This photo by Emile Gsell is of Prince Sisowath and his retinue , date uncertain but possibly January 1868, for reasons which will be clear from what follows. If it is 1868 we see here Prince Sisowath, newly victorious in battle against the rebel Pou Kombo, surrounded by his personal entourage. He sits on a royal palanquin (it would have wood gilded in gold) while on the right someone carries a silver betel box, which is a further emblem of royalty. I find it most interesting that his men sport the same hair-style as Sisowath himself – long, swept back, parted in the middle. He looks very pleased with himself, as well he might.
Sisowath was born in Bangkok in 1840, the second son of king Ang Duong, who was then engaged in a war for the throne of Cambodia with the Vietnamese.
In 1847 Ang Duong and the Siamese won the war and established his court at Udong, and Sisowath went to live there. At this time he was known as Ang Sor.
In 1854, after his hair-cutting ceremony (the ceremony marking entry into adulthood – he was 14) he received the name Sisowath and was sent to live in Bangkok as a sort of honoured hostage for his father’s loyalty towards the king of Siam. His younger brother Ang Phim, better known as Sivotha, accompanied him, and they joined their elder brother Norodom, who had already been there six years.
Sisowath seems to have had a lonely life in Bangkok, and grew up with a profound dislike for Siam. He was hardly alone in this – for all that Norodom is called pro-Siamese, he was actually very ambivalent about Bangkok’s intentions towards Cambodia.
In 1857 he was given the title Preah Keo Fa, by which he was frequently known for the following decades, and in 1858 he and Norodom returned to Udong. The two were never close.
Ang Duong died in 1860 and Norodom ascended the throne in Udong. Sivotha returned for their father’s funeral, quarreled with his brother, and in 1861 raised a revolt in the eastern provinces, the lands of his mother (the three princes were half-brothers). The revolt was initially successful: Sivotha’s forces took Phnom Penh and threatened Udong, and Sivotha set off for Siam, apparently to seek support. Norodom packed the royal regalia and set off for Siam himself, while Sisowath defended Udong.
The Queen Mother, Ang Duong’s mother, was grandmother to all of three princes, and had immense prestige. It was she rather than Sisowath who defended Udong, and by her authority rather than arms, but when Siamese troops arrived Sisowath took the fight to the rebels and proved himself courageous and capable.
Norodom, meanwhile, was in Bangkok. The king was inclined to put Sisowath on the throne as the more capable brother, but his advisers counseled against this: Sisowath was courageous, popular and anti-Thai; Norodom was the opposite of all these things; better therefore to keep Norodom.
In May 1862 Norodom was delivered by a Siamese steamer to Kampot and escorted to Udong, and in July 1863 he sent his brother back to exile in Bangkok, much against Sisowath’s wishes. (Sisowath would have preferred exile in Saigon, which was now the capital of the French province of Cochin-China).
In April 1865 Norodom received a letter from the king of Siam suggesting that they meet in Kampot. Imagine Norodom’s surprise when the steamer arrived carrying not King Mongut but his brother Sisowath, en route to a new exile in Saigon. Sisowath wished to swear that he was not a rebel against his brother, but Norodom’s terror of an uprising was so great that he refused to allow Sisowath to land.
Sisowath was now in Saigon, but still wished to return to Cambodia. Norodom for his part was still troubled by rebellions, although thanks to his rapacious taxation the latest crop were peasant uprisings. That of the pretender who called himself Pou Kombo was particularly serious, involving Khmers, Vietnamese, and Filipino freebooters left over from Spain’s assistance in the recent war that had won Cochin-China for France. (Somebody really must write a history of the Filipinos in late 19th century Cambodia and Vietnam).
Sisowath suggested to the governor of Cochin-China that with his popularity and military ability he might be just the man to put down the rebels, who were as much a danger to the French as they were to Cambodia. Norodom thought this was a terrible idea, but in July 1867 Sisowath was sent into battle and by December Pou Kombo’s head was on top of a pole outside the palace in Phnom Penh.
And now a quotation: “In January 1868 Admiral de la Grandiere [governor of Cochin-China] came up to Phnom Penh and then to Kompong Cham, and the prince [Sisowath] came in a junk in front of him and received a promise that he would be named Obbareach [Second King] and would later live in Phnom Penh. He had to wait more than two years for this agreement to be implemented: finally, in Mai 1870, on the formal request of the Governor of Cochin-China, the king [Norodom] “resigna” [resigned himself?] to conferring on him the dignity of Obbareach. He lived peacefully in his palace in Phnom Penh until the death of Norodom on 24 April 1904, when he succeeded his brother [as king].”
By Philip Coggan, author of An Illustrated History of Cambodia
The source is Luois Finot’s obituary of Sisowath here