Issue 26 Magic Summer 2007
Sarah Whitney Womack
When the naturalist Henri Mouhot left Bangkok in 1861 to explore Cambodia and Laos, he planned to return with many animals—songbirds preserved in alcohol, tigers skinned and tanned, enormous multicolored beetles named, classified, and affixed to cards—but he set off with only one. Mouhot had chosen to take Tine-Tine, his Cavalier King Charles spaniel, and to leave his wife and children at home.
For nineteenth-century explorers in the overwhelmingly lush environment of Southeast Asia, dogs were a comforting expression of man’s final victory over Nature—the lap-dog in particular, a wolf-beast refined into a ladies’ accessory, providing a satisfying commentary on the transformative powers of European culture. Perhaps, then, it is not so strange that it was one of bourgeois France’s most popular lap-dogs who arrived with Mouhot as the first sign of cultivation on the Mekong. Tine-Tine, the silky-eared pet, entertained local dignitaries with his exotic looks and playful capers, and, ultimately, survived his master in the jungles of Laos, though Mouhot had feared he would suffer a grisly end:Ingrate that I am, I have never yet spoken to you of this little companion who is so faithful and so attached to me, of this pretty and charming King Charles which I have taken with me and with whom all the Siamese, particularly those without children, are quite smitten, despite the aversion that Siamese manifest against dogs in general. Aversion is perhaps not the right word, but they never caress these animals, who in any case remain half-wild. I fear this poor dog may come to a sad end; that he may be crushed beneath the feet of an elephant or make a mouthful for some tiger!1
As it happened, it was Henri Mouhot who died of fever near Luang Prabang in Laos, after three years of exploring the region and collecting the plants and animals he hoped would make his reputation. The readers of his journal, published posthumously in England and France, assumed that his pretty little dog must have met the fate his master predicted. But Tine-Tine was not crushed or eaten—in the end, he proved to be made of stronger stuff.
Six years later, the explorer Francis Garnier’s boat shot the rapids at Sombor in northern Cambodia with the expedient of a pistol aimed at the oarsman. They were the roughest he had yet experienced in the exploration of the great Mekong River on behalf of France, but he dismissed his crew’s fear as what he thought of as typical Cambodian cowardice. Garnier had confronted many perils as he attempted to find an inland water route from the Gulf of Siam to southwest China, but he faced them always with the cavalier recklessness appropriate to a young naval lieutenant and romantic hero of imperialism. Perils were, in any case, a relief from the smothering, isolating presence of the jungle, though he was not totally alone—even when separated from his expedition comrades, Garnier had a constant companion in his dog, Dragon. Dragon had been with him for years, much longer than his young wife, left behind in Shanghai after the wedding, would ultimately be. The dog’s tricks reflected credit on her master, her puppies were coveted in newly French Saigon, and the fame of her intelligence and genteel manners preceded them throughout their journey. One night during their travels, Dragon nestled next to Garnier in his boat, more affectionate than usual. When he awoke the next morning, she was gone.
* * *
The expedition to explore the length and sources of the Mekong River was a great voyage of exploration in an age of great voyages. The exoticism of Southeast Asia, the dangers of navigating one of the world’s longest rivers, the political intrigues of the colonial scramble, the handsome young explorers, and their satisfyingly tragic deaths were precisely the attractions that readers of popular journals like The Illustrated London News and Tour du Monde craved. In the workaday grimes and smogs of London and Paris, readers became part of a great endeavor—romantic and daring at least, since Europe was beginning to learn it would not be enormously profitable. Colonialism could not be sold to the public on the basis of revenue alone, though promises of fabulous wealth were certainly made; prestige, romanticism, and the quest for souls were as powerful sources of imperial fever to significant segments of European citizenry. Romanticism in particular was the province of popular papers and a veritable avalanche of cheap paperback novels, all of which struggled to outdo one another with triumphant narratives of Europe expanding in every conceivable direction—to the Arctic and the tropics, and even, with the almost daily delivery to state museums of the remnants of dead civilizations, back in time.
