In 1866 six Frenchmen decided the time had come to trace the Mekong back to
its source in the hope of finding a new trade route to China. In this, the first
of a two-part extract from the revised edition of Milton Osborne's book about the
expedition, River Road to China, the explorers find themselves in Phnom Penh.
A photograph of Louis Delaporte,
the artist of the exhibition and a newcomer to the East
THE FRENCH explorers were men of their age: the enlight ened, educated, scientific
mid-19th century. But as they rested in Phnom Penh their own age seemed to have lost
much of its reality. The new capital of Cambodia (for the King and his court had
only just vacated an earlier site a little to the north at Oudong in this same year
of 1866) might not have surprised their forebears of the Middle Ages.
For these six men it was a place of constant, sometimes horrified, fascination. Where,
after all, in Europe was it still quite normal to find the heads of executed criminals
rotting under a swarm of flies atop bamboo poles, grisly testimonies to the vengeance
of a king against any who transgressed one of his most sacred concerns, the inviolability
of his female household?
This was the era of the mission civilisatrice , the French concept of a civilizing
mission that they alone among the countries of Europe were capable of fulfilling.
Yet, in Cambodia, the role escaped them. Whatever was to happen later, as the 19th
century drew to a close, the 1860s in Cambodia were still a time when old ways were
supreme. Not that these old ways were always harsh. The traditional Cambodian legal
code viewed adultery outside the royal family with a notable degree of tolerance.
As well as the penalty requiring the adulterer to pay for his illicit pleasure in
cash, the law did provide an alternative.
Accepting that the act of adultery was more likely to take place in the fields about
the city than elsewhere, the legal code provided that the guilty parties could absolve
themselves by offering to the court the amount of grass that would be eaten in a
day by the royal elephants.
This "punishment" served the honor of all sides. It suggested heroic efforts
on the part of those involved in the illicit liaison, but reaffirmed the vital interests
of the King, whose elephants might, in even the smallest measure, have been deprived
of their fodder.
In a way that is difficult for many in the late 20th century to imagine, Cambodia
in the 1860s was an unknown and sometimes barbaric land.
The French colonizers who had come to the Indochinese region in 1858 had been slow
to transfer their attention from the south of Vietnam to this petty kingdom. They
knew it was a factious place where the man who held the title of King retained his
position because of help from Thailand, and against the undisguised enmity of his
two half-brothers. When, in 1863, they decided to ensure that their influence was
dominant in Cambodia, they were reacting more to imagined threats than verifiable
The French explorers at Angkor in June 1866. From left, Francis Garnier, Louis Delaporte, Lucien Joubert, Clovis Thorel, Louis de Carné, Doudart de Lagrée
The perfidious British were an ever-present danger in many French minds. In the Southeast
Asian world they were seen as evil geniuses orchestrating the activities of the Thai
court, and thus as likely to threaten the newly established French position in southern
Vietnam. It is difficult to be absolutely sure, but the best evidence is that at
the time in question the highest ranking British subject within the Thai court was
So, with a dash of gunboat diplomacy to ensure that Thai influence in Cambodia became
negligible, the French government, in 1863 and 1864, established a "protectorate"
over Cambodia. The expectation was that without Thai influence Cambodia would be
It was not. As French officials worked to make Cambodia a further shining jewel in
Napoleon III's colonial crown, the country sank deeper into disorder and rebellion.
This time the Thais, and their presumed directors, the British, could not be blamed.
The problem was more fundamental and more local. It was the problem of the King,
and in particular of the contrast between his apparently absolute power at court
and his near lack of power in the provinces.
The Frenchmen who were about to explore the unknown course of the Mekong came to
Phnom Penh well acquainted with the character of the Cambodian ruler, if not reconciled
The leader of the expedition, Commander Ernest-Marc-Louis de Gonzague Doudart de
Lagrée, had already spent more than two years in Cambodia as the representative
of the French government. It had been his task to persuade and finally to force the
Cambodian King, Norodom, to agree to the French protectorate.
