Why the 1923 Nepal–Britain Treaty of Friendship is of great importance for Nepal and the UK
Prof Dr Surya Subedi
The 1923 treaty between Nepal and the British imperial power is of historical significance for Nepal, despite the fact that, in 1950, it was replaced by two separate treaties of peace and friendship—one with independent India and the other one with the UK after the British withdrawal from South Asia in 1947. The 1923 treaty between Nepal and the British imperial power remains of historical significance for Nepal for the following main reasons.
First, this was the first formal recognition of the sovereignty and independence of Nepal by the UK thereby attracting the application of the international law principle of sovereign equality of States in the conduct of relations between a mighty imperial power and a small Himalayan state. The doubt in the mind of some Nepali people that Britain may one day invade Nepal in the process of consolidating its grip in South Asia was removed. When much of South Asia was under British subjugation, in South Asia Nepal alone held its head high like the Himalayas and never had a foreign flag flying over Nepal.
Second, although Nepal was not a member of the League of Nations, the fact that this treaty was registered with the League in 1925 signified Nepal’s indirect admission to the galaxy of independent nations even during the time of the League. After the conclusion of the 1923 Treaty, Nepal began to come in contact with more States and this treaty made it easy. Nepal was the first South Asian country to establish an embassy in London in 1934. Nepal established its diplomatic relations with the United States 1946—before India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka gained their independence.
Third, this treaty helped Nepal to obtain membership of the UN in 1955 when there was some doubt in certain quarters whether Nepal had existed all along as a fully sovereign independent nation. When making an application to the UN in 1949, this treaty was submitted by Nepal as evidence of its independence even during the British rule in India. Nepal informed the UN that the 1923 treaty explicitly “restated” the country’s independence and sovereignty. Nepal maintained that “the Government of Nepal has never considered that either the Treaty of Sugauli or any other treaties, agreements or engagements impaired its independence and sovereignty.”
Fourth, the treaty ended any potential ‘suzerain’ claim by China over Nepal by virtue of the 1792 Treaty that had stated in Article 1 that “China should henceforth be considered as father to both Nepal and Tibet, who should regard each other as brothers.”
British envoy to Nepal William O’Connor and Prime Minister
Chandra Shamsher after signing the treaty on 21 December 1923. (Photo Courtesy: Nepali Times archives)
Fifth, the 1923 treaty helped Nepal to stay as an independent sovereign state in the immediate aftermath of the independence of India when senior Indian politicians such as Ballav Bhai Patel were reported to have wished to annex Nepal within India during the process of creating of a Union of India out of the hundreds of principalities, fiefdoms, and self-governing territories that existed during the British rule over India. People like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru seemed to have taken the view on the basis of, inter alia, the 1923 treaty that Nepal had always remained independent even during the Raj and should thus be treated as such in the future too.
Andrew Sparks, former British Ambassador, is perhaps right in stating that: “Without it [i.e., the 1923 treaty] with Indian independence in 1947 Nepal might have been hard put to it to retain its separate identity.”
Sixth, the 1950 treaties of peace and friendship between Nepal and India, as well as between Nepal and the UK, which govern the relations between these countries to this date, drew heavily on the 1923 treaty or were actually modeled on this treaty.
Seventh, the conclusion of this treaty represented a masterful display of diplomacy by the Rana regime in Nepal (no matter how autocratic that regime was) and especially by Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher himself, who skillfully cultivated Nepal’s relations and his own personal relations with the British Royalty, the British rulers in India and especially the British resident representative or British envoy in Nepal, William O’Connor.
Eighth, the record of diplomatic correspondence from the colonial India Office of the British Government, which is kept in the manuscript section of the British Library, demonstrates the painstaking efforts made by both sides for the conclusion of this treaty. When a young Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher of Nepal met the young Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, at the Coronation Durbar, a ten-minute meeting stretched to an hour-and-a-half and a lasting friendship was built between the two. Chandra Shamsher understood how to deal with the British to safeguard the interests of Nepal.
It has been said by historians that were it not for the quid pro quo as demanded by Chandra Shamsher on the completion of the First World War for the sacrifice made by the Gurkhas in the battlefields around the globe, the 1923 treaty ratifying Nepal’s full sovereignty would not have come about. No wonder Leo Rose goes as far as to suggest that “Jung Bahadur and Chandra Shamsher deserve recognition as two of the great nationalist heroes of Nepal.”
Historical background of the treaty
The 1923 treaty was a treaty concluded with Nepal by the UK at the height of its imperial power. The first real encounter between the forces of Nepal and Britain took place when King Prithvi Narayan Shah halted the advance of Captain Kinloch in 1767. This was the time when the King was in the process of unifying Nepal. He laid down the foundations of the Nepali foreign policy stating that Nepal was a small country sandwiched between the two giants of Asia and had thus had to maintain a policy of neutrality and equilibrium between the two.
