In this third instalment of a series on Cambodian history, Australian scholar
Dr. Milton E. Osborne examines the uprising by Cambodians against the French presence
in the Kingdom during 1885-86.
The role of King Norodom in the events is given particular scrutiny.
Was the King involved in actively fomenting the rebellion or was the prestige of
the Monarchy in the countryside used merely as a rallying cry for those involved
in resisting French encroachment in Cambodian affairs?
King Norodom proves to be a tenacious negotiator with the French.
In the end, the French realize that they must rely on the King's popularity in the
provinces to help quell the revolt.
The stature of the Monarchy may have been enhanced among the population with peace
achieved by the end of 1896, but in the end further concessions had to be made to
The following has been extracted from The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia:
Rule and Response (1859-1905) published in 1997 by White Lotus Co. Ltd. in Bangkok.
The book is available in Phnom Penh at Monument books.
Most importantly, the part which could be played by the king was belatedly recognized,
as was the extent to which the 1884 convention and subsequent developments had wounded
the susceptibilities of large numbers of Cambodians. For the first time, an effort
was made to reap some benefit from Norodom's prestige. This was in direct contrast
to earlier lines of thought, when no effort was spared to inculpate Norodom in the
organization of the rising and nothing was done to assuage his grievances.
The most detailed investigation of Noro-dom's possible involvement was made by Klobukowski,
[Governor Charles] Thom-son's chef du cabinet. In a manuscript report of more than
two hundred pages he attempted to find an explanation for resistance to the French.
The broad bent of his conclusions was that Norodom was "legally the responsible
originator of this agitation." Klobukowski's explanation of the way in which
the revolt was plotted, however, was less simple. It may reflect some of the developments
in the Cambodian court after Thomson's humiliation of Norodom in 1884.
Klobukowski said Norodom had been forced into revolt by the various court figures
who believed that their position was threatened. These included a French-woman, the
widow Marrot, and her son; a creole, Ternisien, who had once been a magistrate in
Cochinchina in the French Parliament, the old colon, Caraman; the deputy for Cochinchina
in the French Parliament, Blanscubé; and the latter's secretary, Chabrier.
On the Cambodian side, Klobukowski denounced the king's secretary, Col de Monteiro,
a brother of Norodom, Nupparat, and a son, Duong Chacr.
Although Klobukowski's allegations must be treated with considerable reserve, his
view of developments cannot be completely dismissed. There seems little doubt that
Marrot, to whom Norodom owed substantial amounts of money, and Caraman, who had long
conducted business with the palace, were concerned about their future role once there
was stricter French control over Cambodia. There is a strong possibility that their
concern resulted in recommendations to Norodom to resist the convention that Thomson
had imposed. Certainly Blanscubé and Marrot's son played a part in forwarding
Norodom's letter of protest to the president of France.
It should be noted, however, that Blanscubé later disavowed Norodom and minimized
the importance of the letter. As for the Cambodian figures whom Klob-ukowski mentions,
it is far from clear whether he intended to link them with the Europeans whom he
denounced. What may be said is that opponents to the imposed convention were not
lacking in the palace, and Prince Duong Chacr was certainly one of them.
Convinced of Norodom's weak spirit, Klobukowski pictured the king as spurred on by
evil advisers, both Cambodian and European, to permit his officials to reply to the
1884 convention with armed revolt. In support of his contention, Klobukowski wrote
of the letters circulated throughout Cambodia that bore the royal seal. He noted
that nothing happened in the royal palace without Norodom's knowledge; it seemed
impossible that he was unaware that his seal had been used in this way. For Klob-ukowski,
only one step was open to the French; Norodom should be deposed and Sisowath placed
on the throne. Although he lacked proof, Klobukowski felt sure that Norodom was in
secret contact with Votha. It was unthinkable that such a person should remain on
the throne, particularly since the French would need to strengthen the king's prestige
in order to make the concessions required under the 1884 convention more acceptable.
The greatest difficulty attends any attempt to separate fact from speculation, and
prejudice from objective reporting, when dealing with the Klobukowski version of
events. He had a biased view of Norodom and close contacts with Sisowath. These facts
must be given full weight when considering his account of the situation.
His desire to provide a total explanation, even when he was unable to cite any clear
fact to back up his account of a particular development, is perhaps the most notable
and most damaging characteristic of his summation. Thus, he would cite the undoubted
fact of Duong Chacr's association with the rising and then link that prince with
other participants without regard for the possibility that the rising afforded an
opportunity for all discontented groups to register their protest against the changes
which Thomson's convention portended.
