Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Fall of Cambodia to France

King Norodom

Cambodia lays in the center of the mainland Southeast Asia. In the past, it hosted once the powerful Khmer Empire. But in the 19th century, Cambodia became only a shadow of the glory days of the Khmer Empire. More powerful neighboring countries battled for supremacy and influence over Cambodia. But the most formidable appeared as the most farthest yet the most powerful country to dominate Cambodia – France. France’s imperial ambition in east led to its conquest of Cambodia.

Cambodia in the 1800’s became a battlefield for political influence between its two neighboring Kingdoms. In the west, the Kingdom of Siam under the Chakri Dynasty had subdued its former rival – the Khmers later Cambodia – under its sphere of influence. In the east, the Kingdom of Vietnam under the new Nguyen Dynasty unified the Kingdom and also began to assert its influence over Cambodia. Both Kingdoms battled for influence over Cambodia by placing their own candidates to the Cambodia throne. Sometimes, they used military force in order to attain their goals. In the 1830’s Vietnam sent a military expedition to Cambodia in order to support the reign of the Cambodian Queen Ang Mey. But when Ang Mey’s Vietnamese supporter, Emperor Minh Mang, passed away, Vietnamese forces withdrew and the Siamese backed Princes Ang Duong and Ang Em took Cambodia. However, following a series of event, Vietnamese forces crossed back to Cambodia and captured Ang Em and internal problems took the attention of the new Vietname Emperor Thieu Tru, the Siamese and Vietnamese decided a compromise in 1841. They decided to place Prince Ang Duong to the throne and Vietnam released members of the Cambodian Royal Family.

Ang Duong then made his priority to maintain the independence of Cambodia. Although, politically weak against its neighbors’ influence, technically, Cambodia remained independent physically. Ang Duong dreamed of reviving the glory days of Cambodia. However, in order to achieve it, he needed an ally that Vietnam and Siam knew they could not defeat. In the 1850’s he tried to ask for support and assistance from the British and the French. The move to ask the French and British for support might had been under the suggestion and urge of the head of the Catholic in Cambodia, a friend of Ang Duong, Jean-Claude Miche. He sent his Portuguese friend, Ros de Monteiro, to Singapore. In 1853, he sent gifts to Napoleon III of France through the French Consul in Singapore. It became a significant start of French involvement to Cambodia that later develop to its fall to colonial hands. For three years, nothing materialized from his request for assistance from the French and British until 1856. French diplomat, Charles de Montigny went to Cambodia in response to Ang Duong’s letter and to meet the King. However, Siamese officials discovered the arriving diplomat and the underlying events. They knew that Ang Duong sought European support against his bid to be free from both Siamese and Vietnamese influences. When de Montigny arrived in Cambodia, Siamese officials managed to intervene in his visit and the French diplomat did not had a meeting with King Ang Duong. Ang Duong, nevertheless, continued to seek French support by writing letters to French Emperor Napoleon III. Ang Duong, however, did not lived to see his kingdom free and glorious. In 1860, Ang Duong passed away.

The king’s demised, however, led to internal strife that invited French intervention. The heir to the throne, Norodom, faced opposition from his brother, Sisowath, and an open rebellion from his other brother, Siwotha. Both Sisowath and Siwotha did not recognized Norodom as the new King. So bad Sowotha’s rebellion that Norodom had to escape to Bangkok in 1862. In this political chaos, the French finally began to play a major role in Cambodia.

In the late 1850’s, French interest to the east led to an aggressive conquest of the Indochina – covering Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. France needed a colony in the east to serve as a market for the product of its industries, as a source of raw materials for its industries, and as a base for French trade to China. The so-called, mission civilisatice, or the duty of civilizing the “barbarians” of foreign lands. Using the execution of a Spanish missionary, French naval forces launched the Cochinchina Campaign, starting with the assault on the port city of Tourane or Da Nang. The fight for Da Nang, however, proved to be difficult for the French. French Commanader, Charles-Rigault de Genouilly, decided to attack the southern city of Saigon in order to control Vietnam’s rice supply. The fall of Saigon and three nearby provinces led to Vietnam signing the Treaty of Saigon. It gave France control over the territories it captured. The Treaty of Saigon, however, gave the French a reason to extend its control and domination to Cambodia. France used it as the basis of their claim that the Treaty also extend French control to lands south of Vietnam, including Cambodia.

