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Auguste Pavie

Auguste Jean-Marie Pavie was born in Dinan on 31st May 1847. We know very little about his childhood and schooling. However it is possible to imagine that he grew up hearing the memories of his grandfather, a soldier of the Empire. His biographer, Jean Laurent Gheerbrandt tells us that he was a "very sensitive child, very gentle, although his excitability would sometimes cause him to fly into terrible rages; well-behaved at primary school, he was a good student and, without neglecting Latin, distinguished himself primarily in geography and history. He had a youthful fascination for the first Empire."

Auguste enlisted in the army on 31st May 1864 in Guingamp, where his father had been appointed police commissioner. His military record described him thus: 1 metre 62 cm tall, light brown hair, grey eyes, oval-shaped face. He had hoped to join the expedition to Mexico, but he was struck off the lists, doubtless because of his youth and frail appearance. As a soldier of the 62nd regiment, he was based in Brest. He rose through the ranks - lance corporal, light infantry corporal, quartermaster sergeant and sergeant. However Pavie became bored and decided to change units. He moved to the 4th Marine Regiment on 21st October 1867, becoming a simple soldier again who had to rise through the ranks. He embarked in Toulon on 25th October 1868 and arrived in Saigon on 12th January 1869. Having been demobilised on 27th October 1869, he joined the Indochinese telegraphic service as a trainee assistant officer. It was then that he met Raphaël Garcerie who would be his mentor for several years.

When war was declared in 1870 he decided to return to mainland France, but as he was unable to leave his new post he had himself repatriated for health reasons. He fought in the forts of Paris. Having been released from the service on 19th June 1871 he arrived back in Saigon in 1872. He would remain in Indochina until 1895.

Pavie began his career as an assistant in the telegraphic service, and climbed through the ranks slowly, even though he was always praised by his superiors. His first posting in Cambodia allowed him both to develop his qualities as an explorer and demonstrate his aptitude for immersing himself in the local civilisation. These qualities got him noticed. He learned Cambodian, began to be assigned small exploratory missions that he accomplished superbly by drawing up detailed route maps and reports. His independent nature was nevertheless strongly criticised by his superior, who described him as "an example of the violation of the rules of the hierarchy". During these years Pavie developed a strong discipline. He walked – 20 to 25 km per day for 10 to 12 hours – never complained, rarely mentioned the fevers from which he suffered, and sometimes diced with death. Very early on he adopted the huge felt hat that shaded him from the sun and rain, the short white linen jacket, Khmer sampot, full trousers that stopped at the knees and left his legs and feet bare, and the staff of a traveller. Later he added the long beard, which caused him, as he wrote, to be called "father", which provided reassurance and increased his respect. Appointed Vice Consul in Luang Prabang in November 1885, Pavie added a genuine talent as a diplomat to his qualities. After 1888, he became the head of a scientific, geographic and political mission. This became known as the "Pavie Mission". Pavie and his companions were to complete a considerable amount of work and map over 35,000 km of routes for a land area of 675,000 km2. Faced with the Siamese, Pavie revealed negotiating skills that comprised patience and obstinacy. However, Pavie’s dream, which underlay his activities throughout his years as an explorer and diplomat, was to make Laos a province of Indochina.

In September 1895, Pavie returned to France covered in glory. He became a Commander of the Legion of Honour and was appointed as plenipotentiary minister. But this return also concealed a failure, perhaps a disowning by his Parisian hierarchy. In the final negotiations with Siam in July 1893, Pavie had been forced to step aside in favour of his old protector, Le Myre de Vilers. As Henri Bryois wrote on 21st September 1895: "The one invalidated the other, crushed him with his title, his powers, his plaques and his sashes, his position as a deputy, and above all his boastful exuberance and Don Quixote-esque gesticulations. M. Pavie returned to the shadows and silently choked back his discomfiture. A respectful and submissive official, a man of dignity but with faith in the immanent justice of things – justice that I believe slow because it is unsound – France’s Minister Resident in Bangkok does not in the least betray his discontent by the slightest dubious air of petty sulkiness, obvious rancour or visible lack of goodwill."

