Damned Rum Name

Life and Times of Sir Francis Younghusband

Harish Kapadia

Long Urdok glacier along which Younghusband walked. View from Indira Col

Long Urdok glacier along which Younghusband walked. View from Indira Col

Sir Francis Younghusband was a prominent founding member of The Himalayan Club. Though his explorations were in the late 19th and early 20th century, he was an important explorer consulted by Kenneth Mason during the formation of The Himalayan Club in 1928. Though there are indirect references to him in later volumes of The Himalayan Journal, the only full note about him is his obituary in Volume XIII (1946). Thus, an article recalling his life is essential and valuable for THJ.

Sir Francis Younghusband

Sir Francis Younghusband

For Francis Younghusband, many things were unique, including his name. There were hardly any in English society with the name Younghusband. He was born at Muree, a hill-station (now in Pakistan) in 1863. His father, Lt. General Younghusband, and two of his uncles were high-ranking army officers of the British Raj in India. When he was three, his mother moved him to Dorset in England, to their family home. He was left under the charge of two aunts who were to bring him up for almost the next two decades. They were very religious and enforced strict discipline on young Younghusband. All these events were to leave a permanent impression on him. His uncle Robert Shaw, was a well-known explorer, a player in the Great Game, in the northwest frontier of India. Young Francis grew up with frontier tales and Shaw became his mentor.

Hailing from an army family, he was sent to Sandhurst in 1881 and in 1884, at the young age of 19, he was commissioned into 1st King’s Dragon Guards. Soon he was sent to India to be stationed at the Meerut cantonment. His military career started in the intelligence unit of the army under Commandant Colonel Charles Bell, a well-known explorer and an expert on Tibet, who had won the Victoria Cross. Younghusband wrote that Bell “possessed a great physical hardihood and cared for nothing so much as making a secret military reconnaissance”1. His superior, Sir Charles Macgregor had distinguished himself in the Afghan war. He was an ambitious man and had written a book, ‘The Defence of India’, which influenced the shaping of the Empire’s military force. Between these two personalities, Francis was trained in the art of soldiering in the NW Frontier, Tibet, and the tenets of diplomacy.

'Younghusband Col'- now Turkestan La, north of Siachen Glacier

'Younghusband Col'- now Turkestan La, north of Siachen Glacier

"Sir Charles Macgregor was a big, bluff, gruff man. When I was first introduced to him, all he had said was: ‘Damned rum name that is’. Now, however he was interested in me. He at least listened to what I had to say. I asked to be sent on duty to China and Manchuria for eighteen months."2

His unusual name was at times, a point of confusion and at other times, ridicule. ‘Rum name’ was typical British slang, meaning strange, peculiar, odd or a little funny at the same time. During his years of travel, he was addressed, sometimes on the edge of absurdity, by various forms. Young Husband, Houng Husband, House Husband, Loving Husband, Yang-ta-jen, or in Manchuria as ‘Yang-hasi-pan’. It seems the name originally came from Oshan (a variation of Oswald). Oswald’s son was known as Young Oshan which somehow transmuted into Younghusband!3

In 1887, at the age of 22, he was sent to Peking with a brief to cross the Gobi desert. It was decided that he would return to India by a different route than others and present a separate report. This would take seven months, ending with a dramatic winter crossing of the then unexplored Mustagh Pass, leading over the Karakoram, a formidable achievement for someone ill-equipped for climbing and with no previous mountaineering experience. It was little short of a miracle that the party came down alive.

On his return, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, was impressed, called him as “moulded in the frontier school of character.” He was sent to London to lecture at the Royal Geographic Society about the scientific results of his journey and elected as a Member of the RGS at 24, the youngest ever member.

