Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Cochinchina Campaign

Capture of Saigon
Indochina, composed of modern day Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, became the center of French imperialism in the Far East. For more than half a century, they subjugated the local people for economic benefits. The conquest that led eventually to the creation of the French Indochina began in the middle of the 19th century. The French first displayed their might through the conclusion of the issue concerning a missionary and the bombardment of the major port city of Touraneor modern day Da Nang in 1847. A decade later, they launch a campaign in southern Vietnam, then known as Cochinchina, that sowed the seeds of the French in Vietnam, leading the path towards the formation of the French Indochina.

The French had a long history with the Vietnamese. French missionaries had spread Christianity in its lands as early as the 17th century. The Christian missionaries also played a key role in establishing the last monarchial family of Vietnam – the Nguyens – during the latter part of the 18th and the turn of the 19th century.

The relation proved to be shaky as time went by. After the death of the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty, Emperor Gia Long, his successors feared the cultural and political threat that the missionaries posed. They saw them as foreign agents working to conspire against their independence. They also feared the deviation to traditional Confucian traditions that Christianity promoted. When China began to be carved by the western powers, the Vietnamese, fears worsen. Thus, it led to the persecution and execution of many Vietnamese Christians and even European missionaries. Fearing for their lives and safety, in the 1840’s, French missionary leader, Dominique Lefebvre plotted to incite a coup that would depose the anti-Christian Nguyen Emperor and enthroned a more sympathetic and moderate ruler. The Vietnamese authorities, however, discovered the plot and had Lefebvre arrested. Later on, the French secured his release onApril 1847 after two French warships bombarded the main port of Tourane, resulting to the death of hundreds of Vietnamese. The French hoped that their action would deter the Vietnamese from further persecuting Christians.

A decade later, the French, developed an ulterior motive, an imperial and colonial desire, towards the Vietnam, and the areas of Cambodia and Laos as a whole. Napoleon III had received numerous pleas from Christian missionary groups, most prominent being the Societe des Missions Etrangeres, to take tougher and more aggressive actions against Vietnam. After the 1847 incident, the Vietnamese government continued to persecute Christian missionaries and converts. Meanwhile, French military officials and other politicians also called for the establishing of a colony in the Orient for the sake of prestige and also the balance of power in the region. Back then, the main rival of the French, the British, had founded colonies in large areas of Asia, with India being the largest and wealthiest. They saw the need to match the British in Asia by creating a colony in the continent as well. In addition to political reasons, economic reasons became a factor for the decision of annexing the Indochina region. France stood as an industrialized country in Europe. Its industries needed more market and sources of raw materials in order to survive, and by creating a colony, they could send their goods to new markets and could find new source of raw materials for their businesses. Furthermore, besides industries, trading with China continued to be lucrative and important. Chinese tea, porcelain, and many more exotic goods continued to be highly demanded and priced in Europe. Having a colony in Asia meant they could a base where they could conduct more transactions with the Chinese. Henceforth, with pressure coming from the religious, political, military, and economic sectors, and perhaps with his personal agenda France glorious, Napoleon III agreed to establish a colony in Vietnam.

In order to initiate the annexation of Vietnam, France needed a reason to launch a military campaign against the Vietnamese. They did not need to look for long. In 1857, the Vietnamese authorities executed a Spanish Dominican missionary, Monsignor Diaz, in Hanoi. The French supported the Spanish protest against the execution. Spain sent a small punitive expeditionary force from Manila, Philippines composed of Filipino troops numbering about 450 and a warship. Carlos Palanca Gutierrez led the Spanish contingent. France on the other sent a much larger military force to Vietnam. Although France already deployed most of its forces towards China during the Second Opium War, it spared some troops when they knew the British would do most of the fighting in China and they thought that the affair in Vietnam would be short and fast. France sent 2,500 troops and 13 warships against Vietnam. Vice Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, who saw led the bombardment of Tourane during The Spanish and French forces converged in Hainan Island before proceeding to Vietnam.

The French thought of striking central Vietnam. They planned to attack the main port of Tourane (modern day Da Nang) in order to secure a port where reinforcement and supplies could be drop. Then from Tourane the Franco-Spanish forces would then march towards the Vietnamese capital of Hue. They gave information to the French military saying that Vietnamese Christian would rise up against the Nguyens once the European forces attack.  Furthermore, the French military officials received reports from missionaries that Vietnamese army would not be able to put up a formidable fight against the modern and industrialized warfare of the French. Hence, the French military thought that the campaign in Vietnam would be easy and quick.

On September 1, 1858, Franco-Spanish forces arrived at the port of Tourane and attacked the city. French and Spanish soldiers established a beachhead. They assaulted the city but faced tremendous resistance from the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese, under General Nguyen Tri Phuong, took a strong defensive position, made up of trenches and walls. Although the Vietnamese had scanty weapons, composed of halberds, spears, old stone guns, they fought with ferocity that made the European assault fail. After the failure of the initial strike, de Genouilly decided to besiege the city.

For the next five months, the French command became disillusioned by the situation. The siege of Tourane became a horror for the French and Spanish forces. Because of the Second Opium War, French could not sent additional forces and supplies to those in Vietnam. In addition, the Vietnamese environment became a strong enemy for the Europeans. Monsoon rain and tropical heat led to poor hygiene and sanitation, leading eventually to a cholera epidemic. Moreover, the promised rebellion of the Vietnamese Christians, which the missionaries promised, never materialized. The only close to that were few Christian Vietnamese that volunteered and trained to fight alongside the Europeans.

