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The First Military Assault on Tibet - Part I

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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Anytime the present Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth one, is discussed in western media, China is mentioned in an accusatory tone, and blamed for committing all the horrendous crimes in Tibet. The news items give the impression that the bald and cuddly Dalai Lama is the sweetest darling second only to the teddy bear to the western hearts, which are bleeding incessantly ever since he fled Lhasa - on the 17th of March 1959 - and took refuge in India. Politicians of the West, and western media reinforce the notion that they have been the great defenders and protectors of the people and culture of Tibet, where as China has been the sole destroyer. With this background, we request you our readers to make a guess as to who led the first military assault on Tibet. Western media of course would like you to believe that it is the communist China, but no no and no, the very first military assault on Tibet was carried out in 1903 way before China became a communist country. We do not wish to keep you in suspense for long, and give you the answer, which is: the first military assault on Tibet was carried out by none other than the good old Britain. In 1903 Britain conducted a meticulously planned military assault on Tibet, the fictional Shangrila, and killed and injured a very large number of the revered Buddhist monks as well as members of the peasantry. British assault on Tibet may have eliminated half of all the young men of that country. Now let us discuss how this military assault on Tibet in 1903 came about.

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

The Opium Wars

In the eighteenth century, Britain strengthened her colonial hold on India and embarked upon a systematic plunder of that fabulously wealthy country. Encouraged by the ease with which they could fleece India, British cast their covetous glances upon the vast neighbouring Empire of China. Around this time the rising prosperity in Britain raised the demand for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain significantly, which were purchased by payments in silver. Britain did not produce silver much, and had to buy large quantities of it from other European nations by making payments in gold. A long term prospect for British trade with China that involved payments in gold and silver, thus, did not appear viable. So in order to continue the plunder of China, Britain invented a devilishly cunning new currency for her trade, and that currency was opium. The British Raj started cultivating opium poppies on a massive scale in plantations in India, comparable to the twenty-first century operations of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or the activities of the despicable drug barons of Myanmar in the mountainous north of that country.

Opium was unlawful in China, pretty much like drugs are illegal in the West today. Britain showed neither any respect for the laws of China nor any concern for the welfare of the Chinese, and kept selling opium in China. Britain, moreover, actively encouraged setting up of glamorous opium parlours in China, and systematically drugged the entire Chinese population that included the aristocracy, the nobility as well as the commoners and the peasantry. The Qing Dynasty of China lodged a protest with the British government, and in 1729 went a step further when the Yongzheng Emperor prohibited the smoking and sale of opium out of concern for a rapid increase in the number of opium addicts in China. Britain could not care less and her export of 15 tons in 1730 increased to 75 tons in 1773. By 1820s Britain was exporting 900 tons of opium annually to China. 900 tons may not mean much, so let us analyse this number to drive home the enormity of the systematic destruction of China carried out by Britain.

Opium is a narcotic that contains about 12% morphine which means that a gram of opium contains about 120 milligrams of morphine. 120 to 125 milligrams of morphine consumed as a single dose at a time could kill a human being, which is therefore in medical jargon termed a lethal dose. A lethal dose of opium thus is a little more than 1 gram, say 2 grams. So the British export to China in 1820s of 900 tons which is 900 million grams (900 X 1000 X 1000) constituted about 450 million lethal doses of opium at a time when the total population of China was about 380 million. In other words the quantum of opium the British exported to China in 1820s had the potential of killing every man woman and child of China, if they were to consume 2 grams of this toxin each, on any given 24 hours. We hope our readers now get an inkling of the enormity of the drug problem the British created in China.

When the nationalists and patriots of China opposed the massive drugging operations in their land, Britain fought a series of wars between the years 1839 and 1843, commonly known as the First Opium War, followed by the Second Opium War of the years between 1856 and 1860. China lost the Opium Wars and was forced to give in to all the British demands of free trade in opium. Britain established an absolute freedom to export any quantity of opium to China through any port anywhere she wished. A comparable scenario in the twenty-first century, with the role reversed for Britain, would be the despicable murderous Taliban gaining official permission to export any quantum of their deadly harvest of narcotics from Afghanistan to Britain!

Total destruction of Yuanming Yuan

During the Second Opium War British and French soldiers in an unprecedented callous brutality completely destroyed the Yuanming Yuan or the "Gardens of Perfect Brightness", which was a complex of imperial palaces and gardens, where resided the emperors of the Qing Dynasty and managed the affairs of the state. The "Gardens of Perfect Brightness", which was originally called the "Imperial Gardens", Yu Yuan, was so utterly magnificent that the Chinese affectionately named this as the "Garden of Gardens" or Wan Yuan Zhi Yuan. The complex was located some 8 km northwest of the walled city in Beijing.

Yuanming Yuan in western lingo has generally been referred to as the Chinese Summer Palace of Beijing, in a deliberate attempt to belittle its vastness in order to downplay the savagery of the destruction carried out by the British and the French. Let us assure you our readers that Yuanming Yuan was not one of those tiny microscopic constructions, complete with a dungeon and a cellar, perched atop a European molehill, those in the twenty-first century serve the sole purpose of extorting money from the hapless Japanese and American and now Indian and other Asian tourists through the horrendously exorbitant entrance fees. Let us convince you of the vastness of the Yuanming Yuan with some details, and also shed some light on it systematic destruction.

