The British Invasion of Tibet

The British Army encamped outside the Phari fortress

The British Army encamped outside the Phari fortress

Whilst we are constantly reminded of the Chinese annexation of Tibet, little is said of the British invasion of Tibet which had profound consequences for the region. The British expedition during 1903 and 1904 was an invasion of Tibet by British Indian forces, whose mission was to establish diplomatic relations and trade between the British Raj and Tibet. The Expedition was also to quell any possible Russian influence in Tibet, despite Russian reassurances that they had no interest in the region. The entire British force numbered over 3,000 fighting men and was accompanied by 7,000 sherpas, porters and camp followers. The British authorities had also thought of the difficulty of mountain fighting, and so dispatched a force with many Ghurka and Pathan troops, who were from mountainous regions.

The first military confrontation on December 12 1903 became known as the massacre of Chumik Shenko. The Tibetans did not stand a chance as their essentially medieval army faced the British armed with maxim guns and bolt-action rifles. There were over 600 fatalities amongst the Tibetan forces, compared to only 12 on the British side. The British soldiers mowed down the Tibetans with machine guns as they fled. “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the general’s order was to make as big a bag as possible,” wrote Lieutenant Arthur Hadow, commander of the Maxim guns detachment. “I hope I shall never again have to shoot down men walking away.”

During this battle and some to follow, the Tibetans wore amulets which their lamas had promised would protect them magically from any harm. After the battle, surviving Tibetans showed profound confusion over the ineffectiveness of these amulets.

In the following two months, there were a number of more minor skirmishes and eventually the British forces successfully overcame the main Tibetan stronghold at Gyantse Dzong, which gave them control over the road to Lhasa.

The British leader Colonel Francis Younghusband then led 2000 troops to Lhasa to negotiate a treaty with Tibet. This was complicated by the fact that the Dalai Lama had fled to Outer Mongolia. For this, the Chinese government stripped him of his titles and had their own representative, or amban, post notices around Lhasa that the Dalai Lama had been deposed, and that he was now in charge. It seems he was largely ignored however and Colonel Younghusband intimidated the regent, Ganden Tri Rinpoche, and any other local officials he could gather together as an ad hoc government, to sign a treaty drafted unilaterally by himself, known subsequently as the Anglo-Tibetan Agreement of 1904. It allowed the British trade in the region, called for Tibet to pay a large indemnity of £500,000, and declared that Tibet would not have any relations with any other foreign powers (converting Tibet into a British protectorate).

The amban publicly repudiated the treaty, and Britain later announced that it still accepted Chinese claims of authority over Tibet. The indemnity was subsequently reduced by two thirds and the terms were considerably eased in other ways as well. The provisions of this 1904 treaty were revised in the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906 signed between Britain and China.

The Chinese themselves invaded Tibet in 1910 only to leave again in 1913 following the overthrow of the Quing Dynasty. The First World War isolated Tibet and reduced Western influence and interest there with the communist takeover in Russia. During 1950, neither the British nor the Indians were able or willing to become involved against the return of Chinese forces.

The consequences of the British invasion are not to be underestimated. It has been said that it had “a profound effect upon Tibet, changing it forever, and for the worse at that, doing much to contribute to Tibet’s loss of innocence.”

The Chinese interpretation of the historical events are very different to ours. Chinese historians write of Tibetans opposing the British heroically out of loyalty not to Tibet, but to China. They assert that the British troops looted and burned, that the British interest in trade relations was a pretext for annexing Tibet, a step toward the ultimate goal of annexing all of China. They claim the Tibetans destroyed the British forces, and that Younghusband escaped only with a small retinue.