Archive for Teuk Chhou River

A Sketch of Kampot’s History

Posted in Latest of Asienreisender, Places with tags , , , , , , on October 11, 2013 by Thim Kwai

Records of Cambodian History after the decline of the Angkorian empire from the 14th century on are rare. From the late 18th century there is a royal dynastic record, but it’s more about family history and Cambodian politics in general. Rural Cambodia and the coastal regions are barely mentioned. Kampot was always far from the capital as the center of the state. Kampot region was known as a salt supplier for ancient Angkor. As a town it has no long record. The coastal region was not under much control of the central government, for most of the time there was no land traffic connection to the capital and it was the territory of pirates and bandits. While Cambodia was declining and loosing territories to Siam and Vietnam, Kampot came under Vietnamese control in the first half of the 18th century. Vietnamese presence was weak, they even had to employ Cambodian mercenaries for their support. On what is now the fishing island there was the house of the Vietnamese governor placed. A Vietnamese fortification was built in Kampong Bay (Kompong Bay). The place was mostly inhabited by Khmer, but also by a number of Vietnamese, a Chinese community and a thousand Malays. The Vietnamese presence led to two insurrections, of whom the second one in 1741 was supported by the Siamese and proved successful. The Vietnamese were driven out and after that Kampot remained in the hands of the Cambodians. In the following time the Cambodian king Ang Duong let construct a road between the capital Udong (Oudong) and Kampot. A journey on this road lasted eight days on an oxcart and four days on an elephant. At around 1800 some 3,000 people lived in Kampot, and the first Westerners settled down here, namely a French priest who built a small church at the right bank of the Theuk Chhou River. He managed a parish of 30 Vietnamese families who were Catholics. On the other side of the river was a royal garden which sent durians, pineapples, mangos and other fruits to the palace every year. Trade flourished, and in the following decades it came very much in the hands of Anglo-Chinese merchants from Singapore who were welcomed by the Cambodian king. Kampot was in that time the only connection of inner Cambodia with the seabased trade. British merchants paid a visit to Kampot in 1854 and met the notables of the place. In 1863 Cambodia became a French protectorate. Since France had occupied both, Vietnam and east Cambodia, the former border between the two countries didn’t exist anymore. The Mekong River was now promoted by the colonial regime as the favourite trading route in the region. This lead to a decline of Kampots trading position, and of the meanwhile 5,000 inhabitants 3,500 left the place. In 1885-1887 there was a great insurgence in Cambodia against the French rule. The French military tried but couldn’t reestablish control over the country; after two years of guerilla war they had to agree to compromises with the insurgents. In Kampot were only three Frenchmen stationed and they were easily driven out by a hundred isurgents. When the French navy and later marines came back there were struggles who last for two years. At the end the French army succeeded in a small battle in 1886 and reestablished French rule over Kampot. Kampot’s population in the second half of the 19th century was very much dominated by Chinese. Henri Mouhot wrote already that 90% of the inhabitants of Kampot were Chinese, and that was in accordance with other reports. It seems the Kampot Chinese were somewhat different from the Chinese elswhere in the Cambodia of the time. They were seen as a potential threat for the French rule, and, in fact, the uprise of 1885/87 in and around Kampot was triggered and forced mainly by Chinese. The Kampot Chinese were very aware of what was going on in other parts of the world, particularly the Japanese-Russian war (1904-05), the Chinese revolution of 1911 and the events of the First World War. The French administration tried to restrict information access from outside, but failed, for the Chinese business networks to other countries and China were also a mean of communication and weren’t to control. There was also an empoverished lower Chinese class of coolies and plantation workers in and around Kampot, who were seen by the French administration as vagabonds and (potential) criminals. Sanctions were set on them, arrests happened not seldom. Besides there were also conflicts among different Chinese groups, as well as activities of Chinese secret societies. Generally the Chinese societies were very closed for the French administration and they got little information about what the Chinese discussed and planned. The coastal line between Kampot and Kompong Som (now: Sihanoukville) was notoriously a refuge for pirates and their activities. Henri Mouhot mentioned that for the time around 1860, and although it ceased until the First World War, piracy was then still existent. The Elephant Mountains along the coastline provided many hideouts for the pirates, and they used peaks to watch the sea on the search for commercial ships as a prey. Also banditry on the coastal land route happened. Gangs of bandits also robbed whole villages and plantations. Later, in the 1970s to the late 1990s the Khmer Rouge used the same area as a base for their activities against the Cambodian government and the local population. In 1872 Kampot got a telegraph connection to Phnom Penh; additionally a new road was built. The travel time decreased to three-and-a-half days. Later the road was paved to introduce automobiles. The road was named Route Coloniale No. 17; after the Cambodian independence it became renamed into National Route No. 3, as it is still today. What is now the old market in Kampot is a construction first established in 1905, together with the boulevard and the basic shape of contemporary Kampot. In the next years a waterworks (1907-1910) and electricity (1925) were installed. Kampot town in the first half of the 20th century was a colonial administrative center with a Khmer quarter, a Chinese quarter and a Malay quarter. There were very few Europeans, namely French, living in Kampot. It had a vivid, lively center around the market place, but just a few meters apart the liveliness paled out. When Cambodia gained independence in 1953, Kampot town had merely 5,000 inhabitants. Nowadays Kampot is clearly a French colonial heritage. It dates back to the 1880s and became it’s shape in the years before the First World War. The former Kampot of the time of king Ang Duong, which served as Cambodia’s seaport in the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, extinct after the French colonial administration used the Mekong River as the main waterway, connecting Saigon and Phnom Penh with the oversea water routes.

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