June 22, 2006
Nepal vs. the British in Tibet from 1769 to 1861
From The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet & Central Asia, by Derek Waller. 1990 (paperback, 2004). The University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 0-8131-1666-X.
The East India Company viewed trade with Tibet both as desirable for itself, particularly with respect to Tibetan exports of gold and silver, and also as a back door to the lucrative markets of China proper, bypassing the officially sanctioned entry point of Canton.
Unfortunately, this interest on the part of the East India Company coincided with the closing of many of Tibet's doors to the outside world. This occurred partly as a result of the increasing imposition of the Chinese authority and partly because of the overthrow, by 1769, of the traditional Newar rulers by the Gurkhas and the establishment of a Hindu kingdom in Nepal. Racial and religious bonds between Nepal and Tibet were broken, and the traditional trade routes through the Nepalese passes between India and Tibet were largely closed. In addition, the Gurkhas did not look kindly on the British, who had rendered military assistance to the Newars. As a result, the East India Company began to look for alternative routes through Bhutan or Assam which could open Tibet to trade and which did not pass through Nepal.
Nepal invaded Tibet in 1788 in search of the treasure housed by wealthy monastaries. Unable to oppose them, the Tibetans sued for peace and promised to pay an indemnity. The Gurkhas then withdrew, but not before Tashilhunpo had appealed for help from Lord Cornwallis, who had replaced Hastings as governor-general in 1785. Cornwallis declined, promising only that he would not assist the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas invaded again in 1791, on the grounds that Tibet had not fulfilled the agreement over the indemnity. Shigatse was captured and Tashilhunpo was sacked. A strong Chinese army then entered Tibet and defeated the troops withdrawing to Nepal. Now it was the turn of the Gurkhas to request aid from the British. Cornwallis again refused, though he offered to provide mediation, which aroused the suspicions of the Tibetans and angered the Gurkhas. Cornwallis had succeeded only in alienating all three parties -- Tibetan, Chinese, and Gurkha. A large Chinese army now occupied the most populous part of Tibet, and Britain was not to regain its influence there until the twentieth century. The Chinese Emperor Qian Long closed the frontiers of Tibet to the outside world, thus imposing on Tibet an exclusionary policy similar to that already enforced for China proper, one which kept nearly all foreigners away by restricting trade only to the port of Canton.
The closing of the borders stimulated British interest in Tibet. As the nineteenth century progressed, curiousity increased with the occupation of territory along the Tibetan border, acquired as a result of the deteriorating relations with Nepal. With the Chinese firmly in control of Tibet and closing its borders to Bengal, the East India Company looked initially to revive the trade routes to Tibet through Nepal. This was despite the failure of the mission of Captain William Kirkpatrick, who had been sent to mediate between the Gurkhas and the Tibetans in 1792. A second mission under Captain Knox was dispatched in 1801. Knox became the first British Resident in Kathmandu and, on behalf of Britain, signed a treaty with Nepal shortly after arrival. However, as a result of internal political developments in Nepal, Knox withdrew in 1803, and the treaty was dissolved. The continued forays by the Gurkhas into areas of British interest and protection ultimately lead to the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816. The British were victorious and, by the treaty of Segauli, were given possession of territory to the west of Nepal in Kumaon and Garwhal, thus giving British India a common frontier with Tibet for the first time. Relations between Britain and Nepal, however, remained cool until a change of regime in Kathmandu in 1846. Treaties in 1817 and 1861 with Sikkim, another Himalayan state on the frontier of Tibet, gave Britain influence in that area. Sikkim was also a major trading route from Bengal to Lhasa. Further to the east, Britain acquired the province of Assam, after victory in the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826. This opened up the possibility of alternative routes to Lhasa and southwest China. In the extreme western part of Tibet, British interest in pashm, used to make fine cashmere wool, led to the construction of the Hindustan-Tibet road between 1850 and 1858. Designed primarily to improve trade, the road went from the plains of India through Simla, the summer capital, before passing through Bashahr and terminating at Shipki on the Tibetan border.
Read my review of Trespassers on the roof of the world by Peter Hopkirk for more on China, Britain and Tibet in the early part of the 20th century.Posted by anoop at June 22, 2006 05:52 PM