On his return to India on duty, he was selected to go on a mission to Central Asia and the Karakoram. The British had a long-standing problem with the Afghans that claimed many lives. Finally, the foreign Secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand, was able to bring the Afghans to the negotiating table and a border line between Afghanistan and the British India (now Pakistan) was drawn, known as ‘The Durand Line’.4

During the 19th century, a political and diplomatic confrontation developed between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and Karakoram, at the Western border of the Indian sub-continent. There were reports that the Russians were interested in pushing down the western Karakoram in search of reaching the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. This had alarmed the British and they started counter measures by cultivating friendship with the Mir of Hunza and other tribal heads. Intelligence gathering suggested that a Russian Colonel was reconnoitring in the area accompanied by soldiers. But not much was known about the northern limits of the area and about the various passes through which the Russians could invade. Many locals trained by the British were sent to the area regularly. This spying was immortalized as the ‘Great Game’ by Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel Kim.

There were quite a few ‘Great Gamers’, British officers involved in these explorations were thus called. Now, Younghusband was to join their ranks with his Muztagh Pass crossing noted as a mountaineering feat. It was decided to send him on a wider mission lasting a few months and to cover a vast area.

During his second Karakoram journey in 1889, Younghusband started from Srinagar to Leh and reached the Karakoram Pass rather quickly. The trail was good and known due to visits by earlier British officers. After the pass he branched off to enter the unexplored Shaksgam valley. The valley was part of the Kashmir Kingdom. Hence, when the Maharaja signed the instrument of accession with India, technically it belonged to India. Kashmir State also included most of the Western Karakoram and the area till its northern borders which extended till the Shaksgam valley’s northern limits. Hence the Viceroy was keen to know all about this valley.

Entering the valley from the east, Younghusband travelled with double- humped Bactrian camels to cross the Aghil pass and proceeded along the Shaksgam river. He saw the northern face of K2 and the north faces of many peaks bordering the Siachen glacier like the Teram Kangri and Apsaras. With a smaller party from the camp at Durbin Jangal, following the Shaksgam river, he turned south, proceeding slowly ‘like a tortoise’, along the long Urdok glacier (Yarkandi name for a tortoise) to reach the northern foot of the ‘Indira Col’. He saw its forbidding wall and turned further east to reach foot of the ‘Turkestan La’ (later Dr Longstaff called it ‘Younghusband’s Saddle’) on the eastern ridge of the Siachen. He was hardly about of 500 m below the pass from where he would have seen the entire Siachen glacier. Due to lack of supplies and avalanche danger, he turned back. But his explorer’s instinct led him to believe that beyond these two passes was a large glacier—the Siachen glacier.

On his return to England, he shared his notes and views with another British explorer, Dr Tom G. Longstaff and encouraged him to explore the Siachen. Longstaff investigated the Siachen in 1910 from two sides, west and south and reached the conclusion that the Siachen does not end at the Bilafond la, as it was believed to be, but extends till the Indira Col and Turkestan La. He wrote:

Younghusband was a true prophet. Colonel Burrard of the Survey had suspected the truth. The avalanche-swept pass, whose foot Younghusband had reached twenty years before, was on the main axis of the Karakorum range, which thus lay miles farther north than had been believed. We had stolen some 500 square miles from the Yarkand river system of Chinese Turkestan and joined it to the waters of Indus and Kingdom of Kashmir.5

Russian Col Bronislav Gromchevsky

Russian Col Bronislav Gromchevsky

Younghusband returned to the central Shaksgam valley and crossed the Shimshal pass, which he thought was a “fit place for robbers”. This was the ‘Gateway to Hunza’ and the ruler was informed in advance of Younghusband’s arrival. As he came down from the pass, he met Safdar Ali and his band of local militia, all heavily armed. But Safdar Ali brought a message of welcome from the ruler of Hunza and said he could go anywhere in the Hunza state. He also brought news and invitation of a Russian Colonel Gromchevsky, who was camping in the lower valley.

Younghusband was keen to meet him as he was also part of the Great Game. As he reached the Russian camp, he writes, “a tall, fine looking bearded man in Russian uniform came out to meet me”. He was with seven tall Cossacks who arranged a grand meal. The Gurkhas were conscious that their boss would be meeting the taller Russian, so they arranged a platform, standing on which Younghusband would meet Gromchevsky at equal height! They masked their secret by their presence, covering all sides of the platform.

