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The French in Cambodia: Years of revolt (1884 - 1886)

The French in Cambodia: Years of revolt (1884 - 1886)

In this third instalment of a series on Cambodian history, Australian scholar

Dr. Milton E. Osborne examines the uprising by Cambodians against the French presence

in the Kingdom during 1885-86.

The role of King Norodom in the events is given particular scrutiny.

Was the King involved in actively fomenting the rebellion or was the prestige of

the Monarchy in the countryside used merely as a rallying cry for those involved

in resisting French encroachment in Cambodian affairs?

King Norodom proves to be a tenacious negotiator with the French.

In the end, the French realize that they must rely on the King's popularity in the

provinces to help quell the revolt.

The stature of the Monarchy may have been enhanced among the population with peace

achieved by the end of 1896, but in the end further concessions had to be made to

the French.

The following has been extracted from The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia:

Rule and Response (1859-1905) published in 1997 by White Lotus Co. Ltd. in Bangkok.

The book is available in Phnom Penh at Monument books.

Most importantly, the part which could be played by the king was belatedly recognized,

as was the extent to which the 1884 convention and subsequent developments had wounded

the susceptibilities of large numbers of Cambodians. For the first time, an effort

was made to reap some benefit from Norodom's prestige. This was in direct contrast

to earlier lines of thought, when no effort was spared to inculpate Norodom in the

organization of the rising and nothing was done to assuage his grievances.

The most detailed investigation of Noro-dom's possible involvement was made by Klobukowski,

[Governor Charles] Thom-son's chef du cabinet. In a manuscript report of more than

two hundred pages he attempted to find an explanation for resistance to the French.

The broad bent of his conclusions was that Norodom was "legally the responsible

originator of this agitation." Klobukowski's explanation of the way in which

the revolt was plotted, however, was less simple. It may reflect some of the developments

in the Cambodian court after Thomson's humiliation of Norodom in 1884.

Klobukowski said Norodom had been forced into revolt by the various court figures

who believed that their position was threatened. These included a French-woman, the

widow Marrot, and her son; a creole, Ternisien, who had once been a magistrate in

Cochinchina in the French Parliament, the old colon, Caraman; the deputy for Cochinchina

in the French Parliament, Blanscubé; and the latter's secretary, Chabrier.

On the Cambodian side, Klobukowski denounced the king's secretary, Col de Monteiro,

a brother of Norodom, Nupparat, and a son, Duong Chacr.

Although Klobukowski's allegations must be treated with considerable reserve, his

view of developments cannot be completely dismissed. There seems little doubt that

Marrot, to whom Norodom owed substantial amounts of money, and Caraman, who had long

conducted business with the palace, were concerned about their future role once there

was stricter French control over Cambodia. There is a strong possibility that their

concern resulted in recommendations to Norodom to resist the convention that Thomson

had imposed. Certainly Blanscubé and Marrot's son played a part in forwarding

Norodom's letter of protest to the president of France.

It should be noted, however, that Blanscubé later disavowed Norodom and minimized

the importance of the letter. As for the Cambodian figures whom Klob-ukowski mentions,

it is far from clear whether he intended to link them with the Europeans whom he

denounced. What may be said is that opponents to the imposed convention were not

lacking in the palace, and Prince Duong Chacr was certainly one of them.

Convinced of Norodom's weak spirit, Klobukowski pictured the king as spurred on by

evil advisers, both Cambodian and European, to permit his officials to reply to the

1884 convention with armed revolt. In support of his contention, Klobukowski wrote

of the letters circulated throughout Cambodia that bore the royal seal. He noted

that nothing happened in the royal palace without Norodom's knowledge; it seemed

impossible that he was unaware that his seal had been used in this way. For Klob-ukowski,

only one step was open to the French; Norodom should be deposed and Sisowath placed

on the throne. Although he lacked proof, Klobukowski felt sure that Norodom was in

secret contact with Votha. It was unthinkable that such a person should remain on

the throne, particularly since the French would need to strengthen the king's prestige

in order to make the concessions required under the 1884 convention more acceptable.

The greatest difficulty attends any attempt to separate fact from speculation, and

prejudice from objective reporting, when dealing with the Klobukowski version of

events. He had a biased view of Norodom and close contacts with Sisowath. These facts

must be given full weight when considering his account of the situation.

