Asian and African studies blog

15 November 2013

Henri Mouhot’s (almost forgotten) epigraphic notes

On 27 April 1858, Alexandre Henri Mouhot, aged 31, sailed from London to Bangkok with the aim of exploring the remote interior regions of mainland Southeast Asia. He was particularly interested in ornithology and conchology, but he also had a passion for philology, photography and foreign languages.

Born in 1826 in Montbeliard, France, he became a Greek scholar, and at the age of eighteen went to teach Greek and French at the Military Academy in St Petersburg, where he quickly picked up Russian and Polish. At the same time he learned about the new photographic process invented by Daguerre which he tried out as a new art form during extensive travels to Germany, Belgium and Italy from 1854 onwards. Two years later, Mouhot settled down in England and married Annette, a relative of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. John Bowring’s newly published book The Kingdom and people of Siam (1857) is said to have inspired him to travel outside Europe, but the growing French presence in mainland Southeast Asia and the adventurous travels of Mungo Park may as well have played a role.     

Drawing after a sketch by Henry Mouhot (1864).  British Library, W70/2682, vol.2, p.112.

With the support of the Royal Geographical and Zoological Societies in London, Mouhot started his journeys into the Southeast Asian mainland in Bangkok, then traveling to Cambodia by fishing boats, elephants, oxen carts and horses, and often the only way to travel through the jungle was by foot. In 1860 he reached the ruins of Angkor Wat , which was still in use as a ceremonial place by the native Khmer people, though heavily overgrown with huge plants and trees. With numerous sketches, drawings, word lists and epigraphic notes in his pocket, he went on to travel to the Korat Plateau via Bangkok, then down the Loei River past Loei and Pak Lay until he reached the Mekong and finally Luang Prabang in July 1861. In and around Luang Prabang he built up a collection of numerous specimens of insects and shells that were not previously known to Western zoologists, including a magnificent black beetle that was later named Mouhotia gloriosa and an extraordinarily shaped spider now known as Cyphagogus Mouhotii.  

During his journeys, Mouhot corresponded with his wife Annette as well as his brother Charles and wife Jenny, and sent detailed reports of his encounters back to the Royal Geographical Society via Samuel Stevens. He also wrote in his diary very detailed descriptions of the land and people, flora and fauna, and expressed his thoughts and longings while spending long nights in the jungle. 
One entry written near Phetchabun reads: The profound stillness of this forest, and its luxuriant tropical vegetation, are indescribable, and at this midnight hour impress me deeply. The sky is serene, the air fresh, and the moon’s rays only penetrate here and there, through the foliage, in patches, which appear on the ground like pieces of white paper dispersed by the wind. Nothing breaks the silence but a few dead leaves rustling to the earth, the murmur of a brook which flows over its pebbly bed at my feet, and the frogs answering each other on either side, and whose croaking resembles the hoarse barking of a dog. Now and then I can distinguish the flapping of the bats, attracted by the flame of the torch which is fastened to a branch of the tree under which my tiger-skin is spread; or, at longer intervals, the cry of some panther calling its mate, and responded to from the tree-tops by the growling of the chimpanzees, whose rest the sound has disturbed.  (Mouhot 1864: 2. 99-100).

Drawing after a sketch by Henry Mouhot (1864).  British Library, W70/2682, vol.2, p.98.

Travelling through the jungle, Mouhot had to face various dangers, mainly wild animals posing a potential threat to his own life and those of his native companions and servants. Drawings that he produced by the light of a torch give an impression of his encounters. However, he finally fell victim not to a feral beast but to a fever, and passed away on 10 November 1861 near the Nam Khan River about 8 km north of Luang Prabang. His loyal servants buried him there and made sure that all his belongings were brought back to Bangkok and eventually forwarded to Mouhot’s wife and brother.  

Mouhot’s grave that had been set up in a hurry had nearly vanished a few years later when members of the French Mekong Exploration Commission arrived at the spot in April 1867. A durable tomb was only erected in 1887 on the recommendation of Auguste Pavie, the first French consul in Luang Prabang, and was refurbished in 1990 by the Society of Montbeliard.

Henri Mouhot’s tomb near the Nam Khan river, Luang Prabang province (photograph by Jana Igunma, 2001).

Mouhot’s natural history collections were given to the Royal Geographical Society, and his travel journals, letters and engravings from his drawings were published in two volumes in 1864. With one exception: a small collection of epigraphic notes and Mouhot’s visas issued by the Siamese authorities that permitted him to travel to Laos. These papers and documents only came to light when they were given to the British Museum in 1894 by Mrs Mouhot, over 30 years after her husband’s death, and are now held in the British Library as Or.4736. They are believed to have been brought back from Siam and handed over to Anne Mouhot by Henri Mouhot’s close friend, Dr. Campbell.  The originally loose-leaf papers were bound together in book form by the British Museum. Most of the papers are dated 1860-1861.

Text sample in sacred Khmer script.  British Library, Or.4736, f.3.

They contain a sacred Khmer alphabet for Pali texts together with a short text sample, an ordinary Khmer alphabet with two text samples, a copy of an ancient Khmer stone inscription, an ordinary Lao tham alphabet, a Lao tham (phung dam) alphabet for Western Lao with a text sample, a Lao tham (phung khao) alphabet for Eastern Lao, and an ordinary Lao buhan alphabet with a text sample.

Lao buhan alphabet.  British Library, Or.4736, f.11.

The facsimiles of inscriptions that Mouhot produced are particularly interesting as some of the original stones may not exist any more. They include a copy of an ancient Sanskrit inscription related to the Pathom Chedi, a copy of a Sanskrit inscription related to Nakhon Si Thammarat (formerly known as Ligor), a copy of the Ramkhamhaeng inscription (erroneously) saying that it dated back to 1193 C.E., a copy of a stone inscription at Angkor, three copies of stone inscriptions at Phanom Wan near Korat, one copy of a stone inscription found at a temple ruin near Phimai, a copy of a stone inscription from Prasat, a copy of a stone inscription from Khamphaeng Phet, a copy of a stone inscription found at Battambang, a copy of a stone inscription found at Chaiyaphum, and one copy of a Khmer stone inscription from Angkor Thom.

Copy of a stone inscription found at Chaiyaphum.  British Library, Or.4736, f.13.

Included are also three travel documents that were issued and stamped by the Siamese authorities in Bangkok. When Mouhot arrived in Chaiyaphum for the first time, he was not allowed to travel further by the local governor. He had to return to Bangkok to obtain the necessary travel documents before he was able to continue his journey into Laos, which came to such an unfortunate and untimely end.

Travel document with the seal of the Mahadthai (Ministry of foreign affairs).  British Library, Or.4736, f.17.
Mouhot’s epigraphic notes were digitised and are now accessible online on the Library’s Digital Manuscripts viewer.

Further reading

Bendall, Cecil. Catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts in the British Museum. London 1902, p. 223.
Mouhot, Henri. Travels in the central parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860. London: John Murray, 1864 (W70/2682).  (E-book available here.)
Rooney, Dawn F.  In the footsteps of Henry Mouhot, a French explorer in 19th century Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
The French in Indo-China. With a narrative of Garnier’s explorations in Cochin-China, Annam, and Tonquin. London : T. Nelson and Sons, 1884
Soetermeer, Frank. 'Een reizend daguerreotypist van Europese allure. Het veelzijdig werk van Henri Mouhot', in: Nieuwsbrief Nederlands Fotogenootschap, nr. 46 (April 2005), pp. 16-21.

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian


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