The Sino-French War

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By the end of the 1870s, the number of Frenchmen, both in Cochinchina and in France, who had given up on hopes of establishing a working relationship with Tu Duc was growing rapidly. Furthermore, the lack of effective authority in the north aroused French fears of intervention by China or by another European power. Advocates of colonial expansion were determined to establish French control over the Red River route to Yunnan. But any new French initiative would require the full support of Paris. Such support began to develop in the late 1870s as new industrial, commercial, and colonial interests began to be felt in parlia- ment after the monarchists were defeated in 1877. The resistance of the naval  officers in Saigon to these new interests, which they believed would push aside their priorities, led in 1879 to the appointment of the first civilian governor of Cochinchina, Charles Le Myre de Vilers (1833–1918). The rise of republican politicians in parliament at this time produced a major  shift in French policy toward colonial expansion in Vietnam. Their anti- clericalism, partly derived from the Church’s support of monarchy, made them  uninterested in and sometimes hostile to the missionaries. But they wanted to restore France as a great European power and believed that the acquisition of a colonial empire would go far toward erasing the humiliating defeat in the Prussian War of 1870–1871. There were, however, two major tendencies among the republicans. The Radical Republicans supported colonial expansion so long  as it did not interfere with their agenda of major domestic reforms. The Oppor- tunist Republicans were less ideologically committed to effecting social change  and were more interested in international affairs. They favored gradualist domes- tic policies that seized opportunities for, but did not force, reform. They were  also more susceptible to seizing opportunities for colonial expansion. Such an opportunity presented itself in Vietnam. Major figures among the Opportunist Republicans served as prime ministers during the early 1880s when the decisions were made that pushed forward the conquest of Vietnam: Léon Gambetta (1838–1882), Charles Louis de Saulces de  Freycinet (1828–1923), and Jules François Camille Ferry (1832–1893). Gam- betta was closely associated with the deputy representing Cochinchina in Par- liament, Jules Blancsubé, who was also the Mayor of Saigon and an advocate of  taking northern Vietnam. These men were at the forefront of a growing chorus  of politicians, government officials, businessmen, geographical societies, cham- bers of commerce, and propagandists such as Jean Dupuis, the merchant  adventurer who had been expelled from Hanoi by the navy in 1874. One firm proponent of action in Vietnam was Jean Bernard Jauréguiberry (1815–1887), a distinguished admiral who as a captain had led the first French landing at Saigon in 1859. In the autumn of 1879, as Minister of the Navy and of Colonies, he proposed that a large expeditionary force be sent to northern Vietnam. This plan was too ambitious at that time and it languished. But the idea remained alive, and, in early 1882, Le Myre de Vilers was authorized to send a military detachment to Hanoi for the purpose of opening up the Red River to commerce. In effect, the first step in the new French policy was to challenge Liu Yongfu. Le Myre de Vilers turned to Henri Laurent Rivière (1827–1883), a career naval officer with literary ambitions who had been recently posted to Saigon as commander of the Cochinchina naval division. When Rivière seized Hanoi citadel with around five hundred men in April 1882, China mobilized an army across the Sino-Vietnamese border. The French minister to China was so alarmed that he negotiated an agreement for a Sino-French partition of northern Vietnam. There followed nearly a year of inaction as Le Myre de Vilers shrank from confrontation with China, Rivière sat in Hanoi working on his novel, and the politicians in Paris were occupied with changing governments. When he became prime minister for the second time, in February 1883, Ferry discarded the draft treaty of partition with China and ordered Rivière to proceed. A few months earlier, in the autumn of 1882, Le Myre de Vilers had been replaced by Charles Antoine François Thomson (1845–1898), a former secretary  of Gambetta with an uncompromising attitude toward implementing the con- quest of Vietnam. Ly Myre de Vilers had shown more interest in the internal  administration of Cochinchina than in being involved with the “Tonkin Ques- tion.” Derived from Dong Kinh, the old name of Hanoi, Tonkin became colonial  terminology for the Red River plain. In addition to affirming French law and implementing civilian government in Cochinchina, Le Myre de Vilers was interested in expanding the possibilities of  Franco-Vietnamese cooperation. He started a program to send young Vietnam- ese on visits to France, he established the Alliance Français in Saigon, he opened  procedures for Vietnamese to gain French citizenship, and he instituted the Colonial Council of Cochinchina, partly appointed and partly elected, which included Vietnamese representatives. Thomson continued these policies but at the same time moved aggressively in Tonkin. In March 1883, roused from his pen, Rivière led his few hundred men to seize the coal mines at Hon Gai, the port at Hai Phong, and the fortress at Nam Dinh, thereby opening up the Red River plain for further French operations from the sea. Within weeks, Qing military intervention recommenced in the northern mountains, and Liu Yongfu moved downriver to confront the French. In May, Liu Yongfu’s men killed Rivière in an ambush near Hanoi. Unlike the death of Garnier a decade earlier, Rivière’s death provoked a great outburst of French enthusiasm for continuing the intervention, and the French Parliament voted for money and soldiers for the conquest of Vietnam.  