By mid-1800s, the British already controlled foreign trade along China’s coast, and French merchants are seeking another way to tap the riches of China. Eager for glory, Napoleon III’s navy captured Saigon (Vietnam) in 1861.
Francis Garnier, a young naval officer, advocated exploring the Mekong as a potential route to China and in 1864 the “Mekong Expedition Commission” was soon approved.
A crew of 20 with Commander Ernest Doudart de Lagrée in charge set sail aboard two steamers on June 5th 1866.
De Lagrée knew about “Khone Falls,” but had assumed that the rapids will be passable. Garnier thought a strong steamer could overpower the torrent, but as the ride turned rougher, his journal entry states that navigating the Mekong to China seemed “gravely compromised.”
They arrived in Dali on March 1, 1868. Unfortunately, De Lagrée died from severe dysentery before they arrived in China. However, the locals refused the Garnier-led crew passage, leaving a boat ride down the Yangtze to Shanghai as their only way out.
During the 1870s, France wanted to continue the Mekong Expedition’s legacy by linking to inner China via the Mekong through Laos, which they needed to control.
In the 1880s, France also firmed up their Cambodian position by seizing power from King Norodom with a show of gunboat force, which piqued further interest in the Mekong and overcoming Khone Falls.
French Navy Lieutenant Campion first powered a small steamer up Cambodia’s Sambor rapids in 1884, and Captain Paul Reveillère guided a steamboat to Don Khone’s western shores, anchoring in what he named “Marguerite Bay” in 1887. Onboard was a representative of Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine, which held the Mekong navigation concessions in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the French continued negotiating with Siam over the disputed Mekong borders, the failure of which prompted a French blockade of the Chao Phraya River below Bangkok in July 1893. The Siamese relented and signed a treaty on 3 October renouncing any claims on the Mekong’s east bank. To hold the river, the French urgently needed gunboats above Khone Falls.