A Franco-Vietnamese government



Maritime trade

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While Western accounts feature the activities of European merchants in the two Vietnamese countries during the seventeenth century, Chinese, and for a time Japanese, merchants were more important in the overall economy of foreign trade for both the north and the south. Europeans joined a system of maritime trade that had its own Asian tempo. In the early seventeenth century, a peaceful Japan, recently unified under the Tokugawa Shogunate, drove this tempo with a surging market for silk and large amounts of copper coins and silver specie to pay for the silk. At the same time, Ming China, the main source of silk, was not only in decline but had prohibited trade with Japan. Consequently, Chinese and Japanese merchants gathered in Vietnamese ports where Chinese silk was exchanged for precious metals from Japan. As the Manchu conquest disordered China and the availability of Chinese silk fell, Vietnamese silk began to enter the market and became an increasingly large part of the trade. Large profits could be made, and  the Portuguese and Dutch endeavored to join this trade. For their part, Vietnam- ese rulers in wartime valued trade with Europeans as a means of gaining access to  European-style cannons and muskets, which were superior to the weapons previously available from Chinese manufacturers. Northern and southern Vietnamese policies toward foreign merchants were very different. In the north, foreign trade was primarily a government monopoly, so merchants had to deal with an array of mandarins and eunuchs who imposed duties, fees, and bribes for their own enrichment as well as that of their lords. Furthermore, unlike Hoi An, which was near the sea at a place where sea-going  ships could anchor and which was allowed to prosper without excessive govern- ment intervention, doing business in the north meant getting to Dong Kinh,  where the governing authorities were located, and this in itself was a complicated task. Ships could not ascend the main branches of the Red River because the currents flowed too fast. Rather, they entered the plain at the Thai Binh estuary and anchored in the Thai Binh River at a place in modern Tien Lang district. From here, merchandise was transferred to river boats and taken upriver. At the junction of the Thai Binh and Red Rivers lay Pho Hien, the modern town of Hung Yen.  Here a customs station controlled all traffic passing upriver. Many foreign mer- chants resided and maintained warehouses at Pho Hien, going to Dong Kinh only  to transact business. The community of Chinese merchants was particularly large at Pho Hien, where they even built temples. Europeans also maintained residences here, for obtaining permission to reside permanently at Dong Kinh was a special mark of favor by the Trinh authorities. Consequently, in order to even arrive at the place of business in Dong Kinh, foreign merchants had to run the gauntlet of two groups of predatory officials, one at the Thai Binh estuary and one at Pho Hien. And once in Dong Kinh, one still had to be ready with gifts for the highest authorities before actual business could be conducted. The Trinh authorities were in general disdainful of merchants. This may have been partly due to a Confucian prejudice against the merchant class, but it was more fundamentally due to a vigilant and avaricious Trinh policy of preventing any class of people from accumulating wealth. Foreign merchants submitted to the difficulties of doing business in the north in the seventeenth century only because the profits to be gained from selling Vietnamese silk in Japan were so high. The southern rulers were more dependent upon and eager for foreign trade than were the Trinh. The port of Hoi An was more accessible to maritime routes than was the north, it offered a greater array of merchandise, it was basically a free port without duties, and it was governed with a sense of order based on market principles. Nguyen Hoang actively solicited foreign merchants. For example, during the first decade of the seventeenth century he repeatedly sent letters to the ruler of Japan to encourage Japanese investment in trade with his country. He even formally adopted a Japanese envoy to give his contact with the Japanese ruler the aura of a family relationship. At that time, the Tokugawa Shogunate was seeking to sort out pirates from merchants by issuing “red seal” documents to ship masters who would then benefit from the protection of official recognition. The “red seal” trade was most active during the rule of Nguyen Phuc Nguyen (1613–1635). In 1635, it was discontinued and, thereafter, Chinese and European merchants handled most of the trade with Japan. During the time of Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, over 32 percent of all “red seal” ships registered for Southeast Asian ports went to Hoi An, sixty out of a total of 185 ships. By comparison, only twenty-eight went to northern  Vietnam, thirty-one to Siam, thirty-one to the Philippines, twenty-four to Cam- bodia, and one to Champa. Trade with Hoi An amounted to around one-fourth  of all Japanese foreign trade in these years.  