Both men got on very well and after much Vodka, the Russian opened up. He said all that the Russian army was thinking of was the upcoming invasion of India. Russia was ready for the Great Game and he mentioned that a French explorer was also in the area.

Troops ready to march into Tibet

Troops ready to march into Tibet

In 1888, Younghusband met with Major Cumberland, Lieutenant Bower, Frenchmen M Dauvergne and German naturalist Herr Conrad with Col. Gromchevsky. It is a curious commentary upon the political state of affairs of that time that in ‘no man’s land’ a Russian, a Frenchman, a German and no less than three Britishers should meet as friendly, if rival, explorers without any official passport!6

Few days later, both men prepared to go their own way, the Russian to Tibet and Sir Francis to India. The Gurkhas saluted the Russian officer by presenting arms, shocking him by the precision of their drill.

Route of Younghusband expedition to Tibet

Route of Younghusband expedition to Tibet

The Cossacks were sturdy, but irregulars and could not match the Gurkhas. Cossacks presented ‘carry swords’, their equivalent. When the Russian congratulated them, the Gurkha Havildar whispered that Russians should know that they were unusually small and in their Regiment most Gurkhas were even taller than the Russian Colonel, who was 6"5"! Colonel was amused when Francis, as a friend told him of this ingenuous attempt to deceive him, for the average Gurkha is around 5"5"! Both explorers gave each other a cordial farewell. The Russian said that he hoped that one day they would meet in peace at St. Petersburg, or in the war at the frontier. In either case, Sir Francis was assured a warm welcome.

By now Younghusband had enough information for his bosses in India, so he made a rapid return after spending few days at Attock Fort, a British stronghold. The Viceroy was pleased with his report. Younghusband had, through the intelligence branch of the army, by now explored Kashmir, China and returned via the Karakoram to Simla. He was in the field from almost 1887 to 1892.

Younghusband was sent to England on a well-deserved leave, and to be debriefed by the ministry. He was awarded the coveted ‘Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society’ in 1890.

Colonel Gromchevsky7

The Russian colonel, representing his country was equally enthusiastic about exploration as his counterpart Sir Francis. But, on his return to Russia and after the Russian revolution in 1917, he was stripped of all his powers, arrested, his property seized and was sent to prison in Siberia. After few years he managed to escape thanks to the Japanese and reached his home country Poland. He wrote a small book on his Central Asian and Karakoram adventures and sent a copy to Sir Francis.

The contrast between the two explorers was stark. Sir Francis was at height of his honours. He was laden with awards, and had a private audience with the King. Col. Gromchevsky, who had once struck fear into hearts of India’s defence chiefs, passed away at Warsaw in 1926, destitute, sick and alone.

Younghusband, apart from his own explorations, was creating a legacy for future explorations; Dr Tom Longstaff’s expedition to the Siachen (1910) after him was based on his information, the Shaksgam valley was thoroughly explored by a team in 1926, led by Kenneth Mason, geographer and surveyor who later became the first editor of The Himalayan Journal from 1929. Many followed Younghusband’s footsteps like Michael Spender, J B Auden, and even Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman.

Younghusband—Tibet mission 1903-1904

Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, had a phobia about the Russians advancing to India. It was brought to his attention that the Russians may have reached Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and were building armed stores there. Tibet was an important buffer state between India and Russia. So, he decided to send a ‘Mission’ to investigate this possibility, reach Lhasa and if Tibetans would object, to put them down by force. He selected Younghusband to lead this expedition, with his military background, diplomatic acumen and by now, well-known name. He was recalled back to India and a mission was planned for late 1903.

Tibetans shown fighting in museum at Gyantse fort

Tibetans shown fighting in museum at Gyantse fort

Preparations began in the earnest and Younghusband selected a team of officers and units of Gorkha Rifles and Sikhs to accompany him. Opposition by Tibetans was unknown so far, more force than required was on its way. Two important officers he selected were F M Bailey, nick named ‘the hatter Bailey’, who had much experience trekking in the unknown mountains. The other was L. A. Waddell who spoke Tibetan and was keen to gather as many antiquities of Tibet as he could on the Mission. Army deputed General Macdonald as the military head of the mission, and his band of officers, unfortunately, did not get on well with Younghusband. Many conflicting situations developed, but as the overall leader, Younghusband always prevailed.

