Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 05

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My appointment to Sikhim. Departure of the Maharaja to Kurseong. Inspection of the country with Phodong Lama and Shoe Dewan. Opening up by means of roads and bridges. Sources of revenue. Mineral wealth. Visit to Yatung, so-called Trade Mart.

At the conclusion of hostilities the Government of India made a proposal that I should remain in Sikhim, with the title of Political Officer, and administer the affairs of the State in conjunction with a Council composed of the chief Dewans, Lamas and Kazis, and of which I was to be President. This proposal I accepted with some diffidence, as it was an absolute change from my own profession (engineering) and practically meant cutting myself adrift from my service and entering an altogether new line with results impossible to foresee. But as years passed I grew to love the work, the country and the people, and I have never regretted my decision to throw my lot in with theirs, though from a worldly standpoint I could easily have done better elsewhere.

Not long after I had taken up my new duties, Government decided that it would be to the advantage of the State to remove the Maharaja from Sikhim for a time, and Kurseong, in the Darjeeling district, was proposed as his residence. It was my unenviable task to have to convey these orders to Their Highnesses, and their reception of the news was most characteristic. The Maharaja remained silent, but the Maharani abused me roundly, called me every name she could think of, and losing her temper entirely, got up, stamped on the floor and finally turned her back on me.

The incident, though amusing, was very pathetic at the same time, and I was heartily sorry for them both. They had come into opposition with the British Government, and from an exaggerated idea of the importance of Tibet and China, and with no conception or understanding of our ways, they had run against a mighty power to their hurt and consequent suffering.

With the departure of the Raja and Rani to their temporary quarters, the task of reorganising the country began in earnest. Chaos reigned everywhere, there was no revenue system, the Maharaja taking what he required as he wanted it from the people, those nearest the capital having to contribute the larger share, while those more remote had toll taken from them by the local officials in the name of the Raja, though little found its way to him; no courts of justice, no police, no public works, no education for the younger generation. The task before me was a difficult one, but very fascinating; the country was a new one and everything was in my hands.

The first step was to appoint the Council, a measure which had up to now been delayed by the Maharaja’s attitude, and the following men were selected. The two brothers, the Khangsa Dewan and the Phodong Lama, the Shoe Dewan, Lari Pema (a lama from the important monastery of Pemiongtchi), the Gangtak, Tassithing, Entchi and Rhenok Kazis. All were of the utmost help and assistance to me, more especially the first three, and during the whole of my time in Sikhim I have ever experienced the same loyal and whole-hearted support from the Council.

The coffers were empty, and the first thing to be done was to devise some means by which we could raise a revenue. A commencement was made by roughly surveying the different districts and assessing them at so much per acre, taking into account the nature of the soil, &c. This was a most arduous task in a mountainous country, covered with dense undergrowth, which made survey work anything but easy and necessitated cutting lines in every direction. It was, however, accomplished in five years, and thus a basis for taxation and revenue was established. At the same time the forests were placed under control, excise was introduced, and by these means in about ten years the revenue was raised from Rs. 8000, or a little over £500 per annum, to Rs. 2,200,000, or about £150,000. But the country was very sparsely populated, and in order to bring more land under cultivation, it was necessary to encourage immigration, and this was done by giving land on favourable terms to Nepalese, who, as soon as they knew it was to be had, came freely in. Earlier in my service I had spent over a year in Nepal on special duty and had learnt something of the people and their ways which proved now to be of use in dealing with them.

