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'The bad Frenchmen' in Cambodia

'The bad Frenchmen' in Cambodia

The false count and quintessential carpetbagger, Thomas-Caraman, which is captioned in the book as 'Frederic Thomas-Caraman, with a monkey on his knee in the late 1870s'.

Gregor Muller's fascinating account of Cambodia's 'bad Frenchmen' in the nineteenth

century is one of the more remarkable books to deal with the history of the kingdom

after the French established their protectorate in 1863. It is therefore regrettable

that its price of $135 will make it close to inaccessible, except for a prosperous

or extremely dedicated few. That said, the fact that the book is in print is a matter

for celebration.

In offering my enthusiastic review of this book I must declare more than one interest.

Long before I had met Gregor Muller, he had been in touch with me in relation to

a footnote-yes, a footnote--in a book I wrote more than 30 years ago. The footnote

referred to the presence in Cambodia in the nineteenth century of a Frenchman named

Frédéric Thomas-Caraman-usually referred to simply as Caraman--who

seemed to me at the time to be at best an adventurer and at worst a carpetbagger.

But the man I had seen as a minor figure in the history of Cambodia struck Muller

as a representative of a class of colonials that he wanted to study-men who did not

conform to the standards and morals of those who served in the French administration.

Having decided to pursue his investigation into Caraman, Muller displayed remarkable

energy in searching out archival and personal information about this dubious figure

in three countries, in 25 public and five private archives.

The account of his finding Caraman's dossier in the National Archives in Phnom Penh

in 1997 is a story in itself. During the period of Khmer Rouge rule the archive building

had lapsed into a state of dereliction, giving the chances of Muller's finding the

dossier that I had seen in 1966 slim indeed. But Peter Arfanis, then serving as an

Australian consultant in the rehabilitation of archives, promised to do his best

to find the dossier when Muller asked for it, and did so within 24 hours.

From then on Muller hunted high and low to unravel Caraman's life and the lives of

the other non-official Frenchmen who worked in Cambodia in the first few decades

of the French presence in the kingdom. My second disclosure: he worked with such

admirable energy I did all I could to encourage him, and my enthusiastic comments

on the contents of the book, appearing on its back cover, are nothing more than its

due.

The book is a wonderful read-erudite, often amusing in its detail of the all-too-human

imperfections of the characters, and an important contribution to our understanding

of life in a colonial setting. Caraman, who claimed without any justification to

be of aristocratic descent, a 'count' no less, is the key figure discussed. He reached

Cambodia in 1865, before Phnom Penh was once more made the kingdom's capital and

almost immediately established a relationship with King Norodom I. This association

waxed and waned over 20 years as he fell in and out of favour with the Cambodian

monarch. One of his major agreements with the king, concluded in 1873, for the supply

of a gilded screen to be located in the throne room, led to a legal confrontation

between the Frenchman and Norodom that was only finally resolved in 1881.

There is a range of other 'bad Frenchmen' and women who appear throughout the book-forgotten

figures such as Le Faucheur, Blancscubé and the Widow Marrot, to name a few.

Le Faucheur was one of the first Frenchmen to establish himself as a merchant in

Cambodia after 1863. He seems to have been constantly in trouble, not least over

allegations of rape, but including violence towards pepper growers in Kampot, and

the claim that he had buried one of his employees alive while in an alcoholic stupor.

As Muller notes, Le Faucheur's "reputation was so bad that almost anything that

people said about him was thought to be true." Yet he survived in Phnom Penh

until his death in 1874.

A splendidly symbolic image--French personnel at the top, Cambodian personnel at the bottom, and which is captioned in the book as 'The delegation of Cambodia at the 1902 Exposition in Hanoi'.

Blanscubé, a devious politician and lawyer based in Saigon, and best known

as a spokesman for Indians living in Cochinchina, attempted unsuccessfully to mediate

a settlement in the gilded screen affair. He sided with the Cambodian king when Governor

Thomson imposed an unequal treaty on the king in 1884, but then, having been denounced

by others for his role in supporting Norodom, switched sides completely to proclaim

the virtues of Thomson's actions and condemn the supposed role of Madame Marrot.

Madame Marrot opened the first hotel in Saigon in the 1860s and did not come to Phnom

Penh until 1875. She was a shrewd businesswoman who worked with Caraman but managed

to avoid the succession of business failures that dogged his life in Phnom Penh.

Her association with Norodom seems to have survived his frequently owing her money,

and there is no doubt that she opposed Thomson's actions in 1884. In the end her

close contact and sympathy for the king led to her having to leave Cambodia. An official

French report denounced her supposed role in encouraging Norodom to resist French

demands for reform.

Beyond the anecdotes and the characters involved, the book has much to tell us about

the relations between official Frenchmen and the Cambodian king and court as well

as about education and justice in nineteenth century Phnom Penh and about relations

between the sexes in a colonial setting before the rigidities of later years had

determined how European men should behave towards Asian women. In all of this, Muller's

'Epilogue' provides a profound commentary on the broader question of the nature of

relations between colonisers and colonised in nineteenth century Cambodia. The commentary

surely has relevance to other colonial experiences.

"Caraman's life and the lives of other colonial pioneers in Cambodia,"

Muller writes, "demonstrate that their physical proximity, even intimacy, with

sections of the host society correlated with an almost complete detachment from that

society's world of meaning. The French lacked the capacity, and sometimes also the

will, to understand their environment and to communicate successfully with their

indigenous counterparts." (page 220)

This is not a book for scholars alone. Written in clear English-not Muller's mother

tongue-it is for anyone with more than a passing interest in Cambodian history. Filled

with anecdotes, some amusing, some genuinely tragic, and admirable for its insight,

it deserves the widest readership.

Milton Osborne is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy institute for International Policy,

Sydney, and an Adjunct Professor of Asian Studies at the Australian National University,

Canberra.

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