The Nguyen Dynasty



The South And The North Diverge

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Relations with Cambodia When Nguyen Phuc Tan died in 1687, his 39-year-old second son, Nguyen Phuc Tran, came to power and shifted the seat of government to Phu Xuan, the modern city of Hue. Nguyen Phuc Tran’s elder brother, Nguyen Phuc Tan’s designated heir, had died three years before. Nguyen Phuc Tran’s short four-year rule shows him to have been an uninspiring leader and a poor judge of character. No sooner had he assumed command than the far south began to slip out of his control, and the people he sent to deal with it were famous failures. Nguyen Phuc Tan had left a situation on the southern frontier that was unstable but full of promise. The two kings of Cambodia, the “first king” Chei Chéttha III and the “second king” Ang Nan, had been in a more or less continual state of war since the 1670s, with Siamese troops intervening on behalf of Chei Chéttha III and Vietnamese troops intervening on behalf of Ang Nan. Cambodia was partitioned between the two Khmer princes with Ang Nan’s territories generally coinciding with the parts of the country that would eventually become Vietnamese. In 1679, a new element was added with the arrival of a fleet of the Ming navy that had been pushed out of Chinese seaports by the Qing Manchu conquerors. This fleet had been operating in the South China Sea for many years and already had contacts among Chinese merchants at Hoi An and other Vietnamese ports, including Prei Nokor (modern Cholon). When over fifty ships with some three  thousand men, along with their families, arrived at Da Nang Bay and neighbor- ing anchorages, Nguyen Phuc Tan directed them to the Mekong frontier. One  group under Chen Shangchuan settled at Bien Hoa on the Dong Nai River, not far from Prei Nokor. A second group under Yang Yandi settled at modern My Tho on the northern bank of the northernmost arm of the Mekong River, accessible to Prei Nokor via canals and the Vam Co river system that drains a vast swampy region between the Dong Nai/Sai Gon River basin and the Mekong plain. Prei Nokor, located between the two settlements and protected by the Vietnamese garrison at Kampong Krabei (Saigon), rapidly developed from this time and became a major port city that attracted merchants from many Asian and European countries. The Ming settlers maintained armies that in the 1680s began to participate in the Cambodian civil wars in support of Ang Nan. Chen Shangchuan was particularly active in this regard. Nguyen Phuc Tan had assembled the structure of loyalties holding together the Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Khmer followers of Ang Nan. After his death, the court at Phu Xuan was unable to maintain this structure, and it began to disintegrate. Furthermore, just at this time, the death of King Narai in Siam produced a major political change there, which drew Siamese attention away from Cambodia for a time. In 1688, Yang Yandi, the Ming leader at My Tho, was murdered by his lieutenant Huang Jin, who then built fortifications, trained soldiers, preyed on shipping, and was rumored to harbor the ambition of seizing control of all Cambodia. In response to this, Chei Chéttha III increased his military forces and displayed indications of preparing for war. Ang Nan, alarmed, appealed to Phu Xuan for help. Nguyen Phuc Tran was persuaded by corrupt schemers to give command of his army to a man without military ability. In 1689, this man succeeded in capturing and killing Huang Jin, and then, with Chen Shangchuan leading the vanguard, he proceeded to attack Chei Chéttha III. However, according to a story recorded by Vietnamese historians, he fell into the wiles of a beautiful woman, Chei Chéttha III’s envoy, and, making peace with Chei Chéttha III, he withdrew his army back to Kampong Krabei, becoming the laughing stock of his generals. Hearing of this, Nguyen Phuc Tran dismissed the commander and replaced him with Nguyen Huu Hao, a son of the famous general Nguyen Huu Dat. In 1690, once again the Vietnamese and Chinese forces, along with Ang Nan’s Khmers, advanced against Chei Chéttha III. And once again Chei  Chéttha III’s seductive envoy made a laughing stock of the Vietnamese com- mander by persuading him to withdraw his army and wait for gifts that never  came. Nguyen Phuc Tran dismissed Nguyen Huu Hao. Shortly after, in early 1691, Nguyen Phuc Tran fell ill and died with affairs on the Mekong frontier in such disarray that Ang Nan killed himself in despair. Ang Nan’s 10-year-old son, Ang Im, whose mother was Chinese, lived under the protection of Chen Shangchuan. Such was the situation when Nguyen Phuc Tran’s eldest son, Nguyen Phuc Chu, came to power. Although only 16 years old when he began