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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Younghusband: An imperialist or a luminous mystic?

An extract from Patrick French's Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer

The land called Tibet has a symbolic value in the Western mind which extends way beyond any experimental reality. Although Lost Horizon was not published until thirty years after Francis Younghusband set foot in Tibet, the mystical romanticism the book embodies bad been around since the reports of Jesuit missionaries appeared in the seventeenth century. Younghusband's obituary in the New York Times fittingly merged the man who led the British invasion with the Hollywood myth: "if as James Hilton strongly suggests in Lost Horizon, Shangri La is somewhere in Tibet rather than merely somewhere- anywhere…. Then Francis Younghusband probably came closer than anyone else to being Robert Conway".

Tibet's diplomatic isolation and physical inaccessibility helped the legend to develop. Here on the borders of British India was a huge country- the size of Western Europe-which was closed to the representatives of the King Emperor. Fantastic tales abounded among Younghusband's contemporaries of flying yogis, peculiar tortures, polyandrous practices, rare jewels, strange reincarnations, excrement pills, astral projection and even (myth of all myths) no wheels- except the prayer wheel of course. Unconquered kingdoms always hold a special excitement for great empires: at the turn of the century Tibet represented the ultimate in pure, virgin territory.

One of the few public figures to acknowledge Tibet's symbolic lure was the liberal politician Sir Henry Cotton. In an interview with the Daily News in December 1903 he stirred up a hornet's nest of imperial outrage by questioning the motives for the forthcoming invasion. When he had been in India, he said, there were countless youngmen " to whom the glamour of the Forbidden City was irresistible, to whom the romance attaching to the unknown formed the great temptation of their lives…". Cotton went on to claim that Curzon himself had fallen for the glamour of the myth, and was now'seeking the glory and world-wide fame of being "the Viceroy of India who opened Tibet and carried the British flag into Lhasa".

But far from 'unveiling' and thereby destroying the mystery of Tibet, the British invasion served to heighten it by stimulating world-wide interest. Over the decades after Younghusband's Expedition, countless travelling writers have continued ostensibly to uncover, discover and unveil this island in the sky.

The supposed transformative powers of Tibet have even been credited with changing Younghusband's own religious views and converting him to a belief in non-violence. Although it is true one of the two profound spiritual experiences of his life did occur in Tibet, he had strong mystical tendencies long before he led the invasion. There is even a surprising misapprehension, especially among admirers of Younghusband's later religious work, that the vibrations of Tibet somehow converted his Mission into a peaceful one. In a BBC radio interview the League of Nations enthusiastic and Classical scholar Gilbert Murray said that his friend Francis Younghusband 'wanted to penetrated Tibet because he so liked the Tibetans… he wanted to get into their country and talk with the lamas and to see if they had some real sympathy about religion'.

Rom Landau, a Polish-American sculptor and mystical writer, suggested in a memoir of 'Tibet Younghusband', as he liked to call him, that one particular event on the road to Lhasa was' the outstanding one of his life'.

That event took place toward the end of his mission (when) it was uncertain whether the small contingent of troops that he was leading would have to fight the Tibetans facing them. During one harrowing moment of uncertainly he suddenly 'saw' that God's will was not conquest by arms but friendship through mutual understanding…. He entered Lhasa without having to fire a shot and signed there a convention with the regent. When soon afterwards he had to leave Lhasa, he did so as a friend.

This extraordinary manipulation of the facts is typical of the way that Younghusband's identity has been colonised by his various chroniclers. Either he was a Boy's Own swashbuckling imperialist, or he was a peaceful, luminous mystic; or alternatively, he had a split personality.

The reality, as I came to perceive it, was both more complex and more human. Younghusband's experiences in Tibet were a formative part of an extraordinary journey of personal discovery and development. His rare, quirky, almost child-like view of life enabled him to go through an enormous range of apparently contradictory experiences, and encompass them all. As Jan Morris wrote in The Spectacle of Empire, Younghusband 'most nearly filled the part of Everyman' in the great imperial drama. He never stood still, never stopped changing.

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