Skip to main content

Imperial but Not Colonial: Archival Truths, British India, and the Case of the “Naughty” Tibetans

  • Carole McGranahan (a1)

What truths are available in imperial archives for non-colonial subjects? Tibet was never colonized by the British, and yet was drawn into the British imperial domain in ways that impacted both political history and historiography. In the 1940s, Tibetan intellectual Rapga Pangdatsang based his Tibetan Improvement Party in Kalimpong, India where he soon ran afoul of colonial officials who thought he was a Chinese spy. By drawing on multiple archival, ethnographic, and historic sources, I show how the story of Rapga Pangdatsang and the first Tibetan political party enables a recalibrating of both Tibetan and British imperial history. It also opens up a consideration of empire beyond the colonial, and speaks more broadly to a consideration of the non-colonial as a thus-far overlooked aspect of empire.

Corresponding author
Hide All

1 On Nepali Gurkha soldiers in the British and Indian armies, see Caplan Lionel, Warrior Gentleman: “Gurkhas” in the Western Imagination (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995); Mary DesChene, Relics of Empire: A Cultural History of the Gurkhas, 1815–1987, PhD diss., Stanford University, 1991.

2 Lahiri Shompa, “Performing Identities: Colonial Migrants, Passing and Mimicry between the Wars,” Cultural Geographies 10 (2003): 408–23; Bhabha Homi, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).

3 India Office Record (henceforth IOR): MSS EUR D998/17 Hopkinson.

4 In keeping with Tibetan convention, I reserve the singular name “Pangdatsang” for Rapga's older brother, Yamphel, the family head. I refer to Rapga Pangdatsang as he was and is referred to by his contemporaries, as either “Pangda Rapga” or simply as “Rapga.”

5 The full citation is IOR: L/P+S/12/4211 no. 36, file 39(1) Tibet: Chinese Intrigues (Rapga).

6 On this period, see McGranahan Carole, “Empire and the Status of Tibet: British, Chinese, and Tibetan Negotiations, 1913–1934,” in McKay Alex, ed., The History of Tibet, Volume 3: The Tibetan Encounter with Modernity (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2003), 267–95.

7 IOR: L/P+S/12/4211 no. 36, file 39(1), Tibet: Chinese Intrigues (Rapga), Hopkinson to Foreign New Delhi, 29 Apr. 1946.

8 Stoler Ann Laura, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 87109 ; Archival Dis-Ease: Thinking Through Colonial Ontologies,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7, 2 (2010): 215–19, 218.

9 Stoler Ann Laura, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

10 Dirks Nicholas B., “Annals of the Archive: Ethnographic Notes on the Sources of History,” in Axel Brian, ed., From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures (Durham: Duke University Press 2002), 4765 , 58.

11 Ibid., 63; Guha Ranajit, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

12 Richards Thomas, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London: Verso, 1993), 11.

13 Ibid., 6, 12.

14 Dirks, “Annals,” 56.

15 Cohn Bernard, An Anthropologist among the Historians and other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

16 Bell Sir Charles, Tibet Past and Present (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications, 1992 [1924]); The People of Tibet (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications, 1992 [1928]); and Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth (London: Wisdom Publications, 1987 [1946]); Richardson Hugh E., Tibet and Its History (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1984 [1962]); and High Peaks Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, Aris Michael, ed. (London: Serindia Publications, 1988).

17 Stoddard Heather, Le Mendiant d'Amdo (Paris: Societe d'Ethnographie, 1985). All quotations are from the unpublished English translation of this book. I thank Heather Stoddard and Tashi Tsering for making it available to me.

18 Patterson George, Tragic Destiny (London: Faber and Faber, 1959); Tibet in Revolt (London: Faber and Faber, 1960); and Patterson of Tibet: Death Throes of a Nation (San Diego: ProMotion Publishing, 1988).

19 Dhondup Sampho Tenzing, Mi tshe'i rba rlabs ‘khrugs po (Dehra Dun: Taring House, 1987).

20 Goldstein Melvyn C., A History of Modern Tibet, 1913–1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

21 Tashi Taklha Phuntsok, Mi tshe'i byung ba brjod pa, deb dang po [The episodes of life, book one], Tsering Tashi, ed. (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995).

22 Williams Raymond, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 121–27.

23 Gallagher John and Robinson Ronald, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Economic History Review 6, 1 (1953): 115 .

