Continuing my report on my trip to the Royal Norfolk Regimental museum, where I was happily touring the regimental galleries whilst my wife and young daughter were hitting the local Norwich shops…
The 1903/04 Younghusband expedition to Tibet has often been described as the last of Queen Victoria’s ‘little wars’. Although Her Majesty had passed away a few years before the adventure, it certainly bore all the hallmarks of a typical Victorian colonial army venture. A key feature of such wars, I’ve always felt, was the clash of cultures. The Zulus, Maoris, Sikhs, Egyptians and Chinese had cultures utterly distinct from the British, and indeed from each other. Globalisation and the modern world would steadily erode these differences but significant ‘first contact’ moments with these disparate peoples were often of a military nature.
The Tibet expedition yielded a clash with a people utterly different to the British, and quite distinct even from other nations of the region. The stark nature of these differences was brought into sharp focus with the use of modern western weaponry, in particular the Maxim machine gun. It was a struggle to manage at times in the extreme cold but was nonetheless devastatingly effective against Tibetan swords.
This particular maxim was used by Lt Hadow and his 17-strong detachment of Norfolks on the expedition and he boasted of it being able to fire 450 rounds a minute. The devastating effect upon the matchlock-armed Tibetans, even as they were retiring, seems to have elicited moral discomfort from some British troops. “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the general’s order was to make as big a bag as possible”, wrote Hadow later. “I hope I shall never again have to shoot down men walking away.” Reaction in Britain to the massacre at Chumik Shenko had been one of “shock [and] growing disquiet”. Magazines such as Punch expressed critical views of the situation where “half-armed men” were being wiped out “with the irresistible weapons of science.” The First World War was only a decade away.
Displayed alongside the Maxim, with some poignancy, are the Buddhist religious artefacts and artworks taken during the venture. Having been rather isolated from the outside world, the contrast between 20th century mechanised warfare and an ancient religious tradition is starkly contrasted in this display.
Against this industrial military power, the Tibetans were still using flint and tinder pouches for their stone-ball firing muskets, and wielded long swords.
Looting and the collection of exotic artefacts was common practise and not just in the British army of the time. It’s a contentious topic for sure, but I’m grateful that as a consequence I am at least able to see these wonderful and well-preserved objects close up. As a buddhist myself, (yes, a buddhist with an interest in military history – I’m a complicated guy), it’s a particular pleasure. Lt Hadow’s granddaughter, Celia Hadow, transported one looted statue of the Buddha back to Tibet to return to the 14th Dalai Lama himself and BBC Radio 4 made a programme about it called ‘The Return of the Buddha’ in 2004.
Tibetan artefacts on display above included a brass statue of the Buddha, two clay teacher statues, a bone prayer trumpet used by Lamas, a prayer wheel, a wooden printing block, and a golden chorten (a model of a religious monument) taken at the battle of Gyantse.
A fine Bhutanese dagger in the collection was a diplomatic gift to Lt Hadow from the ruler of Bhutan, Tongsa Penlop, who accompanied the Younghusband Mission.
At a different part of the castle was a gallery entitled ‘Treasure, Trade and the Exotic’, which I discovered included one more looted exhibit; a ceremonial bone apron.
Although the British invasion caused destruction and harm to Tibet, arguably this seems to pale in comparison to what the country has suffered, and continues to suffer since then.
There was so much of interest to see in this small but effective collection that I simply include a gallery below of some more objects which I thought particularly noteworthy:
A visit to the castle shop yielded an excellent book on The Royal Norfolk Regiment by Tim Carew, which I’ve been eagerly devouring ever since. From this history, it seems the regiment was subject to numerous disasters and bouts of being virtually wiped out! Disease (mostly), storms at sea, extreme privations, or incompetent generalship were sometimes to blame, but never was it as a consequence of the bravery or competence of its soldiers. Britannia must have been proud of her sons.
That visit has whetted my appetite for another museum venture. I’m having to travel farther afield to find new collections but they’re often worth the effort when I do. In the meantime, now my holiday is over I will be soon back once more to the modelling.