Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam

01

Dec
2021

The French take Hue

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King Tu Duc died in July 1883. During the last year of his life, whatever authority he still may have had was ebbing away as Rivière waited in Hanoi, new Qing armies crossed the border, and Vietnamese officials in the north prepared to resist the French despite their king’s passivity. Tu Duc seldom stirred from his palace unless to visit the gardens built at his nearby tomb. Unable to command the respect of his officials, he could not avoid relying upon men whom he did not trust. He faded into a shadow of impotent fear. Prominent members of the royal family and senior officials at Hue pulled in various directions in pursuit of personal interests or clashing policy agendas. The French chargé d’affaires at Hue, Pierre Paul Rheinart (1840–1902), was relatively sympathetic toward the Vietnamese. He thought that Rivière had exceeded his instructions and created an unnecessarily adversarial situation in the north. He gave strong encouragement to those among the Vietnamese who were inclined to view cooperation with the French as the best available alternative. Tran Tien Thanh (1813–1883) was the most senior of the officials who favored this view. He was from the Hue area and had earned his doctoral degree in 1838. He had been a close associate of Phan Thanh Gian, with whom he had traveled to France in 1864. He was a respected academician. He understood that resisting France was not a viable option. Ton That Thuyet, the prince who had played a prominent role in the Garnier affair of 1873, had risen steadily thereafter to become the senior military official at court. He stepped into the role of commanding general that had been occupied  by Nguyen Tri Phuong, who had died during the Garnier affair. He was irrecon- cilably anti-French and was determined to resist any further assertion of French  authority at Hue. The third man who emerged into prominence at Tu Duc’s death was Nguyen Van Tuong (1810–1886). His eagerness to insinuate himself into the center of power was already evident when he registered for the 1841 regional examination at Hue with the royal surname Nguyen Phuc. He may have wished to divert attention from his real ancestry for, according to some accounts, his father had been a rebel. Thieu Tri punished him with a term of banishment for lèse-majesté. His next recorded appearance is in 1856, during Tu Duc’s reign, as a district magistrate in his home province of Quang Tri, a short distance north of Hue. His jurisdiction was along the upland frontier of the Cam Lo Road that went over the mountains to Savannakhet on theMekong River in Laos. This was an important military and commercial route where information from Siam was collected, merchants made profits, and relations with upland populations were chronically troubled. Nguyen Van Tuong came to the attention of the court in the 1850s because of his success in sorting out problems with minority peoples and in keeping open the flow of trade between Savannakhet and Quang Tri. For the rest of his life he remained the royal expert on this place and frequently returned to set things right. He established a reputation for being competent and shrewd. When the examination riots broke out at Hue in 1864, Tu Duc put him in charge of the Hue police. In 1867 he went with a delegation to Saigon for talks with the French, and thereafter Tu Duc began to rely on him to handle French relations. In 1869 he was sent to the northern mountains to assist in combating the rebels and bandits that proliferated there. At times he worked as liaison with the Qing army that arrived at Hue’s request. At other times he led soldiers on campaign. Nguyen Tri Phuong praised his ability and observed that he could not be motivated by the threat of demotion or the prospect of promotion, indicating that he was able to focus on the task at hand. Nguyen Van Tuong was an earthy man of few words who made the most of whatever situation he encountered. He does not seem to have cared what others thought of him, apparently because he knew that Tu Duc needed him. When Tu Duc later asked him why the Qing soldiers were more successful than the Vietnamese soldiers, he replied: “Our soldiers are not used to the mountains and easily get sick; the Qing soldiers are used to the mountains and do not get sick.” Tu Duc exploded in exasperation: “We have been fighting up there for four or five years, we are worn out, and still we have no success; what should we do?” Nguyen Van Tuong simply said: “We have done our best but it is not good enough.” He did not spend time worrying about things he could not change. During the Garnier affair of 1873, Nguyen Van Tuong was called to Hue and sent to Saigon to consult with the French. He traveled with Philastre to Hanoi, worked with him to settle matters there, and subsequently negotiated the Treaty of 1874. Tu Duc thereafter relied on him for advice on nearly all matters of consequence. In particular, all foreign relations were in his hands. By the time of Tu Duc’s death, Nguyen Van Tuong was having an affair with Hoc Phi, Tu Duc’s wife. As Tu Duc lay dying in July 1883, he is said to have entrusted the succession to Tran Tien Thanh, Ton That Thuyet, and Nguyen Van Tuong. Childless, Tu Duc had adopted three of his nephews: Duc Duc (1852–1883), Dong Khanh (1864– 