However, when war broke out between China and Nepal and the Chinese came within striking distance of Kathmandu, a Treaty of Commerce was signed between the Governor-General of British India and the King of Nepal, Rana Bahadur Shah, in 1792. This was perhaps the first ever treaty signed between a representative of the East India Company and Nepal. In 1801, another treaty between the British Governor-General of India and the King of Nepal was signed. Some provisions in this treaty were designed to help Nepal in the event of a Chinese attempt to subjugate Nepal.
This is because in 1789 the Tibetan government stopped the usage of Nepali coins for trade in Tibet, citing purity concerns over the copper and the silver coins minted by the Nepali government, which led to the first Tibet-Nepal War. In the face of the victory of the Nepali army, the Lhasa Durbar asked for assistance from China which led to the first Sino-Nepal War in which Nepal was defeated. At the end of the War (1789–1792), Nepal was forced to sign the ‘Treaty of Betrawati’ in 1792 according to which Nepal was required to make payment of tribute to the Qing court in Peking once every five years. The treaty also stipulated that both Nepal and Tibet recognize the suzerainty of China which would be obliged to help Nepal defend against any external aggression.
For a while the Nepalis did use the Chinese connection to prevent any possible advances by the British from the south. Nevertheless, the bitter experience of the war with the Chinese coming so close to Kathmandu had made the rulers of Nepal wanting to develop close relations with Britain. They were seeking to cultivate relations with their southern neighbor to seek assistance in the event of any further Chinese aggression.
However, when both Nepal and Britain were in the process of expansion their interests clashed which led to the outbreak of hostilities between them in 1814. In spite of the provisions in Article 5 of the 1792 treaty between Nepal and China stating that China will come to the rescue of Nepal in the event of a foreign power attacking Nepal, China refused the Nepali government’s request to provide support to Nepali forces during the war with the British in 1814-1815. Any Chinese claim over Nepal should have effectively ended here, but the Chinese official position vis-à-vis Nepal did not change.
Nepal’s defeat at the hands of the British and the cloud of the Chinese claim of suzerainty hanging over Nepal had put Prime Minister Bhim Sen Thapa in a very difficult situation. This was a turning point for Nepal in the conduct of her foreign relations. Bhim Sen Thapa saw one Indian state after another come within the net of the British Empire, and his policy was steadily directed to save Nepal from a similar fate. Both Jung Bahadur and Chandra Shamsher, the Rana Prime Ministers, saw the world around them through the same lenses.
Hence, the policy they pursued was a policy of appeasement of the British by assisting the British in the suppression of mutiny within India or sending the Gurkhas or sometimes even Nepali troops to fight for the British elsewhere or inviting the members of the British ruling class to lavish big games in Nepal, rather than seeking shelter as a suzerain under the Chinese umbrella since they had failed to assist Nepal during the war with the British. The attempts to cultivate good relations with the then expanding mighty British empire led to the conclusion of a treaty in 1860, in which Britain restored to Nepal the lowlands between the river Kali and the district of Gorakhpur that had been ceded to the British by Nepal under the 1816 treaty following Nepal’s defeat at the hands of the British.
When much of South Asia came under British colonial rule and Nepal under imperial influence, the British were pursuing a policy which regarded the Himalayas as the ultimate frontier vis-à-vis the Chinese empire. Consequently, Tibet, rather than Nepal, was regarded as a buffer zone between the two empires. The 1906 Convention between Great Britain and China with regard to the inviolability of the status of China provided that Great Britain will not invade Tibet and China will not permit other states to interfere with the territory of Tibet. A similar provision was included in the Convention concluded between Great Britain and Russia in 1907, which recognized the suzerain rights of China in Tibet. In spite of the letters written by the German Imperial Chancellor and others during the Great War inciting Nepal against the British, Nepal remained true to the friendship with the British.
Soon after becoming Prime Minister of Nepal, Chandra Shamsher seemed to have worked hard to improve the relations with Britain on the basis of sovereign equality of States. Historians have remarked that within a few days of becoming prime minister in 1901, he had dispatched a letter to British India seeking closer ties, giving a clear message that Nepal and Britain are two sovereign nations and should be treated accordingly. He used Gurkha recruitment as a quid pro quo to acquire arms from the British, and eventually, to recognize Nepal’s independence.
