The French Conquest

01

Dec
2021

The French Conquest

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French rule in Vietnam was established over a period of fifty years through a process that had several phases. Between 1857 and 1862, the French decision to launch an expedition against Vietnam was made and implemented, resulting in the Treaty of Saigon, which granted France possession of the region surrounding Saigon. Between 1862 and 1874, Vietnamese efforts to negotiate a French departure failed as the naval officers who governed at Saigon annexed the rest of the Mekong plain to create the colony of Cochinchina. They also established a protectorate over Cambodia and sent an expedition up the Mekong, which determined that this was not a feasible route to China. Consequently, French interest shifted to northern Vietnam and the Red River route to Yunnan, leading to a rapid conquest of the Red River plain in 1873. This, however, was quickly disavowed by the new Third Republic government of France, still reeling over the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war between the Paris Communards and the National Guard. With the Treaty of  1874, France evacuated the Red River plain but established a loose “protector- ate” over the Hue monarchy with joint Franco-Vietnamese customs stations at  Hanoi, Hai Phong, and Qui Nhon.  In the early 1880s, rising commercial and industrial interests in France super- seded the agenda of the navy. Furthermore, a great spasm of competition among  European imperial powers for colonial territories led to a firm French determin- ation to ensure the exclusion of potential British or German interference in  Vietnam. The French government decided to take possession of the entire coun- try. In 1883, the French occupied Hue and forced the Vietnamese monarchy to  accept their “protection.” During the next twelve years, France gained control of northern Vietnam through a series of events that involved a war with China and a committed program of pacification. A brief war with Siam in 1893 enabled France to establish a protectorate over Laos. Efforts to put in order the administrative and financial arrangements for governing the pacified and protected territories were repeatedly initiated from the mid 1880s to the mid 1890s as a cadre of colonial officials with visions of an Asian colonial state accumulated in Saigon, Hue, and Hanoi.  During the governor generalship of Paul Doumer (1897–1902), French Indo- china was organized on a fiscal and administrative basis that would endure with  minor adjustments to the end of French rule in 1945. As a strategic bloc directed from Hanoi, Indochina without the French has in some respects continued into more recent times. Doumer, a prominent figure in French politics, created a  regime of taxation, public works, centralized government, scientific investiga- tion, and scholarly inquiry that defined the French colonial achievement among  the Vietnamese. The inability of later governor generals to significantly change  this regime defined the ultimate failure of the French to adjust to the conse- quences of their rule among the Vietnamese.  The events culminating in Paul Doumer’s term as governor general of French Indochina were initiated forty years earlier in the summer of 1857. In the wake of the fiasco of Montigny’s mission a few months earlier, Louis Napoleon, Emperor of France, convened a commission to study the question of policy toward Vietnam. Members of the commission included representatives of the navy, the Foreign Ministry, and the Ministries of Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works. Their report recommended intervention to achieve three goals. The primary consideration was a strongly felt need to be part of the European presence in Asia. The British, Dutch, Portuguese, Russians, and Spanish were all established in Asia. Participation with the British in the Crimean War demonstrated that France had emerged from its post-Napoleonic caution and could seek its place in the constellation of European powers. The British, who had tutored French foreign policy since Waterloo, were distracted in 1857 by rebellion in India and the outbreak of the Arrow War in Guangdong. The British showed no particular interest in Vietnam, so Vietnam was an appropriate place for the French to focus their attention. It was thought to be especially important for the navy to establish a secure base for its Asian operations, and Vietnam was admirably located in the center of Eastern Asia. The secondary consideration was economic. There was a perceived need to secure stable sources of commodities such as cotton, silk, sugar, rice, and coffee. Vietnam offered a place accessible by many seaports where a great range of products could be obtained. Furthermore, it offered opportunities for emerging French industries to market their manufactured goods. The final consideration was the religious question, which was pressed upon the commission by representatives of the missionaries. Ensuring the security of French missionaries and of Vietnamese Christians was viewed as a moral argument for intervention that would elicit the approval of the Catholic Church and would be useful for generating positive public opinion more generally. Louis Napoleon had cultivated the support of the Church in his rise to power and was inclined to pose as its protector. Louis Napoleon endorsed the commission’s recommendation. It happened that he was in the midst of plans to send an expeditionary force to join the British in an attack on China to force the revision of treaties that had been signed in the 1840s after the Opium War. Leonard Victor Joseph Charner (1797–1869) commanded the French naval forces to be engaged in China, and Pierre Louis Charles Rigault de Genouilly (1807–1873) was in command of one of the divisions of the French fleet. Rigault de Genouilly had commanded one of the French warships that bombarded Da Nang in April 1847, had served with distinction in the Crimean War, and was a strong advocate of attacking Vietnam to secure an Asian naval base. His assignment in 1857 included command of naval operations to be undertaken in Vietnamese waters. In late summer of 1857, French and Spanish representatives in Macau received news that in July a Spanish Dominican missionary had been publicly executed in Nam Dinh, south of Hanoi. Spanish authorities, learning of the prospect for French action against Vietnam, volunteered to add a contingent of Spanish-led Filipino troops. By the end of the year, the governments in Paris and Madrid had agreed on a joint expedition. After the British and French expedition had forced the Qing government to sign the Treaties of Tientsin in June 1858, Rigault de Genouilly was released from Charner’s command and directed to rendezvous with a Spanish flotilla off Hainan Island and to commence operations against Vietnam. On August 31 the Franco-Spanish expedition