Post-treaty disorder in the north

01

Dec
2021

Post-treaty disorder in the north

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With the Treaty of 1874, the French appeared to have gained what Dupuis had initially sought. Treaty provisions opened the Red River, as well as the ports of Qui Nhon, Hanoi, and Hai Phong, to international commerce. French consuls were to be stationed in these ports with judicial prerogatives over any litigation involving Europeans and with the authority to issue travel passes to Europeans, countersigned by Vietnamese officials. Joint Franco-Vietnamese customs houses were to be set up in these ports and were governed by arrangements specified in a commercial treaty concluded a few months later. These commercial aspects of the treaty were never implemented to the satisfaction of either party. On the Red River between Son Tay and Lao Cai, after expulsion of the yellow flags in 1875, Liu Yongfu was in control and levied substantial fees without regard for any other authority, whether Vietnamese, Chinese, or French. There was relatively little commercial activity in Hanoi or Qui Nhon. Hai Phong, however, was a different matter. Hai Phong did not exist as a place of any significance until this time. It was situated to control access into the Red River plain from the sea, and it had the added advantage of being located near the coal mines of Hon Gai. Within six months of Hai Phong being opened to trade under the new treaty, the population of Chinese there increased from zero to six thousand. Soon there was a regular steamship service between Hong Kong and Hai Phong. Rice and coal began to flow out of the new port. The excessive export of rice led to a steep rise in its price and to famine conditions in the hinterland. Vietnamese officials did not know how to administer the burgeoning port city and could not control the activities of Chinese merchants. They wanted to fix the price of rice and to limit its export. The French wanted an open market. Mutual aggravation ensued. More serious than this were the 1874 treaty provisions on diplomatic and military matters. The French deemed that they had obtained the equivalent of a protectorate over Vietnam with a resident chargé d’affaires at Hue and articles asserting that Vietnam did not recognize the suzerainty of any third country and that Vietnam would subordinate its foreign policy to French supervision. The  French believed that this ended Qing sovereignty over Vietnam and were indig- nant when Vietnam continued to send regular tribute missions to China and to  rely on Qing assistance against the yellow flags. The French were inclined to view this as violating an article in the treaty specifying that, in case of internal disorder, Vietnam would call upon France for assistance. Some Frenchmen were exercised about the suppression of the yellow flags by joint Sino-Vietnamese operations in 1875 and 1876 because they viewed the yellow flags as a potential pro-French force. When a man claiming to be a descendent of the Ly dynasty of the eleventh and twelfth centuries came across the Sino-Vietnamese border in 1877 with an army of several thousand, some French were incensed when Tu Duc called upon the Qing rather than the French for help. In 1879, Qing forces captured the pretender and carried him back to China for execution. Also troubling to many of the French was that the British interpreted the Treaty of 1874 as implying in principle the residence of consuls from other countries in the Vietnamese port cities, and that these consuls would have jurisdiction over judicial affairs concerning their people, thus dismissing French pretensions of having an exclusive relationship with the Vietnamese court as its protector. The French were concerned to make good their control of Vietnam before other countries could enter the situation. For his part, Tu Duc still dreamed of negotiating the withdrawal of the French and, in 1878, used the occasion of sending a delegation to an international exposition in France for a vain attempt to reopen the matter with Paris. A Vietnamese diplomatic mission to Siam was thwarted when the Siamese, fearing the French, refused to receive it. Not so timorous were the Spanish, who in 1880 negotiated a commercial treaty with Hue, raising French apprehensions that the British and Germans would not be far behind. Frustration with the state of Franco-Vietnamese affairs in the late 1870s was mostly confined to a group of Frenchmen in Cochinchina and their friends in Paris who were committed to colonial expansion for reasons of commerce and of competition with other imperial powers. The Paris government at this time was absorbed in domestic politics and gave little attention to the provisions of the Treaty of 1874. The admirals governing at Saigon during this time, stung by the Garnier affair, were loath to go down that road again. They professed contentment with Cochinchina and Cambodia and saw nothing in the north but an ungovernable headache. Local administration in many parts of the Red River plain never returned to a semblance of normal government after the Garnier affair. Hunger and banditry spread as village notables and wealthy families changed communal land into private land to enable them to participate in the export