Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Agrotis infusa

Due to an impending move, I am culling a few of my heavy books, including one which I had actually never read before, "Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia" by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. So I finally set myself to the task, and the book was fascinating, particularly as I had never really read anything before about Central Asia, apart from a few of the appropriate Lonely Planets when planning to break a Trans-Siberian train trip for a few weeks in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2004. In the end, just a few weeks before finalising the train tickets, there was some civil unrest in Tashkent and so I stayed on the train for about three straight days from Irkutsk to Moscow.

There's an intriguing explanation of the wonderful term bashi-bazouk, the Captain Haddockian insult and Peter Gabriel B-side:

"Before 1876, nobody had heard of Batak, a mountain village in Bulgaria, a country whose aggreived Orthodox Christians had since 1396 been under Ottoman rule. In the 1870's, Bulgarian discontent swelled into rebellion. Turkish reprisals were swift and ferocious. To augment the regular army, the Turks hired tough mercenaries known as bashi-bazouks, and these irregulars - butchers and brigands in the eyes of Bulgars - fell murderously upon Batak and scores of other villages. Reports of massacres drifted to the chanceries of Europe, a cause of embarrassed concern to Britain's Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. It had been Disraeli's policy to shore up the declining Ottomans as a counterweight to an aggressively expanding Russian Empire. With premature nonchalance, he dismissed the Bulgarian reports as "coffee-house babble.""

This serves as introduction to our exuberantly Manifest-Destiny-monikered hero, Januarius MacGahan, who reported on the horrors committed by the bashi-bazouks, stirring up general disgust in Britain and Russia at the deaths of Christians, and causing the Russian invasion of Turkey and the beginning of the Crimean War.


In 1904, Francis Younghusband was in Lhasa orchestrating a treaty of sorts between China, Tibet and Great Britain. Two of the nine points of the convention (designed to safeguard British trade interests in Tibet by removing tariffs) were the following:

"(6) Tibet was to pay an indemnity of 7.5 million rupees (£500,000) for the dispatch of armed troops to Lhasa, payable in seventy-five annual installments; (7) as security for the indemnity, the British were to occupy the Chumbi Valley until it had been paid and until trade marts were open"

As the seventy-fifth year would have been 1979, the year of my birth, it is interesting to posit the kind of world I may have been born into; a bizarre 1979 where Tibet was forbidden to parlay with foreign powers without the permission of the British Empire; a Lhasa full of dull Church of England chapels and an Old Etonian Dalai Lama.


"Tournament of Shadows" is admirably even-handed, though its Americanity bleeds through in its similes: Sandhurst is unhelpfully glossed as "the British West Point".


"When the All-Knowing and Unchangeable Dalai Lama triumphantly returned to his capital in 1913, Lhasa for the first time since the eighteenth century was entirely free of Chinese soldiers and officials. De facto, Tibet was a self-governing state, and so remained until its invasion by Chinese Communists in 1950."


pages 558-59:

"Harry Hodson's reticence about Sir Olaf Caroe was understandable. He had no wish to speak ill of a deceased colleague, and his allusion to maps inplied that he knew what we knew. Acting on his own authority, Caroe attempted by legerdemain to turn cartographic water into wine, his aim being to buttress India's North-East Frontier.

"In 1913-14, an earlier Indian Foreign Secretary, Sir Henry McMahon, convened a conference at Simla to resolve the matter of Tibet's disputed frontiers and political status. As related in Chapter 17, China flatly rejected McMahon's territorial proposals, and Tibetans agreed on condition that Britain would secure Peking's assent to the overall Simla bargain, which never happened. McMahon's "strategic frontier" was all but forgotten until 1935, when Olaf Caroe, a middle-level official in New Delhi, "rediscovered" it in old Foreign Department files. Contending that the Tibetan signature gave the McMahon Line arguable legitimacy, Caroe persuaded the governments in New Delhi and London to begin treating it as India's de facto frontier, and to depict it on official maps. He urged doing this discreetly, "with the avoidance of unnecessary publicity!"

"There was a problem. McMahon's frontier modification had not been entered in the 1929 edition of C. U. Aitchison's Collection of Treaties relating to India, the official repository for such agreements. Caroe arranged for a substitute version of the Aitchison volume to replace all original copies. The altered text in the new version - still dated "1929" - represented the Simla Conference as a success and listed the McMahon Line as one of its agreed achievements. However, two or three copies of the authentic Aitchison escaped Caroe's recall. One was discovered at the Harvard University library in 1963 by a British diplomat and visiting fellow, Sir John Addis. By comparing the original and the doctored version, Addis showed that a key piece of evidence that India was using in its border dispute with China was a forgery.

"By then, the Chinese had long since marched into Lhasa, where in 1951 its officials had taken possession of the Tibetan Foreign Bureau. There they found the old Simla documents and consulted with Tibetans involved with border negotiations. Writes the Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya in The Dragon in the Land of Snows (1999), "As far as the McMahon line was concerned, the Chinese learned that their views were identical with the Tibetans." Since Lhasa's conditions - Chinese approval of the overall accord - had not been met, the Simla agreements were moot.

"In New Delhi, however, the thinking was very different. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, a lifelong opponent of British rule, India adopted a "forward policy" as robust as any advocated by his imperial predecessors. [...] Regardless of Chinese maps, Nehru informed Parliament in 1950, "Our maps show that the McMahon Line is our boundary," adding "and we will not let anybody come across our boundary." [...] Whatever the misgivings within the government, the press and politicians all but unanimously cheered Nehru for resolutely defending what was now deemed hallowed Indian soil."

The book will be released into the wild this weekend.

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