24 Wolfe Patrick, “History and Imperialism: A Century of Theory, from Marx to Postcolonialism,” American Historical Review 102, 2 (1997): 388420, 401.

25 Coronil Fernando, “Latin American Postcolonial Studies and Global Decolonization,” in Lazarus Neil, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 221–40, 226.

26 Stoler Ann Laura and McGranahan Carole, “Introduction: Refiguring Imperial Terrain,” in Stoler Ann Laura, McGranahan Carole, and Perdue Peter, eds., Imperial Formations (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2007), 342 .

27 McGranahan Carole, “Empire out of Bounds: Tibet in the Era of Decolonization,” in Stoler Ann Laura, McGranahan Carole, and Perdue Peter, eds., Imperial Formations (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2007), 173209 .

28 On the imperial turn, see the collected essays in Burton Antoinette, ed., After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

29 Hansen Peter, “Why Is there no Subaltern Studies for Tibet?Tibet Journal 28, 4 (2003): 722 . See also the Subaltern Studies volumes 1–11 (vols. 1–10, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982–1999; vol. 11, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

30 The two countries have different policies for Tibetans, as well as inconsistent treatment for Tibetans depending on their year of arrival in country. Neither country has a clear, consistent publicly stated policy for Tibetan refugees. In addition, the agreements made in 1959–1960 between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in India, and between the Dalai Lama and King Mahendra of Nepal, have never been made public.

31 Appadurai Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 37.

32 On the myth of Shangri-la, see Bishop Peter, The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing, and the Western Creation of a Sacred Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Shakya Tsering, “The Myth of Shangri-la: Tibet and the Occident,” Lung-ta (1991): 2023 ; Dodin Thierry and Rather Heinz, eds., Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1996); and Lopez Donald S. Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), including the discussion of this book in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69, 1 (2001): 163201 .

33 For example, in 2006 the U.S. Congress approved a bill to enable five thousand Tibetan refugees from Nepal to immigrate to the United States. Many of these individuals were without documents of any sort, and the Government of Nepal refused to issue documents to them or to provide exit permits to those who did have documents. As a result the program was stalled, and today these Tibetan refugees remain stuck, spatially incarcerated in Nepal.

34 On Tibet-Chinese relations during the Republican period, see Tuttle Gray, Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); and, Jagou Fabienne, “Liu Manqing: A Sino-Tibetan Adventurer and the Origin of a New Sino-Tibetan Dialogue in the 1930s,” Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines 17 (2009): 520 .

35 “Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Will,” in San Min Chu I: The Three Principles of the People, Frank W. Price, trans. (Taipei: China Publishing Company, 1975 [1927]), i.

36 Author's interview with George Patterson, San Diego, Jan. 1999.

37 Sampho, Mi tshe'i rba rlabs ‘khrugs po, 55.

38 Stoddard, Le Mendiant d'Amdo, n.p.

39 Kunpel (Kun ‘phel, 1905–1963) is sometimes spelled in translation as “Kumbela,” including the honorific form of address.

40 For Gedun Chophel's biography, see Stoddard, Le Mendiant d'Amdo; and Lopez Donald S. Jr., The Madman's Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendun Chophel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

41 On Tibetan trade, see Harris Tina, Geographical Diversions: Tibetan Trade, Global Transactions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013); Van Spengen Wim, Tibetan Border Worlds: A Geo-Historical Analysis of Trade and Traders (London: Routledge, 2000).

42 IOR: L/P+S/12/4211, top secret note, W.A.B. Gardener, Secutrol, Calcutta, 5 Apr. 1946.

43 “Tibetan” rather than “Tibet” appears to be Rapga's preferred English translation of the title, hence, the Tibetan Improvement Party.

44 Cooper Frederick and Stoler Ann Laura, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

45 McKay Alex, Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre, 1904–1947 (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997).

46 IOR L/P+S/12/4211, doc. 92.

47 Stoddard, Le Mendiant d'Amdo, n.p.

48 Ibid, n.p.

49 The British category of “Protected Person” did not apply to Tibetans. See Stein Sarah Abrevaya, “Protected Persons? The Baghdadi Jewish Diaspora, the British State, and the Persistence of Empire,” American Historical Review 116, 1 (2011): 80108 ; On citizenship for Indian colonial subjects, see Banerjee Sukanya, Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

50 Ong Aihwa, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).

51 Torpey John, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Poddar Prem, “Passports, Empire, Subjecthood,” in MacPhee Graham, ed., Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), 7186 .

