Lhasa Convention Is Signed in Tibet

After the British military expedition under the command of Colonel Francis Edward Younghusband opened Tibet, Britain stipulated the terms of the Lhasa Convention, including the establishment of a British protectorate over Tibet.

Summary of Event

The signing of the Lhasa Convention on September 7, 1904, should have been widely viewed as a triumph of British foreign policy in Asia. The convention forced Tibet, a country that up to that point had never entered into negotiations with any foreign power other than China, let alone one from the West, to acquiesce to a series of demands that essentially made the nation a British protectorate. After being routed by a British expeditionary force of about two thousand men carrying the latest in modern weaponry, the Tibetans at last agreed to a trade relationship with the British crown colony of India. More important, however, Tibet promised to maintain its virtual isolation from the outside world. The apparent contradiction inherent in mounting a military expedition to open an isolated country only to reinforce its isolation in the resulting treaty had its roots in the peculiarities of the rivalry between the Russian and British empires in Central Asia, a contest that author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) famously referred to as “the Great Game.” Lhasa Convention
Tibet;British protectorate status
[kw]Lhasa Convention Is Signed in Tibet (Sept. 7, 1904)
[kw]Convention Is Signed in Tibet, Lhasa (Sept. 7, 1904)
[kw]Tibet, Lhasa Convention Is Signed in (Sept. 7, 1904)
Lhasa Convention
Tibet;British protectorate status
[g]Tibet;Sept. 7, 1904: Lhasa Convention Is Signed in Tibet[01070]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Sept. 7, 1904: Lhasa Convention Is Signed in Tibet[01070]
[c]Military history;Sept. 7, 1904: Lhasa Convention Is Signed in Tibet[01070]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 7, 1904: Lhasa Convention Is Signed in Tibet[01070]
Younghusband, Francis Edward
Curzon, George Nathaniel
Thubten Gyatso
Dorzhiev, Agvan
MacDonald, James R. L.
Ampthill, second Baron (Arthur Russell)

Britain and Russia had become rivals for spheres of influence in Central Asia during the nineteenth century. The Russian Empire was pushing its border southward, toward British India, and it appeared, at least to the hawks in the British colonial administration in Calcutta, that only the impassable and largely unknown mountain passes in the Hindukush and Karakoram mountain ranges prevented the Russian army from reaching the Indian Ocean.

For the British viceroy and his government at their summer residence in Simla, India, Tibet seemed very close: It lay just over the majestic Himalayas. Although the area was inaccessible to all foreigners, it had started to figure prominently in the British Empire’s plans, because it appeared that control of this vast and unknown land would allow the British to outflank the Russians. Moreover, after Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone crossed Africa, Tibet was one of increasingly few unexplored areas on the Victorians’ world map. After 1865, a variety of British, Russian, and Japanese adventurers, explorers, missionaries, and spies had tried and failed to reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

When he was appointed governor general of India in 1899, George Nathaniel Curzon was already a veteran of the Great Game: He had traveled through Russian-controlled Central Asia as early as 1888. Francis Edward Younghusband, a senior official in the Indian Political Service, shared Curzon’s hawkish views on Russia. He had been a member of the Royal Geographic Society since 1897, and he had made a name for himself through travels from Manchuria, in northeast China, to Ladakh, India. Both men were extremely concerned about Russian designs on Central Asia, particularly with regard to Tibet.

Tibet was ruled by Thubten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and although the region was nominally under Chinese suzerainty, Tibet remained closed to any foreign visitors. However, around the beginning of the twentieth century, the British administration in Calcutta learned that a close adviser to the Dalai Lama, Agvan Dorzhiev, had been traveling through British India on his way from Lhasa to St. Petersburg, where he was received by Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Although little was known about this enigmatic emissary, it soon became clear that he was from the area known as Buryatia. The Buryats lived in the Lake Baikal region of Russia and were subjects of the Russian Empire, but they were also Tibetan Buddhists and were thus not considered foreigners in Tibet. To the hawks in Calcutta it appeared as though the Russians were on the verge of gaining an important foothold in Tibet, and the British were frustrated that they had only learned about Dorzhiev from Russian newspapers and from a Japanese spy, Eisai Kawaguchi, who had managed to reach Lhasa in disguise in 1901.

