Retrospective

01

Dec
2021

Background to Le Van Khoi’s rebellion

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When Le Van Duyet pacified Nghe An and Thanh Hoa in 1819, he acquired armies of surrendered rebels and bandits who swore loyalty to him and to the king at Hue. When he went south in 1820 to deal with the Cambodian uprising and to thereafter be viceroy at Saigon, these armies went with him. One of the men he acquired in Thanh Hoa was a charismatic and capable officer named Be Van Khoi (d. 1834) who was originally from the northern mountain province of Cao Bang. In 1787, when he was a child, his father, a local leader in Cao Bang, had been killed in fighting between feuding officials taking opposite sides in the breakdown of Trinh rule. Be Van Khoi apparently had a mixed career first as a bandit chief and then as a military officer under the Hanoi viceroy. He eventually established himself in Thanh Hoa, where he took the name Nguyen Huu Khoi. In 1819, Le Van Duyet adopted him into his entourage, and he changed his name to Le Van Khoi. Le Van Khoi became a trusted subordinate of Le Van Duyet in the Saigon viceroyalty during the 1820s. The pardoned insurgents from Nghe An and Thanh Hoa were organized into peasant militias in the Mekong plain. There was also a population of banished criminals from the north that had been accumulating since the beginning of Gia Long’s reign. Many of them brought their families with them into exile and were assigned to open up new agricultural land. In 1824, Le Van Duyet remitted their sentences and accorded them a status similar to the pardoned insurgents fromNghe An and Thanh Hoa. Nguyen Van Cham, previously banished from a district near Hanoi, became a leader of militia units composed of these men. Furthermore, a military unit was made up of men from the Red River plain who had failed to register for military conscription and who accepted a term of service in the south to restore their legal status. Because of the ongoing unrest and failures of government in the north, the population of men serving terms of exile in the far south was continually replenished by new arrivals. Many such men sought to build new lives by joining one of these militia organizations. Le Van Duyet gave lawless and unlucky men from the north a second chance. In 1832, after Le Van Duyet’s death, Minh Mang revoked Le Van Duyet’s policy of clemency toward banished northerners and returned them to the status of criminals. They were uprooted and sent to remote places on the Cambodian border. This provoked resistance and antagonism among all the northerners who had found opportunities for new lives under Le Van Duyet. The groups of militia made up of former northern lawbreakers were in the forefront of the rebellion that broke out in May of 1833, led by Le Van Khoi. The Chinese were another target of Minh Mang’s frustration with Le Van Duyet’s regime. Minh Mang believed that Chinese merchants were illegally exporting rice from Saigon, which drove up the price of rice in the country. There is evidence that Vietnamese merchants were involved in the contraband rice trade as well as the Chinese, but Minh Mang placed the onus of this problem  upon the Chinese. That Chinese maintained close relationships with their Chi- nese homeland and with Chinese communities elsewhere in Southeast Asia  stimulated Minh Mang’s doubts about their loyalty and trustworthiness. Minh Mang was keen to bring the Chinese population and its considerable wealth under the control of Hue. The unsympathetic, even harsh, attitude of newly appointed Hue officials toward the Chinese ensured that, when rebellion came in 1833, the Chinese were active participants. Luu Tin was a prominent leader in the rebellion. A Chinese merchant born in Hoi An, he had traveled in China, was a prominent leader of the Chinese in Saigon, and, like Le Van Khoi, had become an adopted son of Le Van Duyet. Christians were also active in this rebellion. Christians had been a relatively  large part of the Vietnamese population in the Mekong plain from the seven- teenth century. Le Van Duyet’s protection of Christians was at odds with Minh  Mang’s great antipathy toward them. Minh Mang believed that Christians subverted public morality, engaged in despicable practices, and invited European aggression. His attitude toward Christianity was formed first of all by his disgust with the lack of respect that Christians expressed for “Buddha and ancestors,” two objects of veneration upon which the authority of his dynasty had been built, and by his reading of stories from the Christian Bible, which he consideredirrational and ridiculous. He lived in a time when virulently anti-Christian  propaganda was being circulated among Vietnamese officials. He both encour- aged and was influenced by writings that described the mixing of men and  women in churches during worship and practices that led to public fornication  and the seduction of women and girls. He was upset about rumors that Chris- tians used human eyeballs to make medicine. But what most worried him were  writings that claimed