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The Road to Lhasa

Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer

by Patrick French
HarperCollins, 440 pp., $13.00 (paper)

I first went to Chitral in 1969 in order to explore its mountains, which are particularly beautiful and remote. A rugged land now part of Pakistan, Chitral lies along the so-called Northwest Frontier between the former India of the Raj and Afghanistan. Reading extensively about the place at the time of my trip, I learned about the first explorations there, seventy-five years before, by a British expeditionary force. The purpose of its mission was to keep an eye on things after the death of the local ruler, which the British worried would lead to trouble on their northern Indian border.

Among the British officers on that expedition were two enthusiastic climbers, Francis Younghusband and Charlie “Bruiser” Bruce. In the shadow of the 25,230-foot mountain Tirich Mir, which looms over Chitral, the two men practiced snow and ice climbing. There they conceived of the possibility of the conquest of Mount Everest, which lies about a thousand miles away on the frontier between Nepal and Tibet. Almost three decades later, in 1922, Bruce was to lead the first attempt to reach its summit.

A day’s walk from Chitral brings one to the three hidden valleys inhabited by the Kafirs, a people who look so European that it is claimed they are descendants of the army of Alexander the Great, who had passed over the Frontier at the end of the fourth century BC in his campaign to conquer India. When in 1960, at age seventy-one, A.J. Toynbee tried to retrace Alexander’s path through Afghanistan and Pakistan, he was stopped by a snowstorm on the summit of the Lowari Pass leading to Chitral, but nine years later I managed to cross the pass with friends in a Land Rover, and was able to visit Chitral and the Kafir valleys. We stayed in a great bungalow that could have come out of the English countryside.

Nearly thirty years have passed since my trip, but it came vividly back to me when I read the masterful recent biography of Francis Younghusband, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, the first book by Patrick French, a young English writer and traveler. Not only does he bring this curious figure to life, but he has tried to follow the route of his movements in India, Chitral, and Tibet. The result, half travelogue and half biography, is a surprising hybrid of a book which deals both with Younghusband’s career and the changes that have taken place on the Indian subcontinent during the last seventy-five years.

Francis Edward Younghusband was born on May 31, 1863, at Murree, a hill station in what was then India and is now Pakistan. His father, John Younghusband, was a British officer stationed in India. The Younghusbands—Mr. French notes that their name appears to have derived from the Saxon Osband, a variation of Oswald, with the word “young” prefixed to it on the model of the Scottish “Mac”—had long been established in India. In addition to his father, four of Younghusband’s uncles and his two brothers served in the Indian Army. With the older of his two brothers, George, he wrote The Relief of Chitral, an “instant” book that was a phenomenal success when it was published in 1895.

John Younghusband met his future wife, Clara Shaw, who came from a Somerset family, while he was on leave in England, recovering from a fever. After their marriage the couple returned to India. As was customary in the days of the Raj, Francis, their third son, was sent back to boarding school in England when he was twelve. The one his parents chose was Clifton, which was noted for its devotion to athletic competition. Mr. French quotes a poem written by Henry Newbolt, an Old Cliftonian, that ends with the lines, “‘Play up! play up! and play the game!,”’—the sentiment that literally became a battle cry on the killing fields of Flanders.

That same cry also helped to shape the spirit of the British civil service in India. The Central Asian power struggles in the late nineteenth century between the British and their various antagonists—including the Russians and, later, the Chinese and Japanese—had been known as the Great Game, a phrase that seems to have been coined in 1840 by a British army officer named Arthur Conolly. Younghusband’s explorations were part of that game. In his conviction that Britain had a moral duty to bring civilization to the world and that this duty had to be carried out at all costs, Younghusband resembled other Cliftonians like General Douglas Haig, the commander of the Expeditionary Force during World War I, and General “Birdie” Birdwood, under whom thousands of Australians and New Zealanders were slaughtered at Gallipoli. Like them, he was a Cliftonian for life.

It was almost inevitable that Younghusband would become a soldier. After Clifton he entered Sandhurst Military Academy, from which he graduated with honors in 1882. In May of that year, at age nineteen, Younghusband was given a commission in the King’s Dragoon Guards, then stationed in Meerut, a city near Delhi. The explorations that made him famous began in 1887. Sent to China on a military fact-finding tour of Manchuria, he decided to travel back to India by foot, crossing the Gobi desert on the way. The final step was to traverse the 19,000-foot Mustagh Pass between China and India, never before crossed by a European. The descent was so difficult that Younghusband’s party had to chop each step in the ice, while tied together with an improvised climbing rope made up of items like turbans and cummerbunds. (Younghusband relied heavily on his local guides but seldom gave them credit.) When he returned to England on leave later that year, he found himself a celebrity. Some compared his two-thousand-mile trek to Stanley’s explorations in Africa; for their part, Great Gamers were satisfied that the Mustagh Pass could be ruled out as a possible Russian invasion route into India.

At the time he made his journey Younghusband was twenty-four and as yet unmarried. A century earlier, as was customary with the soldiers of the British East India Company, he would have taken a “bebee”—a native woman—with whom he would very likely have had a family. By the mid-nineteenth century British women—“me’m sahibs”—began arriving in India, often on the lookout for husbands. That, as well as much greater tensions between British colonials and the Indian population in the aftermath of the Great Mutiny in 1859, largely put an end to open fraternization, although to some extent it continued, albeit more discreetly, throughout the Raj.

For Younghusband, however, it would have been inconceivable to have had any but the most formal relationships with any woman, Indian or otherwise. In the very rare instances when he did display interest in a particular woman, he sounds remote and naive, for instance when he writes in his diary about the consort of the King of Sikkim:

She sipped a little champagne and port after dinner when the King’s health was drunk…. In fact she is an uncommonly slim little thing & she looked very picturesque in her peculiar high head dress of pearls & coral…. After dinner I asked her if she wd. give me a photo of herself and she promised to send it to me the next morning—which she did!

Mr. French believes that because of Younghusband’s emotional repression for most of his life his relations with women were deeply troubled. His mother, who dressed in black as if in perpetual mourning, appears to have been incapable of showing affection. His sister Emmie retained an obsessive devotion to him, the product of a mutual childhood attachment that was psychologically if not physically incestuous. After it became clear to her that her brother was never going to return to live near her in England, she attempted suicide. Much of her adult life was spent in institutions. When, in the mid-1880s, Younghusband fell in love with and got engaged to May Ewart, the daughter of a colonel, an acquaintance of Younghusband’s father, he was unable to express any feelings for her, and she broke off the engagement. Late in his life Younghusband wrote, “In love I had none of the nerve I had in exploring and in dealing with wild peoples.”

In 1887 Younghusband again fell in love, this time with the woman he would marry, Helen Magniac, who seems to have had as many complexes as he did. At one point he wrote to her, “We need never sleep all night in the same bed…whether I may lie with you in bed—and whether I may consummate the marriage are all minor points.” As one might imagine, it was not a very happy marriage, although it did produce a son and a daughter. When the son, Charles, died a few days after his birth, Helen Younghusband never recovered from the emotional blow. Even decades later, the anniversary of his death was a day of mourning in the Younghusband household.

By the time of his marriage in 1897, Younghusband had begun a career as a minor Indian subcontinental administrator and as an author of newspaper articles and books. This second career began in earnest in 1895, soon after The Relief of Chitral was published, when the Times of London sent him to South Africa. There he took part in the infamous Jameson Raid, an unsuccessful attempt, orchestrated by Cecil Rhodes and the Times, at dislodging the Boers. Though nominally only a Times special correspondent, Younghusband was in fact sent along as a secret intermediary between Rhodes and the raiders, although later in his life he would regret the raid as an underhanded attempt to dispossess the Boer farmers of their lands and he played down his part in it.