The famous visit of the Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher to England in 1908 was crucial in cementing Nepal’s relations between the two countries. He was treated as the head of government of an independent country in the UK and special arrangements were made for his visit including a strange special permission to bring two Mooltan cows with the delegation of the Nepali Prime Minister (I have no idea why they wanted to bring these cows to England with them). Chandra Shamsher was awarded state honors as well as an honorary Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford, the highest accolade of the University of Oxford.
Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana (left) with King George V (right) during a 1911 hunting expedition in the Tarai. Ten years later, he hosted Prince Edward on another epic hunt in Chitwan. (Photo courtesy: Nepali Times archives)
On a personal note, nearly 112 years later, I received my Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford. I am the first Nepali to receive this highest award the University of Oxford can offer after Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher. His DCL was of course an honorary one, while mine is substantive. He received the DCL from the hands of Lord Curzon, former British Viceroy in India, who had become the Chancellor of the University of Oxford. It was through careful cultivation of his personal relations with the British Royalty, British rulers in India and the British envoy in Nepal that Chandra Shamsher was successful in concluding this treaty with Britain.
He was aware of the implied restrictions placed upon Nepal’s foreign policy by the Sugauli Treaty. He may also have been aware of the discussion within the British establishment until as late as 1919 whether Britain should gain full control of Nepal’s foreign relations. This must have been one of the reasons why he wanted Nepal to be recognized as a fully sovereign state by Britain. In 1921, when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, came to Kathmandu, Chandra Shamsher raised the question of formulating a new peace treaty between the two countries. The Rana prime minister reminded the British that the Nepali Gurkhas had given their blood for Britain in various wars around the globe.
It was estimated that the Ranas sent 200,000 troops to defend the British during World War I alone. There were a reported 24,000 Gurkha casualties in Gallipoli and in the trenches of Belgium and France. Thus, the 1923 treaty came at a very heavy price for Nepal. Although Nepal was getting an annual gift of 10 lakh rupees from the British, the sacrifice made by the Gurkhas with their blood far exceeded anything that Britain was providing to Nepal. For nearly two years the treaty was discussed by the British authorities in Kathmandu and London via the office of the British Viceroy in India until it was signed on 21 December 1923 in Singha Durbar in Kathmandu.
It was the first peacetime treaty concluded by Nepal with any foreign power and it was done in style. A grand ceremony took place in the Grand Council Hall of Singh Durbar in Kathmandu to mark the conclusion of the treaty. The British Resident, Lieutenant-Colonel William O’Connor, was received with military honors, including 31-gun salutes fired from Tundikhel. A two-day national holiday was announced in Nepal. Prisoners had a remission of three months of their sentences and Kathmandu was illuminated that night. The Rana Prime Minister, Chandra Shamsher, described the Treaty as “a magnificent dome crowning the whole” in the relations between the two countries.
Main provisions of the treaty
The main provision of the treaty was the recognition of independence of Nepal by Britain. Article 1 of the treaty stated that “There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the Governments of Great Britain and Nepal, and the two Governments agree mutually to acknowledge and respect each other’s independence, both internal and external.” The treaty also allowed for the importation of ammunition through India and stated that no levy would be imposed on the goods being imported into Nepal through India.
The diplomatic correspondence between the British resident representative in Kathmandu, the office of the British Viceroy in New Delhi and the India Office in London demonstrates that the British were concerned about including the provision concerning the free import of arms by Nepal in the treaty. The formal recognition of Nepal as a fully independent sovereign state or the provision of customs concessions to Nepal did not cause concern. The correspondence reveals that the India office in London considered acknowledging Nepal’s right to import weapons under narrowly defined conditions through a formal letter rather than through a new treaty. However, Chandra Shamsher wanted, inter alia, the abrogation of Article VII of the Treaty of Sugauli which imposed some restrictions on Nepal’s rights as a sovereign nation. He reminded the British that they had concluded a treaty with Afghanistan with more favorable conditions regarding the importation of arms and ammunition and wanted to expedite the process to conclude a new treaty with Nepal.
From Nepal’s point of view, the most significant provision of the treaty was that it secured Britain’s formal recognition of Nepal as a sovereign and independent State. Britain had already explicitly recognized Nepal as a completely independent state, had agreed to use the term “His Majesty” for the King of Nepal and was providing an annual gift of 10 lakh rupees to Nepal. However, it was more of a symbolic treaty as it did not change anything tangible. It was psychologically important for Nepal to secure this recognition. Unlike many treaties of peace, this treaty did not end any state of hostility. It was part of the package designed to reward Nepal for her help during the Great War. Territorial compensation was considered by Britain but was ruled out.
