Charles Alfred Bell

Diplomat and Tibetologist

Charles Alfred Bell was born in Calcutta, India, on 31 October 1870 to Henry and Anne Bell. As one of six children he would eventually follow in his father's footsteps and take up a post in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). Bell first studied at Winchester School and then at New College, Oxford, after which he joined the ICS in 1891. He spent his first nine years in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, gaining promotion from District Magistrate, to Settlement Officer and then finally to District Judge (the same post his father had held). It was here that he caught malaria, which lead to his transfer to Darjeeling in 1900 and which would continue to blight his health for the rest of his life. His early work found him carrying out land surveys in Kalimpong, and acting as assistant officer in the Chumbi Valley (1904-05) alongside learning the Tibetan language. After acting as Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet during John Claude White's leave, he became the preferred choice for the post in 1908, holding it until 1918.

Bell's tenure, coincided with one of the most successful periods in Anglo-Tibetan relations. It began with the unexpected arrival of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in British India in 1910. His Holiness and a large entourage had fled Tibet following the arrival of 2000 Chinese troops in to Lhasa. As Political Officer for the region, Bell was responsible for the Dalai Lama during his exile and the two men began a friendship that would last throughout their lives and which is seen as the high point of British Indian and Tibetan ties.

Bell also played an important role as advisor on Tibetan affairs to the British plenipotentiary, Sir Henry McMahon during the Simla conference between British India, Tibet and China in 1913-14. Bell was so well-trusted by the Tibetan government that he occasionally acted as the Tibetan representative during the conference. The relationship he development with Lönchen Shatra, the Tibetan plenipotentiary was an affectionate and long lasting one.

Bell continued as Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet until 1918. When he asked to retire on health grounds and due to mounting work pressures. Bell stayed in the Darjeeling area for the next two years, devoting himself to the research, which would eventually lead to the publication of four books on Tibetan culture, history and religion.

His chance to finally visit Lhasa came unexpectedly in 1920 when, following the sudden departure of Political Officer Captain W L Campbell, Bell returned to his post to head a special diplomatic mission to the Tibetan capital. Bell's role was to advise the Tibetans on foreign policy and to sideline the increasing Chinese influence, if possible.

Although Bell had thought his mission would last for just a few weeks, he stayed in Lhasa for almost a year. After his return, he left for England to focus on writing his books; Tibet: Past and Present (1924), The People of Tibet (1928), and The Religion of Tibet (1931). Palhese, Bell's Tibetan friend and confidant travelled to England in 1927-28 to assist him in editing several of these volumes. He was awarded a Knighthood for his Lhasa Mission in 1922.

In 1934-35 Bell took a private trip to Tibet, Manchuria and Mongolia with his wife, Cashie and his daughter Rongnye (His wife, Cashie died in Manchuria of Meningitis). He had hoped to visit Lhasa one more time, but following the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, in December 1933, while Bell was waiting for permissions in Chumbi Valley, his passport to travel was not granted until it was too late.

Bell's last major work was the, Portrait of the Dalai Lama, a semi-biographical account of his good friend, published posthumously in 1946. Bell finished the transcripts just a few days before he died in St Joseph's Hospital, Oak Bay on Vancouver Island, where he had emigrated to in 1940.

He is buried in Oak Ridge Memorial Gardens, Oak Ridge, Vancouver Island, next to Cashie's remains.
  • Gender
    Male
  • Relationship
  • Nationality
    British
  • Born
    31October 1870
  • Place of birth
    Asia: Southern Asia: India: Kolkata [Calcutta]
  • Died
    8 March 1945
  • Place of death
    Americas: Northern America: Canada: British Columbia: Vancouver
  • Cause of death
    Unknown or unrecorded
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