University of Hawai'i Press
  • Gleanings from Desideri's Account Book 1:New Light on Some Episodes of His Life in Tibet

In this essay I reconsider the narrative of Ippolito Desideri's escape from being conscripted into a Tibetan militia during the 1720 Qing military intervention to expel the Dzunghar Mongols, who had occupied Tibet since late 1717. Desideri presents this event in his Historical Notices of Tibet (Notizie Istoriche del Tibet), a relation meant for a wide European clerical and lay audience, in a manner that highlights his personal credit and prestige among the Tibetan elite. Using data from his unpublished expense diary (the Account Book) and from a private letter to his superiors in Agra and Rome, a very different picture emerges of this episode and related contemporary events not covered in the Notizie: the invasion and looting of his home at the Capuchin residence in Dakpo and his abortive attempt to return to India. Differences in Desideri's public and private accounts are related to questions of his strategic representations of himself, the Society of Jesus, and the Tibetan people as worthy recipients of missionary effort.


Ippolito Desideri, SJ, Jesuit mission in Tibet, Tibetan revolt against Mongol Regime (1719–1720), Qing intervention in Tibet (1720), attempted conscription, home invasion, abortive return to India, Desideri—Account Book, Jesuit accounts: reliability and historicity

In 1720 Tibet was being ravaged by the civil strife that accompanied the Tibetans' revolt against the Dzunghar Mongol military occupiers and their puppet regime in Lhasa. The insurgents gained crucial support from the Kangxi emperor (r. 1661–1722) in Beijing who dispatched an army to defeat the Dzunghars, a longtime thorn in the side of Qing hegemony.1 When the Chinese army passed through Dakpo, where Ippolito Desideri had been peacefully engaging in intense study and writing at the Capuchin residence at Trongné,2 the Chinese authorities ordered universal [End Page 119] male conscription into the Tibetan militias, irrespective of lay or clerical status. In the Notizie Istoriche del Tibet (Historical notices of Tibet), meant for a wide readership, Desideri tells the dramatic story of his narrow escape from this general mobilization:

Once the army had arrived, all the provincial leaders came to tender their obedience to the Chinese commanders. … All of Tibet was quickly put under arms by the orders of the Chinese who enrolled everyone over twelve years of age without exception, even if the man, native-born or a foreigner, was old and frail, or lived retired in a monastery. Thus it was that even I, who was then at Trongné in the province of Dakpo Khyer, was given strict orders under penalty of death to present myself to the army on the following day with a horse and arms, a pack mule, and two armed foot servants. If it had not been for the kindness of the good vice-governor of this province, an old and highly esteemed man in whose house I had taken refuge during all this tumult and who pleaded my case with the general and brought back a counter-order from him, I would have found myself in a truly difficult situation from which I would not have known how to extricate myself.3

This version of the narrative presents Desideri as having escaped conscription through the benevolent good offices of a high official with a connection to an unnamed general. It differs from earlier versions of the Notizie, and it passes over the actual circumstances as revealed in two sources that were meant only for the eyes of Jesuit functionaries: 1) the "Portuguese Letter" of January 1721 directed to Desideri's superiors in Agra and Rome,4 and 2) the Account Book that he compiled in Agra, sometime in 1722, a detailed ledger recording income and expenses from his arrival in Lhasa in March of 1716 to his departure from Tibet in December of 1721.5

The earlier drafts of the Italian Jesuit's relation about Tibet that are found in manuscripts F and B1 present a more detailed version of the events than that quoted above. According to both F and B1 it was precisely at nightfall, on September 28, 1720, that the missionary, having already taken refuge "for greater security"6 at the house of the provincial governor, received an order from a general of the militia to appear the following day as described above. Desideri goes on to write that he could not approach the governor himself for assistance because the governor, in spite of his clerical status, had joined a militia and appointed a vice-governor to rule in his stead. However, this vice-governor, who had "some sort of familial connection with the aforementioned general,"7 intervened on Desideri's behalf, setting out early the next morning for the general's tent where everything was arranged to Desideri's advantage, "and with all speed counter-orders, apologies and compliments were sent me."8 When Desideri came to revise B1 he produced in MS B2 a more succinct version, with some significant differences from the former text, omitting the date upon which he received the order to appear for induction, eliminating the reference to receiving apologies and compliments, and identifying the general this time as Chinese, and thus not a relative of the Tibetan vice-governor after all. When Desideri came to produce the final version, known as manuscript A, the one intended for publication, he kept to the [End Page 120] revised text of B2 but was silent about the general's nationality, arriving at the version initially quoted above.

