Sir Francis Younghusband, the son of a British army major in India, and a friend of Lord Curzon, was a major player in the ‘Great Game’, the strategic manoeuvrings of Britain and Russia for control of large areas of the Himalayas and parts of Asia. He acted as a diplomat and spy on the frontiers of this conflicted area, and in 1889 was politely, almost charmingly, arrested by his Russian counterpart, who informed him that the area they were in was now Russian.
Younghusband was wined and dined, and had a delightful conversation with the Russian military man, but was told in no uncertain terms to leave the area and return to British-controlled India the following day. His Russian host was very explicit in his instructions, telling Younghusband that he could not travel via any of the 20 or so mountain passes, which were each treacherous but were the only known routes back to India. The intention was to force Younghusband east to China or west through Afghanistan and Persia, either of which routes could easily have led to his arrest or death. Being an honourable man, Younghusband agreed, and he left the following morning with a small party.
Such was the tension over political control in this area that Younghusband’s subsequent ‘disappearance’ was assumed to be evidence of his murder, almost bringing the Great Game to a head, and Britain and Russia to the verge of war. Younghusband, meanwhile, had realised that one mountain pass that the Russian had failed to consider was the Mustagh Pass. Therefore, despite no-one having previously navigated it successfully, he led his small band on the perilous journey back to safety in India.
In 1903, Younghusband led a military expedition into Tibet, hoping to win favour with the Dalai Lama at the expense of the Russians. However, his well-armed military unit was attacked by a Tibetan general, and the resultant battle ended in a complete massacre. Younghusband’s arrival in Lhasa seemed more of an armed takeover than a diplomatic mission. On his last evening in Lhasa, however, he rode up into the mountains and had a spiritual epiphany which changed him markedly. On his return to the UK, he spoke to RSGS audiences on The Geographical Results of the Tibet Mission, and was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal. He spent much of the remainder of his life devoted to spiritual matters, and in 1936 founded the World Congress of Faiths which aimed to bring together most of the world’s religions to try to find common ground.
Such was the tension over political control in the area that Younghusband’s subsequent disappearance was assumed to be evidence of his murder, almost bringing..Britain and Russia to the verge of war.