The other naval officers and officials in the service of the French government accompanying
Lagrée knew Norodom only at second hand. Francis Garnier's experience of the
East had been in Vietnam, across the cultural divide from Cambodia. This, too, was
the Asian experience of Dr Clovis Thorel, one of the two medical men included in
the expedition. Dr. Lucien Joubert, the other, had never served in the Indochinese
region before; his foreign service had been in Africa. Louis Delaporte was also a
newcomer to the East. And so too was Louis de Carné, the youngest member of
the expedition, who had gained a place through his uncle's influence, and who was
to provide the one public blot on the enterprise's honor before he died, five years
later, from a disease contracted on the slow journey up the Mekong.
The letters that Doudart de Lagrée sent home to France in 1864 and 1865 provide
some of the most vivid pictures of the Cambodian court and its ruler. It is no wonder
that the other members of the expedition, who now met Norodom for the first time,
observed and spoke with him in such an interested way. If only half of Lagrée's
stories were true, then here before them was a living example of an oriental despot.
Doudart de Lagrée might choose to speak of Norodom as a "kinglet",
but this was not the vision held of him by his subjects. Nor, assuredly, was it how
Norodom thought of himself.
The man whose Cambodian titles described him as the "Great King with Heavenly
Feet, Better than All Others, Descendant of Angels and of the God Vishnu, Excellent
Heart, Supreme Earthly Power as full of Qualities as the Sun, Born to Protect Men,
Supporter of the Weak, He who Knows and Understands, Better than All Others, Eternally
Precious like the Angels, Victorious, Great among the Greatest . . ." was a
little man with a pockmarked face.
When he was crowned King in 1864, Norodom was 28 years old. Barely five feet in height,
he had no doubts as to the rights he should enjoy over his country, even if these
were seldom translated into reality.
He had spent six years of his early life, between 1848 and 1856, in Bangkok living
as a part guest and part hostage in the Thai court. During the late 1850s, in the
closing years of his father's life, Norodom spent his early manhood in the Cambodian
court at Oudong, 20 miles north of Phnom Penh.
As the King's eldest son he could indulge his pleasures, even if he also risked occasional
beating when he incurred his parent's regal rage.
A European visitor to Oudong in 1859 found Norodom to be a considerate host whose
English vocabulary comprised only one phrase, "Good brandy." Throughout
his life he showed himself ready to match this statement of approval with unstinted
consumption of the brandy itself.
But it was not his heavy drinking, nor his use of opium, that so confounded the French.
In their less prejudiced moments, Frenchmen recognized his lively intelligence, but
from the very beginning they could not really understand Norodom's relations with
his female household. Why, they asked, when he had so many women should the infidelity
of one be the cause of so many deaths and other punishments?
Norodom, Lagrée once wrote, was as jealous as a tiger. It was this jealousy
that explained the almost constant succession of hangings and decapitations at his
court. With 45 women to tend his pleasure, the errant behavior of one could lead,
as it did one day early in 1864, to the sudden death of seven men and women judged
to have infringed the ancient laws of the kingdom.
What the French failed to understand was that the women of Norodom's court were not
merely part of some Cambodian equivalent of a Turkish seraglio. Many of those who
shared the King's bed were also playing a political role, acting on behalf of their
relatives, providing the King with advice away from the formal meetings that he disliked
But more than this, the female household still was one area that had not passed beyond
the King's absolute control. The outer provinces might be in revolt, the Thais and
later the French might work their will upon Norodom to force him this way or that.
But in his own household his word was absolute.
When his father died, in 1860, Norodom inherited the late King's women. A deep quarrel
between Norodom and his half-brother, Si Votha, over what to be done with one of
these women probably explains why Si Votha withdrew into the forest and remained
a rebel against the King all his life. Symbolically and practically, the women of
the King's establishment represented the right he had to absolute power, and Norodom
did not fail to exercise that right.