1889), and Kien Phuc (1869–1884). Although Kien Phuc was the youngest, he appears to have been the most intelligent, and some accounts affirm that he was Tu Duc’s choice. However, after Tu Duc’s death, the three regents swore that on his deathbed the king had designated Duc Duc, the eldest, as his successor. There are indications that pressure from the palace women enforced this observance of  primogeniture. Three senior women, known collectively as “The Three Cham- bers,” were particularly powerful. These were Tu Duc’s mother, Pham Thi Hang  (1810–1902), his wife Hoc Phi, and a surviving consort of Thieu Tri. These women enforced a strict hierarchy among the palace women and any violation of the rule of seniority in succession to the throne would have serious repercussions on their control of the inner quarters. Duc Duc was king for three days before being imprisoned and killed by the three regents. What led to this royal homicide remains a matter of conjecture, but something passed between Duc Duc and the regents that caused them to do away with him. The 31-year-old king may have made it clear that he did not want the tutelage of the three older men, and they were surely unwilling to give up the power to which they had grown accustomed under Tu Duc’s weak rule. Perhaps seeking to minimize any objections from “The Three Chambers,” the regents passed over the two young surviving adopted nephews and brought to the throne Hiep Hoa (1847–1883), a 36-year-old younger half-brother of Tu Duc. A senior Censorate official named Phan Dinh Phung (1844–1895) dared to openly denounce the regents for their irregular handling of Tu Duc’s succession. Ton That Thuyet arrested Phan Dinh Phung and sent him back to his home village in Ha Tinh Province. Phan Dinh Phung had obtained his doctoral degree only in 1877 but had risen quickly in the Censorate because of his reputation for  rectitude. He later led an anti-French movement in his home district and subse- quently was regarded by Vietnamese nationalists as a hero.  One month after the enthronement of Hiep Hoa, a French fleet landed troops and overran the forts guarding access to Hue from the sea. Nguyen Van Tuong hastened to sign what came to be called the Harmand Treaty, which met all French demands as defined by François Jules Harmand (1845–1921). Harmand was a naval physician who had played an enthusiastic role in the Garnier affair and subsequently shifted into diplomatic service. In the summer of 1883 he was empowered by Paris to obtain a protectorate treaty with Hue. The Harmand Treaty placed the Hue court under direct French supervision, annexed Binh  Thuan to Cochinchina, and created a Tonkin governed by Vietnamese magis- trates under the authority of resident French administrators. Thanh Hoa, Nghe  An, and Ha Tinh were included in Tonkin and a French garrison was to be placed on the border between Tonkin and the territory still under the government of Hue, which the French called the Kingdom of Annam. The Harmand Treaty shrank the territory under the direct governance of Hue to the provinces from Quang Binh in the north to Khanh Hoa in the south. The French were to have direct access to the rest of the country. Many politicians in France considered the Harmand Treaty inappropriately ambitious during a time of war with China. French leaders were reluctant to take responsibility for governing so much of the Vietnamese population before matters were settled with China. The Paris government never ratified the Harmand Treaty. Meanwhile, King Hiep Hoa maintained an attitude of cooperating with the French and relied on Tran Tien Thanh for advice. On the other hand he detested Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong, primarily because they obstructed his authority. Although Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong were not on good terms personally, they were allied against anyone who threatened their respective spheres of dominance, which for Ton That Thuyet was the army and for Nguyen Van Tuong was the palace and the court. Ton That Thuyet realized that with Hiep Hoa as king it would be impossible to organize resistance to the French. He persuaded Nguyen Van Tuong to join him in a coup. In late November 1883, both Hiep Hoa and Tran Tien Thanh were put to death, and the two remaining regents then brought to the throne 14-year-old Kien Phuc. They expected that Kien Phuc’s youth would ensure his compliance with their wishes. During the false Sino-French peace after the signing of the Tientsin Accord inMay 1884, the French ambassador to China, Jules Patenôtre des Noyers, arrived at Hue and presented a new treaty to Nguyen Van Tuong, which Nguyen Van Tuong readily signed. The Patenôtre Treaty, which became the basis of the subsequent colonial relationship, was essentially the same as the Harmand Treaty except that the four provinces that Harmand had detached to Cochinchina and Tonkin (Binh Thuan, Ha Tinh, Nghe An, and Thanh Hoa) were left in the Kingdom of Annam. In early June, on the occasion of signing this new treaty, the gold and silver seal of investiture given to Hue by Qing was melted down to symbolically bring an end to the centuries of Vietnamese vassalage to Chinese dynasties. The young king, Kien Phuc, was known for his integrity and wisdom, which was his undoing. During the months following Kien Phuc’s enthronement, Ton That Thuyet, with the approbation of Nguyen Van