France moved quickly to assert its control and to compete with Siam for control of Cambodia. In 1862, Norodom returned to the Cambodian capital of Udong. But when Norodom returned to Udong to be crowned, the Siamese King Mongkut refused to return the Cambodian royal regalia to Cambodia. This caused Norodom to be angry to Siam. In the following year, French officials from the Cochinchina arrived in Udong August of 1863. Norodom used the arrival of the French as an advantage to seek their assistance against further intervention of Siam in Cambodian politics. Norodom and the French, led by Admiral Pierre de la Grandiere, then signed the Treaty of Friendship, Trade, and Protection on August 11. Under the French agreement, Cambodia became a protectorate of France. France started to send an adviser to the Cambodian court, known Resident. France and Spain also gained unrestricted trade with Cambodia. For Cambodia, she had a representative to Saigon. After the Treaty, a small number of French forces arrived in Udong.

Siam, however, discovered the treaty and felt furious towards Norodom. But when Siam asked Norodom for explanation, Norodom claimed the French harassed him into signing the August agreement.

Norodom, on the other hand, tried to play Siam against France. He wanted to make sure that France doesn’t become too influential and powerful in Cambodia. In order to balance the power of France and appease Mongkut, on December 1863, he signed a secret treaty that opposed the idea of French protectorate over Cambodia, instead, it make Siam its new protector. He also proposed to Mongkut that his formal coronation be held in Bangkok on March 1864. But the terms of the secret deal leaked and published in the Singaporean newspaper Straits Time.

On March, tensions between the French and Siam over Cambodia rose. On March 3, 1864, Norodom sneaked out of Udong to attend his own coronation in Bangkok. But the French knew Norodom’s journey. Upon the Cambodian King’s departure, French warships fired their guns and flew the French flag over the capital. Norodom felt nervous when he heard the cannon fire and saw the flag and returned to Udong. France and Siam negotiated the conditions over the coronation of Norodom as King of Cambodia. Eventually, both sides agreed to crown him on June 1834 in the capital Udong and not it Bangkok or Saigon.

After the resolution of the issue concerning Norodom’s coronation, Siam and France continued negotiation concerning claims over Cambodia. Mongkut, like Norodom, wanted to play powerful countries against each other. Mongkut wanted to preserve Siamese independence by being accommodating towards the powerful imperialists countries. In 1860’s, the British had been advancing in Burma. Mongkut then saw his powerful eastern neighbor of Vietnam weakened by France. He did not want to antagonize the French too much in order to prevent them not to invade Siam or to secure their support if the British extended its expansion to Siam. And so, in 1867, King Mongkut signed an agreement with France that relinquished Siamese claims over Cambodia except the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap. Siam eventually gave the two province to France in 1907 in exchange of the abrogation of the extraterritoriality of French citizen in Siam. With the 1867 agreement, Norodom had no other foreign power that he could match with France.

Norodom’s situation after 1863 became a battle for preventing French intervention in day to day affairs. In certain issues, he continued to be defiant against the French. He did not agree or enforced the abolition of slavery and renouncing of his ownership over all lands of Cambodia. But he did not disagreed to all French proposals. For example, he accepted the French request for him to move the capital from Udong to the city of Phnom Penh. For the next two decades, Norodom resisted total French control of him and his country.

In 1884, however, the situation changed. France became determined to expand its colonial holdings in order to revive its lost prestige on the aftermath of its defeat during the Franco-Prussian War. On that year, new Conchinchina governor, Charles Antoine Francis Thomson, arrived in Phnom Penh. They demanded King Norodom to give up the power in handling customs duty, abolish slavery, and drop the king’s ownership of all lands, so that land taxes could generate additional revenue. Norodom refused to give in to the brazen governor. The French governor did not also wanted to back down. He then resorted to use force. Three gunboats with French marines arrived in Phnom Penh from Saigon on June 17, 1884. Thomson then pointed his warships guns to the royal palace; and, he, along with his troops, barged into the palace at late night. They held Norodom at gun point and made him sign a treaty that handed most of his authority to the French. Held in gun point and with warship ready to fire, he had no choice but to agree. After that, the French distributed lands and imposed land taxes. French official began to take authority in the provinces. They also controlled the collection of customs duties. And finally, they abolished slavery. With the 1884 treaty, France finally took over Cambodia and Norodom began to serve only as a figure head and a puppet.

The French conquest of Vietnam was just a chapter to the long overall campaign to take over the whole Indochina. It marked a new era for Cambodian history - an era of hardship and era of French colonization. Nevertheless, the conquest of Cambodia by French led to the creation of modern Cambodia.

See also:

Bibliography:
Justin Corfield. The History of Cambodia. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009).


Milton Osborne. Phnom Penh: A Cultrual History. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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