Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The court of Norodom, descendant of Vishnu:

The court of Norodom, descendant of Vishnu:

The court of Norodom, descendant of Vishnu:

In 1866 six Frenchmen decided the time had come to trace the Mekong back to

its source in the hope of finding a new trade route to China. In this, the first

of a two-part extract from the revised edition of Milton Osborne's book about the

expedition, River Road to China, the explorers find themselves in Phnom Penh.

A photograph of Louis Delaporte,

the artist of the exhibition and a newcomer to the East

THE FRENCH explorers were men of their age: the enlight ened, educated, scientific

mid-19th century. But as they rested in Phnom Penh their own age seemed to have lost

much of its reality. The new capital of Cambodia (for the King and his court had

only just vacated an earlier site a little to the north at Oudong in this same year

of 1866) might not have surprised their forebears of the Middle Ages.

For these six men it was a place of constant, sometimes horrified, fascination. Where,

after all, in Europe was it still quite normal to find the heads of executed criminals

rotting under a swarm of flies atop bamboo poles, grisly testimonies to the vengeance

of a king against any who transgressed one of his most sacred concerns, the inviolability

of his female household?

This was the era of the mission civilisatrice , the French concept of a civilizing

mission that they alone among the countries of Europe were capable of fulfilling.

Yet, in Cambodia, the role escaped them. Whatever was to happen later, as the 19th

century drew to a close, the 1860s in Cambodia were still a time when old ways were

supreme. Not that these old ways were always harsh. The traditional Cambodian legal

code viewed adultery outside the royal family with a notable degree of tolerance.

As well as the penalty requiring the adulterer to pay for his illicit pleasure in

cash, the law did provide an alternative.

Accepting that the act of adultery was more likely to take place in the fields about

the city than elsewhere, the legal code provided that the guilty parties could absolve

themselves by offering to the court the amount of grass that would be eaten in a

day by the royal elephants.

This "punishment" served the honor of all sides. It suggested heroic efforts

on the part of those involved in the illicit liaison, but reaffirmed the vital interests

of the King, whose elephants might, in even the smallest measure, have been deprived

of their fodder.

In a way that is difficult for many in the late 20th century to imagine, Cambodia

in the 1860s was an unknown and sometimes barbaric land.

The French colonizers who had come to the Indochinese region in 1858 had been slow

to transfer their attention from the south of Vietnam to this petty kingdom. They

knew it was a factious place where the man who held the title of King retained his

position because of help from Thailand, and against the undisguised enmity of his

two half-brothers. When, in 1863, they decided to ensure that their influence was

dominant in Cambodia, they were reacting more to imagined threats than verifiable


The French explorers at Angkor in June 1866. From left, Francis Garnier, Louis Delaporte, Lucien Joubert, Clovis Thorel, Louis de Carné, Doudart de Lagrée

The perfidious British were an ever-present danger in many French minds. In the Southeast

Asian world they were seen as evil geniuses orchestrating the activities of the Thai

court, and thus as likely to threaten the newly established French position in southern

Vietnam. It is difficult to be absolutely sure, but the best evidence is that at

the time in question the highest ranking British subject within the Thai court was

the bandmaster.

So, with a dash of gunboat diplomacy to ensure that Thai influence in Cambodia became

negligible, the French government, in 1863 and 1864, established a "protectorate"

over Cambodia. The expectation was that without Thai influence Cambodia would be


It was not. As French officials worked to make Cambodia a further shining jewel in

Napoleon III's colonial crown, the country sank deeper into disorder and rebellion.

This time the Thais, and their presumed directors, the British, could not be blamed.

The problem was more fundamental and more local. It was the problem of the King,

and in particular of the contrast between his apparently absolute power at court

and his near lack of power in the provinces.

The Frenchmen who were about to explore the unknown course of the Mekong came to

Phnom Penh well acquainted with the character of the Cambodian ruler, if not reconciled

to it.

