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Book review: Ater the British take-over of the Himalayan state of Sikkim in 1888-89, the imperial government appointed a representative to Gangtok with responsibility for administering British Indian relations with the indigenous state as well as with Tibet to the north.

15 Gun Salutes: British reports on Bhutan from 1905-1945

Book review: Ater the British take-over of the Himalayan state of Sikkim in 1888-89, the imperial government appointed a representative to Gangtok with responsibility for administering British Indian relations with the indigenous state as well as with Tibet to the north.

The officer appointed to Gangtok was John Claude White, who was designated as the political officer for Sikkim and Tibet. In 1903-04 the Younghusband mission invaded Tibet and brought that state under British influence. Along with White, who was deputy head of the mission, its staff included a Bhutanese aristocrat, Ugyen Wangchuck, who was then serving as the Trongsa Penlop (Governor).

Relations between Bhutan and British India had improved after clashes in the mid-19th century, and the Trongsa Penlop served on the mission as an intermediary with the Tibetan authorities. He was well-regarded by the British, and after the mission when the Bhutanese sought to solve internal discord by agreeing on a suitable individual to serve as monarch, Ugyen Wangchuck was appointed to the position, a choice which the British supported. John Claude White’s role was meanwhile expanded to include Bhutan among his areas of responsibility.

Tshering Tashi (Compiler) Thimphu: Bhutan Publishing House, 2015. ISBN: 978-99936-918-1-5 383pp., maps & illustrations.
Tshering Tashi (Compiler)
Thimphu: Bhutan Publishing House,
2015.
ISBN: 978-99936-918-1-5
383pp., maps & illustrations.

White retired in 1908 and he was succeeded by a lineage of political officers – not least Sir Charles Bell – who served in Gangtok during the British colonial period. These Officers filed annual reports to their government on each of the states for which they were responsible: Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet.

Those reports outlined events and conditions in each state, including matters pertaining to the ruling local elites, European visitors, trade relations and legal issues with British India, health conditions, educational and agricultural or industrial developments, along with a wealth of miscellaneous details related to the events of the year.

The annual reports submitted by the Gangtok political officer are thus a major primary source for the study of the Himalayan states during the colonial period. Most of them are preserved in the original and on microfilm among the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library.

The Bhutanese historian Tshering Tashi has now brought together the annual reports on Bhutan drawn from the British Library L/P&S/12 collection and reproduced them in book form, thus rendering a considerable service to anyone interested in the history and culture of Bhutan – not least in regard to the Wangchuck dynasty – who does not have easy access to the British Library.

British Library policies in regard to enquiries into their former colonial states are thankfully enlightened and these reports are published with their permission, although the work is stated to be “For circulation only in Bhutan”. Those interested in the region should certainly endeavour to obtain a copy from Thimphu, for in addition to the reports, the work is well-illustrated with historical photographs and related details that make it an indispensable resource for the study of Bhutan.

The annual reports included date from 1905-06 to 1944-45. Reports for the years 1906-07, 1907-08, 1908-09, 1916-17, 1918-19, and 1936-37 were not located by the editor among the OIOC records and are missing here.

While he expresses the hope that these will be located and included in a future edition, whether they all exist or not is a moot point. Sikkim and particularly Tibet were of far more concern to the political officers than Bhutan, for the former offered a possible invasion route into India for powers to the north and British influence in Tibet was contested with China and at least theoretically with Russia. With Bhutan being of no strategic or economic importance to the empire it was neglected by the British and the absence of the reports may be a result of this neglect.

Certainly White was pre-occupied with Tibet during his last years in Gangtok and record-keeping was never his strong suit so the first two may not exist. Personnel shortages meant that during the First World War many reports from outlying regions were either not submitted or were improperly filed, and in 1936-37 British Indian interests were again focussed on Tibet, with the political officer and his highest-ranking assistants all visiting Lhasa as part of a British mission that evolved into a permanent presence in the Tibetan capital.

Some reports from Gangtok survive only in the personal records of political officers or their assistants, but if the missing reports are not located there we may have to simply accept that they were either not filed, or are now lost.

In addition to the annual reports on Bhutan, certain related material is included in 15 Gun Salutes, notably extracts from the diaries of the botanist and sometime political officer Frank Ludlow, and correspondence relating to the visit to England by Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck in 1948.

Ludlow was a particularly perceptive observer and his notes are always of value, while the correspondence concerning the royal visit provides additional evidence of the British acceptance that Bhutan was effectively an independent state. Indeed the independent status of Bhutan is made clear throughout this work, as is not only British neglect of Bhutan but also the nation’s steady progress under the Wangchuck dynasty.

The publication of these primary sources is of considerable value to scholarship and will be particularly welcome to local scholars in the Himalayan regions. There is a wealth of detail here on contemporary social, economic and political history and the author – who typed out the reports by hand [!] – is to be congratulated on his labours and his contribution. Similar volumes on Sikkim and Tibet would be more than welcome, but in the meantime this volume is an essential resource for the study of Bhutan.

Contributed by 

A.C. McKay

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