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

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

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

Milton E. Osborne deals with the critical period last century when the French increased

their presence and control over Cambodia during the reign of King Norodom.

Having signed a Protectorate Treaty with King Norodom in 1863, the French became

increasingly fustrated with his efforts to obstruct French designs for the Kingdom.

With the instalation of a new Governor for Cochinchina in 1883, pressure was increased

on the Cambodian King and the stage was set for a final showdown in 1884.

The King may have capitulated to French demands for greater control over the affairs

of the state, but increased French domination over Cambodia was not achieved peacefully.

The result was a Kingdom-wide revolt which saw thousands of French troops do battle

with shadowy bands of Cambodian guerrilla insurgents throughout the countryside.

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.

The first twenty years of contact between Norodom and the French established a pattern

of interaction. French officials would suggest changes in the nature of the country's

administration, which were normally met by Norodom's refusal to agree on either the

necessity or the desirability of change; acting from their position of strength,

the French authorities then brought power to bear on the king to force his agreement.

But there was a final step in the evolution of this pattern of French dictation and

Cambodian acceptance.

In general, Norodom's agreement to follow French advice was not implemented. This

was notably the case with the 1877 proclamations, which set up a more rational form

of government, with a special role for the French representative, and abolished slavery

throughout the kingdom. The possibility that enforcement might lead to a major revolt

against French control persuaded Le Myre de Vilers to abstain from precipitate action.

His successor, however, took a different position.

When Governor Charles Thomson became the second civil governor in Cochinchina in

1883, and hence the French official with ultimate authority over Cambodia, French

interests in the Indochinese region were expanding. By inclination, Thomson was ready

to ensure that within his own sphere of responsibility France had supreme power.

Unlike his predecessors, he was not ready to see an agreement forced from Norodom

and then not honored. He failed to realize that Norodom was in no mood for compromise

either. French sources show that Norodom was watching events in Tonkin closely and

was encouraged by them to make some moves to resist further French demands for change.

Despite the agreements negotiated by Le Myre de Vilers, Norodom held out against

French demands that he and his government should meet the cost of the protectorate

over Cambodia. Prolonged discussion during July 1883 finally brought an agreement,

in September, that from the beginning of 1884 the French administration in Cochinchina

should take over the collection of taxes on opium and alcohol sold in Cambodia. This

arrangement would meet the cost of the protectorate. It was the French understanding

that Norodom was also ready to approve the installation of police posts throughout

Cambodia, to provide a greater degree of security, and would provide Governor Thomson

with the draft of a new "constitution" implementing previously agreed reforms.

While Thomson badgered Norodom, he was in contact with Sisowath. On French urging,

the king's half-brother willingly signed a "very confidential" convention

approving the programme of reforms demanded by the governor.

Sisowath was in Thomson's eyes "this prince, who is absolutely devoted to our

policy, [who] has long ago adopted our general views leading to the modification

of the protectorate."

Only three months later, the obbareach apparently felt the need to give further proof

of his support of French policy. At the beginning of 1884 he sent a telegram from

Phnom Penh to Governor Thomson in Saigon, reiterating his devotion to France.

The knowledge of this ready support was an important factor in the events that culminated

in Norodom's forced signature of the convention of 17 June 1884.

The presumption was that if Norodom did resist French pressure, then Sisowath would

mount the throne as a French puppet.

During the first months of 1884, the king appeared to accept the French presence

in his kingdon with reasonably good grace.

An impressive ceremony took place in March 1884 to mark the inauguration of the "mixed

tribunal," the body with French and Cambodian membership that would have jurisdiction

over contraventions of the new taxation system negotiated in September 1883.

Thomson, however, wanted more. He next proposed that France should assume direct

control of Cambodia's customs service. This was Norodom's sticking point and the

immediate origin of the tense negotiations in June. The clash was the end product

of basic differences in outlook between the French and Norodom. The issue was less

important than the underlying questions of principle.

More than any preceding event, Norodom saw Thomson's demand in April 1884 that control

of the customs service be ceded to France as eroding his personal position within

the kingdom. He refused, setting forth his reasons in a letter summarizing the history

of his relations with France: In the beginning I concluded a treaty of alliance and

friendship with the French government and the high French officials; I was directed

to observe this treaty faithfully. Now the Cambodian government sees that this new

affair [the customs convention] is going to diminish the prestige of Cambodian authority.