From the first decade of the twentieth century, Younghusband began to produce a phenomenal corpus of writings—the twenty-six books French lists in his bibliography include fiction, travel books, political commentary, and a long series of works on esoteric subjects. Apart from the travel books, I have always found Younghusband unreadable, but Mr. French has waded through Younghusband’s dreadful novels as well as the religious and spiritual tracts which occupied him late in life when he became an apostle of universal brotherly love.

Not long before he died Younghusband wrote that the two people who influenced him the most were his father and Lord Curzon. George Nathanial Curzon, four years older than Younghusband, had a special interest in Asia. He had, at least for the early part of his life, a meteoric rise in the British foreign service, and in 1899 he was appointed governor-general, or Viceroy, of India. He first met Younghusband in England in 1892, and saw him again in 1894, when the then member of parliament joined Younghusband on his second expedition in Chitral to assess the situation. After the murder of the new Chitralese leader several claimants were competing for the throne, and Curzon became convinced that Chitral, at the time a buffer state between British India and the Chinese empire, was a dangerously unstable place—which was true. Soon after, a small British-led force tried to re-establish British control. But the British found themselves cut off and besieged by an independence-minded Chitralese army. Younghusband sent reports of the siege and the Indian Army’s rescue of the force to the London Times and even took part in it. The Relief of Chitral, written with his brother, was based on this experience. His involvement convinced Curzon that Younghusband was a “thruster,” someone in whom one could confide a dangerous mission. But Younghusband would have to wait nine frustrating years, deskbound in administrative positions, before Curzon assigned him such a sensitive task: the invasion of Tibet.

The British invasion of Tibet, which began in late 1903, was set off by the missionary activities in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, of a Buryat-born Buddhist monk named Agvan Dorzhiev, who was technically a subject of the Tsar and had his own syncretistic religious system. Dorzhiev’s presence became suspect to the British—Curzon in particular—who decided that it meant that the Russians were about to take over Tibet, although, as Mr. French notes, far from being a tsarist agent, Dorzhiev seems to have been barely able to speak Russian. (He was eventually to die, at the age of eighty-five, in the custody of Stalin’s secret police.)

In retrospect, much of the fear that the British had of the Russians seems like paranoia. The British explorers, Younghusband included, had encountered Cossacks in outermost Asia, but they hardly amounted to an invading army. But Curzon waited for an excuse that would convince his superiors in London to authorize an invasion, and in November of 1903 he found one in a border dispute with some yak herders who allegedly were in touch with Russians. By early 1904 a full-scale invasion was in progress, with ten thousand porters, more than a thousand Indian and British soldiers, and Younghusband in command.

The best rendering of this unfortunate episode that I know of is Bayonets to Lhasa1 by Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming’s older brother, whose account is valuable not only because he was a respected military historian but also because he traveled extensively through Central Asia in the 1930s and was in a position to interview eyewitnesses to the events he was describing. I confess I do not understand Mr. French’s patronizing characterization of Fleming’s description of the military aspects of this invasion as “readable and occasionally accurate.” He gives no example of inaccuracy to support this remark, and, indeed, quotes frequently from Fleming, who gives a much more detailed account both of the preparations for the expedition and the actual fighting than he does.

If Mr. French is unfair in his treatment of Fleming’s account, he also overlooks historical material that could provide the basis for contrasts and comparisons to shed further light on Younghusband and the set of circumstances that made the British invasion of Tibet in 1903 and 1904 such a violent and ultimately pointless undertaking. In an otherwise very well-researched book, for instance, French makes no mention of another British military adventure in Tibet, a century before, in which Curzon’s part was taken by Warren Hastings, who was then the governor-general of Bengal, and Younghusband’s by the Scotsman George Bogle.

