George Bogle (1747–1781) was a Scottish adventurer and diplomat, the first to establish diplomatic relations with Tibet and to attempt recognition by the Chinese Empire. His mission is still used today as a reference point in discussions between Tibet and China.
George Bogle was the second son of a wealthy Glasgow merchant, George Bogle of Daldowie, one of the Tobacco Lords and Anne Sinclair, a gentlewoman directly descended from James I and James II of Scotland. His father had extensive connections in the Scottish landed, commercial, and governmental elite, as well as trading contacts across the British Empire.
The Scots gentry to whom he belonged were in turn, in the 18th century, a key feature in the British state. Their political allegiance was often managed through patronage. In particular, Henry Dundas was able to offer the younger sons of gentry opportunities in India. This was to be a significant feature in George’s career.
He was born in 1747, the youngest of three brothers. His elder brother John Bogle eventually had a plantation in Virginia while his other brother, Robert Bogle, after the failure of a business adventure in London (the importing house of “Bogle and Scott”), established a cotton plantation in Grenada. Both intimately involved negro slaves. His four sisters married into their gentry network of traders, lairds and lawyers. His mother died when he was thirteen. The following year he matriculated at Edinburgh University where he studied Logic. He completed his education, when he was 18, at a private academy in Enfield, near London. Following this, he spent six months travelling in France. His brother Robert then took him on as a clerk in his London offices of Bogle and Scott where he spent four years as a cashier.
Using the family network, he secured an appointment as a Writer in the East India Company (EIC). In 1770, at the height of the Bengal Famine, he landed in Calcutta, the centre of British power in India. His extensive letters home, as well as his journal entries, show him to have been a lively, entertaining and perceptive writer. The comments of his colleagues and others show him to have been an agreeable, indeed playful - if sometimes riotous - companion. These qualities no doubt influenced Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of the EIC, when he appointed him his private secretary. His letters also show that, while he was aware of the general suspicion of corruption which surrounded the at the time, and had some misgivings about it - Hastings would soon be impeached for corruption - he was determined to make his fortune come what may.
In 1773, Hastings responded to an appeal for help from the Raja of Cooch Behar to the north of Bengal, whose territory had been invaded by the Zhidar the Druk Desi of Bhutan. Hastings agreed to help on the condition that Cooch Behar recognise British sovereignty. The Raja agreed and with the help of British troops they pushed the Bhutanese out of the Duars and into the foothills in 1773.
Zhidar, the Druk Desi, returned to face civil war at home. His nemesis, Jigme Senge, the regent for the seven year old Shabdrung (the Bhutanese equivalent of the Dalai Lama), had fanned the flames of popular discontent. Zhidar was unpopular for his corvee tax (he sought to rebuild a major dzong in one year, an unreasonable goal), as well as for his obsequious overtures to the Manchu Emperors which threatened Bhutanese independence. Zhidar who was soon overthrown and forced to flee to Tibet (where he was promptly imprisoned by the Panchen Lama). A new Desi Druk, Kunga Rinchen, was installed, and with him a new opportunity for British diplomacy opened up.
Hastings lost no time in appointing Bogle to undertake a diplomatic and fact-finding mission “to chart the unknown territory beyond the northern borders of Bengal”, with a view to opening up trade with Tibet and possibly even establishing a back-door trade relationship with the Chinese Empire who severely controlled foreign trade at Canton.
Bogle’s expedition set out in 1774 and consisted of himself, an army surgeon named Alexander Hamilton, and Purangir Gosain (an agent of the Panchen Lama, the effective ruler of Tibet), as well as a retinue of servants. The Desi Druk Despite warnings from the Chinese government and the Pachen Lama that he was not allowed to enter Tibet, he made use of the recent political instability in Bhutan and the tension between the Panchen Lama and the regent for the 7th Dalai Lama (only a child at the time) to win access to Tibet where he was brought before the Panchen Lama in Shigatse. Bogle made a favorable impression on Lobsang Palden Yeshe the Sixth Panchen Lama and spent six months overwintering in his palaces learning what he could of Tibetan culture and politics. Bogle was very struck by the experience, noting in his journal, 'When I look upon the time I have spent among the Hills it appears like a fairy dream.' Indeed, it may have been the publication of accounts of his journey which established the myth of Tibet as Shangri-la. Bogle, incidentally, helped the Lama compose his still famous Geography of India, the homeland of Buddhism.
Returning to India Bogle fulfilled the Lama's request to establish a temple on the banks of the Ganges, not far from the East India Company headquarters, where Buddhist monks could return to their spiritual roots in India.
Although the ultimate goal of establishing a trade route to China was not met, a long-lasting relationship was formed between the British and the Tibetans. The mission to Tibet was viewed as a success, and was commemorated by a 1775 portrait of Bogle being presented (in Tibetan gowns) to the Panchen Lama. This portrait, by Tilly Kettle, a British painter who worked in Calcutta, was reputedly presented by Hastings to King George III and it is now in the Royal Collection.
The hopes for a breakthrough in China rested on using the Lama as an intermediary with the Manchu Qing Emperor of China Qianlong, an astute but aloof ruler who regarded all the world as tributaries. In 1780, Palden Yeshe visited Beijing where he came close to gaining a passport for Bogle. Qianlong presented him with a golden urn for use in ceremonial lotteries and the goodwill seemed to suggest that a passport would be issued. However, he was struck down by smallpox and died that same year. (It was not until 1793, that a British envoy ) Lord Macartney was, very sceptically, received by the Chinese Emperor).
The following year, 1781, Bogle slipped while emerging from his rooftop bath in Calcutta and died from the injuries. He had never married, but left behind a son George, and two daughters, Martha and Mary, the latter, according to family lore, the daughter of a Tibetan mother. The two girls were sent back to Daldowie House, where they were brought up in obscurity.
The Bogle mission has echoes today. The Chinese government has used it on official websites to suggest that Britain recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. They portray the meeting of the Panchen Lama as one where he kowtow'ed in submission to China. The Tibetans suggest it was a meeting between a pupil (the Emperor) and a revered master (the Lama).
According to the Asia Times, in 1995 the search for the 11th Panchen Lama culminated with Beijing and the Dalai Lama's government in exile proclaiming rival child candidates, and Chinese officials seized on Qianlong's urn as a symbol of legitimacy and sovereignty, physically placing it at the very heart of their stage-managed ceremony. Meanwhile, as the authorities wheeled out the antiques, the Dalai Lama's candidate (who also lived in mainland China) was placed in detention, publicized at the time by pressure groups as the youngest political prisoner in the world. His whereabouts remain unclear today.