The initial construction of Yuanming Yuan had started in 1707, and the complex of palaces and gardens continued to be built throughout the eighteenth as well as the early part of the nineteenth century. Yuanming Yuan spread over an area of 865 acres that was 8 times the size of the Vatican City, and 5 times the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. This complex consisted of three distinct parts: the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper, the Garden of Eternal Spring (Changchun Yuan), and the Elegant Spring Garden (Qichun Yuan), and contained hundreds of halls, pavilions, galleries, temples, gardens and lakes. Thousands of precious masterpieces of Chinese art and antiquities, as well as many unique copies of literary work and compilations were stored in the halls that made Yuanming Yuan one of the largest museums and art galleries of the world.

In the night of the 6th of October 1860, units of French troops invaded Yuanming Yuan and extensively looted the precious collections. British troops joined in the looting too. Having completed the looting to their hearts" content, two weeks later on the 18th of October 1860, the British High Commissioner to China James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, ordered the destruction of Yuanming Yuan. Consequently, 3,500 British troops set the entire complex of palaces and gardens ablaze that took full three days to burn. A 27 year old captain of the British Royal Engineers, by the name Charles George Gordon described the looting and the destruction as follows:

"We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money.I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did [to] the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one"s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army."

My readers, now you also know what British army engineers did for a living! (ND).

The barbaric and criminal burning and the total destruction of Yuanming Yuan were disapproved by some sensible contemporary Frenchmen, such as Victor Hugo. In his "Expédition de Chine", Hugo described the looting as follows:

"Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain."

Victor Hugo also hoped that one day France would feel guilty and return her plunders from China. We think the time has come, and France and Britain must return all the stolen treasures from Yuanming Yuan to China, which may assuage, albeit to a tiny extent, the Chinese feelings of hurt and humiliation. Yet only a few months ago in November 2008, to rub insult on Chinese injuries, an item of those very precious treasures plundered from Yuanming Yuan and held mostly in private collections in the West, was on sale at an auction house in Europe.

The destruction of Yuanming Yuan remains most sensitive to the Chinese heart. The Government of China maintains the ruins as a reminder of western aggression and the humiliation inflicted on the great Chinese civilisation. We do not think that the Chinese have ever forgiven the West for the destruction of their Yuanming Yuan, and as China grows into a super-power, Britain and France have a lot to worry about.

We would also like to record here that British High Commissioner James Bruce who ordered the total destruction of Yuanming Yuan was the son of Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who had ransacked the magnificent edifice of the Parthenon at Acropolis of Athens to break and plunder the precious marble sculptures to sell them in Britain. Although some sensible Britishers including English poet Lord Byron condemned Thomas Bruce as a "dishonest and rapacious vandal", these priceless marble statues were bought by Great Britain in 1816 and were lodged at the British Museum. Now they are known as Elgin Marbles! Despite repeated requests from Greece for the repatriation of these treasures, they continue to adorn the British Museum as grand demonstrations of British plunders of the world.

James Bruce, having suitably impressed his British superiors by his excellent credentials in vandalism in China was chosen to become the Governor General of the Province of Canada, and in 1862 rose even higher when he assumed the office of the Viceroy of India. Our Indian readers would be horrified to learn that only a few years before the destruction of Yuanming Yuan, around the time of the first Indian national uprising against the British Raj in 1857, British soldiers and officers had vandalised the Taj Mahal. They had plundered the precious stones from the walls of the Taj by systematically chiselling them out. The British Raj in fact had the diabolical designs of totally destroying the Taj for mining all the precious stones. Destruction of the Taj would have become a reality had James Bruce had a longer stint as the Viceroy but for fate that deigned otherwise, and the vandal James Bruce died of a heart attack only after less than two years, twenty months to be precise, at the office in 1863. When the senior author of this article, ND, analyses the lives of the two barbaric father and son vandals, he wonders if the existence of a vandalism gene in the family genome of the Bruces is worth investigating!

No one, neither any individual nor any nation, has ever been punished for the burning and total destructions of Yuanming Yuan. Now let us contrast this lack of justice with the sense of justice that prevailed after the destruction of World Trade Centre on the 11th of September 2001. Following the 9/11, the US led an attack to eliminate the murderous Taliban regime of Afghanistan, quite rightly so, and virtually the entire world, in a spirit of justice, supported Americans. The attack on Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein was an altogether different matter though. We make this assertion on the basis of the fact that although Saddam was no angel, he had nothing to do with the 9/11; he was eliminated and his country was devastated on concocted charges essentially to grab the rich oil fields of Iraq. Now given the American response to avenge the murderous attacks on World Trade Centre, do you our readers think that China has a right to redress, in the spirit of ".and justice for all", the massive damages inflicted on her by France and Britain!

Unabated plunder of China

Following the Opium Wars, Britain maintained a strangle-hold on China and continued her unfettered plunder. By the end of the nineteenth century Britain feared only two countries, Japan and Russia, who could disrupt this systematic plunder of China. Britain approached Japan who had established herself as the pre-eminent power of the East after defeating China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, to enter into an alliance in a treaty of co-operation and friendship. Japan completely isolated for a good few centuries and presently desirous of cultivating friendship with western nations saw the British overtures as a great opportunity and in January 1902 signed a treaty that came to be known as the First Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Japanese in their utter inexperience in international diplomacy however, did not realise that the alliance was in fact only a ploy to restrain Japan lest she joined hands with Russia and threatened British interests in China and the British Empire in India. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance ran its course of twenty-one years before liquidation in August 1923, when the Japanese naval strength was substantially reduced in negotiations at Washington conference demonstrating the cold and cunning nature of British diplomacy.

Having secured the alliance with Japan in 1902, Britain set her eyes upon countering Russia, who could threaten the plunder of China that the British had accomplished through the opium trade. So in 1903 Britain decided to colonise the last bit of the independent land, Tibet, strategically located between the British Empire in India, Russia and China.


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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