The Myth of Chumik Shenko: Charles Allen Challenges the Accepted Account of a Tragic Massacre That Took Place in Tibet a Century Ago This Month

By Allen, Charles | History Today, April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Chumik Shenko: Charles Allen Challenges the Accepted Account of a Tragic Massacre That Took Place in Tibet a Century Ago This Month


Allen, Charles, History Today


ON THE MORNING of March 31st, 1904, two armies faced each other on the roof of the world. It was a confrontation between the mightiest political power in the world, represented by professional soldiers armed with Maxim, ten-pounders and Lee-Metfords, and one of the weakest: a medieval peasant army made up lately of conscripted serfs carrying swords spears and the crudest of matchlocks.

Fifteen weeks earlier a mission under the political leadership of Colonel Francis Younghusband of the Indian Political Service, together with a military escort commanded by Brigadier General James Macdonald, had crossed the Himalayan passes into southern Tibet. The invasion had been sanctioned by a British government worn down by months of lobbying by the Vicegory on India, Lord Curzon, who was obsessed by what he saw as Russia's inexorable advance into Asia and determined to 'frustrate their little game'. Curzon had selected Younghusband to negotiate with the Tibetans--and Younghusband, while protesting at the Tibetans' refusal to negotiate, had done his best to provoke them. In late October 1903 a trivial border incident was declared by Curzon to be an 'overt act of hostility', and the Cabinet gave permission for Younghusband to advance to the Tibetan fortress-town of Gyantse to obtain reparation and then make an immediate withdrawal.

What no one in the British or Indian governments look into account was the Lhasa factor. Over the previous half-century more than a score of explorers--including

Younghusband himself--had tried and failed to reach Tibet's holy city. The ambition to be the first to gaze, as one of their number put it, 'with awe upon the temples and palaces of the long-sealed Forbidden City, the shrines of the mystery which had so long haunted our dreams', clouded the judgement not only of Younghusband but of those who most admired him. These included two of the three special correspondents 'embedded' with the mission--the odd man out, socially as well as politically, being Henry Newman of Reuters. Early in December 1903 the mission and escort crossed the Jelep Pass into Tibet's Chumbi Valley. Overriding Macdonald's advice to wait until spring, Younghusband pushed forward to establish himself and a small escort in the remote settlement of Tuna at an altitude of 15,000 feet, where he sat out two months in appalling conditions until Macdonald had built up sufficient supplies to enable the advance to continue. Had the Tibetans made a night attack on his camp at Tuna, the escort would have been overwhelmed, since the cold froze the oil on the rifle-bolts and jammed the two Maxim guns. However, the senior Tibetan depon or commander, Depth Lhading--known to the British as the Lhasa General--was under orders to halt Younghusband's advance but not to offer any violence. Instead of attacking, he divided his army and took up positions on either side of the lake of Bam Tso, blocking the British advance.

On March 30th, 1904, Macdonald brought the main bulk of his forces up to Tuna. At 8am the following morning, his army paraded in six inches of crisp snow, then moved out towards the western shores of Bam Tso. According to Henry Newman, it was 'a clear, bright sun and no wind at all. Everybody marched proudly and full of elation, hoping that there would be a good fight'. Every man in the force was certain he was marching into action.

The Tibetans had chosen to make their stand at Chumik Shenko, 'the Waters of the Crystal Eye', a hot spring that issued from the foot of a spur. The spring was said to have magical properties that caused all enemy to disperse but, perhaps more importantly, this was Tibet's Thermopylae: the battleground upon which earlier invasions had been halted. In the past, however, the waters of the lake had extended almost up to the spur, creating an easily defensible bottle-neck, Now its geography was very different, for a rapid dessication of the Tibetan plateau had caused the waters of the lake to retreat by almost a mile. …

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