If one rejects Kobukowski's account of the rising as unsatisfactory, there remains
a mass of disconnected evidence from which to build a more convincing description
of the affair.
All French commentators writing at the time of the revolt concurred in attributing
a large measure of blame to Norodom. A sur-prisingly large number acknowledged that
the terms of the 1884 convention were so wounding to Norodom's pride that some attempt
to strike back should have been expected.
It is impossible to provide final proof. Letters seized from insurgents bore the
royal seal. Prince Si Votha endeavored to make contact with his half brother - and
may have succeeded in doing so. The evidence of Votha's adopted son is particularly
persuasive in this matter; when captured in 1885, he stated that some agreement did
exist between Votha and Norodom.
Yet Norodom consistently denied involvement with the insurgents. It may be argued
that this was the only course open to him, especially since his fear of being deposed
probably equaled his distrust of the French. In response to the French allegations,
Norodom did not prevaricate as he had done, for instance, in the Spanish treaty affair
some four years earlier.
In a letter written in August 1885, Norodom energetically denied any personal association
with the insurgents. He refused to admit any connection with letters bearing his
seal, and he assured the governor of Cochinchina of his loyalty to France and of
his reliance on the protection of the French government both for his own person and
for his people. Short of taking to the field with the insurgents, there was little
else that Norodom could do but deny the charges leveled against him.
If his association with at least some aspects of the rising cannot be proved in any
legalistic manner, the burden of probability nevertheless suggests his tacit approval,
if nothing more, of this last real attempt to counter French power. Some older members
of the Cambodian royal family still conserve the tradition that Norodom was indeed
the inspiration behind the revolt.
There is no doubt concerning Si Votha's involvement.
For the inhabitants of the northeastern region of Cambodia, Votha was a king, and
he maintained his own small, if often impoverished, court. When Aymonier passed up
the Mekong towards Laos in 1883, he found that Votha even maintained his own customs
service, which levied small duties on those passing along sections of the river.
The letters that the French captured during the rising suggest that Votha tried to
extend his influence beyond the region to which he had retreated after the events
of 1876 and 1877.
Letters from Votha to leaders of the revolt in the south and west of the kingdom
urged resistance to the French and called on them to aid the king in his opposition
to French control. Votha argued that the aim of French policy was to destroy Cambodia's
ancient traditions and to punish and humiliate the members of the royal family who
defended Cambodia's rights.
Weighed against Votha's lifetime distrust of Norodom, the call for unity in his letters
of 1885 must be judged as opportunistic. It is difficult to believe that his long
career of dissidence, both before and after the 1885-1886 period, was suddenly transformed
for those two years.
Votha would have recognized the appeal of apparent unity within the royal family
when seeking to encourage resistance in areas where his own personal prestige was
low. There is evidence that he had some success. There was no reason for Votha to
love the French, who had aided Norodom against him, but there was reason to support
all who opposed the French once the rising had begun. If, indeed, Norodom had planned
or agreed to an armed rising, there was every reason for Votha, who still had friends
at court, to attempt to join his own permanent protest to the revolt, just as the
French alleged he did.
There seems no reason to interpret the events of 1885 as an attempt by Votha to inculpate
Norodom in a rising of which the king had no knowledge.
Discontented members of the royal family were associated in greater or lesser degree
with the insurgency. Some joined the insurgents in the field; others formed a core
of resistance to change within the court.
Norodom's mother, living in Oudong, in isolation from the main court at Phnom Penh,
was believed to be a secret supporter of the rising. This French estimation was based
on the her staunch support of the king's traditional prerogatives. Her court was
alleged to harbor many supporters of the insurgency. It certainly was a world, separate
from Phnom Penh, in which the standards of traditional Cambodian court life prevailed
without any challenge from the West. The French authorities felt it highly desirable
that she should join her efforts to those that Norodom finally made to dissuade Cambodians
from any further opposition to the French forces.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of the revolt is the readiness of the Cambodian
officials to rise against the French.
Norodom's role is the chief focus for interest, and the reasons behind his resentment
of the French are easy to find. The antagonism of other members of the royal family
towards the French is also readily understood. But for the provincial officials,
who played such an important part in raising resistance, a separate explanation is
necessary. It is striking in how many cases these men emerge, from their own letters
and from reports on their activities prepared by the French, as defenders of traditional
In the east of Phnom Penh, the insurgent chiefs had fomented revolt by arguing that
the French would interfere with the peasants' precious control over their land, by
encouraging Vietnamese immigration.
Insurgents near Takeo responded to the suggestion that in the future the French would
levy taxes, instead of Cambodian officials. Even if this call to revolt reflected
the self-interested fears of the officials that they would lose their traditional
incomes, it brought a response from the population.
Both implicitly and explicitly, the leaders of the insurgents rejected what they
saw as a complete change in the usages of the country and a threat to its traditions.
French control over the king was repugnant, as was the diminution of the authority
of the governors and the lesser provincial officials. The insurgents about Kampot
told the French they fought because the king ordered them to do so; they believed
Among the most important evidence for the traditionalist character of the revolt
is Norodom's proclamation of August 1886. By this point the king was convinced that
there was no path open to him but cooperation with the French. Yet his proclamation
was surprisingly unrepentant. It noted, "For two years the officials and the
people have shown their discontent and have revolted, saying that great changes have
been made in our government."
Now, Norodom told his people, he and his officials had decided to ask the French
for a large measure of control over the affairs of the kingdom, and this had been
If Norodom believed that the French in-tended to give him wide control over administration
of the country, he was to be sorely disappointed in the years that followed. But
for the moment the French were prepared to make some concessions in order to end
the running sore of insurgency, which they could not otherwise heal.
That Norodom's prestige contributed greatly to the ending of the rising is further
proof of its traditionalist character. It also is a fact that should be placed against
the more usual picture of the king exercising little control outside the immediate
confines of his capital. In this instance, his presence in the countryside aided
greatly in the conclusion of peace.
Thomson returned to France in the middle of 1885, and when a new governor of Cochinchina,
Filippini, was appointed, he was under instructions from Paris to end the rising
as quickly as possible.
Filippini began negotiations with Norodom in 1886. He recognized both the necessity
for some immediate concessions and the extent to which Norodom's honor had been engaged
in the unfortunate days of June 1884. On his first visit to Phnom Penh, in July 1886,
at a time when the rising still held sway over most of the country, he offered concessions
to Norodom in exchange for an effort by the king to bring the insurgency to an end.
Filippini's account of the meeting shows the extent to which it involved real bargaining.
Norodom argued that he should have full power to pardon and punish those who took
part in the rising. He asked that the French limit the number of residents to be
installed in provincial regions and that they continue to leave provincial administration
to Cambodian officials. He wished to maintain the right to name governors of provinces,
and as a final right he asked that no land should be alienated without his consent.
To all these requests, Filippini replied that Norodom must recognize that the 1884
convention had to be respected, but that he was prepared to go some distance to meet
Norodom's desires. The king could continue to name governors, for instance, provided
they were loyal to him and to France. On land matters, however, the governor would
only agree that this question be left, for the moment, unresolved.
He ended his first interview with Norodom with the warning that the French government,
in exchange for the consideration which it was giving Norodom's wishes, expected
to see an end to the rising by 1 January 1887.
Norodom would have to ensure this.
This first interview took place on 22 July. The following day the king and the governor
met again, with Norodom adopting an even stronger demeanor.
He sought to regain control of the state's customs services and indicated that it
might not be possible to end the rising on the exact date that the governor had stipulated.
Filippini again urged Norodom to ensure that his intervention did bring a successful
conclusion by the appointed time. The suggestion that he might once again be faced
with the prospect of forced abdication brought swift action by Norodom. He issued
his proclamation calling for the insurgents to lay down their arms and noting the
concessions that the French government was making to him. He promised pardon for
those who responded, but punishment for those who failed to do so. Norodom kept his
word and made energetic efforts to bring peace to the countryside. He traveled into
regions that had been under the sway of the insurgents and urged submission to his
and French authority. In the southwest alone, he spent a month calling on former
insurgents to lay down their arms.
Other princes of the royal family played their part in calling for an end to resistance.
Princes Chantavong and Neoppharot led expeditions into the interior to gain submissions.
Sisowath was particularly active. He had earlier worked with the French against the
insurgents, but following Norodom's proclamation, he played an even larger role.
He was selected to try to bring the most persistent area of insurgency, the region
where Votha exercised influence, under control. Despite French admonitions to capture
Votha before returning to Phnom Penh, Sisowath was not successful. He brought a shaky
peace to the region, but he failed in his major aim of capturing the dissident prince.
