Retrospective

01

Dec
2021

The 1908 disturbances and their sequel

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In Quang Nam, the operations of Phan Boi Chau’s Duy Tan Society, the modern- izing schools inspired by Phan Chu Trinh, heavy French demands for corvée labor  to exploit coal mines, the irresponsible behavior of Vietnamese magistrates, and a relatively large peasant population in distress all overlapped and, in March 1908, combined to initiate three months of disturbances that spread down the coast through Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, and Phu Yen Provinces. Thousands of peasants attacked tax collectors and camped around administrative centers until dispersed by French soldiers with episodes of violence and loss of life. In late June 1908, a conspiracy was put in motion to spark an insurrection by poisoning the French garrison in Hanoi; mutinous Vietnamese soldiers were to be mobilized and supported by Hoang Hoa Tham (1858–1913), the last survivor from the anti-French resistance who was ensconced in the mountains. Young men inspired by Phan Boi Chau and by the excitement generated around the Tonkin Public School initiated this event. The plot was poorly planned and the French quickly squelched it. Hoang Hoa Tham (also known as De Tham) came from an upland family that had participated in the anti-Nguyen uprising led by Nong Van Van in the 1830s. He made his career among the mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese who followed Liu Yongfu in the 1870s and 1880s and negotiated an arrangement with the French in the late 1890s that allowed him to survive in the mountains of Yen The district north of Bac Giang, east of Thai Nguyen, and southwest of Lang Son, a region with very difficult terrain. His implication in the Hanoi poison plot led the French to move determinedly against him, which ended with his death in 1913. Meanwhile, in Cochinchina, Gilbert Tran Chanh Chieu (1867–1919), a French citizen who was a Saigon newspaper editor and businessman, was arrested, along with many of his associates, when the French became aware of his activities on behalf of Phan Boi Chau. He had been the in-country contact for sending funds and students from Cochinchina to Phan Boi Chau in Japan. The French had informants among a group of wealthy Cochinchinese who traveled with aspiring students to meet with Phan Boi Chau in Japan in early 1908. Consequently, France pressured Japan to expel the Vietnamese, which was done in 1909. Phan Boi Chau went to southern China where he fruitlessly endeavored to buy arms for Hoang Hoa Tham. Cuong De spent several years traveling in China, Siam, Europe, and even made a brief clandestine visit to his supporters in Cochinchina in 1913. He returned to Japan during the First World War, from where he thereafter conducted ineffectual anti-French activities with frequent visits to China. Paul Beau completed his term as governor general and departed Indochina in February 1908, just before the disturbances began. Louis Alphonse Bonhoure (1864–1909), a colonial functionary recently arrived from an assignment in French Guiana, was acting governor general during the troubles from February  to September 1908, at which time he was replaced by Antony Wladislas Klobu- kowski (1855–1934). Klobukowski had started his career as a colonial adminis- trator in Vietnam in the 1880s. He became a close associate of Paul Bert in 1886  and married Bert’s daughter. Thereafter he served in a number of other colonial  assignments but was sent back to Indochina in 1908 because of his prior experi- ence there, his association with Paul Bert’s success in establishing the protector- ate regime, and his reputation for efficient administration.  In retrospect, it may appear that the most important aspect of the 1908 disturbances was the road not taken by French authorities, as if they were incapable of comprehending Phan Chu Trinh’s critique of the mandarinate and of acting on it to promote a more modern administration. The inability of the French regime to abandon the mandarinate, despite its corruption, which was obvious even to the French, might plausibly be attributed to Klobukowski because of his prior investment in Bert’s policy of relying upon this class of Vietnamese officials. However, Phan Chu Trinh and all other reformist scholars, along with a host of other prisoners, had already been sent to the Con Son Island penal colony before Klobukowski arrived in Indochina. For the French, the possibility of working with the reformists was never considered as an option.  