While he did not attempt to monopolize trade, Nguyen Phuc Nguyen neverthe- less participated in it, even marrying one of his daughters to a Japanese mer- chant. Major exports from Hoi An to Japan were silk, sugar, pepper, rattan,  calambac, deerskins, and precious wood. Imports were ceramics, utensils, swords, armor, silver, and copper. Much of the copper was in the form of old coins no longer officially accepted in Japan, which arrived in large quantities during the 1620s and 1630s. Copper coins from Japan were an especially important item of trade at that time. Those of inferior quality were melted down to make cannon while the rest entered the cash economy. Behind the “red seal” ships, Chinese and European merchants also participated in the trade between Japan and Hoi An. When the “red seal” system was abandoned in 1635 and  Japanese ships could no longer officially participate in the silk trade, the Portu- guese and Dutch were quick to pick up the slack.  Large Chinese and Japanese communities developed at Hoi An and built up the culture of the port with Buddhist temples and Christian churches. The early Jesuit missionaries, who first entered the Vietnamese-speaking world at Hoi An in the 1610s, were assisted by Japanese Christians who arrived to escape persecution in Japan or who had become part of the Jesuit organization based at Macau. Ten kilometers upriver from Hoi An lay Dien Ban, the Nguyen Phuc headquarters for governing their southern territories and for overseeing foreign trade. The Hoi An/ Dien Ban area and the region of Qui Nhon, the second most important seaport on the southern coast, were the first places for Jesuits to reside, learn Vietnamese, and begin to proselytize. The Hoi An market was part of a relatively monetized economy by Asian standards at that time. The significance of money in the southern economy is reflected in the tax policy, which relied upon the head tax in cash rather than upon the collection of rice, which was the main form of taxation in the north. Unlike in the north, where foreign trade mainly benefited high-ranking officials and their clients, commerce was an important part of southern life and many people of all classes profited from it. The regime benefited from this both by participating in it and by encouraging ordinary people to do so, not by taxing commerce per se but by insisting that taxpayers produce cash. One reason that a tax on rice was not an important source of tax revenue in the south was that not very much rice was grown there. Much land was planted with mulberry trees and sugar cane to supply silk and sugar for the Hoi An market. Rice was imported from Cambodia to meet local needs. When the Cambodian king forbade the export of rice in 1637 because of a poor harvest, a serious famine resulted in Thuan Hoa, forcing the government to distribute rice from its storehouses. According to annalists, only Thuan Hoa was affected by this, probably indicating the large military population there.  The port of Hoi An was a point of concentration for goods from the moun- tains, the coasts, the sea, and from islands and coasts across the sea. While in the  north foreign trade affected a relatively small part of the population, in the south many local economies, and also economies beyond the Nguyen Phuc domain, were mobilized to support the market demand at Hoi An. The wealth generated by this was critically important to the Nguyen Phuc, for it enabled them to buy modern weapons needed to defend the northern border, particularly cannon, muskets, and gunpowder. The Portuguese were prime suppliers of these items and enjoyed a special relationship with the Nguyen government in the south from its beginning. When, early in the century, the Dutch sailed into Asian waters and attempted  to trade at Hoi An, Portuguese envoys from Macau demanded of local author- ities that they be excluded. The southern Vietnamese rulers were sufficiently  solicitous of good relations with the Portuguese that they complied, though the exclusion was not always strictly enforced if the Portuguese happened not to be noticing. The Dutch and Portuguese were in a state of war during the first half of the seventeenth century. Since 1568, the Dutch had been at war with Spain in a struggle that, after eighty years, eventually led to recognition of Dutch independence in 1648.  From 1580 to 1640, Portugal was united with Spain under the Spanish Bour- bon monarchy and thus was an enemy of the Dutch. Furthermore, the initial  Dutch goal in going to Asia was to monopolize the Moluccan Spice Islands, which at the beginning of the seventeenth century were held by the Portuguese. The Dutch seized the Portuguese fort at Ambon in the Spice Islands in 1605. It was there that in 1623 they executed ten Englishmen along with one Portuguese and nine Japanese, the so-called Amboina Massacre that poisoned Dutch–  English relations for decades but achieved for the Dutch a long-lasting domin- ance of the Spice Island trade. In addition to these factors was that the Dutch  were Protestant Christians who, in the ongoing wars of Reformation versus  Counter-Reformation in Europe, were enemies of the Catholic Iberians. Conse- quently, the Dutch in Asia attacked the Spanish and Portuguese at every  opportunity. The Portuguese and Spanish