With the Tibetans in Kumbum during the Mohammedan Rebellion

By Richard C. Frajola, September 2008

In examining postal artifacts, such as the cover shown below in Figure 1, one is often led into a veritable garden of forking paths. A cover may be of interest for many reasons, such as the adhesive it bears, the contents of the enclosed letter, the importance of the letter-writer, the postal services used to transmit it to its destination, or the history of the location and era. All of these paths are of great interest in the study of this cover.

Figure 1. Cover that originated in Tibet and was posted from Shanghai on April 3, 1896.

The cover appears at first glance to be of only moderate interest. It is a rather typical use of a United States stamp from the United States Postal Agency at Shanghai, China in April 1896. The Agency had been established in 1867 in conjunction with steamship service mail between the United States and China that operated via Japan (for additional information, see The United States Post Offices in China and Japan, 1867-1874 by Frajola, Perlman and Scamp). The cover is addressed to the United States and bears the usual five-cent stamp of 1894 in use at the time.

Dateline Kumbum, Tibet

The envelope enclosed two letters which have been preserved intact. The first, dated "Kumbum Tibet, January 22, 1896," was written by Dr. Susie C. Rijnhart and the second, dated "Kumbum, Jan 31 96," was written by her husband, Petrus (Peter) Rijnhart.

The monastery (lamasery) of Kumbum, located in the Amdo region, was founded in 1583 after a visit to a holy sandalwood tree in the area by the Third Dalai Lama. The name reportedly means "100,000 enlightening bodies of the Buddha," in homage to images on found on the leaves of the holy tree which mark the birth-spot of the Tsongkhapa. In 1896, the lamasery was home to approximately 4,000 monks and was surrounded by a village of layman named Lusar.

The Authors

Dr. Susie Rijnhart wrote the earlier of the two enclosed letters. She was born Canada in 1868 and graduated from Trinity University twenty years later with a degree in medicine. She became very active in the Christian church and, while engaged in her medical practice in Chatham, Canada, she met and married Peter Rijnhart in September 1894. Much is known about Dr. Susie Rijnhart through her book published in 1901. Entitled With The Tibetans In Tent And Temple, Narrative of Four Years’ Residence On the Tibetan Border, and of a Journey Into the Far Interior, the book has been a primary source for the information presented here.

Less is known about her husband Peter, the author of the second letter, beyond what is written in Dr. Rijnhart's book. Peter was of Dutch descent and had previously visited Tibet as a missionary. He was apparently the primary factor in their shared religious zeal that led both to accept the missionary assignment in Tibet in 1894. Peter was killed, along with their one year old son Charlie, while on an expedition to the interior of Tibet in 1898.

The Mohammedan Rebellion of 1895-1896

According to Dr. Rinjhart's book, the Mohammedans constituted about one-fourth of the population in Kansu province and numbered about one and one-half million, the balance being Tibetans, Chinese and Mongolians. She identified the Mohammedans as descendants of the great migrations from Turkestan, Kashmir and Samarkind five centuries previous and notes that in Sinking district they divided into Lao-chiao or "old religion" and Sin-chiao or "new religion. According to Dr. Rinjhart the Lao-chiao generally remained neutral or supported the Chinese. She further notes that the "cause of the dispute which culminated in one of the most sanguinary and disastrous wars that ever took place in Western China was the question as to whether or not a Mohammedan might wear a beard before the age of forty!" Whatever the actual cause, Chinese troops were sent on March 13, 1895 to Lancheo and Hsuen-hua-ting, the seat of the troubles, to settle the disturbance.

Aided by Tibetans, including a contingent of soldiers from the lamasery at Kumbum, the major fighting against the portion of the Mohammedans in rebellion ended at the beginning of January 1896.

The two enclosed letters provide first-hand accounts of the situation.

The first letter, written by Dr. Susie Rijnhart:

Kumbum, Tibet
January 22nd 1896

Dear Mother Hill,

For ever so long I have been going to write to you, but the roads have been for six months closed by the Mohammedan rebellion, that we did not write because there was no way of sending off mail. And we have at last received letters, Jany 21st. Your sons’ among the number. Glad indeed were we to at least get word from the outside world, six months is a long time to be cut off.

Mr. Ferguson left in August to go to Shanghai to be married and only today we received word that he reached Lau Chow in safety. We feared he had fallen into the hands of the rebels.

Frank asks how many miles a Li is - one English mile is three Li. Just five miles from us the other day, the soldiers who brought up our letters, gained a decisive victory over the Mohammedans, burning their villages, killing a thousand men, women & children, while the others ran away. Much as we deplore seeing women & children killed, we hail the coming of the soldiers with delight, as our home had been in much danger. We live in a house in the village just three minutes walk from the house of the Lamas, but so concerned was the Grand Lama (Mina Fuyeh), the big man of the Lamasery, that he offered us rooms in his house until danger was over. If the Mohammedans come here, the people would run to the Lama's houses & leave us all alone. So, we accepted the kind offer & lived in his house for two months. We then came to our own home again leaving part of our stuff there, so that if we lose what there is here, we will still have something left if our lives are spared. It is an awful sensation. Only last night the alarm went thro the village that the rebels were burning a village five li – not two miles away from us. I spent a restless night. Of course we trust in our Loving Father's care but nevertheless the thought of the cruelty & brutality of these followers of Mohammed makes me shudder. Not for anything would I want to come in contact with them.

