​Cambodia before the storm: 1863 - 1883 | Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia before the storm: 1863 - 1883


Publication date
27 November 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Post Staff

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Tim Sakmony raises chickens through a hole in her one-room flat. Her room inside the concrete tenement makes her luckier than many at Borei Keila who live in tents.

It has been said that Cambodia is a country without a history. Certainly one of

the most painful and lasting legacies of the Pol Pot regime's three-year, eight-month

and twenty-day reign of terror was the near destruction of Khmer intelligentsia who

were either executed, died from disease or starvation, or fled abroad. Even today

the Kingdom's educational system suffers greatly from this sad chapter in Khmer history.

Many teachers lack the necessary qualifications to carry out their responsibilities

effectively and Khmer-language textbooks are in short supply. In general, the average

citizen may have only a vague understanding of the history of his country.

In this issue, the Post begins a series on Cambodian history covering events during

the latter half of the 19th century. The material has been exerpted from The French

Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia by Australian scholar Milton E. Osborne. Originally

published in 1969 the book remains "one of the few studies to examine in detail

the impact of colonialism in southern Vietnam and Cambodia during the first five

decades of the colonial period", according to the introduction in the most recent

version published in 1997 by White Lotus Co. Ltd. in Bangkok.

On August 11, 1863 a Protectorate Treaty was signed between the French and King Norodom,

the chief figure in Cambodian history in the second half of the last century. The

extract which follows begins just after King Norodom succeeded his father Ang Doung

and ends with tensions rising between himself and the French.

Norodom's court was cosmopolitan.

Siamese occupied important positions within the court and, as late as 1889, the palace

cavalry was composed of Siamese. His father had had close associations with some

of the Chinese who worked in and about the Siamese court.

A number of these men accompanied Ang Duong back to Cambodia and continued to be

associated with his son. Also linked with Norodom, in a relationship difficult to

analyze, was a motley group of Europeans who blended occasional business relationships

with a curious camaraderie. Caraman, one of the earliest French settlers in Cambodia,

lived for decades in partial amity with Norodom, now supplying him with European

luxuries, now in dispute with the king over the nonfulfilment of a contract.

Le Faucheur, another early settler, was involved in the early commerce of Phnom Penh

and at the same time an associate, of sorts, of Norodom.

There were others: the widow Marrot and her son, to whom Norodom was said to owe

large sums of money; Ternisien, a creole from Guadeloupe who had once been a magistrate

in Cochinchina; and Blanscubé, the French spokesman in the Colonial Council

of Cochinchina for the Indians resident in that colony. These and other European

expatriates, such as German businessmen in Phnom Penh, were associates, if not friends,

of Norodom.

Of the principal Cambodian figures at court in this period it is difficult to say

very much. In the early years of the protectorate, Norodom, his half brothers, and

to a lesser extent the queen mother, still living in a world of rigid traditionalism

at the former capital of Oudong, stand out as the main participants in events.

Possibly the French observers reporting on these early years had not yet gained sufficient

sense of the inner workings of the court to provide any detailed account of its lesser

figures. Not until the final decades of the nineteenth century is it possible to

write in detail about leading Cambodians officials.

One exception to this general observation was the kralahom, the minister of the navy,

who is revealed as a supporter of the French presence in Cambodia through a record

of conversation prepared by Moura in 1875. This Cambodian official felt that the

protectorate meant peace in the land, but his views were not, he noted always shared

by others:

Since Cambodia is under the protection of France it is peaceful within and sheltered

from foreign invasions.... Formerly, there was always war.... Today the officials

have homes built of masonry which they never dared have before; thoughtful men are

setting themselves up in a more comfortable fashion; the chief monks are rushing

to erect suitable pagodas... But the people do not have enough of your advice and

counsel in matters connected with administration and finance. You have the whole

people for you... you also have some honest and intelligent officials who know your

intentions, but you cannot hide from yourself the fact that you are an obstacle for

the majority of the officials who most certainly wish that you would close your eyes

to their conduct and would only appear to shoot down the people. when, by chance,

they cry out against the injustices and spoilations to which they are subjected today.

From the early 1870s onward, French concern for and reform led to more frequent confrontations

with Norodom. A counterpoint to this theme was the developing discussion of who should

succeed Norodom, either at his death or in the event of a forced abdication. In 1870,

Sisowath was installed, as La Grandière had earlier proposed, as obbareach.

The country was at peace and Moura rarely interfered in the affairs of the kingdom

so as "not to excite the susceptibilities" of the king.

