A pleasant, intelligently written venture into an oddly ironic byway of history--an early and unlucky attempt by the French government to enlarge its Far Eastern foothold from the ""Cochin-chinese"" colony centered around Saigon-Cholon. In happy ignorance of geographical and political realities, the French colonists hoped to penetrate into western China by way of the Mekong River, thus beating the British (already in Burma and coastal China) to new and inexhaustibly exploitable markets. In June, 1866 a party of six French explorers set north from Saigon with an unrealistic amount of baggage, an overly large number of subordinate personnel, and only the haziest notion of what lay upstream beyond Cambodia. Plagued by illness, poor planning, and run-ins with major and minor local authorities whose interrelationships they could not fathom, they were in Yunnan province running afoul of an Islamic revolt before they Finally decided to abandon the hopelessly unnavigable Mekong for the more promising Red River. By 1868 the expedition had ended inconclusively after the death of its leader, Doudart de Lagree, but five years later a zealous second-in-command named Francis Gamier went back, only to get himself killed in an abortive attempt to seize Hanoi and thereby secure French trading rights up the Red River into Yunnan. Although Osborne (an Australian-born historian) doesn't go out of his way to underline recent parallels, the dismal misconceptions and rationalized arrogance which have always dominated the Western presence in the Far East are only too obvious. A regretful epilogue describes the Mekong environs today (Osborne wrote in 1974), as far north as Luang Prabang in Laos. The illustrations are a bonus: reproductions of the original engravings published as part of the expedition's report. Attractive and instructive.