to prove how the Christian religion was a means for Europeans to take over foreign countries. He praised the Tokugawa policy of exterminating Christianity in Japan. Despite his view of Christianity, Minh Mang respected the merit of the three Frenchmen who had served in the entourage of his father and who remained in Vietnam as dynastic servants in the early years of his reign. Jean Marie Despiau had worked in the medical service since 1795, and Minh Mang sent him to Macau to obtain smallpox vaccine to inoculate members of the royal family. Jean Baptiste Chaigneau and Philippe Vannier had married Vietnamese women, established families at Hue, and held positions at the royal court. Chaigneau returned from a visit to France in 1820 with an appointment as diplomatic representative from the French court to Hue, which greatly complicated his position in Minh Mang’s service. In late 1824, shortly after Despiau’s death, Chaigneau and Vannier departed Hue and returned to France for good. They left Hue just months after the British had seized Rangoon during the so-called First Anglo-Burmese War, an event that particularly aroused Minh Mang’s perception of Europeans as aggressive and dangerous. The British founding of Singapore in 1819 had caught Minh Mang’s frowning attention; then efforts by the Burmese king Bogyidaw (r. 1819–1837) to enforce his authority over vassals on the borders of British India elicited an invasion that led to British annexation of Arakan and Tenasserim, creating a common Anglo-Siamese border. Minh Mang’s reaction to events in Burma was a decisive turning away from contact with Europeans and a determination to eradicate the European religion. In 1825, Minh Mang prohibited European missionaries from entering the country. At the beginning of 1833, he published an edict against Christianity, calling on officials to destroy churches, to arrest Christian leaders, to send European missionaries to Hue, and to persuade Christians to abandon their religion. Four months later, the southern rebellion began. The rebellion was also related to Siamese policy. Gia Long had ruled during a time when Europeans were occupied with the Napoleonic Wars and Siam was confronted with a rampant Burma. During Minh Mang’s reign, Siam was freed from the Burmese threat by the rise of British India and, obtaining a treaty of non-aggression with the British, King Rama III (r. 1824–1851) reoriented hisarmies to embark on more active policies along his eastern borders. Minh Mang’s first encounter with these policies was in Laos during the late 1820s. At that time, three Lao realms professing allegiance to Siam existed along the Mekong River. The most important was Lan Sang, ruled from Vientiane, which extended along both banks of the middle Mekong and included most of what is now northeast Thailand. Champassak in the south on the Cambodian border and Luang Prabang in the northern mountains were of lesser importance. The ruler of Lan Sang, Chao Anou (1767–1829), rebelled against Rama III in 1827  after a series of personal humiliations and Siamese violations of existing proto- cols. The final provocation was a Siamese campaign to brand the Lao people  west of the Mekong River, thereby claiming them as Siamese subjects with no obligations to Chao Anou. Defeated in battle, Chao Anou fled to the Nghe An border and begged for refuge from Minh Mang. Minh Mang gave him temporary shelter while insisting that he would have to return to his Siamese suzerain. In 1828 a small Vietnamese force escorted him back to Vientiane. He was subsequently captured by the Siamese and died in captivity. Minh Mang was determined to avoid getting involved with the Siamese over Laotian affairs in the Mekong plain. However, when the ruler of Xieng Khouang (Siang Khuang) on the plateau upriver from Nghe An, threatened by enemies allied with the Siamese,  came and submitted to him, Minh Mang readily sent soldiers to assert Viet- namese sovereignty in the mountains. The Siamese acquiesced to this, being  occupied with relocating the lowland Lao population from the left to the right bank of the Mekong River. Taking their cue from Xieng Khouang, the various mountain lords further south also submitted to Hue. Amidst these events, Siamese troops threatened Vietnamese outposts on the Cam Lo Road that extended from Quang Tri across the mountains to the Mekong and a Siamese officer murdered three Vietnamese envoys in southern Laos, which gave rise to  strong anti-Siamese sentiments among Vietnamese officials and soured diplo- matic exchanges between Bangkok and Hue. Minh Mang nevertheless bene- fited from the Siamese suppression of lowland Lao by gaining ascendancy in  the adjacent mountains with a minimum of effort and without provoking war with Siam. The effect of Minh Mang’s changes in governance and in administrative personnel in the south after the death of Le Van Duyet gave rise to great unease among the various marginal peoples there, not only northern exiles, Christians, and Chinese, but also Chams, Khmers, and other ethnic minorities. In 1832, at the same time that the Saigon