The leader of the expedition, Commander Ernest-Marc-Louis de Gonzague Doudart de

Lagrée, had already spent more than two years in Cambodia as the representative

of the French government. It had been his task to persuade and finally to force the

Cambodian King, Norodom, to agree to the French protectorate.

The other naval officers and officials in the service of the French government accompanying

Lagrée knew Norodom only at second hand. Francis Garnier's experience of the

East had been in Vietnam, across the cultural divide from Cambodia. This, too, was

the Asian experience of Dr Clovis Thorel, one of the two medical men included in

the expedition. Dr. Lucien Joubert, the other, had never served in the Indochinese

region before; his foreign service had been in Africa. Louis Delaporte was also a

newcomer to the East. And so too was Louis de Carné, the youngest member of

the expedition, who had gained a place through his uncle's influence, and who was

to provide the one public blot on the enterprise's honor before he died, five years

later, from a disease contracted on the slow journey up the Mekong.

The letters that Doudart de Lagrée sent home to France in 1864 and 1865 provide

some of the most vivid pictures of the Cambodian court and its ruler. It is no wonder

that the other members of the expedition, who now met Norodom for the first time,

observed and spoke with him in such an interested way. If only half of Lagrée's

stories were true, then here before them was a living example of an oriental despot.

Doudart de Lagrée might choose to speak of Norodom as a "kinglet",

but this was not the vision held of him by his subjects. Nor, assuredly, was it how

Norodom thought of himself.

The man whose Cambodian titles described him as the "Great King with Heavenly

Feet, Better than All Others, Descendant of Angels and of the God Vishnu, Excellent

Heart, Supreme Earthly Power as full of Qualities as the Sun, Born to Protect Men,

Supporter of the Weak, He who Knows and Understands, Better than All Others, Eternally

Precious like the Angels, Victorious, Great among the Greatest . . ." was a

little man with a pockmarked face.

When he was crowned King in 1864, Norodom was 28 years old. Barely five feet in height,

he had no doubts as to the rights he should enjoy over his country, even if these

were seldom translated into reality.

He had spent six years of his early life, between 1848 and 1856, in Bangkok living

as a part guest and part hostage in the Thai court. During the late 1850s, in the

closing years of his father's life, Norodom spent his early manhood in the Cambodian

court at Oudong, 20 miles north of Phnom Penh.

As the King's eldest son he could indulge his pleasures, even if he also risked occasional

beating when he incurred his parent's regal rage.

A European visitor to Oudong in 1859 found Norodom to be a considerate host whose

English vocabulary comprised only one phrase, "Good brandy." Throughout

his life he showed himself ready to match this statement of approval with unstinted

consumption of the brandy itself.

But it was not his heavy drinking, nor his use of opium, that so confounded the French.

In their less prejudiced moments, Frenchmen recognized his lively intelligence, but

from the very beginning they could not really understand Norodom's relations with

his female household. Why, they asked, when he had so many women should the infidelity

of one be the cause of so many deaths and other punishments?

Norodom, Lagrée once wrote, was as jealous as a tiger. It was this jealousy

that explained the almost constant succession of hangings and decapitations at his

court. With 45 women to tend his pleasure, the errant behavior of one could lead,

as it did one day early in 1864, to the sudden death of seven men and women judged

to have infringed the ancient laws of the kingdom.

What the French failed to understand was that the women of Norodom's court were not

merely part of some Cambodian equivalent of a Turkish seraglio. Many of those who

shared the King's bed were also playing a political role, acting on behalf of their

relatives, providing the King with advice away from the formal meetings that he disliked

and distrusted.

But more than this, the female household still was one area that had not passed beyond

the King's absolute control. The outer provinces might be in revolt, the Thais and

later the French might work their will upon Norodom to force him this way or that.

But in his own household his word was absolute.

When his father died, in 1860, Norodom inherited the late King's women. A deep quarrel

between Norodom and his half-brother, Si Votha, over what to be done with one of

these women probably explains why Si Votha withdrew into the forest and remained

a rebel against the King all his life. Symbolically and practically, the women of

the King's establishment represented the right he had to absolute power, and Norodom

did not fail to exercise that right.

