In 1905, a man who called himself Alfred Raquez led an expedition through Laos to collect ethnographic material for the Colonial Exposition to be held in Marseille in 1906. Though nearly forgotten today, the expedition was a notable success. Raquez amassed a vast collection of artifacts such as musical instruments, indigenous costumes, even natural objects, over 1,740 pieces in total, many of which have been in the possession of the Natural History Museum in Vienna since 1906. In addition, he also took thousands of photographs, many of which remain available in books and archives or as postcards, and produced hundreds of audio field recordings that were probably the earliest ever made in Laos.
Yet Raquez was not a civil servant nor military officer; nor was he a missionary, a colonialist or an ethnographer. He advertised himself as a “publicist” in the Hanoi newspapers. He was indeed a writer and photographer, but he was his own man, in every sense of the term.
Raquez presents a fascinating figure, full of contradictions. He was at once a bon vivant and a family man; a devotee of risqué Montmartre night life, but not above using patriotism to boost his career; a born traveler not afraid to journey into lawless regions, yet an erudite lover of books; a joyful cabaret man and a bona fide con artist: a character straight out of Flaubert’s fiction.
His real name was Joseph Gervais, a man who led, by all appearances, an idyllic life. He earned a law degree from the Catholic University of Lille in 1887. He was active and respected in the local Catholic community and seems to have had some success as a lawyer. In 1886, he married Laure Boitelle, a woman from a prominent local family, and they had three children together. His brother, Benjamin Gervais, was a Naval officer who saw action during the famed Paknam Incident, one outcome of which was France wresting control of Laos from Siam.
Going by the few available accounts, around 1896, Gervais got himself deeply in debt following dubious investments, then created a sort of Ponzi scheme to try to recoup his losses. He fled France in March 1898 to avoid court-declared bankruptcy and an arrest warrant for “fraud and breach of trust.”
He next surfaced in June 1898 in My Tho, in the Mekong Delta, using the name “Raquez.” He rambled through Indochina and China, writing about his experiences in Au Pays des Pagodes, published in 1900 in Shanghai. It seems that he then spent most of 1901 in Laos, where he attempted to operate a company called Le Comptoir Laotien, which ran trading posts. Raquez himself tells us that he led caravans of elephants and pirogues from Pak Hin Boun in Laos 180 kilometers over rugged terrain to Vinh, on the Gulf of Tonkin.
By 1902, Raquez was earning his living by writing polemical as well as travel pieces for publications in Hanoi, especially in L’Avenir du Tonkin and La Revue Indochinoise. Both periodicals were owned by the publishing mogul F. H. Schneider, who also published Pages Laotiennes, Raquez’s account of his 1900 journey through Laos. Raquez also wrote for Parisian publications affiliated with the colonial propaganda machine, especially the daily La Dépêche Coloniale and its bi-monthly supplement La Dépêche Coloniale Illustrée, which also published his photographs.
Raquez’s style is journalistic. For the most part, he avoids the flowery prose that distinguishes the style of the period and which often sounds hopelessly dated to modern readers, especially in English translation. His writing is concise, often with single-sentence paragraphs that show him keeping a sharp eye out for the telling detail. In his longer works, Raquez includes snippets of dialogue, transcriptions of song lyrics, even entire menus. There is also an emphasis on the personal experience. He relates his own sensations, including his bodily and emotive reactions to the environment, which give a sense of immediacy and dynamism to his writing that is rarely not found in the works of his contemporaries. All of this makes for a style that is refreshingly modern, mixing factual observations with humorous asides and topical references in a chatty, familiar voice. The writer Jean Ajalbert, whom met Raquez at the 1902 Hanoi Exposition, recalled Raquez as a “humorous writer, a jovial epicurean and lover of travel and artistic erudition,” traits that we strive to preserve in our translations.
Despite being promoted to Editorial Director of La Revue Indochinoise in 1904, largely at the behest of Governor General Beau, Raquez badly wanted to lead the ethnographic expedition through Laos the following year. Stuck in a binder in the National Archives of Cambodia, stuffed with hundreds of crumbling pages regarding the administrative set-up of the Marseille Colonial Exposition, exists one of the few known letters written by Raquez (ANC N473.L32).
Dated August 10, 1904 and penned on his letterhead as Editorial Director of La Revue Indochinoise, the letter is addressed to Dr. Philippe Hanh, the Resident Mayor of Phnom Penh. In the letter, Raquez expresses his joy at learning that the Governor General has granted his wish to lead the expedition and lays out his plans for collecting material, including photographs and sound recordings of tribal groups. “These noble savages will both be seen and heard. What do you think of that, my dear Doctor?”
