Indochina At War



Thieu Tri and the French navy

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In 1838, when it seemed that he had prevailed over the last echoes of the Le dynasty, had perfectly unified the country, and had achieved his ambitions in Cambodia, Minh Mang celebrated by renaming his realm Dai Nam, “Great South.” Barely three years later, he died after a fall from a horse, amidst a war with Siam that would erase what he thought he had achieved in Cambodia. Minh Mang’s death also came during the Opium War of 1839–1842, in which a British expeditionary force humbled Qing China and obtained possession of Hong Kong, thereby opening a new era when European warships began to appear regularly in Vietnamese coastal waters. During the short reign of Minh Mang’s son and successor, Thieu Tri (r. 1840–1847), the Siamese in Cambodia and the Europeans offshore pulled the attention of the Hue court in two directions. Thieu Tri, Minh Mang’s eldest son, was born in 1807. He was well educated, highly cultured, and intelligent. He was also reluctant to change his father’s policies except under duress. He lacked the strength of mind to see beyond immediate problems, and he was vulnerable to the schemes of ambitious officials.  The main features of his reign were ending the Siamese war, continuing the anti- Christian measures begun by Minh Mang, albeit without the use of capital  punishment, and suffering humiliating confrontations with the French navy. A salient consideration that had led to Truong Minh Giang’s recall from Cambodia in 1841 was a Siamese-inspired rebellion among the downriver Khmer population centered in the modern province of Tra Vinh, the deltaic region lying between the two main branches of the Mekong River. For nine months, beginning in spring 1841, a charismatic Khmer named Lam Sam led  large armies that also included some Chinese and Vietnamese. Hue forces grad- ually pressed Lam Sam’s army against the coast where he built defensive walls. In  the last month of the year his position was overrun, and he was captured and killed. A Siamese offensive into Vietnam intended to coordinate with Lam Sam was repulsed. Lam Sam’s uprising was a typical feature of Siamese–Vietnamese warfare in the 1830s and 1840s as each side endeavored to rally Khmer partisans to distract the other from the main battlefront. Lam Sam’s rebellion was but the most spectacular of several Khmer uprisings in the lower Mekong during the 1840s. These uprisings, like the Le Duy Luong uprising, Nong Van Van’s rebellion among the minority peoples in the northern border provinces, and to some extent even Le Van Khoi’s rebellion, were part of a countrywide reaction to Minh Mang’s effort to propagate and discipline a stricter sense of Vietnamese cultural identity by promoting Confucian education, eradicating Christianity, and erasing ethnic minorities. Minh Mang abandoned the policy of Gia Long and Le Van Duyet that discouraged Vietnamese from  trespassing into territories inhabited by other ethnic groups. Instead, he pro- moted a policy of assimilating ethnic minorities. For example, in the south,  Khmer and Vietnamese villages were combined into single jurisdictions, Viet- namese villages were established in localities previously reserved for Khmer, and  Khmer were pressured to attend Vietnamese schools and to speak Vietnamese. Similar policies were established among upland minorities. The Chinese were a special problem, and Minh Mang moved more cautiously and with less effect toward abolishing Chinese communal organizations. Thieu Tri continued Minh Mang’s assimilating policies. The Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia that had sunk Truong Minh  Giang in despair did not indicate any renunciation of Hue’s ambitions in Cam- bodia but was simply a tactical response to the Siamese offensive and the  emergency of Lam Sam’s revolt. After Lam Sam’s movement had been sup- pressed and the Siamese offensive was spent, the Vietnamese rebuilt their armies  and supply lines and pushed back across the border into the Khmer provinces adjacent to the Vinh Te Canal, after which the war lapsed into an extended lull. Khmer leaders wanted to find a way to make peace between the Siamese and Vietnamese so that foreign armies would depart and a monarchy acceptable to both sides could regain a measure of autonomy. Ang Duong, the Siamese candidate for the Cambodian throne, was at Oudong under the watchful eyes  of the Siamese general Bodin. Ang Mei, Ang Duong’s niece, whom the Vietnam- ese had poised as Queen of Cambodia in 1835, and Ang Im, Ang Duong’s elder  brother, who had fallen into Vietnamese hands in 1839, were