By 1874, however, French preoccupation with effecting reforms in Cambodia had triumphed

over the earlier reluctance to interfere. Two principal motivations lay behind this

developing policy. The practical result of the existing Cambodian administration,

in French eyes, was actual and threatened rebellion.

The French considered heavy taxes the cause for recurrent uprisings in the provinces,

and blamed Norodom. The turbulent history of the fifty years before the arrival of

the French had left much of Cambodia ravaged and desolated, and had weakened the

control of the court over the outlying regions, so further encouraging rebellion.

The French administration, particularly after the Poucombo revolt, knew that any

real challenge to Norodom would have to be put down by French forces. This alone

was sufficient to lead them to consider urging reform. More general considerations

of the French civilizing role came into play when they observed the continuing institution

of slavery and urged its abolition,

The problem of how to institute reform remained. Norodom showed no inclination to

alter the administration that he had inherited. But the Frenchmen who puzzled over

the issue noted that the situation could be expected to change when he no longer

occupied the throne. During 1872, Admiral Dupré had given advice that should

Norodom die, Sisowath was to succeed only after he had accepted French advice to

establish a civil list and surrendered control over the finances of the kingdom into

French hands. In 1874 came the first of the many crises in Norodom's health which

were to bring hope, and then disappointment, to the French administration. Although

it was not clear whether or not Norodom was really close to death, the possibility

was sufficient to evoke a lively correspondence between the French representatives

in Cambodia and Cochinchina and the home ministry.

The initial reaction, which Moura supported, was that, despite the grave faults of

the situation, nothing should be done in the king's lifetime. The governor of Cochinchina,

Krantz, noted that once Norodom was dead, and Sisowath on the throne, it would be

different; Sisowath, though "just as prodigal and just as given to vice,"

did not have "a taste for absolute power." Certainly Moura had given his

superior a gloomy picture of the administration of the kingdom. Norodom, Moura asserted,

was isolated from his people and even from his own ministers, relying on palace women

for advice.

Norodom was not to die yet, however, and Krantz's successor as governor of Cochinchina,

Admiral Duperré, was inclined to be tolerant of the manner in which Norodom

governed his country.

Whether through calculation or a passing phase of resignation, Norodom presented

himself to Duperré as ready to cooperate with Moura on all issues. Moreover,

Duperré observed, if Norodom was at times uncooperative, he had substantial

grievances to level against the French in relation to the frontiers of his kingdom.

Apart from the disputed provinces of Battambang and Siemreap, the French had never

held to their engagement to rectify the frontier situation near Chau-Doc and Ha-Tien,

where large numbers of Cambodians lived, previously under Vietnamese, and now under

French, control. Finally, it seemed unlikely that Norodom's reign could last much

longer in view of the state of his health.

In the meantime it was possible to intrigue for the future. On Duperré's orders,

Moura engaged Sisowath in a long and confidential discussion of the events likely

to occur on the king's death. A full record of the conversation has been preserved,

transcribed by Moura immediately after the interview in the form of a dialogue.

It leaves no doubt about Sisowath's attitudes and his readiness to work with the

French to achieve the Cambodian throne. The interview opened with Moura stating Duperré's

concern to establish good administration in Cambodia. Another concern of the admiral

was the state of the king's health, and Moura had been asked to report on who would

be the most worthy candidate for the throne when "an unfortunate event might


To this blunt, if slightly veiled, opening gambit, Sisowath replied: "I cannot

commit myself before the right moment comes, but if the Admiral really wishes to

support my rights to the throne, I promise to act according to his wishes."

But Moura eloquently disclaimed any wish to have commitments from the king's half

brother. He himself was not in a position to make any commitment from the French

side. Reacting to Sisowath's reply, he pointed out that the obbareach's succession

was not absolutely assured. Norodom might press to have one of his sons succeed him,

and according to the rules of succession, it was more normal for a son to succeed

his father than a half brother his half brother.

The choice would depend on the great officials of the kingdom-and the French. The

record goes on:

The second king: I know this, and I know most importantly that it is you [the French]

who will propose who will be king.

The representative: I am convinced of this, too, and so much the better for the kingdom!

But I do not think that the French government would ever give its protection to a

prince who did not recognize in advance the necessity to make changes in the treaty

[of 1863] and in the administration of the country, which I am going to outline to

you. ....