In 1902, Curzon was alarmed to hear that Younghusband had decided to use the issue of the disputed border between the Indian state of Sikkim and Tibet as a pretext for a more aggressive stance toward the Tibetans. Although a convention between China and Britain in 1890 had delineated the Tibetan border, their failure to consult Tibet on the issue meant that the Dalai Lama’s government did not consider itself bound by the agreement’s terms. Two letters by the viceroy to the Dalai Lama had been returned unopened, and an initial mission by the newly established Tibet Frontier Commission Tibet Frontier Commission had been unsuccessful. Frustrated, Curzon received a carefully worded permission from the British government to “obtain satisfaction” by means of a military expedition in the late summer of 1903.

This mission was to be an ostensibly diplomatic one, headed by a recently promoted Colonel Younghusband as commissioner, but it was accompanied by a large military escort. The group crossed into Tibet in December of 1903, with orders to advance to the Tibetan town of Gyantse and to negotiate with the Tibetan side there. Early on, disagreements arose between Brigadier General James R. L. MacDonald, the commander of the escort, and Younghusband over the use of military force. As a diplomat, Younghusband was in favor of refraining from any hostile action that might make it difficult to secure the Tibetans’ goodwill, while MacDonald was concerned with protecting his troops. The first clash occurred on March 31, 1904, near the village of Guru, where the British forces killed more than six hundred ill-equipped Tibetans (the British troops suffered almost no casualties). Another battle, near Gyantse in early May, also resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of Tibetans. Historians generally hold MacDonald responsible for these massacres. Yet Younghusband indirectly benefited from these developments, as they provided him with a pretext to exceed his mandate and to push on to Lhasa. This he did with the explicit consent of the British secretary of state for India, John Brodrick, an old friend of Curzon who had been kept informed of the events by telegraph.

After several more skirmishes, the British forces finally entered the Tibetan capital on August 3, 1904. The Dalai Lama had fled the city, accompanied by Agvan Dorzhiev, his adviser and the invasion’s unwitting cause. Younghusband negotiated with the Dalai Lama’s regent, and the two reached an agreement in a surprisingly short time. The Lhasa Convention’s official signing ceremony took place on September 7, 1904, in Lhasa’s Potala Palace. Tibet promised to respect the earlier Chinese-British border agreement, agreed to open several markets for trade with British India and to pay an indemnity of 7.5 million rupees, and accepted the British occupation of part of the access route to Lhasa. The last of the nine points of the agreement stipulated that Tibet was to have no contact with any third powers without British consent. This provision was implicitly directed against Russia, the only other foreign power with a possible design on Tibet, and effectively turned Tibet into a British protectorate. The lack of any official Russian reaction to the Lhasa Convention indicated, however, that British fears about massive Russian involvement in Tibet had been grossly exaggerated.


Curiously, the British government distanced itself almost immediately from the expedition to Tibet. The Lhasa Convention was ratified in November of 1904, by the then-acting viceroy, Second Baron Ampthill, who single-handedly reduced the indemnity by two thirds and softened some other provisions as well. Younghusband was accused, not without justification, of exceeding his authority in the stipulation of the terms of the convention. Although he was knighted, he was left without further career prospects. Curzon, who had been on home leave for most of 1904, eventually resigned from his post as viceroy, a move that was at least partially in response to criticism over his handling of Tibet. The Lhasa Convention, then, was of limited practical concern to its contemporaries: Its primary importance was as the tangible result of the first Western diplomatic and military mission to Tibet. The problem it was designed to prevent—Russian interference in Tibet—existed mainly in the heads of politicians and explorers who had been staking their careers on playing the Great Game. Lhasa Convention
Tibet;British protectorate status

Further Reading

  • Fleming, Peter. Bayonets to Lhasa: The First Full Account of the British Invasion of Tibet. London: Oxford University Press, 1986. Originally published in 1961, this remains an authoritative account of the Younghusband mission.
  • Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International, 1994. A very accessible account of the entire history of the Great Game, with good coverage of the British invasion of Tibet.
  • Meyer, Karl E., and Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadows. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. Comparable in scope to Hopkirk’s book, offers a slightly different perspective.
  • Snelling, John. Buddhism in Russia: The Story of Agvan Dorzhiev, Lhasa’s Emissary to the Tsar. Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1993. The only book on the subject available in English offering a detailed account of Dorzhiev’s activities in Lhasa.

End of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s Rule

Britain Separates Burma from India