Francis Younghusband

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Sir Francis Younghusband
Francis Younghusband 1905.jpg
Francis Younghusband c. 1905
Born 31 May 1863
Murree, British India
Died 31 July 1942
Lytchett Minster, Dorset, England
Nationality British
Alma mater Royal Military College, Sandhurst
Occupation British Army officer, explorer, and spiritual writer

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, KCSI KCIE (31 May 1863 – 31 July 1942) was a British Army officer, explorer, and spiritual writer. He is remembered for his travels in the Far East and Central Asia; especially the 1904 British expedition to Tibet, led by him, and for his writings on Asia and foreign policy. Younghusband held positions including British commissioner to Tibet and President of the Royal Geographical Society.

Early life[edit]

Francis Younghusband was born in 1863 at Murree, British India to a British military family, being the brother of Major-General George Younghusband and the second son of Major-General John W. Younghusband[1] and his wife Clara Jane Shaw. Clara's brother, Robert Shaw, was a noted explorer of Central Asia. His uncle Lieutenant-General Charles Younghusband CB FRS, was a British Army officer and meteorologist.

As an infant, Francis was taken to live in England by his mother. When Clara returned to India in 1867 she left her son in the care of two austere and strictly religious aunts. In 1870 his mother and father returned to England and reunited the family. In 1876 at age thirteen, Francis entered Clifton College, Bristol. In 1881 he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and was commissioned as a subaltern in the 1st King's Dragoon Guards in 1882.[1]

Military career[edit]

A one-room inn in a then-wild area east of Tonghua, Jilin, where Younghusband and his companions stayed in 1887[2]

In 1886-1887, on leave from his regiment, Younghusband made on an expedition across Asia. With a senior colleague, Henry E. M. James (on leave from his Indian Civil Service position) and a young British consular officer from Newchwang, Harry English Fulford, Younghusband explored Manchuria, visiting the frontier areas of Chinese settlement in the region and the Changbai Mountains.[3][4] Younghusband carried out numerous scientific observation (in particular, showing that the Changbai Mountains's highest peak, Baekdu Mountain is only around 8,000 feet tall, even though the British maps the travelers had showed [nonexistent] snow-capped peaks 10,000-12,000 ft tall in the area[5]), while Fulford was providing the travelers with a language and cultural expertise.[6]

Parting with his British companions, Younghusband then crossed the Gobi Desert to the Chinese Turkestan, and pioneered a route from Kashgar to India through the uncharted Mustagh Pass.[3] For this achievement he was elected the youngest member of the Royal Geographical Society and received the society's 1890 Patron's Gold Medal.

"From Peking To Yarkand and Kashmir via the Mustagh Pass"

In 1889, the year he made Captain, Younghusband was dispatched with a small escort of Gurkha soldiers to investigate an uncharted region north of Ladakh, where raiders from Hunza had disrupted trade between Yarkand and India the previous year.[7] Whilst encamped in the valley of the Yarkand River, Younghusband received a messenger at his camp, inviting him to dinner with Captain Bronislav Grombchevsky, his Russian counterpart in "The Great Game". Younghusband accepted the invitation to Grombchevsky's camp, and after dinner the two rivals talked into the night, sharing brandy and vodka, and discussing the possibility of a Russian invasion of British India. Grombchevsky impressed Younghusband with the horsemanship skills of his Cossack escort, and Younghusband impressed Grombchevsky with the rifle drill of his Gurkhas.[8] After their meeting in this remote frontier region, Grombchevsky resumed his expedition in the direction of Tibet and Younghusband continued his exploration of the Karakoram.

In 1890 Younghusband was sent on a mission to Chinese Turkestan, accompanied by George Macartney as interpreter. He spent the winter in Kashgar, where he left Macartney as British consul.[9] In 1891 he returned to India through the Pamirs. At Bozai Gumbaz in the Little Pamir he encountered Russian soldiers, who forced him to leave the area.[10] This was one of the incidents which provoked the Hunza-Nagar Campaign.

During his service in Kashmir, he wrote a book called 'Kashmir' at the request of Edward Molyneux. Younghusband's descriptions went hand in hand with his paintings of the Valley by Molyneux. In the book, Younghusband declared his immense admiration of the natural beauty of Kashmir and its history.

In 1890, Younghusband transferred to the Indian Political Service. He served as a political officer on secondment from the British Army.

