Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer 
by Patrick French.
HarperCollins, 440 pp., £20, October 1994, 0 00 215733 0
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The British acquired their Empire in an untidy, un-coordinated fashion of which they became rather proud. This vast imperium, they said to themselves, exists almost entirely as the result of undirected individual enterprise – undirected yet tending mysteriously towards a common end. There was no master plan, indeed no conscious design. British activity across the globe had simply produced its natural and inevitable consequence.

From this view, two conclusions followed. One was that the British were a very fine race, possibly the finest. The other was that the Imperial enterprise was a virtuous one, if not wholly by intention, at least as a process fundamentally in harmony with the cosmos. Swept along on the tide of their inherent – God-bestowed? – initiative, the British appeared to function collectively at a level where blame, if not praise, was irrelevant. There were of course more positive notions of Imperial virtue; but this fundamentally amoral conception of Imperial destiny was important and served the British well. It provided a philosophical shield against moral insecurity.

So much for acquisition. Once the Empire was in hand it came in useful in many ways. It was a glamorous prop for British performances on the world stage. It was a source of strategical counters for moves in the diplomatic game (though these counters could also assume the form of liabilities). It was a supplier of soldiers to frighten other Europeans with, at first on the Empire’s borders; later, in 1914 and 1939, in world wars. Private fortunes were made from it, unwanted people exported to it.

The disposal of these assets was a far more considered affair than their acquisition – as it had to be, if it were to be done in a manner consistent with their moral significance. There was no mea culpa, no shamefaced bolt for the exit, but a series of firm announcements that all things were still working together for good, as Imperial control was steadily dismantled. Racial calibre and racial virtue were displayed to the end, and the British quit their Empire in fine and deliberate style, leaving behind a collection of territories hopefully christened the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The British never put much money or white manpower into running the Empire, a habit rooted in parsimony but consorting well with the appearance of having greatness thrust upon them. Their agents were spread thinly and enjoyed great autonomy, ruling and sometimes extending their bit of empire with remarkably little interference from above. By the 1850s, the man-on-the-spot, the lone Briton doing amazing deeds with no visible resources, was established as a cult figure, and served to the very end as an inspiration to recruits into the Imperial service. How many Viceroys of India does anyone now remember? The heroes of Empire were never the great proconsuls, but young men representatively on the loose – James Brooke of Sarawak, John and Henry Lawrence of the Punjab, Charles Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, William Sleeman who destroyed Thuggee, Frederick Lugard who conquered Northern Nigeria. If such men became proconsuls it often diminished rather than brightened their radiance. At that level, Imperial energy and Imperial virtue could not so easily appear to be held in balance.

Sir Francis Younghusband (1863-1942) was the man-on-the-spot’s man-on-the-spot. Remembered today, when he is remembered at all, as the officer in charge of the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, he was for twenty years a leading player in the esoteric and dangerous pastime known as the Great Game. This celebrated sport, a mixture of diplomacy and espionage, kept British and Russian agents occupied in the high passes of Central Asia for the better part of a century, as each side competed for political ascendancy in the remote and chilly principalities which formed the buffer zone between Russia’s and Britain’s Asian empires. ‘Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game,’ announced Kipling’s Kim, and some of the characters he met there were real ones, immortalised by his creator under fictional names. For among the finest practitioners of the Game were Indians – the legendary corps of Pundits trained to lurk about with theodolites and thermometers in Tibet or Turkestan.

What was it all about? The Russian Empire was expanding steadily through the 19th century, and the British feared a descent on India (the worst-case scenario) and, more realistically, Russian subversion of the frontier tribes or even the apparently quiescent but unpredictable natives of Hindustan. The Government of India had its ‘Forward School’ of strategists which advocated pre-emptive action against the Muscovite menace – military operations north of the Hindu Kush, and a field army in India capable of repelling a Russian attack. Its principal proponent, General Sir Charles MacGregor of the Indian Army, produced a work – The Defence of India (1884) – of such hair-raising Russophobia that reading it now one feels strangely time-warped: the tone is exactly that of one of the more extreme American propagandists of the Cold War. The Forward School waxed and waned in visibility according to the degree of alarm it produced in British statesmen, who, though not averse to a bit of quiet local mischief signalling the importance they attached to the frontiers of their Indian Empire, were impelled by the exiguous nature of their military resources – stretched thinner and thinner as the century wore on and more and more of the map was coloured red – to seek to protect their Imperial interests by arriving at an accommodation with Russia. After MacGregor’s excesses, the Forward School seemed extinguished for a while, but it regrouped informally and busied itself discreetly, generally evading Parliamentary supervision, until the Great Game came finally to an end with the delineation of formal spheres of influence in Persia, Tibet and Afghanistan in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907.