During this period I visited every corner of Sikhim, even the most remote, accompanied by the Shoe Dewan and the Phodong Lama, and became acquainted with every head man and I might almost say with every villager. I never refused an interview to any one, and the people soon realised that they could freely bring before me any grievance they wished to ventilate or case that required settlement. I took up the cases where I was in camp, and unless of a very serious character, decided them then and there, but grave charges, such as murder, fortunately extremely rare, or grievous hurt, had to be brought to Gangtak for trial. This constant intercourse with the people gave me an insight into their character which otherwise I should never have acquired. Their hospitality is proverbial, no Sikhim man or woman ever comes before you without bringing a small offering of rice, eggs, milk or fruit, and on my tours at every village I found a little shelter of branches and green leaves erected, in which such offerings were placed along with chungas or bamboo mugs of marwa, the native beer, and I could show no more severe displeasure with the villagers than by refusing to accept their hospitality,. During this time the Phodong Lama and the Shoe Dewan, one of whom always accompanied me, became my best friends, and I found they were men to whom I could turn for advice as well as assistance and for whom I had the most sincere regard. Unlike natives of the plains of India, with ideas on most subjects more nearly approaching our own, these hill men in reply to inquiries told you the truth, and made no attempt to find out first what answer was likely to please you, and consequently it was possible to make friends and companions of them in a way not often feasible in the case of natives.

The monasteries and the lamas were a great power in the land, but in their case also certain settlements and arrangements had to be made with the assistance of the Phodong Lama, Chief Priest in Sikhim, and Lari Pema of the Pemiongtchi Monastery. Many of the head lamas were men to be liked, and although they were not given entirely their own way, their just rights were carefully observed, and I have always been supported by them throughout my time in Sikhim. Years later, when I accompanied the Tibet Mission to Lhasa, the lamas of the important monasteries of Sera and Debung sent me an invitation to visit them, saying they would be glad if I would come as they had always heard from the Sikhim lamas that in my dealings with them I had treated them well, and this I looked upon as a great compliment.

My readers will have seen that when I first came to Sikhim there were no roads, only a few bad and difficult tracks. As the revenue increased and money was available this was one of the first improvements to be taken in hand, and soon the country was opened up by a system of roads, the torrents were bridged, and in a few years time it was possible to ride from one end of Sikhim to the other. Later on, before I left, it was possible to cart goods from Siliguri, the terminus of the Northern Bengal State Railway, 64 miles away, to the door of the Residency at Gangtak, and firewood was being carted into the Bazaar from 5 miles off on two different roads, a very great contrast to the earlier days. This is all easy to relate now that it has been accomplished, but it was uphill work and carried out under many disadvantages, the principal one the want of money. As the country was opened out, more was required in every direction, more roads and bridges, buildings, education, police, the domestic expenses of His Highness and his son, the Kumar, increased, and it was most difficult to make both ends meet. There was also the imperative necessity of creating a reserve fund for unforeseen contingencies, and the question ever present was how was money to be found. In such a mountainous country anything but the smallest land tax is impossible to levy, and even that is difficult; the forests which might be a source of wealth are too remote and the difficulty of carriage of the timber to the markets is unsurmountable. Excise could increase to a certain extent, but that could not continue.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Residency, Gangtak.jpg


However, by the exercise of constant care and economy, something was accomplished, and each year’s budget showed an increase of revenue to meet the increased expenditure; but Sikhim distinctly is, and I fear always will be, a poor country, with the problem ever before her as to how the necessary expenditure is to be met; the upkeep and maintenance of the roads alone being a formidable item in a country averaging 140" rainfall and in some districts 240".

Nevertheless, there is another possible source of revenue in which, up to a year ago, I have in vain tried to interest the Government of India. That is the store of mineral wealth buried in the mountains. The difficulties of working this were too great for me to attempt. The State had no funds and Government refused to allow the introduction of foreign capital. I approached them time and again on the subject, always to be met with the same answer, “their reluctance to destroy the simplicity of an arcadian little State,” and it was only in 1906, the year before I left, that I finally persuaded them to allow a beginning to be made, and certain business firms were given permission to send prospectors into the country to take up mining concessions. Had my repeated representations on the subject been listened to in the earlier days, I have no doubt the mineral wealth of the country would by this time have been considerable, and that by their action Government has probably retarded the progress of the country by many years.

Iron, tin, zinc, aluminium, cobalt, arsenic, graphite, lead, gold, and silver, all have been found, while copper is known to exist in large quantities and has been worked by the natives for years past in a primitive fashion. It has been found in places in extremely rich deposits, but these, unfortunately, have proved scattered and small in extent, though there is no doubt that there is an enormous amount, and that if some method can be devised of concentrating and collecting the ore from the outlying seams without undue expense, a very large revenue should be derived from the royalties alone, and now that European capital has been allowed to undertake the task, I see no reason why it should not prove a success and be a means of placing the State on a more easy financial basis, though wealthy it never will and never can be.

