John Keay Has Written More Than a Dozen Books of Historical Geography on a Wide Variety of Topics. Here He Discusses His New Book, Mad about the Mekong, a History of the Exploration of Indo-China, with Geographical Editor Nick Smith

By Smith, Nick | Geographical, March 2005 | Go to article overview

John Keay Has Written More Than a Dozen Books of Historical Geography on a Wide Variety of Topics. Here He Discusses His New Book, Mad about the Mekong, a History of the Exploration of Indo-China, with Geographical Editor Nick Smith


Smith, Nick, Geographical


Why, when we know so much about the exploration of Africa, do we know so little about the exploration of Indo-China?

That's because the British never really took much interest in it. Africa was on the way to India, the Nile had been a puzzle since classical times, and the suppression of slavery provided some moral justification. But the Mekong and Southeast Asia offered only doubtful access to the trade of inland China. And for this, the British reckoned the Yangtze was much more promising. An empire that included India and a predominant position in China didn't need Indo-China. In fact 'Indo-China' was a term dreamed up by the French to make up for their having missed out in India and China proper.

What was the Mekong Exploration Commission (MEC) set up to achieve? How successful was it?

The MEC was one of the most ambitious expeditions of the 19th century. It was entirely French and the idea was to explore the Mekong River from its delta in what is now southern Vietnam at least as far as China. In this it succeeded, mapping the river through the most appalling terrain for about 3,000 kilometres. But the French hoped that the river would be navigable, that it, like the Mississippi, it would become a trade route into the continent's heart. In this they were sorely disappointed. The Mekong is one of the world's wildest and least navigable rivers.

Why did the expedition became known as the Garnier Expedition?

Francis Garnier was the expedition's cartographer and second-in-command. He was very short, extremely tough and intensely ambitious. When his superior, a mart called Doudart de Lagree, died during the last weeks of their two year journey, Garnier took over and claimed all the glory, oversaw rite official reports, and scooped all the medals. Unusually for a Frenchman, he received one of the Royal Geographical Society's gold medals.

What do you think are the differences between the British and French attitudes towards our colonial pasts?

Quite by chance, I happened to meet the French ambassador in London while writing this book By way of something to say, I asked him how the MEC was regarded in France. He looked blank. I mentioned Lagree and Garnier. Still no response. He'd never heard of them. It was like a British ambassador never having heard of Scott of the Antarctic. The French simply aren't that interested in their colonial past--and that includes exploration. …

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John Keay Has Written More Than a Dozen Books of Historical Geography on a Wide Variety of Topics. Here He Discusses His New Book, Mad about the Mekong, a History of the Exploration of Indo-China, with Geographical Editor Nick Smith
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