Like the tax and administrative regime established by Paul Doumer, the protect- orate scheme established by Paul Bert was firmly fixed in the French idea of  Indochina and never abandoned. Among the French was a paralyzing fear that any major restructuring of the colonial relationship could lead to the loss of a privileged position that had been achieved after decades of effort. But while the dismissal of any questioning of existing policy was instinctive among the French in Indochina, matters looked differently from the vantage of Paris. There, in the wake of the events of 1908, a lively debate ensued among politicians over colonial policy in Indochina. The debate was focused on the merits of an associationist policy that would ostensibly promote the material well being of colonized people and open space for Vietnamese cultural development in “association” with the French colonial government. The idea of association was abstract and disconnected from colonial realities, but it was adopted as official policy and led to the appointment as governor general of a prominent politician, Albert Sarraut (1872–1962). Sarraut was from an influential family in the newspaper business and had the gift of speaking with persuasive eloquence. He served in Indochina from November 1911 to January 1914 and from January 1917 to May 1919. During his three-year absence for reasons of health, three successive colonial administrators took his place without distinguishing them- selves in any discernible way. Consequently, the second decade of the twentieth  century is generally known as the Sarraut era in Indochinese history. He inspired a significant effort to arouse Vietnamese enthusiasm for French rule. Aside from minor initiatives in medical services and education, Sarraut’s  contribution to the history of Indochina lay in his promotion of a new formula- tion of Vietnamese tradition. He invited Vietnamese intellectuals to explore and  define a Vietnamese culture that could exist in harmonious association with French rule. What this meant in practice was the cultivation of a narrowly Confucianized version of Vietnamese culture that stressed social order and obedience to hierarchy. As the examination system and character writing were abandoned, the Vietnamese alphabet was mobilized to create a new medium for cultural dissemination. Under Sarraut, the government of Indochina actively supported the publication of vernacular books and journals to develop the aura of a traditional Vietnamese identity that was indebted to French rule for its continued survival amidst the tumults of the modern world.  Frenchmen sympathetic with a conservative and romanticized vision of Viet- namese culture joined with groups of cooperative Vietnamese in organizations  such as “The Association of Friends of Old Hue” and “The League of Friends of Annam” to propagate the theme of Franco-Vietnamese friendship among both educated Vietnamese and enlightened French colons. Sarraut’s administration subsidized Vietnamese journals to promote a colonial version of Vietnamese tradition. For example, in the journal Nam Phong (South Wind), Pham Quynh (1892–1945) argued in 1918 that the example of French literature made it possible to identify Nguyen Du’s Kim Van Kieu (The Tale of Kieu) as the masterpiece of Vietnamese literature and that until the coming of the French the significance of this work in Vietnamese culture had not been appreciated. This initiated a debate among Vietnamese in which, among other things, it was asserted that Pham Quynh adored this work because it romanced the virtues of a prostitute, of which in serving the French he was one. In opening vernacular writing to the issue of cultural, and inevitably national, identity, Sarraut and his assistants wagered that the French could retain control of the discussion. Within a decade, however, they were proven wrong when in the mid 1920s a new generation of Vietnamese began to challenge the French  version of Vietnamese identity. Nevertheless, the Confucianized version of Viet- namese tradition that was fostered during the Sarraut era became a major force  in the thinking of later Vietnamese nationalists of all ideological persuasions. It linked in their minds an outmoded cultural tradition with a hated colonial regime, overtly manifested in the mandarins of the protectorate, and it gave a sharp edge to the need for a new vision of national society and culture. Sarraut’s rhetorical fervor for Franco-Vietnamese friendship was nestled in the wartime urgency of France fighting desperately year after year against German invaders. With most French and the best Vietnamese military units  deployed to Europe, French administrators in Indochina perceived them- selves to be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of endemic Vietnamese resistance.  Despite this perception, the series of anti-French episodes that occurred during the Sarraut era demonstrate that the French regime was strong enough to easily dispose of any opposition and that anti-French movements were localized and disconnected from each other. The parade of events that unnerved the French during this time nevertheless reveals that the colonial regime had stimulated opposition from constituencies in nearly all parts of the Vietnamese realm.

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