Friday, February 13, 2015

French Conquest of Indochina

The extent of French Indochina (Yellow)
France was one of the greatest powers in the world. Along with its European rivals, it acquired a huge empire that comprised territories from the Africa to Asia. In the region of Southeast Asia, France became a major player in its politics during the 19th century. In competition with Great Britain, it exerted a lot of effort in order to acquire lands as much as possible. At the end, France managed to obtain the region known as Indochina. And for the countries, of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, it was a start of a half a century of colonization and exploitation.

But how France obtained Indochina? What drove the French to take Indochina? What happened that led fall of its natives in the hands of the French? What effects became felt after the conquest of Indochina?

France only started to assert its dominance over Indochina during the 1800’s. Before then, the only French that settled in the areas of modern day Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam or Indochina were the French missionaries. The French missionaries played a part in the rise of the Nguyen Dynasty in the early 1800’s. The missionaries’ propagation of the Christian faith then became very active. So much so that by 1840, the Vietnamese Christians numbered around 500,000. Off course, Confucian and traditionalist courtiers in the Nguyen capital of Hue felt anxious, suspicious, and even threatened by the rising number of Vietnamese Christians. They saw Christianity destroying the traditional Confucian values of ancestral worship, which also became a top issue of Christians in East Asia. And so, the Nguyen officials began the persecution of Christians in Vietnam. On the process of destroying the Christians, the traditionalist Vietnamese killed numerous French and Spanish priests. France then used this persecution as a driving force for its intervention and eventual conquest of Vietnam and its neighboring lands of Laos and Cambodia.

This intervention in the name of religion a part of the so-called white man’s burden. In the west, governments used the term civilizing mission or in French, mission civilisatice, as a pretext for imperialism and colonization. They felt that they had the responsibility of bringing order, culture, and civilization to the so-called “heathens” or “barbarians” in faraway lands. However, this “burden” or “duty” hid the other reasons of imperialism, mainly political and economic. During the 1840’s, many western nations wanted to access the lucrative trade with China. Hence, the Portuguese took Macao. Spanish conquered the Philippines. The Dutch colonized Indonesia. And the British, who already had the rich lands of India, advanced its territories to Burma and Malayan Peninsula. France needed a stepping stone or a station in the east in order to facilitate trade with the Chinese. Other than that, the French industrial revolution began to take off. Industrialization meant more resources needed and more markets for selling manufactured goods. Other than economic, politics also played a role. Having a huge colonial empire brought great prestige to a European country. It served as a bragging rights in continental affairs of Europe. If France gained a territory in the East, it would be able to challenge the veteran of imperialism – Great Britain. Thus, the search for an oriental empire began. Luckily for France, it found one – in Indochina.

With an excuse of protecting its missionaries, the French, along with the Spanish, began operations against the Vietnamese Nguyen Dynasty. The first French intervention concerning the persecution of Christians happened in 1847. French warships bombarded Da Nang (Tourane) and killed thousands of Vietnamese. But the French actions in 1847 failed to deter the Nguyen officials from hunting down Christians. It continued for another decade. Cries for further French intervention increased over time. By the late 1850’s France began its conquests of Indochina, starting first with Vietnam. France had already a substantial naval presence in the Far East due to the upheavals of the Second Opium War that raged from 1856 to 1860. Some French spared some French units from the fighting in China and moved them south to Vietnam. And in 1858, known as the Cochinchina Campaign, French forces under Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly landed in Da Nang. However, the strength of the Da Nang proved to be strong. Instead, the French moved south and besieged Saigon, which fell in 1859.  Then, it pushed out the Vietnamese in the neighboring three provinces of the Saigon. The fall of Saigon became the ace of Admiral Genouilly in order to secure the French ownership of Saigon and three close provinces. In 1862, the French and Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc agreed to a treaty known as the Treaty of Saigon. Under the agreement, Vietnam granted France control of Saigon and its three neighboring provinces of Bien Hoa, Gia Dinh, and Dinh Tuong. French became temporarily settled with their territories in Southern Vietnam, known as Cochinchina.

Meanwhile, besides Vietnam, France also began to assert its dominance in neighboring Cambodia. At that time, Vietnam and Siam competed with each other for dominance and influence in Cambodia. The once mighty Khmer Empire became a lowly tributary state of either the Vietnamese or the Siamese. In 1853, the Cambodian King Ang Duang wanted to revive the lost glory of the Khmers. With the urging of the French missionaries, King Ang Duang wrote a friendly as well as diplomatic letter to France’s Napoleon III, seeking partnership with the French. In 1856, King Ang Duang sent another letter, this time asking for help and even protection for their campaign for independence from Vietnam and Siam and for the rise of Cambodia. The letter then invited the French to go to Cambodia. Two years later, in 1858, the French arrived to Cambodia via Cochinchina, during their campaign to subdue the Vietnamese region. In 1860, King Ang Duang passed away without naming an heir. The timing and the events could not have been worse. The kingdom underwent a period of internal strife. The chaos that ensued brought down peace and order. Banditry outside the capital rose significantly. Catholic missions became favorite targets of the bandits. Bishop in charge of all Christians in Cambodia, Jean-Claude Miche, sought French intervention in kingdom. At the same year, France had already settled in Cochinchina. French forces then moved in to Cambodia easily. Besides religious reasons, the French also feared Siamese intervention, with British support, in Cambodia. They did not want to lose the opportunity to gain more lands, especially those lands near the Mekong River. The Mekong River had been a target for French intervention in Cochinchina. They believed that the scantly explored river traversed up to the Central China. Access to Central China meant more markets for goods and more source of natural resources and exotic and highly valued oriental goods.

