In 1901, Lord George Nathanial Curzon, Governor of India, heard rumours that justified his worst fears: the Russians, who had spent the last few decades consolidating their hold over Central Asia/Turkestan, were now making moves into western China and Tibet. Curzon had (crackpot?) theories that Russia was going to sweep into India ala Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, and he was determined to thwart the Czar’s imperialist designs on Britain’s largest colony. He sent his friend Colonel Francis Younghusband to Lhasa with an Anglo-Indian force. The mission: get rid of those Russians!
Younghusband was an experienced explorer and officer who found himself increasingly interested in Buddhism and Asian theology. Nonetheless, he had no qualms with slaughtering the resistance. Tibetan Monk Warriors wore talismans that they believed would protect them from bullets. This turned out to be very, very wrong. (In one skirmish, 900 Tibetans died compared to only six wounded British soldiers.) Younghusband captured Lhasa and spent several weeks talking Buddhism with one of the abbots while he waited for a Chinese representative to show up and sign an agreement.
A treaty between China and Britain signed two years later in 1906 made Tibet a de facto British protectorate until 1907, when Britain and Russia recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. (In 1913, Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty proclaiming their independence from China and mutual recognition of the other. Mongolia became a Soviet client state ten years later, and China reinvaded Tibet in 1950.)
Anyway, Younghusband never found Curzon’s Russians, nor any sign of their presence or influence in the area. Did that make the mission a failure? Of course not! Younghusband recieved trading concessions, showed the Russians that the British wouldn’t hesitate to react to any territorial threats, and the “Younghusband Mission” was declared a success when he returned to Britain a hero in January 1905.
Happy centennial, Sir Younghusband!