Domestic ferment with Europe at war

01

Dec
2021

Domestic ferment with Europe at war

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In 1911, inspired by the Chinese revolution, Phan Boi Chau organized the Vietnamese Restoration Society (Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi) in southern China and endeavored to rebuild a network of activists in Tonkin. The only results of  this were some assassinations and bombings in 1913, which attracted the atten- tion of French security agents who pressured the new Chinese government to  cease encouraging Phan Boi Chau’s group. Phan Boi Chau subsequently spent three years, 1914–1917, in a Chinese jail. Luong Ngoc Quyen (1890–1917), an early follower of Phan Boi Chau who had studied in Japan and was active in the Restoration Society, was arrested in Hong Kong in 1915 and extradited to Hanoi. Charged with complicity in a 1913 bomb attack, he was imprisoned at the Thai Nguyen Penitentiary, sixty-five kilometers north of Hanoi. The senior French official at Thai Nguyen had alienated local townspeople and soldiers in the Vietnamese garrison with his odious behavior. At the end of August 1917, the garrison mutinied, led by  Vietnamese sergeants, who freed the prisoners, some of whom had been follow- ers of Hoang Hoa Tham in the nearby mountains. The soldiers, prisoners, and  local townspeople, led by Luong Ngoc Quyen and a sergeant named Trinh Van Can, hastily fortified Thai Nguyen but within a few days French forces retook the town after heavy fighting in which Luong Ngoc Quyen died. Large numbers of the Vietnamese resisters, including Trinh Van Can, escaped to the mountains where the last of them were cornered and eliminated during the following six months. This uprising was the most spectacular anti-colonial event with some connection, however indirect, to Phan Boi Chau’s activities. It demonstrated that people of various classes could be provoked to unite against the French. The construction of the Hanoi–Yunnan railroad brought distress to the people who lived along the line by demands for labor and supplies. In late 1914 and early 1915, inhabitants in the region of Yen Bay, about halfway between Hanoi and the Yunnan border, openly resisted French authority. They had no modern weapons and were soon subjugated. By this time, railroads had already been constructed between Hanoi and Lang Son on the Guangxi border of China and between Hanoi and Vinh. Railroads had also been completed between Hue and Da Nang and between Nha Trang and Saigon. Hue would be connected by rail to Vinh in 1927 and to Nha Trang in 1936. The development of the railroad network in Indochina introduced a new class of Vietnamese who worked to maintain and operate the lines and the trains. Many men returning from France after the First World War had acquired skills that led to their employment in the railroad system, as well as in shipyards, mines, and factories. The railroad system was a matter of pride for the French and, although it did not turn a profit until after completion of the Hanoi–Saigon connection in the late 1930s, it promoted economic growth and connectivity among the Vietnamese regions. It also aroused among Vietnamese an experience of travel and an awareness of wider horizons that contributed substance to nationalist ideas that were beginning to take form at this time. In Cochinchina, popular movements based on the leadership of charismatic religious figures had produced a series of anti-French disturbances in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. This tendency toward what has been called peasant politics in the guise of millenarian enthusiasm took strength from the large population of landless wage laborers in rural Cochinchina who existed in precarious economic conditions and from a rejection of the Buddhism espoused by the monks in richly endowed and officially sanctioned temples that prospered in towns and cities. The Seven Mountains region near the Vinh Te Canal on the Cambodian border in  western Cochinchina was the center of a series of Khmer–Viet religious fermenta- tions out of which individuals, who were believed to have powers of healing and  magic, periodically emerged to organize and lead millennial uprisings against established authority. Western Cochinchina was a reservoir for mobilizing this volatile tradition of popular Buddhism and mass religious excitement that at times spread easily into eastern Cochinchina where power sat in Saigon.  At the same time, many secret societies in the large Chinese immigrant com- munities in Cochinchina, which are sometimes generally referred to as belonging  to the Heaven and Earth Society, were being Vietnamized. These societies were organized for the purpose of mutual aid and often had a quasi-religious aspect. Built into these societies were patron–client relationships in which wealthier members looked after the welfare of the less fortunate in return for services and loyalty. In the early 1910s, labor requirements for building roads and canals combined  with a heavy tax regime to put pressure on the realms of both millennial sectarian- ism and mutual welfare secret societies. A young man named Phan Phat Sanh  (1892–1916), who was conversant with both of these realms, attracted followers and made plans to brush aside the French with supernatural powers. Phan Phat Sanh was reportedly the son of a policeman in the Chinese city of Cholon; he studied mysticism, fortune telling, sorcery, geomancy, magic, and explosives in the Seven Mountains and at Kampot, a short distance across the Cambodian border, where he gained inspiration from an uprising that had occurred there in 1909. He proclaimed himself a Buddha and an emperor with the title Phan Xich Long (Phan the Red Dragon) and in March 1913 prepared to attack the centers of colonial government  in Saigon. He was arrested and his bombs were discovered and defused. Neverthe- less, some six hundred of his rural adherents invaded Saigon armed with amulets  and primitive weapons. They were easily dispersed, but the French were unnerved by such bold, albeit ineffectual, defiance. By coincidence, it was at this same time  that Cuong De was clandestinely visiting his wealthy landlord supporters in Cochin- china. He managed to get away ahead of French security agents, but the French  associated the Phan Phat Sanh uproar with him and with the 1913 assassins and bomb throwers in Tonkin sent by Phan Boi Chau’s Restoration Society. They neglected to address the causes of rural distress in Cochinchina that had put