French Indochina

   by Charles Kimball

Gia Long's successors did not care for Europeans or Christianity, both of which came into Vietnam with reunification. Seven missionaries and an unknown number of Vietnamese Christians were executed in the early 19th century; the French advisors and most of the remaining missionaries were expelled. France warned the emperors to leave their Christian subjects alone, and in 1847 the French showed they meant business by bombarding the harbor of Da Nang (called Tourane by the French).

The next Vietnamese emperor, Tu Duc (1848-83), responded by offering rewards for the killing of Europeans and by branding and exiling any native priest he could find. The Catholic Church called for a military expedition against Vietnam, but intervention was delayed for more than a decade while the French stayed busy with events in Europe like the 1848 revolutions, the rise of Napoleon III, and the Crimean War.

The decision to invade Vietnam was made by Napoleon III in July 1857. After more delays, a task force of 14 ships and 5,000 men came to Da Nang in August 1858. It only took a day to occupy the town, but the French could make no progress after that. Because they lacked the necessary shallow-draft boats to go up the Perfume River to Hue, they could not threaten the Vietnamese capital. Worse than that, no reinforcements arrived--they went to join the British in the Second Opium War against China--and the expected anti-government uprisings by Vietnamese Catholics failed to take place. On top of all that, French casualties from tropical diseases soon exceeded their battle dead, and when the rainy season started in October, the army was completely immobilized.

The French commander, Adm. Rigault Genouilly, decided to abandon Da Nang and attack in the south. Here he hit where it really hurt; he took Saigon, the main city in the rice-growing Mekong delta region. But Tu Duc still refused to admit defeat, and soon Saigon also came under siege by the more numerous Vietnamese forces. The situation remained a stalemate until 1861, when the French garrison was relieved by reinforcements returning from the Chinese expedition, along with some Spanish troops from Manila. Now the Franco-Spanish forces took the offensive, spreading out to capture three of the six provinces in the Mekong delta. Unable to resist the modern military technology of the West, Tu Duc finally gave in, and in the treaty that followed he signed away the provinces captured by the French. At this point the Spanish lost interest in Vietnam and withdrew, but the French were not finished yet. One year later (1863) a French officer visited the king of Cambodia and forced him at gunpoint to sign a treaty that transferred Cambodia's vassalage from Siam to France. In 1867 the governor of Saigon annexed the rest of the Mekong delta for France, allegedly to prevent Vietnamese interference in the affairs of Cambodia.(1)

For a while the French had hopes that the Mekong could be used as a trade route to southwest China, bringing trade goods to millions of potential customers. An explorer named Francis Garnier went up the river in 1866-68, and he came back with the report that the river could only be navigated as far upstream as Laos. The Red River, however, was suitable for commercial traffic, so now French eyes looked northward to Tonkin.

The first merchant to try the Red River route, Jean Dupuis, brought a cargo of arms from China to Vietnam in 1873. He tried to go back to China with a cargo of salt, and was arrested in Hanoi for trying to break the government's salt monopoly. Garnier was sent to Hanoi with 60 men to rescue Dupuis; once he did so, he seized the citadel at Hanoi and tried to claim all of Tonkin for France. Not long after that Garnier was killed in a battle with the Black Flags, a gang of Chinese and Vietnamese bandits, and the whole campaign to conquer the north collapsed. France, which had recently suffered a disastrous defeat (the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71), was in no mood to send Saigon the money or manpower needed for new conquests. The anticolonial faction in the Paris government declared that the recovery of France should take precedence over all other matters for the time being.

It took ten years of rapid economic growth before France was ready to raise the tricolor over more colonies. In April 1882 a force of 250 men was sent to Hanoi under Captain Henri Riviere, officially to suppress the Black Flags, who had grown to dominate most of Tonkin by this time. When Riviere suffered the same fate as Garnier, the French Chamber of Deputies immediately voted to impose French control over Tonkin, no matter what the cost. A stronger expeditionary force moved into the Red River delta in August 1883, while the French fleet bombarded Hue, where, unknown to the French, Emperor Tu Duc had died just a few weeks earlier. The court mandarins quickly surrendered the whole country to the French. That should have been the end of the fighting, but shortly before his death Tu Duc formed an anti-French alliance with China, in effect using Vietnam's oldest enemy to get rid of her newest foe. A new war broke out, this time with China on the side of the Vietnamese. The Chinese did well on land, but in 1885 the French fleet occupied several seaports on the Chinese coast; China was compelled to get out of Vietnam to get the ports back. A number of Vietnamese guerrillas, however, continued to resist the French until the turn of the century before they were finally suppressed.

The final act of French expansion was to take Laos from Siam in 1893, followed by two more pieces of Siamese territory in 1904 and 1907.

- France called the southern part of Vietnam "Cochin China." The north was renamed Tonkin, while the old name of Annam could mean either the center of the country, or Vietnam as a whole. The Vietnamese people, called Annamese or Annamites by the West at this time, never used these foreign names. They called the north Bac Bo, the center Trung Bo, and the south Nam Bo.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball