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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Going up in smoke

Going up in smoke


IT WAS almost midnight when Dehenne and Guèrin arrived at the house of Sombat

Thibau, the King's mandarin in charge of opium affairs. They had been walking along

the river bank of the Tonle Sap for some time. While other residents of Phnom Penh

took such walks to relax after a day's work, Dehenne and Guèrin had more serious

things on their minds.

They were on duty. The local holder of the opium monopoly had hired them to do routine

checks in Phnom Penh to make sure that no one was smoking opium other than that produced

and sold by the monopoly owner, Vandelet & Dussutour. And on this night of January

9, 1882, Dehenne and Guèrin were sniffing a distinct smell of opium coming

from the direction of Sombat Thibau's house.

In a detailed report addressed to the employer the following day, they stressed how

they approached the mandarin's estate with utmost caution in order not to alert anybody.

As they got closer, they could clearly discern four Chinese preparing large quantities

of raw opium for consumption in a hut some 30 meters from the main building.

If it had been the house of a commoner, Dehenne and Guèrin would have acted

on their findings and tried to arrest the perpetrators of such an obvious violation

of the monopoly. However, knowing the limits of their mandate, they waited until

morning to get the proper legal authorization to search the mandarin's property.

But by the time they got to the mandarin's house, the four Chinese as well as the

opium had vanished. All they found were a couple of stoves and a woman called Nou.

She testified that she lived with her husband in the hut and she had not noticed

any Chinese doing anything illegal in their backyard the previous night.

Sombat Thibau, who assisted throughout the investigation, confirmed these facts,

which, for Dehenne and Guèrin, was all the more proof of Sombat Thibau's involvement

in a racket to illegally produce and sell opium. The findings left them somewhat

frustrated. In their report they suggested that by abiding with the rules for such

searches they had little chance to restrain any contrabandists.

Vandelet & Dussutour's employees had not always conformed so neatly with local

customs and laws when trying to crack down on contraband. During the first months

of Vandelet's reign as the official holder of the opium monopoly, complaints against

his European employees' rude and disrespectful behavior were legend.

In July 1881 Cambodians and Chinese from various provinces around Phnom Penh sent

in reports that a band of armed Vandelet staff had forced their way into their homes

and confiscated not only any opium but also all valuables they could lay their hands

on. The proprietors of these items were handcuffed and shipped together with their

belongings to Phnom Penh.

From Kampot reports came in of acts of intimidation and coercion against the Chinese

community. The Cambodian Governor of the province wrote in August 1881 to the Prime

Minister, stating that under the previous owners, the regime had been "tough

but bearable". But since Vandelet had supplanted them, things had changed for

the worse: "They [the French] have policemen, Manillamen and Annam-ites to hunt

for opium and to search the houses of those who have a chic or a hun of opium. For

the other Chinese who do not smoke, the Manillamen and the Annamites place bits of

opium in their homes and take all their belongings, they beat them and order the

wealthy to pay 75 piastres, the less rich 50 to 60 piastres and the poor with or

without children 10 to 20 piastres."

Accused of blackmailing Kampot's Chinese community, Vandelet's local employee, Larrieu

Manan, stated that the Chinese's allegations were "disgraceful". However,

there must have been more than only a bit of truth in them, for Larrieu Manan was

fired for his conduct a few months later and the head of the French administration

in Phnom Penh subsequently confirmed that Vandelet and his companions did indeed

use blackmail to increase profits.

Vandelet & Dussutour's penchant for less-than-legal business practices had been

caused by self-inflicted pressure. During competitive bidding for the opium monopoly,

they had put their stakes high and offered a sum three times the price paid previously.

In contrast to this, the capital of the company, duly registered with the authorities

in Saigon in June 1881, added up to an impressive 5 francs and 35 centimes. Vandelet's

dubious solvency forced him to fail already on his second monthly payment to the

King. The Resident Superior of the time summarized the situation in November 1881

laconically: "Vandelet has no money."

Facing this simple truth, not only King Norodom, but also the French administration

was understandably unhappy. However, Vandelet proved to be more adaptable than many

thought. In late 1881 he revised his approach and stopped running the business himself.

Instead he sublet his right to trade in opium to various local entrepreneurs, mainly

of Chinese background.

While this led French observers to comment critically on Vandelet's betrayal to the

cause of French capitalist interests, the royal court and the local business community

appreciated the new, more gentle attitude, which paid more respect to longstanding

traditions of how this kind of business should be run in Cambodia.

As time went on, Vandelet also made peace with the French Government. In the following

two years, the relations between the latter two became cordial again. After all,

Vandelet inscribed his business adventures into the grand French project to "modernize"

Cambodia, by adding French ingenuity to a Cambodian community that the French deemed

unfit to adequately exploit the country's resources.

The relations between Vandelet and the Chinese business community also improved considerably.

Vandelet even became the spokesman for the Chinese on subsequent occasions, defending

them against accusations that they were implicated in secret societies.

However, the truce was not to last. In mid-1883, the new Governor of Cochinchina,

Thomson, decided to redefine the relations between the French authorities and the

Cambodian Government.

As part of a major reform package with the aim of getting a better grip on Cambodia's

political system and the country's resources, he also announced that the opium monopoly

would forthwith be exploited directly by the French colonial administration. In the

process of what in today's business terms would be called a hostile takeover, loads

of unflattering comments about the other side were flung back and forth. In the heat

of the debate, Thomson stated that Vandelet "had lost any right to the benevolence

of my administration" and generally had "the attitude of a bad Frenchman".

On January 1, Thomson closed Vandelet's opium business down and the French authorities

became themselves the godfathers of the opium trade in Cambodia.

Thomson's opium projects crashed in the following years, partly because of the rebellion

of 1885/86, which ruined business throughout the country, partly because the running

of the opium monopoly with French personnel proved too costly. In 1890, the French

administration went back to auctioning off the right to trade in opium to the highest

bidder and restricted itself to pocketing the auction money.

Vandelet, bad Frenchman or not, eventually became a respectable member of the colonial

community and one of the first parliamentary representatives of Cambodia in France.

Agent Guèrin however, who had so dutifully tried to sniff out contrabandists

in 1881, was less fortunate.

His attempts to embark on an independent business career failed. Influenced by rumors

that circulated in Phnom Penh about gold nuggets found in the Mekong sands, he asked

the authorities to lease half of the Mekong to him up to the Laotian border, conforming

to the spirit of modesty that animated many of the European residents at the time.

His pledge, lacking credible financial backing, was flatly refused. The documents

do not mention him any more in the following years. In 1883 he apparently scratched

out a living as a coffee-shop owner and occasional hairdresser and it can be assumed

that this is what he did for the remainder of his days in Phnom Penh.

Information for this article was taken from four National Archives of Cambodia files:

RSC 3791, 4414, 4424 and 7876. The National Archives is open Monday till Friday,

8.00-11.00 and 2.00-4.30. It is behind the National Library. All are welcome to consult

its holdings. The re-establishment of the catalog of its holdings is in progress,

a process being facilitated by the support of the Toyota Foundation, the French Embassy

and the French Cultural Center.


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