Francis Younghusband was more or less born into the Great Game. His uncle was Robert Shaw, British Political Agent in Yarkand; his father was John Younghusband, Inspector-General of Police in the Punjab, and occasional lecturer on the Russian menace. At school at Clifton, his great friend was Henry Newbolt (‘The sand of the desert is sodden red ... The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead’). Younghusband was a natural recruit to the Game, and recruited he was, in 1885, when he was a young army officer at Meerut, by Sir Charles MacGregor himself.

In 1886 he was in Manchuria to see what the Russians were up to, returning to India in 1887 via the Gobi Desert and the terrible Mustagh Pass. In 1889 he was despatched to Hunza in the Pamirs to check up on the Russians again, bring the local ruler into line and discover the whereabouts of a secret pass rumoured to connect Hunza with Ladakh. In 1890, now very much the coming man with the Forward School, he was sent to Kashgar in Sinkiang to forestall Russian advances in a piece of land called the Wakhan Corridor. Here his Great Gaming career came badly unstuck. He was no match in cunning for the Chinese Governor and the Russian Consul in Kashgar, and accomplished nothing. On the way back he stumbled into Russian-claimed territory at Bozai Gumbaz and was ejected by a Russian officer. The Government of India sprang into action, followed at some distance by the Foreign Office (‘Where is Buozai Gumbaz?’ was the FO’s initial response; it was ‘the Gibraltar of the Hindu Kush,’ announced Lord Rosebery), and after a brief war scare the Russians apologised. But Younghusband had committed the great sin of creating a public embarrassment for the British Government, and had made matters worse by too insistent demands for retaliation. Suddenly he seemed inconvenient and ‘unsound’ – indeed, he had no understanding at all of the wider diplomatic context in which the British Government sought to operate. Before he knew it, he was being shunted into more conventional jobs in the Political Service. There were adventures, and explorations, but no more summonses to be debriefed by the Commander-in-Chief.

It was during this low period that he developed his strange intimacy with George Curzon – then a rising politician temporarily out of office and consoling himself with serious travel in the Himalayas. There was a mutual attraction, deepening before long to worship on Younghusband’s side. Ten years later, when Curzon decided to put the finishing touch to his Viceroyalty of India by invading Tibet, it was Younghusband he chose to be his instrument. Both Curzon and Younghusband were convinced that secret treaties existed between Russia and Tibet, a conviction which turned out to be mistaken. Indeed, the Russian Government seems to have had little interest in Tibet, though Nicholas II liked to dabble in the Game on his own account. Whether knowing this would have deterred Curzon is an interesting question. Most students of the episode have formed the impression that Tibet at this time was a country waiting to be invaded by George Nathaniel Curzon: it was too fascinating, too provoking, too much of a challenge, for this deeply romantic, highly intelligent, conceited, industrious and ambitious man to leave alone.

Knowing his political masters’ dislike of territorial adventures, Curzon had to downplay the invasionary aspect of Younghusband’s proposed entry into Tibet, and the expedition possessed at the outset the character of a mission to Khamba Dzong, just inside Tibet, to discuss border disputes and the opening of commercial relations. In the face of the inevitable Tibetan disinclination to discuss anything at all – construed as deeply affronting – the expedition took on a more military but still rather undecided character. At this point, as Curzon had perhaps anticipated that he would, Younghusband began wildly to overplay his role of man-on-the-spot. He pushed steadily on to Lhasa, blasting about 2500 Tibetans to kingdom come at various encounters on the way. In the first of these, at Chumi Shengo, where Tibetans armed with swords and matchlocks had erected a makeshift blockade, almost seven hundred of them were mown down with Gatling guns: no fatalities on the British side. Younghusband, whose first experience of action this was, felt momentarily distressed (‘I have had an absolutely miserable day’), but carried on. At Lhasa he rode triumphantly through the streets, doffing his hat graciously to the clapping populace – he did not know that Tibetans clap their hands to drive off evil spirits. He then imposed on the Tibetans a ‘treaty’ of such punitive rigour that it was promptly disowned by the British Government.

