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Turmoil in Tibet: Early 20th Century Images at Bonhams
Lot 224: topographical views. Photo: Bonhams.
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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