market for rice. Tu Duc attempted to enact a tax reform to obtain more revenue from privately held land but achieved little more than to further alienate influential men in the north. He initiated a plan to organize landless peasants into militia units and to settle them on vacant land in upland valleys. He wanted to increase the number of soldiers available to suppress bandits and to relieve the pressure on royal troops, but the effect of this, to the extent that it was implemented, was to increase the control of local officials over military resources. Tu Duc’s efforts to govern the north were increasingly disconnected from the situation existing there. Vietnamese and Chinese pirates on the coasts and along the major rivers operated with impunity. They specialized in capturing women and children to sell into slavery in China. French coastal vessels were assigned to intercept them, and in 1877 the Hue court even proposed that France establish a fortress on Cat Ba Island, near Hai Phong, to suppress the slave trade, which was centered there. In conditions of increasing lawlessness, local communities, particularly those comprised of Christians under the leadership of missionaries, organized for self-defense.  French administration in rural Cochinchina  Meanwhile, the situation in Cochinchina was developing very differently. Viet- namese administrators had abandoned the Mekong provinces, leaving the task of  government completely in the hands of the French. A brief flurry of resistance to the French broke out after the Battle of Ky Hoa in early 1861, but faded away in 1863 when the Hue court ratified the Treaty of Saigon. The most famous leader  of this resistance was Truong Dinh (1820–1864), a military officer who estab- lished his main base at Go Cong, about forty kilometers south of Saigon. French  pacification operations were increasingly effective, and, in early 1864, Truong Dinh took his own life when he was betrayed and ambushed. Truong Dinh’s reputation as an enemy of the French invaders was partly a result of him being celebrated in the writings of Nguyen Dinh Chieu (1822–1888), a blind scholar from the Saigon area who settled in Ben Tre, about seventy kilometers south of Saigon, where he wrote anti-French and anti-Christian poetry until his death. The pattern of rural resistance to established authority that subsequently developed in Cochinchina pre-dated the French. It emerged from the cultural mix of Khmer, Chinese, and Vietnamese in the western provinces. Government had always been weak or non-existent in this remote region. The inhabitants typically sought to distance themselves from authority. There were few people who could read or write. Village organization was rudimentary at best. Family  bonds were tenuous. Since the seventeenth century, armies of Khmers, Vietnam- ese, Siamese, and Chinese had passed through, sometimes without serious effect,  sometimes giving a certain temporary ascendancy to one group or another, and sometimes with destruction and grief in their wakes. In the late eighteenth century, Nguyen Phuc Anh endeavored to stabilize the region by enforcing separation between the various groups and appointing Chinese, Khmers, and Vietnamese to each govern their own people. The building of the Vinh Te Canal between Ha Tien and Chau Doc in the 1820s superficially made a geographical border but it also created a venue for even greater contact among the various peoples. Minh Mang’s policy of ethnic assimilation removed administrative barriers  between the different peoples. This was intended to Vietnamize the non- Vietnamese, but here, where the Vietnamese were not a majority, it led to strong  Khmer and Chinese influence upon the Vietnamese. Le Van Khoi’s rebellion and  the subsequent wars involving Cambodia and Siam further destabilized govern- ment administration. The Lam Sam rebellion in the early 1840s rallied members  of all three ethnic groups behind a man claiming religious rather than secular authority. When warfare ended in the late 1840s, ideas and practices from Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Daoist spiritualism, popular religious cults, secret societies, and the prowess of magicians, healers, sorcerers, diviners, and geomancers combined with millenarian expectations, creating a current of religious thought and action that continued through the twentieth century, periodically mobilized by charismatic personalities. Remnants of the Lam Sam movement took refuge in the Seven Mountains (That Son) between Ha Tien and Chau Doc, just south of the Vinh Te Canal, which popular belief identified as a gateway to Heaven where deities appeared.  Generations of religious leaders and their disciples have resided in these moun- tains to the present day. In times of social stress, healers believed to possess divine  powers went through the region attracting followers. One such person appeared during the cholera epidemic of 1849. Arrested by Vietnamese authorities, he was forced to enter a traditional Buddhist monastery where he could be supervised. But his charisma overcame all who would restrain him and he soon went to the Seven Mountains beyond the reach of government. Although he died shortly after, from among his followers there periodically appeared men who stimulated  new episodes of millenarian enthusiasm that were directed toward the supernat- ural world and consequently did not acknowledge earthly authorities, whether  Vietnamese magistrates or French administrators. Beginning in the late 1860s, those inclined to resist the French tended to join this reservoir of belief beyond secular law, from which they occasionally emerged in uprisings that were easily suppressed by the French. Being on the Cambodian border, these uprisings were  sometimes related to similar movements among Khmers rebelling against author- ities in Phnom Penh.  