The Lord has been very gracious to us in these dark days. Fuel cannot be bot at any price, but our animals provide us with manure which is gathered every morning, spread on the mud roofs to dry, and when dry makes good fuel. Our cooking is done in a very large pot over a manure fire, while our bread is cooked in a copper pot covered, and buried in sheep manure fire & ashes - the bread is quite eatable. Their grain is half as dear again as it is in times of peace and almost impossible to be bought at any price. The Lord has enables us to provide sufficient for our wants. To prepare the grain to go to the mill to be ground into flour, a woman cleans it by shaking it round in a basket which lets the dirt go through holes in the bottom, then shaking it up & down in another square thing like a dust tray, them looks it over little by little. It is then put in a bag, laid on an animal's back, & taken to a mill - water wheel - & only one set of stones. Here someone has to stay all day & sometimes all night to watch the grain, that the miller does not steal. Life is made up of small things: but oh! how small.

The people are very kind, and consider and call us their own men. We have treated so many wounded men and soldiers, that we are considered quite indispensable here. When peace comes we will be able to go anyplace to doctor and preach, & be received with kindness. In every village around, there is someone whom we have helped in some way. We get presents from them sometimes, but from none do we get presents as often & as valuable as from the big man in the lamasery. Among them is a coral rosary, or "Mani" as they call it, a set of horn buttons for a gown, maple sugar from interior Tibet, pears from some days journey from here & he has promised, if we ever go home, to give us a prayer wheel to take with us. We often eat food with him.

The Lama who was teaching us Tibetan turned out so dishonest that we could not have him any longer. Another started to teach us to read, but he has gone to the city to be secretary in the office of the Governor of this province. Our Christian work has rather been a little put back by the rebellion as everyone is so much interested in guns & spears. We have, nevertheless, a class of children coming regularly every Sunday and Wednesday when we teach them about Jesus & Old testament stories. They seem very much interested & would come every day if we had time to have them. I wonder did you think of us on Xmas day? We had a pleasant day. A number of women & children were here & we gave them tea to drink & told them all about the birth & purpose of Jesus - giving them each a picture of Jesus at twelve years of age. How I longed for word from home. I received today a letter from my sister, a Doctor at home, dated May. That is the latest I have had. Peter is very good to me indeed. We are both in good health, though Peter has had rheumatism, & I have a cough. Our house is made entirely of mud and of course is fearfully cold. At night the cold is intense but in the daytime the sun comes out nice & warm & we can sit outside. I wear my flannel underwear, wadded clothing from neck to ankle, a sheepskin gown over that, & on my feet, two pairs of stockings, a pair of bedroom knitted slippers & over all cloth top boots. Peter wears something the same but sheepskin socks & leather top boots over heavy woolen socks - still we are none too warm, & even cold.

We have a mule & a pony on which we go to cure diseases - two cows, one of which is now giving us milk - some sheep, a pig, some chickens, a dog, two pups & a kitten. had we not our animals we would have now no fuel, no butter & no milk, & would have to buy all our meat, wheras now we can kill a sheep which we have bought when very cheap. A boy looks after our animals on the mountains, carries water, puts the manure out to dry, etc., for his food & thirty-three (33) cents per month - not very dear, is it?

Our garden last year was fairly successful, i.e. potatoes, turnips, radishes & lettuce - beans, peas & corn came to nothing. We have only a small piece of ground but we made the best use of it that we could. We have been on the closest rations, as everything is so dear now and promises to be the same next year. We are entirely in His hands and we know He will care for us all. We are so glad Leslie is being used of the Lord in good work. It is indeed good to serve Him. We were sorry to learn of the misfortune that has befallen Mr. & Mrs. Barrows but trust they will again be all right. Ask Leslie to remember us to all our friend in Ft. Wayne.

I sent you some wild flowers gathered in the mountains around here. Some time again, I will send more.

This must be my last page. I must tell you why we are keeping two pups. We need a dog on the roof to keep people from trespassing on our roof & garden - one to mind the gate downstairs & one to go with the sheep to the mountains. These latter we are intending our pups to do for us.

Tell Frank that next time I write I will write to him, & tell him about the little boys here. My, not a boy here can read or write & see how well Frank can write & spell. He must be a very good boy to do so well. Perhaps someday he may come out here, who knows?

Now Mother, I must close. Peter sends his love & says he will enclose a note for Leslie.

With Xian love, I remain, Yours in his name fr. Tibet.

Susie Rijnhart

The second letter, written by Peter Rijnhart:

31 Jan ‘96

My Dear Leslie and Mother Hill,

Your kind letter dated Aug. was recd a short time ago. The first we recd for 6 months but thanks be unto our Lord who again has heard our prayers and has caused the road to be opened so that now our mail can go down and come up as before.