The other most significant achievement for Nepal was that through the conclusion of this treaty Britain officially denied China any claim of suzerainty over Nepal by virtue of the 1792 Treaty that had stated in Article 1 that “China should henceforth be considered as father to both Nepal and Tibet, who should regard each other as brothers.” Article 6 of the 1792 Treaty had required Nepal to send tributary missions to China every five years. The Chinese had a habit of never surrendering any inch of territory over which they have ever had even a transitory influence and Nepal had reasons to be concerned about it.
When Nepal strengthened her relations with Britain, she was less worried about China. The last tributary mission to China was dispatched in 1907. When China demanded another mission in 1912 Nepal declined. Britain came to the defense of Nepal and stated that it would also defend Sikkim and Bhutan against any Chinese claims over these kingdoms. Nepal received a consignment of ammunition in 1912 from the British to defend Nepal against any potential Chinese threat.
It should also be noted that the 1923 treaty was concluded after the Barcelona Convention had been concluded in 1921, providing freedom of transit for land-locked countries and the British were perhaps also honoring the provision of the Convention and the tradition in her relations vis-à-vis Nepal, a land-locked country.
The 1923 Treaty is an instrument which kept Nepal free when the whole of South Asia went through a period of redrawing boundaries and creating new States when the British were leaving India. It is this treaty which sent a clear message to China that its claim over Nepal was over. Although now it is merely a document of historical interest, it is this treaty which helped Nepal preserve its independence, from both the British and the Chinese, which the people of this country enjoy today.
The spirit that governed the 1816 treaty of Sugauli also governed the 1923 treaty and this treaty governs the present 1950 Treaty with India—a document of controversy in Nepal. Therefore, to understand the two 1950 treaties—one with India and another with the UK by Nepal—one has to understand the background to the 1923 Treaty and its provisions.
Although some commentators have stated that Nepal did not capitalize fully on the provisions of the treaty pointing to Nepal not taking a reciprocal move to establish an embassy in London on the same day that the British mission in Kathmandu became an embassy, or Nepal not applying for membership of the League of Nations established in 1918 after the end of the war in which so many Nepalis were killed, Dr Dinesh Bhattarai, former Nepali Ambassador to the UN in Geneva states that: “The 1923 Treaty Peace and Friendship helped Nepal to be recognized internationally as an independent country and not just another Indian princely state.” He explains: “It opened a new era for Nepal on the world stage.” I cannot agree more with him.
It should also be noted that it was through its dealings with Nepal, whether through war or through peacetime relations, that Britain was able to expand and consolidate its empire in South Asia. Had Nepal won the war with the British in 1814-1815, or if the successive governments of Nepal had not provided the support, whether military, logistical or otherwise, to the British in the decades after the conclusion of the treaty of Sugauli, history would have perhaps taken a different course for Britain in South Asia, and perhaps elsewhere too. Thus, Britain owes a lot to Nepal for its prosperity. Therefore, the 1923 treaty represents Britain’s gratitude to Nepal and is thus important for Britain too. It was only fair that the mighty British empire built in South Asia partly with the bloodshed of generations of hundreds of thousands of Nepalis had come round to concluding the 1923 treaty on the basis of sovereign equality of these two countries.
The diplomatic correspondence between Nepal and the British Resident Representatives or envoys to Nepal or the Office of the Viceroy in India or the colonial India Office in London demonstrate the mutual respect these nations had for each other and represent the sophistication, dignity, and decorum in the conduct of their diplomatic relations. The correspondence leading up to the conclusion of the 1923 treaty represents the civilized character of the British in their dealings with Nepal, which was not necessarily always the case in the dealings between other European colonial powers and the nations in Africa or elsewhere. Therefore, Britain too can be proud of the 1923 treaty with Nepal. A former British Ambassador to Nepal, Andrew Sparks, has remarked that: “After the war [i.e., the war of 1814-1815]), the Treaty of Sugauli formalized in March 1816 established a full relationship with Britain as two independent nations. We chose not to try to colonize, but to partner and influence.”
It is this partnership that eventually led to the conclusion of the 1923 treaty and that partnership continues to this day between Britain and Nepal. To conclude, what we are today is very much what we were yesterday, and history provides guidance as to how one should chart the future. We can hope that the 1923 treaty will continue to serve as a significant historical chapter in Britain-Nepal relations and inspire the people of both of these friendly states with a history of more than 200 years of diplomatic relations.
The above article is the paper entitled “Significance of the Nepal–Britain Treaty of Friendship of 1923: An International Legal Perspective” presented by the author at a program organized by the Embassy of Nepal in London and the South Asia Centre of the London School of Economics to commemorate and celebrate the Centenary of the 1923 Treaty of Friendship between Nepal and the United Kingdom.
Surya P Subedi is Professor of International Law at School of Law, University of Leeds, UK.