The spirit of Bogle’s incursion into Tibet was entirely different from that of Younghusband’s, although border incursions were then also the excuse—in this case forays into Bengal by Bhutanese raiders. In the course of chasing the raiders back north the British alarmed the incumbent Panchen Lama, the holy man who was, and is, after the Dalai Lama, the principal religious figure in the country. In 1774, Hastings received a flowery letter from the Panchen Lama, which began “Having been informed by travellers from your quarter of your exalted fame and reputation, my heart, like the blossom of spring, abounds with gaiety, gladness and joy…”2 Beneath the rhetoric it was clear that the Panchen wanted the British to keep to their own borders. But Hastings decided it would be a wonderful opportunity to explore a new country and perhaps even open up trade relations with it, and dispatched Bogle north.

Hastings gave Bogle a detailed list of tasks including sending back “some fresh ripe walnuts for seed, or an entire plant…” Bogle also planted potatoes wherever he went, and they are now a staple in all Himalayan countries, including Tibet. Bogle’s Narratives,3 the delightful book he wrote recounting the expedition, describes how in the course of the “invasion” not a shot was fired in anger. In fact Bogle himself made such a favorable impression that he married one of the Panchen Lama’s sisters. The marriage produced two daughters who, after Bogle’s death, were sent to Scotland to be educated and eventually married Scotsmen.

Younghusband and Curzon could no more imagine such a sequence of events than they could imagine flying to the moon. The invasion that Younghusband led a century later was in contrast grim and violent. The British brought along the latest in military hardware, including Maxim machine guns, against which the Tibetans never stood a chance. Yet the purpose of the mission itself was unclear. French neatly sums up the enlargement of a small-scale mission to resolve a border dispute, which is what Curzon had in mind, into a full-fledged invasion:

Mr Balfour’s Government never wanted to invade Tibet…. The tall, languid, cynical Arthur James Balfour and his ministers mistrusted the Russophobia of Curzon and Younghusband…. While Balfour could accept his Viceroy’s hawkish views on the Persian Gulf, he believed that Tibet lacked a similar strategic importance. He had imperial and European factors to contend with, as well as the need to remain on good terms with the Tsar’s ministers; for Curzon and Younghusband, India and its putative needs lay at the centre of the diplomatic universe.

French describes how Curzon twisted Balfour’s arm to approve the invasion by telling tales of imprisoned merchants and stolen yaks. In Curzon’s view, as French writes, “As long as the Tibetans refused to negotiate…a further advance into Tibet was the only possible course of action if the British were not to lose face.”

Before the army reached Gyantse—the first large town it would encounter on the way to Lhasa—a Tibetan force of several thousand, armed with flintlocks and swords, tried to prevent the British from advancing. They were rapidly surrounded and forced to give up. A quarrel—about what remains unclear—broke out between some of the soldiers on both sides. The British opened fire from point-blank range and literally mowed the Tibetans down. (One Tibetan participant later wrote that the fusillade lasted “the time it would take six successive cups of hot tea to cool.”) In the massacre the Tibetan force lost 628 men, while twelve British soldiers were wounded.

The only reasonably fair engagement of the invasion was the capture of the great fort, or dzong, at Gyantse. It took all the resources of the British and their Indian mercenaries to storm it. But once they did, the road to Lhasa was open. After reaching the capital, Younghusband negotiated a treaty of sorts with the Chinese representative to Tibet, since the Dalai Lama himself had fled. As Younghusband and Curzon were to learn, the British government had no intention of playing any permanent part in Tibetan affairs. For Whitehall, the two Great Gamers were potentially dangerous, having embroiled Britain in a rash and pointless enterprise. The British almost immediately repudiated much of Younghusband’s Lhasa treaty and by 1907 had withdrawn from Tibet entirely, leaving the country to fall under Russian and Chinese spheres of influence. An unfortunate consequence of the treaty Younghusband drew up is that Communist China would later use it as “proof” that Tibet was never an independent country.