This more than anything was what gave Norodom the character he had in the eyes of
the French. He might be amiable with his European visitors, but he was not with his
countrymen who broke the laws that said he alone had the right to his women.
He even turned his considerable if erratic interest in western technology and governmental
practice to use in this regard. In the early 1870s someone told the Cambodian monarch
that on occasion governments in Europe used firing squads to carry out executions.
This struck Norodom as a matter of great interest. Pressing a French official for
details, he listened thoughtfully while the procedure was explained. Within hours
of the conversation a fusillade rang out to bring death to yet more erring members
of his household.
Later in the century, as he grew older and his female establishment grew larger,
the problem of maintaining fidelity grew greater. The court pages, usually vigorous
young men in their 20s, sometimes could not resist the blandishments of the women.
Neither, always, could Norodom's rambling brood of sons.
As late as 1884 it was only French pressure that prevented Norodom from punishing
one of his sons for an illicit liaison with a member of the female household by having
him dragged to his death behind horses through the streets of Phnom Penh. The angry
King had to be content with confining his son, loaded down with heavy chains.
If such spectacles did not greet the French explorers, there was much to interest
and even fascinate them as they paused in Phnom Penh to make their last major supply
arrangements before heading into unknown regions.
They had left Saigon nearly a month before, on June 5, 1866, and had passed most
of the intervening period making the first detailed appraisal of the mighty ruins
of Angkor, the center of Cambodian glory between the ninth and 15th centuries. Now,
in Phnom Penh, they added to their food supplies and, heeding the advice of local
traders, bought up large stocks of copper wire for barter in the distant Laotian
Though it had only recently become the royal capital once again, Phnom Penh was a
site rich with memories and traditions. After the Cambodians abandoned Angkor, in
the 15th century, this had been the country's capital for a period.
Later, towards the end of the 16th century, the city had been the scene of a savage
clash between the contending groups of foreigners, including Spanish and Portuguese
adventurers, who sought to profit from the weakening state of the country. In a bloody
month of fighting and arson the Europeans clashed with the Chinese community and
then, in turn, were attacked themselves by the Cambodians.
Commander of the expedition, Ernest-Marc-Louis de Gonzague Doudart de Lagrée
After another century of somnolence, Phnom Penh briefly regained its capital city
status in the 1830s during a bitter period of Vietnamese occupation. This led to
its destruction when the Thais, as enemies of the Vietnamese, put the city to the
torch in 1834.
During the 1840s and 1850s the city had a backwater existence as a settlement of
small traders and merchants.
Now, in 1866, the French had persuaded Norodom to proclaim Phnom Penh the capital
of his country once more, and to leave his father's capital Oudong, just to the north,
to decay slowly as the tropical weather and the insects brought down the empty, wooden
Not, indeed, that all were empty, for some upholders of tradition remained, unready
to live in proximity to the French. Foremost among these was Norodom's mother. Another
was the tragic figure so often spoken of in French accounts as "the mad woman
This was Ang Mey, the Cambodian princess who had been placed on the powerless throne
of her occupied country by the Vietnamese in 1834. Rumor was that she had been the
mistress of a Vietnamese general who ruled over Cambodia at this terrible time. Others
tempered their allegations of Ang Mey's wrongdoing; the once beautiful princess,
they said, may have sold her country, but not her body to the Vietnamese.
Whatever was the case, she had lost her reason. Pushed from the throne when the Vietnamese
retreated before the Thais, she lived with the memory of death and dishonor for over
20 years. Norodom left her in the care of old retainers when he and his court moved
to Phnom Penh. At Oudong she could still believe that she had some dignity, and her
servants could placate the villagers whom she assaulted when her mind was most unbalanced,
or pay for the goods that she took as a right from the merchants in the markets.
The remainder of Chapter 1 of Milton Osborne's River Road to China will be
published in the next issue of the Post. The book is on sale at Monument Books in
near Psah Thmei.