Younghusband selected Jelep la, to cross into Tibet, close to Nathu la, which was in the Sikkim territory. Moreover, Jelep la was a well- known trading pass. Caravans of mules carried the much-fancied Tibetan wool to India, which was processed and sold at faraway places like Amritsar and Bombay.

Gyantse Fort in 2003

Gyantse Fort in 2003

The main assault force of the 8 Gorkha Rifles assembled at Siliguri on 20 November 1903, as part of the Francis Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. They reached Gangtok on 8 December and on 20 December, crossed Jelep la to the Chumbi valley, with the full mission. They passed villages like Yatung. Almost entire villages gathered, to witness such a large and disciplined force make its way into Tibet. In fact, Tibet had never seen anything like this. The guns drawn on a large wheel carriage were novelty to them, as the wheel revolution had almost missed them. At Yatung, they met Annie Memsahib, a middle-aged British lady dressed in Tibetan costume. She was a Scottish spinster whose mission was to convert Tibetans to Christianity and had got closer to Lhasa than any Westerner in fifty years. She had made only one convert and the officers thought she was an ‘intolerable nuisance’.

Suicide cliff on Gyantse fort - Tibetans jumped from here in face of the Gurkha charge

Suicide cliff on Gyantse fort - Tibetans jumped from here in face of the Gurkha charge

The Mission proceeded along the Amo Chu river, passed a few gorges and a major camp was made on the plains of Phari, below the fort and in sight of the majestic Chomolhari peak.

They had information by now that the Tibetans had sent an army, under a General from Lhasa to intercept them. As they moved through Chumik Shenko to Guru they could observe a large sangar—a defensive rock wall, built by the Tibetans. A note was sent with Bailey to the Tibetan General explaining their Mission, that they come in peace and the military powers they were carrying, was for their defence. The General refused to accept the note. So, a confrontation was inevitable. The Tibetan army, if you could call them that, had almost no guns, and with primitive weapons, they had come armed with charms from the Dalai Lama. Both armies came face to face.

Suddenly, the Tibetan general fired his pistol injuring an Indian soldier and was heard ordering his troops to attack. General Macdonald ordered his troops to open fire. The Tibetans were no match against guns, the trained British soldiers and rapid firing from maxims (forerunner of the machine gun). Within five to seven minutes, almost 700 Tibetans were killed, hundreds injured and left without limbs. Many fled the scene. This was an uneven and uncalled for display of power. Tibetan mentioned that “the sound of firing continued for the time it would take for six successive cups of hot tea to cool”.

This brutal event came to be known as ‘Massacre at Guru’.8

The Mission marched ahead and soon reached the walled fort of Gyantse, which was reported to be occupied by several hundred Tibetans. After some rest and reconnaissance, General Macdonald decided on a plan of action.

Artillery was fired relentlessly until the fort wall was breached. The final storming of the fort began at 3:30 am, on 6 July 1904. Lt J D Grant and Havildar Karbir Pun led the assault. They tried to climb a cliff as Tibetan threw stones and mud. They got nearer to the wall, but many climbers slipped. Finally, these two reached the top at 6:00 p.m. followed by others. As the Gurkhas made a charge with Khukris, Tibetans ran to the top and many jumped off the cliff to their deaths. Tibetans had heard stories about the savagery of the Gorkha soldiers and the expertise of their khukri charge, chopping nose and ears of the opponent before killing them. More than 500 Tibetans died, and the fort was with the British. For this bravery, 8 GR received a special citation. Lt J D Grant was awarded the Victoria Cross and Havildar Karbir Pun was awarded the First-Class Order of Merit (as ‘Other Ranks’ were not eligible for a VC).

