The Expedition of George Bogle

George Bogle was a Scottish explorer working for the East India Company who went to Tibet in 1774 with the goal of establishing trade relations. His trip was important because it represented the first official British expedition to the region and because Bogle kept enormously detailed notes of everything he saw, giving historians today a valuable window in Tibet in the late 18th century.

Why Tibet?
For the East India Company, Tibet was intriguing for several reasons, all of which related to trade and commerce. First, as they explored northward in India, Company men inevitably ran into the enormous, imposing Himilaya Mountains and naturally wanted to know what lay beyond – and the legends, at least were promising: stories of Tibet’s wealth abounded, dating to Herodotus’s description of “gold-digging ants” in a cloudland north of the Himalayas (MacGregor, 116). Second, contact with Nepalese and Bhutanese traders offered more concrete possibilities. The Company established a small but exceptionally profitable trade in Tibetan borax with merchants who brought the mineral over the mountain passes (MacGregor, 116-117). Third, they saw Tibet as a potential market for Company goods; indeed, in March of 1768, the Company’s Court of Directors pushed for an investigation of the commercial feasibility of selling English cloth in Tibet (MacGregor, 117). Finally, Tibet was a potential “backdoor” into China, where uncooperative Manchus had so far been unwilling to open the country to British trade (MacGregor, 117).

The Tibetan Context for Bogle's Mission
The Qing Dynasty invaded Tibet under the pretext of defending it from the Dzungar Mongels and established suzerainty in 1720. In 1722, in response to Tibetan complaints the Yongzheng Emperor removed the Chinese military governor and replaced him with a civilian advisor. The resulting power vacuum created a civil war that prompted the return of Chinese troops (MacGregor 122) and the establishment of two resident High Commissioners who did not interfere in daily affairs but served as reminders of Chinese power. For the next fifty years or so, the Chinese schemed to try and reduce the temporal power of the Dali Lama. As MacGregor noted, “exile was one method, murder another,” because “If a Dalai Lama could be eliminated during his minority, the regent, lacking divine mandate, could more easily be controlled” (123). Another option was to build up a religious rival.

These circumstances resulted in the growth in political power of the Teshu Lama (also known as the Panchen Lama), who was in charge of the Tashilhunpo Monastery near Shigatse in Southern Tibet. Originally, the establishment of the Teshu Lama line had been a benevolent act by the Fifth Dalai Lama to honor one of his teachers by declaring him an incarnation of Buddha’s meditative state (MacGregor, 123). But the Chinese took advantage of this new source of religious authority to try and augment their own control over Tibet by sidelining the Dalai Lamas and helping Teshu Lama, whose temporal power was therefore more often than not a result of Chinese interference in Tibetan politics. Eventually, however, the Sixth Teshu Lama managed to gain some independence for himself through his “remarkable character and innate ability” (MacGregor, 124) and because the Eighth Dalai Lama was simply too young to govern and his regent too weak to fight on his behalf. He was soon the most dominant figure in Tibet, although not totally independent of the Chinese supported regent and advisors in Lhasa (Teltscher, 15). It was this Lama that Bogle interacted with on his trip to Tibet.

The Immediate Origins of Bogle’s Trip
However, at this point in the 1760s, the East India Company’s budding interest in Tibet was stymied by the Hindu Gurkha takeover of Nepal. As John MacGregor wrote, “Hindu-Lamaist [ie Tibetan] antagonisms, which now colored the relationship between Nepal and Tibet, caused trade between the two countries to atrophy” (117). ). As a result, the Company was forced to look elsewhere for possible trade routes to Tibet.

An opportunity presented itself when an aggressive Bhutanese leader known as the Deb Judhur kidnapped the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, a tiny principality between Bengal and Bhutan. The British rescued the unfortunate Maharajah, in exchange for which he agreed that Cooch Behar would become a British protectorate. MacGregor argues that all of this made the Gurkhas nervous about British expansion, however, and they complained to the Teshu Lama – who they did not like but who was also an ally of the Deb Judhur – and asked him to intervene (119). Teltscher, however, says that the Tushu Lama took it upon himself to intervene both because it was expected of a high lama and out of an inflated sense of self-importance, claiming that the Bhutanese were Tibetan subjects (Teltscher, 17). Regardless, the Teshu Lama sent a carefully worded letter sent by an emissary, an Indian known as Purangir, to the nearest British authority, the Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings asking him to leave the Deb Judhur alone.

As MacGregor observed, “the Lama’s diplomatic initiative, couched as it as in conciliatory terms, seemed to provide the Company with an exceptional opportunity to establish contact with the Tibetan leader.” Offering amnesty to the rajah of Bhutan (which Teltscher says the British may have been in the process of doing anyway) in exchange for a trade agreement with the Teshu Lama made a certain amount of sense (Teltscher, 17). To make this deal, however, required an expedition to Tibet to both to conduct the diplomacy and assess the area’s potential for profit. For this job, Hastings chose George Bogle.

Bogle was a twenty-eight year old Scot, who began his career as a clerk in a counting house. After joining the East India Company, Bogle had traveled with the Hastings – a man of no small energy and initiative himself – and evidently impressed the latter with both his judgment and self-reliance – qualities he would need on a long, arduous journey to Tibet and in the diplomacy he would have to conduct there (MacGregor, 125).