In none of the variants of this account does Desideri give a reason for his decision to move from the Capuchin house to the vice-governor's residence, other than a general need for security during a time of unrest. However, the prime motive for his move was in fact a specific traumatic event, unrecorded elsewhere, as we learn from the Account Book. Under the heading of expenses for September 1720 Desideri writes that on August 31 soldiers from the army camp (Laskâr)9 came to the Capuchin house and stole 62 mandermalli (MM) in cash as well as 49 MM worth of household goods.10 The governor (Deba: Tibetan sde ba, déba), by whom Desideri doubtless meant the vice-governor,11 as well as some other important persons (homens principais) took action against the looters, and Desideri, for greater security, sought refuge at the gubernatorial estate (Gijgâ; Tibetan gzhis ka, zhiga), which at that juncture was occupied by the vice-governor. The vice-governor was then able to secure a release for both Desideri and his manservant (moço) "from going to war."12 The expenses listed in the account book reveal that Desideri's exemption from conscription was not a favor bestowed upon him by a friendly official; in actuality, the foreign lama had to buy himself and his servant out by paying for and fully equipping substitutes. We find a long list of payments he had to make for sulfur, saltpeter, lead, cloth, iron for weapons, foodstuffs, lances, shields and arrows, a rifle (spingarda), and a horse and a mule. In total, these payments came to 407 MM, which together with the cash and property stolen by the looters, amounted to a debit of 469 MM (or 232.5 rupees), a very large expense that left him penniless. As he wrote in the "Portuguese Letter" Desideri had fallen into a desperate state of poverty. In that letter, which consists of extracts (brani) from a longer letter that is no longer extant, there is nothing that mentions either the robbery or the attempt at conscription.

The expenses that he incurred in buying himself and his servant out of military service, and in the sacking and robbing of his home, help to explain Desideri's destitute state in 1720, a condition that led him, as he explains in the "Portuguese Letter," to the humiliating expedient of having to live off the charity of the Capuchins and to borrow money from them. He even had to accept alms from non-Christians, a situation that Jesuit missionaries usually sought to avoid. He does not identify the Tibetan almsgivers, but the only plausible source would have been the secular elite of local officials and merchants who were acting in their customary role as patrons (Tibetan sbyin bdag, jindak) of respected religious practitioners, in this case, of the learned lama from Europe. His financial condition also explains Desideri's attempt to return to India in October of 1720, recounted in the same letter, an attempt that ended in failure after he was robbed of his horse and mule by rogue Chinese soldiers, and had to return to the Capuchin house with only 6 MM that he had received in alms.13

The incidents found in the Account Book and the "Portuguese Letter" not only give us a fuller picture of the Pistoiese missionary's difficult and dangerous life during the Tibetan rebellion and Chinese invasion, but also provide evidence of how carefully we need to read Desideri's narratives in general. As has long been noted, missionary accounts need to be carefully sifted to separate dramatic invention and edifying rhetoric [End Page 121] from historical fact; their evidential value as history is often in inverse proportion to the size of their intended audience.14 The conscription account in the Notizie presents Desideri as a respected religious figure who received a special favor owing to his relationship with a high official; to have included the mundane fact that he had to pay dearly for a substitute would have damaged Desideri's self-representation as an aristocrat honored by the Tibetan lay and religious elite, an image that he emphasizes throughout the Notizie. The story of the looting of Desideri's residence may have been omitted for a different reason; it portrays the Tibetan home invaders as violent criminals, calling into question his repeated descriptions elsewhere in the Notizie of the Tibetan people as an exceptionally peaceful, pious, and law-abiding nation, ideally prepared to embrace Christianity. Fortunately, these two private documents, the Account Book and the "Portuguese Letter," have survived to give us a more complete picture of Desideri's tumultuous life during his last year in Tibet.