Indochina had all the attractions of supposed oriental decadence, tropical romance, potentially vast riches, and spectacular ruins to recommend it. It was, in fact, in the pages of the popular journal Tour du Monde that the temple complex of Angkor Wat was introduced to Europe, and in which the Mekong expedition unfolded before the eyes of Europe. The author of the first narrative was Henri Mouhot, and though he did not (as was widely believed) discover Angkor, it was certainly his descriptions of the astonishing setting that drew the first popular interest in the possibilities of Indochina:One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome. …Suddenly, and as if by enchantment, the traveler seems to be transported from barbarism to civilization, from profound darkness to light.2
It was also Henri Mouhot who first invoked the overwhelming fecundity of the Indochinese landscape for a wide readership. Compared to France and England, Indochina was exploding with warm, damp life. Fabulous birds and giant insects, immense saltwater crocodiles, tigers, elephants—even rhinoceroses!—seemed locked in competition to be the most gorgeous, the largest, the most flamboyantly weird. Viewed from the banks of the Mekong, the European environment suddenly seemed anemic and over-tame, perhaps a bit dull, and its inhabitants forced to compensate for its limitations with extravagance.What contrast between this Nature and that of our Europe! Compared to this flaming globe, this glittering sky, how pale our sun and how cold and dark our sky! How sweet it is, in the morning, to rise before this glaring sun! … Fruitful Nature, that excellent mother, treats the inhabitants as spoiled children—she does everything for them. … Here, man has but to sow and plant; he abandons the rest of the labor to the sun, and he neither knows nor feels the need of all these luxurious objects of European life.3
Six years later, when Francis Garnier and the Mekong Expedition covered the same ground, they had similar reactions to Angkor Wat but very different ones to the surrounding jungle, to the heat, rains, people, and river. To Garnier and his companions, the Mekong was not just a 3,000-mile back corridor to the markets of China, but also a fearsome adversary. Both their exploration of France’s newest protectorate and their evaluations of the commercial possibilities of Laos and Yunnan were conducted largely in the context of the Mekong’s rapids and sandbars, the jungles that hemmed its banks, and the miasmatic fevers that haunted it. It was the fevers that ultimately killed the expedition leader Doudart de Lagrée, just as they had killed Henri Mouhot in 1861, but it was the oppressive environment rather than the health hazards that the surviving members of the expedition described as more sinister and more actively hostile to European presence. Here, nature seemed resistant also to the tools and weapons that had served Europeans explorers so well against other natures:The calm of the riverbanks, the silent course of our boat as it was paddled along, encouraged numerous caimans to come and bask in the morning sunlight. I tried several times to disturb the lazy reverie of these graceful animals by shooting at them; but my carbine, a very light and handy Lefaucheux, was of too weak a caliber for their tough hides. The bullets ricocheted off or flattened themselves against the scales, to the great stupefaction of the rowers, before whom I felt humiliated by the impotence of my weapon.4
The difference between this impermeable brightness and the warm and bountiful Mother Nature depicted by Henri Mouhot may have been as much a product of context as character. Mouhot toured Cambodia as a curious naturalist, Garnier as the advance guard of French empire, and though Mouhot thought Indochina would certainly profit from beneficent colonialism (preferably British), he did not have to evaluate the challenges facing potential rulers. In his greater and more scholarly knowledge, Mouhot remained innocently charmed by what seemed to Garnier not merely excessive bounty, but a real and very serious obstacle to colonialism, and a threat to the civilizing mission itself.