The Cambodian government and the Cambodian people are not accustomed to giving up

their ancient ways in order to adopt new ones. It will be thought that the king has

lost all authority over his subjects.

Concern that French control of customs would destroy his prestige within the kingdom

marked Norodom's approach to the negotiations in June 1884. As Thomson pressed the

king to accept the latest diminution of his power, Norodom reiterated his position.

He stated that his officials were unanimous in advising him not to sign "a convention

that would violate the ancient customs and destroy the royal prestige."

In interviews with Thomson on 5 and 7 June, Norodom insisted that he was ready to

act in accordance with the terms of the 1863 treaty, but he wanted no further departures

from the provisions of that document.

Thomson also made his position clear. If Norodom refused to make the changes that

the governor sought, the French government would be obliged to show Norodom that

its protection applied "less to the person of the king than to the Kingdom of

Cambodia." The implication was clear, but in his new mood of firm obstinacy

Norodom did not weaken.

In the face of this refusal to negotiate, Thomson felt France's and his own personal

honor engaged. After the inconclusive exchanges of 5 and 7 June, Thomson again endeavored

to see Norodom. The king refused to see him, stating that he was unwell. This Thomson

did not believe. As a precaution against public disorders, he summoned troop reinforcements

and three gunboats from Saigon on 13 June.

Acting on his own initiative, the governor decided that since Norodom persisted in

his refusal to accept the proposed customs convention, he would now impose a much

more stringent convention that would revolutionize the administration of the kingdom.

Moreover, Thomson was ready to do what had so often been discussed before: remove

Norodom from the throne.

By 16 June there was an atmosphere of high excitement among the Frenchmen in Phnom

Penh and a state of apprehension in the royal court. The new French troops had arrived

from downriver. At one o'clock in the morning on 17 June, Thomson completed dictating

a dispatch summarizing the developments that had already taken place and noted that

in five hours he would proceed to the palace and demand satisfaction from Norodom.

If this was not given, he intended to dethrone Norodom and set Sisowath in his place.

If by any chance Sisowath failed to behave in the way in which Thomson expected,

the governor noted that he would arrange for a council of officials to rule the country

until the question of succession to the throne was resolved.

The events that took place when Thomson proceeded to the palace have become one of

the best known tableaux in nineteenth century Cambodian history. Thomson took a detachment

of troops with him, which remained under arms throughout the tense interview with

Norodom. The gunboats stood by in clear view just off the palace. The exchanges between

Norodom and Thomson have become the basis of legends that, though certainly rendering

the spirit of the confrontation, are not confirmed by documentary sources written

at the time.

The best-known version of the scene, repeated in modern Cambodian reconstructions,

is provided by Collard. He was not an eyewitness, but his service in Cambodia began

shortly after, in 1885, and he heard of the events from the participants. Reveillère,

writing under his pseudonym Paul Branda, also described the events of 17 June after

talking with the participants. But, again, there is no documentary confirmation of

the dramatic words that he attributes to Thomson and Norodom.

According to Collard's "authorized" version, Thomson penetrated to the

king's chamber in a brusque display of lèse-majesté, wakening the king

with the noise of his entry. He then read aloud to Norodom the text of a new, far-reaching

convention that transformed Cambodia from a protectorate into something very close

to a colony.

Hearing the terms of the new convention, the king's secretary and interpreter, Col

de Monteiro, is said to have cried, "Sire, this is not a convention that is

proposed to your majesty, this is an abdication."

De Monteiro was hurried from the room under guard.

Norodom, left alone, had no choice but to sign. Thomson commented, "Gentlemen,

here is a page of history."

Branda's account provides dramatic dialogue to supplement the picture presented by

Collard. He quotes Thomson as telling Norodom, after the king's initial refusal to

sign, that if he did not do so, he would be confined aboard one of the gunboats lying

off the palace. "What will you do with me aboard the Alouette?" Norodom

is supposed to have asked. "That is my secret," was Thomson's reported


Although the official accounts of the events in the early morning of 17 June 1884

lack the verbal drama of later reconstructions, there is still a sense of excitement

to the scene that they describe.

Accompanied by a detachment of troops, Thomson marched to see Norodom, determined

to impose a new convention. Norodom insisted that his earlier refusal to see the

governor had been the result of genuine ill health.