The reforms that Moura outlined had already been discussed in correspondence with

Paris: control of the kingdom's finances, the establishment of a council of government

of which the French representative would be a member, the institution of a civil

list. As the demands were listed, Sisowath's responses brought him further and further

into the French web. Some of his closing comments, and those of Moura, complete the

picture of French intrigue, and Sisowath's overpowering desire to gain the throne:

The second king: Indeed, I can say to you, from this moment, I find these propositions

too reasonable and the changes that you speak of too necessary not to accept them

if I am ever king.

The second king: The system that you have just succinctly outlined, if it is put

into action in Cambodia, will transform the country in four or five years. Cambodians

are very easy to administer, and if one places them under such a wise and equitable

system, they will be grateful and there will be unending peace in a country which

has only known revolutions.

The representative: Remain, therefore, with these good attitudes, and then count

on us. I will not speak to you again about these matters, which must stay just between

us.... I recommend you to find a way to gain again the popularity which you have

previously enjoyed in Cambodia and Cochinchina and above all to merit the esteem

and the affection of the French authorities.

The vigor of Sisowath's response to Moura's propositions encouraged Admiral Duperré

to suggest that a secret convention should be prepared for Sisowath to sign, indicating

his approval of the reforms required by the French. Doubts about the wisdom of such

an action among officials in Paris prevented this.

There was a brief period of calm until, one year later, a new rising against Noro-dom's

authority broke out in the country. Si Votha had returned to Cambodia. Begging the

pardon of the king of Siam for his unauthorized departure, Votha left Bangkok, swiftly

passed through Battambang, and traveled onward to the higher regions of the Mekong.

He had little difficulty in quickly raising a large band of supporters and began

to harry the officials loyal to his half brother Norodom. He besieged the provincial

capital at Kompong Thom and ranged through the turbulent province of Kompong Svai.

Forces dispatched under Norodom's order failed to apprehend him.

The situation gave the French authorities a particularly attractive bargaining position.

The reforms that they had long wished to implement, but had postponed rather than

face a confrontation with Noro-dom, could be demanded against a promise to aid the

king in resisting his half brother.

Duperré, analyzing the reports that reached him in Saigon, argued that the

real cause of the revolt was the great dissatisfaction that Norodom's policies had

aroused in the country. In the circumstances, Du-perré saw "no urgency

to support King Norodom, who has remained deaf to our advice for so long." Help

would be given if he accepted the recommended reforms.

The apparent ease with which those who challenged Norodom's authority were able to

recruit supporters demands some explanation. Frenchmen such as Admiral Duperré

- and even those closer to the events, such as Moura and Aymonier - insisted on the

limited popularity of Norodom. Yet, in the uprising of 1885-1886 it was Norodom's

prestige that ultimately brought resistance to French forces to an end.

Votha was able to embarrass the king and gain recruits so quickly in large part through

his personal qualities, which inspired loyalty to the end of his life. Moreover,

fifty years of internal strife and foreign war had destroyed the network of internal


The king's temporal power did not stretch far beyond his capital. This left the control

of provincial regions in the hands of the governors, who added their own exactions

to the taxation demands of the central authority. This situation, together with the

generally unsettled state of the country, probably goes far to explain Norodom's

difficulty in meeting Votha's challenge. When he traveled in the countryside, the

king's semidivine status brought respect approaching worship, but when he was confined

to Phnom Penh, challenges emerged in the outer areas.

As 1876 drew to a close, Duperré acted on his thoughts and demanded reforms

from Norodom. He wrote to the king requiring changes, to no immediate effect.

Votha remained in revolt, now striking at an outpost of Norodom's government, now

slipping back to his sanctuary among the Stiengs, one of the tribal groups on the

fringes of Cambodian society. The French were inclined to do nothing. Duperré

remained convinced that Norodom's life was ending and that when a new monarch gained

the throne it would be on French terms. For the moment it was desirable to leave

the Cambodian king "in the grip of the rebellion that he has provoked."

During the latter part of 1876 Moura had been on leave from Cambodia, his place having

been taken by Philastre. In December he returned. His knowledge of the court and

of Norodom led to the reopening of negotiations for change, and these were brought

to what appeared to be a successful conclusion in January 1877. On 15 January Norodom

proclaimed a series of reforms, and in return the French now bent their efforts to

defeating Votha.

The French authorities did not achieve all the desired reform, but Norodom accepted

several important changes. He agreed to abolish the special position accorded the

obbareach and the queen mother on the death of the incumbents. The title of abjoreach,

previously accorded to a king who had abdicated, was eliminated, and the powers of

officials serving other members of the royal family other than the king were ended.

