The Wild West in the Far East Book Review of Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchmen by Gregor Muller
Surprising (sometimes shocking) Cambodian history at its readable best
Review by Kent Davis
Imagine… A wealthy Western nation decides to “protect” a poor Asian country whose capital is 10,000 kilometers away from its own.
The self-appointed “protector” has no understanding of the culture or language spoken in the designated protectorate. Likewise, most of the protectorate’s people are unfamiliar with (and uninterested in) the distant protector. When the protector is unable to control its protectorate through diplomatic means it resorts to brute military force, finally forcing its own legal system, government, economy, values, social order and taxation upon the unsuspecting populace.
The most shocking revelations presented in this book suggest that the subjugation of this entire country, purportedly done for the most magnanimous reasons, was in fact based on arrogance, lies and pure greed. According to the author, the supposed protector’s real goal was to exploit the distant land’s coveted natural resources that the ignorant natives supposedly weren’t worthy (or capable) of managing for themselves.
The tale does not end well for either the protector or the protected.
In a 1905 issue of Scribner’s magazine George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Welcome to a fascinating account of France’s 19th century colonial aspirations in Cambodia. Author Gregor Muller’s first book accomplishes something extraordinary: it transforms thousands of dusty antique documents from around the world into a living history that meets rigid academic standards while gripping readers with a tale that’s hard to put down.
Muller’s literary technique follows the unusual life of one man who lives, and dies, as part of France’s colonial experiment. I was immediately reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s historical masterpiece, A Distant Mirror, in which she wraps the events of 14th century France around the life of one obscure French nobleman.
Meet Thomas Caraman: inept entrepreneur at best…sociopathic liar and financial predator at worst. Is he one of the “Bad Frenchmen” for which the book is named? Perhaps, but not for any reasons that you suspect now. But for all his shortcomings Caraman is our “hero” or at least the biographical subject around whom the author carefully builds his history. The brief 47-year life span of one man thus becomes a riveting tale of limitless opportunity, ambition, honor, arrogance, good and evil…that ends in ways no one involved could have suspected.
Caraman’s grandiose plans and limitless energy led him to interact with Emperor Napoleon III of France, King Norodom of Cambodia, and absolutely every type of person from every level of society in between. Muller painstakingly assembled his account from public and private archives as well as personal meetings with the descendants of Caraman himself. He digs deep into personal correspondence that the original authors never expected to see light of day, especially within the clear context that Muller provides.
Muller’s scholarship is impeccable, but I recommend his book because it’s a pleasure to read. The surprising truths is presents are essential to understanding Cambodia’s past and are especially relevant for those who aspire to contribute to Cambodia’s future. That said, anyone with an interest in history, entrepreneurship, adventure, diplomacy, war and Southeast Asia will love this book.
Kent Davis is a US-based publisher, author and independent researcher specializing in Khmer studies with DatAsia, Inc. and Devata.org.