Throughout his assignment in Cochinchine, Doudart de Lagree was in continual correspondence with his sister-in-law, Mathilde.
This prevailed during his years of administration in Cambodia and was to continue, despite the attendant difficulties, during the course of the Mekong expedition.
To Madame Jules D. de La Grée
15 January 1866
Are you annoyed, dear sister, in counting the words of my letter, scold me, if necessary; but feel free, you are well convinced, for this time, if I do not write at length, that a Cambodian isn’t obliged to do the impossible.
I was afraid of completely lacking a letter, obliged as I am to go on an excursion into the nearby mountains. By a providential chance, just as I went to climb onto an elephant, an occasion presented itself, and I take to write to you that nothing is yet decided regarding that which concerns me. The Admiral has yet received nothing from Paris where, without a doubt, the competitors are fighting. Poor devils, they don’t know the tough health that it will take to travel the country!
Great news!!! I have broken all my pipes and given away my cigars! It is fifteen days I am up to—since the first of January.—We hope that I have the heart to see it to the end.
Sister, there are five elephants which are waiting for me to cross the river: they are of respectable character, and M. Michelet affirms that they have beautiful souls; I dare not annoy them for fear that, in my later transmigrations, if I pass by the same shape as them they will take revenge on my disdain.
So goodbye, dear sister, and pardon me, even if my letter doesn’t reach the obligatory two hundred and fifty words.
To Madame Jules D. de La Grée
Kracheh, 10 July 1866.
Here I am, at the limits of my little Cambodia, that is to say, the point of departure of our journey of discovery.
Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, we will embark on the little pirogues which must take us across the rapids and cataracts. They are the first difficulties and I hope that we overcome them without incident. Unfortunately, the rains have begun: every day, like it or not, we have to suffer for three or four hours and our provisions also suffer cruelly; it is my great concern. There are twenty-two of us and we are dragging nearly two hundred boxes of baggage and food supplies, despite these limitations I can’t do otherwise. It is truly too much for an enterprise in such countryside.
I have just received, by an unexpected bit of luck, your letter of the month of May and that of Jules; after four or five months I can no longer count on anything, communications are extremely difficult. Your letters and the newspapers which you have sent me prove well that Algeria is in a very sad state. It is truly an incredible thing that the government blindly persists and, you might say, the same of the public opinion in France. We who are here surrounded by colonies of all sorts, English, Dutch, Spanish, etc., remain stupefied by this incapacity. Admittedly, our Cochinchine isn’t always so brilliant; she suffers very terrible climate conditions, but less than we must pick the ideas and the men, and a person who is not a sage can still exist in the Annamite kingdom.
Bassak, 1st November 1866
If this letter has the slightest bit of a chance, there is a strong possibility it will arrive after New Year’s Day, and in due course will bear to you my best wishes for 1867.
Here I am, right in Laos. Using Mouhot’s map, you will be able to follow me a little. Everywhere we’ve been, I am unable to comprehend the ingeniousness of the appalling fevers and sicknesses in Laos; we are a party of twenty-two, and we are still twenty-two, just as healthy as we departed. You don’t see this kind of health in Cochinchine. It must be said I have wisely taken the precaution of taking plenty of wine and plenty of flour which, up to the morning of the 1st November, we have eaten and drunk like natural people.
Our mail, which is indispensable to us, has not arrived, I am unable to set an itinerary for myself: to pass the time I will make a fifteen-day excursion toward the wild coast. If I am not mistaken, you will find on the Mouhot map the position of the town of Attapeu, where I’m heading to. It is a long march to where one is able to buy slaves, powdered gold, and plenty of other beautiful things. I would be capable of providing myself with a slave…of course to turn him loose when it pleases him. Apparently, you can find one very sweet, very gentle and very trustworthy.
The life which I lead isn’t very cheerful; I am obliged to work like a nigger to produce heavy prose for my Admiral and my minister. What an appalling torture! Here are an entire eight days which I must devote to producing a report regarding commerce, languages, religions and loads of other things which I hardly know about. It is against my will that I cannot write more and pardon me for my scribble.—Believe me, I have completed the forty-fifth page of the report!
The Laotians are decidedly a good people and we haven’t been received too badly. They are a handsome race, slender, with beautiful soft faces. As for their women, they are little, and indeed very kind…certainly yes…when they are young; immediately when they have reached twenty-five years, it is goodbye to the graces!—Clothing, on the head or the waist…absent! That is the custom.
By way of any curiosity, there is nothing really extraordinary to report to you, except for the waterfall at Khon, which isn’t one of them. There are some amazing horrors there and a dreadful crash of water. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist as a beautiful unique waterfall, like that of Niagara, which I wait for with impatience.—What a beautiful river! When we arrived at Bassak it was there before us, 2200 metres wide and 16 metres deep on average,—it was fifteen hundred or two hundred leagues from the sea. That is the same distance as the Nile.