It is in Garnier’s description of Dragon and her death that the struggle with nature is revealed to be a mortal one, a total war between civilization and wildness. An animal of refinement, she had sensed and reacted to the hostility of the environment even before her master, though at first her objections were primarily domestic ones—Dragon, Garnier believed, was simply weary of being dragged from pillar to post, and, having finally established a household in the relative comfort of the Saigon area, had no wish to once again disrupt her comfortable existence:Dragon, an intelligent dog, had only reluctantly agreed to accompany me when I left Cochinchina. Born during the war with China on the gunboat after which she was named, she had already traveled much of the world, and so the prefecture of Cholon, which I had left to undertake the present journey, seemed an admirably chosen place to end her career. The mother of numerous children which were her pride and which were coveted in the colony, she was well known for her kindness and fine manners. She was long famous for her cynegetic exploits, and thus her glory was complete. She had nothing more to desire but peace and quiet. She thus had actively blamed her master for his fickleness, and she always mourned for the comfortable house where she had lived for three years. Her character had changed. She had remained obedient but had stopped being affectionate.5
It seems strange that a dog whelped on the pitching deck of a ship during the Second Opium War, who had since traveled the world and whose exploits were notable even in newly conquered Cochinchina, should be so much more domestically inclined than a well-educated young man of good family from the French heartland. Dogs were often, however, the strongest and most important reminders of home for men who would spend many years at a time cut off from what they understood to be civilization. And this is really not so strange—dogs provided the constant, undemanding companionship and devotion that could not be offered even by the most affectionate and tolerant of wives, who in any case could not be expected to contemplate three or four years’ tramping through deserts and jungles. The wilds of Indochina were dangerous, besides—teeming with both physical and psychic threats. It was the latter aspect, apparently, that was most perilous for dogs. Dragon was torn from her home and forced to end her life in a country that Garnier felt she loathed. Indeed, Garnier came to believe that the difficulty of the environment was accentuated for Dragon by a sense of personal degradation she started to feel as a result of her command performances:The tricks which she could perform had gained her a renown in Laos that preceded us everywhere. At the request of high dignitaries, it was often necessary to have her stage performances and thus I had found a livelihood in case of need. However, such a role in front of people whom she considered barbarians wounded her pride and increased her weariness. She tried to commit suicide. In Bassac she threw herself in the water several times; I managed to save her. Our departure from Oubon separated her from her last friend—Fox, Dr. Joubert’s dog. That was too much.
Dragon, it appears, was so thoroughly a product of European culture that she had assumed its prejudices, its racial sensibilities, and its most rigid standards of feminine virtue. If it seems strange that an adult dog and mother of several litters should maintain the posture of a timid maiden lady, it is only because we have already accepted that the second-in-command of an expedition as imperial in scope and vision as the ascent to the sources of the Nile should include in his narrative the outraged propriety of his furry companion and the personal tragedy that followed from it. For Dragon could not long live with her shame. Shortly after the gunpoint run through the Sombor rapids, she dealt with her loss of honor in the only manner available to her, though she did make one last attempt at rapprochement with the man who, after all, had placed her in this situation and for whom she had sacrificed her dogly virtue:The second day after the parting—I still cannot think of it without pain—she came to sleep close to me in my barge as was her habit and gave me a few nudges, more tender than usual. In the morning, when I awoke, she was no longer there. I questioned the Laotian guard: he had seen her throw herself into the river in the middle of the night and disappear in the darkness. I ran along the bank; it was deserted. I called, but it was in vain. Dragon had drowned herself or had become the prey of the tigers. I had to make a violent effort to give the order to the oarsmen to depart. May those who have known the poor animal not refrain from mourning her!
It should be recalled that Francis Garnier was completely serious. Dragon’s moods and actions seemed to him perfectly transparent—displaced, estranged, robbed of her honor, she had committed suicide. Pet suicide—or rather the suicide of dogs specifically—was a phenomenon not unfamiliar to nineteenth-century France. In the bourgeois confines of Paris, there was a minor literature devoted to the faithful hound or loving spaniel who, grieving the loss of a master or mistress, pined or starved itself to death in a kind of furry suttee (to which it was regularly compared) at the graveside; more spectacular stories appeared in local newspapers of recently bereaved poodles hurling themselves from rooftops or dashing under the wheels of carriages. A local ordinance barring dogs from cemeteries was hotly protested by the Animal Protection Society of Paris, whose members apparently felt it robbed local pets of their right to perish publicly of despair.6
Dragon’s despair was, obviously, of a much different kind from that manifested by grief-stricken urban pets, but the place of dogs in the sentimental imagination was curiously similar. The widowed dogs of Paris were thought to exhibit a level of devotion and constancy that, in its utter subordination, elevated them to a super-human plane—canine suicides were, in fact, the embodiments of a virtue too perfect to be displayed by mere humans. There was something uniquely poignant about the image of a man’s best friend lying inconsolable at his grave: while the prolonged grief of wives or husbands might be tiresome, depressing, or in poor taste, a desolate greyhound leaping from a window to his death was a transcendent gesture, whether suggesting the species-crossing power of love or the idea—fast fading in the industrial age—of the irreplaceability of a single human being.
