Journey to the East16 min read

Thomas Manning’s journey to Lhasa in 1811 – Christopher DeCou

The mountainous Tibetan landscape was once thought of as impregnable to Western explorers. Today, Lhasa has an airport and a train-station. Yet under Communist rule, access is heavily restricted for foreigners once more. At the beginning of the 19th century Thomas Manning – a Chinese-enthusiast from England – travelled to Tibet, thinking it to be his secret backdoor into China. In the process, he became the first Englishman to enter Lhasa, in 1811. This is his story.


Portrait of Thomas Manning at the Royal Asiatic Society, London (Wikicommons)

Born November 8 1772, at Diss in Norfolk, the second son to a middle-class English family, Thomas Manning was a man of “independent character,” known at an early age for his quick intelligence, sardonic wit, and unbounded curiosity. Thomas entered Cambridge at eighteen and excelled in mathematics, eventually producing his own textbook in algebra and arithmetic. But he was unable to advance at the university. He admired Quaker modesty and with it the refusal to swear oaths. Accordingly, when asked to swear loyalty to the Church of England, he demurred and was barred from further studies.

That independent streak reared its head again when in 1802, as his friend the essayist Charles Lamb wrote in one his letters, “Mr. Manning had begun to be haunted with the idea of China, and to talk of going thither.” China-mania had swept across Georgian England, inspiring curiosity about the “Celestial Empire.” Throughout the 18th century, the Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuse, sent from the Jesuit missions stationed in the Americas, Africa and Asia mesmerized European audiences. More than just a world of silks, tea and porcelains, travel writers and political philosophers revered China as a model moral government. It was a chinoiserie that went beyond just art to high culture and philosophy. The only problem: how would Manning even begin? Only a handful of people were familiar with how to read and speak Chinese at the time. Since Paris was the center of science, in January 1802, after a brief tour of England and the Isle of Wight, Manning bought a ticket on the ship Diligence and set sail from Dover to Normandy, from where he went straight by carriage to the French capital.

Serendipity eventually helped Manning in his mission. After a chance encounter, he was introduced to Dr. Hagar, the conservator of Oriental Manuscripts at the National Library of France. The year prior in London, Hagar had published An Explanation of the Elementary Characters of the Chinese – a more mythic than academic treatise on the Chinese language, but the work secured his appointment to the French Academy of Sciences. Manning assisted Hagar in his research and forged a friendship, for Manning thought Chinese is “so curious a language [it] is a greater bond of unison among men than even Free Masonry.”

The eccentric Englishman was on the verge of leaving for China when he experienced his first major setback. He planned to be in France for one year, but the Peace of Amiens ended in 1803, and war broke out between the French and British. Charles Lamb begged him, “For God’s sake, do not think any more of independent Tartary!” But Manning would not relent. British nationals living in France at the time were under house arrest, and while Manning was as cross as “old Kitchen tongs” for being detained, he applied for a special permit to see China. For months he went back and forth from Paris to Chateau de Serrant, the country estate of his Parisian friends. His father also wrote to dissuade him from the trip, but Manning assured him: “Do not be alarmed, different people have different lots – mine is to wander for a while.” Finally, in late 1804, in part due to the supplication of Talleyrand, an official letter from the Ministry of War arrived “Au nom du government” declaring that the “1 meter 75 centimeter, brown-eyed” Thomas Manning “could leave by Berlin to China.”


As soon as he received his laissez-passer at the end of 1804, Manning sailed to England and visited his family. It took him nearly a year to secure passage on an East India Company ship to China, a man-of-war called the Thames, against his family’s protestations. Initially, he had planned to travel via Russia, but no one would take him to Moscow. Instead, he had appealed to the Board of Directors at the East India Company, stating I am “now anxiously desirous of first residing such time at Canton under protection of the Company.” Permission was granted, and Manning was given small sleeping quarters on the next convoy.