In order to improve the process of government, the French insisted that matters of

state should be discussed in a council composed of the five principal Cambodian ministers,

sitting apart from the king. Decisions would then be placed before him for approval.

No new tax could be instituted without this council's approval. Slavery was to be

eliminated by degrees; to begin with, no person was henceforth to be enslaved for

life, and the possibility of purchasing freedom was to be open to all debt slaves.

Even more significant than the proclaimed reforms was a secret convention concluded

between Norodom and Duperré. This provided that the French representative

in Phnom Penh could, "when he expressed the wish," sit as a member of the

council of ministers with a "consultative voice." His presence was obligatory

when such matters as finance, the legal system, foreign trade, and internal disturbance

were discussed. This agreement was not quite as far-reaching as the provisions regulating

the British residential system in Malaya, but it clearly foreshadowed an arrangement

in which "advice" had to be accepted.

French-led troops suppressed Si Votha's rebellion but failed to capture the prince.

He was sighted during an engagement in February 1877 but escaped, mounted on an elephant.

Calm returned to the countryside, and the French awaited indications that changes

had been effected in the administration of the kingdom.

The new governor of Cochinchina, Admiral Lafont, noted that Norodom had received

him courteously and vowed his attachment to France, but doubt remained that any real

progress towards change was being achieved. There was good basis for this doubt.

Not only was Norodom unready to take action to effect the changes that the French

desired; he had begun to look for ways to counterbalance the overwhelming French

influence over Cambodia. The result was the mysterious Spanish treaty affair, which

caused concern to the French for more than four years.

Diplomatically, the issue was without result. The affair commands attention for the

indication that it gives of Norodom's continuing efforts to elude or counter control

of his kingdom. As with the secret treaty Norodom concluded with Siam in December

1863, news of the kings negotiations did not reach the French until after a treaty

had been concluded.

The preserved documents leave many unanswered questions and testify to the embarrassment

it caused. The government of Spain disavowed the treaty, leaving the impression that

the maneuvering had been on the personal initiative of the Spanish consul in Saigon.

At some point in 1877, Norodom had entered into secret contacts with this consul.

Writing in the early 1880's, French observers believed that an interpreter working

for Norodom ( a Spanish national ) may have provided the link between the king and

the consul. It was also thought possible that Spanish businessmen resident in Phnom

Penh played some part in the affair.

Without a text of the treaty to consult, it is difficult to give any precise account

of its terms. In Paul Collard's view it would have involved nothing less than Cambodia

entering into direct relations with Spain, quite without regard for French rights.

This may be an overstated interpretation, since any contact that Norodom developed

would have infringed France's position.

The impressionistic accounts of the intrigue suggest that Norodom wished, at least,

to reach some commercial agreement with Spain and, if possible, to gain the right

to have a Spanish consul accredited to his court. In this, Norodom misjudged the

French. Only a few months before negotiations began, the French had been ready to

see him threatened by rebellion when he failed to cooperate with them. Yet, as Le

Myre de Vilers remarked in 1881, Norodom's decision to seek relations with another

European power was in the true Cambodian tradition of attempting to balance one power

against another. Previously Cambodia had sought to play Siam against Viet-Nam. With

Spanish encouragement, it may have seemed just as reasonable to attempt to play France

against Spain.

By the time Le Myre de Vilers' instructions were prepared in Paris in 1879, as he

prepared to take up his post as governor of Cochinchina, the French government was

aware in broad terms of Norodom's essay at independence. The governor was instructed

to make perfectly clear to Norodom that agreements with powers other than France

would not be tolerated. Le Myre de Vilers faithfully followed his brief. Convinced

in 1879 that secret negotiations were still in progress, he forbade the king to receive

a visit from a special Spanish diplomatic mission then traveling in the Far East.

This led to the exquisite irony, fully appreciated by the French and deeply resented

by Norodom, that gifts from the Spaniards had to be passed on to the king by the

French representative, Aymonier. It was a bitter moment for Norodom. There are suggestions

in the correspondence for 1880 and 1881 that Norodom may still have looked for a

way to develop a link with Spain, but watched over by the French, there was little

he could do.

Resentment of Norodom's intrigues played a large part in the hardening of French

attitudes clearly apparent in the early eighties. Thus, well before the climactic

events of 1885, the French authorities and the Cambodian king consistently found

themselves in opposition. The changes in personnel on the French side were important.

