The Peripatetic Remains of a French Explorer

On 5 June 1866, a party of French explorers began heading up the Mekong under the leadership of a distinguished naval veteran of the Crimean campaign, Commander Ernest Doudart de Lagrée (no relation to the fictional Simon Legree). Unfortunately, Lagrée’s health got worse and worse the farther they traveled upriver.

By the time the explorers left Kunming, on 9 January 1868, Lagrée’s condition had worsened markedly, and after five days travel he was no longer able to remain seated on the horses they had with them and had to be carried on an improvised litter. When on 18 January, the party reached Dongchuan, a minor settlement close to Huize, the district capital of this sparsely settled region, it was apparent that Lagrée was gravely ill. He was suffering from severe dysentery, a fever that was probably malaria, and was again troubled by the chronic problem of his infected throat.

So he stayed behind with a naval doctor, Joubert, while his second in command, Garnier, set out to find the Mekong again.

The end came on 12 March. Believing that Lagrée’s body would lie forever in China, Joubert removed his heart and fashioned a lead casket in which to carry it back to France. Conscious of his medical responsibilities, he performed a post-mortem examination and found the second abscess on Lagree’s liver that had escaped his surgical intervention. Then, with Lagrée’s body placed in a heavy Chinese coffin, Joubert supervised its burial in the grounds of a pagoda outside Dongchuan’s walls…. There was now nothing more to do but to wait in the cold, isolated settlement whose only active commerce seemed to be in wooden coffins….

This was both the practical and symbolic end of the expedition…. Determined that Lagrée’s body should be laid to rest in French soil in Saigon, [Garnier] ordered the coffin to be exhumed and carried with the party as they continued northwards. Another thirteen days of slow and exhausting travel were necessary before the party reached the Yangtze and the opportunity to continue their travel down to the coast by boat.

They sailed downriver to Shanghai, then down the coast to Saigon, arriving on 29 June 1868.

Lagrée’s body was laid to rest with funerary pomp in Saigon, with his friend from the time of his posting in Cambodia, Bishop Miche, officiating at the burial service. But this was not the end of travels for his mortal remains. When, in 1983, the local authorities in Saigon, by this stage officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, declared their intention of building over the French colonial-period cemetery in which Lagrée’s remains lay; the French government arranged for the coffin to be transported to France and taken, eventually; to Saint-Vincent-de-Mercuze, to be placed in the family mausoleum.

SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 103-108

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Filed under China, malaria

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