On coming back from Attapeu, I will return to Ubon and then go from Ubon to Vien-chan, where I hope to arrive before the 15th January.
I don’t know much longer I will be able to write to you, but be assured I certainly will at every opportunity. I have my friend Auberet, who is the consul at Bang-kok: I have found a good means of communication with him and to him, I send my letters.
Bassak, 19 December 1866.
My dear sister,
I have here your letter of the 1st of November which has been returned to me. It wasn’t able to pass beyond the border of Cambodia. I heard that, since my departure, there was some mayhem in this poor little country; when the rebels blocked the river at the border of Laos. My letter was returned to me hastily by a roundabout way, and, when I’ll be able to move, I hope to be able to manage to resend your news. Well, six months have passed without having heard the slightest echo from France: it is a horribly long time.
I am planning to make a month long excursion into the country inhabited by so-called savages, who in reality are scarcely no different than the Laotians who surround us. It is impossible to communicate with Cochinchine which prevents my receiving the passports waiting for China. They are so very necessary for us that I cannot continue my journey without them; so, over the next month, I am going to turn around in the same circle.
Fortunately, our health isn’t suffering too much from the climate, especially since at this moment we are in the cold season. This morning at six o’clock the temperature was at 12 degrees (above zero, of course): we thought we were fully in Siberia.
The famous fevers of Laos are not a myth: on my last journey, we had afflictions quite without exception : but the quinine in a high dose easily delivered us.
Nong-kai near Vien-chan,
The 1st April, the day of my birth, brought me luck by providing me with an unexpected opportunity. Unfortunately, I was in an excessive hurry, worse than all others. I thought for a moment that I would not find even a minute to embrace you and give you my news.
This time, I am not telling you to take the map of Mouhot to follow me. That brave man was very honest, but he was wrong. He had me placed at 100˚ 30 of longitude and 170˚ 50 of latitude. The river makes impossible detours here which have not yet been recorded. For fifteen days we have turned through eighteen degrees of latitude without being able to go too far.
Poor sister, I wish I had the time to tell my travels to you, to speak to you of the Laotians, of their beautiful country, of the tigers, of the rhinoceroses. But pardon me, you can’t imagine what a hurry I am in: since I have found the occasion to write, it is a brouhaha like you have no idea. It is necessary to write to the admiral, to the mandarins, to the consul of Bangkok, I don’t know what; to send the accounting papers, the notes on the local people and the sources; and everything speaks to me at the same time; my head is an anvil where everything is pounded; I cannot continue and conclude by embracing you all wholeheartedly.
To Madame Jules D. de La Grée.
Luang-phrabang, 23 May 1867
You know that I know how to find a post office almost everywhere and that I do not allow any occasion to pass in writing to you, even it was only two common words.
I believe that you have the journey of Mouhot (Tour du Monde), and that from time to time you follow intently the route of brother Ernest. The general comments of that story are justified and you must know exactly well enough the people who I spend time with, the countries which I visit. The little paradise of Luang-phrabang, its disreputable character, the pretty banks of the Nam Kan: all this is true.
We have now arrived at the last stop of our unfortunate predecessor, a stop which, for us, is only the first stage of our journey. For nearly a month, we have rested from our tiredness, enjoying all the sweetness of an admirable march supplied with ducks, with pork and with fish, with vegetables, with fruits, and with pastries. It is the first time, since Cambodia, that we have had some spare time, and we have taken ourselves hurriedly to it with so much enthusiasm that at the end of three days we have ended up completely indisposed. Equilibrium is to be restored and all will be well.
I have decided to erect a little monument to Mouhot at the point where he was buried, on the Nam Kan river, two hours from the town. For the pleasure of his family, I have made like a model of the tomb drawn at the completion of the work; it is quite modest, but we will not have the time to make anything better.
The population around us seem a little cold: the name European is not in favour in these countries; but with the presents, the ice has been very soon broken, and I am still besieged in the morning and the evening by visitors…most of all visitors. A very great lady, this very day, has spoken the kindest things to me on behalf of the high society of the town. Hopefully, after our journey I will be able to come back and rest myself; the woman in question expects me to build a little house near hers and she has put me in charge of finding myself two or three spouses at my convenience! But a thousand pardons, I forget that in France one sees things from a different point of view…In short, I don’t have any demands from this woman, and she is very goodhearted, without a doubt, that she should offer me all this. She, on leaving, demanded from me a little eau de Cologne, then a comb, then some slippers, a handkerchief, a ring, some silk and a pair of scissors! How could I refuse her? Besides, she is the first lady of the older sister of His Majesty!