British Hate Museum' at Gyantse fort. White figure on left is supposed to be Younghusband

'British Hate Museum' at Gyantse fort. White figure on left is supposed to be Younghusband

These men had climbed to and fought at an altitude of over 5638 m, which Perceval Landon reckoned to be “probably the highest point on the earth’s surface at which engagement has ever taken place”.9

Today, the Chinese have built a Museum at Gyantse fort for tourists. Titled ‘The British Hate Museum’ it depicts how bravely the Tibetans fought and forced Younghusband to sign a treaty!

The road to Lhasa was now clear. The troops made steady progress, camping at the foot of a huge glacier at Karo la. Gurkhas marched ahead across Karo la, Yamdrok Tso and without any resistance reached the entrance to Lhasa.

“Major Bailey, noticed Tibetan blue-poppy, flowering abundantly in a meadow above the Field of Milk, the army’s camp site below the Karo la, which now carries his name, Meconopsisbectonicifoliabaile. He later became a distinguished explorer, naturalist and plant hunter. Exploring the ranges north of Arunachal Pradesh with H. T. Moreshead, he brought back survey information that was used to draw the famous ‘McMahon Line’. He and Claude White (who later became a well-known administrator of Bhutan) share joint honours as pioneer breeders of the Lhasa Apso.”10

Karo La between Gyantse and Lhasa (2004)

Karo La between Gyantse and Lhasa (2004)

On 3 August, 1904, Sir Francis Younghusband and his troops marched through a giant Chorten to ‘unveil Lhasa’.11 With this physical conquering, the Younghusband Mission was officially over. They camped in front of the Potala Palace, the seat of the Dalai Lama who had gone far away. There was no one to negotiate with! After a few months, the British arranged to get ‘Amban’, a high official from a nearby area, who came with other officials and a Treaty was signed. No Russian presence was found at Lhasa—only about 22 Russian rifles were found in some private houses. Thus, the major purpose of the Mission was a failure.

The British troops marching into Lhasa (1904)

The British troops marching into Lhasa (1904)

As soon as the agreement was reached, the atmosphere in Lhasa and the surrounding monasteries changed.

The British now decided to free all Tibetan prisoners-of-war and each was presented with five rupees before being released. While Tibetans on their part set free a number of men jailed for helping foreigners enter Tibet. One of them was the elderly steward of the Palla estate at Gyantse. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for showing hospitality to the Bengali explorer—spy Sarat Chandra Das back in 1884.

His first moment of freedom was witnessed by Edmund Candler: “The old man’s chains had been removed from his limbs that morning for the first time in twenty years, and he came in blinking at the unaccustomed light like a blind man miraculously restored to sight”.

Few celebratory-cum-farewell dinners were held for the departing force of Younghusband. The meal consisted of Potage Potala, followed by Dalai Lama Cutlets, Penelope Poulet and Oeufs a la Shape, ending with Amban Apricots.12

Negotiations between the British and Tibetan teams

Negotiations between the British and Tibetan teams

The Mission returned to Calcutta without much fanfare. The Government in England had changed and the new Labour Government did not appreciate the mission as much as the earlier one. Perhaps the massacres, the uneven treaty signed only with lower officials and stringent rules of the Treaty were not appreciated.

The Younghusband Mission and Dr L Augustine Waddell displayed four hundred mule-loads of ‘rare and valuable manuscripts of Lamaist sacred works, images, religious paraphernalia of all descriptions, armour, weapons, paintings and porcelain’ at the Indian Museum in Calcutta. Later, they were lodged at the Victoria and Albert Museum and other British museums.

Individual army units also took many objects and displayed them in their museums, like ‘Tibet Campaign collections display at 1st Royal Fusiliers Museum, Tower of London’. Other museums also have Younghusband Tibetan collections, which critics call the ‘Looting of Tibet’.13

Younghusband was now side-lined from active political and military matters, almost forced into retirement at the age of 42! He was keen to remain a player in the Great Game, but the powers to be, deputed him to quieter pursuits as a political officer in Hunza, Chitral and then to various places in India. Why Younghusband was side-lined has never been explained satisfactorily. But the Great Game had its penalties as well as rewards.