The Great Game, between Britain and Russia, continued beyond the start of the 20th century. Younghusband, among other explorers such as Sven Hedin, Nikolay Przhevalsky, Shoqan Walikhanov and Sir Aurel Stein, participated in earnest.[11] Rumors of Russian expansion into the Hindu Kush and a Russian presence in Tibet prompted the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon to appoint Younghusband, by then a Major, to serve as British commissioner to Tibet from 1902-1904.

Invasion of Tibet and Massacre at Guru[edit]

In 1903 Curzon, appointed Younghusband head of the Tibet Frontier Commission with John Claude White, Political Officer of Sikkim, and E. C. Wilton as Deputy Commissioners.[12] He subsequently led the 1903-04 British expedition to Tibet, whose putative aim was to settle disputes over the Sikkim-Tibet border; the expedition controversially became (by exceeding instructions from London) a de facto invasion of Tibet.[13]

About 100 miles (160 km) inside Tibet, on the way to Gyantse, thence to the capital of Lhasa, a confrontation outside the hamlet of Guru led to a victory by the expedition over 600-700 Tibetan militia, largely monks.[14] Some estimates of Tibetan casualties are far higher; including other conflicts, more than five thousand Tibetans may have been killed, against British casualties of five.[15] The British force was supported by King Ugyen Wangchuck of Bhutan, who was knighted in return for his services. The incident—portrayed by Chinese sources as a "massacre"—embarrassed the British government, which desired good relations with China for the sake of the coastal Chinese trade. Accordingly, the British repudiated the treaty known as the Treaty of Lhasa obtained by Younghusband.

In 1891, Younghusband received the Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire which was upgraded to Knight Commander in 1904;[1] and in 1917, he was awarded the honour of Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India. He was also awarded the Kaisar-I-Hind Medal (gold) in 1901[1] and the Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1905.[16]

In 1906, Younghusband settled in Kashmir as the British representative before returning to Britain where he became an active member of many clubs and societies. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1908. During the First World War, his patriotic Fight for Right campaign commissioned the song Jerusalem.

Himalaya and mountaineering[edit]

Younghusband was elected President of the Royal Geographical Society in 1919, and two years later became Chairman of the Mount Everest Committee which was set up to coordinate the initial 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition to Mount Everest.[17] He actively encouraged climbers, including George Mallory, to attempt the first ascent of Mount Everest, and they followed the same initial route as the earlier Tibet Mission. Younghusband remained Chairman through the subsequent 1922 and 1924 British Expeditions.

In 1938 Younghusband encouraged Ernst Schäfer, who was about to lead a German expedition to Tibet, to "sneak over the border" when faced with British intransigence towards Schäfer's efforts to reach Tibet.[18]

Personal life[edit]

In 1897 Younghusband married Helen Augusta Magniac, the daughter of Charles Magniac, MP. Augusta's brother, Vernon, served as Younghusband's private secretary during the expedition to Tibet.[19] The Younghusbands had a son who died in infancy, and a daughter, Eileen Younghusband (1902–1981), who became a prominent social worker.[20]

From 1921 to 1937 the couple lived at Westerham, Kent, but Helen did not accompany her husband on his travels.

Spiritual life[edit]

Biographer Patrick French describes Younghusband as one who was

brought up an Evangelical Christian, read his way into Tolstoyan simplicity, experienced a revelatory vision in the mountains of Tibet, toyed with telepathy in Kashmir, proposed a new faith based on virile racial theory, then transformed it into what Bertrand Russell called 'a religion of atheism.'[21]

Ultimately he became what French calls a "premature hippy" who "had great faith in the power of cosmic rays, and claimed that there are extraterrestrials with translucent flesh on the planet Altair."[22]

During his 1904 retreat from Tibet, Younghusband had a mystical experience which suffused him with "love for the whole world" and convinced him that "men at heart are divine."[23] This conviction led him to regret his invasion of Tibet, and eventually, in 1936, to found the World Congress of Faiths (in imitation of the World Parliament of Religions).

Younghusband published a number of books with what one might call New Age themes, with titles like The Gleam: Being an account of the life of Nija Svabhava, pseud. (1920); Mother World (in Travail for the Christ that is to be) (1924); and Life in the Stars: An Exposition of the View that on some Planets of some Stars exist Beings higher than Ourselves, and on one a World-Leader, the Supreme Embodiment of the Eternal Spirit which animates the Whole (1927). (This last drew the admiration of Lord Baden-Powell, the Boy Scouts founder.)[24] Key concepts include what would come to be known as the Gaia hypothesis, pantheism, and a Christlike "world leader" living on the planet "Altair" (or "Stellair"), who radiates spiritual guidance by means of telepathy.

