Skip Navigation or Skip to Content
Although British military collectors had acquired Tibetan objects before 1903, it was not until the advent of the Younghusband Expedition that such objects were acquired directly from Tibet.

Collecting was a longstanding historical military practice, whether as loot following a successful campaign, as mementos of travel or to supplement army kit (through the collection of useful supplies). Although British military collectors had acquired Tibetan objects before 1903, it was not until the advent of the Younghusband Expedition that such objects were acquired directly from Tibet. These military officers (and military collectors associated with the Younghusband Expedition in the National Museum of Scotland were all officers) collected substantial quantities of Tibetan objects during the Younghusband Expedition. However, they also collected very different material to the missionaries who had been engaging with Tibetan communities a decade earlier.

Whereas missionary collections had been acquired through purchase or exchange, many of the objects collected by these military officers were taken; looted from monasteries and the homes of elite Tibetans which were commandeered as military bases. Some soldiers did pay for the items they collected, but these were in the minority and looting gave military men access to material they were unlikely to have been sold anyway – items of great historical and religious significance to monasteries which no one individual within the monastic order had the right to sell.

Not only were the types of objects collected during the Younghusband Expedition very different, but the interests of military officers were also markedly different to missionary collectors. Missionaries used objects for educational purposes, or to generate income for the missionary organisation. By contrast, military loot was generally collected opportunistically, collected with a clear knowledge that it would have a high monetary value and represented a form of souvenir or trophy. These were both objects symbolic of British imperial superiority (because officers had been able to take them from the enemy) and of personal prestige, linking the collector to these great imperial deeds in perpetuity. The majority of military personnel who collected Tibetan artefacts during the Younghusband Expedition were prestige collectors, but some did become very interested in Tibetan culture and began to collect for the advancement of their, and the Empire’s, knowledge of Tibet. These men became more discerning in what they collected and were keen to record the uses, provenance and cultural significances of their collections in greater detail.

When objects acquired during the Younghusband Expedition came into the Royal Scottish Museum (as it was known from 1904), their collectors often remained visible and important figures, unlike missionary collectors who were often poorly remembered in public displays and publications. The Expedition itself also featured prominently not just in displays of the Museum in Edinburgh, but in displays up and down the country, such as the Buddism Gallery at the British Museum, created out of their newly acquired collections made by officers during the Younghusband Expedition.[1]

William John Ottley (1870 – ?)

William John Ottley was born to a wealthy landowning family in Brandon, County Cork, Ireland in 1870. In 1892 he joined the Indian Army and over the next decade worked his way up to the rank of Captain, before becoming the lead officer of the 32nd Sikh Pioneers during the Younghusband Expedition. However, by 1903 Ottley’s style of leadership was becoming out-dated. He was a product of the Victorian era’s (1837 – 1901) ‘forward policy’, which advocated the aggressive imperial expansion that had been the political driving force behind much of the imperial growth of the late nineteenth century. By the advent of the Edwardian era (1901 – 1914) this was being replaced by a policy of defence, focusing on maintaining borders rather than expanding them, which was known, by contrast, as ‘defeatist policy’. Ottley’s collection is typical of prestige collecting, meaning that he, along with many other military men associated with the Younghusband Expedition, collected objects which they felt expressed their own superiority within British society and saw the ‘value’ of these items as fundamentally economic rather than cultural. Often these men took little interest in the communities from whom they collected.

Author Charles Allen describes Ottley as ‘a flame haired Irishman with a powerful streak of derring‐do about him’ and suggests that Ottley was regarded by Tibetans as the most remorseless of the British officers, referring to him as ‘the nightmare’ [2]. His collected objects reflected his belief in military authority and British masculinity, turning objects of Tibetan Buddhism into trophies of war.

Ottley had little interest in learning about Tibetan culture, and collected objects that supported his own beliefs, often through the manipulation of the beliefs of Tibetans themselves. For example, a gau, or amulet box, was sold to the Royal Scottish Museum and accompanied by the following information:

‘Found after the battle at Guru…charm box... believed to ward off bullets’

The object in question has a bullet hole ripped through it and had been taken from the body of a dead Tibetan after the battle of Guru (31st March 1904), the first battle of the Expedition to see significant loss of life. This object was typical of battlefield ‘trophies’, but also held a symbolic significance, as it cut to the very heart of Tibetan cultural practice, and ridiculed it. After this particular incursion at Guru (also known as the massacre of Chumik Shenko), where many Tibetans were killed having not fled from the British hail of bullets, it was discovered that Tibetan soldiers believed in the protective qualities of their gau, and considered them suitable protection from European firepower. The destruction caused to the gau collected by Ottley, and the accompanying notes, both mock the beliefs of the Tibetan soldiers and was proof, in his eyes, of the ineffectiveness of such amulets. Their use was classed by soldiers under the derogatory heading of ‘superstitions’.