to rule, Nguyen Phuc Chu quickly established a reputation for intelligence, modesty, and effective leadership. In 1694 he was confronted by a conspiracy of cousins, sons of Nguyen Phuc Tan’s deceased eldest son, who believed they represented the “senior line” of the family and thus had the right to exercise power. Without hesitation he seized and executed the conspirators and their followers. Nguyen Phuc Chu governed for thirty-four years, sired 146 children, and added to his grandfather’s legacy of  making astute and far-sighted decisions. His first test was the disordered situ- ation on the southern frontier. The incompetence of the men sent by his father,  and then his father’s death, apparently emboldened the Cham king, Po Sot, to seize the Phan Rang region in defiance of Phu Xuan’s authority. Before dealing with the Khmer situation, Nguyen Phuc Chu had to first respond to the Chams. The man selected to go south was another son of Nguyen Huu Dat, a younger brother of the hapless Nguyen Huu Hao named Nguyen Huu Canh. In 1693, Nguyen Huu Canh captured Po Sot. The Cham kingdom was reorganized into the province of Binh Thuan (the modern provinces of Binh Thuan and Ninh  Thuan). Vietnamese officials were sent to administer the major coastal popula- tion centers at Phan Rang, Phan Ri, and Phan Thiet. A Cham noble led some five  thousand Cham Muslims to join the Cham Muslim community in Cambodia. Many Chams moved into the uplands and joined the Churu, Ede, and Jarai peoples there. Po Sot died shortly after, in captivity, but a younger brother of his named Po Saktiray Depatih (known to the Vietnamese as Ke Ba Tu) was appointed as an “aboriginal king” by the Vietnamese to govern the Cham population that remained. In late 1693 and early 1694, a Cham noble and a Chinese claiming magical powers rallied an uprising among the Chams, but, after twice besieging Phan Rang, they were driven off and fled for refuge in Cambodia. Thereafter, until his death in 1727, Po Saktiray Depatih maintained peaceful relations between the Chams of Binh Thuan and the Vietnamese court at Phu Xuan, sending tribute as required while endeavoring to shield the Chams from the authority of Vietnamese administrators. The Vietnamese agreed to return all the prisoners and plunder they had taken from Champa in the recent campaign.  For their part, the Chams were charged with an annual tribute of 2 bull ele- phants, 20 head of cattle, 6 elephant tusks, 10 rhinoceros horns, 500 measures of  cloth, 50 measures of honey, 200 measures of dried fish, 400 measures of salt- encrusted sand for making an alkaline solution used for washing hair, 500  bamboo mats, 200 ebony trees, and 1 long boat.  In 1712 Po Saktiray Depatih obtained a “five-point treaty” with the Vietnam- ese that, at least in theory, remained in effect until the abolition of the Cham  “aboriginal kingship” in 1832. According to this treaty, the Cham king had sole jurisdiction over litigation among Chams, while litigation between Chams and Vietnamese was to be jointly decided by Cham and Vietnamese officials. Other provisions required that merchants moving through Cham territory to trade with the upland peoples register with Cham officials and that Vietnamese authorities were not to oppress or abuse Chams. Chams were supposedly required to adopt the Vietnamese style of clothing, though it is not known to what extent this was enforced. With most Muslim Chams having fled to Cambodia, those remaining in Binh Thuan mainly followed the Hindu tradition in Cham culture. A separate and distinctive population also appeared in subsequent generations from Cham– Viet intermarriage that combined features of both Cham and Vietnamese culture. In 1714, Po Saktiray Depatih traveled with his family and entourage to attend a vegetarian feast celebrating the completion of a major construction project at Thien Mu Temple in Phu Xuan. Later that year, he requested permission to erect a new building where his administration of the Cham people could be conducted.  His request was approved and he received from the Vietnamese court an archi- tectural plan for his magistracy. After his death, members of his family succeeded  him for several generations. Nguyen Phuc Chu presided over the demise of Champa as a vassal kingdom  and its incorporation into the structure of Vietnamese government. This elimin- ated the “Cham gap” that had separated the Vietnamese settlements in the Dong  Nai and Sai Gon River basin from the rest of the country and unambiguously advanced the Vietnamese border to this “antechamber” of the Mekong plain. This may have been what prompted Nguyen Phuc Chu to take an elevated title for himself in 1693 as “lord of the kingdom” (quoc chua) and two years later to build a temple to venerate the spirits of his predecessors.  