Cambodian ephemera offer insight into colonial dogma

Cambodian ephemera offer insight into colonial dogma

Comprehensive collection of French colonial-era postcards of Cambodia represents a resounding defence of imperialist convictions in picture form

A postcard from Joel Montague’s collection shows visitors inspecting a French reproduction of Angkor Wat in Marseille in 1922. According to Montague, Angkor Wat became a symbol of all of Indochina, and in 1922 France held a colonial exhibition designed to show the French populace the far reaches of their empire. Montague says the popularity of Angkor Wat among the French at that time was in part because they took credit for its rediscovery.

A postcard from Joel Montague’s collection, dated 1908, claims to show the six favourite women of King Sisowath. The photograph treats them as “quasi-royalty”, Montague said. Unlike many photos of women in the countryside, these women are carefully posed, suggesting their importance. The mixture of Western and Khmer dress and their short haircuts – the cutting-edge style from Thailand – speak to the international influence on the Cambodian royal court.

JOEL Montague hands over a 104-year-old picture postcard of a watercolour of a Cambodian man in a French army uniform.

"It's a little window on the world that people have ignored," he said.

Montague, a 77-year-old French public health worker, says he has collected between 1,600 and 1,700 postcards of Cambodia from the colonial era, all of them windows into the French colonial mindset.

In the postcard, the Cambodian soldier's uniform is clean but ill-fitting; he's standing straight, but his left arm is slightly crooked; he looks serious  but not intimidating. The man's facial structure is slightly exaggerated, accentuating his non-European physiognomy.

The text at the bottom of the postcard identifies the man as a Cambodian sharpshooter.

"The picture postcards always emphasise the difference between the rational, austere and civilised world of the French and the exotic charm of the [local] people," Montague said. "They provided some justification for what the French considered [their] civilising achievements."

Montague says that like most postcards of the era, the image differs from the realities of the day.

An early 20th-century Cambodian sharpshooter would not be wearing an immaculate straw hat, and he probably would not be wearing any sandals, either.

But from the French colonial world view, the hat, shoes and uniform highlight the generosity of the French who are bringing "civilisation" to Cambodia.

"And the fact that the French could co-opt local people shows that they agree with the objectives of the French," Montague added.

In the early 20th century, the popularity of postcards reached its zenith.

In 1907 alone, eight billion picture postcards were sent worldwide, according to Montague.

Montague says the reason he can collect so many postcards of Cambodia so cheaply is that the supply - even after more than 100 years - is so large.

These postcards ...

show the transformation of Cambodia during the


For just a few pennies, a Western traveller 100 years ago could buy a souvenir of a visit and send it relatively quickly across the globe, making postcards during this era a major source of images of faraway places.

A postcard from Joel Montague's collection shows a head monk standing amongst Buddhist paraphernalia. Montague says the postcard is probably from around 1907.

Range of motivations

Montague says that the sending of postcards from the colonies back to France had the effect of convincing the French public about the value of the colonies, and that it was not all economic.

"After all, the French were not making any money in Cambodia," he said.

Montague says that by looking at picture postcards you can begin to answer the question: "What motivated the French?"

According to Montague, colonial-era postcards are conscious or unconscious pieces of imperialist propaganda that justify the "civilising mission".

Quoting a modern historian, Montague says: "The postcard was a resounding defence of the colonial spirit in picture form. It is the comic strip of colonial morality."

Montague says that though the postcards represent a skewed and one-sided view of history, this is part of what makes them so interesting.

His postcards document the history of French projections onto Cambodia and reveal French colonial understandings of the Kingdom, which varied from other parts of their Empire.

For instance, unlike in French colonial Africa, postcards of partly nude tribal figures are rare, indicating to Montague that rural Cambodian women did not become erotic, exotic figures in France in the same way North African women did.

"The poses of Khmer women were classic, occasionally graceful and as harmonious as might be achieved given the huge cross-cultural gap between the subjects and the photographers," he said.

Beyond allowing people to further their understanding of the colonial gaze, because the French took postcard photos of anything they considered an accomplishment, the postcards documented parts of Cambodia that no longer exist, Montague said.

"Picture postcards provided the colonial powers ... with its ‘objective' visual record of achievement," he said.

While many postcards show physical testaments to the colonial civilising mission like hospitals, post offices or even Phnom Penh's philharmonic building, others show nuns ministering to the sick and orphans in the course of bringing Christianity to those seen as misguided.

"These postcards - even though they present an image of how [the French] consciously or unconsciously wanted to see Cambodia - show the transformation of Cambodia during the protectorate," he said.

Montague took the audience on a tour of early 20th century Phnom Penh using his postcards at a lecture at Phnom Penh's Meta House last Sunday.

The collector hopes that through his postcards he can get people to focus on more than 90 years of French rule, an era he says is too often ignored by historians.

"The postcards provide a view - a distorted one  - but a view of what happened during this hugely important time," he said.


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