On the Ground in Tibet: George Bogle’s 1774 Mission

As is the nature of the spring hiring season, this week found me interviewing for a position teaching seventh and eighth grade history at a day school in Boston. While my teaching experience thus far has only applied to high-school age students, the middle school history curriculum at this particular institution is very similar to ones I have worked with before. In the seventh and eighth grades, students are exposed to both European and non-western history, with particular emphasis placed upon exchanges made across cultures. As such, they study topics like the spread of Islam, the crusades, and of course the expansion of European mercantile interests. Thus, as I read Clements Markham’s compilation of journal entries, letters, and other forms of correspondence from the pen of George Bogle, I found myself thinking about how to incorporate such a text into a lesson appropriate for sixth and seventh graders experiencing their first introduction to non-western and economic history.

Introducing a new topic to students, such as the expansion of British trading interests in Asia, let alone an entirely new geographical region, requires a tremendous amount of thought and preparation. However, this should not deter one from taking on the challenge as Bogle, and other travel writers in history, can illuminate pieces of history and culture that are often not included in text books. In his description of his 1774 mission to Tibet, Bogle cannot help but comment on the rugged beauty of the area, the actions and appearance of those whom he observes, and the opportunities for British economic growth. But just assigning the text is not a sufficient means by which to educate young scholars. In order to fully comprehend not only the significance of the text but the descriptions and attitudes it professes, students must enter into such study with a firm understanding of the geographical and historical context of the time.

Bogle, and his mission to Tibet, represents the growing commercial domination experienced by England in the eighteenth century. Having emerged from the Seven Years’ War (1757-1763) as the most powerful of the European nations, England flexed its muscle across the globe through its colonies and strong maritime resources. Colonies like India and those in North America provided the British crown and its merchants with an abundance of resources and items for trade such as spices, furs, and tobacco. Purchased by traders in their native lands, these commodities would then be shipped via boat across oceans to England where they would be sold at incredible profit. In seeking access to greater and more profitable trade items, companies like the British East India Company took it upon themselves to establish relations with foreign governments so as to facilitate trade, and ultimately profit-making. Additionally, the eighteenth century witnessed an extraordinary growth in industrial output as England, more so than any other European nation, devised methods to harness steam power. With industrialization in full swing, England could not only construct trains that would help facilitate the rapid movement of goods across great tracts of land, but exponentially increase textile production as well. As such, colonies served the dual purpose of supplying resources and purchasing the finished products.

Once students have a solid grasp of colonial economics and the motives behind European expansion, it becomes possible to discuss works like Bogle’s and other travel writers who experienced firsthand the outward expansion of economic interest. The case of Tibet however is distinguishable, for the British had no desire to rule it as a colony. Bogle and his companions travelled to the land of the lamas in the hopes of creating trade connections, not subjects to the crown. Geography, more than anything else, helped to shape this policy.

Tibet is characterized predominantly by the Himalayan mountain range separating it from the Indian subcontinent. It was this mountain range, and the difficulty of maintaining a colonial enterprise beyond it, that convinced British authorities not to attempt a takeover. North of mountains lies the central plateau, home to the religious and political capital: Lhasa. In order for students to truly appreciate the severity of the Himalayas and the varying elevations that impact peoples’ lifestyles and economic systems, a map, preferably one that is topographic, is necessary. By tracing Bogle’s route from India to Tibet upon a map, students will begin to comprehend the sheer distance he traveled as well as the difficulties he faced during his trip. Encountering a variety of climates, temperatures, wildlife, and cultures, Bogle and his retinue pressed on to their destination: the Panchen Lama.
Bogle’s appointment to the position of envoy occurred on May 13, 1774, four years after his arrival in India as a merchant employed by the East India Company (cxlii). In a letter to the Court of Directors, Warren Hastings, the Governor-General at the time, wrote “Mr. G. Bogle will be sent to the Lama, with a letter and presents and different samples of goods, to see which would sell best there” (5-6). As Markham’s compilation contains a number of such letters, including ones from Bogle himself to various colleagues and family members, this is an excellent opportunity for students to engage in primary source work. Going beyond the standard evaluation of who, what, when, where, and why the document was written, students can also evaluate the tone of the letters and compare them to other travelers’ works. For example, while Bogle’s missives are quite complementary of the people and cultures he observes along his journey, other merchants and foreign officials have been less kind and rather judgmental of foreigners. In comparing such primary sources, students must take into account previous history, the travelers’ occupation and education level, as well as the relationship between the home country and the one being observed for personal opinions are often shaped by existing circumstances.

Areas that students will find the most fascinating will be Bogle’s descriptions of the court of the Deb Rajah in Tassisudon (pages 23-32) and the Panchen Lama in Desheripgay (pages 82-95) respectively. His journal entries are filled with detailed and accurate descriptions of the people, art, dress, and even the food. A merchant to the core, Bogle left no detail unobserved. After all, he was in Tibet to conduct research and, in the process, establish friendly relations with persons in power. He arrived at Desheripgay on November 8, 1774 and soon met with the Lama to exchange gifts (83). His journal entries describe such events as well as his observations of the Lama himself. These descriptions are, for the most part, full of praise for the Lama:
For, although venerated as God’s vicegerent through all the eastern countries of Asia, endowed with a portion of omniscience, and with many other divine attributes, he throws aside, in conversation, all the awful part[s] of his character, accommodates himself to the weakness of mortals, endeavors to make himself loved rather than feared, and behaves with the greatest affability to everybody, particularly to strangers (84).


From Desheripgay, Bogle and his party followed the Panchen Lama to his palace at Teshu Lumbo [Tashi Lhunpo] where they discussed trade and politics with the spiritual leader. At this point, if not beforehand, it will be necessary to explain to students the differences between the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama, whom Bogle never met. As Petech explains in his 1950 article “The Missions of Bogle and Turner According to the Tibetan Texts,” the Dalai Lama, at the time of the British mission, was in fact too young to discuss issues of international trade and did not have majority support. The “Tashi-[Panchen] Lama” however, was “a forceful personality who had succeeded in gaining the highest influence both in Tibet and China.” Additionally, he “was the Tibetan authority nearest to India” (Petech, 330, 1950). Thus, it is not surprising that Warren Hastings sent Bogle to the Panchen Lama and not to the Dalai Lama.

There are a number of other learning opportunities present in Markham’s text in addition to primary source and geography work. Issues of bias and ethnocentrism, while not prevalent in Bogle’s writing, are not uncommon in other travel texts, and when compared to Bogle, can spark an interesting conversation regarding the European presence in colonial areas. At the very least though, Bogle’s letters and journal entries offer students an exciting, albeit harrowing, tale of how one man sought to establish a global economic relationship with a people not yet visited by his countrymen.

Entry by Annie Huntoon