Michael J. Sweet
New College of Florida


1. Luciano Petech, China and Tibet in the Early XVIIIth Century. History of the Establishment of the Chinese Protectorate in Tibet (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 51–73.

2. Desideri transcribes this place name as Trong-g-neê; as Petech states, its location in Dakpo Province cannot be precisely identified; Luciano Petech, I Missionari Italiani nel Tibet e nel Nepal, 7 vols. [MITN] (Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1952–1957), 3:338 n. 54. However, he does tentatively locate the region of Dakpo Khyer (in Tibetan orthography Dvags po Dgyer; see map facing MITN 6:32) in Dakpo (Dvags po) Province south of the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River. The Dutch commercial traveler and explorer Samuel Van der Putte, who consulted with Desideri in Patna before his own journey to Tibet, visited this area and locates the town of Trongné there: see the 1731 letter of the Capuchin missionary in Tibet, Gioacchino da San Anatolia, in MITN 1:151, and Frank Lequin and Albert Meijer, Samuel Van der Putte, een Mandarijn uit Vlissingen (1690–1745) (Middleburg, NL: Stichting VOC Publicaties, 1989). The journey southeast from Lhasa to Trongné, or from there to Lhasa, took Desideri between 8 and 13 days at various times according to his notes in the unpublished Account Book found in Goa 73 ff. 155r–163r; on the length of the journeys see 157v, 159v, 160r, 161v.

3. Translation from Michael J. Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri, S.J. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), 258. Original in Luciano Petech, MITN 6:71.

4. That is, the rector in Agra, Melchior das Reyes, and the superior general, Michelangelo Tamburini; see Michael J. Sweet. "An Unpublished Letter in Portuguese of Fr. Ippolito Desi deri, S.J.," in Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu v. 157 n. 79 (2010), 29–44, and Michael J. Sweet, "A Revised Text and Translation of the "Portuguese Letter" of Ippolito Desideri S.J.,

5. The only two previous published references to this work (see note 2 above), which Giuseppe Toscano called the diario spese, are a brief description in Toscano's Opere Tibetane di Ippolito Desideri S.J., vol. I: Il T'o-Raṅs (L'Aurora) (Roma: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1981), 37, and in Enzo Gualtiero Bargiacchi Ippolito Desideri S.J., Opere e Bibliografia. (Roma: Institutum Historicum S.I., 2007), 20. See also Leonard Zwilling, "Gleanings from the Account Book 2: The Cook, the Teacher, and the Servant," in this volume.

6. "per più sicurezza," MITN 6:70.

7. "alcuna affinità parente del sopradetto generale," MITN 6:71.

8. "con tutta spiditezza mi furono inviati contrordini, scuse e complimenti," MITN 6:71.

9. Desideri uses this Indo-Portuguese word of Persian origin; Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado, Glossário Luso-Asiático, 2 vols. (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, [1919–1921] 1988), 1:514–515.

10. The Mandermalli, or more properly Mahendramallī, a Nepalese silver coin named after King Mahendramalla (r. 1560–1574), was the main currency in Tibet from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. It was equal in value to one-half Mughal rupee: Clements R. Markham, Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet and the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa (Kathmandu: Manjusri, [1879] 1971), 129 n. 1; Sweet and Zwilling, Mission to Tibet, 22.

11. According to the versions of this incident mentioned above, found in MS F and B1.

12. All references to this incident in the Account Book are found on f. 161r.

13. Sweet, "Revised Text," 9.

14. Liam Matthew Brockey, Journey to the East (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 62; John Correia-Alfonso, Jesuit Letters and Indian History, 2d ed. (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1969), 8–9.

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