Dynastic discipline

01

Dec
2021

Nguyen Phuc Anh at Saigon

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In 1792, Nguyen Hue’s 11-year-old son, Nguyen Toan, was placed on the throne at Phu Xuan, and Bui Dac Tuyen, Nguyen Toan’s maternal uncle, ruled as regent. Although Nguyen Toan’s court was thereafter troubled with factional intrigues, for a decade it was a headquarters for marshaling resistance to the northward advance of Nguyen Phuc Anh’s armies, which by this time were on the move and threatening Nguyen Nhac at Cha Ban. After retaking Saigon for the final time in autumn 1788, Nguyen Phuc Anh spent nearly two years establishing an administration to govern the peoples of Gia Dinh and building up his military forces. One of his first and most enduring concerns was the lawlessness endemic to the Gia Dinh frontier, particularly after more than a decade of war. Even before retaking Saigon, as his armies were advancing, he emphasized his prohibition on raping and plundering by beheading two offenders. In mid 1789 he sent men to punish bandits, bullies, and officials who were oppressing people at My Tho and Vinh Long. Shortly after this, he published harsh punishments for robbers, particularly for soldiers who robbed. In following years he repeatedly sent out soldiers to suppress bandits. People suffered not only from human predators. In 1789, rewards were posted for the death or capture of a tiger that was preying on a village near Bien Hoa, north of Saigon. On the other hand, to help restore a more normal agrarian life, water buffalo were sent to the My Tho area because so many of these useful animals had been killed in that strategic region during the wars.  Even more than suppressing lawlessness, Nguyen Phuc Anh sought to encour- age a law-abiding and productive mode of life. Gambling was forbidden among  the Vietnamese, although it was allowed and taxed among the Chinese. Sorcery and séances were discouraged because they took attention away from the real world, where Nguyen Phuc Anh was marshaling resources. Men were urged to work and not to cultivate lazy habits. Men with an inclination to study were encouraged with exemptions from corvée and military conscription. Nguyen Phuc Anh published an amnesty for those who had ignored his summons to contribute manpower and supplies when he first returned from Siam in 1787. While he accepted those who had rallied to him in autumn of 1787 when he was at Long Xuyen, those who waited to rally behind him until after his advance to Vinh Long in early summer 1788, only four months before he retook Saigon, were punished for their tardiness. He later published an amnesty for “good people” who, being unfamiliar with all the new laws he was publishing, found themselves in trouble. He established a granary in Saigon to feed the stream of refugees from the north coming to join him. He kept a sharp eye on public morale and repeatedly solicited comments and ideas from both subordinates and common people. His first recorded act upon retaking Saigon was to establish a court where he regularly discussed public affairs with the leaders of his entourage. There was apparently a disorderly chorus of comments about what needed to be done, for one month later he issued rules for the proper way to make comments and complaints. Perhaps these rules inhibited open discussion, so a few weeks later he announced a policy to encourage people to freely voice their ideas, asserting that no one would be punished for bad ideas. Shortly after that, a “suggestion box” was set out to facilitate the flow of thought. In spring 1790, Nguyen Phuc Anh assigned scribes the task of writing down everything that was said in his presence. He was said to have given close attention to all details of government. Within days of retaking Saigon he sent officials out to all the administrative jurisdictions to check the tax and conscription records. He then immediately  announced a tax policy and established three ministries to deal with the appoint- ment of civil officials, with military affairs, and with the courts of law. He also  established a Han Lam Academy to prepare his edicts. In 1789, a system of local government offices was established and many appointments were made to fill them. Particular attention was given to measures for the encouragement of agriculture and to regularizing local governance. Any locality with at least forty Vietnamese was required to have a “leader” to be responsible for dealing with government authorities. A Tay Son general unable to escape north had sought refuge with the Khmers in the lower Mekong plain. In early 1789 he was forced to surrender, along with an army of around 1,500 Khmers that had been allied with the Tay Son. The Khmer soldiers were allowed to join Nguyen Phuc Anh’s command on condition of contributing a certain amount of rice. Khmer officials were then appointed to govern the Khmer population in the regions of modern Tra Vinh and Can Tho. Displaced Khmers were given rice to settle down as agriculturalists in that region. Lawless Vietnamese coveting Khmer land provoked a brief uprising among the Khmers in late 1789. In 1791, Nguyen