On 25th October 1897, Pavie married Hélène Gicquelais, who was thirty years his junior. "Our meeting and our marriage" wrote Hélène Gicquelais, "were in the best romantic tradition: on the one hand the explorer crowned by far away successes, on the other the young orphan and her bad guardian who opposed their union. But he little knew the strength of will stimulated by his placing obstacles in the way of the suitor." The marriage was blessed by Monseignor Vey, the bishop of Bangkok, who was also a fervent supporter of the incorporation of Siam into France. A son, Paul, who was born the following year, later became a doctor but would die of tuberculosis in 1940. Pavie split his time between his town house in rue Erlanger in Paris, Dinan, his property in La Raimbaudière in Thourie in Ille-et-Vilaine and activities in the various societies of which he was a member such as the Geographic Society, the Colonial School, the Lay Mission or the Commission for the Protection and Education of Indigenous Races. He turned down the offer of high administrative roles (legation to Mexico, Peking, general government in Madagascar) and henceforth devoted himself to the publication of the works produced by the mission.

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"This last period too was devoted to the same work: the classification, development, exploitation in a word, of the enormous amount of work done in previous years […]. The awareness of his own value, a complete understanding of the enterprise were never lacking in him; these sentiments, you know, were never incompatible with the great modesty that everyone knew him to possess. Indeed, after his return to France many other posts were offered to him. All the new honours, all the tempting possibilities for how many men of his age not even having his extraordinary vitality, he refused them. Often we heard him say: "I am a man of only one undertaking." To this undertaking he devoted himself to his final day […] He took trouble to combine accurate facts with elegant presentation: throughout his work one finds a particular style, a rhythm of phrase the search for which was also a new task. This is how we always saw him, one could say until his final days, in Paris and in Brittany alike, spending the morning at least at his desk, often from 6 o'clock, without ever taking the vacation that he ought to have had the liberty of allowing himself."(Paul Pavie)

Whilst on his travels, Pavie took notes, sometimes in pencil, sometimes in ink, in notebooks bound in coarse brown cloth. They contained notes on the fauna, flora, climate, topographical details, sometimes long reflections on France’s policy, and the attitude of the local administrators and soldiers. However, as he edited his publications, he destroyed his notebooks. Only a few remain relating to the Cambodian period. Nevertheless Pavie regularly sent copies of his travel journal accompanied by correspondence to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the whole the publications remained very true to the journals, although the style was more polished (André Masson, one of his prefacers, noted a rhythm of five feet) and sometimes contained more imagery. It is a pity that the notebooks were destroyed, because they were full of spontaneity and sometimes anger towards the French administration. Astonishingly, the Cambodian period, the one which formed him the most, and the one where he saw the most destruction and death, takes up very little of his publications.

The large collection entitled The Pavie Mission is divided into two series: Geography and Travels, which has seven volumes and an atlas published between 1900 and 1919; and Various studies which has three volumes published between 1898 and 1904. This work would earn Pavie the congratulations of numerous politicians. Marshall Lyautey and General Monteil highlighted the "great work", the "wonderful colonial work" that he had accomplished. But the best tribute remains that of Georges Clemenceau, an anti-colonialist nevertheless, who prefaced the edition of "A la conquête des coeurs" in 1921: "During my crossing to the Indies I read the proofs of the story that made up your stirring narrations, and I was struck by the charm of the best colonial book that I know […] You finish your book with these words that reward you:"I knew the joy of being liked by the peoples with whom I stayed."My dear friend, know too that of being admired by all the Frenchmen who read these pages; they will like you as I do and will form with me the wish that all our children should know the role with which you were blessed! I embrace you with all my heart."

In France, Pavie’s life was also punctuated by visits from friends such as Brazza, Monteil or Binger, former protectors such as Le Myre de Vilers, d’Estournelles de Constant and Lecomte or even strangers who wished to seek his advice before leaving for Indochina. He also received Prince Monivong, the son of Sisowath, who had graduated from Saint-Cyr, as well as the children and nephews of Deo Van Tri, and in 1905 his old travelling companion, the Cambodian, Keo. "Not for one day," wrote Hélène Pavie "did his thoughts leave Indochina. In France as abroad, he instinctively compared his impressions to the familiar points of Laos and Cambodia."

Pavie died on 7th June 1925 after having spent almost twenty years writing the account of his explorations. He was accorded a civil funeral. Dinan’s sub-prefect spoke of a man "of robust good sense, fine and prudent perceptiveness which his frank and clear gaze hinted at". In 1930 a statue by Anne Quinquaud was inaugurated in the entrance hall of the Colonial School. In 1933 Vientiane welcomed a statue by Paul Ducuing. Pavie is represented there with his broad hat, a bamboo cane in his hand, with the stone pedestal surrounded by two figures bringing offerings. Today this statue can be found in the garden of the French embassy. The same statue erected in Luang Prabang was apparently thrown in the Mekong in 1975. In 1947 for the centenary of his birth, a statue was erected in Dinan in front of an audience of dignitaries, including the crown prince of Laos.

