“Colonial Kings and the Decolonization of the French Empire: Bao Dai, Mohammed V, and Norodom Sihanouk”
During the last few decades, scholars have produced path-breaking studies of the nationalist transformations of the Windsor, Meiji, and Chakri dynasties in Great Britain, Japan, and Thailand. However, we still know little about the what happened to non-Western monarchies that became part of European and Japanese empires in the 19th and 20th centuries. In my conference, I would like to compare three French colonial monarchs – Bao Dai, Sihanouk, and Mohammed V in order to answer two simple but, I think, interesting questions: How did these three colonial monarchs – Bao Dai in Vietnam, Sihanouk in Cambodia, and Mohammed V in Morocco – negotiate the end of empire in Indochina and the Maghreb and what did they do – or didn’t do – to survive that transition, indeed transform themselves from colonial to national kings? From this a host of related questions follows. If decolonization should have consigned colonial monarchs to History’s dustbin for their foreign conception and collaboration, then why did Mohammed V and Sihanouk succeed whereas Bao Dai failed between 1945 and 1955? What are the common strategies each king adopted? Which ones differed? How important are the monarch’s own actions, personality, and charismatic appeal? What about each unique national-colonial context and the wider context of the French Union they all shared? Why did some kings garner social support, and create alliances with religious leaders and even Republican-minded nationalists while others did not? What role does religion play in the nationalization of each King? I will not answer all of these questions in my talk, but I would like to offer a few thoughts and benefit from your critiques. To do this, I will return briefly to the colonial period to provide a brief overview of each monarch’s colonial conception and transformation before comparing how these three kings negotiated the end of the French empire in their respective countries and what it might mean in wider imperial, indeed global terms.