52 IOR L/P+S/12/4211, doc. 41, “Pleader's advice re: my departure from India,” 17 June 1946.

53 Deportation order: IOR L/P+S/12/4211, Joint Secretary to the Government of India letter to the Chinese Commissioner, New Delhi, 4 June 1946. Deportation confirmation: IOR L/P+S/12/4211, express letter from the Government of Bengal Home (Defense) Department to the Secretary of the Government of India in the Home Department, 25 July 1946.

54 I thank Rapga's granddaughters and daughter-in-law for sharing the diary with me, and Tenzin Phuntsok Bhagentsang for translation assistance.

55 Gyatso Janet, “Counting Crows' Teeth: Tibetans and Their Diaries,” Les habitants du toit du monde (1997): 159–77.

56 McGranahan Carole, “In Rapga's Library: The Texts and Times of a Rebel Tibetan Intellectual,” Les Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie 15 (2005): 255–76.

57 From Rapga's Explanatory Supplement for the Grammar Book The Light of Speech (Dag yig ngag sgron la). Thank you to Champa Tenzing Lhunpo for helping me translate this text.

58 Ibid., n.p.

59 Patterson, Tibet in Revolt, 60. See also Stoddard, Le Mendiant d'Amdo, n.p., on Shakabpa describing Rapga as a “great patriot.”

60 McGranahan Carole, “ Sa spang mda’ gnam spang mda: Murder, History, and Social Politics in 1920s Lhasa,” in Epstein Lawrence, ed., Khams pa Local Histories: Visions of People, Place, and Authority (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 103–26.

61 Taklha Phuntsok Tashi, Mi tshe'i byung ba brjod pa, 212–18.

62 Ibid., 63–67, my translation from the Tibetan.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid.

66 For biographical sketches of Tharchin, see Fader H. Louis, Called from Obscurity: The Life and Times of a True Son of Tibet, Gergan Dorje Tharchin (Kalimpong: Tibet Mirror Press, 2004); and, Engelhardt Isrun, “Tharchin's One Man War with Mao,” in Vitali Robert, ed., Studies on the History and Literature of Tibet and the Himalaya (Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2012), 183209 .

67 See especially Hugh Richardson's end-of-empire report on Tibet—IOR: MSS EUR D 998/39.

68 Norbu Dawa, “G. Tharchin: Patriot and Pioneer,” Tibetan Review, Dec. (1975): 1820 .

69 Stoddard, Le Mendiant d'Amdo, n.p.

70 Patterson, Patterson of Tibet, xiii.

71 Ibid., 25.

72 Patterson, Tragic Destiny, 204.

73 Author's interview with George Patterson, San Diego, Jan. 1999.

74 Patterson, Tibet in Revolt, 59.

75 Author's interview with George Patterson, San Diego, Jan. 1999.

76 Patterson, Tragic Destiny, 40.

77 Diary entry, 2 Feb. 1949.

78 Ibid., 28 Feb 1949.

79 Ibid., 21 Feb. 1949.

80 Ibid., 6 and 8 Apr. 1949.

81 Ibid., 22 May 1949: “Read book about Lenin.” In Rapga's library in Kalimpong is a copy of Problems of Leninism by Stalin.

82 George Patterson recalls Rapga having heated arguments with Chinese Kuomintang members in the streets of Dartsendo during this time. Interview by author, San Diego, Jan. 1999.

83 Diary entry, 11 Oct 1949.

84 Ibid., 4 Jan. 1950.

85 Ibid., 2 Oct. 1950.

86 Author's interview with Robert Ford, London, Feb. 1999.

87 Ibid.

88 On this period, see Ford Robert, Wind between the Worlds (Berkeley: Snow Lion Graphics, 1987 [1957]); and Bull Geoffrey, When Iron Gates Yield (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963).

89 Bull, When Iron Gates Yield, 104.

90 Stoddard, Le Mendiant d'Amdo, n.p.

91 Stoler Ann Laura, “Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, 3 (1989): 134–61, 153.

92 Richards, Imperial Archive.

93 Personal information from Rapga's family in Kalimpong and from Tashi Tsering, Dharamsala.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 12
Total number of PDF views: 196 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 628 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 25th January 2017 - 17th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.