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The nomad of the telegraph lines

In May 1884, the Governor General Charles Thomson wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies that "all the credit for the construction of the telegraph line from Phnom Penh to Bangkok" belonged to Pavie. The line, which was begun in October 1881 and completed in June 1883, was almost 700 kilometres long. It was a hard task that required the men to clear the brush, cut down trees and put the posts in position, as well as confronting cholera. Many died.

Biot, a former Marine, whom Pavie had met in Long Xuyen, was his second-in-command. He was a man who was "gentle with the indigenous people, an especially useful thing in his profession" who "had an admirable understanding with them." The team consisted of Cambodians and Annamites, who did not mix. Whenever he could, Pavie set about recruiting personnel locally. In the solitude of the rest periods, he wrote.

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"Night-time notes. It is one o’clock in the morning and I am the only one awake – the effect of the coffee, or perhaps fatigue… I have not seen a single one of those places that are common in Cambodia and Siam that are regarded as fearsome, where the passer-by places a tree branch, a stone or a handful of sand on an already large pile while asking the local spirit for protection and a safe journey. From my feet and legs, which I have not been able to wash, the ants are taking clots of blood left by the leeches. On this subject, I have noticed that the "ticks" come to me more than the indigenous people, as my skin is not yet leathery enough."

The way in which Pavie took care of his men during these long months, especially during an epidemic of cholera, would remain – it seems – in the memories of those who, at the time of the Cambodian revolt, "protected the lines that they had helped to construct and who constantly liberated those indigenous officials captured when going to repair them where they had been cut." Moved by the plight of the workers who ate a stew consisting of enormous trapdoor spiders, small lizards and large black scorpions, Pavie wrote to Harmand, the consul in Bangkok. As soon as he had been informed, the brother of the king of Siam, Prince Bhanurangsi, the minister responsible for the telegraph lines, sent a large supply of fish.

When the construction works were completed in June 1883, Pavie wrote emotionally to Harmand: "I feel it is tedious to put myself in the spotlight, but you have travelled more than I have been able to do in their country and elsewhere, and you will understand, I know, that I cannot prevent myself from speaking to you of the emotion felt when, after two extremely difficult months, small bands or villages came to say goodbye, all of them seeking my promise to visit them. I took care of their sick and dressed their wounds, as there was more than one when the terraces of trees were felled. Every day they brought me shells and insects, asking in return small mirrors and scissors; we were very close. As I write you these lines the tears come to my lashes involuntarily to remind me of my promise. I want to keep it, help me to do so."

Above all, he wanted to remain in Indochina and continue his explorations.

In July 1883 Pavie’s first "mission" was conferred upon him by Governor Thomson who authorised him to explore the country between the telegraph line and the sea. "I feel that Mr. Pavie is the natural choice to explore that part of the kingdom of Cambodia that travellers have up until now only covered very inadequately. Moreover, this official’s mission should not only include studying the route of the telegraph line from Phnom Penh to Sambor that may be finished in a very short time; but to record carefully all the points where telegraph stations might be installed and at the same time to gather all the types of information that will facilitate our establishment in Cambodia." And he concluded on the "modest and absolutely unselfish" character of Pavie, that he was "worthy of the particular benevolence of the government".

This journey would be a severe test. For Pavie the starting point was Chantaboun, the largest trading centre and only port on the entire coast east of the Gulf of Siam. "I carried out this journey with the most basic of means and in conditions that were so hard it was difficult even to recruit a few servants." He would later write: "In the years that followed I travelled through a good many regions every bit as new to geography as the immense solitudes in the midst of which the Krevanh massif extended through the forests in which I was going to make my way. I did not have those feelings there in the same way that in turn please and sadden the traveller when he finds himself in unknown parts, and when he notices that they are solitary and that "forest fever" reigns there and will strike those who brave them. Today sixteen years have gone by, and yet I remain the sole European to have visited the majority of the forests and mountains in this land, where the indigenous peoples move only reluctantly, aggravating the sorrow that often overwhelms them, through the superstitious belief that they are victims of the anger of spirits whose refuges they have violated."

Upon his return, Pavie found himself charged with the continuation of the telegraph network in Cochinchina, a task that would last until the end of 1884. He was accompanied by Launey and Combaluzier, "intelligent, active and resolute men with a secure future in the administration." And to continue in his very distinctive style: "We liked one another before meeting again, and they were extremely appreciative that I had given them the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. It was a pleasure for me to think that I was contributing to the training of two officials who would subsequently render useful service." Their deaths resulting from the effects of diseases contracted in Indochina would be a first shock for Pavie. "I had not envisaged this hard and terrible consequence of my progress. Alas it was to repeat itself later: it would have contributed even more towards weakening my resolve, if that had been at all possible, than the obstacles placed in my way."

"The telegraph lines had been complete for barely a week, when the news arrived that at Sambor, their furthest point, a group of adventurers in the service of a brother of the King of Cambodia, a rebel who had taken refuge in Siam, had killed Lieutenant Bellanger, the commander of the Annamite detachment, and brought about the destruction and abandonment of the post." With this terse sentence, Pavie announced the start of the insurrection in Cambodia.