08 November 2004

Gunboat Diplomacy in Cambodia, 1880s

Between 1881 and 1887 France steadily, and in many cases bloodily, moved to assert its control over the whole of Vietnam.... Yet France's position in Cambodia was only assured after three uncertain years between 1884 and 1887, after French gunboat diplomacy on the Mekong led to a major rebellion against French control.

Ever since the conclusion of the treaty granting France a 'protectorate' in 1863, French officials in Phnom Penh, and their superiors in both Saigon and Paris, had looked on King Norodom with an ambivalent eye....

By the early 1880s French officialdom's patience with Norodom was wearing thin. French troops had had to put down a rebellion led by one of Norodom's half-brothers, Si Vatha, who then retreated to the jungle fastnesses beside the Mekong near the Sambor rapids. In actions that echoed King Satha's attempt to gain support from Manila in the sixteenth century; the king himself had tried unsuccessfully to enter into a secret treaty with the Spanish government. And, against strict French direction, Norodom had allotted the rights to the kingdom's opium farm to one of his court cronies, without consulting his 'protectors'. This last act he sought to excuse as the result of his having been drunk at the time. Two factors finally brought a French decision to act against him in 1884. There was renewed concern that the British were seeking to increase their influence in Siam, a prospect that prompted French officials to tighten their grip over Cambodia. At the same time, the newly appointed Governor of Cochinchina, Charles Thomson, decided to increase French control over the kingdom and that an end had to be put to Norodom's financial profligacy. To achieve this goal Thomson told the king that, henceforth, France would be responsible for collecting the kingdom's customs duties....

The stage was now set for one of the best known tableaux in nineteenth century Cambodian history. On 17 June 1884, Thomson strode into the king's private chambers within the palace in a brusque display of lèse-majesté, waking Norodom with the noise of his entry. He then read aloud the terms of new administrative arrangements for the kingdom which gave France much greater power over Cambodia' s affairs than it had previously exercised. Hearing these terms, Norodom's interpreter, Coi de Monteiro, a Cambodian of Iberian ancestry who had once also acted as an interpreter for [Mekong explorer] Doudart de Lagrée, is said to have cried: 'Sire, this is not a convention, it is an abdication'. Thomson's aides hurried de Monteiro from the room, leaving a furious Thomson confronting a worried Norodom.

At this point, if one of the accounts of this dramatic encounter can be trusted, Thomson pointed to the gunboats moored within sight of the palace. If Norodom refused to sign the new convention, Thomson told him, he would be confined aboard one of the gunboats. 'What will you do with me aboard the Alouette?' the king is supposed to have asked. 'That is my secret,' was Thomson's reported reply.

Literally outgunned, knowing that his half-brother Sisowath was a French pawn, and recognising that Thomson would indeed force him from the throne if he failed to sign the new convention, Norodom buckled under. The gunboats returned down the Mekong and the kingdom seemed, for the moment, at peace. It was an illusion, and within less than a year a full-scale rebellion against French control was in force. Given the fact that gunboats on the Mekong were vital to Thomson's having gained Norodom's acquiescence, there is historic irony in the fact that a French army post sited on the Mekong just below the Sambor rapids was the first target for a rebel attack when the rebellion began. More than two years were required before the French, making major concessions to Norodom, were once more able to claim that their 'protection' of Cambodia was untroubled.
SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 125-129

No comments: