Mekong River, Exploration of the

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Mekong River, Exploration of the

The mighty Mekong River flows for about 4,180 kilometers (2,600 miles) from its origins in the Tibetan highlands of western China to the South China Sea off the coast of southern Vietnam, passing through China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. It was first mapped in the 1640s, in part by the Dutch merchant Gerrit van Wusthoff, who traveled upstream from a site near present-day Phnom Penh in Cambodia to Vientiane in what is now Laos. His report noted the severe navigational difficulties that he encountered, and for more than two hundred years, the full course of the river remained unmapped.

In the 1860s, however, soon after France had established its foothold in Indochina, French officials optimistically saw the Mekong as a gateway to the markets of central China. France established its protectorate over Cambodia in 1863, in part to gain access to this potential source of wealth. Preliminary explorations, echoing van Wusthoff, revealed that the river was not navigable between northern Cambodia and Laos because of daunting waterfalls and rapids. In Laos, moreover, the depth of the river varied sharply between the dry and rainy seasons, often rendering it impassable for shipping. These findings failed to dampen the fervor of the French, who were eager to map the river and to extend their influence into the unmapped and uncolonized parts of Asia.

In 1866 a forty-three-year-old French naval officer, Ernest Doudart de Lagree (1823–1868), who was posted to the Cambodian court, was placed in command of a twenty-two-man expedition. Second in command of the expedition was a fiery, ambitious, and talented naval officer, Francis Garnier (1839–1873), then only twenty-six. Garnier wrote a lively narrative of the expedition in 1869. Louis Delaporte (1842–1925), a talented French artist, also took part in the expedition and later produced an invaluable illustrated account.

The explorers set off confidently from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in June 1866. Their stores included half a ton of rations, 700 liters (about 185 gallons) of wine, and 300 liters (about 79 gallons) of brandy, but no supply of sturdy boots.

After making a side excursion to the recently "discovered" Angkor ruins in northwestern Cambodia, the explorers proceeded north, where the rapids at Sambor in Cambodia and the Khone Falls in southern Laos impeded their progress. Returning to the river after marching around the falls, they proceeded upstream through several Lao-speaking principalities, reaching Luang Prabang—perhaps the first Europeans to do so—in April 1867. By then their supplies were running low, de Lagree was ill, and safe passage through northern Laos, Burma, and western China was by no means certain.

By October 1867, however, the explorers had reached western China. After traveling overland to Kunming, Garnier wanted to turn west to search for the sources of the Mekong, whereas de Lagree, who was seriously ill, argued that mapping the Red River, which flowed into northern Vietnam, would be more feasible and potentially more profitable for France. Leaving de Lagree to convalesce, Garnier attempted to reach the sources of the Mekong, but he was prevented from doing so by mistrustful local rulers. De Lagree died in March 1868, and the expedition came officially to an end. The surviving explorers, taking de Lagree's body with them, sailed down the Yangzi to Shanghai, reaching Saigon in July.

In a little more than two years, the expedition had mapped 6,700 kilometers (more than 4,160 miles) of Asian land and had reached parts of the world that had never been visited by Europeans. The expedition, however, brought no economic benefits to France, and it was poorly reported in Europe. Garnier, eager to salvage some glory for himself and for his country, lobbied for recognition when he returned to France, but only six hundred copies of his sumptuous two-volume account were ever published, while Delaporte limited his account to his travels in Cambodia. The posthumous account by a third explorer, Louis de Carné (1844–1871), was an amateurish production, filled with racialist remarks about the people of Cambodia, Laos, and China.

Francis Garnier became an imperial hero after he was killed in combat outside Hanoi in 1873. A second, condensed edition of his account, published in 1885, was a best seller in France.

see also French Indochina; Travelogues.


Osborne, Milton. River Road to China, 3rd ed. New York: Liveright, 1999.

Osborne, Milton. The Mekong. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2000.