in Vietnamese custody at Saigon. Confidential messages passed among these people seeking some way to negotiate an end to the war and a restoration of the Khmer monarchy. While Ang Mei sought conciliation between Ang Duong and the Vietnamese, Thieu Tri, revealing a typical Vietnamese concern with territorial control, favored a partition of Cambodia with Ang Duong and Ang Im reigning  as kings in their respective pro-Siamese and pro-Vietnamese domains. The Siam- ese opposed the idea of partition, being determined to gain control over all of  Cambodia. Ang Im’s death in 1843 inspired Rama III to renew the war. Thinking to capitalize on Ang Duong’s unassailable claim to the throne, he hastily ordered an offensive against the Vietnamese. A Siamese attack by sea at Kampot was intended to coordinate with a Khmer offensive downriver led by Ang Duong. However, poor communication and misunderstandings resulted in the Siamese expedition re-embarking and returning to Bangkok, leaving Ang Duong to face the Vietnamese alone. The Vietnamese advanced, sending Ang Duong’s army upriver in retreat. Bodin moved his forces downriver to secure Phnom Penh. He  then called out thousands of Khmers in forced labor to build lines of fortifica- tions to protect Phnom Penh. The Khmers were suffering from chronic famine  caused by wartime conditions, and Bodin’s sense of urgency drove him to harsh usage of the Khmers, which provoked anti-Siamese sentiments among local Khmer leaders. After uncovering and suppressing a pro-Vietnamese plot against Ang Duong led by the governors of Baphnom (Svay Rieng) and Prey Veng, located near the Vietnamese border north of the Mekong River, Bodin went to Bangkok to confer with Rama III. Taking advantage of Bodin’s absence from Cambodia, a group of Khmer nobles, encouraged by the Vietnamese, conspired against Ang Duong. When he learned of the conspiracy, Ang Duong quickly arrested eight of the conspirators; four others escaped to Vietnam. Exasperated by this indication of Khmer support for the Vietnamese, Rama III sent Bodin back to Cambodia with reinforcements and instructions to expel the Vietnamese from there. However, before Bodin could bring his armies into position, the Vietnamese attacked upriver in the autumn of 1845, breaking through the Siamese fortifications and taking Phnom Penh. After months of fighting, a battle line was stabilized between Phnom Penh and Oudong, and the war settled into a stalemate. Peace negotiations began in early 1846 and continued for over a year. An agreement was finally ratified in late spring of 1847. All fortifications were  demolished, Siamese and Vietnamese armies withdrew from the country, prison- ers and hostages were exchanged, and Ang Duong supplied a message to Hue  that could be interpreted by the Vietnamese as submission. But the outcome of the war favored the Siamese, who emphasized this by annexing two more provinces in northern Cambodia, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng. Ang Duong reigned under close Siamese supervision until 1860 and has been remembered for his efforts to rebuild his war-ravaged kingdom. Thieu Tri’s acquiescence to the loss of the Cambodian protectorate, albeit veiled by the fiction of joint Siamese–Vietnamese suzerainty, reflected not only his relatively pacific temperament but also his deep concern, even anger, aroused by the threatening appearance of French warships. French naval officers demanded the release of imprisoned missionaries and the abolition of Minh Mang’s anti-Christian edicts. Between 1833 and 1838, Minh Mang had executed ten European missionaries, six Frenchmen sent by the Paris Society for Foreign Missions, three Spanish Dominicans from Manila, and one Franciscan. During that same time many Vietnamese Christian leaders were also killed, churches were demolished, and unknown numbers of Christians were deported to remote upland areas. With the outbreak of the Opium War in 1839 and the landing of an army from British India in Guangdong, Minh Mang suspended further executions of Europeans and sent envoys to Dutch Batavia, to Penang where many Vietnamese Christians attended a French seminary, to Calcutta to meet with the authorities of British India, and then on to Paris and London. He  apparently wanted to establish contact with the increasingly aggressive Euro- peans in the region and to evaluate the extent to which the Sino-British War  would affect the security of his country. The envoys to Europe returned to Hue after Minh Mang’s death, and this diplomatic initiative was bereft of results. Thieu Tri upheld Minh Mang’s prohibition of Christianity and several Viet- namese Christian