From the dreadful situation in Tourane, Admiral de Genouilly decided to make a strategic strike to Southern Vietnam or known then as Cochinchina. De Genouilly hoped that by taking Southern Vietnam, they could establish a foothold and increase the pressure to officials in Hue. In addition to this, the major Southern Vietnamese city of Saigon appeared to be lightly defended. And so, on February 1859, De Genouilly took half of the Franco-Spanish troops, two ships, and three gunboats to Saigon, leaving the rest to continue the siege of Tourane.

On February 10, 1859, the campaign to take Saigon began. Genouilly’s forces launched an attack against the Vietnamese forts in Vung Tau, a first step in securing the coast near Saigon. Following a five day operation, the French destroyed about 12 Vietnamese forts in the mouth of the Saigon River. The reason for such weak Vietnamese defenses laid on the fact that most of the best military officials in Saigon were sent to the north. In addition, many of the defenders were absence because they were undertaking training for modern military warfare. By February 16, 1859, the European forces attacked the citadel of Saigon, destroying it eventually on the following day. The victory in Saigon, however, became overshadowed by news from the situation in Tourane.

The small forces of Franco-Spanish forces in Tourane faced defeat when the Vietnamese threatened to launch an attack. Immediately, De Genouilly left Saigon for Tourane. He left the army in Saigon under the command of Bernard Jaureguiberry. The European forces in Tourane, later on, maintained its position, but De Genouilly did not. On October 1859, because of his subsequent failure to finish the Vietnam campaign, the French high command replaced De Genouilly with Admiral Francois Page to lead the campaign. Eventually, the Siege of Tourane ended with French forces in the port left and to be sent to China to fight in the Opium War. But the French forces in Saigon continued to fight on.

The French forces in Saigon, however, faced a serious threat. With the lifting of the siege of Tourane, Vietnamese officials in Hue sent General Nguyen Tri Phurong to Saigon with 2,000 men to retake Saigon.  They took position in an area in the west of Saigon, known as Ky Hoa. The French and Spanish forces braced themselves and reused some of the Vietnamese forts, including Phung and Cay Mai. Supplies were able to pour in for the French, when on February 22, 1860, the port of Saigon reopened. On March, 1860, the Vietnamese forces began to attack French position in Cay Mai. The confrontation between the two sides lasted for almost four months. On the night between July 3 and 4, the Vietnamese attacked the Franco-Spanish forces for an hour but failed when additional French forces arrived. Until 1861, the French, Spanish, and Vietnamese faced a stalemate until 1861.

By January 1861, the Europeans faced a new year with a hope of victory. The Opium War closed. Additional 3,500 French troops became available and proceeded to Saigon under the command of Leonard Charner. Upon arrival, they planned to break the deadlock and destroy the Vietnamese settled in a position in Ky Hoa known as the “redoubt”. On February 24, 1861, the decisive Battle of Ky Hoa began on the early morning. French used all they got against the Vietnamese in order to make gains. The battle raged all day and reached the next day, February 25, 1861. The Europeans faced ferocious onslaught from the Vietnamese and made their advance difficult and arduous. The Vietnamese fought so well, they managed to kill Spanish and French officers. But in the end, Ky Hoa and the Redoubt fell to the Europeans, who suffered 225 dead by the end of the battle. The Europeans became so furious with the difficult battle that with the fall of the Redoubt they killed any Vietnamese they saw. With the end of the Battle of Ky Hoa, the Europeans secured Saigon as a base for further conquest.

Months following the Battle of Ky Hoa, the Franco-Spanish forces advanced through the three adjacent provinces of Saigon. On February 28, 1861, the citadel of Tan Binh fell. Dinh Tuong citadel also fell on April 12, 1861. Vinh Long citadel followed a year later, on February 23, 1862. By 1862, they occupied the Vietnamese provinces of Gia Dinh, Dinh Truong, and Bien Hoa. Much of the advances became credited to Charner’s replacement from November 1861. Admiral Louis-Adolphe Bonard replaced Charner and completed the conquest of the provinces. He, however, knew that they could not continue to advance further. The Vietnamese launched a guerilla warfare against the French. It showed effectiveness, which disheartened Bonard.

Eventually both sides were prepared for a truce. The Nguyens wanted to sue for peace because of the growing crisis in the north. On June 1862, a pretender to the previous dynasty of Le led a rebellion that disrupted the economy of Vietnam seriously. The Nguyen Emperor Tu Duc knew that they could not face two wars. Hence on June 1862, he agreed to negotiate for peace.

The peace negotiations resulted to the signing of the Treaty of Saigon on June 1862. Under the treaty, Vietnam surrendered three southern provinces and Saigon to the French. In addition, they also surrendered some rights to the French.

The Treaty of Saigon marked the end of the four year Conchinchina Campaign of France. But it only marked a start of a more aggressive conquest of Vietnam in order to fulfill the French dream of a colony. For the Vietnamese, it marked an age of decline for the Nguyen Dynasty as well as for the independence of the Vietnam.

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Inc, 2008.

Ngha Vo. A History of Saigon. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.

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