Bogle’s specific instructions were complicated and open ended. He was ordered primarily to “open a mutual and equal communications of trade between the inhabitants of [Tibet] and Bengal.” He was also to inquire into “the nature of the road between the borders of Bengal and Lhasa, and the countries lying between; the communications between Lhasa and the neighboring countries, their government, revenue and manners” (MacGregor, 126). Bogle was also ordered to try and learn more about the countries between Lhasa and Siberia, and a possibility of a route to China through Tibet. Finally, he was also to try and gather information about how dependent the Dalai Lama was on China, and whether Tibet was able to receive commodities through Kashmir. And of course, Bogle was to report on Tibet and Tibetans too –who were they, what were they like, what did they like, and would they be open to European trade?

Bogle in Tibet
Bogle and his companion, Alexander Hamilton, appointed Assistant Surgeon of the Company, set out from Bengal into Bhutan in the summer 1774 along with Purangir, who would function as their guide. Bogle eventually arrived in Tibet in November of that year. (MacGregor 136). Bogle’s first meeting with the Teshu Lama went well. Both spoke Hindi (although Bogle had a thick Scottish burr, which may have made him harder to understand), which the Lama had learned from his mother, who was from the border areas between Tibet and India, making an interpreter unnecessary (MacGregor, 137). After exchanging pleasantries, both sides discussed the problem of the Deb Judhur’s aggression, agreeing that the conflict was his fault. The meeting was conciliatory, and boded well for future contacts.

“As eager to gather information as to negotiate, Bogle recorded his findings in extensive journals and private correspondence,” wrote Teltscher (5). Fair-minded and observant, Bogle generally wrote respectfully of the Tibetans. They were, he wrote, an “honest and simple people,” though less “polished” than other nations. Indeed, Bogle wrote, “the novelty of the scenes, and the people I have met with, and the novelty of the life I have led seem a perfect illusion,” and he went so far as to describe his time in Tibet as “a fairy dream” (Bogle, 177).

For the most part, however, Bogle’s time in Tibet was less magical, and involved meetings with the Tashu Lama, which he enjoyed, and dealing with an endless procession of curious Tibetans, which he liked less but used to try and learn more about Tibetan language and culture. With much time on his hands – “Although my days have been spent without business or amusement,” Bogle wrote, “They have passed on without care or uneasiness” (Bogle, 177) –he also tried to write from memory a history of Europe and to explain the Lama the customs of Europe, as well as the religion of Christianity (MacGregor, 149). His work apparently served as the standard text on Europe in Tibet for the next century (MacGregor, 150). For recreation, he also apparently played many games of chess with Kalmuks, a people with possibly Russian or Tarter origins (MacGregor, 150.). There is some evidence that he may even have taken a Tibetan wife while he was there (Teltscher, 150).

Bogle and the Teshu Lama
Bogle also worked hard to demonstrate that he was interested only in trade and that the East India Company had no imperial ambitions in Tibet, hiding notes that touched on politics or geography (MacGregor, 153). MacGregor argues that this approach yielded many benefits, not least of which was the Teshu Lama’s confidence and indeed his friendship (154). As a result, from the Teshu Lama Bogle received a detailed map of Tibet and a comprehensive report on its laws and customs. Bogle also learned much about the region and its relations with other countries and peoples through his conversations with the Teshu Lama.

Through the Teshu Lama he learned of the Chinese influence in Lhasa; that a possible route to China did exist, though it was long and arduous; that the Russians and Chinese were competing for influence and power among the Mongols and along the Sino-Russian border, and that the Tibetans were worried about being caught in the middle (perhaps foreshadowing the Great Game that would follow); (p. 156-8).

As for Bogle’s goal of establishing trade relations, it was clear that this would not be possible at least for the moment. The Qing Dynasty, which effectively controlled Lhasa, saw the British (rightly, it would eventually turn out) as competitors for influence in Tibet and therefore did not want any British presence for trade or otherwise in Tibet. As a result, the Tashu Lama who was not entirely independent of Lhasa, could not do much to help Bogle on this issue. However, Bogle concluded that there was nothing preventing Asian merchants acting on behalf of the company from going to Tibet (160), and the Lama also promised to advocate on behalf of the British with the Lama in Beijing to try and help them establish contact there.

Bogle’s Departure and the Teshu Lama’s Trip to Beijing
Bogle returned the way he had come, through Bhutan. While he had been unable to get the trade agreements he wanted, in almost every other respect, Bogle’s mission was a success. As MacGregor put it, “He had made a friend of the Teshu Lama and had earned his trust. The Tibetan Pontiff now realistically viewed the Company as a counterweight to Gurkha power in the Himalayas – in much the same way that the Company hoped that the Teshu Lama would keep the Bhutanese in check…The Company could entertain hopes that the Teshu Lama would eventually admit English traders to Tibet and use his influence in Peking to open long-denied trade doors to China” (164).

As unrealistic as they seem in retrospect, in some ways these hopes were perhaps justified. In 1780, the Teshu Lama eventually did make a trip to Beijing where – at least according to Purangir, who accompanied him – he raised some of the issues Bogle had discussed with him (MacGregor, 168-170). There is no indication, however, that the Emperor ever had any intention of acting on these requests. Bogle himself had planned to meet up with the Teshu Lama in Beijing by traveling by sea to Canton and then journeying up into Beijing, but these plans came to nothing when the Teshu Lama died of smallpox in Beijing. It was not until Lord McCartney’s expedition in 1793 that the British finally managed to get an envoy to Beijing.

- D. Chinoy

Bogle, George. Narratives of the Mission of Mr. George Bogle to Tibet. Ed. Clements R. Markham. London: Trubner, 1876.
MacGregor, John. Tibet: A Chronicle of Exploration. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
Teltscher, Kate. The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama and the First British Expedition to Tibet. Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 2006.