Pierre Gabriel Édouard Bonvalot (1853-1933) was a French explorer, author, and legislator. He explored central Asia in a decade when Russia was reaching toward India and France was expanding its empire.
On July 13, 1853, Gabriel Bonvalot was born in Épagne, in the Aube Department. He attended the institute at Troyes. In 1880 Bonvalot was financed by the French government to explore Central Asia. He and a scientist, Dr. Guillaume Capus, entered Turkistan from Semipalatinsk in central Asian Russia. They traveled southeast to Tashkent, from which point they explored the headwaters of the Syr Darya. They moved on to Samarkand and from there traveled to the river Amu Darya where it borders Afghanistan. Returning to Samarkand, they journeyed homeward by way of Bukhara and Khiva.
The goal of Bonvalot's second expedition was to penetrate central Afghanistan. Again the trip was financed by the French government. Bonvalot and Capus were accompanied by an artist, Albert Pépin. Leaving Paris in March 1886, they reached the Caspian Sea at Lenkoran, traveled by horseback to Teheran, and then retraced their old route from Merv to Samarkand. Turning southward, they were seized by Afghans at the border, imprisoned 25 days, and expelled.
Returning to Samarkand, Bonvalot journeyed eastward to Fergana. Finding that caravans crossed the Pamirs and Hindu Kush to India, he made a winter crossing of those lofty ranges to Chitral, in modern northwestern Pakistan. Again Afghans seized the party and this time held them 49 days until British Indian authorities intervened.
Bonvalot then suggested traveling directly across central Asia to Tonkin (Vietnam). The imperialist Duc de Chartres agreed to finance the project. His son, Prince Henri d'Orléans, accompanied Bonvalot. The expedition left Paris in July 1889. From Semipalatinsk they took a south-south-east course, crossed the Tien Shan range and the Takla Makan desert of Sinkiang, and entered Tibet. Despite a running dispute with Tibetan officials, the expedition came within a few-score miles of Lhasa and then took a caravan route eastward and entered China's Yunnan Province. Passing through Szechwan, the group reached the Red River at Manhao and entered Hanoi in late September 1890. After his return to France, Bonvalot propagandized for outright annexation of Tonkin. In 1894 he founded the Comité Dupleix, one of numerous contemporary colonialist organizations.
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In 1898 Bonvalot headed an expedition organized to cross Ethiopia and join the Marchand expedition at Fashoda. He failed to obtain the cooperation of the Ethiopian emperor, Menilek II, and relinquished command before the expedition entered the Sudan.
In 1898 Bonvalot founded a journal, La France de demain, and was its editor until 1904. As a deputy from Paris in Parliament from 1902 to 1906, he continued his expansionist propaganda. His book on the government of colonies, Une lourde tâche (A Heavy Task), appeared in 1913, and he also wrote numerous books about his travels in Asia. He died in Paris on Dec. 10, 1933.
There is no full-length biography of Bonvalot. Useful political background is provided in Henri Brunschwig, French Colonialism, 1871-1914; Myths and Realities (trans. 1964). □