The Mountebank King


KINGDOM IN THE MORNING MIST by Gerald Cannon Hickey. University of Pennsylvania, $22.95.
GERALD HICKEY is an ethnologist who spent many of the twenty years between the French and American retreats from Vietnam among the Montagnards, the tribal people of Vietnam’s central highlands, and it was there, in the wild green fastnesses of Indochina, that he first heard the name of Charles David, “le Baron de Mayrena,” a nineteenthcentury hustler and adventurer and briefly a king. Hickey opened a casual dossier on Mayréna. On trips to libraries and archives in Saigon and Phnom Penh he studied yellowing old newspapers and government documents. The usedbook stalls along the broad boulevards of both capitals yielded an occasional worn, dusty surprise. After completing an ethnohistory of the central highlands, now the standard work in its field, Hickey began researching Mayréna’s life systematically. “With each day the traces of the past were disappearing as the war swept everything in its path,” Hickey writes. “In the face of this coming chaos and the need to divert attention from the ever-increasing ugliness, I found myself drawn more and more to the Mayréna story and to the Saigon and central highlands of his time.” It is a remarkable story and one that echoes down the years, for the Baron de Mayréna was not the last to seek his fortune in the highlands, achieve momentary success and fame, and then lose everything. In a curious way, moreover, Mayréna’s actions—his creation of a shortlived Montagnard kingdom—affected the policies of both France and the United States in Indochina.
AUGUSTE-JEAN-BAPTISTE-Charles David was born in 1842 in Toulon, France, the son of a naval officer who affected the surname Mayréna to celebrate some vague claim to ancestral distinction. It was as David-Mayréna that young Charles enlisted in the French Army, seeing action of some sort in the Far East as France gained a toehold in Cochinchina, or what is now southern Vietnam. Napoleon Ill’s Asian ambitions were eventually pared back—the Maximilian business in Mexico claimed his full attention—and Mayréna sailed home, entered into an unhappy marriage, and gratefully raised the cry “To Berlin!” when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, in 1870. He distinguished himself in this conflict by an arrogant and boasting manner and by deserting his regiment, somehow rising to the rank of captain nonetheless and being named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. Accounts left behind by those who knew him at this time reveal that Mayréna was regarded as a fraud of surpassing accomplishment.
France, of course, lost the war, and Mayréna was mustered out. He wrote a short, incredible memoir of his experiences in Cochinchina, went to work for a bank in Paris until evaporating funds congealed in a cloud of embezzlement, took refuge among the Dutch in Java for a spell, was deported as an undesirable, and returned to the cafés of Montparnasse with apocryphal tales of his access to sultans and his firsthand knowledge of the whereabouts of gold and guttapercha. Gutta-percha is a milky juice obtained from the Dichopsis gutta tree, and it was highly prized as an insulator for wires, as a dental filling, and as a finish for canes. It opened a lot of doors for the man who now styled himself Baron de Mayréna. In 1884 he won a commission from Baron Sellière, a French financier, to lead an expedition to the sultanate of Atjeh, in Indonesia, where rebels fighting the Dutch seemed disposed to trade gutta-percha for guns, Sellière gave Mayréna 30,000 francs and a rather open-ended letter of endorsement from the Ministry of the Navy and Colonies. Mayréna promptly took a boat not to Indonesia but to Cochinchina, installing himself with several cronies and an exotic mistress in a mansion in Saigon.
Mayrena was not an evil man. He was a busybody and a rascal with a yearning for foreign adventure, sensual gratification, financial comfort, and glory for himself and for France. Indochina was ideal for a man of such ambitions. Four empires—the French, British, Prussian, and Dutch—were vying for supremacy throughout Southeast Asia, establishing settlements along the coasts and sending probes into the interior. It was a time when an intrepid European could, with the help of quinine and a few stout porters, venture deep into the uncharted jungles and emerge a month or two later claiming vast new territories for his monarch and his God. But the European hold was tenuous. Mayréna, to his delight, arrived in Saigon at the height of the so-called Revolt of the Literati, an unsuccessful attempt by the kingdoms of Annam and Tonkin, which lay to the north of Cochinchina, to throw off French suzerainty. The King of Siam, meanwhile, was aiding the Vietnamese insurgents and, with British connivance, seeking to extend his sway westward into the highlands of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The “Siamese question" preoccupied French officials and inspired Mayréna.
Feigning a “scientific interest in gutta-percha,” Mayréna had several times been permitted to mount brief expeditions into areas beyond formal French control. Now he proposed to travel up to the central highlands and win the allegiance of the independent tribes, planting the tricolor in a Frenchcontrolled buffer state and halting the Siamese advance. The lieutenant governor of the Indochinese Union was appalled; a mission of this kind, he wrote to his superior, should only be undertaken by “a man of even character, very gentle, very conciliatory, and of irreproachable ways and of perfect honesty.” The governor-general mistakenly interpreted the warning as an endorsement. In April of 1888 Mayréna departed for the highlands on an Arabian steed, followed by two mistresses, three interpreters, four Chinese merchants, eighteen Vietnamese soldiers, and eighty porters. He returned to civilization four months later, astride an elephant, having proclaimed himself Marie I, King of the Sedangs.