His desire to provide a total explanation, even when he was unable to cite any clear

fact to back up his account of a particular development, is perhaps the most notable

and most damaging characteristic of his summation. Thus, he would cite the undoubted

fact of Duong Chacr's association with the rising and then link that prince with

other participants without regard for the possibility that the rising afforded an

opportunity for all discontented groups to register their protest against the changes

which Thomson's convention portended.

If one rejects Kobukowski's account of the rising as unsatisfactory, there remains

a mass of disconnected evidence from which to build a more convincing description

of the affair.

All French commentators writing at the time of the revolt concurred in attributing

a large measure of blame to Norodom. A sur-prisingly large number acknowledged that

the terms of the 1884 convention were so wounding to Norodom's pride that some attempt

to strike back should have been expected.

It is impossible to provide final proof. Letters seized from insurgents bore the

royal seal. Prince Si Votha endeavored to make contact with his half brother - and

may have succeeded in doing so. The evidence of Votha's adopted son is particularly

persuasive in this matter; when captured in 1885, he stated that some agreement did

exist between Votha and Norodom.

Yet Norodom consistently denied involvement with the insurgents. It may be argued

that this was the only course open to him, especially since his fear of being deposed

probably equaled his distrust of the French. In response to the French allegations,

Norodom did not prevaricate as he had done, for instance, in the Spanish treaty affair

some four years earlier.

In a letter written in August 1885, Norodom energetically denied any personal association

with the insurgents. He refused to admit any connection with letters bearing his

seal, and he assured the governor of Cochinchina of his loyalty to France and of

his reliance on the protection of the French government both for his own person and

for his people. Short of taking to the field with the insurgents, there was little

else that Norodom could do but deny the charges leveled against him.

If his association with at least some aspects of the rising cannot be proved in any

legalistic manner, the burden of probability nevertheless suggests his tacit approval,

if nothing more, of this last real attempt to counter French power. Some older members

of the Cambodian royal family still conserve the tradition that Norodom was indeed

the inspiration behind the revolt.

There is no doubt concerning Si Votha's involvement.

For the inhabitants of the northeastern region of Cambodia, Votha was a king, and

he maintained his own small, if often impoverished, court. When Aymonier passed up

the Mekong towards Laos in 1883, he found that Votha even maintained his own customs

service, which levied small duties on those passing along sections of the river.

The letters that the French captured during the rising suggest that Votha tried to

extend his influence beyond the region to which he had retreated after the events

of 1876 and 1877.

Letters from Votha to leaders of the revolt in the south and west of the kingdom

urged resistance to the French and called on them to aid the king in his opposition

to French control. Votha argued that the aim of French policy was to destroy Cambodia's

ancient traditions and to punish and humiliate the members of the royal family who

defended Cambodia's rights.

Weighed against Votha's lifetime distrust of Norodom, the call for unity in his letters

of 1885 must be judged as opportunistic. It is difficult to believe that his long

career of dissidence, both before and after the 1885-1886 period, was suddenly transformed

for those two years.

Votha would have recognized the appeal of apparent unity within the royal family

when seeking to encourage resistance in areas where his own personal prestige was

low. There is evidence that he had some success. There was no reason for Votha to

love the French, who had aided Norodom against him, but there was reason to support

all who opposed the French once the rising had begun. If, indeed, Norodom had planned

or agreed to an armed rising, there was every reason for Votha, who still had friends

at court, to attempt to join his own permanent protest to the revolt, just as the

French alleged he did.

There seems no reason to interpret the events of 1885 as an attempt by Votha to inculpate

Norodom in a rising of which the king had no knowledge.

Discontented members of the royal family were associated in greater or lesser degree

with the insurgency. Some joined the insurgents in the field; others formed a core

of resistance to change within the court.

Norodom's mother, living in Oudong, in isolation from the main court at Phnom Penh,

was believed to be a secret supporter of the rising. This French estimation was based

on the her staunch support of the king's traditional prerogatives. Her court was

alleged to harbor many supporters of the insurgency. It certainly was a world, separate

from Phnom Penh, in which the standards of traditional Cambodian court life prevailed

without any challenge from the West. The French authorities felt it highly desirable

that she should join her efforts to those that Norodom finally made to dissuade Cambodians

from any further opposition to the French forces.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the revolt is the readiness of the Cambodian

officials to rise against the French.