force behind Phan Phat Sanh’s movement. In the years that followed, conditions in Cochinchina were aggravated by coercive recruitment of men to serve in wartime France. Compared with northern Annam where large numbers of men freely volunteered, in Cochinchina there was little enthusiasm. Consequently, French authorities resorted to harsh measures, which simply added to popular resentment against them. When news about the siege of Verdun spread through rural Cochinchina in early 1916 along with hopeful rumors that the French were about to be defeated, a series of local uprisings culminated in a small invasion of Saigon by peasants intent upon breaking into the central prison where Phan Phat Sanh was incarcerated. As in 1913, these riots posed no serious threat to the French, but Phan Phat Sanh was executed as a precaution against future unrest. In the distinctive social, cultural, and economic situation of Cochinchina,  popular religion and mutual aid societies continued to be important for the Viet- namese population most affected by direct French rule and within a few years would  inspire the rise of new and enduring religions. Meanwhile, the monarchy continued to figure in the anti-colonial schemes of some Vietnamese and became the focus of a plot that broke into the open a few weeks after the 1916 ripple of uprisings in Cochinchina. The 16-year-old King Duy Tan resented being supervised by his elderly regents and by the French who stood behind them and in 1915 caused concern in both groups by speaking out against what he viewed as French looting of his dynasty’s ancestral treasures and French violations of the protectorate agreement. French authorities interpreted his outbursts as adolescent angst and aimed to calm him with a royal wedding ceremony in January 1916. But his attitude also reflected the views of some  members of his retinue, and he remained susceptible to ideas for taking advan- tage of the European war to obtain concessions from the French.  One person with such ideas was Tran Cao Van (1866–1916). He was an educated man from a village near Dien Ban in Quang Nam who had a varied career in the 1880s and 1890s as keeper of a Daoist temple, geography teacher, geomancer, and participant in a minor anti-French uprising before retiring to the obscurity of his home village at the turn of the century. In 1908 he was arrested and sent to the penal colony on Con Son Island in the wake of the disturbances of that year. Released in 1913, he returned to Quang Nam and subsequently made contact with the Restoration Society network that extended into central Annam via Siam and linked activists with sympathizers among Vietnamese soldiers in garrisons extending from Hue to Quang Ngai. In early 1916 there happened to be at Hue a large encampment of recruits being trained prior to embarkation for France. The news of war in Europe was  bleak, and morale among the recruits was low. Arms and supplies were accumu- lating to accompany the men aboard ship. Tran Cao Van saw an opportunity to  mobilize soldiers and recruits to initiate an uprising that might inspire Vietnam- ese in other parts of Indochina. He met clandestinely with Duy Tan, who agreed  to play his part in the plan. However, in early May 1916 when Duy Tan fled the palace to join plotters in the mountains, the French had already learned of the  scheme. Duy Tan was seized a few kilometers outside of Hue, and most Viet- namese soldiers were disarmed and confined. Tran Cao Van was executed with  other leaders of the plot. Duy Tan was sent, with his mother, wife, and sister, to join his father, the former king Thanh Thai, who had been living in confinement at Vung Tau since 1907. Later in 1916, the two former kings and their families were exiled to the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Within days of Duy Tan’s arrest, a new king was enthroned. This was Khai Dinh (1885–1925), a son of Dong Khanh, who had sat on the throne from 1885 to 1889. Like his father, he was a willing collaborator with the French, and from then the monarchy offered no further worry to colonial authorities. The Indochina prison system tended to nurture anti-colonial activism because it brought together potentially disaffected people from all Vietnamese regions  and encouraged a radical attitude toward the regime. The various prisons mani- fested a great variety of conditions depending upon time and place, upon the  degree of isolation from the non-prison population, and upon the personal qualities of administrators. These factors were all part of the February 1918 disturbance on the Con Son Island penal colony. During the early years of the First World War when France was overwhelmed by a sense of emergency, a relatively lenient prison director had moderated the potential for insubordination by giving prisoners certain freedoms that included participation in the local island economy outside the prison walls. After the United States joined the Allies and the war began to turn against Germany, this man was replaced by a disabled veteran of the Battle of Verdun who instituted a more disciplined and harshly punitive regime. The reaction among prisoners against this change was easily repressed, but the briefly  violent event demonstrated that prison populations lived in an overtly confronta- tional relationship with French authority where the colonial situation was devoid of  euphemism and where Sarraut-style idealism could not penetrate. A combination of abstract expressions of Franco-Vietnamese friendship and of an underworld of easily suppressed anti-colonial resistance characterized the years during which France was locked in a dire struggle with German invaders. The French had no capacity for administrative or economic initiative at this time and could do little more than resort to eloquent blandishments, of which Albert Sarraut was a master. For their part, the Vietnamese were incapable of any unified response to French rule and could do little more than respond to local grievances and episodic opportunities. However, after the war, Indochina bustled with a developing economy driven by the high tide of French investment; with a growing class of workers in mines, factories, shipyards, railroads, and plantations; with a vigorous expansion of vernacular journalism and publishing; with Vietnamese efforts to obtain greater participation in government; and with the emergence of a generation of youth that began to experiment with new forms of anti-colonial organization.

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