A contemporary of Brazza, "with the aura of a prestigious legend, strengthened by the attraction exercised on imaginations by the mysteries of the dark continent, […] this barefoot explorer –wrote Blanchard de la Brosse- started from the most humble employment to achieve the highest dignities never abandoned the modesty of his beginnings." His wife recounted that when he finally returned to France, he had had enough of being recognised in the street and had his beard cut short. The image of these final years is that of a peaceful old man. Because of this, Pavie rapidly fell into obscurity.

Pavie was a man of the Third Republic. A free thinker and freemason, he embodied the republican ideals. He was a traveller and not a conqueror, who set out alone. "Upright, sprightly and lean as a bamboo cane," said Pouvourville, who had met him in 1888. Pavie could be recognised by his sampot and felt hat. His biographer, Jean-Laurent Gheerbrandt, describes him as "a barefoot conqueror" and calls him "the great human being of Indochina."

The Pavie "method", was to construct itineraries, mapping out great lines to explore, entrusting their discovery to several of his companions and setting them a unique rendezvous point on a given date. It was above all a policy of penetration that was remarkable for the time, in that he immersed himself in the country and its peoples and refused to use the force that he had seen at work in Cambodia with the military pacification columns. Pavie reacted against the spirit of assimilation and suggested re-establishing the traditional methods of organisation and relying on the natural leaders. For Pavie, such a policy would help to save lives. This approach, which was used at the same time by Pennequin in Tonkin – the two men had travelled the Black River together and were close friends – was not always well understood by the foreign ministry administration at the Quai d’Orsay.

"Pavie is profoundly human, but he is neither sentimental nor naïve. His career and actions are proof of a perfect clarity, and a view that was precisely focussed on the objectives that he set himself. These were in accord with the nobility of his character, but, in order to achieve them, he did not hesitate to use the resources of an extremely shrewd psychology that was never less than candid. By following him in his mission, which at its modest beginnings seemed to proceed from intuition, one saw him, as his relationships expanded and helped him to penetrate the upper echelons of society, rise to the level of well-thought-out and determined action. He takes confidence and faith from his skill at obtaining what his conscience and reason feel to be just and true, but his humility, which at first he confused with timidity, saves him from self-importance and he never seeks to humble his adversary." (Petit-Huguenin).

Auguste Pavie claimed that he had set out to win hearts. One of the best anecdotes on the attachment that the Laos felt for Pavie was that reported by Lefèvre-Pontalis about a former prisoner of the Siamese who had been returned to Laï Chau and who, by way of thanks, had deposited the Thaï robe that she wore during her captivity at the feet of her liberator.

"All of our compatriots in Indochina are unanimous in recognising that never had a European demonstrated so much determination, skill and endurance as Pavie during the entire mission, the duration of which exceeded that of the most celebrated and longest journeys of exploration. And all these labours that one could say were taken from Hercules, but from a Hercules who had substituted tenacious patience for brute strength and thoughtful prudence for blind impetuousness have been accomplished using this compelling gentleness which gave rise to devotion in the crowds around Pavie […] No matter what the fatigue, the troubles, the sickness that they had endured in his company, there is not a single one who does not always speak with enthusiasm of their leader and who does not dream of resuming the road in Laos or on the Chinese border […] in all the villages that I have visited, the inhabitants piously preserve the memory of this Frenchman "with the long beard of an old man" who was so welcoming and so helpful and who cared with such concern for the sick that one took to him. None of those who knew him in Indochina, be they European or indigenous, could imagine that he would not return among them […]. He loved his Khmers and his Laos too much, said one village chief to me, to have abandoned them forever. A longing for the country would seize him sooner or later and we would see him one evening come and ask us for hospitality as he used to do, with his big hat, his white jacket and his sampot."

Pavie was very conscious of his task. In 1886 he wrote to his sister: "I am walking to my destiny and have faith in myself." Shortly before his death he said: "They still do not realise what I did. When they discover me, I don’t know when, in 20 or 50 years perhaps, they will be utterly astonished by everything that I accomplished." (F. Mury)

