25 July 2010

More History!

A snippet from The journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London, Volume 37 (1850)


I had the good fortune, during my stay in Penompein, to fall in with a Buddhist priest of high rank, who has lately been studying the inscriptions found amongst the ruins scattered over Cambodia. Having heard that I had procured copies of some of these, he called, and requested to see the same; and it is to his kindness that I am indebted for the interpretations before alluded to. This gentleman was many years resident at Bangkok, and was a companion of the King of Siam, when his Majesty was a member of the priesthood. By special request of the sovereign of Cambodia he has taken up his residence in that kingdom; and, while deeply read in the languages and archaeology of the East, he possesses a gentleness and refinement in his manner which is one of the marked characteristics of those indoctrinated with the tenets of the Buddhist religion.

Having decided to proceed to Kampot, and from thence by sea to Bangkok, we took leave of his Majesty at mid-day on the 4th of April, and set out with elephants and buffalo-carts to complete our journey. There has long been a fine road from Udong to Kampot; but it is not till recently that a route has been opened by way of Penompein ; the distance is about 120 miles, which it requires about five days to accomplish; and the road, which was still under construction, forms a junction with that which leads to Udong, about 15 miles above its termination. It is broad and level, passing for the most part across a sandy plain, where jungle-grass, shrubs, and stunted forest-trees abound. No important towns are met with along this route; but the villages are frequent and of considerable extent. The inhabitants are chiefly employed in the cultivation of rice and the manufacture of palm-sugar.

We had now reached the hottest period of the dry season, and had not only to travel beneath a scorching sun, but to encounter some difficulties from the scarcity of water, as the rivulets had all run dry, and only a few stagnant pools were occasionally to be met with; these sufficed, indeed, for the wants of our servants and cattle, but we had ourselves to drink sugarpalm juice and the milk of coco-nuts. We fell in daily with parties of traders conveying produce, in bullock-carts, between Kampot and Penompein, or by numerous cross-roads from the settlements in the interior; so that there is every sign that this important highway will prove of material advantage to the commerce of the country.

On the 8th of April we encountered a token of the troubles which for a long time distracted the country: a human skull, impaled where two roads meet, marks the spot where, three years back, a band of rebels were overthrown.

A fugitive slave, named Issawa, having gathered to himself a party in Southern Cambodia, set up a claim to the throne. He had sufficient influence to secure the countenance of the Cochin Chinese, but was ultimately defeated and driven from the country. He still enjoys an opulent and influential position in his place of refuge in Cochin China, and is by many deemed the real heir of the Cambodian monarch, whom in person he closely resembles. The advanced guard of his troops being routed in this locality left two of their leaders in the hands of the enemy; their heads were at once struck off by their captors, and set up to whiten upon the field of battle.

We were by this time nearing the lofty clumps of mountains which rise in the vicinity of Kampot. These hills, mantled in impenetrable forests, save where stony precipices forbid all vegetation, are the haunt of elephants, rhinoceros, and many other wild animals.

Defiling thi-ough the passes on the evening of the 8th, we halted at the borders of a fertile plain, about 20 miles distant from the coast; thence a short march next morning conducted us to Kampot, and ended the heat and thirst of a really toilsome journey.

The town of Kampot stands in a fertile plain, under the shelter of a lofty range of mountains, and on the borders of a river ten miles distant from the sea. This stream, rising in the hills a few miles above the town, resembles an arm of the sea rather than an inland river; the tides extend their influence to its sources, and fill the broad and deep channel with clear green sea-water.

Rice and palm-sugar are raised in the surrounding plains, but it is to the pepper plantations along the banks of the river that the place owes its principal importance. These latter are wholly in the hands of the Chinese, who cultivate them with their usual industry. I am told that the vines surpass those of Singapore, but that, by culling the berries before they reach maturity, they considerably impair the quality of the pepper. Coco-nuts, betel-vines, areca-palms, and pine-apples, are grown abundantly also throughout the plantations.

During the disturbances which preceded the French invasion of Cochin China, and while the new comers were still regarded with dread, traders flocked in numbers with their produce to Kampot; the commerce there was thus forced into briskness, and European vessels often loaded at the port. But latterly these influences have ceased to operate, and Saigon has been found by many to be a more convenient market. It is not, however, to these circumstances alone that the decay of the settlement is due; many local considerations have contributed to impair it. The seaboard swarms with pirates, and the rulers, for their own profit, secretly countenance their depredations.

The Christians look only to the authority of their priests; the Malays have chiefs of their own blood to rule them; the Chinese monopolise the market, and are too numerous and turbulent to obey any one whatever. Hence the legitimate governor, whose very title is dubious because conferred at Bangkok, is in a great measure destitute of influence, and the town consequently suffers from the divided state of its government. The whole of the commerce of the place is engrossed by the Chinese; and their extensive godowns, filled with pepper, rice, and other varieties of produce, testify to the wealth which they derive from the monopoly. But even this close body is divided within itself; and the Hainam Chinamen, by steady persecution and frequent riots, are driving the Fookheins out of the settlement If the former party be permitted to consummate their endeavours, I think little will be wanting to complete the ruin of the port. It is worthy, however, of remark that here, as in many other Eastern markets, a Swatow Chinaman is the foremost amongst their merchants.

On the coast, 30 miles below, is the rising settlement of Kankhao. This formerly belonged to the Cambodian territory, but was seized, 40 years back, by invaders from Cochin China. Its exports are pepper, sugar, and rice, but above all the matting and gunny bags which are made extensively in the interior. The proximity of a foreign port is a further source of injury to the commerce of its neighbour.

His Majesty the King of Cambodia proposes to pay a short visit annually to this part of his dominions; and, so soon as he shall have completed his palace at Penompein, a similar residence will be erected in the vicinity of Kampot. We may hope that the occasional presence of the court will not only .lend a stimulus to the traffic of the settlement, but remove in some degree the difficulties which keep it down. On being ceded by Sam to its present ruler, his Majesty appointed his brother-in-law to superintend its administration. This nobleman, however, resides permanently about the court, and little therefore is gained by the arrangement. It was formerly the custom to send tribute to Bangkok at this season of the year ; but Cambodia being now freed from her allegiance to Siam, the right can no longer be enforced. The boats, however, were loaded and ready for sea when I was at Kampot, and they had been six weeks awaiting the final instructions of the King, who was apparently undecided whether to send them or no. 

I cannot say for certain whether any British subjects are to be found among the Chinamen of this place; but I think that such is probable, as many of them have been educated at Hongkong or Singapore. Several, at any rate, are agents for English houses, and receive frequent consignments of their cargo.

On their complaining to me bitterly of the depredations of the pirates, I advised such of them as were concerned with British property to represent the case, in writing, to the consul at Bangkok, who would assist them in the matter. Owing to the general dread of these piratical cruisers, cardamums, silk, and other valuable produce, are no longer brought down here for exportation.

So considerable is the bar at the mouth of the river, and so shifting and uncertain are the channels across it, that ships are obliged to anchor in the roads outside, and to have their cargo conveyed to them in lighters. Even these craft, at low water, are unable to come out.

Having procured a small cargo boat, and six sailors to man it, we quitted Kampot on the 12th of April. Favouring winds brought us rapidly to Bangkok, where we landed in health and safety on the evening of the 17th.