An Energetic Norwegian in Lotus Land c. 1900

The presumed riches of Laos … never eventuated during the period of French colonial control. There were opportunities for minor agricultural development on the Boloven Plateau in southern Laos and some possibilities for the exploitation of timber. But this latter commodity … was difficult to extract, and the repeated rapids along the Mekong’s course plus the major barrier of the Khone Falls made thoughts of floating timber downriver to the ports in Phnom Penh and Saigon dubious at best. It is true that there were occasional efforts to use the river in this way; and these included one heroic effort by a Norwegian commercial adventurer, Peter Hauff.

Unknown by historians until an account of his life was published by his granddaughter in 1997, Hauff was in many ways typical of the Europeans who sought private gain in Indochina at the turn of the century. The son of a sea captain, Hauff began his career in Indochina in 1894 at the age of twenty-one working in a Saigon agency house. Fathering children by both a Lao and a Vietnamese woman during the fifteen years he spent in the region, his diaries reveal him as a man of great energy who was fascinated by the exotic world in which he lived, approaching it with a sympathy frequently lacking among the French officials of the time. In 1902, in a remarkable if essentially meaningless achievement, he succeeded in manhandling a sixteen-metre boat through the Khone Falls from south to north. This involved a notable show of spirit and the capacity to organise and inspire his local crew. It did not alter the conclusion that the falls could not be navigated by boats on any regular, commercial basis. A little later, Hauff undertook a commission to ship a collection of logs from Luang Prabang to a river port in the Mekong Delta. This too was a remarkable effort, involving no fewer than twelve hundred logs assembled in a series of rafts. The fact that the logs finally reached the Mekong Delta was indeed a triumph of determination in the face of endless obstacles. It did not, however, herald any continuing use of the Mekong for the despatch of timber out of Laos. In fact, for most of those who were associated with Laos while it formed part of French Indochina, this lightly populated kingdom was seen as a tropical lotus land for those ready to turn their backs on the more ‘serious’ aspects of colonial endeavour.

SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 150-151

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