Arnold Henry Savage Landor

A. Henry Savage Landor was a British explorer best known for getting himself captured and tortured while exploring Tibet in the late 1800s, a time when much of Tibet was officially closed to foreigners.

The son of Walter Landor, an Englishman the Times describes as “a poet and critic,” and an Italian mother, Landor reportedly “manifested a longing for travel and adventure” in his teens. He satisfied this longing by traveling the world. Landor told the New York Times in 1899, “I have been in Japan, China, Kamchatka, the Kurile Islands, Mongolia, Australia, India, Nepal, Thibet, Northern Africa, and naturally in Europe,” he said, noting that he had never visited South Africa. He left detailed and often entertaining accounts of many of his trips to these places; the Times praised one of Landor’s books for its "thrilling incident and vivid description,” for example.

It was his adventures in Tibet, however, that made him famous enough to warrant a headline in the Times. He decided to travel in the region for what he later described as “geographical and scientific purposes, as well as to study the manners and customs of those people.” The Times reports that Landor was commissioned by the Daily Mail “to endeavor to reach L’hassa, the capital city of Thibet, the residence of the Grand Lama, on an affluent of the river San-Poo.” Regardless, Landor did not make it there. He does, however, claim to have broken an altitude record by ascending 23,400 feet up “Lumpa Mountain” in Nepal. He also says that he found the origins of the Brahmaputra River. But it is worth noting that one reviewer of his book writes, “the geographical results of Mr. Savage Landor’s gallant but unsuccessful attempt to reach Lhasa…are comparatively unimportant” (Holdich, 587).

And by his own account Landor is gallant indeed while the Tibetans he encountered most certainly were not. Abandoned by all but two of his servants, he pushed on to the town of Toxem, which he arrived at in “a state of starvation” (220). There, he bargained with the shepherds for horses. “The demeanor of these people had been so friendly that it gave me no cause to suspect that any treachery was anticipated,” he wrote (221). Without warning, however, the Tibetans pounced, tying him and his two remaining servants up despite their heroic resistance. At this point, 400 Tibetan soldiers appeared, and trained their guns on the three of them.

In their custody, Landor says, he and his servants were subjected a series of brutal tortures which they endured with stoic strength. Still, Landor writes, at one point he managed to free one hand from his handcuffs (which, he also says, were tightened only a little while before) and tried to free his servant; this effort failed, however because his servant made too much noise. Despite their best efforts, the Tibetans could not, he says, get him to kneel. Eventually, he says, only the intervention of a British official and missionary saved him from the brutality of the Tibetans.

Landor’s account is for obvious reasons less than positive. He depicts Tibetans as religious savages, one of them he says was even foaming at the mouth. At various points, they threaten to behead him, put his eyes out, pretend to behead his servant, refuse him food, and all the while enjoy his suffering. They even, he claims, make him ride for a good while on a spiked saddle at such speeds that if he ever fell off, he would die. Tibetans are stupid and childlike, technologically inept, do not understand how to use watches or compasses, and think a gold ring his mother had given him is possessed of “occult powers,” are terrified of his rifles. And so on. Landor offers no real explanation for their excessive brutality, duplicity, and stupidity, although he does note that they think he is a spy because he carried maps and made notes and sketches. Even this justification feels thinly sketched though, perhaps to prevent it from detracting from Landor's depiction of Tibetan savagery which, if nothing else, makes for a very entertaining story.

- D. Chinoy

Sources

Arnold Henry Savage Landor. In the forbidden land: an account of a journey into Tibet, capture by the Tibetan lamas and soldiers, imprisonment, torture and ultimate release brought about by Dr. Wilson and the political peshkar, Karak Sing-Pal. New York ; London : Harper & Brothers, 1898
"Hidden Persia." New York Times 15 Nov. 1902.
Holdich, T. H. "Mr. Savage Landor's Travels in Tibet: A Review of In the Forbidden Land." Rev. of In the Forbidden Land, by Henry Savage Landor. The Geographical Journal 12.6 (Dec. 1898):587-588. 24 Mar. 2008 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0016-7398%28189812%2912%3A6%3C587%3AMSLTIT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-1>.
“Thibetan Explorer Here.” New York Times 24 Dec. 1899.
“Tortured By Thibetans.” New York Times 4 Oct. 1897.