had pioneered European trade with Japan, but in 1600 a Dutch ship sent to attack the Portuguese and Spanish in Asia arrived in Japan and thereafter the Dutch became increasingly important participants in the Japanese trade, establishing a trading station in 1609 and breaking the Iberian monopoly on European trade with Japan. In 1619, the Dutch established their Asian headquarters at Batavia, modern Jakarta, on the island of Java, located to keep a firm grip on the Spice Islands and to take advantage of the westerly winds along the direct route across the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Africa to the Sunda Strait separating the islands of Java and Sumatra, thereby avoiding the Portuguese bases at Goa and Malacca. This route was called the “roaring forties” because of the strong westerly winds that blew along forty degrees latitude. From 1624 to 1662, the Dutch maintained a strong presence on the island of Formosa. They frequently attacked the Portuguese at Macau and at Malacca. In 1641, they finally seized Malacca. Considering that an amicable and satisfactory relationship had already existed  between the Portuguese and the southern Vietnamese rulers before the appear- ance of the Dutch, it is not surprising that the Vietnamese absorbed from the  Portuguese a certain suspicion and wariness toward the Dutch. The Portuguese at Hoi An did all they could to prejudice the southern Vietnamese rulers against the Dutch. For their part, the Dutch perceived with distaste the close relationship between their Iberian enemy and the southern Vietnamese authorities and were inclined toward a jaundiced view of the southern realm. The first Dutch attempt to do business at Hoi An was in the context of potential enmity. Dutch sailors had already been killed along the southern Vietnamese coast when in 1601 Dutch merchants arrived at Hoi An to negotiate an agreement to open trading relations. A rumor that they were about to be ambushed provoked the nervous Dutchmen to flee, plundering and burning a village on their way out to sea. A second attempt to open trade relations in 1613 also ended in failure with a Dutch merchant being killed. During the next two decades, ships sent by the Dutch to Hoi An never arrived, either because of the distraction of attacking Portuguese shipping or because the crews refused to go there, fearful about their safety. In 1632, a Portuguese ship that had been seized by the Dutch drifted ashore near Hoi An. Nguyen Phuc Nguyen sent the Dutch survivors to Batavia on a Chinese ship with an invitation to trade at Hoi An. However, during the next two years, Dutch efforts to trade at Hoi An were thwarted by Portuguese and Japanese competition, and the salvageable goods from three Dutch ships wrecked on the southern Vietnamese coast were confiscated. Dutch demands  for compensation were refused by the Vietnamese authorities, and Dutch expect- ations of benefiting from the end of “red seal” shipping in 1635 were dashed by the decision of the Japanese merchant community in Hoi An to do business with the Chinese rather than with them. Subsequently, the Dutch abandoned further attempts to do business at Hoi An, deciding to go to the north instead.  Understanding the close relationship between the Portuguese and the south- erners and the enmity between the Portuguese and the Dutch, Trinh Trang  warmly welcomed the Dutch when they first arrived at Dong Kinh in 1637. He  permitted the Dutch to reside at the capital and lost no time in initiating discus- sions to elicit Dutch naval participation in his next expedition against the south.  A group of Dutchmen thereafter resided at Dong Kinh. Some of them took  Vietnamese wives whose local knowledge enabled them to profit from fluctu- ations in the supply of silk. During their first few years at Dong Kinh, the Dutch  enjoyed the fruits of Trinh Trang’s benevolence, inspired by an expectation of Dutch military assistance against the south. The Dutch were spared the worst of extortionate practices and happily found that the price of silk in the north was around half the price in the south, where it was not so plentiful, allowing them to make huge profits in Japan. Hendrik Baron was among the early employees of the Dutch East Indies  Company assigned to reside at Dong Kinh. He learned Vietnamese and con- tinued to work at Dong Kinh until his death in 1664. His son, Samuel Baron,  born of a Vietnamese mother, grew up in Dong Kinh but was sent to Europe in 1659. In the 1670s Samuel Baron returned to Asia with the English East India Company and subsequently spent several years trading at Dong Kinh. In 1685 he wrote “A Description of the Kingdom of Tonkin” that was eventually published in 1732 at London. Baron’s account, reflecting conditions in the late 1670s and  early 1680s, after the end of the Trinh–Nguyen wars, portrays the Trinh govern- ment as viewing foreign merchants primarily as targets for extortion. The diffi- culties in doing business that he describes led to the departure of all European  commercial enterprises from the north by the end of the century. The era of European trade with the north was an aspect of the Trinh search for arms and allies in wartime.

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