Fortunately for Manning, when he arrived at Portsmouth in the spring of 1806, just before departure, he met Mr. Chapman, one of the managing owners of the Thames. After hearing that Manning was a Cambridge-educated mathematician and scholar, Mr. Chapman asked Manning to tutor his son and a friend who were also accompanying the journey, which made a “world of difference in my affairs.” Now having a patron in one of the owners, and “the captain being his slave”, Manning received a cabin and servants and “everything I want. Tis the luckiest thing in the world – for I was in danger of having no berth but my length and breath.”

The voyage to Asia took nearly six months. After Portsmouth, they first skirted the Madeira Islands, circumnavigated West Africa, and then stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, to resupply and disembark. From there, they entered the Indian Ocean and arrived in October at the island of Penang, situated on the west coast of today’s Malaysia. During the voyage, Manning decided to grow a beard – “I asked permission of the Ladies first” – which at first looked “a great fright” and later was said “to become me.” Crammed into his cabin – his “little sort of Closet” – Thomas Manning also wrote to his father about doubts concerning his journey: “I have begun this letter to say that all is well,” he wrote, “that the sea agrees with me … Recollections come over me very often, that I am like a child particularly upon rummaging my papers and old letters … I run away from [friendly affection] to bother about among the damned Chinese and Tartarians [sic]! It seems that I ‘like the base Indian, throw my pearls away.’”

China-mania had swept across Georgian England, inspiring curiosity about the ‘Celestial Empire’”

The crew arrived in Canton (Guangzhou) in January 1807, but Manning struggled to travel further inland on account of the strained relationship between the British and the Chinese. Since the 1760s, the British and the Chinese had formalized what came to be called the Canton system – a complex set of rules and regulations on conducting trade, or in Manning’s words “a very degraded and disgraceful situation.” The Qing court definitely held the upper hand, being at the height of their power and not needing Western merchandise. They imposed the “Eight Regulations,” which not only required trade with local Chinese sponsors, but also limited the access of British and other foreign merchants to the Chinese interior. The British were only allowed to live in certain buildings dedicated for trade, and to conduct such trade outside the city walls within a set timeframe, then they had to leave for Macao or other islands in the South Pacific once trading was complete. In addition to limiting movement, the Qing banned these foreigners from learning Chinese, requiring them to employ Chinese linguists and translators. Manning wrote: “To be sure we have as great a contempt for the Chinese as they have for us, we have our revenge there – but they are the masters, nobody can deny that.”

Notwithstanding the relationship, Manning applied for an exception, due to his mathematical and medical background, hoping that as a scientist the Qing would respect and grant him permission. Historically, the Jesuits entered the Ming and Qing courts because of their mathematical prowess. During the 18th century, however, the Society of Jesus had been expelled, and the last Jesuit astronomer, Jose Almeida, died in 1805. According to a later documenter of the East India Company, Manning first made procedural mistakes in his application, sending his petition to the local official instead of the Chinese merchants. The petition was denied. The local official would not even send the request to the Emperor because he claimed, rather suspiciously, that there were already too many European astronomers in Beijing. Two French priests were also denied months before Manning’s application; from the Qing point of view, Westerners caused trouble. The White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804) had dramatically strained their resources, and foreigners, especially the British, were viewed as suspect, trying to exploit weaknesses to gain additional access.

But even if the Qing had permitted him to travel to Beijing – and despite his own apolitical interests – insofar as the East India Company was concerned, Manning aided their larger goal: access to internal markets. “Sitting alone in a room at the very extremity of the earth in the evening hearing nothing but the tones of a Chinese string instrument played on by a Chinese servant belonging to the factory,” Manning wrote, “the only people with whom I can have intercourse are a few men drawn here by commerce, who are waiting the fulfillment of their fortune, with their eyes turned towards their own country, ready to take wind the moment their honey traps are filled, and who instead of forming a sort of arch of communication between me and the inhabitants of the country, gather themselves up in a round knot which seems to admit of no point of contact with the natives. Like water on a cabbage leaf, they drop off in succession and leave no traces.” The Company only cared about trade. It was so protective of its monopoly that other Europeans who had attempted to reside in Canton and had any kind of market interest were banned by the Company’s mandate.

