Can-can king

Marie-Charles David de Mayréna, born in Toulon on this day in 1842, was of a type we have already encountered once or twice on Strange Flowers; adventurers of guile and gall who establish themselves as sovereigns of a country (modestly sized and mountainous seems to be the preferred format) just because, like Everest, it’s there.

The twist to Mayréna’s south-east Asian Kingdom of Sedang was that it wasn’t actually there; you will search in vain for it on any historical map. But in 1888, and initially with the support of the French who were anxious to further their colonial programme in the region, Mayréna convinced tribal heads in the Sedang region of what is now Vietnam to throw their lot in with him.

Except rather than placidly handing the assembled territories over to the French so they could add to their collection, he declared himself King Marie I of the newly created Kingdom of Sedang. No-one was expecting this, certainly not the Republican French, nor the Sedang people who had been happily kingless for some time. Even if anyone besides Mayréna wanted to create a kingdom they could surely have found a more suitable overlord than a man on the run from embezzlement charges in France.

Mayréna set to creating the trappings of kingship, including his whimsical personal standard which featured three daisies (rampant). But lacking both the funds and the forces to shore up his domain, Mayréna started shopping the kingdom round the colonial powers (when he arrived in Hong Kong to encourage Chinese immigration and court the British, a newspaper announced archly that “one could not find a trace of the ‘exalté’ about him”). Handing out decorations like bon-bons and strutting around the colony in his Gilbert and Sullivan uniform mysteriously failed to win support.

In 1889 the French tired of this charade and booted him out of Sedang with not so much as a merci for clearing the way for them. Mayréna made his way back to Paris and sold orders of his “kingdom”, becoming a fixture of nightclubs like the Moulin Rouge, where musicians composed a can-can-esque “anthem” for him.

In 1890 Mayréna returned to reclaim his fiefdom but the French wouldn’t allow him to disembark. Fearing arrest he retired to the British Malay island of Tioman, and here things start to get a little freaky. The one-time king’s palace was now a shack, his retinue a French poodle called Auguste. Having already left behind a couple of wives in Sedang he took a 12-year-old bride. Now severely unhinged, Mayréna threatened to shoot anyone who approached his barricaded lodgings and on November 11 he returned from a walk and informed a local colonial official that he had been bitten by a snake. Although the exact circumstances of his demise are disputed, Marie the First breathed his last.

While none of Mayréna’s descendants showed any interest in furthering the royal farce, in 1995 a Canadian group emerged which claimed not the kingdom, but kingship of Sedang. That is, they didn’t claim the territory, rather the right to issue decorations and, most profitably, stamps. If you have literally nothing better to do have a read through their official website. Their justification for assuming the theoretical control of a domain which never actually existed except in the fantasy of a French swindler reads like Borges re-writing The Mouse That Roared.

But while the Mayréna dynasty began and ended with Marie I, they say if you go to Tioman you can still see mongrels with traces of French poodle in them, heirs of the noble Auguste.

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  1. Pingback: Belle Époque Paris « Strange Flowers

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