Giorgos Halkias

At the turn of the century, Tibet remained one of the last uncontrolled regions in the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain keen to increasing their respective strongholds in Central and Inner Asia. Tibet’s invasion in 1949 by the Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China was not the only one in the gloomy chronicles of modern Tibetan history. The British invasion in 1904 instigated by Lord Curzon (18591925), the Viceroy of India, and led by the imperial adventurer Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942), was in part a mission to curtail Russia’s expansionist raids into Central Asia and in part, a colonial effort to establish British interests and open lucrative trading routes between India, Tibet and China. The seeds of disagreement between the British empire and  Tibet were already sown in 1876 when Britain signed the Chefoo Convention with China which effectively placed Tibet in the sphere of greater Chinese political interests in exchange for British privileges to exploit Burma.  As a result, the Tibetan government took offence for being bypassed by the British, and refused to acknowledge any terms that would grant Britain any special rights to pursue commercial trafficking in their country. Their refusal to recognize any British overtures and their obstinately returning letters addressed to the Dalai Lama unopened, led the British mistake Tibetan bashfulness as indication that they were forging an alliance with Russia. This fear, although it was later shown to be unfounded, could have been further supported by Tibetan envoys visiting the Tsarist court and the close cultural ties between Tibet and the subjects of Russia’s Trans-Baikal Buddhist communities, the Buryats and the Kalmyks.

At the time of the British incursion across the Tibetan plateau, the nominal power of the Chinese Manchus had dissipated in Tibet, meaning that the Amban U-tai1 in Lhasa had no direct influence on the treaty  that was eventually forced by the British upon the Tibetans. Apart from the armed Tibetan resistance from the 1950s to 1970s which was done with CIA’s backing, the Tibetans didn’t really have either the financial means or the military technology to launch an effective campaign against foreign aggressors. The Tibetan army with its antiquated armaments was no match for the British forces, and were forced to surrender with the loss of more than 2000 souls where the British officially numbered 34. The imperial army marched into Lhasa and imposed on September 6th 1904, the ‘Anglo-Tibetan treaty ’ against the better judgment of the spiritual and secular leader of Tibet, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1875–1933) Thubten Gyatso who had fled to Mongolia. The treaty stipulated the frontier borders between Sikkim and Tibet, trade routes, and attempted to exclude any other foreign power from political influence in the region. Tibet’s submission to the British crown had far-reaching consequences. The Chinese realised their geopolitical vulnerability in their south-western border and in 1909 the Manchus, no doubt wary of the British divide-and-rule manoeuvres, invaded Tibet forcing the Dalai Lama to flee for the second time in less than a decade, this time to British India. After the Qing Dynasty of Manchu-ruled China collapsed in 1911, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama returned to Tibet and evicted all Chinese subjects from his land while declaring Tibet’s independence. A semblance of political stability was restored until 1949 when Chinese expansionist agendas once again loomed over Tibet to linger and harvest till this day.

Behind the British invasion of Tibet lies an enigmatic figure, Sir Francis Younghusband, a mystic writer, soldier, keen administrator and explorer  born in 1863 of English parents in  Murree, India. Following on the footsteps of his father, he enlisted for a military career in 1882 and was soon drawn by his skills and ardour to exploration and adventure. He travelled from Beijing to Yarkand (modern-day Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang), the Gobi desert, and on to India by way of the long-unused Mustagh Pass of the Karakoram Range proving the mountain range to be the water divide between India and Turkistan.  But most remarkable of all his exploits stands his military-diplomatic expedition to Tibet. He obsessively took it upon himself to go beyond the call of administrative duty and strained the troops onwards to the capital. Once in Lhasa, negotiations were entered into, contrary to orders and the treaty forced through by Younghusband almost alone.A number of clauses went beyond his official instructions and were later repudiated by the British government. The British government did not appreciate his defiance and he lived out his life, if not in ignominy, then at least not without achieving the highest honours and political appointments he might have envisaged for himself. Younghusband was honoured none the less by the British press and public, knighted by the King, and awarded honorary doctorates by three universities.

Like his contemporary, the legendary lion of the desert, T.E. Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935), Sir Francis Younghusband possessed a passion for hardship and adventure coupled with unmistakable spiritual leanings.  After his expedition to Tibet the direction of his life took on an unexpected turn. Following a shattering mountain top spiritual revelation he had while in Tibet,2 he increasingly devoted his life to promoting a form of all-embracing spirituality. After his military and administrative career in the British India service had come to an end, Sir Francis started a new mission in life. He became involved in many fellowships engaged with inter-religious dialogue and the pursuit of world peace. His later years were devoted to advancing this form of spirituality by establishing popular inter-faith movements in England, lecturing widely including in the US, writing profusely, and running the Royal Geographic Society in 1919. His opening address at the Religions of Empire Conference, held in conjunction with the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924,claimed that the ultimate basis on which the British Empire would stand was religion. In 1936 he founded the still active World Congress of Faiths (WCF), also called the Second Parliament of Religions, which had its roots in the 1893 historical meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religions held in conjunction with the Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. This unprecedented meeting is widely regarded as the beginning of the inter-religious movement worldwide.

A hundred years after the 1904 Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet the Council for the Parliament of World Religions convened…


1.  Chinese political representative.

2. In his book Vital Religion: a Brotherhood of Faith (London: John Murray, 1940) he describes thus his sense of religious belonging (5):

    The day after leaving Lhasa I went off alone to the mountainside, and there gave myself up to all the emotions of this eventful time. Every anxiety was over – I was full of good-will as my former foes were converted into stalwart friends. But now there grew up in me something infinitely greater than mere elation and good-will. Elation grew to exultation, exultation to an exaltation which thrilled through me with overpowering intensity. I was beside myself with untellable joy. The whole world was ablaze with the same ineffable bliss that was burning within me. I felt in touch with the flaming heart of the world. What was glowing in all creation and in every single human being was a joy far beyond mere goodness as the glory of the sun is beyond the glow of a candle.  A mighty joy-giving Power was at work in the world – at work in all about me and at work in every living thing.  So it was revealed. Never again could I think evil. Never again could I bear enmity. Joy had begotten love. 

Further Reading:

  • Allen, Charles (2004) Duel in the Snows: the True Story of the Younghusband  Mission toLhasa. London: John Murray.

  • Barrows, John H. (1893). The World’s Parliament of Religions: An Illustrated and Popular  Story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Parliament Publishing Company.

  • Chapple, Christopher and Evelyn Tucker (eds) (2000). Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky , and Water. Harvard University Press.

  • Chryssavgis, John (2003). Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I.  MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

  • Fader, Larry (1982). ‘Zen in the West: Historical Implications of the 1893 Chicago  World’s Parliament of Religions.’ Eastern Buddhist,  15: 122-145.

  • French, Patrick (1994). Younghusband: the Last Great Imperial Adventurer. London: HarperCollins.

  • Gottlieb, Roger (1995). This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. NY: Routledge.

  • Landon, Perceval (1905). Lhasa: an account of the country and people of central    Tibet and of the progress of the mission sent there by the English government in the year 1903-4.London : Hurst and Blackett.

  • Tucker, Evelyn and Duncan Williams (eds) (1989). Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds. Harvard University Press.