leaders were put to death. Although European missionaries  were imprisoned and condemned to death during Thieu Tri’s reign, none of them was executed. Thieu Tri lived in a world that had suddenly changed from that of his father. After the Opium War, the French navy began to patrol Asian waters in search of a permanent base from which to spread the influence of France. Although Tahiti was taken in 1843, it was too far away to serve any Asian purpose. A French scheme to build a naval base on the island of Basilan in the Philippines was thwarted in 1845 by Spanish and British objections. Meanwhile, French naval officers were guests in Spanish Manila, Dutch Batavia, British Singapore and Hong Kong, and Portuguese Macau. In early 1843, a French naval captain, learning in Macau that five French missionaries were imprisoned in Hue under sentences of death, took his warship to Da Nang Bay on his own authority and, after a week of negotiation and threats, obtained the release of the five men. This fixed in Thieu Tri’s mind a connection between Christian missionaries and foreign warships. Two months after this episode, Admiral Jean Baptiste Cécille arrived in Asian waters from France in command of a new French fleet. He spent a few weeks in Da Nang Bay arguing fruitlessly with local mandarins about his request for a cession of territory for a naval base and about the persecution of Christians. His argument that the French would protect the Vietnamese from the British gained no traction among Vietnamese officials, who were instructed to hasten the departure of the uninvited visitors. Dominique Lefèbvre (1810–1865), a French missionary, was imprisoned at Hue under a sentence of death when the American Commodore John Percival stopped at Da Nang in May 1845 during his three-year circumnavigation of the globe aboard the venerable USS Constitution. Hearing of the ship’s presence, Lefèbvre managed to send a message to the Americans pleading for deliverance. Percival failed to gain Lefèbvre’s release despite taking hostage three Vietnamese officials and seizing three Vietnamese boats. After two weeks had passed without achieving any result, Percival released the hostages and the boats, and then sailed off. Four years later, the US consul at Singapore traveled to Da Nang to deliver a formal apology for this episode and to convey the US government’s disavowal of Percival’s actions. Meanwhile, within a week of Percival’s departure from Da Nang, a French warship arrived with a letter from Admiral Cécille demanding Lefèbvre’s release. Thieu Tri, heavily engaged in Cambodia and worried about the affair with the previously unknown Americans and its possible connection with the sudden appearance of the French warship, complied, and Lefèbvre was allowed to depart. After a sojourn in Singapore, Lefèbvre, in 1846, attempted to enter the port of Saigon clandestinely but was caught and eventually sent to Hue. In the spring of 1847, while occupied with the final arrangements for concluding the treaty of peace in Cambodia and not wanting any further complication with the French, Thieu Tri sent Lefèbvre to Singapore. Unaware of this, Cécille sent two warships to Da Nang with a letter demanding Lefèbvre’s release and an end to the persecution of Christians.  After three weeks, failures of communication between the French naval offi- cers and local Vietnamese officials led to a battle in which the French sank five  Vietnamese warships and destroyed the harbor forts with artillery fire. The French then sailed off. The Vietnamese officially recorded 40 sailors dead, 90 wounded, and 104 missing. The French recorded one dead and one wounded. Behind this outbreak of violence was deep mutual suspicion. For example, in fear of being taken hostage, the Vietnamese refused the French demand to deliver a message from Hue aboard their ships, while the French, fearing an ambush, refused the Vietnamese demand to come ashore to receive the message. The French appear to have initiated hostilities when their nerves broke as Vietnamese warships continued to arrive in the harbor. A few days after this battle, the persistent Lefèbvre successfully entered the country by the Mekong River and conducted his missionary work in hiding for the next twelve years until the French seized Saigon. Thieu Tri was deeply disturbed by the Da Nang battle, not only because of the loss of men and material but also from a sense of impending doom unless he could find a way to manage the threat posed by the French navy. He became grim and prone to anger. For several days, the smallest irritation would cause him to erupt. Guardsmen falling asleep on duty at night, an