After a brief period of disfavor, Curzon recovered his reputation and, until his death in 1925, he continued to hold important posts in various British governments. But the Tibetan misadventure marked the end of Younghusband’s career as a soldier-diplomat, and Mr. French writes that he had considerable difficulty making a living afterward. His wife had to sell her property to make ends meet. All of this made the strains in their marriage even greater. In 1919 Younghusband was made president of the Royal Geographical Society—a three-year appointment—which he was determined to use to revive the dream he had had with Bruce many years before that Everest should be climbed. He personally approved each member of Bruce’s team. Younghusband’s account of the first expeditions to the mountain, The Epic of Mount Everest,4 which French’s book inspired me to reread, is fascinating if somewhat idealized.

In August of 1894 Younghusband had had the first of what would be several religious experiences. He was returning from his visit to the Kafirs and was thrown from a horse. He lay unconscious for fourteen hours and upon regaining consciousness decided to “devote my whole life to God.” Younghusband led several different lives, but a religious impulse always figured somewhere among them from that time on.

He had a second spiritual revelation in 1904, as he was leaving Lhasa after the signing of the Anglo-Tibetan treaty, and French notes that this seems to have been the “epiphanic marker from which the second half of his life could be charted”—his fascination with the East, his pacifism, and the wholehearted support he would express for Indian independence. He was riding into the Himalayas, alone, early in the morning after the treaty festivities. The Tibetans had given him a statuette of the Buddha as a parting gift, and with that in his saddlebag and the view of the Himalaya mountains all around him he was suddenly overwhelmed by the first stirrings of the mystic, universal love that was henceforth to be the subject of all his writings and the consuming motivation for almost all the public activities he undertook until, literally, the day he died. As he was later to describe the revelation:

There came upon me what was far more than elation or exhilaration…I was beside myself with an intensity of joy, such as even the joy of first love can give only a faint foreshadowing of. And with this indescribable joy came a revelation of the essential goodness of the world. I was convinced past all refutation that men were good at heart, that the evil in them was superficial…

In 1925 he had a third major religious experience and wrote in his diary, “In the middle of the night—about three—I awoke and I immediately knew the Power was coming. I made one desperate effort to resist and then it was on me. I felt it in my legs first. They were convulsed and shook violently.” Thereafter Younghusband devoted himself to seeking a kind of universal religious unity. That is probably what made him more sympathetic than most of his contemporaries to the idea of Indian independence. As the movement grew more intense in the 1920s, Younghusband gradually came to support it and its leader, Mahatma Gandhi. This set him at odds with many of his ex-colleagues in the Foreign Service but made him a sought-after commentator on the subject in newspaper editorials and radio programs. Yet as French notes, Younghusband seemed to have had greater respect for Gandhi as a spiritual than as a political figure—he much preferred the younger, Harrow-educated Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi and Younghusband met once, at a Buckingham Palace reception in 1931, after which Younghusband, at the request of the India Office, took Gandhi on a tour of London.

Younghusband seems to have connected his sense of an all-embracing spirituality with his own sexual energies—something that one also finds in the Indian subcontinental religions. His religious preoccupations and his sexual repression contributed to his explosive state on December 2, 1939, when he met Madeline Lees in the Bloomsbury office of the World Congress of Faiths, an international ecumenical, pacifist organization he and several colleagues had founded after World War I, with the purpose of ending all wars, including colonial ones.

When Younghusband met her she was forty-four and he was seventy-six. She was married to a man eight years older than she was and had produced seven children. She was a very attractive woman. Younghusband fell desperately in love with her, and the feeling was very much mutual. It seems to have been the only truly passionate experience of his entire life. Reading their letters, which Mr. French has unearthed, is in some ways like reading mantras—they are not so much missives to each other as prayers to the grand, all-consuming deity of their own (sexual) union. In one he wrote, “The womanly in you makes great appeal to me and rouses all the most manly in me.” After suggesting that she might be the new Christ, he continued, “But your influence will grow and grow till it becomes one of the great influences in the world.” He seems to have been absolutely sincere in these feelings. Indeed, when he died on Friday, July 31, 1942, three years before Helen Younghusband died in a nursing home, it was in Madeline Lees’s arms.