Like most successful paragons, dogs were different enough from normal people to avoid the annoyance and resentment generally associated with too-great virtue. Canine grief was not held up as a model to follow—Parisian dog-fanciers did not advocate the suicide of widows and orphans any more than, say, turtle-walkers or owners of foul-mouthed parrots—but as a model to be mounted with a plaque and placed on a shelf, an image of perfection’s extreme rather than a practical guide. So it was with Dragon. Francis Garnier would not have contemplated for an instant the idea of taking a European woman with him on the Mekong expedition, but if one had happened by, he would not have idealized her for drowning herself after meeting one Cambodian too many. What in a human female would have been seen as hysteria and instability became exactly the opposite in Dragon—being less than human, she was expected to show more-than-human virtue.
* * *
Some time after Dragon’s disappearance, Garnier’s expedition searched the area around Luang Prabang for the place where Henri Mouhot had died; finding it, they erected a tomb to honor the man whose travels had to a considerable extent made their own possible. The tomb-building was both solemn and celebratory—confirming the imperial vision of France, it seemed to reassure them that la mère patrie and its culture belonged in Indochina. The encounter shortly afterwards with another sign of Mouhot’s presence was thus a rude awakening:Our astonishment was great to discover the unfortunate naturalist’s dog still living, and adopted by a Laotian family who took the greatest care of him. My readers no doubt remember little Tine-Tine, whose reputation preceded Mouhot on his journeys, and for whom his master had predicted a sad fate: to be crushed underfoot by an elephant or devoured by a tiger. Nothing of the sort had occurred, and the dog had long outlived his master. The ungrateful beast had become so accustomed to his new owners that he bared his teeth and snarled when they brought him to us. Six years had been enough to erase from his memory all recollection of the race to which his first master had belonged.7
Tine-Tine, in other words, had gone native.
This was profoundly disturbing to Garnier and his comrades. Tine-Tine was a geriatric toy spaniel, not a physical threat to men who had faced everything from insects to tigers in the Mekong basin, but the explorers seemed to be of two minds as to whether to shoot the little beast. As he snarled and snapped at them, they were frightened not by eleven pounds of angry lap-dog, but by what Tine-Tine’s hostility really meant—that he had chosen savagery over civilization, rejecting his true home, his dead master, and, as Garnier put it, his race.
In a very real way, the “ungrateful” Tine-Tine’s inconvenient longevity—which itself must have seemed almost an act of spite—was a much more powerful expression of the power of this hot green environment than Dragon’s despair. Faced with an overwhelming enemy, Dragon had taken the only exit honor offered—she had drowned herself in the longstanding tradition of outraged romantic heroines and mythological kings. Choosing such a death, she had remained European to the finish. Tine-Tine’s capitulation, on the other hand, was a surrender to wildness, evidence that, left too long in the jungle, European civilization—even race itself—might be forgotten.
Sarah Whitney Womack is a historian of colonialism and Southeast Asia. She is currently doing research for a manuscript on the cultural ecology of empire.
Cabinet is published by Immaterial Incorporated, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Cabinet receives generous support from the Lambent Foundation, the Orphiflamme Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Opaline Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Danielson Foundation, the Katchadourian Family Foundation, and many individuals. All our events are free, the entire content of our many sold-out issues are on our site for free, and we offer our magazine and books at prices that are considerably below cost. Please consider supporting our work by making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here.
© 2007 Cabinet Magazine