official who dared to argue with him, another official who made errors in preparing a document, all were punished with eighty to a hundred strokes of the cane. Thieu Tri asked Truong Dang Que (1794–1864), his most trusted official, “These Western ships come for only two basic reasons: they want us to abolish the edicts against Christianity and they want to trade. We can accommodate trade, but what about Christianity – can we allow it?” Having just disengaged from the Cambodian confrontation with Siam, he was looking for a way out of the seeming impasse with Western navies. He was particularly concerned because of the geography of his country having such an extensive coastline and being susceptible to being cut in half at its narrow center. But the location of Hue was also a problem, being vulnerable to the sea but far from the reservoirs of manpower and resources needed to defend it. Truong Dang Que was from Quang Ngai. Although his father had served the Tay Son, he was able to enter royal service at Hue after passing the 1819 regional examination. He rose rapidly to the top of court appointments under Minh Mang and in 1845 emerged as the most powerful minister at Thieu Tri’s court. He reportedly answered Thieu Tri’s question, with more brevity than clarity, by saying: “They started this, and we cannot expect them to be reasonable.” Thieu Tri sensed that such an uncompromising attitude would not go far, but he could not see a way forward. He was sufficiently intelligent to analyze the situation with care and passionate enough to be thoroughly engaged with the problem, but it was easy for him to postpone making decisions. According to the True Records of the Great South (Dai Nam Thuc Luc), he reportedly said: The Westerners are cunning. If we abolish our laws against Christianity, the British will hear of it and demand that we abolish our laws against opium. The Westerners are wolves: there is no way to satisfy them! What  can we do when everything must be according to their demands? More- over, Christianity is a false religion and its harm to us has reached the  level of foreign relations and has opened the door to war. Opium is an anesthetic, and it utterly ruins human lives. These two things are both strictly forbidden and we will publicly affirm this so that it will be known in the history written by future generations … The Westerners are not simply one country. For example, the Dutch we never see and when they send messages to us they are not from a king but from some strange authority that we cannot understand. But the French, although we have released them from prison many times, despite forbidding them to enter our country, and we thereby deserve their thanks, still they sprout more desperate schemes. Let us wait for the return of our traveling officials, and we can ask them about French intentions. If this enemy has some aggressive idea, Saigon and Hai Phong will also be places of danger, not only Da Nang. With a strong orientation toward the opinions of moralistic historians in the future, such was Thieu Tri’s prophetic but ultimately passive frame of mind when, half a year later, in the autumn of 1847, two British warships appeared at Da Nang with proposals for a commercial treaty. The British were hoping to contrast their friendly demeanor with the truculent impression left by the French. But Thieu Tri would have none of it. Despite amicable greetings between the  British and local officials, the ships left empty-handed. While Thieu Tri under- stood the French to be champions of Christianity, he understood the British to be  champions of opium. The idea of bending under foreign pressure to succumb to either of these two calamities filled Thieu Tri with rage. Thieu Tri had been in poor health for a month already. A few days after the British departed, he died at the age of 41, according to some reports, of apoplexy.

Mention of traveling officials refers to an established practice of regularly sending men to Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Batavia to buy merchandise for the court and to collect news. Information about the outside world was not lacking at Hue. What was lacking was leadership capable of processing and acting on information. Minh Mang had built a centralized structure of authority at Hue, but his successors, erudite prisoners of palace life, tended to rely upon the initiative of experienced officials. The chief priority for the most ambitious and successful of senior officials was to ensure their continued exercise of power. Thieu Tri’s weak, hesitating leadership opened space for such men.

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