Three Months in Cambodia by a Madras Officer

One of the earliest (16th April-21 June 1854) accounts of Cambodia in the English language by a traveler who had both military and business connections.

Thejournalofindianarchipelago VIII 1854 cover

Publication: in The Journal of Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, ed. J.R. Logan, Vol VIII, Aug-Sept 1854, Singapore, pp 285-328 | via Internet Archive

Published: September 1854

Pages: 44

While the identity of the enigmatic 'Madras officer' remains an enigma to the day, his expertise in building techniques led Jacques Népote in Péninsule (n 50-05, 2005, pp 89-112, with a French translation of the text) to speculate he was from the Corps of Engineers, while his brother was a businessman based in Singapore for the HEIC (East India Company). The same contributor remarks that "[in spite of being brief, the document was deemed important enough to be quoted by John Bowring, the governor of Hong Kong in charge of negotiations with the Siamese sovereign in 1855, who included it in his first diplomatic report] (malgré sa brièveté, le document a paru à ce point intéressant que le diplomate britannique, gouverneur de Hong Kong, venu négocier avec la cour de Bangkok en 1855, John Bowring l’incluait dans son propre rapport de mission publié trois ans plus tard."

As for the navigation from Singapore itself, the author remarks: "On Sunday the 16th at 7 o'clock A. M. we sighted Pulo Obi [confusing, since Pulau Obi is an Indonesian island] and the large island of Kuthrall [also called Koh-Dud in this account: the island of Phu Quoc] and at noon dropped anchor in Campoot [Kampot] roads, having run 550 miles in 9 days."

In any case, the notations here transcribed are undoubtedly interesting:

The King

From the Madras officer's notations, it seems the Cambodian sovereign [Ang Duong អង្គឌួង (12 June 1796 – 18 October 1860), who reigned from 1841 to 1844 and from 1845 to his death in 1860 and who resided either in Oudong or Kampot] had took interest in European visitors from the very start of his reign, as he had ordered a residence for them to be built in Kampot. The buildings here described were probably the ones that hosted Henri Mouhot a few years later, and the description gives a good insight on 19th century building techniques in Cambodia: "We landed on the right side of the river immediately opposite the town of Campoot. Here the King of Cambodia had. ordered a house or rather two houses to be constructed for Europe a us; this he had done at the request of Mt· A. who had mercantile transactions with his Majesty for some years previously and who had represented to the King, the inconveniences his agent (my brother) had sustained, by having no place to live in or godowns to store produce &c. These houses arc situated on the brink of the river, at right angles with it, the two being immediately opposite one another at a distance of about twenty-five paces, and between them, at the sides furthest off from the river, a cook room or kitchen is built, so that the whole forms three sides of a square. Each house is in the shape of a parallelogram or rectangle (dimensions 80 feet in length by 26 in breadth) divided into three rooms above, with the same number of godowns as below, the habitable part is elevated about 10 feet from the ground. A long verandah, about 8 feet in breadth, stretches along the front of the upper rooms in each house ; at one end of the verandahs are stairs or rather substantial ladders and there is a commuication between both houses by means
of a gallery supported on posts from the end of one verandah to that of the opposite building. The rooms themselves are lofty and well lighted by means of two windows in each apartment. These houses rest on brick walls, the upper part is solely composed of lath and plaster but the weight of the roof is supported by immense posts and cross beams, at an interval of about ten feet from each other. The roofs are tiled and calculated to last for at least fifty years, for each tile is separately fastened down with mortar before another is laid over it, the whole thus forming a solid mass. The only roof in the Straits of Malacca I have ever seen similarly constructed, is that of the stadt-house at Malacca. The floors of these buildings arc planked, roughly it is true, as the planks are not planed and joined by bevelled edges together, but at the same time they are very substantial, each plank being about two inches thick and 40 feet in length, so that a couple extend the whole length of the buildings. The carpenters, sawyers and bricklayer's tools used in the erection of these houses, were commissioned by the King from Singapore, and their use &c. taught to the Cambodians, by a couple of Chinese who had 1·esided for some time in the Straits. The tiles also were sent from Singapore, at the expence of the King. The houses are certainly the best in Cambodia. The King himself at Oodong, the capital, does not live in such a good one. When we arrived they were not quite completed. We were told it took a year to erect them, the whole having been done by means of forced labour."