entered the Bay of Da Nang with fourteen ships, including five transports. There were around two thousand French troops, many of them Africans, and five hundred Spanish-led Filipinos; another five hundred Filipinos eventually arrived from Manila. The invaders quickly secured the harbor forts and established a beachhead. Mount Tra, a massif nearly seven hundred meters high, rises on the southeastern side of the bay. It forms a peninsula attached to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. The French placed an observation post on its peak, which enabled them to observe troop movements throughout the region. Between Mount Tra and the mouth of the Thu Bon River, thirty kilometers to the south, the hinterland is crisscrossed with waterways and footpaths. It was in this territory that most of the fighting between the Vietnamese and the Franco-Spanish forces took place during the next several months. The Vietnamese mobilized thousands of soldiers against the invaders but could not dislodge them. After four months, Tu Duc analyzed the gloomy situation of his army under six headings. According to him, the enemy was superior to Vietnamese troops in the gathering of intelligence, in communications, in the quality of equipment, in mobility, in tactical versatility, and in morale. Tu Duc’s conclusion, predictably, was to exhort his officials to try harder. In early 1859, Nguyen Tri Phuong arrived in the field and Vietnamese forces began to record some successes in repulsing enemy attacks. By this time Rigault de Genouilly had turned his attention away from Quang Nam and was preparing to strike Saigon. The French commander realized that the initial idea of trying to reach Hue was futile. There was no plausible way to access Hue directly by sea and his forces were not sufficient for a major land operation against the large numbers of Vietnamese soldiers that had been mobilized against him in Quang Nam. Missionaries argued for shifting operations to the Red River plain where they promised the support of a large population of Christians. The Spanish strongly supported this idea because all of their missionaries were in the north. However,  Rigault de Genouilly had already been disabused of illusory missionary expect- ations of local people rising up in support of the invaders. Although Tu Duc  attributed the superior intelligence of his enemy to the spying activities of Vietnamese Christians, Rigault de Genouilly evaluated the information he  received from missionary sources as unreliable. The French commander quar- reled with the missionaries and turned his back on them. Ignoring the protests of  his Spanish allies, he decided to leave a garrison at Da Nang and with two-thirds of his men, fewer than two thousand soldiers, seized Saigon in February 1859. Two months later, leaving a garrison at Saigon, Rigault de Genouilly returned to Da Nang with most of his men. Reinforced by one thousand troops from  France, he endeavored for the next several months to negotiate with the Viet- namese, but nothing was achieved. In the summer of 1860, cholera and typhus  spread among the expeditionary force at Da Nang, particularly among the  reinforcements fresh from France, and the Spanish were increasingly disen- chanted with the operation. There was no prospect of further reinforcements  because Louis Napoleon had suddenly entered a war against Austria in northern Italy. This war ended in a matter of weeks but it thoroughly diverted the emperor’s attention to European affairs and involved complications with Prussia and Britain. Furthermore, any resources that Paris could spare for Asia were  absorbed by the renewal of hostilities in northern China following Qing dis- avowal of the Treaties of Tientsin.  A new French expeditionary force arrived in Asia in 1860 to operate jointly  with British forces in northern China. In March 1860 the Franco-Spanish gar- rison at Da Nang was terminated. Spanish units returned to Manila and French  units joined the expedition to China. Rigault de Genouilly had returned to France in October 1859 where he argued successfully for the retention of Saigon. During the summer of 1860, while Franco-British forces were engaged in China, Nguyen Tri Phuong invested Saigon with around twelve thousand Vietnamese troops, severing it from the outside world. A small Franco-Spanish garrison of fewer than one thousand men held on, most being Senegalese and Filipino soldiers. After the conclusion of the Chinese war in late 1860, French forces became available to relieve the Saigon garrison. In February 1861, Admiral Charner arrived in Saigon with reinforcements of around 2,500 men. During the preceding six months, Nguyen Tri Phuong had built a large fortress at Ky Hoa designed to prevent the invaders from breaking out of Saigon. In what became known as the Battle of Ky Hoa, Charner attacked  and demolished this fortress. He then fought through the canal system connect- ing Cholon with the Mekong and seized My Tho.  In November, Charner was replaced by Louis Adolphe Bonard (1805–  1867), whose prior naval career had included action in Tahiti and the gover- norship of French Guiana in South America. Bonard expanded French-held  territory to include Bien Hoa in December 1861 and Vinh Long in March 1862. In June 1862, a delegation from Hue negotiated the Treaty of Saigon with him, by which Tu Duc ended his anti-Christian policy, agreed to pay an indemnity, and recognized French possession of the three provinces of Bien Hoa, Gia Dinh, and Dinh Tuong, comprising all of the plain north of the Mekong River. The small Spanish contingent at Saigon departed for Manila a year later when the treaty was ratified at Hue; Spanish bitterness over having gained nothing from the affair soured relations between Paris and Madrid for several years thereafter. The leader of the Vietnamese delegation that negotiated the Treaty of Saigon was Phan Thanh Gian (1796–1867). Of modest ancestry from Vinh Long Province, he was awarded the doctoral degree in 1826, the only man from the Mekong plain to attain this honor prior to 1856. He served as an envoy to the Qing court in the 1830s and became a prominent associate of Truong Dang Que at Tu Duc’s court in the 1850s. In 1862, he was the prime spokesman for a realist appraisal that resistance to the French was hopeless and that diplomacy was the only feasible path to take.  The Treaty of Saigon became the basis on which subsequent Franco- Vietnamese relations were contested and expanded. In addition to granting  sovereignty over three provinces to France, it also granted religious freedom to Catholics. The Hue court had allowed Phan Thanh Gian to negotiate the treaty under duress, for another Le pretender had appeared in the north at the head of a serious rebellion. Tu Duc understood that he could not fight the French in the south and the rebels in the north at the same time.

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