Younghusband also came to believe in free love ("freedom to unite when and how a man and a woman please"), marriage laws being a matter of "outdated custom."[25] He wrote his longtime lover Madeline, Lady Lees that "I have made the discovery that bodily union does not impair soul union but heightens and tightens it."[26] Lees agreed. French, restoring censored passages from Younghusband's correspondence, discovered a letter from him suggesting that Lees was pregnant with Younghusband's child:

...why shouldn't an exceptionally spiritual woman like you who has already had the idea of giving birth to a Christ and who is now wedded in the spirit [to me?] crown her experience and give birth to a God-Child who will manifest God more completely even than Jesus did?[27]

The identity of the child is unknown, and its existence cannot be confirmed.

One of Younghusband's domestic servants, Gladys Aylward, became a Christian missionary in China. The Ingrid Bergman film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) is based on her life, with an actor portraying Younghusband.[28]


In July 1942 Younghusband suffered a stroke after addressing a meeting of the World Congress of Faiths in Birmingham. He died of cardiac failure on 31 July 1942 at Madeline Lees' home Post Green House, at Lytchett Minster, Dorset.[29] He was buried in the village churchyard.[20]


Younghusband wrote 26 books in all between 1895 and 1942. Subjects ranged from Asian events, exploration, mountaineering, philosophy, spirituality, politics and more.


  1. ^ a b c d C. Hayavando Rao, ed. (1915). The Indian Biographical Dictionary. Madras: Pillar & Co. pp. 470–71. Retrieved 27 March 2010. 
  2. ^ James 1887, pp. 235–238
  3. ^ a b Younghusband, Francis E. (1896). The Heart of a Continent, pp. 58-290. John Murray, London. Facsimile reprint: (2005) Elbiron Classics.
  4. ^ James, Sir Henry Evan Murchison (1888), The Long White Mountain, or, A journey in Manchuria: with some account of the history, people, administration and religion of that country, Longmans, Green, and Co. 
  5. ^ [[#CITEREF|]], pp. 254,262)
  6. ^ [[#CITEREF|]], pp. 125,217)
  7. ^ The Heart of a Continent, pp. 186ff
  8. ^ The Heart of a Continent, pp. 234ff
  9. ^ Dictionary of National Biography Sir George Macartney
  10. ^ Riddick, John (2006). The history of British India. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-313-32280-8. 
  11. ^ David Nalle (June 2000). "Book Review – Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia". Middle East Policy (Washington, USA: Blackwell Publishers) VII (3). ISSN 1061-1924. [dead link]
  12. ^ Patrick French (2011). Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer. Penguin Books Limited. p. 269. ISBN 978-0-14-196430-0. 
  13. ^ "Tibetans' fight against British invasion". – China Tibet Information Center. Archived from the original on 3 November 2007. Retrieved 15 January 2008. 
  14. ^ Morris, James: Farewell the Trumpets (Faber & Faber, 1979), p.102.
  15. ^ Nick Heil. Dark Summit: The Extraordinary True Story of One of the Deadliest Seasons on Everest. Virgin Books Limited, 2008, 288 pages. ISBN 0-7535-1359-5. ISBN 9780753513590. p. 54: "Younghusband's well-trained troops were armed with rifles and machine guns, confronting disorganized monks wielding hoes, swords, and flitlocks. Some accounts estimated that more than five thousand Tibetans were killed during the campaign, while the total number of British casualties was about five." p. 54
  16. ^ "Scottish Geographical Medal". Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Retrieved 26 August 2015. 
  17. ^ Text of The Epic of Mount Everest, Sir Francis Younghusband.
  18. ^ Hale, Christopher. Himmler's Crusade (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003) pp. 149-151
  19. ^ Fleming, P. (2012). Bayonets to Lhasa - the British invasion of Tibet. Tauris Parke, London. ISBN 9780857731432.
  20. ^ a b Dictionary of National Biography
  21. ^ French, p. 313.
  22. ^ French, p. xx
  23. ^ quoted in French, p. 252.
  24. ^ French, p. 321
  25. ^ French, p. 283
  26. ^ French, p.385.
  27. ^ in French, p. 402.
  28. ^ French., p. 364
  29. ^ Anon. 1942 Obituary: Sir Francis Edward Younghusband. Geographical Review 32(4):681

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