At home in France, the bloody stalemate of the First World War dragged on as deadly poison gases were introduced to the Western Front and Zeppelin bombs fell on Paris for the first time.
But on the other side of the world, judging from a series of letters he wrote in 1915 and 1916, the country’s Résident Supérieur in Cambodia, François Baudoin, had another problem on his mind: what to do about the métis, children born from French and Cambodian parents.
In one, written to the governor of Indochina in Saigon in 1915, he argued:
“There is no doubt that by letting the number of métis increase, we risk seeing the creation of a class of individuals who, living on the margins of both French and indigenous society, would not miss any opportunities to become a source of annoyance and embarrassment to our administration.”
Another, from 1916, reads:
“[...] we must definitively break the link which attaches these children to their Indochinese origins, and even go as far as making them lose all their memories of Indochina.”
The typewritten letters, which are slowly thinning away in Cambodia’s national archives, reveal a troubling but largely forgotten part of Cambodian history: the story of the mixed Franco-Cambodian children who were abandoned by their fathers and then separated from their mothers by a colonial system that aimed to make them purely French.
Overshadowed by the calamities that have befallen Cambodia in the modern era, the plight of Indochinese métis, which one researcher compares to the “stolen generations” of Aboriginal children in Australia, is slowly coming to the surface.
Christina Firpo, an associate professor of history at Cal Poly State University, has tracked more than 4,000 métis children across eight archives during 10 years of research.
She says the issue of their separation from their native families deserves to be more widely discussed.
“The case [of the stolen generations] in Australia only came open in the 1980s. Even today, on both the Vietnamese, Cambodian, or French sides people aren’t questioning whether or not it was a bad thing,” she says.
The letters Baudoin wrote to Saigon about separating métis children discuss a program which gives the title to Firpo’s upcoming book, The Uprooted: Race, Childhood, and French Colonialism in Vietnam 1890-1980, coming out in 2016.
According to Firpo, some 139 métis children from Indochina were permanently sent to France under the program, which first started during the war and ended in 1929 due to lack of funding.
The operation was carried out in coordination with the Société de la Protéction de l’Enfance au Cambodge, an association of prominent colonists dedicated to “finding, rescuing, and raising” métis children by placing them in boarding schools and orphanages in the Protectorate.
Back when it was called the Société de Protéction et d’Education des Jeunes Métis Français du Cambodge, the association’s founding constitution from 1904 stated one of its objectives as “remov[ing] the orphaned or abandoned métis from pernicious influences”.
But the rhetoric of “abandonment” conceals the fact that many of the children were not truly abandoned, as one of the Société’s own admitted in a letter about the proposal to send them to France.
In the 1915 letter to Résident Supérieur Baudoin, who strongly backed the proposal, one of the Société’s administrators wrote that French orphanage regulations may not apply to the supposedly abandoned children, because “in almost all cases, the [Cambodian] mothers take care of them and do not abandon them”.
Baudoin’s reply curtly lists the goals of the program: “changing [their] mentality”, “reducing their number [in Indochina]” and “making them French”.
Even Baudoin’s stated goal of making the métis French citizens was not possible, as it was only in 1928 that French courts allowed the métis to apply for French citizenship, a struggle which was heavily lobbied for by the Société in Cambodia.
But the separation of the métis children from their families goes much further back than this particular “repatriation” program, and occurred within Cambodia as well.
According to historian Greg Muller, author of Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchmen, Frenchmen began fathering children with Cambodian women as soon as the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1867.
At first, the métis children “did not face animosity from the colonial state”, says Muller, with the kids often living in the same household as their father and native mother.
But the Protectorate’s consolidation gradually brought increasing numbers of European women and a “stiffening bourgeois morality” from France to the Kingdom.
Attitudes hardened, as one 1896 circular cited by Muller shows: “The indigenous woman who agrees to live with a European is in fact a genuine prostitute who will never better herself ... She virtually always is to her children a model of debauchery, laziness, and ignorance.”
Frenchmen who fathered mixed children started abandoning them, while prominent colonists were not about to let the métis children be raised by such depraved women.
In one early case described in Muller’s book, Alexis Blanc, a mechanic and part-time merchant who had been living in Phnom Penh since the 1870s, had four children with Ngien Tiep, a Chinese-Khmer with whom he stayed close for over two decades, despite occasional unfaithfulness.
Three of the four children survived, but when Blanc died in 1889, only the youngest, four-year-old Pierre, was permitted to stay with his mother. The other two, Emilie and Auguste, were placed in different institutions in Saigon to be raised away from her.
The way Tiep’s case was dealt with “corresponded with the view that métis children should be separated from the ‘model of debauchery, laziness, and immorality’ of their mothers no later than the age of seven”, writes Muller.
But as the Protectorate’s population of métis increased, sending them to Saigon began to be impractical. Soon enough, various societies sprang up in both Cambodia and Vietnam to take in the métis children, including what eventually became the Société de la Protéction de l’Enfance au Cambodge or Society for the Protection of Childhood in Cambodia.
The role of these societies was a complex one, says Firpo: a few métis children were indeed living “on the streets” and needed help, and thanks to the Société, some attended the colonial equivalents of Harvard or Yale, even though they remained separated from the culture they had been raised in.
Mothers who cooperated with the Société were allowed frequent visits and even given stipends, but if they refused to let their children join, colonial authorities took them away by declaring them “morally abandoned”, according to an 1889 French law.
Ironically, while the law was targeted at absent fathers in the Métropole, in Indochina, it was only used against mothers, says Firpo.
A total 173 children, kept in boarding schools or orphanages, were recorded as being taken under the Société’s wing from 1905 to 1914.
For these children, life was sometimes tumultuous; as an official of the Société in 1906 wrote about a fight between a métis boy and a Cambodian, the postscript simply reads: “Those métis [children] will end up killing each other if we don’t impose order.”
A 1907 investigation into the colonial primary school’s professor Poulichet ordered by the Société’s then vice president Charles Gravelle also reveals problems raising the little métis.
Poulichet castigated their behaviour, citing one métis child in particular, Paul Fabry, for beating the Vietnamese child Litch and exhibiting “improper” homosexual behaviour after he was found in another boy’s arms, while Poulichet noted that the children at the school “seem to want to remain strangers and form two distinct castes”.
While they may have had turbulent upbringings, the fate of the métis children was highly complex.
The métis boys were trained as locksmiths, mechanics, and sculptors, according to a letter from Baudoin, while others were sent to the Collège Sisowath for further education.
Many went “under the colours” to serve in the colonial army, while the girls were largely trained to be housewives.
Some embraced French culture, even becoming employees of the Société de Protéction themselves, while others did not.
“The [fates of the métis] kids ran the gamut,” says Firpo. “Some became very wealthy and successful, others committed suicide.”
During the 1950s, many métis were “repatriated” to France as the French could see the war in Vietnam was going from bad to worse.
But some protection societies lived on as private charities, although they were still partly funded by the French government, says Firpo.
The Fondation Gravelle, named after the president of Cambodia’s protection society in the 1920s, continued operating until well after independence.
Word got out in the 1960s that the Fondation was taking children from their families outright, causing the FOEI, or Fédération des œuvres de l’enfance française en Indochine, a similar society based in Vietnam, to disassociate itself with the Fondation, says Firpo, even though the issue was “nothing new”.
By the time the Khmer Rouge came to power, the era of orphanages and protection societies was over in Cambodia.
Yet the story of the métis of Indochina, and their complex relationship with France, where many of them and their descendants now live, is seldom told.
For too long, it was an “open secret”, Firpo says.
“Nobody stopped to think, ‘What does this mean?’”