What possessed him? As French’s book fascinatingly reveals, Younghusband was indeed possessed, by an extreme and addled version of the Imperial philosophy. Though it required another forty years (the rest of his life) for his ideas to be worked out in all their mystical glory, even by 1904 he knew that the actions of the British people, and his own in particular, could be none other than the manifestations of a World Soul working unceasingly for good. It followed from this that the more vigorous these actions were, the better.

Younghusband had had mystical intimations in the Gobi Desert in 1887. In 1894 he read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You. That mesmerising book, in which the innate goodness and perfectibility of man are so grandly asserted, the problem of evil so magnificently evaded, and life on the frontiers of the spirit so alluringly evoked, produced in Younghusband a state of intoxication in which he tendered (and then withdrew) his resignation from government service. In the years following, he felt more and more within himself that spiritual authority, and sense of chosenness, which come from the knowledge of correct alignment with the benign operation of the universe. Unlike Tolstoy, he appears to have ignored altogether the awkward question of why bad things happen in a good world. His own dubious actions were dealt with, as French shows, by simple denial, forgetting and blaming others. Even the massacre at Chumi Shengo seems not to have occasioned any direct self-questioning. Instead, as he was leaving Lhasa to return to India, Younghusband had an intense mystical experience, clearly purificatory in nature, in which he was seized by a tremendous ‘sense of elation and goodwill’, and knew with absolute certainty that the world was good, evil superficial. This seems to have satisfied him until he was run over by a car in 1910 and had to endure many months of painful recovery. He then asked himself the question he should have asked at Chumi Shengo. How could such things happen? But, clinging to the notion that the world was ‘essentially’ good, he failed to find an answer. This may all have had something to do with his upbringing by a severe but passionately emotional mother, who seems to have instilled into him as a child a sense of sinfulness that must have been unbearable.

Younghusband left government service in 1909: his career had been effectively over since 1904. In the remainder of his life, he worked to propagate the religion of the World Soul, the World Soul being increasingly seen as under the guidance of superior beings in the stars, who were presumed to ‘work much as the King and his Government work to produce the conditions under which the inhabitants of, say, Samoa, might develop to the highest pitch of their mental capacity’. He showed no other signs of insanity and became quite a successful, and very English, guru, possessing to a high degree the faculty of appearing to be an oasis of common sense amid the cranks with whom he consorted. He continued to ethicise and spiritualise his own emotions, as when his sexual awakening after years of unhappy marriage led him to include free love in his prescriptions. In Wedding (1942) he advocated sexual freedom for both men and women before marriage, and heroic monogamy with good sex after marriage: not a bad idea. In the Twenties, as President of the Royal Geographical Society, he threw the organisation’s weight behind the attempt to climb Everest. It would be, he wrote, a supreme symbol of man’s final conquest over nature, a conquest, furthermore, which could be achieved while ‘slaying no one, hurting no one’. At last he had found a conquest of which this could be said.

Patrick French deserves congratulation for telling the tale of this richly emblematic though chronically miscalculated life so dashingly. He keeps the lines of the story uncluttered and concentrates on Younghusband the man, which works well. He avoids derision. I have two complaints. The narrative is rather crudely interleaved with accounts of French’s own travels in Younghusbandland. These weaken the structure of the book and do not, for me, fulfil the requirement of good travel writing to illuminate the known as well as the unknown. They form part of the authorial vainglory which is the subject of my second complaint. When a book begins, ‘While travelling through Central Asia at the age of 19, seeking some elusive land where childhood dreams and present realities might come face to face, I ... ’, one scarcely knows whether to laugh or tip one’s hat. But French, the blurb tells us, is only 27. Long may he travel and much may he write.

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