China is ascendant again; Milton Osborne's book is a valuable contribution on a time, 150 years ago, when the West also looked to China, and its perceived riches, as well as the "markets" of all those people. Professor Osborne is Australian, with an academic background which he complemented with years of "hands-on" experience in South East Asia. He has written a solid, workmen-like account of the French expedition, which commenced in 1866, to explore the course of the Mekong River, the world's 6th largest river in terms of volume, to its source in China. The fundamental objective was to determine if the river was navigable by commercial ships all the way to those fabled riches of China. The book was originally published in 1974, before the end of the American debacle in Indochina, and thus there is some hesitancy in the account as to its impact on present circumstances, which was addressed to some extent in the author's postscript of 1996.
In 1866 only "Cochin-China," the lower fourth of present day Vietnam was a French colony, although others were attempting to extend French influence into the other regions of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and certainly the commissioning of the expedition was viewed as a vehicle to extend this influence. The expedition was led by Doudart de Lagree, who was to die of fever in China (and not in Cambodia, to correct the posted Amazon review), and seconded by Francis Garnier, along with four other principal Frenchmen, and a supporting "cast" of around 15 others. Osborne does a good job depicting the personalities of the trip's leadership, and their inevitable conflicts, some of which reverberate today via their descendants. It was unknown at the time that drinking water should be boiled to prevent various intestinal diseases, and those, coupled with malaria, as well as the leaches, would be a constant companion on the journey.
Two rather astonishing events occurred early in the expedition. First, it was commenced without proper visas to enter China - it was anticipated that they would be forwarded by messenger, but since they didn't arrive, it meant that Garnier walked virtually the entire way back, from there resting spot in southern Laos. Secondly, around the same area, it was apparent that the Mekong had significant rapids that would have precluded its use by commercial ships and there would be no easy "fix." So why continue? The explanation was much the same as why one climbs Everest: "Because it is there." It took almost 2 years for the remnants of the expedition to make their way back to Saigon, via the Yangtze River to the Pacific Ocean.
The last 40 or so pages describes the exploration of the Red River - yet another possible means of reaching China (as well as extending French influence) which was undertaken by Garnier in 1873, in a "semi-official" capacities. Again there were colliding egos, in particular with Jean Dupuis, one of the hustlers and con-men that inhabit the edges of aspiring Empires. Garnier was to die on this expedition, in a foolish military action against those "natives" who could easily be beaten by Western military might. Hum. One of the earliest casualties of the Indochina Wars.
The book is also accompanied by some excellent drawings and color pictures, primarily done by expedition member, and "resident" artist, Delaporte. The one on epiphytic orchids in Laos is particularly arresting.
Overall, a solid, well-researched 5-star history of this fascinating expedition, which makes these French explorers, the equivalent of Livingston or Burton, accessible to the English-speaking world.