Manning returned to Macao when trading ceased, and weighed his options. At first, he considered entering China through French Indochina. He contacted a representative there for a recommendation, and left in March 1808 full of hope: “I shall soon see the Emperor and shall perhaps feel shi pulse! What stories I shall have to tell!” But it did not go as planned. Manning thereafter focused on improving his Chinese, and “the veiled mysteries of the Chinese language gradually open upon my view.” But one option remained. Even as early as his first letter to the East India Company, in case he could not acquire permission from Canton, “I propose … to proceed to such part of the Chinese frontier as I shall then judge most eligible for my purpose.” Thus, on October 11, 1808, he left the British strongholds in Southeast Asia and sailed to Calcutta to enter China via Tibet.

Illustration of Lhasa by Jesuit monk Johann Grueber 1661 (Wikicommons)


In the early 19th century, Tibet was a part of the Chinese frontier and only recently fallen under Qing control. For two centuries, Tibet had remained independent. It was a religious state, unified under the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) in the 17th century, and exercised religious authority throughout Inner Asia. That changed in the 18th century. The Dzungars, a rival to the Qing, invaded Tibet and attempted to establish their own sympathetic leader in 1720. The Qing then sent troops into the Tibetan highlands to expel the Dzungars, and subsequently established a Tibetan protectorate. But Tibet resisted. By the early 19th century, the Qing removed indigenous authority and increased their control over the province. They established the ambam – a representative from the imperial court who managed garrisons, administered foreign affairs, and mediated contact between the Dalai Lama and the Qing emperor.

In September 1811, after months preparing, Thomas Manning left today’s Bangladesh and entered the Himalayas. They had to cross the mountain passes before the heavy snowfalls. Each day “we continued along the barren valley seeing no diversity but the ever-varying shapes of the still more barren mountains, whose colour, where it was not actually sand, slate or granite, was a melancholy pale moldy green, produced no doubt by the scaly covering of dried stems and withered herbage.” The days were wet, cold and lonely. Despite having improved his language skills so that he could speak Chinese or Latin with the Chinese Christian servant who accompanied him, “a spaniel would be better company,” Manning sardonically noted. Once they had crossed the frontier between Bhutan and Tibet, Manning met a local Chinese official who sent a request on his behalf to visit the holy city of Lhasa. “He was very civil and promised to write immediately to the Lhasa mandarin,” wrote Manning, although he observed that “the Chinese lord it here like the English in India.”

Within a few weeks, the Cambridge scholar entered the famous city. He soon grew worried the Chinese would discover him as Western outsider. The new ambam at Lhasa had previously been the representative at Canton, and Manning worried, “Lest the Tatar mandarin should recollect having seen my face at Canton … I put on my China spectacles to disguise my eyes as much as I could.” Similarly, his translator had left China without official permission, and he was also concerned that he might be in trouble. Thankfully, the official had poor eyesight, and made no mention whether he recognized them; and when another military officer asked if Manning had ever been in Canton, the Englishman denied it. Manning felt so safe that he considered he was entitled to respect on account of being a foreigner, and “from my beard.”

Tibet was a part of the Chinese frontier and only recently fallen under Qing control”

On December 17 1811, Manning visited the Dalai Lama for the first time, a child “about seven years old.” Lhasa rests in a valley surrounded by towering snow-covered mountains, and the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama, sits just outside the city on a small mountain. They rode horses to the base, dismounted, then proceeded on foot up the four-hundred stone steps carved from the mountainside. At the top, they climbed another set of ladder-like steps to a platform, which served as the entrance hall. There, Manning and the Dalai Lama exchanged gifts and spoke of various affairs. “He addressed himself in the Tibet tongue to the Chinese interpreter; the Chinese interpreter to my [servant]; my [servant] to me in Latin.” wrote Manning. “I gave answer in Latin, which was converted and conveyed back in the same manner. I had been long accustomed to speak Latin with my [servant]. There was no sentiment or shade of sentiment we could not exchange. Thus, though the route was circuitous, the communication was quick, and the questions and answers delivered with an accuracy which I have reason to believe seldom happens in Asia when interpreters are employed.”

