Thursday, November 10, 2011

The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia by Milton E. Osborne

Subtitle: Rule and Response 1859-1905

(Book Review)

There are unfortunately not many English language books available on the French colonial period in South East Asia, and the few books published can sometimes be difficult to track down.

This book was originally published in 1969, and then re-published in 1997 by White Lotus, a small publishing company in Thailand apparently dedicated to republishing classic works on South East Asian history.

When I was still in the US, I tried to order this book off of Amazon, but was not able to track down a reasonably priced copy.
(In Cambodia, White Lotus history books--or ripped-off photo copied versions of them-- are much easier to find.)

File this book under: dry, but readable. It’s not the most exciting book I’ve ever read, but if you’re interested in the subject material there’s not a lot of other books to choose from.

This book starts out almost immediately where John Cady left off in “The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia” so the two books compliment each other nicely if you read them in succession.
This is not a coincidence. As a scholar, Milton Osborne is less concerned with history as story telling than he is with trying to fill in gaps in the literature, so he states quite clearly in the footnotes his reluctance to retell what John Cady has already covered.

Also this book is not meant to be a popular history. Instead of trying to tell a compelling story, Milton Osborne wants to examine the nature of colonialism. As such there are a lot of chapters heavy on analysis of colonial systems, and very few chapters dedicated to narrative events.

As someone who prefers narrative rather than analytical history, I found several of these chapters quite boring, and it was a bit of a struggle to force myself to finish this book.

For example Milton Osborne spends several chapters detailing the French efforts to change the Vietnamese written language from one based on Chinese characters to being one based on the French alphabet.
This is interesting to a degree. (On my recent trip to Vietnam, it was astonishing to see how the Western alphabet had been so completely adopted to the local language, in contrast to just about every other Asian country which have all maintained their traditional writing systems.) But I wasn’t interested in it enough to go into all the detail that Osborne does.

In the same way, Osborne goes into great detail describing how the French Colonial authorities attempted to set up a legal system in Vietnam that compromised between local traditions and French judicial ideals. Again this is interesting to a point, but not to the detail that Osborne goes into.

All that being said, this book avoids academic speak, and is written in ordinary English prose. So assuming you’re interested in following Osborne through all this analysis, it is easy to read.

The book is divided into two sections, half dealing with Vietnam, and half dealing with Cambodia. Osborne contrasts the different approaches taken by the French to each country.
Vietnam was administered as a proper colony, with the pre-existing government in South Vietnam completely removed, and a new colonial government instituted.
Cambodia was administrated as a protectorate, with the pre-existing monarchy left intact, but forced to surrender much of its power to the French authorities.

The section on Cambodia, partly because it deals with the history of the relationship between the Cambodian king and the French authorities, reads much more like a narrative, and for that reason I found it more interesting than the section Vietnam. But this is a personal taste.

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Further thoughts:

1). This book was originally published in 1969, and it’s not hard to imagine that Milton Osborne must have had in mind the American efforts in Vietnam as a parallel to the French colonialists he was writing about.

Nevertheless, reading it today it’s impossible not to think of the occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So many parallels between the French effort to establish a stable government in Vietnam, and the American effort to establish stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, just leap right off the page at you.

There is for example the assumption by French intellectuals that colonization was good for the native peoples because they were liberating the Vietnamese people from a corrupt and oppressive government. (And actually the 19th Century Mandarin government of Vietnam actually was in some ways corrupt and oppressive, but as Milton Osborne shows the French attempts to colonize Vietnam and set up a new government created more problems than it solved.)

Osborne also details the various headaches involved in trying to create a judicial system that both respected local tradition and was acceptable to the French.

And Osborne goes into the trouble the French had in administrating a colony where they did not speak the language, and where there was a shortage of qualified translators.

Osborne describes the discrepancy between the vast majority of the population, which was hostile or indifferent to French rule, and the small number of collaborators who welcomed the French and actively worked with them. Osborne shows how the French government tried to represent the views of this small minority of collaborators as being representative of the whole population, and used this to discredit the idea that the vast majority of the Vietnamese wanted the French out of Cochinchina.

This brings me to thought number 2.

2). Writing in the post-colonial period, Osborne takes a somewhat negative view of the Vietnamese and Cambodian colonial collaborators. Although he repeatedly emphasizes his desire to understand them rather than to condemn, it is obvious he regards them as a problem that needs to be explained.

Something Osborne never touches on, but perhaps should have, is that during this same time period other leading figures in Asia were advocating learning from Western thought and culture.
Figures such as Sun Yat Sen in China, or Sakamoto Ryoma in Japan are still today regarded as national heroes in their respective countries because of the role they played in modernizing their nations, even though they advocated adopting Western institutions.

It could be that the colonial collaborators in Vietnam and Cambodia also sought to make their nations stronger through adopting Western institutions, and thought the best way to do this at the time was by working closely with the French.

This is an oversimplification of course, but I wish Milton Osborne would have explored the comparison between the pro-French Vietnamese intellectuals to the pro-Western intellectuals in Japan and China.

3) And finally, an interesting note on tropical diseases in Cambodia, that makes one worry a little bit.

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 the diseases 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 which have assumed a gravity which, up until now, I have never seen before….


(p. 217-218).

Link of the Day
The Pentagon Papers and U.S. Imperialism in South East Asia

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport

Subtitle: The Making of a Revolutionary

(Book Review)

There are a million and one books about Lenin.

