On my first day at Canadian Geographic I attended an editorial meeting. Sitting around a large conference table, I did my best to listen attentively. But truth be told, I found it difficult. On the opposite wall from where I sat was a glorious collection of old charters for The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and to make matters worse, beside them hung an exotic Asian-looking sword and scabbard.
With this antique weapon directly in my line of sight, it wasn't long before I lost the thread of the discussion and gave myself over to pondering the sword. In my mind it stirred day dreams of explorations and explorers. Wondering about the story behind this intriguing weapon, I noticed a plaque on the wall beneath it, and read the engraving:
"Presented to The Canadian Geographical Society by Sir Francis Younghusband, guest-lecturer, at the inaugural meeting of the Society in Ottawa. January 1930. This Tibetan sword was presented to Sir Francis Younghusband by the Chief of Bhutan in 1904."
More intrigued than ever, I resolved to learn more about the man who had brought this sword out of the mountains of central Asia to Ottawa more than eighty years ago.
Sir Francis Younghusband, I soon learned, lived a life so extraordinary that it seemed like he was the product of some novelist’s imagination, rather than a real person. A child of the British Empire, Younghusband was born in 1863 in what is now Pakistan, where his father was stationed on military service. He was sent to England as a youth to receive an education, and attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. But it was as an explorer, not a soldier, that Younghusband would make his name.
In 1886 he participated in a British expedition venturing from India to Manchuria, and evidently impressed by his abilities, his superiors thereafter dispatched him to explore the vast Gobi Desert of northern China and Mongolia. With only a few guides, Younghuband set off from Beijing on an epic journey through unknown and unforgiving territory, successfully crossing the Gobi Desert and then making his way over the Himalayan Mountains back into India. For this remarkable journey, at age twenty-four he was elected the youngest ever fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society.
Next, Younghusband explored the border regions between India, China, and Russia, and the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, entering remote areas that time seemed to have forgotten. He wrote about these adventures in his book, The Heart of a Continent (1896).
Meanwhile, he was rising through the ranks of the British Army and diplomatic service, and in 1903 was tasked with leading an expedition to Tibet, one of the world’s least known and most mysterious countries. Tibet’s isolated location high in the Himalayas and its policy of keeping out all foreigners made it something of an explorer’s dream — a seemingly enchanted kingdom hidden in the clouds. Younghusband became one of the first Europeans to enter Tibet’s capital, the Forbidden City of Lhasa.
However, the expedition was marred by battles between Younghusband’s forces, mostly Indian troops, and the Tibetan army. The bloodshed and lofty mountains left a deep impression on him, and he increasingly became filled by a sense of the divine. From this point on he became a mystic, contemplating founding his own religion and writing numerous books on the subject. He even mused about fathering a "god-child" who would become a prophet of the new religion he dreamed of. Regardless of his eccentricities, he was elected president of the Royal Geographical Society, and in that capacity began promoting an expedition to scale Mount Everest. In 1930, by then an explorer of almost legendary stature, he arrived in Ottawa with a memento from one of his expeditions, a sword from the chief of Bhutan.
Younghusband presented it to the newly founded Canadian Geographical Society, and perhaps by doing so hoped to inspire the same sense of adventure and wanderlust that drove his life. Whatever his claims as a mystic, he succeeded in bewitching me. Staring transfixed at his sword, I felt myself at once seized by an irresistible urge to explore distant lands.