In 1862, Prince Norodom, son of the deceased King Ang Duang, returned to Cambodia to claim the throne. The Siamese saw Norodom as the new King of Cambodia, and off course, as a puppet king of the kingdom. To show Norodom than the Siamese dominate Cambodia, Siamese King Mongkut refused return the royal regalia of Cambodia to Norodom. Norodom felt insulted and furious. He wanted to avenge this insult by colluding with the French for their support. Norodom soon realized that the French and the Siamese competed with each other for influence and control of him and Cambodia. He exploited it but it proved to be similar to playing with fire. On August of 1863, to retaliate to the Siamese, he agreed for the French to gain access to Cambodian ports for trade in exchange of their protection. Virtually, Cambodia became a French protectorate. However, Norodom did not wanted to become a pawn of the French. In order to strike a balance, in December of 1863, he again signed another agreement secretly with Siam seeking protection. In exchange for protection of Siam, he agreed to be crowned as King of Cambodia in Bangkok. On March 1864, Siam crowned Norodom as King of Cambodia. In order to strike a balance with the French. Norodom also agreed to be crowned once more in Udong in June. In 1867, the Siamese, under the fear of war and its weakness against the western powers, agreed to drop its claims over all of Cambodia except the provinces of Siam Reap and Battambang. These two provinces remained under Siamese hands until 1907, when King Chulalongkorn agreed to drop the provinces as part of Siam as well. Since then, French had effectively put Cambodia into its oriental empire with Cochinchina.

In the 1870’s, France’s aggression in Vietnam ceased temporarily due to the raging Franco-Prussian War in Europe. The Franco-Prussian War made the French concentrate its forces back to France. After the war ended, resources had to be reallocated for reconstruction of the nation. Only in the 1880’s that France once again began its imperialism in order to revive its lost power and prestige from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

Other developments that developed in the 1880’s included a change in the target of the France in Indochina. The conquests of the whole Mekong River for access to Central China had to wait, because Laos, another land that control the Mekong, remained under strong Siamese control. The French then learned that the Red River could serve the same purpose. But the Red River laid in Northern Vietnam, in Tonkin, under the control of the Nguyens. The Nguyen Dynasty, meanwhile, faced decline. Rebellions and banditry had sprung up across the kingdom. The Black Army, one of the biggest and strongest rebel groups, proved be a challenge for Vietnam. It weakened the strength of Vietnam and led to its vulnerability for French expansion and ambition. In 1882, the French attacked and took Hanoi from the Nguyen Dynasty under the pretense of protecting it from the Black Army and attacks of Chinese Pirates. A year later, in 1883, things became even worst for Vietnam. Emperor Tu Duc passed away without even leaving an heir. Hence, Vietnam became leaderless. The French then moved in to assert its control over the French. In 1884, France made the Vietnamese rulers to sign the Treaty of Patenotre, where France pledge to protect all Vietnamese territories. Therefore, it made the rest Vietnam, including the Annam and Tonkin region, a French protectorate. China, however, protest about the French control over Tonkin, which the Chinese highly influenced the area. The Qing saw it as a slapped in its imperial prestige. France then defended its position in Tonkin and waged war against the Chinese. It ended only with the singing of the Treaty Tianjin where China recognized French control over the whole of Vietnam. In 1887, France showed off its lands in the east with the establishment of the Indochinese Union made of the French colonies or protectorates of Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, and Cambodia.

But the conquest of the Indochina did not stop there. In 1893, French pursued the conquest of Laos. Once again, France revived its ambition to take the road to Central China – Mekong River. Laos bordered with the Mekong and the Kingdom of Siam. During the 1880’s, Siam tightened its control of Laos by sending troops to the area. In 1893, Paris sent August Pavie to handle the acquisition of Laos. France then launched an aggressive campaign to take Laos. Using the Treaty of Patenotre, the French reasoned that Laos used to be under Vietnam, hence, they had the obligation to protect it. Siam, however, defended the lands aggressively. Skirmishes between the Siamese and French raged. One incident resulted to the death of a French officer. Pavie, who also became the French minister in Bangkok, Siam, used it as a reason to dispatch French warships to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, in a district known as Paknam. King Chulalongkorn decided to attack the French warships. The French warships, the Comete and the Inconstant, fought their way into the Chao Phraya and into Bangkok. There they aimed their guns to the Grand Palace. Pavie then sent an ultimatum demanding Siam to relinquish its claim over the lands east of the Mekong River. After serious considerations, Siam signed a treaty with France in October 1893, giving up their claims to Laos. Laos then became a French protectorate and incorporated into the Indochinese Union. The final phase of the conquest of Indochina ended.

After the conquest of Indochina, the period of colonization under France began. For decades, France exploited the vast amounts of natural resources of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The people of these countries suffered from the colonial exploitation and abuse. Only after the Second World War that the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, exploited the weakness of the French and began their fight for independence. 

See also:
Duiker, W. & B. Lockhart. Historical Dictionary of Vietnam. 1989.

Ooi, K. G. (ed.). Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, From Angkor Wat to East Timor. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2004.

Osborne, M. Phnom Penh: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University, 2008.

Owen, N. (ed.). The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005.

Philips, D. Vietnam. New York: Chelsea House, 2006.

Stuart-Fox, M. A History of Laos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Walker, H. East Asia: A New History. Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2012.

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