Mission Raquez, as it was called in official French government documents, commenced November 7, 1904, when Raquez left Hanoi for Lao Cai, on the northern border of Tonkin with China. He then proceeded overland through the Sip Song Chau Thai autonomous region into Laos. The arduous journey crisscrossed the country from the lawless northern borderlands over rugged mountains down to the restive regions in the south near Cambodia, lasting a total of fourteen months in the field.
Despite the severity of the terrain, Raquez did not travel lightly: into the wilderness he lugged his photographic gear, including a portable darkroom; phonographic recording equipment, which comprised two phonographs and blank rolls; chests of trinkets to trade with the locals, plus canned food and provisions for himself, several guides and interpreters, and eighteen horses along with their ma fou, or drivers. On his mission, Raquez took about 3,000 photographs, of which 500 relate to ethnography and anthropology. He used a Vérascope Richard, a lightweight, hand-held camera that took pictures stereoscopically, that is, on two slightly offset images. A special stereoscopic device was required to view the glass plates, though it was also possible to print the images on paper, which would be used for publication.
In addition to photographs, Raquez also recorded 300 phonograph cylinders using a Pathé No. 3 or a “Le Français” phonograph with an Orpheus Attachment, a device that enabled the horn to be connected directly in line with the recording head with an outrigger designed to support the horn. The Pathé could also play pre-recorded cylinders, and Raquez describes trading songs with local performers: first, he would play a European recording, then the local tribal people would perform their music with Raquez recording it, then Raquez would play another European cylinder. This give-and-take was a way of making his performers comfortable with the machine. (For a full analysis of the methods and technology Raquez deployed in the field, see William L Gibson, “Mission Raquez: A Forgotten Ethnographic Expedition through Laos in 1905,” History and Anthropology (2018).
Raquez’s mission was no mean undertaking. The organizers of the Marseille exposition had offered a substantial subsidy of 25,000 francs (about US$150,000 today) and were strict in reminding Raquez to keep within this limit. The funds were disbursed in tranches, with 5,000 francs paid at his departure from Hanoi, the balance to be “paid quarterly from the 1st of February to the 1st of August, 1905” (L’Avenir du Tonkin, November 6, 1904). In the Indochina government report on the expenses entailed in setting up the exposition, Mission Raquez is itemized at 11,500 francs, equivalent to around US$70,000 today, by a wide margin the single largest cost in the tally (Bulletin Officiel de l’Indochine Française, Année 1905 3 (Hanoi: 1906), 192). In addition to his own collecting, Raquez was responsible for material that had been amassed by regional administrators, which was then sent on to Saigon, with transportation paid out of the administrative budget of Laos.
Despite these lavish expenses, Raquez may have gone over budget anyway, estimating at one point that he would need 40,000 francs to complete the collection adequately (“Au Laos,” La Revue Indochinoise 1:26, January 30, 1906). In the mission’s heady early days, he boasted that “I certainly will not have paid too dearly for the profound joys that will have been due to the preparation of an exhibition worthy of the Laos that I love so much” (“Au Laos,” L’Avenir du Tonkin, August 13, 1905. Perhaps tellingly, this sentence was excised from the version of the dispatch reprinted six months later in La Revue Indochinoise 1:26).
The dispatches Raquez penned in the field were sent to Hanoi, then edited for publication. They first appeared in brief installments in L’Avenir du Tonkin, starting in January 1906, and were then compiled and further edited for publication in La Revue Indochinoise between April 30, 1905 and May 15, 1906, although not all of the dispatches published in L’Avenir du Tonkin were republished in La Revue Indochinoise. Unfortunately, this means that only the portion of Raquez’s journey through northern Laos was ever published. Beyond the postcards he published, the records of the rest of his journey are lost.
For modern readers, these records provide an intimate look into the backcountry of Laos at a time when it remained a frontier. His encounters with local tribes are set beside his sense of adventure and his duty as a Frenchman on a patriotic mission. The tension between these poles creates a cohesion that binds the dispatches together into a narrative (as opposed to a jumble of travel notes). It is a shame that the narrative must remain unfinished.
Raquez planned to collect and publish his dispatches and photographs. In a letter to a colleague in Vientiane shortly before his death, he wrote that he was working on a new book project titled Ethnographie du Laos, and expressed his “joy at obtaining a long-awaited mission” as a corresponding member of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient “to undertake interesting studies of the Kha people” in the southern territories (the letter was printed in La Dépêche Coloniale on April 24, 1907).
