Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lefebvre Affair and the Bombardment of Tourane

Charles Rigault de Genouilly
Tourane, Vietnam, 1847 – two warships came to the coast. The warships had French flags and demanded the release of one of its missionary – Dominique Lefebvre. Suddenly, the French began a bombardment of Tourane. But events prevailed before the Bombardment of Tourane? What happened during the Bombardment? And lastly, what happened after the incident occurred?

The events leading to the Bombardment of Tourane centered on a French missionary named Dominique Lefebvre. In 1835, he arrived in Vietnam following in the footsteps of other missionaries that helped to establish the Nguyen Dynasty and evangelizing the people of Vietnam. More than fifty years before the arrival of Lefebvre, the French missionary became close to Nguyen Prince named Nguyen Anh. Later on, they supported him in his conquest of Vietnam by creating a missionary army to fight for the Prince. Eventually, they became victorious and Nguyen Anh took the reign of Gia Long, ruling over the lands of modern day Vietnam and had considerable influence in the kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Cambodia. Gia Long treated the missionaries well and allowed them to preach freely. But after his death in 1820, his successors felt suspicious of the French and Spanish missionaries working in the country. They began to act against them, leading to arrest and sometime executions. This situation prevailed when Dominique Lefebvre arrived in Vietnam. Obviously, he gambled his life for the job. Lefebvre saw the discriminative policies of the authorities and began to look for solutions to improve their situation. In 1845, he came up with the idea of launching a Palace coup in the capital city of Hue, dethroning the ruling anti- Christian Emperor Thieu Tri, and replacing him with a more sympathetic or liberal Emperor. The bold plan of Lefebvre never materialized because the authority managed to discover the plot. They arrested Lefebvre, incarcerated him in the city of Hue, and sentenced him to death.

But the authorities suspended the sentence after Lefebvre managed to sneak a letter to an American captain. In the spring of 1845, the American ship, USS Constitution docked in the port of Tourane. Back in Hue, Lefebvre got the news of the American ship in Tourane. He had a letter smuggled out of the prison and into the hands of the captain of the Constitution, John Percival. When Percival received the letter, Vietnamese official boarded the ship and welcomed it to the port. After reading the distress letter of Lefebvre, the Captain held the Vietnamese officials hostage and demanded the release of Lefebvre. The Vietnamese, however, refused to give in to the brazen demands of the American Captain. Eventually, Percival left Tourane in disgrace. The United States disagreed and disavowed with the Captain Percival’s action and they also apologized to Vietnam.

But the actions of the Captain led to the reduction of the sentence of Lefebvre to longtime imprisonment. In addition, Percival reported to the French naval commander in the Far East Admiral Jean-Baptiste Cecille the imprisonment of the French missionary. In 1846, Admiral Cecille sent the warship, Alcmene, under Captain Fornier-Duplan to Tourane. Captain Fornier-Duplan threatened the Vietnamese for the release of Lefebvre. The Vietnamese Emperor Thieu Tri began to worry about continuing the imprisonment of Lefebvre. He feared that if Lefebvre imprisonment drag on, a war against France might ensue. His fear increase when an armed French warship came to its shores. He wanted to avoid war and so when French demanded his release, he did so in addition to giving gifts to the French captain.  The Alcmene sailed out of Vietnam.

The Lefebvre affair could have ended after his release in 1846 if he did not crossed back to Vietnam in May of the same year. He attempted to sneak back to Vietnam but caught along with his companion priest named Duclos. Remembering his traitorous act to the Emperor, the authorities arrested him once again in 1847. According to some, the Vietnamese released Lefebvre on February of 1847.

Then on March, suddenly, two French warship, the Gloire and the Victorieuse, sailed to the Vietnamese port of Tourane under the command of Captains Charles Rigault de Genouilly and Augustin de Lapierre. The two warships arrived and four Vietnamese warships greeted them. They demanded the Vietnamese to release Lefebvre, secure freedom of religion, and the Vietnamese warships to put down their sails. It appears that the two French warship came unaware that the Vietnamese had already released Lefebvre if the account that Lefebvre was released a month ago. Nevertheless they continued.

By April 15, 1847, the Vietnamese ignored the demand of the French and the French started the bombardment. The French claimed self-defense and that the Vietnamese attacked them but the Vietnamese said otherwise. Who really fired first remained a mystery to this day. For 70 minutes the two French warship opened fire to the nearby Vietnamese warships and the port of Tourane. The French attack resulted to the sinking of three out of the four warships present and hundreds up to thousands of death to the Vietnamese. After the attack, the French warships sailed out of Vietnam.

The Bombardment of the Tourane soon only became a practice of what would come next. Few months after the Tourane bombardment, Emperor Thieu Tri passed away, leaving the throne to Tu Duc. Under his reign, France increased their encroachment to Vietnam and later Cambodia. The terrors of the Bombardment of Tourane returned in a much powerful scale. Later on, Vietnam failed to cope up and modernize which eventually led to its fall to the hands of French imperialism.

See also:

Corfield, J. The History of Vietnam. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History. New York: Peguin Books, 1984.

Tucker, S. (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011.

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