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

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