The poorly led expeditions sent to Cambodia by Nguyen Phuc Tran dimin- ished Vietnamese prestige in the region, and Chei Chéttha III exploited this in  1696 when he invited Ang Im, the 15-year-old son of his deceased cousin and old enemy Ang Nan, to come to his court at Oudong. Ang Im accepted the invitation and was married to one of Chei Chéttha III’s daughters. The war that had divided the Khmers since the 1670s was seemingly at an end. Building on the experience of erasing the Cham kingdom and establishing the province of Thuan Thanh, Nguyen Phuc Chu proceded in 1698 to establish the province of Gia Dinh in the basin of the Dong Nai and Sai Gon Rivers. The headquarters of the province was at Saigon. People were recruited from the provinces in the north and sent to augment the Vietnamese population there. Many of these were landless peasants and those without an apparent means of livelihood. According to missionary accounts, around 10 percent of the Vietnamese population in Gia Dinh by the beginning of the eighteenth century was Christian. That Christians were a discernible element in the Gia Dinh population can be inferred from an order sent to Gia Dinh administrators in 1699 to expel all Christians and European missionaries, an order which seems not to have been enforced. To any extent that it might have been enforced, such a ban would have served only to send more Vietnamese settlers into marginal lands of the Mekong plain. Vietnamese Christians were attracted to this frontier because of the greater freedom there amidst the cultural diversity of Chinese, Khmers, and Chams. Many Khmer communities with their own leaders continued to exist in Gia Dinh. There were also Cham communities, although at that time most of the Chams outside of Binh Thuan had settled under the protection of the Khmer king. The Chinese population of Gia Dinh was changing with the older Ming immigrants congregating at Cholon and more recent Qing immigrants gathering  at Bien Hoa. The Ming Chinese population at My Tho was beyond the adminis- trative jurisdiction of Gia Dinh, but nevertheless remained closely allied with the  Vietnamese authorities at Saigon. Chen Shangchuan, who commanded Chinese military forces, was stationed at an advanced position upriver from My Tho, near where the northern branch of the Mekong begins to split into several channels on its way to the sea. His post was at Vinh Long, between the two main branches of the Mekong, in a position to observe all riverine traffic in or  out of Cambodia. One of his assignments was to safeguard Chinese and Viet- namese trade on the river.  Chei Chéttha III responded to the fait accompli of Nguyen Phuc Chu’s annex- ation of Gia Dinh by making military preparations and, according to Chen  Shangchuan’s reports, interfering with trade. Nguyen Phuc Chu immediately initiated military operations. In 1700, Chen Shangchuan led the vanguard of an expedition commanded by Nguyen Huu Canh, who seized the Khmer capital and forced Chei Chéttha III to flee. Chei Chéttha III’s son-in-law, Ang Im, the teenage son of Ang Nan who had been raised by his Chinese mother under the protection of Chen Shangchuan before joining the Khmer royal court in 1696, first resisted the Phu Xuan forces on behalf of his father-in-law, and then submitted to Nguyen Huu Canh, allowing himself to be made king of Cambodia by the Vietnamese. Within weeks, however, Nguyen Huu Canh died, the Phu Xuan forces withdrew, and Chei Chéttha III returned to the throne. In the years that followed, Chei Chéttha III yielded increasing authority into the hands of his son, who ruled as Srei Thoamareachea II and who elicited Siamese intervention against Ang Im, now supported by the Vietnamese. In 1705, Nguyen Phuc Chu sent an expedition to push back the Siamese and to advance Ang Im’s cause. Thereafter, Srei Thoamareachea II and Ang Im revived the wars of their fathers, Chei Chéttha III and Ang Nan, which had lasted from the 1670s to the 1690s. Interventions in this struggle by Siam and Phu Xuan became routine during the first half of the eighteenth century, with Siam and Phu Xuan both annexing parts of the Cambodian kingdom as the price of assistance to their respective protégés. One small aspect of the 1705 Vietnamese expedition involved an English outpost that had been established in 1702 on the island of Con Dao, about ninety kilometers off the southern mouth of the Mekong River. Nguyen Phuc Chu apparently tolerated this in expectation that the English would conform to his policies toward Cambodia. But when the English indicated an interest in trading with Cambodia and a large Cambodian delegation arrived at Con Dao, Vietnamese authorities at Gia Dinh were instructed to eliminate this potential source of interference