Honours were bestowed on him in plenty. He was made the Resident Commissioner at Kashmir (1906 to 1909). He often invited his Ladakhi and Balti friends to come and stay with him. He was knighted in 1905 and received a private audience with the King. He was the President of the Royal Geographical Society (1919 to 1922), Chairman of Mount Everest Foundation (1921) and a Founder Member of The Himalayan Club (1928). He received many Doctorates.

He took to philosophy and religion, which he was exposed to as a child. He formed ‘Universal World Faith Congress’ (1912 to 1922) and counted leading philosophers as his friends, including Bertrand Russel and India’s (later President) S. Radhakrishnan. When he died, in 1942, as per his wishes, he was carried to his grave in Dorset, England, with a Bronze statue of Buddha presented to him by T. Rimpoche at Lhasa. His epitaph read “Life most honourably lived, the world of his youth gone, which had been ebbing even as he was removed from its centre of affairs”. 14

Younghusband was a pioneering soldier-explorer, who by his deeds had made his ‘Damned Rum Name’ shine in history, and even after over a century since his explorations, continues to be well known.

Nobody ever dies, as long as they
Live in memory of those alive.
Particularly those, who live in the
Pages of history.


This is a much-needed article on Sir Francis Younghusband, one of the earliest explorers and pioneers who travelled through and climbed in the Himalaya and Karakoram before it became a quest. The information that he brought back on so many hitherto forbidden parts of Tibet and Central Asia is a feat unmatched by any explorer since. But one can never forget or forgive the bloodbath that the Younghusband Mission left behind while reaching Lhasa, nor the looting of manuscripts and artefacts that rightfully belong in Tibet. As Craig Storti states, this was "one of the most shameful episodes in British Imperial History." History teaches us valuable lessons.

About the Author

Harish Kapadia is a well-known Himalayan explorer who has regularly contributed to The Himalayan Journal. He is the past editor of THJ and has written many books. He still explores new areas.


  1. The Light of Experience. By Sir Francis Younghusband, p. 13 (Constable and Co. Ltd, London, 1927).
  2. The Light of Experience. By Sir Francis Younghusband p. 14.
  3. Younghusband, by Patrick French, p.4 (Penguin Books, London, 1994.).
  4. Sir Mortimer was an excellent footballer too. He started a football tournament in 1888 in India by contributing a generous sum to establish a trophy, known as the ‘Durand Cup’. The match was played at Simla. The tournament is played even now and is the oldest football tournament in Asia and the third oldest in the world. The oldest football tournament in the world being ‘The Football Association Challenge Cup’, 1871, (known as FA Cup), followed by The Scottish Football Association Challenge Cup, commonly known as the Scottish Cup, 1874.
  5. This My Voyage. By Tom Longstaff, p. 192 (John Murray, London, 1950).
  6. Abode of Snow. By Kenneth Mason, p.102 (Diadem Books, London, 1955, reprint 1987).
  7. The name ‘Gromchevsky’ is spelled in different ways in English. This seems to be most accepted spelling.
  8. This phrase entered old English language to describe extreme one-sided events, in nature or in sports. For those who understand cricket, once an English team was bowled out for a meagre total in a short time by two tall West Indian fast bowlers. The erudite commentator John Arlott described it thus “It was like the massacre at Guru, but here the British were at the receiving end!”
  9. This record was equalled and broken by the war on the Siachen glacier, 1984 to 2003, between the Indian and Pakistani armies. Younghusband was a pioneer in charting the Siachen glacier in 1889 as a part of the British Empire.
  10. Duels in the Snows. By Charles Allen. p 305. (John Murray, London, 2004).
  11. Some of us reached Lhasa on 3 August 2004, exactly a hundred years to the date, after Younghusband. A Chorten stands at the same place, but with a major road going around it. Lhasa has now turned into a modern city.
  12. Ibid. Charles Allen, p. 286- and 290
  13. See Looting Tibet: Conflicting Narratives and Representations of Tibetan Material Culture from the 1904 British Mission to Tibet
  14. Verrier, Anthony, Francis Younghusband and the Great Game, p. 4 (Jonathan Cape, London,1991).


⇑ Top