Faced with Thomson's show of force, he now indicated his willingness to sign the

controversial customs agreement. But Thomson now wanted to exact the much higher

price of complete administrative reorganization in recompense for the affront Norodom

had given him. He told the king that he must either sign the new convention or abdicate.

Faced with this choice, Norodom signed.

At some stage during this encounter Col de Monteiro was accused of falsely translating

some of the exchanges between the king and the governor. It was for this act, rather

than the ringing declaration that Collard quotes, that he was removed under guard.

As Thomson talked with Norodom, Sisowath waited in the wings. Before Norodom had

to face the governor, Sisowath had already told Thomson that he was at the disposal

of the French authorities.

During the night of 17 June, after the convention had been concluded, he spoke with

Thomson, congratulating him on the developments of the day and again indicating his

readiness to serve the French cause. Thomson's estimation that it would only be with

the greatest difficulty that Norodom would be able to bring himself to pardon Sisowath

is not surprising.

The cost to Norodom of the convention that Thomson extorted was high indeed. Under

the terms of the first article of the convention, the king was obliged to "accept

all the administrative, judicial, financial, and commercial reforms which, in the

future, the Government of the Republic will judge it useful to introduce in order

to facilitate the accomplishment of its Protectorate."

Instead of a protectorate, directed by a representative in Phnom Penh with scant

interest in affairs outside the capital, Thomson now proposed appointing French residents

to provincial regions to control the administration of Cambodian officials.

The number of provinces was to be drastically reduced, and the duties of the Cambodian

officials within those provinces were to be "assimilated" to those of officials

within the arrondissements of Cochinchina.

Since there was no institution within Cambodia approximating the Vietnamese commune,

Thomson proposed that a similar institution should be created, complete with a "mayor"

and a council of notables, to ease the administrative task of the French.

The business of the kingdom was left in the hands of the council of ministers, but

its action was to be clearly subordinate to the resident general, who would have

in addition the right to private audiences with the king. French residents in provincial

centers were to exercise a strict control over the administration of justice.

In order to assist in the economic development of Cambodia, the right to real property

would be established.

And slavery, long the bane of liberal critics of the Cambodian state, was to be definitively


Norodom's acquiescence to Thomson's threats and the early response of the court officials

to the proposed changes under the convention appeared to justify those who predicted

that the coup de force would provoke no reaction because the Cambodian people would

be sympathetic to the changes that the French wished to introduce.

Thomson's long elaboration of the detailed administrative innovations that would

follow upon the convention did not provide the slightest suggestion of concern about

untoward reactions to his humiliation of Norodom.

For the moment, this estimation seemed justified by Norodom's confining himself to

a written protest, addressed to the president of the French Republic. In this letter,

Norodom denounced the new convention and the manner in which it was forced upon him.

His illness, which had prevented his seeing Thomson and led to the governor's wrath,

had been genuine, not feigned. He protested further against Col de Monteiro's removal

from the discussions of 17 June; this had prevented his secretary from speaking to

him at a ditiicult moment in the interview.

The authorities in France showed no inclination to take account of Norodom's protest,

and Thomson worked diligently to implement the reforms listed in the convention.

The new calendar year began with apparent calm, but before the end of January a large

part of Cambodia was in a state of armed resistance to the French, and all thought

of achieving real reform in the administration of the kingdom had to be subordinated

to the immediate task of maintaining the French position in the country.

The very fact of the revolt against French authority has long been minimized by French

writers. An official military history of the French army in Indochina, written with

more regard to glorification of French arms than to historical accuracy, observes

that following the outbreak of the revolt in January 1885, "after numerous columns

and reconnaissances... [there was] calm in the country at the end of 1885."

In fact, as French sources well show, it was not until France had concentrated some

four thousand troops in Cambodia and gained the assistance of the king and his forces

that a shaky calm was achieved, at the end of 1886. In the interim, bands of Cambodians

in revolt against the French had roamed, almost at will, throughout Cambodia. There

were fears at one stage that Phnom Penh itself might fall to the insurgents. In the

classic tradition of the guerrilla, the Cambodian bands attacked only when advantage

was on their side and were sustained by a strong belief in the virtue of their cause.

If there has been neglect of the history of the rising, there remains confusion about

its origins.

