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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Turmoil in Tibet: Early 20th Century Images at Bonhams

September 16, 2010
September 15, 2010

LONDON -- An album of important photographs taken
during the controversial British Mission to Tibet
in 1903-04 is for sale at Bonhams Travel and
Exploration, India and Beyond sale in London on 5
October (£10,000-15,000). The album can be traced
to a member of the Mission – Lieut. William Pyt
Bennett - and is believed to be the first with
such a provenance to appear at auction.

The photographer was John Claude White, a
Political Officer in the Indian state of Sikkim,
and joint leader of the expedition with Major
Francis Younghusband. Officially the mission’s
purpose was to settle a border dispute between
Sikkim and Tibet but it turned into a full scale
invasion with the aim of establishing a strong
British presence and, crucially, thwarting Russian ambitions in the area.

At the village of Guru the expeditionary force
killed around 700 lightly armed Tibetan monks in
a show of force which, some have claimed,
bordered on massacre. When Younghusband arrived
in the capital, Lhasa, in August 1904, the
intimidated Tibetan government quickly signed the
Lhasa Convention which effectively turned the
country into a British protectorate. Two years
later a separate treaty with China saw Britain
agree not to annex Tibet in exchange for an
undertaking from the Chinese to prevent anyone
else from doing so. This achieved the major
British strategic aim of keeping the Russians out.

One of White’s images shows the ‘Council of Four’
-- the representatives of the Dalai Lama who
signed the Lhasa Convention with the British.
Another depicts the Regent for the Dalai Lama who
had fled to Outer Mongolia. There is a stunning
photograph of Tibetan nuns and several images of
the invasion route taken as the British army made
its way through the country to Lhasa.

Bonhams Director of Books, Maps and Manuscripts,
David Park, said, "These are amazing early images
of a country which was long closed to the West.
They are also a reminder of an event in British
political and military history which, though now
largely forgotten, was highly controversial at
the time. The Tibet Mission can be seen as one of
the last significant moves in the ‘Great Game’
between Russia and the British for influence in
Central Asia which had dominated the region since the early 19th Century."
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