Portraits of Auguste Pavie

"He isn’t much to look at at first glance, Monsieur Pavie. Thin, feeble in appearance, of below average height, he has the look, as it pleases him to say himself, of a "scrawny looking character". But upon examining him more carefully, beneath this apparent physical weakness, is revealed a wealth of intelligence at the service of an unparalleled energy and force of will. For over a year M. Pavie has lived alone in Luang Prabang without relationships with the civilised world, without provisions, almost without clothing. The Siamese whose designs are thwarted by his presence in this town have made it a game to intercept all of the consignments that are sent to him. And so during the long months he has been the butt of incessant irritations, condemned to eat crude rations, reduced to walking barefoot, and to clothe himself having only a few poor worn rags. But all these privations he has born with pride. With that he is talkative, likeable, cheerful, possessed of a curious spirit, copiously well informed on every matter relating to our colonial system, one should hear with what communicative warmth the valiant diplomat pleads the French cause in Laos and Tonkin. And when, in delight at speaking with an open heart in the midst of friendly faces, M. Pavie forgets the dangers that he has faced, the fatigue that he has overcome to pay tribute to the energy of our leader and to praise, without irony, our "glorious" feat of arms of the morning, we find ourselves seized by a legitimate modesty. How much easier is our task than his, we who march in numbers, adequately provided for, well-armed, like, in sum, a vigorous incarnation of strength! We too get into line, respectfully simple soldiers that we are, around this persuasive man, this man who conquers with his words, whose enthusiastic language has the gift of being able to convince and charm." (Pierre de Séménil, 1888).

"The Laos examined this westerner of average height, but alert and bearded like a legendary lord from the Chinese theatre. In town, neat in his white cotton dolman, M. Pavie did not lack presence, but the boatmen willingly repeated that during the journey, this European liked to drape himself with a sampot, and that he wore an excessively large straw hat. He would walk barefoot and quickly and for a long time. Often, without ever raising his voice, but by setting the example, he drove along the pathways the coolies or porters who were exhausted by the morning’s journey. And this simple man found the food of the country adequate. Every day we reflected with more interest on his personality. His gentleness and discreet affability reassured the inhabitants […].

One would however not wish to finish without highlighting the down-to-earth qualities of his character. His severity towards himself, the austerity of his existence and of his food; his resistance to fatigue, fever, these are the qualities of men from home. They have served him well. The workers in the paddy fields like those in the mountains recognise him as one of their own. The life of the soil and the habits that it imposes on one create these brotherhoods. We have seen Pavie place himself without oarsmen at the mercy of the rapids on the Mekong, we have seen him continue to walk under fire, but especially it is the day-to-day side of his courage, his steadfastness in obstinacy that must be underlined. The difficulties to be overcome never stop him. The idea never occurs to him any more than it would to a farmer to stop his harvest. In so doing he must disconcert the Siamese. Sheltering during the rainy season was good for them. He, never once did sickness exempt him from drawing up his routes, we know not how. It did not even distract him from the beauty of the Meo paths. The plants, the animals, the people of the country, their beliefs and customs, everything that stemmed from the earth excited his interest and his love. A laboured writer, an often unintelligible chronicler of uncertain syntax, Pavie found charming ways of evoking existence in the midst of the Laos. The clumsiness of his phrasing, the irritation of seeing the most epic of subjects spoiled by a literary style that was so childlike that it became almost touching, all that disappeared as soon as the book was closed." (Bernard Bourotte, 1939).

"He was, said a Cambodian, keen to learn and quick to understand and to make himself understood. He was interested in everything, in stones and men alike. In countries shaped by Buddhism, a religion that prohibited violence, he felt instinctively that colonisation would not be a question of force and he preached by example. He was not a qualified official, but in introducing a France of hard work and kindness in Laos and the Cambodian School in Paris, he opened up a route to which we will return one day, to search for a fusion or harmony between the Sanscrito-Pali civilisations and the Greco-Latin civilisations […] why would we not try to find in the first occupation that Pavie exercised the formation of his colonising genius? Establishing and ceaselessly repairing a telegraph line through the jungle, in the mountains and the forests, is this not, for such a man as Pavie, a way of preparing oneself to weave and tie without cease the almost imperceptible, fine thread that through patience would cover all of Indochina with a dense network of explorations and help men to communicate with one another." (Charles-André Jullien)

"A Frenchman appeared, small in size, a former employee of the postal service, Auguste Pavie; he had mapped out the telegraph line from Phnom Penh to Bangkok and demonstrated such qualities that he had then been entrusted with a mission. He passed through, recruited Cambodians, set out on the road under a wide brimmed felt hat and walking on his beard, which did not matter, because this conquering explorer went barefoot. After having travelled through Cambodia, he went up to Laos… traversed it from north to south, making a map, without a weapon in his luggage, telling stories on an evening in the stopping places and from time to time planting a small tricolore flag. After some years of walking, it so happened that all of the land of Laos had stuck to the "bare" feet of this lay bishop and had become French." (Georges Groslier in Eaux et Lumières (Water and Light) quoted by Eugène Vaillé, curator of the Postal Museum in 1947).