French observers were probably correct in their belief that, whatever his relationship
with the French, and despite his protestations of loyalty, Sisowath was reluctant
to press the hunt with too much vigor. Votha was his half brother and a member of
the royal family, and as such, not to be treated as merely another insurgent.
As 1886 drew to a close, the insurgency died away. A few distant areas to the northeast,
where Votha still exercised control, were the one exception to the general improvement
throughout the rest of the country. Provincial insurgent leaders surrendered, and
minor members of the royal family returned to place themselves under the surveillance
of the king in the capital. The king's highest officials seconded the efforts made
by members of the royal family to bring the insurgency to a close.
Although the French authorities in theory had greater control over Cambodia than
ever before, they had found it essential to exercise that power with restraint and
to make due allowance for the sensitivities of the king. As 1887 advanced, with the
exception of very occasional disorders, the country was at peace.
Late in 1887 or early in 1888 even Votha's contribution to perennial unrest ceased
as the prince retreated to the upriver vastness along the Cambodian-Laotian border.
The last real Cambodian challenge to French authority had ended.
This period of revolt is important for a variety of reasons. It has initial interest
as an historical episode that has not achieved the recognition that it deserves.
The accounts provided by Collard and Leclere are impressionistic at best, and at
worst they tend to disguise the difficulties faced by the French in maintaining their
authority. It is probably true that at no time was it likely that French troops could
be forced to withdraw from their fortified strongpoints. On the other hand, retaining
control of those positions was, for nearly eighteen months, all that four thousand
troops could do with any certainty. At the very least, the rising threatened the
whole character of France's relationship with Cambodia.
The deposition of Norodom was discussed, as was the possibility that France should
directly annex Cambodia and make it an outright colony in the style of Cochin-china.
With other demands on French troops in Tonkin, Cambodia represented a considerable
military embarrassment that the colonial authorities could ill afford. The final
decision to work for peace through the king's prestige and to accept modifications
of the 1884 convention reflects the incapacity of the French to achieve their aims
in Cambodia through purely military means.
They tried, and they failed.
The recourse to Norodom testifies to the continuing prestige of the king. Earlier
in his reign there had been strong evidence of his failure to exercise real power
outside the capital. The events of the revolt thus pose the question of whether by
1885 he had achieved some more positive position in relation to the outer areas of
his kingdom. There seems little reason to give strong en-dorsement to this view.
Although the king had not been able to control his provincial governors in earlier
years, this did not mean that he was without prestige. There were few, indeed, apart
from the similarly royal Si Votha, who would maintain their opposition to the throne
in the face of the king's presence. Moreover, the way in which insurgent leaders
rallied support by suggesting that the French had threatened the king and the royal
family is particularly suggestive of the continuing appeal of the monarchy. That
the king did bring peace to Cambodia, once he threw his weight behind French efforts,
is equally strong testimony to the appeal of his person, if not of his power.
The events of this time of crisis provide one of the first important insights into
a major theme in later Cambodian-French relations.
By 1884, the outlines of the great paradox of Cambodian history under the French
protectorate may be discerned. This paradox is found in the continuing diminution
of Cambodian power and the growing importance of the monarch as a symbol of national
unity, unchallenged, as he had so often been in the past, by other members of the
royal family. The paradox is further complicated by the fact that the king's temporal
power, even during Ang Duong's lifetime, was severely restricted.
It is probably more correct, therefore, to speak of the diminution of the king's
theoretical power and the increase in his symbolic importance.
When Norodom joined forces with the French there were none who could effectively
oppose him. Votha's efforts in 1885-1886 were his last; he ceased to be of real importance
thereafter. Not only was the combination of Norodom's prestige and French arms beyond
defeat; the king, even by 1884, had added steadily to the symbols of his office.
What Le Myre de Vilers reviled as a combination of oriental luxury and European comfort
probably represented the most important demonstration of kingly power assembled in
the Cambodian court for centuries.
The rising was important for Sisowath. Although he failed to capture Si Votha, he
had further demonstrated his devotion to the French cause. This did not prevent French
criticism of his capacities, but the pendulum swing from enthusiastic endorsement
of the prince to denunciation of his weakness had occurred before. What was significant
was his unhesitating loyalty to French aims.