This project never came to fruition. Raquez died suddenly in January 1907 in Marseille, most likely from a fast-moving form of smallpox. His true identity was soon discovered, and the revelation caused embarrassment for those who supported him in Indochina. His name was quickly dropped, and his writing neglected for a century.
It is only now, with our critical translations of his first two travel books published by NIAS, In the Land of Pagodas (2018) and Laotian Pages (2019), that his value as panoramic window onto fin-de-siècle Indochina along with his long-ignored skills as a writer are once again being brought to light.
Every two to three weeks over the coming months, we will post roughly 2,500-word translations of the Mission Raquez dispatches published in La Revue Indochinoise, illustrated with Raquez’s own postcards.
Only the dispatches published in La Revue Indochinoise will be presented here. Dispatches that appeared only in L’Avenir du Tonkin will not be translated largely due to the fact that runs of L’Avenir du Tonkin, even on microfilm, are often incomplete, torn, or blurry beyond legibility and there would be large gaps in the record of the mission. Nor will we translate Raquez’s descriptions of the coronation of King Sisavang Vong in Luang Phrabang in March 1905 (printed in La Revue Indochinoise December 30, 1905), because they have already largely been translated by Grant Evans and published as “The Coronation of Sisavang Vong” in his book The Last Century of Laos Royalty (Silkworm Books: Chiang Mai, 2009). The original editions of La Revue Indochinoise have been scanned and are freely available from the State Library of Berlin
We have silently corrected obvious errors such as spelling or grammatical mistakes. For spelling standards, we followed the same rules we used for our translation of Raquez’s Laotian Pages.
For nineteenth-century Parisian argot, we consulted the Dictionnaire de la langue verte (1889) by Alfred Delvau and Dictionnaire d’argot moderne (1888) by Lucien Rigaud.
Raquez appears to have been fluent in English: for example, he translated excerpts from English newspapers into French for publication in La Revue Indochinoise. Words that originally appeared in English in the Mission Raquez dispatches are printed here in italics.
There is no single internationally accepted norm for romanizing Lao letters, and consequently, researchers encounter a bewildering variety of systems. Here, for example, are common variants of the name of the country’s second city: Luang Phabang, Luang Prabang, Luang Phrabang, Luang Phrabāng, and Louangphrabang. In modern-day Laos, this is spelled “Luang Pabang” (in Lao script) on vehicle license plates.
Transliterating Raquez creates another complication. He was far from fluent in Lao and appears to have transliterated by ear, and he occasionally conflates vernacular or dialectal names with formal Lao. He often relied, he tells us, on printed maps and other printed texts, which occasionally employed peculiar spellings, and he did not standardize these throughout his work. Thus, the village of “Fia Faï” in Raquez’s articles is written as “Phia Phay” or “Phya Phay” in other French books of the period, while on modern maps it appears as “Pha Pin” or “Phaphin.”
In our translation, modern conventional spellings for well-known places is retained, hence Chiang Mai, not Xieng Mai, and Vientiane, not Vieng Chan. To maintain a period flavor, we retain the French spellings of small towns and villages that do not readily appear on modern maps and indeed may no longer exist. For the Laotian word ທາດ for a “small pagoda,” usually transliterated as that, we use the spelling tat in order to avoid confusion with the English word “that” of the “What that is that that?” variety.
People’s names follow the spelling found in Martin Stuart-Fox and Mary Kooyman’s Historical Dictionary of Laos (London: Scarecrow Press, 1992). For Vietnamese words, we employ the National Language Script but do not use tonal diacritics.
The names of the ethnic groups of mainland Southeast Asia are notoriously slippery. The names Raquez uses for tribal peoples occasionally conform to previous French records, but he often seems to record whatever name he encountered in the field. In our attempt to standardize these names, we relied on the conversion tables presented by Joachim Schliesinger in Ethnic Groups of Laos Volume 1: Introduction and Overview (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2003).
Raquez frequently offers Lao colloquial names for local flora. Where possible we have identified these using Inthakoun and Delang’s Lao Flora: A Checklist of Plants Found in Lao PDR with Scientific and Vernacular Names (Morrisville: Lulu, 2008).
William Lloyd Gibson : www.williamlgibson.com
Paul Bruthiaux : https://sites.google.com/view/bruthiaux-biography