Journeys to Empire." Enlightenment, Imperialism, and the British Encounter with Tibet.
To Europeans, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at least, the word "Tibet" conjured up images of distant lands, unknown geographies, and a presumed intensity of spirituality that, to many British commentators anyway, was at once remarkable and abhorrent. As Gordon T. Stewart notes in this engaging study of Tibet's encounter with British agents of commerce and empire, this too-common representation is anathema to Tibet scholars and to Tibetans. It is so both because, like "Enlightenment" and "Empire," unitary characterizations falter in the face of difference; likewise, simple notions of geography, Tibetan spiritualism, and customary practice give way in the face of political complexity and institutional intrigue, and, as with so much history on the geographical margins of European empires and empirical comprehension, we are anyway always dependent for our understanding on sources which, by their nature, are fragmentary, uneven in time and quality, and, commonly, written from the point of view of the outsider looking in, seldom the other way.
Stewart's discussion of British dealings with Tibet is framed here by the letters, notebooks, and dealings of two very different men. The first, and the chief figure in the book, is the Scots-born George Bogle, associate to Warren Hastings and agent of the British East India Company. Bogle was charged after 1774 with negotiating commercial relations between the Third Panchen Lama and the Company--effectively thus between Tibet, Bengal, and Britain. Bogle was an enlightened man, by virtue of the age which formed him, his education in Edinburgh, and his worldly learning formed on the frontiers of European knowledge. But if he was in the Enlightenment, he was not, and Stewart shows this, a man of the Enlightenment, if by that term we mean a thinker and writer engaged with deeper questions and practices in moral and natural philosophy. Prior to this book, Bogle's pioneering endeavours were little known or, if known, largely forgotten. The second figure, about whom much is known and has been written, is Francis Younghusband, for whom the title "unashamed arch-imperialist" in an age of High Empire might have been coined as a personal motto. Bogle's maxim was negotiated commerce to mutual benefit. Younghusband's commerce with the Maxim brooked no negotiation, presumed the Tibetans to be dullards and dupes, and the country's security under British arms to be vital if Russian and Chinese aggrandisement were not to destabilize the Empire. His 1903-04 Lhasa Expedition was a model of ignorance and deep-seated cultural arrogance, from himself, British imperial rulers, and geographical authorities.
The two encounters that frame this book--Bogle's largely individual undertaking in 1774-75 and Younghusband's 2500-strong military expedition of 1903-04--were not about extending religious tolerance and commercial exchange borne of empathy and a sense of humane sociability. They were about extending empire as a form of political domination and uneven commercial exchange. In this important sense, Stewart's account deals more with questions of "Empire" than it does with those of "Enlightenment," although he recognizes the complexities inherent in both terms. Certainly, there is no presumption of a direct path between the two. It may well be that Bogle was enlightened by his Tibetan encounters (more so, one feels, than his Tibetan contemporaries were by him and his world). But it is hard to know how to describe his experience in appropriate analytical terms. There are echoes here of the better-known Macartney Embassy to China and the Far East in 1794: there, enlightenment was based--or so it was hoped--on scientific exchange and commercial intercourse. Macartney's endeavours largely failed since, in the views of the Chinese, Europe had little to offer. Bogle's enlightenment was more about "self-interest" than "sociability," although his Tibetan encounters were also imperial and familial: part of the interest, for Stewart and other Tibetan scholars, is in investigating the evidence for Bogle's marriage to a local, and the questions this raises about the quotidian practices of colonizers and commercial agents simply getting on with life in strange places rather than with thematic Grand Narrative.
For one reason or another, Bogle's narratives were lost to view until an edition was published in 1876 by Clements Markham, the leading geographer, imperialist and, then, superintendent of the India Office (whose rich archive is now housed in the British Library). Younghusband travelled in Tibet with a copy of Bogle's narrative, but seemed to learn little from it. It is unlikely that he would have empathized with its author's commercially-minded moderatism. By dint of guns, maps and metaphors of spiritual distance and isolation, Younghusband and his cronies such as the imperialist geographer and surveyor Thomas Holdich helped create and shape the myth of Tibet the "Forbidden Land." The story of Bogle's enlightened narrative and its belated recovery in an age of empire is of Tibet the "Forgotten Land." Stewart's book is thus also an account of the importance of archives, and of historians' responsibilities in their sympathetic interrogation of the past.
Charles W. J. Withers
University of Edinburgh
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|Author:||Withers, Charles W.J.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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