MAYRÉNA, AS IT happens, truly was a king. His own self-serving accounts of the expedition are unreliable, but those who accompanied Mayréna agree that his extraordinary displays of marksmanship and an apparent resemblance to Set, son of the Thunder God, impressed the highland chieftains, who one after another swore fealty to him. In a matter of weeks Mayréna ruled a vast domain.
Marie I assumed his duties in the wilderness with a seriousness and dedication that suggests a certain remoteness from the reality of his circumstances. He at once designed a national flag (a white cross in a red star on a blue background) and a national seal (with the motto Jamais Céder—“Never Yield”), and promulgated a constitution in which the authority of the monarch was decreed to be absolute and hereditary, freedom of religion was guaranteed, and human sacrifice forbidden. Mayréna took the occasion to grant himself a divorce from his French wife and name his son the “prince royal”; he divided his kingdom into five provinces, appointed tribal chiefs as governors and deputy governors, created a Royal Order of the Sedang (“for those who have rendered service to the Sedang kingdom”), decreed the existence of a postal service, created an Order of Sedang Merit (for distinction in the “arts, letters, science, and industry”), ordered that the uniforms of his army should consist of red vests and white pants, created a Royal Order of Saint Marguerite (for those who displayed “military valor in the service of the Kingdom of the Sedang”), and specified that the army should enter battle crying “God! France! Sedang!”
When Mayréna emerged from the jungle in September of 1888, he was hailed at first as an exotic hero, “the king of the Sedangs.” An official banquet was held in his honor. It soon became clear, however, that Mayréna represented big trouble. The original idea had been for him to establish French authority in the highlands and then get out. Now he wanted to rule—and to have his royal status recognized by Paris. A French official relayed this message: “If he is not recognized as king of the Sedang, he would have no scruples in declaring that he will accept the propositions that he would receive from the Germans, the Siamese, the English, and the Chinese.” Legal scholars in Saigon warned that the threat was not an idle one: the documents supporting Mayréna’s position—his treaties with tribal headmen—were, in their view, “incontestable.”As diplomats exchanged angry, worried telegrams, Mayréna busied himself with the duties of government. In Haiphong he had certificates printed for the Order of Saint Marguerite and arranged with a Chinese tailor for the manufacture of several thousand red vests and pairs of white pants. He borrowed money liberally from the gullible, bestowing decorations and granting concessions in return. He wrote to the Vatican requesting the appointment of a bishop. Frustrated by French antagonism, he eventually sailed to Hong Kong to treat with the British. There Mayréna created a new class of earls and dukes, commissioned medals from a local goldsmith for the Order of Sedang Merit, and renounced all allegiance to the land of his birth. Sir Hugh Clifford, a Hong Kong resident, wrote in his diary.
Solemnly and publicly, in the name of himself and his people, with that complete lack of all sense of proportion and of the ridiculous that made him so delightful, he repudiated France!
In the end France settled “l’affaire Mayréna” by forcibly annexing the central highlands, citing as justification the alleged tributary status of the highland tribes to the kingdom of Annam, which was a French dependency. Sedang, according to this argument, had been French all along. The incorporation of this remote, alien, ethnically distinct region into French Indochina was to have unfortunate consequences. The mission civilisatrice never quite took hold in the mountains, where the tribesmen remained fiercely independent and suspicious of lowlanders (who for their part regarded the Montagnards as savages). Indeed, the integration of the highlands into the rest of what would become Vietnam was attempted only fitfully. And yet the highlands were strategically sensitive. Mayréna’s kingdom was a key battleground during both the first Indochina War, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the second one, in the 1960s and early 1970s, and it proved virtually indefensible against infiltration. It is no coincidence that one major access route to the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through the middle of it. The South Vietnamese were always reluctant to fight in the highlands—they didn’t feel the territory was really theirs—and at the same time, fearing revolt, were unwilling to give the Montagnards the means to defend the highlands themselves. It was in the highlands, not surprisingly, that the North Vietnamese forces mounted the final, crippling offensive that precipitated the collapse of South Vietnam, in April of 1975. Mayréna’s recognition of the unique character of the highlands and the people who lived there seems, in retrospect, at once prescient and enlightened.
Marie I ruled Sedang for less than a year. Deprived of his throne by France and finally penniless, Mayréna returned to Europe, where he somehow persuaded a Belgian industrialist to finance an expedition to reclaim the kingdom. He sailed around the East Indies for several months, finding his path to Sedang barred by the French, the English, and the Siamese. He died mysteriously—a victim of suicide, a duel, or a snake bite—in 1890 on the island of Tioman, off the coast of Malaya, a place that seven decades later would represent Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific.
Kingdom in the Morning Mist is not fully any one kind of book—not fully biography or narrative history or cultural anthropology—and that is its strength. It draws on many dry and important and forgotten studies of Southeast Asia but also achieves the flavor, variously, of Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs, Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, even Waugh’s Black Mischief. It offers a painless introduction to the origins and evolution of imperialism in Indochina, a story not widely recited these days but one whose consequences persist. It provides a window onto the highland world of the Montagnard peoples—a world now largely destroyed—with whom the author lived for the better part of two decades. And, thanks to the character of Mayréna himself, it is a Gallic romp of the first water. □