invasion made the Thirteenth Dalai Lama flee again, this time to India in 1910. In 1911, following the revolution in China that removed the Manchu emperor, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama declared independence of Tibet.

We conclude this article by calling upon both Hollywood and Bollywood, and by appealing to all the Buddhist actors and aficionados of the Dalai Lama, to produce a movie on the very first military assault on Tibet.


Dr Nachiketa Das

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References & Notes:

(This article is authored by Dr Nachiketa Das and Mrs Shizuka Imamoto, Japan.)

(This article was first published on an online newspaper from Orissa, www.hotnhitnews.com on January 29, 2009; also posted on www.sulekha.com on January 31, 2009. The authors retain the copyright.)

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