Another object reflective of Ottley’s attitude towards Tibetan culture is a bone apron, which he noted as ‘belonging to the Abbot of the [Gyantse] Monastery’ [see photo below]. The apron is made from human bone and the carved plaques are of various ages. This old, sacred object was understood by the British to be associated with necromancy, fueling contemporary beliefs in the debased, even demonic, status of Tibetan Buddhism. But beyond the construction or use of the object, Ottley made an important assumption about the apron: he assumed it was the property of the head of the monastery. This may have been a simple misunderstanding of the relationship between people and objects in that setting, whereby through his lack of interest in Tibetan Buddhist culture Ottley had assumed that objects within the monastery belonged to specific individuals, rather than being the collective property of the monastery itself. Alternatively, he may have been quite aware of the issue of ownership, but created a misunderstanding to inflate his own prestige and the value of his new acquisition. For Ottley the item was likely to have added significance because the man he recognised as its ‘owner’ was of a superior rank, reflecting British obsessions with both principles of ownership and principles of status.

 Tibetan Human Bone Apron

Above: Tibetan apron constructed from human bone

These two objects encapsulate the ‘prestige collecting’ outlined above. These men appeared to be of an old-fashioned persuasion and did not necessarily see room for multiple religions, cultures or ways of thinking and, when they did make an effort to learn something of the cultures from whom they collected, it was often to belittle those cultures in the aid of self-promotion.

Such views were to transfer into museum displays as objects moved from private ownership into museum collections. The Royal Scottish Museum purchased Ottley’s collection in 1905 for a staggering £110 for approximately 30 objects, showing how valuable the museum considered material from the Younghusband Expedition to be. In today’s money that would be approximately £6,500. The Museum would pay half that sum for over 100 Tibetan objects two years later (the collection of Lilian Le Mesurier in 1907). In the Annual Report for 1905, the Museum clearly acknowledged the importance of the collection:

‘Of the additions to the collections illustrative of the arts of the Far East, the most important is the collection acquired from Major Ottley of the 34th Sikh Pioneers, who was on active service with the Expedition to Lhasa in 1904’

The money received for this collection would be of great benefit to Ottley, as post-1904 his military career declined. His views on military policy and leadership were now considered outmoded, and although he was promoted to the rank of Brevet-Major following the Expedition, his career never advanced further.[3] He served in the Middle East during the First World War (1914 – 1918), before retiring from the army in 1922. It is unclear what became of him in his later years, although his wife was Canadian and he may have retired there.

Lt. Frederick ‘Eric’ Marsham Bailey (1882 – 1957)

Frederick Bailey, or Eric as he was more commonly known, was born in Lahore, India in 1882. His father worked for the Forestry Commission and was the family’s third generation to work for the Indian Army. His mother came from several generations of missionaries, including one of the earliest missionaries to work in India, Joshua Marshman (1768 – 1837). In about 1890 the family, who were from Edinburgh originally, returned to the city and from 1895-1900 Eric studied at both Sandhurst and Wellington military colleges, but never took his final officers exams. Instead, in 1901 he was sent to India, where he joined the 17th Bengal Lancers. In 1903, as a lieutenant, he joined the Younghusband Expedition as part of the 32nd Sikh Pioneers, under Captain Ottley’s command, and served with the regiment until 1905.

Like many of his fellow officers, Eric Bailey made a collection of artefacts during the Younghusband Expedition. The collection, like Ottley’s, shows little interest in learning about Tibetan culture and is more reflective of the opportunistic nature of gathering loot during battle. On reaching Naini Monastery, a fortified monastery south of the Tibetan stronghold at Gyantze, troops looted the monastery’s famous library, and several carved and gilded book covers can be found in Eric Bailey’s collection. These book covers were the only objects he ever openly acknowledged he had looted and they were most likely collected for their aesthetic value, as he had dispensed with the texts themselves. This was despite scholarly circles in Britain feverishly seeking out Tibetan Buddhist writings, which he would undoubtedly have known as the British Museum itself had sent a man to accompany the Expedition, specifically to collect texts. [4] Eric’s admission of looting and his lack of interest in the texts themselves points to him being another ‘prestige collector’. Many of the types of objects he collected, such as small statuettes, gau and weaponry from the battlefield were collected opportunistically and his letters home (now held in the British Library [5]) give no suggestion that he was doing anything more than amassing goods at this time.

However, unlike Ottley who seemed unchanged by his experiences, Eric Bailey’s relationship with Tibet and Tibetan material culture did change. The majority of the objects he later sold to the Royal Scottish Museum were not acquired during the Younghusband Expedition, but in the five years after it, and reflect both his change in circumstances and his change in attitude.

When the Younghusband Expedition ended with Tibetan defeat, and the signing of a treaty in Lhasa in August 1904, Eric Bailey was one of a handful of officers who spoke Tibetan and were retained within Tibetan territory as Trade Agents. The role was not political, but the job did require him to keep his ear to the ground, listening out for any useful information that might assist the British Empire’s position in the region. Bailey reported to the Political Officer in Sikkim, who was responsible for orchestrating maintaining relations with Tibet following the Expedition. During this time he was variously stationed at Gyantze and in the Chumbi Valley and it was during this period that the majority of the Tibetan material he collected was acquired.