I’m leaving the day after tomorrow and I still have more or less sixty or forty-five leagues to make without too much difficulty. After that, we are beginning the real adversities, because I will be on the frontier of China.
My health is being maintained in a good state. However, I sometimes begin to feel the tiredness, it is age which is hanging over me, it must play its part. [Note this phrase which says a lot about Lagrée’s state of health, because he was truly indefatigable, and the age which is hanging over him! He is forty-four years old.] If the route I will take presents insurmountable obstacles, I will come back to Luang-phrabang to try another; it will give me a new opportunity to write to you, failing that, my next letter will be to announce my return, and, in that case, it will take a fairly long time: I don’t wish to, therefore, worry you, dear sister, but quite a long interval will still go by before you have news of me, I rely on you to be my lucky star.
If I come back to Luang-phrabang, I will probably receive your news, because I have written to my comrade Auberet, the consul at Bangkok, who will send all of my letters to me here.
Farewell, dear sister, I embrace you very affectionately, you, Jules and Casimir, along with my two beautiful and young nephews. Give my kindest regards to your brother, to Lucie, to Dumont, and all my friends.
Everything to you.
To Madame Jules D. de La Grée
Sze-mao, province of Yun-nan
30 October 1867
A couple of words, dear sister, which I send to you in the care of God. I have entrusted them to a strapping lad who has acted very badly towards me, a fairly unreliable interpreter, who has asked to return to Saigon.—There is little hope you will see the note in the end, but I will take the off-chance.
Finally, I am in the Middle Kingdom…, the difficult part of my journey is over. Tomorrow, I will set out towards the North of China; it is my return route.
We are in mountains always surpassing 1200 metres above sea level.—Beautiful weather, the coolness of our autumn. The wheat, the apples, the pears, the melons…, a veritable Eldorado. Unfortunately, the civil war is everywhere.
I think it will take us five months before we arrive at the sea, six at most; taking everything into account, I will arrive in France in July 1868, having completed one of the longest voyages which have ever been accomplished.
If it pleases God, I will bring back all my people in perfect health; it would be the miraculous outcome of this enterprise.
I give to you, the news which they will find the most interesting, embrace all of ours, and know well you always have my sincere friendship.
To Madame Jules D. de La Grée
Yunnan, 6 January 1868
My good sister,
At the end of last October, there was a fruitless opportunity I might be able to send you some words. Today, however, the viceroy of Yunnan, an excellent old man who has provided us here with the best of homes, has offered to transmit our letters to Peking. The post doesn’t travel fast in this country: I don’t know exactly when these lines will reach you.
We arrived in the capital of Yunnan before Christmas and, because of the general fatigue, we had a prolonged sojourn. And, as for resting, how not to stay in such a beautiful country, where one can have bread, eat cheese, mutton, nuts, and chestnuts. It is a little cold, however, at 1700 metres above sea level. (And it was the beginning of January!)
Before we arrived, we traversed a beautiful plateau covered with lakes reminiscent of Annecy or Bourget, had the civil war not desolated all the country over the last twelve years. What horrors war has created here! Streams of blood have flowed, everything is brutalized, pillaged, turned upside down. It is the Muslims coming into this country for five or six hundred years who have fomented this rebellion. On our arrival in the capital, we found a population in disarray, expecting to see the arrival of an enemy either that day or the next. For a few days, I have not been without restlessness for our poor little troupe; it is fine that we are on good terms with both parties, but what does a moment of pillage depend on! Fortunately, the rebels are stopped at a large distance from the town and, since they are leaving free passage, I will enjoy tomorrow by removing myself towards the north.
In a few days, we will soon be arriving on the edges of the great river of China and it should be up to us to regard it as the end of our voyage.
In three and a half months, four at most, we will be in Saigon. But our ardour still isn’t satisfied: it will be necessary to study the superior part of the river, which is still a little unknown, and we will devote to it the two or three months of the beautiful season while we remain. I weighed this delay well in my heart but, after so much fatigue, how not to abandon the part, how not to crown our beautiful voyage!
We have found here a fairly poor Catholic mission, but one not much troubled by the opposing parties. On Christmas day we helped present the Mass in a poor little chapel, which served simultaneously as the reception room and dining room of a brave and simple missionary.
Always pressed for time, as is my habit, my dear sister, I close my letter by sending you, and to everybody, my wishes for a good year. Finally, it is good this year that I go to embrace you. Give my friendship to those who are interested in this distant traveler and who believe well in my always good and faithful affection.
P.S. Perhaps women have the right idea in sending our mail ahead of us. I look forward to your news, of Jules, of Casimir, and of your great young people.