1863-1953 - French Colonial Rule
The Portuguese in the 16th century were the first Europeans to explore the valley of Tonle-Tom, and to this day descendants of the Portuguese are to be found in Cambodia. Close on the Portuguese followed Spaniards from Manilla, and about 1650 the Dutch set up their factories at the mouth of the Mekhong. The Khmer kingdom became dismembered in the 17th century, when Annam took successively Baria, Bien-Hoa, Saigon, Mytho, and Vinh-Long, and in 1715 Chandoc and Hatien. A century later (1812) Siam wrested the provinces west of the Great Lake: Battambang, Angkor, Tonle-Repon, and MeluPrey. In 1858 France first appeared in Indo-China.
France's interest in Indochina in the nineteenth century grew out of its rivalry with Britain, which had excluded it from India and had effectively shut it out of other parts of mainland Southeast Asia. The French also desired to establish commerce in a region that promised so much untapped wealth and to redress the Vietnamese state's persecution of Catholic converts, whose welfare was a stated aim of French overseas policy. The Nguyen dynasty's repeated refusal to establish diplomatic relations and the violently anti-Christian policies of the emperors Minh Mang (1820-41), Thieu Tri (1841-47), and Tu Duc (1848-83) impelled the French to engage in gunboat diplomacy that resulted, in 1862, in the establishment of French dominion over Saigon and over the three eastern provinces of the Cochinchina (Mekong Delta) region.
In the view of the government in Paris, Cambodia was a promising backwater. Persuaded by a missionary envoy to seek French protection against both the Thai and the Vietnamese, King Ang Duong invited a French diplomatic mission to visit his court. The Thai, however, pressured him to refuse to meet with the French when they finally arrived at Odongk in 1856. The much-publicized travels of the naturalist Henri Mouhot, who visited the Cambodian court, rediscovered the ruins at Angkor, and journeyed up the Mekong River to the Laotian kingdom of Luang Prabang from 1859 to 1861, piqued French interest in the kingdom's alleged vast riches and in the value of the Mekong as a gateway to China's southwestern provinces. In August 1863, the French concluded a treaty with Ang Duong's successor, Norodom (1859-1904). This agreement afforded the Cambodian monarch French protection (in the form of a French official called a résident -- in French resident) in exchange for giving the French rights to explore and to exploit the kingdom's mineral and forest resources.
The French found in Cambodia an established civilization with a recognized ruling class, at the apex of which was the king. They did nothing to upset or destroy the existing order and, in effect, ruled through the king rather than over him. The Cambodians quickly found out, however, that though the protectorate effectively stopped territorial inroads by their neighbors, it also reduced the country to a state of political andeconomic subordination to France.
Norodom's coronation, in 1864, was an awkward affair at which both French and Thai representatives officiated. Although the Thai attempted to thwart the expansion of French influence, their own influence over the monarch steadily dwindled. In 1867 the French concluded a treaty with the Thai that gave the latter control of Batdambang Province and of Siemreab Province in exchange for their renunciation of all claims of suzerainty over other parts of Cambodia. Loss of the northwestern provinces deeply upset Norodom, but he was beholden to the French for sending military aid to suppress a rebellion by a royal pretender.
In June 1884, the French governor of Cochinchina went to Phnom Penh, Norodom's capital, and demanded approval of a treaty with Paris that promised far-reaching changes such as the abolition of slavery, the institution of private land ownership, and the establishment of French résidents in provincial cities. Mindful of a French gunboat anchored in the river, the king reluctantly signed the agreement. Local elites opposed its provisions, however, especially the one dealing with slavery, and they fomented rebellions throughout the country during the following year. Though the rebellions were suppressed, and the treaty was ratified, passive resistance on the part of the Cambodians postponed implementation of the reforms it embodied until after Norodom's death.
In October 1887, the French proclaimed the Union Indochinoise, or Indochina Union, comprising Cambodia and the three constituent regions of Vietnam: Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. (Laos was added to the Indochina Union after being separated from Thai suzerainty in 1893.) Cambodia's chief colonial official, responsible to the Union's governor general and appointed by the Ministry of Marine and Colonies in Paris, was a resident general (résident supérieur). Residents, or local governors, were posted in all the principal provincial centers. In 1897 the incumbent resident general complained to Paris that Norodom was no longer capable of ruling and received permission to assume the king's authority to issue decrees, collect taxes, and appoint royal officials. Norodom and his successors were left with hollow, figurehead roles as head of state and as patron of the Buddhist religion. The colonial bureaucracy expanded rapidly. French nationals naturally held the highest positions, but even on the lower rungs of the bureaucracy Cambodians found few opportunities because the colonial government preferred to hire Vietnamese.
When Norodom died in 1904, the French passed over his sons and set his brother Sisowath (1904-27) on the throne. Sisowath's branch of the royal family was considered more cooperative than that of Norodom because the latter was viewed as partly responsible for the revolts of the 1880s and because Norodom's favorite son, Prince Yukanthor, had stirred up publicity abroad about French colonial injustices. During their generally peaceful reigns, Sisowath and his son Monivong (1927-41) were pliant instruments of French rule. A measure of the monarchs' status was the willingness of the French to provide them annually with complimentary rations of opium. One of the few highlights of Sisowath's reign was French success in getting Thailand's King Chulalongkorn to sign a new treaty in 1907 returning the northwestern provinces of Batdambang and Siemreab to Cambodia.
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