IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | Central Asia



Hugh Edward Richardson (1905­2000)

The field of Tibetan studies is mourning the recent death of Dr Hugh Richardson, probably the greatest living authority on Tibet. He was both a scholar and a link to the days when British Indian diplomats served in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Born in Fife, Scotland, in 1905, Richardson was the son of a British Army officer and grandson of an Indian Civil Service officer. Educated at Glenalmond School and Keble College, Oxford, where he read classics, Richardson himself joined the Indian Civil Service in 1928. In 1934, after two years service in a district in what is now Bangladesh, he transferred to the Foreign and Political Department of the Government of India, which was, in effect, India's diplomatic service. Posted to Baluchistan, he served under Sir Basil Gould, who was soon to be appointed Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet.

Richardson had already developed an interest in Tibet, learning Tibetan from a servant and crossing the border into Phari in southern Tibet while on leave from the ICS. His chance to serve in that land came when he was appointed to the post of Gyantse Trade Agent ­ in effect, British Indian representative in Tibet ­ in July 1936. But greater responsibilities were in store for him. Richardson was soon called on to accompany Gould on a mission to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and when Gould departed in February 1937, Richardson remained in Lhasa as the first Head of the newly established British Lhasa Mission. He was to spend around eight years in Tibet in total, most of it in Lhasa, before his final departure in September 1950, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. His last years there were in the service of the newly independent Indian Government, and he was probably the last British official to occupy an important Indian diplomatic posting.

While Richardson recorded at the time that his position in Lhasa involved 'not much work and plenty of time for reading, walking and the occasional swim in the river', his superiors observed that he was an expert at those tasks 'which are not exactly work, although they are apt to consume a good deal of energy and patience' and that 'he has identified himself more closely with Tibetans and Tibetan affairs, and... gained more insight and respect, than any Englishman [sic] since the time of Charles Bell' [Political Officer Sikkim 1908-1920].

Richardson was in fact, a proud Scotsman, a good judge of bag-piping, and a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews, where he lived in retirement with his wife Huldah (d.1995). A modest, but upright and commanding figure, precise in his speech and judgement, Richardson devoted his life after 1950 to the study of Tibet, and subsequent generations of Tibetan scholars owed much to his expertise. He was always as careful and considerate in his replies to enthusiastic amateurs as he was to specialists, while preserving the highest academic standards of enquiry. Though primarily a 'gentleman scholar' of the old school, Richardson was active at a number of universities, including a period as visiting professor at Seattle, where he established a tradition ­ now threatened ­ of Tibetan Studies. In the 1990s, his scholastic contribution was recognised with the award of an honorary doctorate from St Andrews University.

Richardson was also active in the Tibetan political cause. He recalled that, 'in all practical matters the Tibetans were independent...[but] the British government... sold the Tibetans down the river... I was profoundly ashamed of the government.' Thus he was a prime mover behind the founding of the Tibet Society of the UK in 1959, and he maintained close links with the Tibetan exile community. The current Dalai Lama himself described Richardson as, 'very precious to us'.

He is survived by his scholarship. Among the key works left to us, are:

­ High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, a collection of Richardson's major articles, edited by the late Michael Aris, which includes his 1945 report for the Government of India, Tibetan Precis.

­ Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, London: Serindia (1993).

­ A Corpus of Early Tibetan Inscriptions, London: Royal Asiatic Society (1985).

­ A Cultural History of Tibet, with David Snellgrove, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1968).

­ Tibet and its History, London: OUP (1962), which was published in the USA as A Short History of Tibet, New York: E.P. Dutton & co (1962).

Dr Alex McKay

SOAS, London, UK / IIAS, Leiden, the Netherlands

14 December 2000

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | Central Asia