Phuc Anh decreed that Vietnamese were not to seize land from Khmers. Khmers were to keep their land and Vietnamese were to open up new land for cultivation, of which there was “plenty available.” For their part, Khmers did not have the right to open up new land. The Vietnamese and Khmers were to keep “separate” from each other. This problem did not go away, however, and in 1798 Nguyen Phuc Anh sent officials to prevent Vietnamese from taking land away from the Khmers and instead to send them to open up uncultivated land. Nguyen Phuc Anh appointed Chinese to govern the Chinese communities that had developed from the Ming immigrants of the previous century, of which there were five, for people from Guangdong, Fujian, Hainan, Shanghai, and the Teochow. These Chinese communities had their own regulations for registering people for taxation and military conscription and were integrated into the Vietnamese style of administration. More recent “sojourners” from Qing were less adapted to local society and Nguyen Phuc Anh kept close watch on their relatively more predatory economic activities, in particular their penchant for loaning money to Vietnamese settlers at exorbitant interest rates resulting in the enslavement of wives and children. In mid 1791, laws against such interest rates were published. Customs duties for merchant ships of the five Chinese communities were fixed with the highest rates being placed on the ships of Guangdong and Shanghai (3,300 strings of cash), then Fujian (2,400 strings), Teochow (1,200 strings), and Hainan (650 strings). Chinese merchants who brought iron, zinc, and sulphur, all being important for military purposes, were exempt from duties and received an allotment of rice, but they were required to sell their goods to the government. Severe punishments were published against ship owners smuggling goods out of Gia Dinh. Currency regulations were published enforcing the acceptance of chipped or worn coins so long as they could still be kept on strings. The price of sugar was regulated to encourage European merchants to bring weapons in trade. The management of military manpower was Nguyen Phuc Anh’s most critical concern. In early 1789 men were required to register for conscription. Those who had served in the Tay Son armies but failed to register were subject to the penalty of death. Parents were allowed to keep one son at home to care for them. Severe punishments for draft dodgers and deserters extended to their families, and rewards were posted for those providing information about the whereabouts of these fugitives. Soldiers were warned against bothering people or harassing merchants and were forbidden to carry their weapons unless they were on duty. Entertainers could not be enrolled in the ranks because Nguyen Phuc Anh believed their presence in the army would damage martial valor, although they were allowed to perform for soldiers under certain restrictions. In addition to regular units, there were also local militia units. In 1790, regulations for establishing peasant-soldier settlements (don dien) were published and incentives were posted for officials to organize such settlements in the Vam Co region west of Saigon. Initially, conscription mobilizations were scheduled at three-year intervals, but as battlefield activity accelerated during the 1790s they became annual procedures. With an infusion of men into the military, Nguyen Phuc Anh organized instruction for his officers in training, discipline, supply, and battlefield behavior. Nguyen Phuc Anh gave particular attention to the system of supply for his men. Rice granaries were established and, throughout the succeeding years of  warfare, provisions for building new granaries and for moving rice to the battle- fronts were an integral part of planning troop movements. Nguyen Phuc Anh’s  victories rested in large part upon his mastery of the problems of supply. In order to move rice and men and supplies, ships were necessary, and shipbuilding was a constant and urgent priority. No sooner had Saigon been retaken in 1788 than Nguyen Phuc Anh sent soldiers to cut lumber and transport it down to the shipyards. Instructions for maintaining the supply of lumber for the shipyards are mentioned repeatedly during succeeding years. The Gia Dinh shipbuilding industry, at Saigon and at My Tho, became very large in the 1790s, producing hundreds of ships with innovative designs that came to be coveted by rulers and merchants in neighboring countries. Con Dao Island was used for breeding and raising horses, which were then transported to Gia Dinh and trained for the battlefield. Blacksmiths, gunsmiths, and metalworkers of all kinds were put under the supervision of officials and mobilized to produce weapons. Men were sent to Guangdong to buy chemicals for military purposes, and weapons were bought in markets throughout the region, including Portuguese Macau and Goa and Dutch Batavia. A reliable source of weapons was the Sultanate of Johore, where Mahmud Shaz III (r. 1761–1811) maintained a friendly relationship with Nguyen Phuc Anh and kept a market well stocked with guns, bullets, sulphur, and saltpeter. During