Moura had left Cambodia in 1879, never to return, and he was succeeded by men without

his long experience with the court and Norodom. Now at the head of the colony of

Cochinchina, and so in charge of France's relations with Cambodia, was Le Myre de

Vilers, a man preoccupied with order and a firm supporter of France's civilizing

mission. As he surveyed the "prodigality" of Norodom's court, a clash became


Reports from Cochinchina that stressed the parlous state of Cambodia and recorded

Norodom's refusal to honor the agreements of 1877 had their effect in Paris. It was

more than French pride could accept. Norodom had entered secretly into relations

with Spain, and may have attempted to do so again. Contrary to his undertakings,

he had allotted the rights of the country's opium farm without consulting the French

representative, noting by way of apology that he was drunk at the time.

Such conduct was sufficient, at some stage during 1880, for Le Myre de Vilers to

consider proposing to Paris that Sisowath should be placed on the throne forthwith

and Norodom exiled to Tahiti or Reunion Island. The minister of the colonies shared

Le Myre de Vilers' concern, and late in 1881 the governor received instructions calling

for a stronger line with Norodom.

The next year, Le Myre de Vilers acted to impose France's will. To counter Norodom's

failure to control the kingdom's finances, the governor forced the king's agreement

to meeting the cost of the protectorate. He warned Norodom that failure to agree

would lead to a French decision to end the 1863 Protectorate Treaty. Against such

a threat Norodom had no defense, except to register his discontent with Paris. This

he did in a letter addressed to the president. He accused Le Myre de Vilers of requiring

him to make concessions under threat and without justification. The governor's actions

impaired his traditional rights, for not only had he insisted that Cambodia meet

the cost of the protectorate, but he had also eliminated the king's rights to taxes

from Vietnamese living in Cambodia and on markets and ferries, traditional sources

of income.

It was a brave protest, but to no avail. Le Myre de Vilers was acting with the support

of his home government against a state that, short of a direct act of arms against

the French, had no real way to withstand any demands.

The French were aware of the divisions within the royals and ready to exploit them

to their advantage. There was little sympathy among official Frenchmen for the "fantasies"

of the Cambodian king. Moreover, the governor of Cochinchina had a talent for describing

the Cambodian court in terms that made it repugnant to minds wrapped in European

prejudices and values.

In a long report, which he prepared towards the end of his posting, Le Myre de Vilers

observed that until 1877 there had been virtually no check on Norodom's actions.

The agreements negotiated in that year had not been executed. At the same time, the

country sustained the evils of oriental rule in its worst forms:

- Hunting after and sale of human beings is still carried on among the Phnongs [a

generic and pejorative Cambodian word for hill peoples] and the Stiengs;

- the officials, who are unpaid, continue their exactions and live by pillage;

- the venality of the magistrates has not diminished;

- instances of brigandage multiply;

- public services exist only in name;

- the roads and bridges, through lack of maintenance, have become impassable.

By contrast, the expenses of the court increase each year and the king, through vanity,

has allowed himself to join the refinements of European comfort to the luxury of

Asia (such as):

- Filipino bands and Cambodian orchestras;

- carriages of all sorts and two hundred and fifty elephants, driven and looked after

by numerous slaves;

- a flotilla of steam-driven vessels and innumerable boats of all sorts;

- a Filipino bodyguard and a Cambodian bodyguard, infantry, cavalry, artillery, bodyguards,

pages, etc... in the European style;

- European servants, Chinese, Annamites, Filipinos, Cambodians, Phnongs, etc.;

- immoderate acquisition of diamonds and jewels;

- finally, and to crown everything, a harem, made up of 400 women, which becomes

larger each year through the recruitment of young girls in Siam through the intermediary

of an Indian, Ibrahim, who is (also) an English subject.

It may be asked whether when Governor Thomson succeeded Le Myre de Vilers he read

beyond this catalogue of failings to the qualification to the denunciation. It would

be unwise, Le Myre de Vilers added, to strip all power from Norodom. If the king

believed that the honor of his position was truly threatened, he might very well

withdraw into the interior of the country. The population would rally to him, for

"the Cambodian is profoundly attached to the monarchic form."

Le Myre de Vilers saw a better way to attack the problem, and his recommendation

points to one of the significant accompaniments of the first twenty years of French

rule in Cambodia. It was in France's interest, he noted, to give even greater encouragement

to the immigration of Vietnamese into Cambodia.

The continual seepage of Vietnamese into the regions about Ha-Tien and Chau-Doc had

transformed those areas into Vietnamese territory. The same could happen throughout


No precise figures exist for the Vietnamese immigration into Cambodia that took place

in the nineteenth century, following the establishment of the protectorate. There

had been earlier settlements during the grim days of the thirties and forties, when

a Vietnamese general ruled in Phnom Penh, and certain commercial endeavors had already

become Vietnamese monopolies before the French arrival. The biggest fishing enterprises

on the Great Lake, for instance, were in Vietnamese hands.

