Lotus-Eaters of Africa

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Lotus-Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey

The Lotus Eaters were made famous by the ancient poet Homer, who once wrote the sad tale of Ulysses, the hero of the Trojan War in Odyssey. Ulysses expected a short and victorious trip home, after having defeated the Trojans with his innovative ruse of the wooden horse. However, this was not the case, as much adventure, danger, and both curses and blessings by the gods lay ahead.  One such adventure was a meeting with a people who survived by eating sacred Blue Lotus:

“On the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them.

“They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return.

“Nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Land of the Lotus-Eaters

In the late 19th century, the king of Siam, seeking to keep Thailand free of foreign domination, ceded a large tract of territory – equivalent of what is now Laos and Cambodia combined – to the French. A series of treaties released more Lao territories to the French between 1893 and 1907. Former Lao territories were thus united again, although the three kingdoms founded in the late 17th century remained in existence, and tribal princes were able to increase their power by collaborating with the French. The French gave the new protectorate the name Laos, from les Laos, the plural term for the people of Laos.

Laos was a low-key French protectorate, known as the land of the lotus-eaters, where an indolent lifestyle prevailed. It was too mountainous for plantations, there was little in the way of mining, and the Mekong was not suitable for commercial navigation. The French built very few roads – the main colonial route constructed was from Luang Prabang through Vientiane to Savannakhet and the Cambodian frontier. The French built no higher-education facilities; some half-hearted attempts were made to cultivate rubber and coffee, but the main export under the French was opium. Only a few hundred French resided in Laos. They adopted a dissolute lifestyle with Lao or Annamite consorts, and left the running of the place to Vietnamese civil servants. The king was allowed to remain in Luang Prabang, trade was left to resident Vietnamese and Chinese, and the Lao carried on farming as they had for hundreds of years.

During the colonial period, administration, health care, and education hardly made any impact or progress at all. The only significant change for ordinary folk was the presence of obnoxious tax collectors, a frequent cause of uprisings. In the lowlands, revolts were quickly put down, but in the highlands of Xieng Khuang and the Bolovens Plateau, the French had trouble deploying their heavy weaponry. Sometimes a remission of taxes led to pacification.

The 50-year French sojourn in Laos came to an abrupt end in March 1945, when the Japanese took control of the government and interned the Vichy French. With the surrender of Japan in August that year, the Lao Issara (Free Laos) movement declared liberation from the French in September, and set about establishing an alternative government. The Lao Issara leader was Prince Phetsarath, a nephew of the king. Other key players in the Lao Issara were his half-brothers, Prince Souvanna Phouma and Prince Souphanouvong. King Sisavang Vong sided with the French, and the movement for Lao independence was crushed, causing Prince Phetsarath and Prince Souvanna Phouma to flee to Thailand.

King Sisavang Vong was crowned constitutional monarch of all Laos in 1946. Meanwhile, the Lao Issara dissolved, and a splinter group called the Pathet Lao formed a new resistance group based in northeast Laos. The Pathet Lao were led by Prince Souphanouvong and backed by the Vietminh of North Vietnam. Prince Souvanna Phouma returned to Vientiane and joined the newly formed Royal Lao Government.

The French granted full sovereignty to Laos in 1953, but the Pathet Lao regarded the royalist government as Western-dominated. When in 1954 the French made a last stand at Dien Bien Phu, it ended badly, with a stunning defeat. The weary French started a withdrawal from Indochina; at this point, the US started supplying the Royal Lao Government with arms..