During the following weeks, Manning met twice more with the Dalai Lama. Before long, however, the local official realized he was a foreigner from British-controlled India. The official announced the Englishman’s presence in Lhasa to the emperor in Beijing. Manning tried to convince the bureaucrats that he had come to China to learn about “its manners; the actual degree of happiness the people enjoy; their sentiments and opinions, so far as they influence life; their literature; their history; the causes of their stability and vast population; their minor arts and contrivances; what there might be in China worthy to serve as a model for imitation, and what to serve as a beacon to avoid.” Other officials spoke on his behalf, for he had practiced medicine among the villages and surrounding peoples, and healed many influential figures, as well as introduced vaccination to local doctors. But in the end, he had to leave.

On April 6 1812, he met the Dalai Lama for the last time. He exchanged farewells with the leader and his ministers. Ten days later, he and his servant packed their trunks with supplies, gifts and books they had received from the Dalai Lama, and the two returned to India.


Thomas Manning failed to journey to Beijing through Tibet in 1811-1812; nevertheless, he became the first Englishman to visit Lhasa. His journey was one of the most curious transcontinental journeys in the early 19th century for its personal motive, removed from either economic or political purpose. While other travelers to Central Asia capitalized on their unique experience, writing stories of their adventures and travels, Manning wrote just one short article on his observations of tea drinking, which he published on returning to England.

Tibet continued to be ruled by the Qing until much later in the 19th century, when revolutions and outside invasions would destabilize the territory. As for Manning, he would not attempt to cross again through the Himalayas, but he would ultimately achieve his dream of visiting China in 1816. After the failed mission, he returned to Canton and Macao where he continued his Chinese studies. He developed proficiency and began to serve as a local interpreter and employee of the East India Company. In 1816, as frustrations with the regulations escalated, the East India Company sponsored a delegation to Beijing and needed translators.

Thomas Manning joined Sir George Staunton, one of the most famous British experts on China, and the missionary Robert Morrison as a part of the five-person translation team for the embassy. They sailed to Lord Amherst’s ship Alceste, but upon boarding Manning was nearly banned from joining the embassy on account of his beard. He had barely shaved in ten years, and Lord Amherst, the plenipotentiary of the mission, “abhorred all such decorations.” Lord Amherst demanded the beard go. Manning refused. If not for the help of Staunton, Manning would have never seen the Chinese capital. The two parties compromised: Manning agreed to trim and clean the beard, and Lord Amherst allowed Manning to accompany them.

Manning remained an eccentric for the rest of his life. He returned to England in 1817, immediately after the mission to Beijing, and “vowed no razor shall ever defile his head again.” He entered a private life, as a quiet farmer-academic outside Deptford in an unfurnished cottage, with floors he refused to cover with carpets and walls he refused to decorate with paper. Instead, he spent his days visiting friends and family, and researching his Asian interests. During his time abroad, he had amassed “the finest Chinese library in Europe.” An old China hand, he translated Chinese and Tibetan literature and consulted various individuals about China and Tibet for the rest of his life. In 1838, he suffered a stroke, finally gave in to the “impertinent remarks of strangers” about his white, chest-length beard and shaved it all. He died two years later, and donated his collection to the Royal Asiatic Library. ∎

Header: Sketch map of Tibet showing the explorations of another adventurer in Tibet, Dr. Sven Hedin, 1906-1908 (Library of Congress/Picryl)