In 1903 thousands of soldiers of the British Empire marched north from the Indian state of Sikkim and violated the border with Tibet.

Some of the few sources that refer to it call this little known imperial excursion the British invasion of Tibet, and although technically that’s exactly the right name for it, now, knowing about the horrific national disfigurement the Tibetans were to suffer at the hands of the Communists when they launched their own invasion forty five years later, the word seems somehow ill fitting.

In other places it's refered to as the expedition to Lhasa, and maybe this a better title, although it strikes me as being altogether too jaunty. Expeditions involve getting on the bus and going to play cricket in the next county or lighting out for the Amazon basin in the hope of discovering new things about newts. This, by contrast, was a fully fledged imperialist bloodbath, and before the British finally reached the Tibetan capital in August 1904 thousands of Tibetans had been mangled by their machine gun bullets. Exactly how many were killed no one knows, they didn’t do body counts either.

The back story as to how this happened is the purest of political guff and, told with extreme simplicity, goes something like this.

For centuries the history of Tibet and China had been an example of poor fences making for terrible neighbours. The complexities are mind boggling, but 1720 seems a good point to start because that’s when the Chinese emperor Kangxi sent a military expedition to take Lhasa from a band of Mongols who had conquered it for themselves. From that point on there was a usually small garrison of Chinese troops and an Amban, a sort of Governor General, present in Lhasa.

For all intents and purposes though, the place continued to run itself. The Tibetan government continued to do most of the things a government does and Chinese influence waxed and waned with the varying fortunes of the emperor in Beijing and intrigues of Tibetan internal politics.

By 1903 the British had swallowed most of India along Tibet's southern border and liked to worry themselves by looking north and fantasising about Russian hordes swarming down to seize the colony and a few warm water ports for themselves. For the British the main issue with the place was that it could be used as a staging area for an attack on their colonial possessions

This is why the British were happy with the idea of Tibet as a backwater where the Tibetans were quietly allowed to do their own thing and the Chinese presence remained mostly theoretical. For them it was a useful buffer zone between their empire and Russia's outposts in Central Asia. What concerned them was the possibility (almost completely imagined) that the Russians were trying to take advantage of the lack of direct Chinese control and co-opt to the local Tibetan administration.

To their paranoid way of thinking once the Russians had themselves a foothold in Tibet it would only be a matter of time until they were in Calcutta.

The decision to invade was sparked off by rumours of Russian encroachment in Tibet, the sense of threat likely being accentuated by the location of the key decision makers in far off London rather than somewhere closer where the reality of the situation on the ground may not have been so blurred. In June 1903 a diplomatic mission was sent a small distance into Tibet where it was supposed to meet with Chinese and Tibetan officials to discuss the British concerns.

For reasons that probably just come down to simple miscommunication, when they arrived they found that no one had been sent to meet them.

Not to be put off easily the British mustered an army of about 10 000 and sent it over the border. This time they had orders to march all the way to Lhasa and let the Tibetans know that allowing imaginary Russians into their mountain kingdom was just not on.

It was the end of March and the British were well into Tibet by the time they countered the first armed resistance from the Tibetans.

Near a lake the books transliterate as Bhan Tso the British advance was held up by a Tibetan general and his 3000 soldiers who were blocking the road. The best of the Tibetan soldiers were a type of warrior monk, but most of them were hastily conscripted peasants. Virtually all of them were armed with nothing more than swords and muskets so ancient that shooting actually involved lighting a fuse.

In a time before matches the action taken by the Tibetan general who rode out to meet the British in ordering his soldiers to put out their fuses could have only been intended as a step away from violence. At this stage the situation was nothing more than a faintly ridiculous stand off on the roof of the world, and its seems likely that the British decision to press ahead and disarm the Tibetan soldiers in spite of this show of good will was motivated more by arrogance than anything else.

Unable to use their weapons, but understandably reluctant to meekly hand them over to a horde of invading foreigners the disarmament quickly developed into a melee which prompted the horrified Tibetan general to pull out his revolver, possibly the only the modern weapon his army had.

Of course no one really knows what happened next. Either the British soldiers opened fire on the defenceless Tibetans they had been trying to disarm or the general was so upset by the indignities his soldiers were being subjected to that he (suicidally it would seem) started shooting at the British with his revolver first.

All we really know is that an unfortunate Sikh soldier who was standing by the general was shot in the face and hundreds of Tibetans were massacred.

After that the British slowly continued to move along the track to Lhasa, their machine guns, modern rifles and long experience in the systematic application of violence leaving no doubt as to the outcome of the conflict. Although the Tibetans did resist bravely in several places the technological gap was such that they were decimated whenever they did.

The Dali Lama and most of Tibetan government were long gone from Lhasa by the time the British finally arrived. The Chinese Amban sent out his personal guard to escort the British into the city, and there are still photos of the victory parade they held out in front of the Potala Palace.

Not exactly in a position to argue the matter the highest ranking Tibetan official left behind quickly agreed to the terms laid down by the British which included accepting responsibility for having started the war, the payment of half a million pounds in reparations and granting the British the right to post a few trade representatives throughout his country.

By September 1904 they had packed up and left for India. On his return to England the leader of the expedition, Francis Younghusband, was hailed as a hero, granted a private audience with the king, received as a guest lecturer by the Royal Society, and given honorary doctorates by the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh.

A year or two after they had left the British signed treaties with both Russia and China that aimed to preserve Tibet as the autonomous buffer zone on the neglected edge of the Chinese empire that suited their political purposes. Eight years later, when the already rotten Qing Dynasty collapsed in on itself, the last vestiges of Chinese authority were driven out of Lhasa and would stay that way until the invasion of 1950.

The treaties over which thousands of people had met a gory end, and which had probably been worth nothing to start with, were now worth absolutely nothing at all.


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