During the time of the Puddicombe crisis and the deterioration of the health of the British consul, King Mongkut also had to deal with a major new difficulty linked to a tricky question of suzerain, this time over a polity on Siam’s eastern border. The intentions of the French were central to the problem and there was a certain irony in the fact that La Capricieuse, which had so recently been involved in a gesture of acceptance about the ending of French claims in Canada, should now play a small part in potentially furthering new colonial ambitions on the other side of the globe. The focus was Cambodia.
During the early 1850s Cambodia was enjoying a rare period of peace and reconstruction. It was a small kingdom seemingly always on the verge of absorption by two powerful neighbours. These days Cambodia’s neighbours to the west and east are Thailand and Vietnam, but in the 1850s the terms normally used would be Siam and Annam. As a political entity the country was all that was left of the Khmer empire which, during the medieval period, dominated mainland South-East Asia. The centre of power lay to the north west of the Tonle Sap, the great freshwater lake that is alternatively fed and drained by a channel (which we might call the Tonle Sap river) that is part of the Mekong river system. During the C12th the huge temple of Angkor Wat was raised in this area and later in the same century the walled city of Angkor Thom was built close by. However, the zenith of Khmer power had passed and a steady but sure erosion had set in. Unlike Japan, Cambodia had no great natural barrier to assist in any defence against the armies of its neighbours.
The collapse of the Khmer empire accelerated in the C14th for several reasons, one of the most important being the rise of the Siamese kingdom of Sukhothai. As the Khmer began losing campaigns in the west the centre of political power moved east, away from Angkor and closer to the confluence of the Tonle Sap river, the Mekong and the Bassac. This junction is called the Chaktomuk (or four arms) in Khmer.
By the C15th the Cambodian capital had become less of a fixed point although it was never far from the Chaktomuk. Eventually the Cambodian court, usually plagued with intrigues that sapped its authority, had to accept the suzerainty of the Siamese and some western provinces of Cambodia, including the one in which Angkor Wat stood, came under the control of Bangkok. These provinces became known as Siamese Cambodia. Pressure on the shrinking domain was also exerted from the east. Having moved south from the Red River basin to the mouths of the Mekong, the Annamese were a rising power on the coast of the South China Sea. Annamese expansion had been gradual and taken several hundred years but it ultimately led to the absorption of the whole of the area, including land south of the Mekong Delta and part of the coast of the Gulf of Siam. Sometimes, and partly because of the change of authority was often contested, it was not clear under whose control any particular area was. This was also true for offshore islands in the Gulf itself. When the Saracen entered the Gulf of Siam the track record showed the area between the Great Saint James River (the Mekong) and the Gulf coast as being part of Cambodia although by this time much had been absorbed by Annam.
As the downward spiral continued Cambodian rulers occasionally asked the Annamese for help against the Siamese whilst at other periods the Siamese were asked for help against the Annamese. When aid was given there was, naturally, a cost, but there was a cost for weakness too and in the first four decades of the C19th Cambodia was repeatedly ravaged as the armies of her neighbours fought over the country at will. Peace eventually came in the 1840s when the Siamese, now the dominant power, installed a new king, Ang Duong. Ang Doung, who had lived much of his life in Bangkok, was accepted by Siam’s rival as the legitimate ruler, but his coronation was preceded by an agreement ensuring both the Siamese and Annamese authorities would retain an interest in the government of the country which lay between them. Clearly, each intended to watch the other to ensure some semblance of a balance of power was maintained.
Ang Duong’s court was based in Oudong, about 25 miles from the Chaktomuk and a short distance from the Tonle Sap river. The new king would, naturally, have much preferred freedom from outside interference altogether and so, although acutely aware of how much he depended on the goodwill of his neighbours (and particularly on King Mongkut) he decided to look elsewhere for protection. The only two powers with the regional military and naval capacity to offer this were Britain and France. Ang Duong may, in 1850, have initially approached the British because it seems possible that an envoy was sent, presumably to Singapore (or perhaps all the way to London), to ask for assistance. In whatever way this envoy, a Christian named Constantine Monteiro, made contact the British appeared to show no interest, which was perhaps inevitable. The potential jewel in the crown of trade in the Gulf of Siam was seen to be Siam itself and there would have been no desire to upset the apple cart, particularly as, in 1850, there was a strong possibility that the progressive Mongkut would soon be on the throne.