the 1790s, Nguyen Phuc Anh repeatedly sent men to buy war materials from him. During his years of exile, Nguyen Phuc Anh had entrusted his eldest son, Prince Canh, to the French missionary Pierre Pigneau. Pigneau proposed to go to France and negotiate a treaty with the French government on behalf of Nguyen Phuc Anh and thereby obtain military assistance for his cause. Prince  Canh and two of Nguyen Phuc Anh’s officers accompanied Pigneau to demon- strate the legitimacy of the mission. After spending most of 1787 in Paris,  Pigneau secured a treaty, which proved to be worthless as the French government was bankrupt and on the verge of revolution. Pigneau and Prince Canh arrived in French Pondicherry, on the coast of India, in spring of 1788. Realizing that the French authorities were not going to honor the treaty, Pigneau spent the next year raising funds and recruiting deserters from the French navy. He purchased two merchant vessels, armed them, and filled them with military supplies.  Manned by fewer than one hundred French deserters, along with a few Portu- guese and Asian volunteers, these ships arrived at Saigon in summer 1789.  Most of the Frenchmen who arrived at this time left within two or three years, disappointed by the lack of opportunity for monetary enrichment and disgusted by what they viewed as Nguyen Phuc Anh’s inaction. Among the few who remained longer were about a dozen naval officers. The French were the smallest group among the diverse collection of non-Vietnamese to be found in Nguyen Phuc Anh’s armies in the 1790s: Chinese, Chams, Ede, Malays, Khmers, Siamese, Laotians, and Portuguese. The French exercised little, if any, influence over Nguyen Phuc Anh’s government or battle plans. But they did contribute to the training and organization of some military units, particularly in the navy. Four officers who arrived with Pigneau drilled the navy in battle formations. In the early years, they frequently sailed with Nguyen Phuc Anh’s fleets in command of ships and sometimes provided battlefield leadership. They were Jean Marie Dayot (1759–1809), Jean Baptiste Chaigneau (1769–1832), Philippe  Vannier (1762–1842), and Godefroy de Forsans (d. 1811). Dayot was particu- larly active in naval affairs. With the assistance of his brother, he drafted maps of  the Vietnamese coast. He departed in 1795 when Nguyen Phuc Anh humiliated him for having accidentally run his ship aground. Chaigneau and Vannier became Vietnamized, established local families, and remained in Nguyen Phuc Anh’s service after the end of the war. Less is known about Forsans, but he remained in Vietnam until his death. Another Frenchman who served Nguyen Phuc Anh was Olivier de Puymanel (1768–1799). He did not arrive with Pigneau but had deserted from a French warship visiting Con Dao Island shortly before the return of Pigneau and Prince Canh. He was trained as a construction engineer. In 1790 he supervised the construction of the citadel at Saigon following the most recent European ideas in fortification. Théodore Lebrun (at Saigon 1790–1791), another officer who had deserted from the French fleet, assisted in drawing up plans for the city and the citadel, but he became disgruntled and left after a year. Puymanel remained and also drilled Nguyen Phuc Nguyen’s land soldiers in infantry formations and tactics and trained them in the use of mobile artillery. He frequently traveled to buy weapons in various regional ports and died in Malacca, only 31 years old. Laurent Barizy (1769–1802), a friend of Puymanel’s who entered Nguyen Phuc Anh’s service in 1793, spent most of his time buying military supplies in Malacca, Manila, and Batavia. The role of Pierre Pigneau and the small group of French naval officers was a palpable ingredient in Nguyen Phuc Anh’s ultimate success because of their  contributions to organizing and drilling both naval and land forces, their expert- ise in constructing fortifications, their efforts to obtain supplies of up-to-date  weapons, and their occasional leadership in battle. However, they were but a small part of what became a huge military organization that included thousands of men from several countries. Their role is testimony to Nguyen Phuc Anh’s ability to understand and to make use of them more than it is of any French influence on him, which, in any case, is meaningless and anachronistic in that time and place. Very few of the Frenchmen who arrived in Saigon remained after 1792. Most of those who did became personally loyal to Nguyen Phuc Anh, established families with Vietnamese wives, and intended to remain among the Vietnamese for the rest of their lives. Nguyen Phuc Anh understood how to maximize the assets of Saigon as an international seaport with a rich agricultural hinterland and a shipbuilding industry. Within a few years he mastered the Saigon region with an efficient civil government capable of organizing and supplying large expeditionary forces. Having experienced many defeats, he was unimpressed with the outcome of any single battle. His was a long-term vision that he pursued with method and persistence.

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