Amongst the advantages of this new departure will be an increase of European residents in the country, with a consequent greater circulation of money, a new field for employment of labour, a greater demand for local supplies, with the probability of increased facilities of transport bringing new markets within reach for the produce, and greater still, though I fear not yet to be realised, the utilisation of the latent water-power with all its unforeseen possibilities.

After the signing of the Sikhim Treaty in 1890, the negotiations in respect of trade regulations continued to be carried on for some years, and it was 1894 before I went to Yatung to formally open the Trade Mart there. I crossed the Jey-lap-la in April in deep snow, and was met a little way further on, on the Yatung side of the pass, by about twenty Chinese soldiers sent from the frontier to meet me. They presented a gay appearance in their blue uniforms with large letters in black on both back and front of their coats. A few of them were armed with guns, but the greater number carried tridents, flags, and other unusual things.

About one and a half miles from Yatung a tent was pitched where, to conform to Chinese ideas of etiquette, I had to change into my official uniform, and a little further on I was ceremoniously received by the Chinese and Tibetan officials and conducted to a gorgeous tent in which tea was served. Mr. F. E. Taylor, of the Imperial Chinese Customs Service, was amongst those present in Chinese official dress. The Chinese officials were the Popen or Frontier Officer, Wang-yen-Ling, the officer commanding the troops, Tu-Hsi-hsun, and interpreter, Yee-Shan, and the Tibetan officials, U. Depon, the Tsedun Tenzing Wangpo and Kutzab Lobzang Tenzing. Our conversation in the tent was limited to the exchange of compliments and mere trivialities, and after resting a little, we proceeded down the valley to the house which was to be my residence; a very gay procession with all the umbrellas, flags, pikes, &c., carried by the followers of the Chinese officials.

It was my first experience of the Chinese official, and I have since always found him of the same type, outwardly exceedingly polite and punctilious, but behind one’s back deceitful and cunning, intent on the Chinese policy of delay, and most difficult to bring to the point in any negotiation.

The house placed at my disposal was constructed partly on Chinese lines by Tibetan artisans; green wood had been employed, with the consequence that no door would shut, and I could look at the view from my bed through the chinks in the boards of the wall, which, as the temperature registered about 18° of frost, was somewhat chilly.

I shall not enter into a lengthy description of the negotiations, it will suffice to say that I found the so-called Mart perfectly useless for the purpose, and that the articles agreed to in the Treaty Regulations had not been carried out in any way. The Chinese had built a wall across the valley about one-third of a mile lower down, and posted sentries on the gate and no one was allowed to come to the “Mart” to buy or sell any goods whatever. Extortionate rents were charged for “shops,” which were nothing more than hovels, and to crown all the Tibetans refused to acknowledge the Treaty which had been signed on their behalf by the Chinese.

I sent in a report to Government and stayed on in Yatung for about ten weeks, waiting for a reply, and during that time I saw a good deal of both Chinese and Tibetans. The Chinese are well-known sticklers for etiquette and it was a curious commentary on the position that, as their officials lived just beyond Pema in the Chumbi Valley, within Tibet, I was not allowed to return their ceremonial visits. No person, save Tibetans or Chinese, not even Mr. Taylor, himself a Chinese official, was allowed to pass the gateway in the wall. Even the Amban, when he paid his official call on me, waived his right to a return visit. The position of the Chinese in Tibet was certainly a very curious one, or at any rate made to appear so.

I was not sorry when my stay came to an end. There was very little to do; I was not allowed to go beyond the wall, and in any other direction it meant a climb of thousands of feet. There was a little Monal (pheasant) shooting to be had, but that was all. There was no house for Taylor to live in, so on my departure I arranged he should have the use of the one built for me, and for many years after it remained in the hands of the Chinese Customs Officer.