"After making us wait upwards of a quarter of an hour, His Majesty walked or rather waddled in, attended by a host of young women and seated himself on the armchair near the marble table, immediately opposite to us. A couple of ladies stationed themselves at each side of the King and commenced fanning him with great vigour, an operation he seemed to stand much in need of in hot weather, for he is enormously fat and his whole body appeared to glisten with an oily perspiration. His appearance ia not at all King-like or imposing, being dull looking, with a heavy stolid air about him and his face and breast much pitted with small pox ; his age is apparently 50, but he himself told us he was upwards of 60 ; he wears very little clothes, only a sarong round the lower part of his body, leaving the upper part down to the waist quite naked, in fact were it not for a gold band with a diamond and ruby clasp fastening the sarong round his middle, be could not be distingnished from a common cooly. His head according to the Cambodian fashion was closely shaved with the exception of a small tuft of very short bristly hair at the top of the skull."

The King "enquired particularly about the use of the electro-magnetic machine and galvanic battery, which he said he had heard of in Siam, and was most curious to try the shock -- he named the next day for our exhibition and then began talking about his coining machine which he had lately received from Europe through Messrs A. & Co at Singapore. This he said he had put up with the assistance of a Siamese from Bangkok and that he had begun coining silver money, but that there was something the matter with the machine, it would not work so quick or stamp as many blanks in a day, as he had been informed the maker had said it could do, added to which he thought the machine was not complete, as the blanks had to be made by hand w llicb was vel'y tedious work. He therefore requested us to examine the machinery, and if we knew what was wanting to inform him, that he might commission it from Europe."

The ladies

Quite avidly glancing at the 'King's Harem', he notes that the women 'all appeared to be very young and were doubtless the best looking girls we had seen in the country. Many of them had soft and regular features and were it not for the disgusting habit of blackening the teeth and shaving the head, only leaving the short tuft of hair I have mentioned before, might really be called pretty, as all had most elegant figures with those gracefully curved flowing outlines and plump development sculptors love so well to delineate as forming the chief grace of feminine beauty. These Odalisques were very thinly clad, wearing salendangs and a long silk scarf thrown loosely over one shoulder and across the body, this piece of dress seemed to be used more as an ornament than as a necessary covering, for it was often allowed to slip off the shoulder, and had to be every now and then readjusted. [...] The Princess Royal seemed to be a great favorite of her father's and much respect was paid to her by the courtiers, being invariably addressed by the same title as the King himself, viz: "Poco-Napursers" [according to Jacques Népote, op.cit., it would be the 'folk' of the Khmer-Sanskrit title Preah Kona Pisés [Brah + Karunā (sk.) + Visesa (sk.)], or Your Highness. This title we did not hear given to any of the other sons or daughters, so I conclude it is used exclusively in Cambodia to the eldest offspring of both sexes who are born in the purple."

While staying at the Oodong (Oudong) Royal Palace, he notes that "we had 4 rooms given us in this building and a godown downstairil as a kitchen. The remaining 8 apartmeuts being occupied by a lot of women, who we were told were the mothers-in-law of the crown prince and tbeir attendants, these fair ladies took good care to isolate themselves from us, as when we took possession of our side, we found workmen putting up a temporary partition in the verandah, thus separating their rooms entirely from ours." Later on, however, he seems annoyed by describing how a post-dinner reverie was interrputed by "a bevy of the King's women bursting into the room, accompanied by two of His Majesty's younger sons...Though I am a devoted admirer of the fair sex in general, I yet must acknowledge on the present occasion I was ascetic enough to wish our tawny nymphs anywhere but near me, anathemas not loud but deep were freely bestowed on these restless curious daughters of Eve, who regardless Gf our objurgations turned every thing upside down they could lay their hands on. However, after satisfying their curiosity and minutely inspecting everything in the room, now and then trying on our hats or some other article of wearing apparel, we got them into something like a staid, sober, behaviour, and then enquired the reason of our being favored with a visit ; the ladies replied, they were in want of pomatum, soap, essences and white bottles, of all of which they were confident we had a large stock. We assured them we had none to dispose of and regretted they were so badly off for soap &c, at the same time adding, if we had known it when we left Singapore, we would have brought them some. Our protestations of having nothing for them however they persisted in not believing and intimated their intention of staying where they were, till something was produced. We were now fairly at our wits end, till at last I luckily thought of a bottle of naptha I had with me. This I told them was a valuable essence and that I would divide it amongst them, they all smelt it and though not much admiring its odour yet thought it must be good, as it was European and moreover a novelty."

