The Mekong River defines much of South East Asia, but it was only explored by Westerners for the first time in 1866. John Keay’s Mad About The Mekong charts the exploration that paved the way to South East Asia’s colonisation.
In 1866, six Frenchman embarked on a journey that would change the course of Southeast Asian history.
It was the Age of Imperialism – an era marked by intrepid explorers and their pioneering expeditions. Groundbreaking ventures into the great unknown were made, charting new terrains, documenting new species of flora and fauna, and, most significantly, staking claims for expanding colonial powers.
The British had the Nile, the Dutch the Congo, and now the French set out to claim rights to the Mekong – the world’s 12th longest river, and 10th largest by volume.
Today, the river, its lands and inhabitants mystic allure draws travelers from around the world. But when the Mekong Exploration Commission, headed by Captain Ernest Doudart de Lagrée and his deputy Francis Garnier started off, the river was a tabula rasa to the west, a blank page, with all but its delta surrounded by mystery and myth.
Their 5392km journey would take them two years, claim the lives of seven of the original 20-strong team, including its leader, and take them through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma and China.
Historian, and author of more than a dozen books on Asia, John Keay’s latest effort, Mad About the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South-East Asia pays homage to these efforts to unlock a new waterway through Asia that would enable France to outmaneuver Britain in the great game of colonial conquest.
What sparked the author’s interest in penning the book, was that despite the fact its epic proportions were fast-recognized by the Commission’s contemporaries – in 1870 Garnier was awarded the Victoria Medal by the British Royal Geographic Society for his discoveries on the expedition – and that it played a seminal part in the creation of both the concept and reality of French Indochina; little had been done to document the journey. While Dr David Livingstone and HM Stanley became household names, historically speaking, de Lagrée and Garnier were out left out in the cold. Even by the French.
“Had the Commission been British, London would now be graced with statues of the Mekong pioneers. Their mistake, as Garnier himself wryly put it just before his premature death, lay in being born French.”
Keay confirmed his above theory during an encounter with the French ambassador to London. His enquiry as to how the expedition was commemorated in France was met with a blank stare. “Never heard of them, I’m afraid,” came the reply.
Mad About the Mekong does a lot to set this straight. It puts forward an excellent account of the Expedition’s discoveries and hardships – the death-defying ascents of rapids and waterfalls, bouts of malaria, run ins with the locals –but the book also goes beyond pure historical commentary. Keay not only provides a keen historical perspective on the journey, but also on how its ramifications are still felt to the present day. Like ripples on still waters, the impact of the Commission’s footsteps spread, catalyzing a chain of events that would result in nine decades of French colonial rule, communist revolutions and wars, and a new economic landscape.
The book is fast-paced and it unites historical fact and readability without dumbing down the content. While one would assume that a book on such and adventure should be exciting, too often historical biographers and writers essentially kill the buzz of a good tale with an over-academic approach. Keay has successfully avoided this; far from being dry the book’s pages are bursting with color. Its this ability, to create a truly engaging and exciting read, that makes him a standout author.
The journey up-river from Cambodia to China is full of engaging anecdotes, both on water and on land. “Here in Laos, hills are more in the nature of perpendicular forests. When ascending, the explorers hauled themselves up by hanging onto the vegetation. Rather than trust to the hillside, they often found it easier to climb a tree, travel along one of its topmost branches and with the help of creepers, rejoin the precipitous rock-face where the roots of another tree invited a repetition of the process,” writes Keay.
Key’s ability to set the scene in Mad About the Mekong, to communicate how the ebb, flow and rhythm of this vast body of water has entranced travelers for centuries – from the indigenous tribes whose rituals and beliefs systems are molded by the river’s power, to explorers like Garnier, to backpackers today – brings his account to life. It is this skill that expands the reach of the book beyond the realm of history buffs and Southeast Asia enthusiasts, to those struck by wanderlust, intrigued by the colonial era’s indelible mark, or simply invigorated by the idea of how one journey can change history.