viceroyalty was abolished, Minh Mang dissolved the Cham tributary kingdom in Binh Thanh, just to the north of the Mekong plain. Minh Mang’s men in Cambodia soon alienated the Khmers with theirignorance of and lack of respect for local custom, and the Siamese were quick to take note. As if he wanted to make sure to alienate every possible group in the region,  Minh Mang aimed a direct attack upon the old established Vietnamese popula- tion of Gia Dinh by opening investigations into Le Van Duyet’s rule and posthu- mously charging him with corruption and sedition. This official smearing of Le  Van Duyet’s memory was too much for local Vietnamese. It clearly showed that Minh Mang was determined, by any means, to break the spirits of the southerners. Minh Mang’s haste to seize the upper hand in the far south was in some  measure motivated by his perception that Rama III had designs on the Cambo- dian protectorate. That he chose to employ the certainty of hard measures rather  than chancing the possibility of mobilizing the willing support of such a diverse population may have been due to what some have described as his wary, mistrustful personality. His mode of leadership tended toward unyielding  enforcement of ostensibly logical policies and did not include the flexible toler- ation of differences or the low-key charisma that had been characteristic of his  father. Nevertheless, Le Van Khoi may not have dared to challenge Minh Mang had it not been for events in the north that encouraged him to imagine a prospect of restoring the Le dynasty. When the last Le king, Le Duy Khiem, had died in China in 1804, Gia Long sent the senior member of the Le family in Vietnam, Le Duy Hoan, to escort his remains from the Qing border to Thanh Hoa Province, where the Le family maintained its ancestral tombs. Le Duy Hoan apparently harbored no illusions of dynastic restoration, but in 1816 he allowed himself to be used by a group of conspirators seeking to mobilize the north against Hue. He was arrested and executed in 1817. At that time, his infant son, Le Duy Luong  (1814–1833), was taken by a member of his father’s entourage into the moun- tains of what is now Hoa Binh Province, located between the uplands of Thanh  Hoa and Hanoi, where he was given refuge by a prominent family surnamed Quach. The Quach were leaders among the upland communities that would be called Muong a century later, where loyalties to the Le dynasty remained alive. The Quach were surely encouraged in their disaffection from Hue by the rebellion led by Phan Ba Vanh in the coastal regions of what are now Nam Dinh, Thai Binh, and Hai Phong Provinces. For the better part of a year in 1826 and 1827, Phan Ba Vanh led armies estimated at more than five thousand men and defeated Hue forces until men were mobilized against him from throughout the Red River plain, Thanh Hoa, and Nghe An. When he was finally captured and executed, survivors of his armies fled, and many of them took refuge in the uplands. Phan Ba Vanh’s rebellion revealed that there were thousands ofVietnamese in the north who were willing to follow a rebel against Hue. And his ability to defeat royal armies in the lowlands for over half a year demonstrated  slack in Hue’s ability to mobilize and coordinate soldiers in the north. Through- out the months of Phan Ba Vanh’s rebellion, Minh Mang’s frustration was  expressed with sharp demands upon his commanders that they end the affair without delay. His sense of threat was sufficiently alert that in 1831 he sent officials to Binh Dinh and Gia Dinh to capture over one hundred surviving descendents of the Tay Son brothers. Twenty-nine of these were sentenced to death, and forty were exiled, enslaved, or assigned as soldiers. The rest, mainly women and children, were released. In the spring of 1832, soldiers on the upland frontier of Nghe An killed their officers, burned down their outposts, seized weapons, and marched north  through the mountains, apparently to join the Quach who, according to infor- mation at the Hue court, had plotted with the mutineers in the name of Le Duy  Luong. Unable to capture Le Duy Luong, Minh Mang executed a brother of his who had been in prison since the arrest of their father, sixteen years before.

In the spring of 1833, Le Duy Luong was proclaimed king in the uplands of Hoa Binh Province. Many men from Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and the Red River plain rallied to him, and leaders of the Quach family led armies into the plains  west and south of Hanoi and gained victories. For several weeks, local militia- men defected to the rebels as royal commanders mobilized their forces. By mid  summer, Le Duy Luong’s partisans had been pushed back into the mountains,  and, at the end of summer, he was captured and beheaded. Minh Mang subse- quently forcibly removed surviving members of the Le family from Thanh Hoa  and resettled them in provinces south of Hue. Although the Le Duy Luong uprising was relatively brief, it was enough to inspire an echoing uprising in the south.

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