The failure of the approach to the British did not deter Ang Duong. In late 1853 or early 1854 a clandestine delegation was dispatched to Singapore with a letter to be given to the French consul who, it was hoped, would send it on to Napoleon III. Given the delegation took along two pairs of elephant tusks, a pair of rhinoceros horns and very substantial quantities of gamboge, sugar and pepper it is hard to see how such an enterprise could remain secret for long. Nonetheless, it would appear that King Mongkut did not hear about Ang Duong’s initiative (or, perhaps, did not have rumours of it confirmed) until the arrival, in July 1856, of a French mission seeking a trade treaty similar to the one which Bowring had obtained for the British. At least one modern warship usually accompanied such missions, which accounts for the arrival of La Capricieuse. The mission itself arrived on La Marceau.
The head of the French mission was Charles de Montigny, who appears to have been cordially received by King Mongkut. What the Siamese monarch’s reaction was when he heard of Ang Doung’s approach is not recorded but he acted quickly to foil the plan. As the king to whom Ang Duong owed suzerain fealty Mongkut would naturally have felt aggrieved at any attempt to usurp his power. Moreover, it was reasonable for Mongkut to suppose that if aggressive French imperialism became entrenched in Cambodia it might not be long before Siam itself would come under threat from that direction. Aware of the intention of Montigny to meet Ang Duong personally, it is understandable that Mongkut immediately took action in order to prevent any kind of Franco-Cambodian treaty of protection being signed. He sent a letter to Ang Duong making it clear that such a treaty would be unacceptable.
Montigny was delayed in Bangkok because, so he was to later assume, Mongkut ensured he could not leave until information was received from Siamese agents in Cambodia. But during his prolonged stay he asserted the Siamese showed themselves quite willing to allow at least one island in the Gulf to be taken over by the French. In fact, according to Montigny, they were keen for this to happen to stop Annamese encroachment along the coast. This island, known as Phu Quoc today, was referred to as Turrah Island on the 1855 Admiralty chart based on the work of Mr Stabb but as Koh-doot by Montigny. It is a large island and lies a few kilometres off the mouth of the Kampot river.
Montigny showed no interest in the Siamese plan but sailed to Kampot in early October on La Marceau. La Capricieuse had gone ahead carrying passengers who were associated with the Cambodian court who wanted to return to Oudong and it was waiting when La Marceau arrived. The plan was that Montigny would wait in the port for the arrival of Ang Duong who would make his way down from Oudong. However, Montigny later asserted that one of the passengers on La Capricieuse was a Siamese spy, and an insolent one at that, whose job it was to thwart French plans. After the spy was allowed to leave for the Cambodian court he exerted influence against the French mission and, consequently, La Marceau’s passengers waited in vain for the arrival of the monarch. Instead, Montigny received a letter saying Ang Duong could not come for medical reasons but an important minister would come in his place. When this minister and his entourage arrived Montigny found no-one had plenipotentiary powers so he decided it was pointless to remain in Kampot any longer and would travel on to Annam. However, before he set off he sent a letter to Ang Duong giving full details of a proposed Franco-Cambodian treaty. This was little different in intent to the impositions forced on China, Japan and Siam by Western powers. It gave French commercial interests access to all parts of the country and similar unfettered concessions to scholars and Catholic priests. Siam and Annam were not mentioned and neither was French protection. So one-sided was the proposal that even if the Siamese had not put pressure on Ang Duong not to take matters further it is doubtful if he would have signed it on his own volition.
Chapter 29 - Cambodia; a country under pressure
Commanders and clippers
When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys
From the 1855 Admiralty chart