Angkor and Cambodia in the Sixteenth Century:
According to Portuguese and Spanish Sourcesby
B-P Groslier. Translated from French by
First English edition Orchid Press 2005 (French edition PUF 1958). 208 pp., 8 b & w line drawings and maps, 24.5 x 17.5 cm., hardbound.
ISBN-10: 974-524-053-2 $35.00
Book review by Milton Osborne(Journal of the Siam Society) 2007 Vol. 95
The republication in translation of Bernard-Philippe Groslier’s 1958 book, Angkor et le Cambodge au XVIe sicle d’aprs les sources portugaises et espagnols, is a notably welcome event. The original Presses Universitaires de France version of this work has long been out of print and was, in any case, originally restricted to a relatively limited print run. That the book should now be available in a clear English translation means that this important work is now accessible to a much wider audience. Both Orchid Press and the translator, Michael Smithies, are to be warmly congratulated in bringing this project to completion, and for making the book available in such high quality binding
At the time of its publication the book was seen as contributing to our knowledge of Cambodian history in three main areas. First, Groslier, then the Conservateur of the Angkor temples and more broadly an archeological scholar, took up the much-disputed issue of the royal succession following the death of the great Angkorian king, Jayavarman VII, in the thirteenth century CE. Events following this event, in the period leading up to the removal of the Cambodian court from Angkor and the temporary establishment of that court in Phnom Penh in the fifteenth century, have long been a subject of historical debate. Secondly, the author, in this book, and with the assistance of Charles Boxer, the noted historian of Iberian maritime expansion, presented for the first time a coherent account of what might legitimately be called the ‘Iberian Period’ in Cambodian history. And finally, though far from exhaustively since the book is full of rewarding ‘asides’, Groslier used this publication to advance his theories on the nature of the Angkorian hydraulic system, which, in his eyes, needed to be understood in terms both of its practical agricultural and religious symbolic character.
The first and last of the areas just noted involve issues that are still not fully resolved. While it is probably correct to say that so far as the royal succession is concerned, scholars have moved towards a greater degree of agreement than was the case when Groslier published in 1958, there are still some matters over which there is dispute among specialists. Moreover, and while it is still common to find 1431 CE cited as the date at which the court left Angkor, there is no absolute certainty about this date. For there is the real possibility that the move to Phnom Penh could have taken place at any time between the 1431 date and, perhaps, as late as 1450.
As for Groslier’s theories concerning Angkor’s hydraulic system, in which, simplifying greatly, he proposed that the whole of that system combined practical and religious considerations, these have come under sustained attack in recent decades. In particular, his suggestion that the great Angkorian barays, or reservoirs, played a major part in enabling the city of Angkor to feed a population possibly as large as one million, was forcefully rejected by more recent scholarship, notably by Philip Stott, W. van Liere and Robert Acker. (Their arguments are helpfully summarised in Chapter 8 of Charles Higham’s 2001 publication, The Civilization of Angkor.) Nevertheless, the issue of just how the city of Angkor supported its large population continues to be open to further discussion. In this regard the research being undertaken by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP), primarily based at the University of Sydney but also involving APSARA, the Cambodian authority responsible for the administration of the Angkor temples, and the Ecole Franaise d’Extrme-Orient, is highly relevant. The work already undertaken by the GAP, while not simply endorsing Groslier’s proposals concerning the hydraulic system and the role it played in sustaining a large population, increasingly points to the existence of large-scale canals as playing a vital part in enabling the cultivation of very large quantities of rice.
In contrast to the issues discussed above, it is unlikely that the book’s discussion of the role of Portuguese and Spanish missionaries and freebooting adventurers in Cambodia in the sixteenth century will be surpassed by any later scholarly endeavour. The story that Groslier has to tell is, of course, a record of imperial greed and rapine mixed with evangelising zeal, all of which are now the subject of politically correct opprobrium. However that may be, the account of the fruitless efforts of the missionaries and the ultimately failed attempts by men such as Diego Veloso and Bias Ruiz to play a role in the governance of Cambodia remains fascinating nonetheless. What is more, so far as the role of the adventurers is concerned, it casts an important light on the weakness of the Cambodian court in the late sixteenth century and on its readiness in that period of weakness to turn to Western foreigners for assistance.
Mention has already been made of the valuable role played by Michael Smithies in translating Groslier’s work. The further point should be made that not only has he done so in a felicitous manner, he has in addition overseen the time-consuming transcription of Portuguese and Spanish names that were not always consistently cited in the original. So far as technical matters are concerned I will only refer to one very minor typographical error, which occurs on page 105, where the date for Doudart de Lagree’s visit to Angkor is noted as having taken place in June 1867. The visit was, in fact, in June 1866.
I beg the Journal’s editor and readers’ indulgence to allow this reviewer a brief personal observation in ending this review. I first met Bernard-Philippe Groslier in 1960 and came to know him better in 1966, when I was carrying out research in Cambodia on the nineteenth century. He was both a man of great charm and a scholar of the highest repute. He was also someone who was ready to assist students, such as I was, through his deep understanding of the entire span of Cambodian history. A member of the fourth generation of his family to work in what was once ‘French Indochina’, and the son of George Groslier, the long-time Director of the Phnom Penh museum, the final years of his life were tragic, personally and in scholarly terms. He was forced to leave Siem Reap during the Cambodian civil war that erupted in 1970. Removed to Phnom Penh, he suffered serious injuries when he confronted a burglar in his apartment, wounds from which he never fully recovered. It is fitting that this important work has now been translated and so made accessible to a wider audience. It is a fitting, additional memorial to his life and achievements.
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