We are surrounded by cruel rebels yet, but the Lord is putting much courage in us by making us trust more in him Of course others who have trusted in Him have become martyrs for the cause of Christ but when He wants us for such glorifying work, He will doubtless give the grace for it. But hitherto He has kept us - even Mr. Ferguson has come through safely. At least we got word three days ago that he had arrived in Shanghai. Since we came we have experienced not a little. We went on a trip to Kokonor lake in July and on the 2nd day in a very deserted place we were attacked by 16 robbers and only fear for our foreign gun and revolvers saved our lives.

Since then we have expected a daily visit of the rebels and every night we go to bed fearing that we shall hear the alarm during the night. But with all these fears about us we do not grow thin and sick and die. Twice at night was the alarm sounded but the rebels did not come closer than a mile.

Their (the rebels) headquarters are now only 10 miles away (another 3-4 miles away was destroyed by the soldiers) but in that headquarters there are said to be 20,000 of them. Leakaye' had gone back to opium when I returned but was oh so glad to see me back again. His boy Ka-i-tan helped us in the doctrine. Much of this he had remembered from two years previous - but alas - he took diptheria - was unwilling to eat our medicines and died within 5 days. I never felt so sad about the death of one as I felt about his. The work is going on fairly. We have a host of friends among the priest now. So many have benefited by our drugs, - even the Grand Lama and the treasurer have been sick and at once sent for us. The medicines were prayerfully given, benefited them and now we count them among our best friends. Often do I visit them (because they can not leave the lamasery even to go across to the laymen village where we live – this is their law) and talk about our doctrine and theirs. We often go to the villages in the immediate neighborhood and talk culture and cure diseases. We have constantly a lot of wounded people and the natives have got to get so much confidence in us that they come to us first thing - and apparently the Lord is ordering us, & establishing us more and more. Ho Taren – the commander of the troops (2,000) was shot the other day in the leg. My dear wife was tired having been extremely busy the previous days. I went 10 li (3 miles) to see him - I put on and gave him medicines and that evening he went to the City 50 l from here. When a few days ago we went to that city - to see him - he had put some native stuff on and his whole leg was swollen dreadfully. Now everybody knows that Ho Taren has spoiled his wound and recovery by putting on native medicines. We are very busy now but will be more so when peace comes and we can go 15 -20 and 30 li places for preaching and doctoring. Dr. Kellers kindness is of great good to us. I have become an expert toothpuller - and peoples teeth are very bad here. Many a priest and layman has left one in the foreceps but gratefully bowing for having suffered. The prayerstone I have not been able to get - those that I have seen around here were at least 10 to 20 lbs in weight and even if I got one it could not be sent - but as soon as I come across a small one - I shall not forget my promise. But it is late - this mail is to go off tomorrow morning so I come to a stop. We are writing again soon. Give our United love to all the friends. I wished they remembered us half as well as our dear Leslie, and that reminds me - thank you my dear boy for remembering us by giving that bible in memory of us. But we are very thankful to our Lord that he has kept you. Praise His dear name - give my love to all - Brother Zashman - Mr. Barros - Mr. Shivers - etc etc etc etc

While we remain, As every yours in Him, Affly.
Peter Rijnhart

The Route of the Cover

The content of Susie Rijnhart's letter suggests, because inbound mail was received through the courtesy of Chinese soldiers, that this outbound cover was likely carried from the conflicted area by the military before reaching safer mail channels. Although the exact route of carriage from Kumbum to Shanghai is unknown, the route taken by the Rijnharts on their trip to Kumbum, as shown in the map in Figure 2, may well have been the normal route for mail as well.

Dr. Rijnhart described the route of her trip to Kumbum in her book: "From Shanghai up the Yangtse to Hankow we would go by steamer; thence by house-boat up the Han as far as Fancheng, situated about four hundred miles up the river. The remainder of the journey would be completed overland by cart and mule."

After reaching Shanghai, the cover was placed in the mails at the United States Postal Agency with a United States single five-cent 1894 issue adhesive for a single-weight rate to the United States. As the letter weighed in excess of one-half ounce, it was marked in manuscript with a bold "T" (taxe) as insufficiently prepaid. The cover was postmarked on April 3, 1896 with the Agency postmark dated to correspond with the departure of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company steamer bound for Yokohama, Japan. At Yokohama, the mail bag containing the cover was transferred to another PMSS steamer for carriage to San Francisco, California.

Upon arrival at San Francisco, the cover received the San Francisco Foreign Division (abbreviated "F.D.") backstamp of April 24, 1896 and the front was marked in pencil "2" indicating double rate, and "U.S. Charge To Collect 10 Cents" two line handstamp. When the cover arrived at its Fort Wayne, Indiana destination, the ten-cent postage due adhesive was applied and canceled when the recipient picked up the cover.

The author would welcome information about additional covers from Tibet that utilized the United States Postal Agency in Shanghai during this period. This cover is the only example known to the author at this time.