An account of the principal developments during 1885 and 1886 provides some basis

for a more detailed examination of the origins and aims of the affair.

On 8 January 1885 an isolated French military outpost at Sambor, just above the modern

town of Kratie, was attacked by partisans of Prince Si Votha. This attack which Thomson

immediately interpreted as the result of Norodom's secret machinations, acted as

a signal for uprisings in various parts of the country.

Thomson's original notification of the attack on Sambor was made on 10 January. By

12 January he reported general disorder over most of Cambodia, with banditry added

to resistance to French authority. Even by this early date the French were considering

whether leading members of the royal family might not be involved. Sisowath alone

seems to have been above suspicion, as he denounced to the French an emissary from

his half brother Votha who had sought to make contact with him and Norodom.

Events during the revolt took place in four main geographical regions. Forces loyal

to Votha had substantial control of large sections of Cambodia to the northeast of

Phnom Penh. The state of the country in this region was well summarized in a report

prepared by the French resident at Kompong Cham in January 1886: We cannot deceive

ourselves; with the exception of a few points on the river where our supporters still

hold on, with difficulty, the insurrection is master of the whole region. Throughout,

bands move about the country, taxing the population, recruiting men, burning the

houses of our partisans, and attempting to take their women and children so that

they can be removed to the interior as a way to force others to make their submission...

To give an exact idea of the situation, in terms of the attitude of the population,

everyone works against an effort to make an evaluation of the state of the countryside.

The Cambodian population is entirely won over to the rebellion.

Despite the presence of the Cambodian minister of the navy, the kralahom, to aid

the French, the situation in September 1886 seemed little improved and the threat

from Votha's supporters just as great.

Votha's strength in the northeastern region of the country was probably connected

with the links he had established earlier with hill peoples of that region living

on the edge of lowland Khmer society. There is evidence of minority groups playing

a role in dynastic disputes throughout Cambodian history.

During the fifteenth century a major revolt led by Prince Dharmaraja depended on

the support of the Kuoy minority. In a rather different fashion, the heroic and magical

role of a member of the Pear minority, living in the west of the kingdom, who sacrificed

himself to save the kingdom, is enshrined in a Cambodian legend linked with the Pursat


In the east of Cambodia, around the modern centers of Svay Rieng and Prey Veng, the

impetus for revolt was less closely associated with any one figure.

This region had been one of the principal reservoirs of recruits for Poucombo's bands.

Now, in 1885, there was a renewed readiness to resist the French-supported authority

in Phnom Penh.

One Cambodian source estimates nine thousand insurgents in the region. Disorders

spilled across the borders between Cambodia and Cochinchina, and villagers of Cambodian

descent living near Tay-Ninh joined forces with bands from the Ba Phnom region inside

Cambodia. Thom-son's suggestion that the unrest in eastern Cambodia and south of

the capital was linked with Cambodian resentment of Vietnamese infiltration, which

had tacit French support, is of particular interest.

Other direct evidence shows that fear of future French control of life at the village

level was one of the inspirations for the insurgents in the region about Takeo. Here,

too, it seems possible that concern for further Vietnamese appropriation of land

was linked with the fear that the constitution of a real property system would take

the control of land out of Cambodian hands.

In the south and southwest, in contrast to the east, there were identifiable leaders

of the insurgents. For the most part, they were men of the traditional ruling class,

governors and less important provincial officials. In a country where regional unrest

often was associated with figures who claimed magical powers, it is no surprise to

find that one leader of the rising in the Kampot region gained followers through

his claim to invulnerability.

The seaport of Kampot was one of the chief focuses of insurgent activity in the southern

and southwestern regions of the kingdom. For more than a year, the French garrison

in Kampot was held in check by the insurgents, who were able to muster up to a thousand


In the rest of the region there was the same pattern of pillage and arson against

French positions and the homes of those who did not join the rising.

The provinces to the northwest of Phnom Penh constituted the fourth distinct region.

Here again the insurgents were led by men from the governing class. No region seems

to have suffered more than the plains about Pursat. This area was the traditional

marching ground for Siamese armies when they came to invade Cambodia, and it had

been devastated during the years of war in the 1830's and 1840's. With the onset

of the 1885-1886 rising, devastation was once again common in the area, and it has

been estimated that over forty thousand inhabitants emigrated from the region to

Siamese-controlled Battambang in order to escape clashes between the insurgents and

the French-led forces.

