Formation of French Indochina



Formation of French Indochina

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A new policy initiative was needed to sustain the colonial project in Vietnam. The man selected to implement this was Paul Bert (1833–1886), a man of science, professor of physiology, and staunch anti-cleric who entered politics as a follower of Gambetta, for whom he served as Minister of Education. He arrived at Hue in April 1886 in the midst of the military emergency, but he understood that the fundamental problem was political, not military. Turning against the tide of French colonial thought in Cochinchina, he established a new focus for colonial leadership to deal with the Hue court and the existing Vietnamese administration in Annam and Tonkin. A group of men who went to Vietnam  with him became the first of those who served as resident supervisors of Viet- namese magistrates and who would eventually provide the expertise needed to  establish the General Government of French Indochina. Bert succeeded in laying the basis for a working relationship between French and Vietnamese officials. He acknowledged the cultural norms of Vietnamese officialdom and provided for traditionally educated Vietnamese to continue to have careers in government service. Although he survived in Vietnam for only about six months, dying of dysentery in November, he was a major architect of French rule in Vietnam. He solidified a cooperative relationship with the royal family and opened the way for a new kind of colonial administrator for whom Hanoi became the seat of authority. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, the French encountered two forms of resistance in the provinces north of Hue. First was the response to Ton That Thuyet’s call to rally under King Ham Nghi’s banner against the invaders. Educated men with positions of local prominence organized offensive operations and prepared defensive positions. In addition to resisting the French, three other more purely domestic factors were prominent in this fighting. One was the  conflict between Christian and non-Christian Vietnamese, which became espe- cially virulent in the context of French pacification efforts. Another was the  difference of opinion among educated men about the merits of resistance. Most upper-echelon Vietnamese officials followed the thinking of the court at Hue that resistance to the French was not only hopeless but would simply bring death and misery to the people; furthermore, as they became aware of events in the wider world, they could see no plausible alternative to French rule. These people provided intelligence and propaganda, performed administrative tasks, and organized military units to assist the French. A final aspect was regional and, to some extent, even dynastic. The ancestors of educated men in the north had served the Le dynasty for centuries. As late as the 1860s, major uprisings could be launched in the north on behalf of Le pretenders. The loyalty of these men was not to the “southern” Nguyen dynasty so much as to the ideals of their Confucian education, which they believed to be threatened by the French. This contrasted with educated men in provinces further south, for whom loyalty to the Nguyen dynasty was the foundation of political behavior. Once Paul Bert had made it clear that the French would discard neither the Nguyen dynasty nor the class of men educated to serve it, the path was open for literati of all regions to serve the French. Ham Nghi was too young and passive to play any role in these events. He lived in a hut on a remote mountain, watched over by Ton That Thuyet’s sons and half a dozen servants and guards. In late 1888, one of his guards and the local strongman who had been providing him food brought him out to the French, who sent him to a new life in Algeria. One of Ton That Thuyet’s sons was killed in this episode and another son killed himself. By this time, the French had already subdued the major center of resistance in Thanh Hoa, at Ba Dinh. A few months later, the major center of resistance in the Red River plain, at Bai Say, was also overrun. Thereafter, those still unreconciled to the French rallied behind Phan Dinh Phung, the Censorate official who had been escorted back to his village after denouncing Ton That Thuyet and the other regents for their irregular handling of succession to the throne after Tu Duc’s death in July 1883. In the early 1890s he organized a small army in southern Ha Tinh. After many defeats, he was forced to take refuge in the mountains where he died in late 1895. The second form of resistance was a greater problem for the French than these uprisings led by local scholars, for it came from a resistance to government of any  kind that had been endemic for generations. The Trinh regime had never estab- lished a stable agrarian policy. From the early eighteenth century, rebellion was  chronic among the people of the Red River plain. The Nguyen dynasty never achieved a complete pacification of the north. During Tu Duc’s reign, there was a trend toward misgovernment, insubordination, and banditry, which accelerated with rebellions led by Le pretenders in the 1850s and 1860s and with the disorders of the Garnier and Rivière affairs and the Sino-French War in the 1870s and 1880s. Chinese adventurers and Qing armies had possessed much of the upland hinterland of the Red River plain since the 1860s, providing refuge, arms, and encouragement to Vietnamese fugitives. Chinese pirates prowled the coast, often assisted by Vietnamese outlaws, conducting a brisk business of kidnapping women and children to sell into slavery in China. By the late 1880s, the Red River plain had been without effective government for decades. Here, the French faced not organized resistance led by men who could be defeated or won over but rather an entire society that had grown accustomed to evading authority. Resistance to the French became a legitimizing tag for lawlessness in general.  