Formation of French Cochinchina

01

Dec
2021

Formation of French Cochinchina

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The inability to pacify the Red River plain and to eradicate the appeal of Le dynastic pretenders was a great weakness of the Hue monarchy and prevented concentration of the country’s resources against the French at Saigon. The Le Duy Cu rebellion of 1854–1855 in which Cao Ba Quat had played a part was followed by a series of rebellions led by men claiming to fight for restoration of the Le dynasty. There were two main centers of disaffection with the Nguyen dynasty. One was in the province of Son Tay northwest of Hanoi, adjacent to the uplands inhabited by people later called Muong, among whom loyalty to the Le remained strong. The other was along the coast from the Chinese border to the southernmost estuaries of the Red River south of Nam Dinh, with particular strength in the old Mac homeland in the region of the modern city of Hai Phong, which at that time was not yet a city or seaport of significance. A series of rebellions associated with a Le pretender named Le Duy Minh emerged from this coastal region from 1857 into the 1860s. Although Le Duy Minh was captured and executed more than once, new Le Duy Minhs continued  to appear, demonstrating that a pattern of insurrection had become institutional- ized with interchangeable men. The story line of these rebellions held that Le Duy  Minh was aboard a European ship off the coast; he and his generals arrived in small boats, gathered armies of Christians and Le dynasty enthusiasts from the peasant population and were assisted by Vietnamese and Chinese pirates whose boats penetrated deep into the deltaic river system. The first inkling of this story is dated in Vietnamese records to the autumn of 1857. At that time, French naval craft were poking about the coast seeking information about the death of the  Spanish Dominican missionary who had been executed the previous July. Alien- ated and lawless elements in the Red River plain apparently combined the old  narrative of restoring the Le with a new narrative of European intervention to protect the Christians. The Sino-Vietnamese pirate world was quick to join these narratives as Nguyen dynasty authority receded from the coast. In 1861 and 1862, just as Charner and Bonard were expanding their grip on the Saigon region, an especially spectacular outbreak of insurrection led by a Le Duy Minh occurred in the north. The French identified this Le Duy Minh as someone they knew by the name of Pierre Le Duy Phung, who in his youth had been educated at the French missionary school in Penang. He had political ambitions and as early as 1855 had unsuccessfully lobbied the French navy for assistance in igniting a rebellion against Hue. He accompanied Rigault de Genouilly’s expedition to Da Nang as an interpreter. When the French shifted to the south rather than the north, he disappeared. He reappeared as Le Duy Minh and by late 1861 had mobilized an army said to number twenty thousand men from the coastal provinces of the Red River plain. In early 1862 he appealed to Saigon for aid. The Spanish officers were eager to support him but Bonard said no and opted instead to accept Hue’s offer to negotiate peace, albeit taking advantage of the situation in the north to obtain his treaty objectives. Tu Duc submitted to the Treaty of Saigon just as the rebel army was preparing to attack Hanoi. He was thereafter able to concentrate enough soldiers against the rebels to abate the emergency. A year later, in the summer of 1863, the Hue court recorded that Le Duy Minh had fled into the sea but that his followers were still numerous. Small armies continued to claim adherence to the cause of Le Duy Minh as late as 1867. Tu Duc was careful to observe the provisions of the Treaty of Saigon. He withdrew his soldiers and officials from the three provinces ceded to France and abandoned his anti-Christian policies. Some local resistance to the French emerged in relatively remote districts south and west of Saigon, but it was suppressed within a year, and thereafter the newly acquired French territories were relatively calm. Tu Duc did not encourage anti-French activities, being occupied with the rebellion in the north and wanting to give no excuse for further trouble with France. He was nevertheless not reconciled to the loss of the three southern provinces and, in the spring of 1863, shortly after ratifying the Treaty of Saigon, he sent a delegation led by Phan Thanh Gian to France to negotiate a new treaty directly with the government at Paris. Louis Napoleon was then fully occupied with his intervention in Mexico and showed indications of being tempted by Phan Thanh Gian’s offer of generous commercial and financial concessions if the three provinces were returned. Phan Thanh Gian returned to Vietnam in 1864 with a draft treaty containing these provisions, albeit granting to France an enclave at Saigon. Vietnamese hopes were dashed a year later when word arrived that Louis