This more than anything was what gave Norodom the character he had in the eyes of

the French. He might be amiable with his European visitors, but he was not with his

countrymen who broke the laws that said he alone had the right to his women.

He even turned his considerable if erratic interest in western technology and governmental

practice to use in this regard. In the early 1870s someone told the Cambodian monarch

that on occasion governments in Europe used firing squads to carry out executions.

This struck Norodom as a matter of great interest. Pressing a French official for

details, he listened thoughtfully while the procedure was explained. Within hours

of the conversation a fusillade rang out to bring death to yet more erring members

of his household.

Later in the century, as he grew older and his female establishment grew larger,

the problem of maintaining fidelity grew greater. The court pages, usually vigorous

young men in their 20s, sometimes could not resist the blandishments of the women.

Neither, always, could Norodom's rambling brood of sons.

As late as 1884 it was only French pressure that prevented Norodom from punishing

one of his sons for an illicit liaison with a member of the female household by having

him dragged to his death behind horses through the streets of Phnom Penh. The angry

King had to be content with confining his son, loaded down with heavy chains.

If such spectacles did not greet the French explorers, there was much to interest

and even fascinate them as they paused in Phnom Penh to make their last major supply

arrangements before heading into unknown regions.

They had left Saigon nearly a month before, on June 5, 1866, and had passed most

of the intervening period making the first detailed appraisal of the mighty ruins

of Angkor, the center of Cambodian glory between the ninth and 15th centuries. Now,

in Phnom Penh, they added to their food supplies and, heeding the advice of local

traders, bought up large stocks of copper wire for barter in the distant Laotian


Though it had only recently become the royal capital once again, Phnom Penh was a

site rich with memories and traditions. After the Cambodians abandoned Angkor, in

the 15th century, this had been the country's capital for a period.

Later, towards the end of the 16th century, the city had been the scene of a savage

clash between the contending groups of foreigners, including Spanish and Portuguese

adventurers, who sought to profit from the weakening state of the country. In a bloody

month of fighting and arson the Europeans clashed with the Chinese community and

then, in turn, were attacked themselves by the Cambodians.

Commander of the expedition, Ernest-Marc-Louis de Gonzague Doudart de Lagrée

After another century of somnolence, Phnom Penh briefly regained its capital city

status in the 1830s during a bitter period of Vietnamese occupation. This led to

its destruction when the Thais, as enemies of the Vietnamese, put the city to the

torch in 1834.

During the 1840s and 1850s the city had a backwater existence as a settlement of

small traders and merchants.

Now, in 1866, the French had persuaded Norodom to proclaim Phnom Penh the capital

of his country once more, and to leave his father's capital Oudong, just to the north,

to decay slowly as the tropical weather and the insects brought down the empty, wooden

palace buildings.

Not, indeed, that all were empty, for some upholders of tradition remained, unready

to live in proximity to the French. Foremost among these was Norodom's mother. Another

was the tragic figure so often spoken of in French accounts as "the mad woman

of Oudong".

This was Ang Mey, the Cambodian princess who had been placed on the powerless throne

of her occupied country by the Vietnamese in 1834. Rumor was that she had been the

mistress of a Vietnamese general who ruled over Cambodia at this terrible time. Others

tempered their allegations of Ang Mey's wrongdoing; the once beautiful princess,

they said, may have sold her country, but not her body to the Vietnamese.

Whatever was the case, she had lost her reason. Pushed from the throne when the Vietnamese

retreated before the Thais, she lived with the memory of death and dishonor for over

20 years. Norodom left her in the care of old retainers when he and his court moved

to Phnom Penh. At Oudong she could still believe that she had some dignity, and her

servants could placate the villagers whom she assaulted when her mind was most unbalanced,

or pay for the goods that she took as a right from the merchants in the markets.

The remainder of Chapter 1 of Milton Osborne's River Road to China will be

published in the next issue of the Post. The book is on sale at Monument Books in

Monivong Street,

near Psah Thmei.


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