A new peace

01

Dec
2021

A new peace

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Sending word to his Laotian allies to renew their attacks, he sailed to Hoi An, landing troops to join with local men from Quang Ngai and Quang Nam who rallied to his banner. After collecting rice in Quang Nam and capturing more Qing pirates at sea, he sailed to Da Nang Bay and advanced to Phu Xuan. Tay Son forces offered little resistance as Phu Xuan fell and Nguyen Toan fled to the north. Nguyen Phuc Anh secured the old border at the Gianh River as his Lao and uplander allies attacked Nghe An and Thanh Hoa. It was now summer 1801, and just as Nguyen Phuc Anh paused to savor his victory, word came that Vo Tanh, out of provisions, had committed suicide, and Cha Ban had fallen to the Tay Son generals, Vo Van Dung and Tran Quang Dieu. This Tay Son victory was nearly meaningless, however, for the focus of war had shifted further north and the Tay Son army in Binh Dinh, although large and still potent, was little more than the residue from an earlier phase of fighting. During the last half of 1801, Nguyen Phuc Anh prepared for an expected counterattack from Nguyen Toan in the north, began to form a government at Phu Xuan, and arranged for the supply of his armies. Le Van Duyet was ordered to contain the Tay Son army in Binh Dinh while the walls at Dong Hoi were repaired and garrisoned. A few battles were fought with Tay Son forces around the Gianh River, followed by another Laotian thrust into Nghe An. The Cam Lo Road to Laos was mapped and garrisoned. Naval forces captured more Qing pirates. In Thuan Hoa, Nguyen Phuc Anh searched for descendents of the “old honor roll of 1558,” which enumerated all those who had come south with Nguyen Hoang in that year. He found 469 people. He repaired the tombs of his ancestors that had been despoiled by Nguyen Hue. He also dug up and exposed Nguyen Hue’s corpse and executed thirty-one of Nguyen Hue’s descendents and generals. He began to spend more time reading history books and discussing them with scholars, pondering his own place in history. Nguyen Toan had spent this time mobilizing an army in the north. Near the end of the year, after the rains had stopped, he appeared at the border along with a fleet of more than one hundred Qing pirate ships. Nguyen Phuc Anh took up his position at the walls as his ancestors had done in the past. The battle that ensued  in the early weeks of 1802 was a ghostly echo of the seventeenth-century cam- paigns. Nguyen Toan advanced to the Tran Ninh Wall where southern gunners  inflicted high casualties on his men. When Nguyen Phuc Anh’s fleet captured twenty of the Qing pirate ships and turned back the rest, Nguyen Toan began to retreat. Nguyen Phuc Anh sent his ships to the Gianh River, where they captured Nguyen Toan’s supply fleet and prevented most of his army from crossing the river. A Siamese army of five thousand men with allied Laotians appeared from the mountains in Nghe An and hastened Nguyen Toan’s flight back to Ke Cho. Nguyen Phuc Anh returned to Phu Xuan, repaired the palaces, rested his soldiers, and waited for the fighting in Binh Dinh to end. Many of his soldiers were from Thuan Hoa and had traveled to Saigon years before to join his armies. He now allowed these men to visit their families. Sick and wounded soldiers from Gia Dinh were sent home, and families of Gia Dinh soldiers still on duty in Thuan Hoa were instructed to write letters to give them news of home. Nguyen Phuc Anh continued his reading of history and his discussions with scholars. He understood that he was on the verge of an unprecedented situation and he wanted the perspective of educated men. Binh Dinh fell in late spring. The Tay Son generals with around three thousand of their men escaped into the mountains and tried to return north. Very few of them succeeded in reaching their goal as Nguyen Phuc Anh ordered his men into the valleys of Quang Nam and Thuan Hoa to block their way and sent messages to alert his Siamese and Laotian allies to watch for them. Shortly after receiving news of victory in Binh Dinh, Nguyen Phuc Anh raised for discussion the question of whether the Le dynasty was dead or alive. Everyone agreed that it was dead. Having already proclaimed himself king,  Nguyen Phuc Anh now took the last step in proclaiming sovereignty by aban- doning the Le reign title for marking years and publishing his own reign title, Gia  Long, thereby founding the Nguyen dynasty. Accompanying this was a flurry of conferring ranks of nobility and of appointing a host of officials. Gifts and honors were given to the Khmer and Siamese generals and they were sent home with their men. Envoys were sent to Qing to hand over captured pirates. In mid summer 1802, Nguyen Phuc Anh issued an edict to the people in the north, urging them to render assistance and warning them against lawlessness. He issued another edict to his men with instructions about the treatment of prisoners and civilians with strict orders to maintain discipline. He then set out with his fleet and army for the north. He arrived at Vinh in Nghe An without encountering any resistance. He spent a few days there reorganizing his supply  system before proceeding to Thanh Hoa, again without encountering any resist- ance. In Thanh Hoa, he visited the Le dynastic ancestral shrine and received a  hospitable welcome from members of the Le family. With Le Van Duyet leading the advance, he entered Ke Cho without a battle only thirty days after departing Phu Xuan. Nguyen Toan and his followers fled the city but were quickly captured. Nguyen Phuc Anh spent less than four months at Ke Cho, establishing order in  the north, conscripting soldiers, issuing rules and regulations, appointing offi- cials, establishing an ancestral shrine for the Trinh family, and sending envoys to  Qing. In autumn, he sent his soldiers back south and returned to Phu Xuan.  