Norodom's role is the chief focus for interest, and the reasons behind his resentment

of the French are easy to find. The antagonism of other members of the royal family

towards the French is also readily understood. But for the provincial officials,

who played such an important part in raising resistance, a separate explanation is

necessary. It is striking in how many cases these men emerge, from their own letters

and from reports on their activities prepared by the French, as defenders of traditional


In the east of Phnom Penh, the insurgent chiefs had fomented revolt by arguing that

the French would interfere with the peasants' precious control over their land, by

encouraging Vietnamese immigration.

Insurgents near Takeo responded to the suggestion that in the future the French would

levy taxes, instead of Cambodian officials. Even if this call to revolt reflected

the self-interested fears of the officials that they would lose their traditional

incomes, it brought a response from the population.

Both implicitly and explicitly, the leaders of the insurgents rejected what they

saw as a complete change in the usages of the country and a threat to its traditions.

French control over the king was repugnant, as was the diminution of the authority

of the governors and the lesser provincial officials. The insurgents about Kampot

told the French they fought because the king ordered them to do so; they believed

and obeyed.

Among the most important evidence for the traditionalist character of the revolt

is Norodom's proclamation of August 1886. By this point the king was convinced that

there was no path open to him but cooperation with the French. Yet his proclamation

was surprisingly unrepentant. It noted, "For two years the officials and the

people have shown their discontent and have revolted, saying that great changes have

been made in our government."

Now, Norodom told his people, he and his officials had decided to ask the French

for a large measure of control over the affairs of the kingdom, and this had been


If Norodom believed that the French in-tended to give him wide control over administration

of the country, he was to be sorely disappointed in the years that followed. But

for the moment the French were prepared to make some concessions in order to end

the running sore of insurgency, which they could not otherwise heal.

That Norodom's prestige contributed greatly to the ending of the rising is further

proof of its traditionalist character. It also is a fact that should be placed against

the more usual picture of the king exercising little control outside the immediate

confines of his capital. In this instance, his presence in the countryside aided

greatly in the conclusion of peace.

Thomson returned to France in the middle of 1885, and when a new governor of Cochinchina,

Filippini, was appointed, he was under instructions from Paris to end the rising

as quickly as possible.

Filippini began negotiations with Norodom in 1886. He recognized both the necessity

for some immediate concessions and the extent to which Norodom's honor had been engaged

in the unfortunate days of June 1884. On his first visit to Phnom Penh, in July 1886,

at a time when the rising still held sway over most of the country, he offered concessions

to Norodom in exchange for an effort by the king to bring the insurgency to an end.

Filippini's account of the meeting shows the extent to which it involved real bargaining.

Norodom argued that he should have full power to pardon and punish those who took

part in the rising. He asked that the French limit the number of residents to be

installed in provincial regions and that they continue to leave provincial administration

to Cambodian officials. He wished to maintain the right to name governors of provinces,

and as a final right he asked that no land should be alienated without his consent.

To all these requests, Filippini replied that Norodom must recognize that the 1884

convention had to be respected, but that he was prepared to go some distance to meet

Norodom's desires. The king could continue to name governors, for instance, provided

they were loyal to him and to France. On land matters, however, the governor would

only agree that this question be left, for the moment, unresolved.

He ended his first interview with Norodom with the warning that the French government,

in exchange for the consideration which it was giving Norodom's wishes, expected

to see an end to the rising by 1 January 1887.

Norodom would have to ensure this.

This first interview took place on 22 July. The following day the king and the governor

met again, with Norodom adopting an even stronger demeanor.

He sought to regain control of the state's customs services and indicated that it

might not be possible to end the rising on the exact date that the governor had stipulated.

Filippini again urged Norodom to ensure that his intervention did bring a successful

conclusion by the appointed time. The suggestion that he might once again be faced

with the prospect of forced abdication brought swift action by Norodom. He issued

his proclamation calling for the insurgents to lay down their arms and noting the

concessions that the French government was making to him. He promised pardon for

those who responded, but punishment for those who failed to do so. Norodom kept his

word and made energetic efforts to bring peace to the countryside. He traveled into

regions that had been under the sway of the insurgents and urged submission to his

and French authority. In the southwest alone, he spent a month calling on former

insurgents to lay down their arms.

Other princes of the royal family played their part in calling for an end to resistance.

Princes Chantavong and Neoppharot led expeditions into the interior to gain submissions.

Sisowath was particularly active. He had earlier worked with the French against the

insurgents, but following Norodom's proclamation, he played an even larger role.

