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Strangers in a Strange Land: Europeans in Tibet

Strangers in a Strange Land: Europeans in Tibet Shapero Rare Books

Last week I was fortunate to buy a small quantity of the original 1977 edition of Julie Marshall’s superb book, Britain and Tibet 1765-1947.

Strangers in a Strange Land: Europeans in Tibet Shapero Rare Books

This is an annotated bibliography of Tibet looking at the political situation in the region and the endless border disputes involving India, China, Nepal, et al. This makes a change from the usual bibliographies of the Himalaya region which put mountaineering front and centre.

In celebration of this purchase, I have assembled a few books about Tibet which show some of the problems encountered penetrating ‘the roof of the world’.

One of the earliest books on the subject is Captain Samuel Taylor’s An account of a Mission to the Court of the Teshoo Lama (1800). This was the second British mission to Tibet, made in 1783 at the request of Warren Hastings, following the installation of the new Panchen Lama. For many years it provided the earliest British account of the region as Bogle’s 1774 mission was not published until much 1876. It also includes an account of the Nepalese-Tibetan War of 1788-1792, when the Gurkhas invaded Tibet in a border dispute.

One of the classic works on Tibet is Sven Hedin’s Trans-Himalaya discoveries and Adventures in Tibet (1909-1913).  The expedition was notable for discovering the source of both the Indus and Brahmaputra Rivers. It also serves as an example of the background politics to exploring the region with permission to enter Tibet via India first given, then withdrawn by the British government. Ultimately Hedin was forced to enter Tibet via Chinese Turkestan. Our copy is remarkable for still retaining its dust-wrappers and is exceptionally rare thus.

In 1922, an American adventurer, Dr. William McGovern was the scientific adviser on a British Buddhist Mission to Lhasa. The Tibetan authorities refused permission for the mission to enter Lhasa and in the end, McGovern had to travel incognito to reach the Holy City. His account is related in: To Lhasa in disguise. An account of a Secret Mission through Mysterious Tibet (1924). His disguise was to stain his body with a brown dye, squirt lemon juice into his blue eyes to darken them and pretend to be a porter. Eventually he was discovered and the house he was staying in was stoned by a howling mob. He escaped by slipping out the back and joining in the stone throwing!

In 1929, the aesthete and traveller, Robert Byron, was sent by the Daily Express to India. Whilst there he entered Tibet from Sikkim, again having difficulties in gaining permission to enter. His account, First Russia then Tibet, published in 1933 provides us with a book of transitions, Stalin had recently replaced Lenin, the Raj was in its final years with Gandhi in prison and clashes between Hindu and Moslem populations, and in Tibet the Dalai Lama was still in the Potola.

Change was on the way.

Discover more: Indian Subcontinent 

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