The enduring appeal of millenarian healers and magicians in Cochinchina was also related to two features of southern Vietnamese society that have been  attributed by historians to the effects of French colonialism but that in fact pre- dated the French. These are the relative weakness of village organization and the  relative significance of a mobile landless population. Without the economic security of land or the social security of a village community, religious figures  offered the promise of salvation and the comfort of mutual care in their entou- rages. Combined with European cultural influences felt during French colonial  rule, these conditions eventually gave rise to new religions in the twentieth century. From the very beginning of organized Vietnamese penetration into the Mekong plain, landless peasants working as virtual slaves for large landowners were a salient feature of Vietnamese settlement. As noted in a previous chapter, in 1711 Nguyen Phuc Chu admonished his officials at Saigon to stop enslaving peasants and to allocate land to them. The recording of such an event is typically an indication of a chronic condition rather than of a problem being solved. Efforts to mitigate the status of landless peasants are most evident in instructions to organize military colonies, in which case peasants were still in a disciplined structure of authority. Since land was plentiful, peasants who wanted to avoid serving a landlord or a military officer simply moved further south or west, giving rise to the pattern of large organized landholdings in the east where government authority was strongest, and a more miscellaneous situation among the Chinese, Khmer, and Vietnamese peasants of western Cochinchina, which was less developed economically and administratively. One effect of French rule was to expand the regime of large estates into western Cochinchina in order to increase the export of rice, which produced more landless peasants. Village organizations were generally controlled by those with the most wealth, typically landlords, and they provided no plausible remedy for landlessness. French administrators in Cochinchina repeatedly commented upon the large population of landless peasants who marketed their labor, and they assumed that this was a result of their own policies. Some of the French were dismayed by the phenomenon while others considered it an inevitable phase in the necessary shift of Vietnamese society from village communalism toward individual freedom and responsibility. French policy toward village government was to shift authority away from the group of wealthy and educated elders called notables, and to put it into the hands of someone they identified as the “mayor.” In the past, this person was the  representative of the notables, usually a younger man, chosen by them to imple- ment their decisions. But the French considered him to be an equivalent of the  mayor of a French town who represented the central government rather than the village. The French believed that the notables were primarily motivated to maintain their own economic advantages and that they could not be trusted to serve in a scheme of authority controlled by colonial administrators. Since many notables and those who spoke on their behalf supported the French regime, the status of the village notables became a controversial issue. The French were  reluctant to cede administrative authority into the hands of men already estab- lished in positions of importance in local society for fear of not being able to  exercise their authority unimpeded by local self-interest. Rather, they relied upon younger, less established, men to serve as village leaders. These men were expected to be more dependent upon the French than the village notables could be. However, as they received no salary and often had to use their own funds to carry out their duties, it was often difficult to find qualified men willing to serve in this position. The result was a general weakening of village government as the  notables were disengaged from local decision-making and administrative author- ity was vested in men with relatively little influence in local society and with little  incentive to perform their duties. The collection of revenue did not at this time change dramatically from prior practice, except that it was collected more efficiently than in pre-French times. Eventually, in the 1880s, taxation would be changed from a collective village responsibility to the individual responsibility of each taxpayer. Not until the turn of the century would the French initiate the elaborate tax regime that became characteristic of their rule.

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