Female guards during King Monivong's Coronation in 1927 (photo from Péninsule 50-05)

In the same volume of The Journal of Indian Archipelago, we noticed the description of marriage ceremonies among the Chinese of Pinang [Penang, Malaysia] ('Notes About The Chinese of Pinang', from another anonymous contributor). The similarities with Cambodian traditional marriage rituals are striking: "Should the immigrant be suecessfnl in his career be naturally provides himself with a wife. His courtship and marriage are thus conducted. He must first apply to a professional bride·seeker or matrimonial agent, who makes enquiries, and after finding an unmarried girl, whose parents are anxious to get rid of her, he sees her and waits on the young man with a description of the young lady and her family ; should they be approved of, preliminaries are entered into by his sending his intended a gold ring, she returns a gold hair pin or other jewels and they are then betrothed. A fortune teller is consulted, who fixes the day, and a sum is agreed upon to be paid to the parents of the bride. A leg of roast pork, some dollars, 2 bottles of arrack, 2 ducks, 2 fowls, a small box containing a paper filled up by the astrologer, in which he mentions the propitious day, and 2 candies ornamented with colored paper, are placed on Birman trays and conveyed by the agent to the girl's house. She accepts one fowl, a duck, a slice of the pork, all the money and the candles, which are lighted at the birth of the first male child. Prayer is then offered to the family Tokong or Guardian deity, which is usually the picture of Confucius, or one of their deified countrymen or women, and the agent is told that the bride elect will be ready to receive her betrothed on the happy day. In the interim the parents of the girl prepare her clothes and the bridegroom his house for her reception. Onn the marriage day prayer is offered to their respective Tokongs, and the man sends as much money as he can afford on a brass plate, together with 4 candles (one pair has a bird cut· out in colored paper pasted on it, the other a dragon), a piece of paper containing the girl's name, the names of her parents, their ages and the birth place of each another paper containing the same particulars regarding the bridegroom and his family, dry fish in 2 or 3 Birman plates, fruit of all description, a silk sarong, 2 cotton sarongs, 2 pieces of white and 2 pieces of biack cloth, 6 or 6 pairs of men's shoes, 5 or 6 pairs of women's shoes, 2 fowls, 2 ducks, a roast pig and a roasted goat, and several plates. The girl accepts 2 sarongs, 2 pairs of shoes, a piece of the pig, a fowl and duck, some fruit, the paper referring to her husband and a pair of candles. She returns the remainder, accompanied by a pair of shoes, a fan, a silk tie for his trowsers, a purse, 2 dollars, or gold buttons, 2 pomegranates tied together with silk thread and 2 bottles of lime juice, as a present from herself, and she places a rupee in each ear of the pig. After this the agent conducts the bridegroom and his friends to the bride's house. Six men, dressed in long coats and peaked hats, meet them at the door and lead the bridegroom to the Tokong, which he worships; they then point to a seat, which he takes. A little boy, dressed like the men, now enters with several cups of tea which he presents to the guests, every cup is emptied at a signal, cigars are then smoked and siri chewed. The boy then leads the bridegroom to the door of the bride's room, and the girl comes out to receive them. This is the first meeting and should the girl be hideous the young man's feelings may be more easily imagined than described."

Tags: women, 19th century, English explorers, Queens & Kings of Cambodia, marriage