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Norodom and Sisowath

Norodom reigned over Cambodia from 1860 to 1904. Descriptions of him by the French people who met him are filled with contrasts. Klobukowski, the Governor’s principal private secretary, who saw him in July 1885 in Oudong, reports: "A beautiful rectangular shaped open palanquin carefully sculpted and gilded somewhat similar to the pedestal of a statue of Buddha and topped by a vast yellow parasol, and the king, his torso naked, seated in the oriental style on gold silk brocade cushions, scrawny, puny, wizened, immobile, he has the air of a mummy coated with saffron, the illusion is so strong that it remains intact as he draws nearer until the moment when one sees his poor, spindly body, which is incredibly withered, flailing about in a laboured effort to get out of his chair." In 1888, the Resident, Champeaux, saw Norodom as an "African" king, devoid of intelligence and political sense. On the contrary, for Paul Collard, a former French Resident in Cambodia, "Norodom I was without question the premier Cambodian in his kingdom. With intelligence far superior to that of the most talented men who made up his council, the king possessed, moreover, wisdom uncommon among the current descendants of the Khmers."

Pavie was very severe. "With the kind of prince that it deserves, Cambodia would thrive under our authority. King Norodom has always considered France to be an enemy, and has long since been corrupted by the incredible entourage that is tolerated by the indifference of the governors and their desire for tranquillity in the possession of their situation as representatives. He has reached a state of hatred and constant defiance that has narrowed the already tight circle of his confidants. He is no more than a lunatic split between opium and idiotic preoccupations. He will never be the assistant that we need. He has always had an aversion to us; the 17th June gave him a horror of us, and this humiliated beast is still capable of causing damage… it is truly unfortunate in all respects that we have not managed to dispense of this person who may become extremely troublesome."

In fact Norodom endeavoured to resist the colonial power at the same time as treating it with circumspection. Very perceptively, General Bégin wrote in a report to the minister on 20th August 1885: "The treaty of 17th June 1884 is what caused the uprising, there can be no doubt about it. How indeed can we suppose that the king and the mandarins of a brave and proud people will accept, without protestation or resistance, a treaty that has stripped them of their properties, taken away their prestige and authority, profoundly altered the organisation of the country and violated its independence… faced with a common danger, the princes and the mandarins joined forces" and to continue on the responsibilities of the king: "He had just been humiliated and assaulted, and a very harsh treaty had been imposed upon him by force. The mandarins would only have had contempt for him if he had not assisted their efforts. The Queen Mother, for whom he professes a deep respect and great filial devotion, would not have forgiven him if he had accepted the humiliation imposed upon him without a struggle. The king let his entourage do it, his inactivity at least gave encouragement to the rebels." Nevertheless, his attitude was cautious and ambiguous, because "the king had no interest in giving excessive encouragement to the revolt, as the rebels would probably have deposed him if they had taken Phnom Penh. Norodom was not certain of being loved by his subjects. […] For Cambodians, obedience to the king has a mystical aspect. It is not the person of the king that counts, it is the monarchic principle that governs them." In fact, the treaty of 17th June had the effect of "destroying the absolute monarchy to which the Khmers had been attached for many centuries and of suddenly transferring, without a period of transition, all of the power and authority of the king and mandarins in to the hands of foreigners."

The brother of Norodom, Sisowath, chose his side very early on: France. He actively participated in the pacification of Cambodia at the side of the French troops. Adhémard Leclère wrote: “His Majesty Norodom I smokes opium at night and plays; during the day he sleeps and sells provinces to the highest bidder. The second king is said to be less intelligent but more European, more interested in beautiful things, less vicious and resolved to do better on the throne if he succeeds his brother.” In 1885 Klobukowski described him thus: The second king was waiting for us in the shadow of an enormous banyan tree… [he] had assumed his ceremonial costume; around him on finely woven mats, squatting in accordance with tradition were his four sons and all the mandarins in his entourage whose sampots were brightly coloured and whose jackets, which were woven from gold thread, shimmered under the sunlight that filtered unevenly through the branches of the large tree… You know [him]; you have seem him at official audiences, lacking in composure, not knowing where to put his hands, or place his hat, speaking self-consciously, having a stereotyped smile on his lips that hides his betel-blackened teeth… Well, I assure you that on this day you would not have recognised him, he held himself upright, unfolding his full height, looking directly at all the people who stared at him, his voice rose imperiously, with a distinct timbre, his ordinarily placid face became gradually more animated, reflecting with a surprising mobility the feelings that he expressed, and when in the middle of his discourse he extended his arm towards the crowed, all the heads so tightly pressed against one another bowed deeply as if moved by the same spring."

Pavie, who had met him when repairing the telegraph lines destroyed by the insurrection, emphasised his humanity: The march was hard, the heat very intense, only muddy water could be found en route, and yesterday’s rain had made the road slippery and the grass damp. The French soldiers had muddy shoes and soaked trousers. One of them, half-carried by a comrade, had a high fever, perhaps sunstroke. The captain bustled around him. The second king, seeing that our carts were very much behind, had his cases opened as quickly as possible and sent wine, cognac and cakes for the sick man. For us the remains of a chicken, 2 pork chops, a plate of crackers, Bordeaux and wine for the soldiers. It was impossible to get him to give up this habit."