in Phu Xuan’s policy toward Cambodia. Shortly before the 1705 expedition, the English and Khmers on Con Dao were massacred by Macassarese mercenaries of the English and by Vietnamese residing on the island. The Vietnamese governor at Gia Dinh apparently instigated this event, for he arrived immediately after with soldiers to take possession of the island. The Ming people who had settled at Bien Hoa and My Tho under the authority of the fleet commanders in 1679 were the most organized of a large migration of refugees from the Qing conquest of China into the Mekong region. Among this migration was a man from Guangdong named Mo Jiu (1655–1735) who insinuated himself into the entourage of Chei Chéttha III and received from him an appointment in the province of Peam (at the modern Vietnamese city of Ha Tien), on the Gulf of Siam, where Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Malay merchants gathered. He opened a gambling house and became exceedingly wealthy. This place was a gateway from the sea into the Khmer kingdom that did not rely upon the Mekong River. Amidst the confusions of the Khmer kingdom in those years, Mo Jiu established himself as ruler of the western coast of the Mekong’s deltaic plain, comprised of territories around the modern cities of Ha Tien, Rach Gia, and Ca Mau, as well as the large island of Phu Quoc, all of which at that time came to be known as Ha Tien to the Vietnamese. As his patron Chei Chéttha III faded from the scene and the Sino-Vietnamese presence grew along the Mekong, Mo Jiu did not find Srei Thoamareachea II to be a reliable suzerain. In 1708, he submitted to Nguyen Phuc Chu and received an appointment to govern Ha Tien as a Vietnamese territory. Thereafter, he cooperated with Phu Xuan in the complex game of politics along the main arms of the Mekong River that involved Khmers, Siamese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams, and also a community of nearly three thousand Laotians who had found refuge with Chei Chéttha III in 1691 after fleeing a power struggle in their country. In just a few years of Nguyen Phuc Chu’s rule, Phu Xuan’s strategic position had dramatically improved with the annexations of Gia Dinh and Ha Tien, territories that anchored the eastern and western ends of a future Khmer– Viet deltaic border. Nguyen Cuu Van, the leader of the 1705 expedition, subsequently served for many years as governor of Gia Dinh. He asserted personal ownership over much land in territories to the southwest and northwest of Saigon. Directly to the west is a vast swampy region unsuitable for agriculture. His lands to the southwest, in modern Tien Giang Province west of My Tho, were vulnerable to Khmer attack so he built a defensive wall from the West Vam Co River to the northern branch of the Mekong River. His practice of forcing settlers on his land into a serf-like status was imitated by other locally powerful men and provoked sufficient unrest  that it was reported to Nguyen Phuc Chu in 1711. Nguyen Phuc Chu admon- ished Nguyen Cuu Van to stop enslaving people and ordered him to institute a  policy of distributing land to the landless and allowing them three years of exemption from taxation. This measure reportedly calmed the situation, but the practice of powerful men claiming vast lands worked by landless peasants became characteristic of Vietnamese settlement in the Mekong plain. Later that same year, Nguyen Cuu Van and Chen Shangchuan reported that Srei Thoamareachea II was reinforcing his position in Cambodia with large numbers of troops arriving from Siam. Nguyen Phuc Chu instructed them to maintain vigilance, but he chose to postpone action until absolutely necessary, understanding that the passing of time and the arrival of increasing numbers of Vietnamese settlers would strengthen his position. Finally, in late 1714, Srei Thoamareachea II, reinforced with a Siamese army, besieged Ang Im, probably at Srei Santhor, about forty kilometers north of Phnom Penh, where his father’s headquarters had often been located. With Ang Im and his Khmer followers was a military force recruited from the Laotian community in Cambodia, which allied with him against the Siamese. However, Ang Im’s enemies outnumbered him four to one, so he called to Gia Dinh for help. Chen Shangchuan again led the way for Phu Xuan armies to advance upriver and seize the Khmer capital. Srei Thoamareachea II fled to Siam and the Vietnamese proclaimed Ang Im as King of Cambodia. Ang Im and his son Ang Chi reigned as kings of Cambodia from then until 1737. In the 1720s they fended off several Siamese invasions with Phu Xuan’s assistance. Chen Shangchuan died in 1715 but his son Chen Dading continued to loyally serve Phu Xuan’s interests.

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