Younghusband nevertheless has an odd place in history. He was always something of a British schoolboy seeking adventure, whether physical, political, or spiritual, and he was made use of by those, like Rhodes and Curzon, who actually plotted British strategy. Without him the British expedition to Tibet, with all of its deadly consequences, would probably not have taken place. Yet there is something almost endearing about the way this once-devoted colonialist rejected his past, and succumbed to his own visions of the East, pursuing one harmless obsession after another.

Last autumn, I climbed the steep path that leads to the top of the dzong in Gyantse in Tibet, which Younghusband’s military mission successfully stormed on July 6, 1904. The castle rises some five hundred feet above the town of Gyantse, which itself has an elevation of about 13,000 feet. The original building, which dates back to the fourteenth century, was partly destroyed by the British and then suffered further damage in the Cultural Revolution. It has been partly reconstructed by the Chinese. To walk to the top one pays an entry fee of 15 yuan—a little less than two dollars.

On the way to the top of the castle we passed some of the openings in the wall through which the Tibetans had fired orange-sized projectiles down onto the British for nearly three months. We also passed an ominous-looking hole which was labeled “dungeon.” Some wood and metal racks that seemed to be instruments of torture were standing next to it. At the top of the castle—reached by climbing a series of ladders—there is a recently gilded statue of a lotus.

About halfway up we visited a museum. The first thing that we saw was a table surrounded by life-sized male terra cotta figures of Tibetan elders who seem to be engaged in thought—the council deciding on the next step. There are some old photographs and a few of the pathetic-looking shields the Tibetans used to ward off bullets. What seemed most interesting about the place was the panels on the wall in Chinese, Tibetan, and English which give the Chinese version of the battle of 1904. They say Younghusband’s forces took part in a victory in which their Tibetan “brothers” defended the Chinese “motherland.” The truth, of course, is very nearly the opposite. At the time the Chinese were represented in Tibet by a so-called Amban—envoy—whom the Tibetans disliked, and who made it clear that he disliked the Tibetans. The Amban, one Yu-t’ai, found, as the British had done, that negotiating with the Tibetans got nowhere, notwithstanding threats of force. He was delighted to see the British. In fact when the members of the mission reached Lhasa, Yu-t’ai borrowed money from them. He shrewdly realized that the presence of the British—whom he was sure would soon leave—created an opportunity for the Chinese to move in. And so they have done.

During the last decade I have made three trips following the route that Younghusband’s mission took from Gyantse to Lhasa. But something has happened since my last visit in 1994. Before you come to the highest pass on the way to Lhasa, you now see a vast new industrial development supervised by troops from the Chinese army. No one I spoke to there had any idea what this development is for. To judge from the dozens of men who looked like miners—although they were dressed in identical uniforms—something is being mined or stored. Tunnels are being blasted into the mountainside. The Tibetans have no say in any of this. Nor have they any say in what is being done to the Yamdrok Lake—one of the most beautiful in the world. Looking down on one of its turquoise arms from the mountains, you see a long thin stain in the water—the traces of a chemical effluent that appears to be coming from a building the Chinese have constructed on the shore of the lake. This stain is symbolic of what the Chinese have done and are doing to Tibet.

  1. 1

    Peter Fleming, Bayonets to Lhasa, (1961, reprinted Oxford University Press, 1985). I also recommend a very recent brief history of Tibet—Demystifying Tibet, by Lee Feigon (Ivan R. Dee, 1996). Professor Feigon, of Colby College, connects the intrusion into Tibet to the other attacks on Tibet that both preceded and followed it.

  2. 2

    The text of this letter and more details about Bogle can be found in my In the Himalayas, a revised edition of which has been published by Lyons and Burford (1996).

  3. 3

    Clements R. Markham, editor, Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa (1774, 1879). Facsimile edition (New Delhi: Mansjuri Publishing House, 1971).

  4. 4

    Sir Francis Younghusband, The Epic of Mount Everest (Longmans, Green & Co., 1926). (He had been knighted in 1904.)

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