Modern Asian Studies

Officers, Gentlemen and Thieves: The Looting of Monasteries during the 1903/4 Younghusband Mission to Tibet

Michael Carrington  a1
a1 Coventry University

During the early years of British conquest in India [and elsewhere] indiscriminate and frenzied looting often followed military action. Certainly, the acquisition of plunder had always been used as an incentive for the troops, though its distribution was often disproportionate and the source of much discontent. Officially appointed prize agents ought to have lessened any animosity, though like the Admiralty Prize Courts which were a ‘public scandal’, the military agents were mostly thought to be ‘sharks’ and men often went collecting for themselves rather than for the ‘official’ pot. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, collection of plunder had also become the ‘collecting’ of curios and artefacts for both personal and institutional reasons. This material had become increasingly important in the process of ‘othering’ Oriental and African societies and was exemplified in the professionalism of exploration and the growth of ethnographic departments in museums, the new ‘temples of Empire’. The gathering of information may have reached new heights but the British attempt at a monopoly on knowledge was not particularly ordered or controlled and events within the Empire offered the world's press numerous opportunities for criticism. Nearer home, reports of looting often became ammunition in the hands of liberal critics of Empire who had their cause strengthened after the disastrous events of the South African War with its burning, looting and removal of non-combatants to concentration camps. So looting may have become morally questionable, but it was institutionalized and symptomatic of the British imperial state's desire for artefacts with which to provide information about ‘exotic’ societies. There was literally a ‘scramble’ for information out of which, it was hoped, an ordered and systematic scheme of knowledge would realize the dream of an ‘imperial archive’ in which fantasy became reality and ultimate knowledge became ultimate power.