The capital of Phnom Penh, and the nearby former capital at Oudong, might be described

as constituting one further region during the revolt.

Phnom Penh was the center of French resistance to the insurgency and the point from

which mobile columns spread out to undertake pacification efforts in the countryside.

Nevertheless, despite the concentration of French power in Phnom Penh, the authority

of the protectorate did not extend far outside the city limits, and in May 1885 the

capital came under attack from the insurgents.

Although the motivations behind the rising varied, and despite the regional cast

to events, there was a substantial degree of military unity to the way in which the

rising unfolded. Individuals and institutions associated with the protectorate were

attacked. The distilleries operated by Chinese who sold their spirits to the protectorate

or were the agents of the French alcohol monopoly were burnt and the lives of the

Chinese threatened. The Catholic missions, clearly linked with the French adminis-tration's

position in the country, also suffered.

Increased French forces found it difficult to make any impression on the insurgent

bands. The Frenchmen started from a position of disadvantage. As Lieutenant Dufour

points out, they were almost completely without detailed information on the country

in which they were expected to fight.

By contrast, the Cambodian insurgents took advantage of their close knowledge of

the country to lay effective ambushes, particularly along the rivers about Kom-pong

Chhnang and Pursat.

The insurgents avoided direct contact with superior forces, preferring to fire upon

the French from a distance and then to retreat.

By the time the French, advancing in double time through the tropical heat, reached

the point from which the shot had come, nothing was to be found.

In the villages, the French found only old men, women, and children, for the able-bodied

males were either with the insurgents or had fled when the French forces came into

view. Yet, it was precisely the isolated villages that the French were unable to

protect from the insurgents if their population showed any inclination to resist

demands for recruits and material aids.

In the frustrating circumstances of guerrilla war, the French forces at times responded

harshly and with little thought for the political implications of their rigor. The

French resident general in Cambodia wrote: The day the French troops invaded Cambodia,

after the unhappy events of Sambor and Banam, they considered themselves to be in

a conquered country and the inhabitants had to suffer all the calamities of a state

of war; thefts from private homes and from pagodas, assassinations, rapes... Such

behavior had inevitably to bring the greatest part of the population to oppose us

and engendered hatreds which it will be difficult to eliminate.

There were instances of individual French commanders taking the law into their own

hands and executing insurgents without regard to any legal process. This was opposed

by the civil authorities, but they supported execution of rebels provided the legal

formalities were observed.

By the middle of 1886 it was clear that purely military action could not solve the

French dilemma in Cambodia.

As Governor Filippini wrote: The two provinces of Banam and Kratie, the only ones

that were more or less peaceful, in the sense that civil authority was recognized

and respected, were nevertheless troubled by incursions of pillagers and by the attempts

at revolt of several bands. The province of Kompong Thom was almost entirely in the

hands of Si Votha's bands. Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Cham were completely troubled,

and although the situation was a little better in Pursat, this last province was

no less troubled by constant rebel incursions; in Kampot we could scarcely maintain

our posts for the troops and the customs service; finally, in Phnom Penh, only a

few kilometers from the capital, the rebels made frequent appearances, stealing elephants

and forcing the population to pay taxes to them.

In an earlier description of the same period, Filippini had stated that French influence

barely extended beyond a few kilometers around military posts anywhere in Cambodia.

Not the least of the difficulties that the French faced was the high rate of disease

among the troops that they committed against the Cambodian insurgents.

Sudden death from disease was a normal part of life for Europeans in the tropics

during the nineteenth century, but the scale on which disease affected the troops

in Cambodia was extraordinary. None of the columns sent against the insurgents seems

to have been exempt.

In one notable instance, 75 of a detachment of 120 men had to be hospitalized on

their return from an operation. The chief French doctor described the situation following

the beginning of the monsoon rains: The onset of the rains has reawakened malarial

infections, and intestinal disorders have assumed a gravity which, up till now, I

have never seen before. Finally, to these internal diseases, some recent military

incidents have added to the wounded; twenty-one entered [hospital] the same day after

the first attack on the fort at Pursat.

The untenable nature of the situation forced the French to make new departures in

their thinking.

[Part II: Years of Revolt (1884-1886), next issue...]
© Milton E. Osborne

The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia.


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