An essential element of the French pacification effort was to secure the Sino- Vietnamese frontier, thereby breaking the connection between the Chinese and  Vietnamese underworlds. It was also essential for the French to demonstrate to the Vietnamese that they had come to stay and that colonial rule was much preferable to anarchy. The question of how to do this was answered by Jean  Marie Antoine de Lanessan (1843–1919). He was a naval physician in Cochin- china in the 1860s, and in the 1870s he became a professor of medicine before  entering politics. He made an official visit to Vietnam in the late 1880s and took an interest in theories of colonialism. He believed that the only justifiable purpose of colonialism was to serve as the agent of change to bring defenseless, out-of-date countries up to the highest possible level of administrative order and technical efficiency. He was convinced that the only way to do this was by working through the existing structures of authority. When he was named Governor General of Indochina in 1891, de Lanessan  successfully used the royal court to strengthen the relationship between Vietnam- ese officials and the French. Dong Khanh had died of illness in 1889 and was  succeeded as king by Thanh Thai (1879–1954), the 10-year-old son of Duc Duc. Although his father’s murder in 1883 appears to have deprived him of a cheerful or trusting demeanor, Thanh Thai learned to play his assigned role in the French colonial order. De Lanessan understood that the problem of pacifying the north was political as much as it was military. He reorganized military operations to be conducted in close collaboration with efforts to build a civil administration. His approach was implemented by two army officers who later gained fame in the history of the French army: Joseph Simon Gallieni (1849–1916), who served in Vietnam from 1892 to 1896, and Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey (1854–1934), who served in Vietnam from 1894 to 1897. These men implemented what came to be known as the “oil spot” method of pacification, in which military operations moved forward incrementally no faster than the pace at which civil government could be stabilized. Whereas in 1888 French troops in Tonkin numbered 14,000 with 20,000 Vietnamese commanded by French officers, in 1894 the troop level had  fallen to 5,000 French and 12,000 Vietnamese. By 1896, the pacification pro- gram was completed.  De Lanessan also initiated a series of events that forced Siam to cede control of Laos. When Siam resisted the movement of French military units into Laos in spring of 1893, French ships forced their way upriver from the Gulf of Siam to place the royal palace in Bangkok under their guns. The Siamese subsequently signed a treaty with France renouncing Laos east of the Mekong. In later treaties, in 1904 and 1907, Siam gave up two Laotian territories west of the Mekong, as well as the northwestern Cambodian provinces that had been annexed a century before. The modern borders of Thailand with Laos and Cambodia were thus drawn. In the 1880s and 1890s, the British were consolidating their control over northern Burma. In 1896, a Franco-British treaty set the Mekong River as the boundary between British Burma and French Indochina. The territories that would make up French Indochina were thus defined by the mid 1890s. But the question of how they would be administered provoked a decade of conflict between the colonial government that had been developing since the 1860s in Saigon and the new corps of administrators at Hanoi. Cochinchina, with its port of Saigon and capacity to export rice, was a consistent generator of revenue surplus, but the Cochinchinese system of government recycled most of the profits into the pockets of administrators and members of the French colon community. The nascent Indochinese government being established at Hanoi was saddled with the deficits created by efforts to pacify and govern a territory in which a stable system of administration and of taxation did not yet exist. The considerable French colon community in Saigon fiercely rejected the argument that Cochinchina should help to defray the expenses of the larger Indochinese project. The French in Saigon had developed an effective lobby to represent their interests in Paris. For all of his success in pacifying the north and asserting the Mekong as a western border, de Lanessan was powerless before the Saigon lobby in Paris. In 1894, he was abruptly recalled when his efforts to incorporate Saigon into the Indochinese budget failed to prevail over the entrenched political connections between Saigon and Paris. Since the days of the admirals in Saigon, French people, however lowly their status in metropolitan French society may have been, found in Cochinchina a lordly lifestyle and a subservient population. They devised an administration that  promoted their personal enrichment. The prospect of having to contribute sur- plus revenue to a budget covering all of Indochina was for them an unwelcome  shock. The Saigon Frenchmen were represented in the Chamber of Deputies and  had considerable influence in Paris. They fought stubbornly against the forma- tion of a central Indochina government.  