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Younghusband: Imperial Amnesia Confronts the Tibetan 'Shangri-La'

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To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light...Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.-Carl Jung

We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike. - Maya Angelou

The July premiere of the new dramatic monologue 'Younghusband' at The Yard in East London - written and performed by Dominic Francis - opens with the shadow of a human figure projected onto a wall by torchlight. The shadow represents that of Dominic's great-great Uncle, Sir Francis Younghusband. We are at the beginning of a personal journey about the haunting presence of the legacy bequeathed to us by our ancestors and our resultant 'identity'. Like the Buddhist journey of recognising the illusory ego as the enemy within, this is a tale about confronting ghosts.

To those unfamiliar with the history of the British empire or Tibet, Younghusband was a British Army officer, explorer, and spiritual writer. He held the world record for the three hundred yard dash, discovered a new overland route from China to India, and organised the early assaults on Mount Everest. According to his popular biographer, Patrick French, 'despite being a classic Edwardian, full of pomposity and repression, in the post-World War I era, he led the way in outlandish, mystical philosophical and sexual free-thinking.'

In a compelling and emotionally honest performance, Dominic's search for answers about his infamous relative moves from his bedroom, to the supermarket, to a hedonistic holiday in Portugal, interspersed with him writing a series of cathartic letters (as encouraged by his homeopath therapist) which are mysteriously answered with some telegrams from Sir Francis himself. His first letter opens with an accusation:

Basically, it's your fault. All this bad karma that's been going on. If you hadn't started that thing with the Tibetans then none of this might have happened.

Dominic reveals how as a child, he sought out Younghusband's forgotten but prolific writings (nearly thirty books) in second-hand bookshops because 'I was proud too, without really knowing why. My name connected me to the past, a direct line. But what was real and what was just story?' A moment of revelation comes at the age of seventeen, when Dominic discovers Patrick French's popular biography, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer. After reading this it dawns on Dominic that:

it's getting harder to ignore the facts. In many ways, you're quite a disappointing hero.... I suppose I'm trying to work out a common theme, a thread running through all our lives. Mine, yours, dad's. Something about not reaching our full potential. (It seems absurd, saying that, given your many achievements.) I mean a frustration, an anxiety. About a life lost.

In 1904, Younghusband was the leader of a small diplomatic mission that turned into a full-scale military massacre and invasion of the vast unexplored country: Tibet. Younghusband maintains that the onslaught arose after the Tibetans commenced battle with the first shot fired by a Tibetan general. The Tibetan accounts differ claiming that the British tricked the general into extinguishing his troops' fuses and that once this was done the British began shooting first anyway, the fatal shot from the general's pistol only occurring once battle had been joined. At first, Younghusband's account seems like a classic case of imperial denial. However, as Tenzin Wangyal wrote: 'Tibetan-ness is not synonymous with moral superiority or righteousness.' Despite the predominant 'Shangri-la' myth of Tibetans as enlightened beings without any aggression, faced with an invasion by a foreign army perhaps Younghusband was not being entirely dishonest here, the Tibetan general simply acted in self-defence. Saying so doesn't even necessarily entail that such the myth contains no element of truth either; the truth never lies down and act dead.

The sound of firing continues for the length of time it would take six successive cups of hot tea to cool. - a Tibetan survivor

After which we are left with nothing but the cold body count, deadpanly declared by Dominic as: 628 Tibetans and 0 British fatalities. Some estimates of the Tibetan casualties overall are far higher, running into the thousands. Whatever the true figure, the facts remain undeniable. Even after this rampant onslaught, the British demanded various trading benefits from the Tibetans; including 7.5 million Indian rupees compensation which would be repaid in 1979, three years after Dominic's birth.

What of the 'light' in this shadowy event? Dominic undertakes an exploratory trek to a mountain top which peaks with his own personal epiphany of Younghusband's profound transformation in his encounter with Tibetans, their religion and culture; not only regretting his actions but also becoming a life-long advocate for 'free love', peace and reconciliation. This is the romantic version. One reviewer wrote of Younghusband that: 'he played at these things, he played earnestly and (mostly) honestly, but ultimately with only a shallow understanding.'

'You can no longer say: 'I don't want to have anything to do with my father; I'm too angry.' In fact, you are the continuation of your father. The only thing you can do is reconcile yourself with him. He is not out there, apart from you - he is in you. Peace is possible only with this knowledge and reconciliation.' Thich Naht Hahn

Observing the lone figure of a 21st Century western man at the peak of his life struggling to combine a sense of pride, understanding and compassion for his relative's actions was a humbling experience. Now, the Tibetan people have been undergoing a brutal colonisation by the Chinese government for several decades. More soul-searching accounts like Dominic's are needed. As Priyamvada Gopal recently wrote:

'Undoing imperial amnesia will enable us to flesh out Britain's "island story" towards a more honest account of how Britain came to be what it is today, socially and economically.'

Samsara ('khorwa' in Tibetan) means endlessly circling round in the cycle of cause and effects of our thoughts, words and actions, until we liberate ourselves from the root of this cyclic suffering. Whether or not we believe in the truth of samsara, to attain genuine reconciliation and liberation, it is necessary to expose the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. Such an undertaking is a risky but in the end it is worthwhile, because only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Dominic deserves applause and recognition for sharing his 'confrontation'. And the moral of the story? Whatever happened that fateful day in 1904, it resonates onwards into eternity for the Tibetans, the British and ultimately, all of us. Thus, we owe it to ourselves to tread bravely yet gently, for our footprints remain in the dirt for a long, long time.