Phnom Penh's expats on the way out of the country for a home leave share a common
destiny: unwillingly they become traders in precious goods, goods like Swiss chocolate,
French cheese, German novels, Italian salami or British large size golfer shoes:
all the little things that are hard to get in Cambodia and seem to be indispensable
for a decent Western lifestyle. Spread the rumor that you're on your way home and
friends who you haven't heard of for a long time will all of a sudden show up with
just some little wishes and last minute orders, and when you've finally made it to
the airport you may just end up having an impressive shopping list in your baggage
representing the most urgent needs of the Cambodian expat community. But why order
only some lousy chocolate bars or some pathetic chunks of cheese if you could order
a golden throne and 50 oil canvases of European master painters?
Well, that's because you're not a King. The golden throne and the 50 oil paintings
were part of a Royal order placed by last century's Cambodian King Norodom with a
French businessman, together with some minor items like half a kilometer of carpets,
some irrigation machines, tree-cutting machinery, golden furniture, an eclectic selection
of European canned foods and cigars and a dictionary. The French businessman who
got that order from the King in 1873 was one of the most fascinating characters of
the early times of the French Protectorate in Cambodia: Thomas Caraman, alias Mr
Jean Hippolyte Frédéric Gustave Laurent Thomas Comnêne de Caraman,
as he chose to call himself in the contract to give some weight to his person equivalent
to King Norodom's list of Royal titles.
The dictionary that was part of the King's shopping list would have come in handy
when the contracts was originally designed to avoid misunderstanding: Caraman wrote
the details down in French, took a lot of care to note all the King's wishes, but
forgot to fix just one little thing: the price. In spite of this shortcoming, the
contract was eventually signed by both parties and Caraman was off to France with
what he thought amounted to be a license to buy whatever he thought the King would
need at whatever the price. The first thing he had to do, though, was to get money.
He called himself a businessman and an important trader, but in fact he was an adventurer,
full of plans and dreams that compared rather unfavorably with the total lack of
money he had to cope with. But the King's signature opened many doors in France that
were formerly closed to him: French bankers fell over themselves to give loans of
fabulous dimensions and just as fabulous were the dimensions of the Royal delivery
he put together to be shipped to Cambodia.
With Caraman back in Phnom Penh, the following year saw one of the first major crisis
in the relations between the French and Cambodian court. Day after day boxes and
chests with the finest products France had to offer to the world arrived in Saigon
with labels attached to them "To the King of the Kingdom of Cambodia".
But King Norodom was not willing to accept them, nor did he want to pay the exorbitant
bills that Caraman presented to him: a quarter of a million Francs for the throne,
a gilded bronze masterpiece of art, and another 150,000 for the rest.
In the following months Caraman's position worsened quickly. The King persisted in
his refusal of the delivery, and not even a special court called in to solve the
conflict could find a solution. Caraman's creditors, wary now about the credibility
of their favorite customer, wanted to see their loans paid back and a whole range
of other projects that were built on Caraman's assumption that he would make a fortune
out of his first deal collapsed one after another before the year drew to a close.
But other than expected, this was not the end yet: Caraman stayed on for more than
a decade, and continued to make plans and launch projects that all dissolved into
nothing after some time. There was no area in which he was not involved at some stage:
new railway lines, silk weaving, brick factories, pepper trade, rubber plantations:
you name it. At one stage he had rented what is today called the Mekong island as
a whole, and tried to get the villagers to grow European vegetables for the Phnom
Penh market. All to no avail: not a single one of his projects ever showed any results.
He eventually died in Phnom Penh in 1887 at the age of 47, as poor as he was when
he came to Cambodia, but for sure with even more projects on his mind that would
eventually make him rich.
And the King's throne? It finally made its way to Phnom Penh, and to meet the demands
of the manufacturer in France, it was put in a lottery by the French administration,
hoping to raise some money to pay at least part of the bills. It disappeared from
a pagoda at which it was temporarily stored. It was never seen again.
- Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia, file
#3060, Dossier concernant M. Frédéric Thomas Caraman dit Caraman, colon,
commerçant, industriel qui tenta de nombreux essais de cultures et mit de
nombreuses difficultés avec le Roi et l'administration. The National Archives
is open Monday-Friday, 8-11am and 2-4.30pm. It is located behind the National Library
alongside the Hotel Royal. All are welcome to come and browse through this vast resource
and discover for themselves an intriguing moment in Cambodia's past.