What recommends this book in particular is how well it’s written. Helen Rappaport is one of those rare historians who makes history sound like a story.

I’ll just quote a couple paragraphs to illustrate this. In this chapter, Lenin is travelling across Finland, and being housed along the way by the Finnish underground railroad for Russian politicals. He was supposed to get off the train at Abo railway station, where he would be met by the Borg family. However when he didn’t show up, the Borg family assumed he had been picked up by the political police.

By 2.00 a.m. there was only one logical conclusion that could regretfully be reached: the gendarmes had picked him [Lenin] up en route. And then, suddenly, came a soft thud at the window. Down below, standing in the soft white glow of the snow, stood a lonely figure, clutching a small suitcase. Lenin, fearful of knocking at the front door at this time of night, had thrown a snowball up at Borg’s window to attract his attention.
He had indeed almost fallen into the hands of the Okhrana [Tsarist Police]. Leaving Helsingfors by train he soon spotted that he was being tailed by two agents. When he got off the train at Karis to have some supper in the station buffet the men followed and watched him closely. He had to get away from them; they would arrest him the minute he got off the train at Abo, the end of the line. So, as the train gathered speed out of the tiny station of Littois (Littoinene), the last before, Abo, he slipped out on to the running board, threw his suitcase ahead of him and leaped from the train. Luckily, a deep snowdrift broke his fall. The two agents decided it was not worth risking their necks to follow, and as he watched the red of the train’s tail lights disappear into the night, Lenin heaved a sigh of relief. He picked himself up and trudged off in the crackling frost the seven miles of country road into Abo, his only point of reference in the dark, looming pine forest on all sides.
At Borg’s apartment, seeing that he was frozen, hungry and exhausted, the Finns removed Lenin’s coat and boots. As he lay on the divan to recover, Borg’s wife Ida fed him hot milk with cognac and rubbed spirit on his hands and feet to get the circulation going. By now extremely agitated at the thought of being captured, as soon as Lenin heard there was still a chance of catching the Bore I [the ship], he insisted on being found a sledge so that he could leave straight away. Ludwig Lindstrom, who was to be his guide, told him that it would be very hard finding the way in the snow and the dark and they would have to wait till morning. Lenin was hysterical that the spooks would catch up with him before then. “I’ve already been in Siberia and I don’t want to end up there again!” he exclaimed. If Lindstrom wasn’t prepared to take him, he would set off on foot, alone and head north for the Gulf of Bothnia. He’d walk all the way to the northern border with Sweden at Torneo if he had to: “I’ve walked further distances in Siberia.”

That wonderful storytelling alone is enough reason to just lose yourself in this book for hours at your local coffee shop.

The subject material of this book is fascinating as well. Rappaport makes the decision to cover the beginning of Lenin’s life only very briefly, and to skip the end of his life when he was in power. As the title suggests, Rappaport focuses only on his years as a political exile in Europe.
This was a wise decision. Not only is this the period usually neglected by other writers, but it’s arguably the most fascinating part of Lenin’s life. The games of cat and mouse with the police, the fierce political squabbling among the exiled Russian community in Europe, and the idealistic pre-revolution socialist community in Western Europe are all fascinating.

Although Lenin is the most well-known of the Russian socialists, in some ways his story is the least interesting, and Rappaport will sometimes use Lenin’s life as a jumping off point to describe some of the various adventures of the Russian socialist community at the time (dodging police while smuggling in illegal literature or gun running).
Rappaport is particularly interested in highlighting some of the women in the Russian underground, who have largely been left out of history, but about whom she has fascinating stories to tell.

As for Lenin himself:
For the amateur historian, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of a polarizing figure like Lenin. Every book I’ve read on Lenin has given me a completely different picture of the man than the one before it, to the point where I’m not sure what to believe.

In this book, he is portrayed as an obsessive intellectual who spends hours in the library everyday, and who sometimes ignores the political events in the real world around him because he is so obsessed with working out his theories. (Rappaport writes that both the 1905 Revolution and the 1917 Revolution caught Lenin off-guard).
In today’s world, where politicians are thought of as almost anti-intellectual, it is surprising to think that Lenin, so obsessed with books and having such poor social skills, was able to manipulate his way into being the leader of a large country.

Which is not to say Lenin wasn’t a politician. The Lenin in this book is a Machiavellian type personality who uses all sorts of dirty political tricks to get his way. He splits the Russian Socialist movement into two parts—Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, then fights bitterly to make sure his Bolshevik faction gets into control. He demands total obedience from those in his faction, and won’t tolerate any views dissenting from his own. Based on the picture Helen Rappaport paints of him, it’s not hard to see how this would be the same Lenin who would go on to create a very authoritarian regime. At one point in the book Lenin is having a talk with a constitutional democrat, and he ends by saying, “Someday we’ll be hanging people like you off of the lampposts.”

Rappaport also highlights the women in Lenin’s life such as his long suffering wife and mother-in-law (who accompanied Lenin on his travels all over Europe) and a woman Lenin appears to have had an affair with—Inessa Armand. Rappaport tries to counter decades of hagiography which make Lenin into some sort of asexual revolutionary monk and instead portrays him as a man with sexual desires who might well have looked for satisfaction outside of his marriage.

A very well-written book, well worth checking out.

Link of the Day
Status of Forces Agreement