Napoleon had decided to retain the 1862 treaty. Meanwhile, Tu Duc was buffeted by indignation among educated Vietnamese over the Treaty of Saigon, particularly in the north where literati were strongly anti-Christian and anti-foreign. Details of the treaty spread among the thousands of men who gathered for the 1864 regional examinations. Riots erupted in the examination yards of Hanoi, Nam Dinh, and Hue. One of Tu Duc’s royal  cousins gathered a large following, including most of the four thousand examin- ation candidates at Hue, and plotted to unseat Tu Duc, punish Phan Thanh Gian,  and massacre the Christians. This conspiracy was foiled, but outrage continued unabated. After the untimely death of Tu Duc’s imprisoned brother, Hong Bao, in 1854, a faction of the royal family continued to view Hong Bao’s lineage as the legitimate line of succession to the throne. In August of 1866, the son-in-law of one of Tu Duc’s uncles organized an attempt to unseat Tu Duc and to replace him with Hong Bao’s son. Leaders of this coup attempt accused Tu Duc of being incapable of resisting the French and of wasting resources on the building of his own elaborate tomb complex. The conspirators mobilized the workers at the tomb construction site along with some military units and penetrated into the royal throne room before being subdued. All members of Hong Bao’s family were subsequently killed. During this time, the French at Saigon were led by a senior career naval officer named Pierre Paul Marie de La Grandière (1807–1876). His governorship, from October 1863 to April 1868, was the longest of all the naval officers who presided at Saigon during the 1860s and 1870s, the so-called “era of the admirals” in the history of French Indochina. La Grandière acted decisively to stabilize the French position at Saigon and to expand French influence up the Mekong. Among his initial priorities was to gain a firm grip on the Khmer monarchy.  When, in 1859, the Franco-Spanish expedition seized Saigon and the Vietnam- ese were concentrating their military resources there, King Ang Duong took the  opportunity to attack Vietnam. His idea, as expressed to French missionaries in Cambodia, was to ally with France against Vietnam, although the missionaries did not encourage him in this and the French officers at Saigon ignored him. In 1860, his Khmer and Chinese military units overran Vietnamese border outposts. He encouraged the Khmer governor of the Vietnamese jurisdiction at Soc Trang, near the sea just south of the western arm of the Mekong, to rebel, but his army was unable to force its way downriver to assist this uprising and the Vietnamese quickly subdued it. When Ang Duong died in December 1860, Siam, which did not want war with France, pressed his son and successor, Norodom, to make peace. After the Treaty of Saigon was ratified in 1863, Bonard, in one of his last official acts, obtained from Norodom a treaty of protectorate that contradicted Cambodia’s existing relationship of vassalage with Siam. During the next four  years, La Grandière orchestrated matters between Saigon, Phnom Penh, Bang- kok, and Paris to eventually gain the approval of his superiors, the acquiescence  of the Siamese, and the approbation of Norodom to the assertion of French suzerainty over Cambodia. In 1866, he sent an expedition up the Mekong River to explore the possibilities of using it as a route to China. In 1867, he seized the three remaining Vietnamese provinces in the Mekong plain: Vinh Long, An Giang, and Ha Tien. Phan Thanh Gian, then serving as governor of these provinces, deemed resistance to be futile and the annexation was peaceful. The only notable casualty of the operation was Phan Thanh Gian himself, who committed suicide in acknowledgment of the failure of his policy of peaceful negotiation with the French. His death enabled Tu Duc to use him as a scapegoat for the loss of the south and he was posthumously denounced at Hue. By 1868, when he returned to France, La Grandière had established the Colony of Cochinchina and the Protectorate of Cambodia as the foundation upon which French Indochina would subsequently be built. Plans for building and administering the City of Saigon were formalized and a cadre of young naval officers embarked on experiments in administering the indigenous populations, some of them learning Vietnamese, Chinese, and Khmer. At the same time, French-speaking Vietnamese graduates of mission schools, local Christians, and other Vietnamese adapted quickly to French rule and the opportunities it provided for achieving a range of goals from personal advancement to visions of a new Vietnam in the modern world. Finally, a non-military colonial population began to accumulate in Saigon and Cholon, comprised of people mainly from France but also from other European countries, from India, and from China,  attracted by economic opportunities. Saigon was open for business as an inter- national seaport and quickly became known for the export of rice.

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