Thousands of French and Chinese reinforcements poured into northern Viet- nam during the summer and autumn of 1883. A Qing army from Guangxi  moved down into the lowlands and occupied Bac Ninh, about thirty kilometers northeast of Hanoi. Vietnamese military units under the command of Hoang Ta Viem rallied at the Son Tay fortress, about thirty kilometers northwest of Hanoi on the Red River, where they were joined by Liu Yongfu and Qing military units from Yunnan. In December, Son Tay fell to the French. When the French moved against Bac Ninh in March of 1884, the Guangxi army, suffering from poor leadership and lack of discipline, offered minimal resistance before escaping north into the mountains. Hoang Ta Viem and Liu Yongfu had meanwhile withdrawn to Hung Hoa, on the Red River about thirty kilometers northwest of Son Tay. In April, French forces concentrated against Hung Hoa, bombarding it with artillery and threatening to encircle it. Liu Yongfu escaped upriver with his men and the Qing Yunnanese soldiers while Hoang Ta Viem fled with his Vietnamese forces south through the mountains to Thanh Hoa.  On the basis of these French victories, pacifist elements in the Qing govern- ment gained a brief ascendancy and in May negotiated an agreement with French  diplomats at Tientsin in northern China. The Tientsin Accord provided for Chinese recognition of a French protectorate over Vietnam and withdrawal of Chinese soldiers from Vietnam. But differing French and Chinese views about the schedule for withdrawal of Qing troops led to a military encounter in June when French troops moving north to occupy the border at Lang Son struck Qing outposts. This episode stiffened bellicose spirits in both Paris and Beijing, and the war was subsequently renewed. By October of 1884, the Quangxi army was threatening to re-emerge from the mountains into the plains. In a series of battles, the French pushed back toward Lang Son. Then, after weeks of preparation, in a two-week campaign in early February 1885, the French took Lang Son and Qing forces withdrew to the border. Meanwhile, Liu Yongfu and Qing units from Yunnan had besieged the French garrison at Tuyen Quang, which the French had seized from Liu Yongfu the previous June. Tuyen Quang was isolated in the mountains about one hundred kilometers northwest of Hanoi. The small French garrison, comprised of four hundred legionnaires and two hundred Vietnamese troops, was nearly overwhelmed before French reinforcements defeated the besiegers after hard fighting in early March. The French reinforcements for Tuyen Quang included units withdrawn from Lang Son. The French commander left at Lang Son lost his nerve in late March and ordered a panicked withdrawal that enabled the Chinese to reoccupy Lang Son. The news of this retreat from Lang Son provoked a political crisis in Paris, where the colonial adventure was suddenly vulnerable to critics. The Radical Republicans, led by George Benjamin Clemenceau (1841–1929), who was later famous as prime minister during and after the First World War, denounced Prime Minister Ferry in Parliament. Ferry was voted out of office and his political career was ended. A surge of anti-colonial sentiment swept away the influence of the colonial lobby. Heated parliamentary debates over colonial policy continued  for months, and in December of 1885 an appropriations bill to finance oper- ations in Vietnam passed by only four votes. Meanwhile, war with China was quickly concluded on the basis of the Tientsin Accord of the previous year. China was also ready for peace, mainly as a result of  French naval operations along the Chinese coast that had blockaded the move- ment of rice from southern China, causing a food shortage in northern China.  Liu Yongfu evacuated northern Vietnam with the Qing forces, ending his Viet- namese career but beginning a new career in the Qing army.  With the end of the Sino-French War in early summer of 1885, the French began to give serious thought to organizing their newly won protectorate over the court at Hue. During the preceding two years, while enthusiasm for colonial expansion prevailed in Paris following the death of Rivière and while French attention was fixed upon China, the royal court at Hue was divided between those interested in working with the French and those aiming to resist the French. Not until hopes and apprehensions of Qing intervention were extinguished did the situation in Hue shift toward a definite resolution.

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