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Exploring Mekong expedition

Book>> Mad About The Mekong by John Keay, Exploration and Empire in Southeast Asia Harper Collins London 2005

Published: Friday 31 August 2007


The Americas, the African Continent, West and South Asia have been playgrounds of explorers. Explorations along the Amazon and the Nile have been well-documented. Southeast Asia is, however, much neglected. French colonists maintained their sway over the region for long. In the second half of the 19th century, these colonists were charged with the idea of exploring the Mekong. One of the largest rivers in the world, it originates in Tibetan Plateau, and traverses China's Yunnan province, modern day Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In 1867, a group of 25 odd sailors left the French colony of Saigon (in modern day Vietnam).The expedition intended to investigate the back door into China by outflanking the British and American conduits of commerce at Hong Kong and Shanghai. Francois Garnier, probably the most articulate of the explorers, wrote, "The Mekong... came to possess me like a monomania...I was mad about the Mekong." The French naval officer's sentiment have found modern day echo in the title of John Keay's immensely well-researched book. To understand, first hand, the obsession of the French explorers, Keay and wife Julia navigated the river for about 600 km upstream of Saigon, using modern boats.

Keay's subjects, however, had a much more turbulent journey, lasting two years. But by the time they staggered to the Yangtze in China, they had completed a trip that even the rival Royal Geographical Society hailed as "the most remarkable..exploring expeditions" of the 19th century. Keay introduces us to a memorable cast the exasperatingly stoic commandant Ernest Doudard de Lagree, the talented Delaporte, whose sketches adorned the walls of many a Hong Kong hotel in later days, and the volatile Garnier, who was to answer later day critics with the lament, "Had I been an Englishman".

The lament is also a comment on the oblivion suffered by the Mekong expedition. Yet, as Keay shows, modern borders in Southeast Asia, the drug trade in the region and Thailand's colonial neutrality, all bore imprints of the Mekong expedition. Keay also has a lot to say on the river's ecology, gleaned largely from Garnier's writings about the Khon falls.

The book is riveting reading, rounded of by Delaporte's drawings, other colour photographs and several maps.

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