He was selected to try to bring the most persistent area of insurgency, the region

where Votha exercised influence, under control. Despite French admonitions to capture

Votha before returning to Phnom Penh, Sisowath was not successful. He brought a shaky

peace to the region, but he failed in his major aim of capturing the dissident prince.

French observers were probably correct in their belief that, whatever his relationship

with the French, and despite his protestations of loyalty, Sisowath was reluctant

to press the hunt with too much vigor. Votha was his half brother and a member of

the royal family, and as such, not to be treated as merely another insurgent.

As 1886 drew to a close, the insurgency died away. A few distant areas to the northeast,

where Votha still exercised control, were the one exception to the general improvement

throughout the rest of the country. Provincial insurgent leaders surrendered, and

minor members of the royal family returned to place themselves under the surveillance

of the king in the capital. The king's highest officials seconded the efforts made

by members of the royal family to bring the insurgency to a close.

Although the French authorities in theory had greater control over Cambodia than

ever before, they had found it essential to exercise that power with restraint and

to make due allowance for the sensitivities of the king. As 1887 advanced, with the

exception of very occasional disorders, the country was at peace.

Late in 1887 or early in 1888 even Votha's contribution to perennial unrest ceased

as the prince retreated to the upriver vastness along the Cambodian-Laotian border.

The last real Cambodian challenge to French authority had ended.

This period of revolt is important for a variety of reasons. It has initial interest

as an historical episode that has not achieved the recognition that it deserves.

The accounts provided by Collard and Leclere are impressionistic at best, and at

worst they tend to disguise the difficulties faced by the French in maintaining their

authority. It is probably true that at no time was it likely that French troops could

be forced to withdraw from their fortified strongpoints. On the other hand, retaining

control of those positions was, for nearly eighteen months, all that four thousand

troops could do with any certainty. At the very least, the rising threatened the

whole character of France's relationship with Cambodia.

The deposition of Norodom was discussed, as was the possibility that France should

directly annex Cambodia and make it an outright colony in the style of Cochin-china.

With other demands on French troops in Tonkin, Cambodia represented a considerable

military embarrassment that the colonial authorities could ill afford. The final

decision to work for peace through the king's prestige and to accept modifications

of the 1884 convention reflects the incapacity of the French to achieve their aims

in Cambodia through purely military means.

They tried, and they failed.

The recourse to Norodom testifies to the continuing prestige of the king. Earlier

in his reign there had been strong evidence of his failure to exercise real power

outside the capital. The events of the revolt thus pose the question of whether by

1885 he had achieved some more positive position in relation to the outer areas of

his kingdom. There seems little reason to give strong en-dorsement to this view.

Although the king had not been able to control his provincial governors in earlier

years, this did not mean that he was without prestige. There were few, indeed, apart

from the similarly royal Si Votha, who would maintain their opposition to the throne

in the face of the king's presence. Moreover, the way in which insurgent leaders

rallied support by suggesting that the French had threatened the king and the royal

family is particularly suggestive of the continuing appeal of the monarchy. That

the king did bring peace to Cambodia, once he threw his weight behind French efforts,

is equally strong testimony to the appeal of his person, if not of his power.

The events of this time of crisis provide one of the first important insights into

a major theme in later Cambodian-French relations.

By 1884, the outlines of the great paradox of Cambodian history under the French

protectorate may be discerned. This paradox is found in the continuing diminution

of Cambodian power and the growing importance of the monarch as a symbol of national

unity, unchallenged, as he had so often been in the past, by other members of the

royal family. The paradox is further complicated by the fact that the king's temporal

power, even during Ang Duong's lifetime, was severely restricted.

It is probably more correct, therefore, to speak of the diminution of the king's

theoretical power and the increase in his symbolic importance.

When Norodom joined forces with the French there were none who could effectively

oppose him. Votha's efforts in 1885-1886 were his last; he ceased to be of real importance

thereafter. Not only was the combination of Norodom's prestige and French arms beyond

defeat; the king, even by 1884, had added steadily to the symbols of his office.

What Le Myre de Vilers reviled as a combination of oriental luxury and European comfort

probably represented the most important demonstration of kingly power assembled in

the Cambodian court for centuries.

The rising was important for Sisowath. Although he failed to capture Si Votha, he

had further demonstrated his devotion to the French cause. This did not prevent French

criticism of his capacities, but the pendulum swing from enthusiastic endorsement

of the prince to denunciation of his weakness had occurred before. What was significant

was his unhesitating loyalty to French aims.