The period of the rising was also of considerable importance for the development
of relations between the French authorities and those of the Cambodian elite who
worked with them, when royal control over direction of the kingdom had been minimized.
Examination of the personal dossiers of Cambodian officials who held senior posts
at the turn of the century and after reveals the extent to which cooperation with
the French during the revolt enhanced a man's chances for promotion.
The overall traditionalist character of the rising has been stressed. More difficult
is an assessment of the rising's nationalist content.
It is interesting to record the French acknowledgment of a "national hostility"
to their position in Cambodia. But it is more difficult to interpret just what this
assessment meant. Because of the ethnic unity of Cambodia and the common language
and religion, the country had certain potentialities for national unity. Nevertheless,
national borders had little meaning for the ordinary Cambodian, who, if it seemed
de-sirable, would cross to live under alien sovereignty for a wide variety of reasons.
Forty thousand Cambodians did this during the period of the rising.
To look for modern nationalism in the events of 1885-1886 is to seek an element yet
unborn in Cambodia.
There is no evidence to suggest that the rising reflected any feeling that the French
had interfered with Buddhism. Fear that increased Vietnamese immigration might lead
to such interference, however, was of some importance.
What undoubtedly was present was a general rejection of the French and of French
control among a large number of traditional leaders, both royal and non-royal. In
a country where traditions and established custom had high prestige, the French were
seen as destroying the values of the past and threatening the most elevated tradition
of all, the Cambodian monarchy.
The rising profoundly affected the Cambodian population and countryside. In the years
following the end of the revolt there was frequent reference to the exodus of some
forty thousand Cambodians from Pursat into Battambang. One observer concluded that
the Siamese government took advantage of the unrest in Cambodia to make conditions
in Battambang more than usually attractive so as to promote this migration.
In some regions of the kingdom there was severe damage to existing ricelands. Irrigation
systems were destroyed and land went out of production. Stocks of rice were burnt
or scattered. This led to areas of famine within Cambodia, and it seems reasonable
to accept Leclere's estimate that some ten thousand people died during the revolt,
mostly as the result of famine.
The statistics of deaths among the armed forces are not revealed in available documentary
sources. There were, however, heavy losses through disease.
Politically, the revolt temporarily preserved a measure of the king's power and frustrated
the French wish to impose a strict control over the administration of the kingdom.
Instead of the eight residents whom Thomson had wished to introduce under the 1884
convention, the French agreed to install only four. Despite the intention of the
French authorities that the French resident general in Phnom Penh should control
the activities of the council of ministers, the events of 1885-1886 had made them
reluctant to move too fast in this direction, and full control did not come until
The issue of slavery also lay dormant until that year, since it was found that this
institution, viewed in such different terms by the French and Cambodians, was one
to which the population was deeply attached. Slaves, chiefly debt bondsmen, provided
an important source of wealth to the more prosperous members of the population and
represented one of the few ways poor families could meet their financial obligations
in times of difficulty.
Royalty relied heavily on slaves for the maintenance of palace services, and hereditary
slaves played a major part in the exploitation of cardamom in the mountains west
of Pursat. Some recognition of the importance accorded slavery led the French to
allow the institution to continue, even into the twentieth century.
The halt in the development of French control was to prove only temporary.
It was a respite dictated by necessity, and French officials did not hesitate to
depart from their policy of moderation once they felt they had sufficient strength.
If anything, the events of the rising reinforced French intentions to take the first
opportunity to gain all real power in Cambodia.
Thomson had been mistaken in thinking that Norodom and his officials would not react
to major changes imposed en bloc. The revolt that broke out in January 1885 revealed
a whole spectrum of grievances against the French presence in Cambodia which could
be linked with calls for the preservation of the country's national traditions.
But if the period represented a partial triumph for Norodom, it was also his last
triumph. In succeeding years, more skillful French officials adopted a policy of
introducing reforms on a piecemeal basis that the rapidly aging king found himself
powerless to resist. This was particularly so as important senior officials began
to rest their hopes of advancement and financial gain more with the French than with
Reinforcement of the king's symbolic status was important in the twentieth century.
It must, however, have been of little consolation for Norodom to receive rich gifts
from the French as he saw control over temporal matters slip further from his grasp.
It is not certain that Norodom uttered the words that Paul Branda attributed to him,
in 1885, but there is no doubt that they expressed the king's sentiments. Forced
finally to ratify the 1884 convention, Norodom is supposed to have said, "Your
protection is the cremation of the monarchy."