IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | Central Asia


Britain, China, and Tibet, 1904­1950

With the aim of providing an in-depth primary source for the historical status of Tibet ­ still such a contentious issue ­ a microfiche edition of all India Office files and classified official print covering relations between China, Tibet, and the British in the first half of the twentieth century, has recently been initiated.


The collection, which will amount to approximately 35,000 pages of data, is being edited by Anthony Farrington, former Deputy Director of the Oriental & India Office Collections at the British Library. This involves arranging the material by subject, enhancing the existing descriptions, and developing an overall guide and index, for it to be available early in 2002.
The files and related papers that accumulated at the India Office were composed of a number of sources. Firstly, the Foreign & Political Department of the British Government of India, responsible for policy across the northern border of British India reported back to the Viceroy and to the Secretary of State at the India Office in London. These highly detailed reports include masses of political, commercial, and topographical intelligence gathered in the first instance by British officials such as the Trade Agent at Gartok and the Political Officer in Sikkim.
Secondly, the Foreign Office in London and its embassy and consular posts within China forwarded material on Chinese activities and claims to the India Office that rendered a rather different perspective from that of British India. Thirdly, there are files from the period between Indian Independence and 1950, when the new Government of India attempted to continue its predecessor's policy. Finally, there are additions of various kinds, in the form of minutes and comments, made by the India Office Political Department.
The new subject arrangement of the files is emerging as roughly chronological, beginning with direct British military intervention in Tibet ­ the Younghusband Mission of 1903-04 ­ followed by negotiations to keep Tsarist Russia at a distance, and then the return of the thirteenth Dalai Lama from China to Tibet. There is extensive coverage of Tibet's break with China after the 1911 Revolution, the subsequent Simla Conference of 1912, and the McMahon Line delimitation of the Indo-Tibetan border.
Tibet's internal affairs and British encouragement of de facto independence throughout the 1920s and 1930s led to a more delicate relationship with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Government during World War II. Particularly interesting from this period are the files on the discovery of the fourteenth (and present) Dalai Lama between 1937 and 1939. Ultimately, there is information on the complete reversal brought about by Indian Independence in 1947, the Communist victory in China, and the subsequent Chinese invasion of Tibet.
Interesting sidelines to the main thrust of political events are provided by annual reports on trade relations between Tibet and India, and by a group of files on British and foreign travellers and would-be travellers to Tibet. At the time, the Government of India forwarded travellers' applications for permission to enter the country to Lhasa and these documents show individuals to have ranged from botanists and mountaineers to suspect foreign agents and slightly dotty seekers after truth.
Claims on Tibet
As a preview of the collection's content, two examples are offered here. In 1912 the Chinese garrison of Lhasa surrendered to the Tibetans. A detailed report on the British Mission that organized their repatriation through India, as well as giving a day-by-day account of arrangements, has fascinating information on personalities and attitudes. Chinese Special Commissioner Hai Chu, awaiting their arrival in India, is described as 'a great disappointment. He did not even take the trouble to visit the Chinese camp at Kalimpong. In fact, I think his chief aim was to keep out of the way of the Chinese troops, among whom the impression was widely spread that he was going off with a large sum of money intended for disbursement as their back pay'. Chinese military discipline aroused comment ­ 'on two occasions that I am aware of commanding officers desired to decapitate men and were surprised and disappointed that this could not be permitted on British soil. I was astonished to find opium smoking very prevalent among some units, notably the Resident's Bodyguard and the artillery detachment, where it was done openly with the cognizance of and even in the presence of the officers.' The report, which is illustrated with several pages of photographs, concludes ­ 'One can hardly expect that the Chinese Central Government will be particularly grateful for our action. The wounded pride of the self-complacent Young China Party and a feeling of soreness at the eclipse of the growing Chinese ascendancy in Tibet may, not unnaturally, to a great extent obscure their sense of obligation to the Indian Government for what has been done for their troops.'
The papers on the Tibetan Trade Mission to the USA and Britain in 1948 provide page after page of agonized minutes, setting out the way India Office officials saw their current position (by then revamped as section 'B' of the new Commonwealth Relations Office). Their despair at what the Foreign Office would claim was the wider picture becomes nearly tangible.
The brief for Prime Minister Clement Attlee's meeting with the mission on 3 December 1948 states ­ 'The Chinese Government have never abandoned their claim that Tibet is a part of China under their control. An attempt to make this claim a reality at the beginning of this century met with fierce resistance and finally collapsed at the time of the Chinese Revolution. Ever since that time Tibet has in fact been an autonomous state and has always been recognized as such by the British Government who concluded a treaty with Tibet in 1914. The attitude of the British Government has been to acknowledge a Chinese claim of suzerainty over Tibet but to insist in all other respects that Tibet is an autonomous state with whom they have insisted on having direct relations. If the Mission should refer to the vexed question of Chinese claims to the control of Tibet it is suggested that the Prime Minister should be non-commital.' But behind the scenes, departmental in-fighting resulted in such minutes as ­ 'It looks as if the Foreign Office, through sheer inexperience of dealing with Tibet and ignorance of the history of the business are proposing to cold shoulder a Tibetan Trade Mission which is due to arrive in the UK in a few days. The situation unfortunately came to notice rather late and the Southeast Asia Department (who have been overborne by the China Department and who would quite welcome our intervention) tell us that any intervention by us now would have to be at a high level. We must bear in mind that if we accept the Chinese claims about Tibet we shall have a row with the Government of India.' *


Anthony Farrington is continuing as a consultant at the British Library's Oriental & India Office Collections after 35 years' work in the archives of the English East India Company. His research interests lie in source publication, especially EIC documentation for Southeast and East Asia.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | Central Asia