The period of the rising was also of considerable importance for the development

of relations between the French authorities and those of the Cambodian elite who

worked with them, when royal control over direction of the kingdom had been minimized.

Examination of the personal dossiers of Cambodian officials who held senior posts

at the turn of the century and after reveals the extent to which cooperation with

the French during the revolt enhanced a man's chances for promotion.

The overall traditionalist character of the rising has been stressed. More difficult

is an assessment of the rising's nationalist content.

It is interesting to record the French acknowledgment of a "national hostility"

to their position in Cambodia. But it is more difficult to interpret just what this

assessment meant. Because of the ethnic unity of Cambodia and the common language

and religion, the country had certain potentialities for national unity. Nevertheless,

national borders had little meaning for the ordinary Cambodian, who, if it seemed

de-sirable, would cross to live under alien sovereignty for a wide variety of reasons.

Forty thousand Cambodians did this during the period of the rising.

To look for modern nationalism in the events of 1885-1886 is to seek an element yet

unborn in Cambodia.

There is no evidence to suggest that the rising reflected any feeling that the French

had interfered with Buddhism. Fear that increased Vietnamese immigration might lead

to such interference, however, was of some importance.

What undoubtedly was present was a general rejection of the French and of French

control among a large number of traditional leaders, both royal and non-royal. In

a country where traditions and established custom had high prestige, the French were

seen as destroying the values of the past and threatening the most elevated tradition

of all, the Cambodian monarchy.

The rising profoundly affected the Cambodian population and countryside. In the years

following the end of the revolt there was frequent reference to the exodus of some

forty thousand Cambodians from Pursat into Battambang. One observer concluded that

the Siamese government took advantage of the unrest in Cambodia to make conditions

in Battambang more than usually attractive so as to promote this migration.

In some regions of the kingdom there was severe damage to existing ricelands. Irrigation

systems were destroyed and land went out of production. Stocks of rice were burnt

or scattered. This led to areas of famine within Cambodia, and it seems reasonable

to accept Leclere's estimate that some ten thousand people died during the revolt,

mostly as the result of famine.

The statistics of deaths among the armed forces are not revealed in available documentary

sources. There were, however, heavy losses through disease.

Politically, the revolt temporarily preserved a measure of the king's power and frustrated

the French wish to impose a strict control over the administration of the kingdom.

Instead of the eight residents whom Thomson had wished to introduce under the 1884

convention, the French agreed to install only four. Despite the intention of the

French authorities that the French resident general in Phnom Penh should control

the activities of the council of ministers, the events of 1885-1886 had made them

reluctant to move too fast in this direction, and full control did not come until


The issue of slavery also lay dormant until that year, since it was found that this

institution, viewed in such different terms by the French and Cambodians, was one

to which the population was deeply attached. Slaves, chiefly debt bondsmen, provided

an important source of wealth to the more prosperous members of the population and

represented one of the few ways poor families could meet their financial obligations

in times of difficulty.

Royalty relied heavily on slaves for the maintenance of palace services, and hereditary

slaves played a major part in the exploitation of cardamom in the mountains west

of Pursat. Some recognition of the importance accorded slavery led the French to

allow the institution to continue, even into the twentieth century.

The halt in the development of French control was to prove only temporary.

It was a respite dictated by necessity, and French officials did not hesitate to

depart from their policy of moderation once they felt they had sufficient strength.

If anything, the events of the rising reinforced French intentions to take the first

opportunity to gain all real power in Cambodia.

Thomson had been mistaken in thinking that Norodom and his officials would not react

to major changes imposed en bloc. The revolt that broke out in January 1885 revealed

a whole spectrum of grievances against the French presence in Cambodia which could

be linked with calls for the preservation of the country's national traditions.

But if the period represented a partial triumph for Norodom, it was also his last

triumph. In succeeding years, more skillful French officials adopted a policy of

introducing reforms on a piecemeal basis that the rapidly aging king found himself

powerless to resist. This was particularly so as important senior officials began

to rest their hopes of advancement and financial gain more with the French than with

their monarch.

Reinforcement of the king's symbolic status was important in the twentieth century.

It must, however, have been of little consolation for Norodom to receive rich gifts

from the French as he saw control over temporal matters slip further from his grasp.

It is not certain that Norodom uttered the words that Paul Branda attributed to him,

in 1885, but there is no doubt that they expressed the king's sentiments. Forced

finally to ratify the 1884 convention, Norodom is supposed to have said, "Your

protection is the cremation of the monarchy."


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