Tuong, began to organize a private army, separate from the regular military forces, loyal to him personally. Ton That Thuyet continued to harbor the dream of attacking the French and driving them into the sea. Kien Phuc understood the folly of this and was an obstacle to Ton That Thuyet’s plans. Furthermore, Kien Phuc was reportedly outraged over the illicit relationship between Nguyen Van Tuong and Hoc Phi. Accordingly, the two kingmakers resolved to be rid of him. At the end of July  1884, Kien Phuc died, plausibly of illness but more likely of poison. A 12-year- old half-brother of Kien Phuc named Ham Nghi (1872–1943) was placed on the  throne. Ham Nghi was the pliant tool that Ton That Thuyet had been seeking. During the months that followed, as the Sino-French War ran its course, Ton That Thuyet stored weapons in the mountains and made plans to resist the French. So long as the French were occupied with the Chinese war and made no further moves to assert their authority at Hue, the situation remained quiet. However, with the end of the Sino-French War in spring of 1885, the assignment of Philippe Marie Henri Roussel de Courcy (1827–1887) to begin implementing the Patenôtre Treaty ended the calm. De Courcy was a career army officer with a record of distinguished service in nearly every French war since the 1850s. But this was his first experience in Asia, and his blustering demeanor, devoid of nuance or of any sensitivity to local conditions, persuaded Ton That Thuyet that the time of decision had arrived. In early July 1885, Ton That Thuyet launched a nighttime attack on the French garrison in Hue and used the ensuing confusion and panic to stampede the royal court out of the capital. The refugees gathered at the provincial capital of Quang Tri, around sixty kilometers north of Hue, and deliberated about what to do. Ton That Thuyet announced his plans to take the small king to the mountains and appealed for followers. However, he was trusted by very few, and, with so much royal blood on his hands, he did not inspire confidence among members of the royal family or the court. Most chose to follow Nguyen Van Tuong and Pham Thi Hang, Tu Duc’s mother and the matriarch of the royal family, back to Hue where they submitted to the French. A few weeks later, the last surviving adopted nephew of Tu Duc and elder half-brother of Ham Nghi, Dong Khanh, was made king at Hue. Meanwhile, Ton That Thuyet issued a proclamation in the name of King Ham Nghi calling on the Vietnamese to rise up against the French. He installed Ham  Nghi in the mountainous wilderness near the Laotian border around ten kilo- meters south of the Ha Tinh–Quang Binh provincial boundary, leaving him in  the care of his two sons. He then departed northward through the mountains on a journey to seek the help of China, from where he never returned. Along the way, he endeavored to stir up anti-French activity. Ton That Thuyet’s schemes left a trail of misery and death. Hoang Ta Viem, the royal son-in-law who had commanded Vietnamese forces in northern Vietnam since the 1860s and had collaborated with Liu Yongfu against the French during the Garnier and Rivière affairs and the dry-season battles of 1883–1884, had known Ton That Thuyet for many years and looked askance at what this man had done. He rallied members of the royal family and their entourages behind King Dong Khanh and, in late 1886, unsuccessfully endeavored to persuade Ham Nghi’s keepers to come down from the mountains. Ton That Thuyet’s dramatic appeal to fight the French on behalf of a king in  the mountains unleashed a rage of violence against Christians, the most vulner- able targets of anti-French enthusiasm. The number of Christians killed in the  months that followed is unknown, but published estimates range from forty thousand to well over fifty thousand. Acts of resistance to the French appeared in many areas but were most persistent in the provinces north of Hue, particularly in Ha Tinh, Nghe An, and Thanh Hoa, where there were significant numbers of Christians and where a relatively large population of educated men had been alienated by Tu Duc’s failures of leadership. Village scholars, having grown frustrated with palace-bound royal leadership, were exhilarated to be called on by a king who had taken to the countryside to resist the French. During the autumn of 1885, the French army was greatly diminished by a cholera  epidemic and did little more than attempt to protect endangered Christian commu- nities. De Courcy considered Nguyen Van Tuong to be devious and exiled him to  Tahiti where he soon died. In Paris, the French government was still digesting the shock of the so-called “Tonkin Affair” of the previous spring when French forces had retreated in panic from Lang Son, provoking a parliamentary crisis that had brought an end to the Ferry government and a hasty conclusion to the Sino-French War. There were heated debates over policy in Vietnam and approval for continued operations there was voted by a very narrow margin. General de Courcy was  denounced for having unnecessarily provoked a dismaying situation with his exces- sive arrogance. Furthermore, in the summer of 1885, Governor General Thomson  at Saigon, in his effort to enhance French authority in Cambodia, had managed to stimulate a brief but widespread anti-French uprising among the Khmers.

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