The Catholic missionaries noted the spread of Vietnamese settlement along the Mekong

as far north as Chhlong. Nothing would be simpler, Le Myre de Vilers argued, than

to profit from this immigration into Cambodia. Indeed, it was in France's fundamental

interest to do so. He believed that within fifty years the Vietnamese would constitute

the most important element of Cambodia's population. When that had been achieved,

Cambodia, and the Cambodians, would no longer present a problem:

Faced with the resistance of Norodom and his court to the French, Le Myre de Vilers,

whose whole career in Indochina showed action and vigor, chose not to attempt early

change. He did negotiate some conventions with Norodom, such as the guarantee that

Frenchmen involved in legal disputes with Cambodians would have a hearing before

a mixed Franco-Cambodian tribunal, but his interference in internal affairs did not

go as far as enforcing the 1877 agreements.

He displayed no great concern to institute educational reforms. There was a small

French-directed school in Phnom Penh by the early eighties, but it catered chiefly

for Chinese and Vietnamese children. As its director observed, there was such a marked

antipathy between Cambodians and the children of other nationalities that very few

Cambodians attended.

Although his allusion to the threat of a national revolt if Norodom was removed was

a brief one, Le Myre de Vilers apparently considered this sufficiently likely for

him to hold his hand. French power in Cambodia was enough to meet local challenges

to Norodom's authority, and in moments of stress it could be used to coerce the king

into accepting French advice. But it was still not sufficient in the early 1880's,

at least in Le Myre de Vilers' judgment, for France to risk the dangers of a full-scale

revolt. Moreover, from 1880 onwards, France was increasingly engaged in efforts to

assert its position in Tonkin. This aroused domestic political controversy and strained

the resources of the colonial civil service. So long as the outcome of events in

the north of Viet-Nam was uncertain, it must have appeared inadvisable to take risks

in Phnom Penh.

Yet it would be wrong to underestimate the effect of Cambodian resistance to change

in forcing Le Myre de Vilers to postpone action. The kingdom was a pale shadow of

its glorious past, and the ruler at times seemed little more powerful than the governors

of his most important provinces but he was the king.

Attended by more than three hundred pages, his word was law within the palace and

for the Cambodian population of Phnom Penh. When a horseman came to the palace wall,

he dismounted and walked until he had passed the royal sanctuary, making obeisance

to the physical symbols of royalty. The importance of royalty was such that only

a member of the royal family or a person who claimed to be could mount an effective

rebellion against the king. The weakness of the king and the generally disordered

state of the kingdom had led to a more than usual number of these challenges in the

first twenty years of Norodom's reign.

French involvement in Cambodia had begun reluctantly and been directed initially

to strategic and commercial interests. Once established, however, the protectorate

slowly encompassed a greater sphere of activity as the French sought to impose their

will on Norodom.

Recognizing the existing tensions within the royal family, the French turned these

to their own advantage. Stubborn resistance and intrigue were the only weapons left

to Norodom. Faced with dire French threats, he would feign agreement. This he did

in 1877, turning to Spain with the hope of countering the pressure of French officials.

He resented his position deeply. The exalted state of Asian kingship had eluded him

for nearly four years at the start of his reign while he waited for conditions to

permit a coronation.

When he was crowned, he was ecstatic. He protested that the reforms urged upon him

would undermine his traditional rights. The West's new technology intrigued him,

but he had no time for new standards of behavior. He was intelligent, but he did

not perceive that his obstinacy could one day lead to a total disregard for his feelings

and interests.

In contrast, Sisowath sensed the power and resources of the European newcomers and

placed his fate in their hands. When the major clash between Norodom and the French

came, it revealed miscalculation on both sides. The restraints on Norodom's power

had not eliminated his capacity to rally support. But this was not understood by

a governor of Cochinchina who placed the implementation of a rational administration

above all else. In resisting to the point where he risked deposition, and later giving

his approval, at the very least tacitly, to the anti-French rising in 1885, Norodom

revealed a faith in the capacity of traditional institutions to reverse events. His

judgment was partially vindicated in the years immediately after the rising took

place, but that vindication only lent bitter urgency to the later efforts of French

officials to assert their will in the tragic closing years of the king's life.

© Milton E. Osborne

The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia.

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