Bailey’s first task was to accompany the 9th Panchen Lama, Thubten Chökyi Nyima (1883 – 1937), who had attended the Delhi Durbar in 1903, back to his monastic seat in Shigatse (also known as Xigaze). Bailey and the Panchen Lama became good friends, and it was this friendship that probably signaled the shift in his attitude to Tibetan people and their material culture. Letters sent back to his family in Edinburgh show a really affection for the Panchen Lama, with whom he shared a love of animals and Harry Lauder (musician 1870 – 1950) records, and who he always referred to as ‘Tashilama’[6] Following their shared travels the two men remained friends and Bailey would often go to visit the Panchen Lama until the end of 1906 when the political relationship of their countries overshadowed their personal friendship and such meetings ceased at the request of Bailey’s superior officers.

From 1906 until 1909, when he returned to Edinburgh, Eric Bailey continued collecting, but his collection now had a different focus. Objects were bought and exchanged, or presented as gifts from people who were no longer the enemy but became friends and acquaintances. His letters home and the diaries of his mother recount both the development of these relationships and the objects that they produced. The objects were sent home to his parents in batches, recorded by his mother Florence Bailey (dates unknown), who set about arranging them in small display cases within the family home. Eric sent her information with the objects, about their use and manufacture, which she then used to write labels. The Bailey family drawing room therefore presented a miniature museum of Tibetan material culture. Among the items we know were displayed in this manner was a prayer wheel, which Eric had actually collected during the Younghusband Expedition, but which was now presented as a significant cultural artifact, rather than a looted trophy.

Another interesting object collected at this time is a woman’s headdress known as a Pakor. This distinctive ornamental headdress is particular to the southern region of Tibet. A servant presented it to Bailey, as he was moving to the north and his wife would no longer need it. She would purchase a new headdress in the style of their new homeland.     

The display of objects in the Bailey family’s Edinburgh home was seen by many people between 1906-1909, including the Keeper of the Art and Ethnography Department at the Royal Scottish Museum, David James Vallance (1849 – 1915). He met with Florence and her husband Frederick in December 1906 and was clearly keen for the collection to come into the Museum. Although this did not happen immediately Bailey, still in Tibet, started collected different objects with the museum in mind.

Two items, which are both visually stunning and have great historic cultural significance, are a set of armour for a man and armour for a horse [see photo below]. Both sets of armour had been purchased in Gyantze and Bailey had been told that they were very old and important but he knew little about them. He did, however, realise that the Museum would probably be very interested in them if they really were that important and so took the risk of paying quite a lot of money for them, with the hope he would be suitably reimbursed when he sold them on. By this time Bailey was experiencing money shortages, probably due to his love of hunting and entertaining, both of which were expensive hobbies, and his continued activities collecting objects. His letters home from this time outline many of his financial worries and his hopes that the collection would go some way to alleviate these woes.

Tibetan Horse Armour

Above: Tibetan armour for a horse

Eric Bailey returned home in 1909 and in 1910 officially sold his collection to the Royal Scottish Museum. He included most of the material he had purchased whilst he was a trade agent but kept back the gifts given to him by his friend the Panchen Lama. Unlike Ottley, he did not single out objects collected during the Younghusband Expedition, nor did he make mention of the methods by which he had acquired them. By 1910 his attitude had changed enough that, whilst he would not have classed himself as a scholar of Tibetan material culture, he had developed a respect for the Tibetan people and the artefacts that they made.

Bailey’s relationship with Tibet did not end there. In 1921, now married, he became Political Officer for Sikkim, the territory in Northern India that bordered Tibet. Both he and his wife developed many friendships whilst based in Gangtok (at the Residency) and built up a new collection, now housed in the World Museum Liverpool. Following on from his posting (which ended in 1928) he remained in the Political Service until his retirement in 1938. In 1957 he died at his home in Norfolk.


[1] For more information see Harris,  C. The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and Representation of Tibet (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012), pp.74-75.

[2] Allen, C. Duels in the Snow: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. (London: John Murray Publishers, 2004), pp. 44, 176.

[3] The title of Brevet was given as a reward to officers for gallantry or bravery. It prefixed an honorific promotion but denoted that the individual held this title in name only and was not entitled to the pay or authority of someone holding that rank. Therefore Ottley was a Major in title only. 

[4] This man was Colonel Laurence Austin Waddell (1854 – 1938), British explorer, philologist, amateur archaeologist and Tibetan expert, who had been studying Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan material culture since the 1880s in Darjeeling, where he was government sanitation officer. 

[5] Bailey Family Papers. [Mss EUR/F.157] India Office Private Papers, British Library, London.

[6] The Panchen Lama’s official residence was Tashilhunpo Monastery and so the British often referred to him as the ‘Tashi-Lama’, which was further developed by Bailey to ‘Tashilama’.

Back to top