There, he presided over Nguyen Toan’s death and inaugurated the first govern- ment to rule all of the Vietnamese-speaking peoples from the Qing border in the  north to the Gulf of Siam in the south. The thirty years of warfare at the end of the eighteenth century produced the country of Vietnam as we see it on the map today. What is notable is that northerners, including the people of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, played hardly any role at all in these events. By the 1770s, the Le–Trinh regime, and northern society generally, was so worn down by the accumulated effects of flawed efforts  to govern during the course of two centuries that there was no energy to contrib- ute to the great upsurge of disorder breaking out in the south. The most that  could be accomplished was to occupy Thuan Hoa for a few years while the southerners battled among themselves. The north had become a place where dynastic dreams died, whether of the Mac, the Le, the Trinh, or those of Nguyen Hue and his heir. The miserable effects of war, misgovernment, and hunger had turned northern villagers inward to the small details of subsistence. Peasants developed a crust of indifference toward the ambitions of aspiring lords and kings. Events in Ke Cho did not echo through the countryside. After the Le kings and Trinh lords were gone, northerners simply waited for the outcome to be decided elsewhere. During the Thirty Years War, the north went from being the seat of kings to a provincial backwater. Thuan Hoa was of symbolic and geographic importance as a place where the Nguyen Phuc rulers had created a royal court and guarded the south for several generations. However, once the Nguyen Phuc family had been displaced from Phu Xuan, Thuan Hoa was disconnected from those who subsequently assumed power there. Nguyen Hue and his heir used Phu Xuan as an expedient, a place to stand before taking the next step. The political loyalties of Thuan Hoa people, for the most part, remained with the Nguyen Phuc family, whose fortunes had come to depend upon a different region. The Thirty Years War was basically a contest between two parts of the southern frontier, Binh Dinh and Gia Dinh. The most desperate fighting took place in and between these two places. Even after the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt, the men of Binh Dinh continued to fight to the end. From the perspective of more than two centuries, why this was the case is not readily apparent. What was there about Binh Dinh that led so many men to fight so valiantly for it? The answer to this question lies in the career of Nguyen Nhac, who was content to rule this place for two decades. Unlike the other two main figures of this time, Nguyen Hue and Nguyen Phuc Anh, Nguyen Nhac had no ambition to rule distant places. He represented the perspective of those frontiersmen who resisted any centralized government over all Vietnamese speakers, who simply wanted to be left alone to enjoy their small part of the world. This was a provincial perspective in comparison with the outlook of men who studied history and had ideas about building a large kingdom. Nguyen Hue began to pull away from Nguyen Nhac’s view of the word as he came into contact with the educated men of the north who saw in him a potential founder of a new dynasty. Nguyen Phuc Anh, for his part, was educated as a high-ranking member of a royal family that aimed to rule all Vietnamese. Nguyen Nhac did not care about all of that. The tension between him and Nguyen Hue, and those who  ruled in Phu Xuan after Nguyen Hue’s death, was about his resistance to the pan- Vietnamese idea. His viewpoint may appear to be stupidly myopic to those who  today assume that all Vietnamese naturally belong in one country. But this was not an extravagant idea in that time, after generations of separation between north and south. For many people in Nguyen Nhac’s time, the idea that all Vietnamese should be joined in one country appeared to be no more inevitable than that they should be separated into two or three, or even more, separate countries. Nguyen Nhac and those who picked up his banner in Binh Dinh resisted Nguyen Phuc Anh because he represented the threat of an organizing and homogenizing unity that would squeeze away their provincial way of life. Nguyen Phuc Anh is among the most astute and persistent leaders in Vietnam- ese history. He was a shrewd judge of character and knew how to use different  kinds of men. He had a vision that enabled him to form successful alliances with neighboring rulers. He instinctively understood the basics of government and the importance of paying attention to detail. Yet, without a place like Saigon in which to exercise his abilities, he is unlikely to have achieved what he did. At least as important as his qualities of leadership was the dynamic world of Gia Dinh. Saigon was an international seaport where merchants from many lands gathered. The cultural diversity of the Mekong plain with Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, Cham, Malay, Siamese, Laotian, European, and upland peoples all present or coming and going made it a place of encounter and creativity. Naval power was a critical ingredient of Nguyen Phuc Anh’s success. While the Tay Son navy was composed of ships seized and sailed by pirates, the shipyards of Saigon and My Tho produced the most modern navy of any Asian country at that time. The rise of the south that brought the Thirty Years War to an end was the rise of Saigon and of the large view of the world that had developed there.

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