On the other hand, from the time of Paul Bert, administrators in Hanoi began to entertain the vision of a colonial government in which Cochinchina was simply one among several subordinate units. Beginning in 1887, efforts to  achieve such a government were announced as the aim of French policy. Never- theless, the French colons of Saigon managed to maintain their autonomy and to  thwart any attempt to incorporate Cochinchina into a larger Indochina. De Lanessan was replaced by Paul Armand Rousseau (1835–1896), an engineer and politician with a level of experience and seniority deemed sufficient to enable him to sort out the conflict of interests between Saigon and Hanoi. Rousseau continued the policies of de Lanessan and was soon in a stalemate with Saigon. He returned to Paris to obtain sufficient authority to bring Cochinchina under the budgetary and administrative authority of Hanoi. In declining health, he intended to resign but died in late 1896. Such was the situation when Paul Doumer (1857–1932) was appointed to be Governor General of Indochina in early 1897. From a working-class background, raised by a widowed mother, Doumer excelled at his studies and was a mathematics teacher by the age of 20. He worked for a time in journalism and subsequently entered politics, becoming a specialist in financial affairs. By the early 1890s, he was the parliamentary expert on the Indochinese budget. He was Minister of Finance in the brief “radical” cabinet of Leon Bourgeois (November 1895 to April 1896). His efforts to use fiscal policy to effect social reform contributed to bringing down the Bourgeois government. He was strong-minded and decisive. With his knowledge of colonial budgets, it was convenient for his political enemies to send him out of their way to a difficult assignment in Indochina.  During his five-year term as governor general (1897–1902), Doumer estab- lished a structure of administration and a set of policies that none of his succes- sors significantly altered. Despite the bitter opposition of Le Myre de Vilers, then  serving as the Cochinchinese representative in the Chamber of Deputies, Doumer  asserted Hanoi’s authority over all five Indochinese jurisdictions: the protector- ates of Tonkin, Annam, Cambodia, and Laos, and the colony of Cochinchina.  Although Cochinchina retained many distinctive characteristics, being not a  protectorate but rather a colony governed under French law, Doumer neverthe- less brought it into the framework of a unified budget and of a single authority  for government operations. Senior Residents were appointed to administer the four protectorates, but a Lieutenant Governor sat at Saigon. The construction of an effective central government was one of Doumer’s achievements. Behind this achievement was a balanced budget that for the first time made Indochina a generator of revenue, ending its financial dependency upon Paris. By 1899, a comprehensive tax regime began to produce large surpluses. In addition to land taxes, poll taxes, excise taxes, and an array of administrative fees, government monopolies were organized on salt, alcohol, and opium. The Bank of Indochina was opened in Hanoi to process revenue and expenditure. With a stable budget, Doumer was able to float large loans to initiate ambitious infrastructure projects for roads, railroads, bridges, canals, and harbors. In addition to administration, finance, and public works, culture and scholarship were also on his agenda. In 1900, he set up the French School of the Far East (École Française d’Extrême-Orient), which became a major center of academic research on Asia. Doumer’s activist leadership was controversial and provoked sharp criticism, but his achievements were relatively solid and enduring. He returned from  Indochina to continue his political career in France, eventually becoming Presi- dent in 1931. Paul Beau (1857–1927), a career diplomat who had been Minis- ter to China, succeeded him in Indochina. Beau’s term as governor general  (1902–1907) was relatively calm and uneventful. After Doumer, there were no major problems to solve, and the Vietnamese reaction to what Doumer had done was not yet apparent. During the four decades since the French had taken Saigon, French ambitions in Asia had struggled for fulfillment until Doumer established French Indochina in its definitive form. Two salient reasons appear to explain the failure of Vietnamese resistance to the French. First, there was a collapse of leadership. Tu Duc could not govern a country that he never knew or understood, being a bookish creature of the palace. He was unable either to maintain the domestic peace or to unite the country against a foreign threat. The north was already in a state of endemic rebellion before the French arrived. Then, the regicidal regency of Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong was the best that the Hue court could provide by way of leadership during the most critical phase of the French conquest. Neither Ton That Thuyet’s reckless schemes nor Nguyen Van Tuong’s palace intrigues inspired confidence. The alacrity with which the adult leaders of the royal family and its courtiers made peace with the French in 1885 revealed an absence of options. The second, and more fundamental, reason for failure can be found in the larger context of the global situation in which European imperial powers were dominating Asia. The only exceptions to this were Japan, which successfully  adapted to global changes, Siam, which survived as a semi-colony and conveni- ent buffer between the British and the French, and China, which, although  surrendering control of its seaports, had large continental territories where its own political development could continue. Vietnam did not have the samurai leadership of Japan that understood and solved the military problem. It did not have the benefit of a geographical position, as Siam did, that enabled it to enjoy a place of balance between two predatory powers. Nor did it have the vast hinterland of China in which it could sustain the semblance of an independent country. Considering Vietnam’s vulnerable terrain and the structural limitations of a government at Hue, there is no apparent reason to think that more effective leadership could have responded successfully to the French challenge. The French conquest brought Vietnamese out of the mono-centric political and cultural focus upon China that had previously prevailed and into a larger world of potentially multi-polar relationships.

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