Episode 19, The First Two Divisions of Vietnam


For the first time, I missed one of my deadlines for completing a podcast episode, due to being kept busy with various things in the real world.  However, this episode is longer than average, so I hope you will think the extra content was worth the wait.

This episode covers Vietnam in the early modern era, from 1471 to 1819.  Twice during this period, Vietnam was divided between rival factions, from 1527 to 1592, and then from 1592 to 1802.  We will also see Champa, Vietnam’s rival in Episodes 4 and 8, for the last time.  Finally, one French clergyman will invent today’s Vietnamese alphabet, and another will help Vietnam pull itself together again; that marks the beginning of French involvement in Vietnam, and we will see much more of that in future episodes.



(Transcript, added 03/09/2020.)

This episode is dedicated to B from Hawaii, who made a generous donation a week before I recorded this. Like I told other donors, your contribution will keep the lights on, while I look for a future sponsor, and I am grateful for what you have done to make sure the narrative in this podcast series will continue to the present. To quote Frank Bartles, from the Bartles & Jaymes commercials in the 1980s:


<Bartles clip>


And now, on with today’s show!


Episode 19: The First Two Divisions of Vietnam


Greetings, dear listeners! So far in this podcast series, we have devoted two spisodes exclusively to the land we now call Vietnam. Episode 4 covered the origins of the Vietnamese people, their southern neighbors the Chams, and the long period under Chinese rule. Then Episode 8 covered the medieval era, when the main event was the long struggle between Champa and the Vietnamese state, now called Dai Viet. Now we are going to look at Vietnam in the early modern era, covering the years from 1471 to 1819.


The last time we talked about Vietnam we broke off in the reign of Le Thanh Tong, the greatest Vietnamese emperor, who ruled from 1460 to 1497. In Episodes 9 and 10 we looked at his military achievements. In 1471 he achieved the spectacular victory that permanently broke the power of Champa, and brought the northern half of that rival state under Vietnamese rule. Military colonies were established in the south for Vietnamese settlers, who subsequently moved in to claim the new land available. Later in the 1470s, he fought a war with Laos, caused by a dispute over a white elephant. Here he didn’t do as well; the Vietnamese captured Luang Prabang, the old Laotian capital, but later the Lao drove them out again. Still, the Vietnamese would use this war as a pretext to claim Xieng Khouang, the Laotian city on the Plain of Jars, in the seventeenth century.


Now what did Le Thanh Tong do in peacetime? His main activity was a complete remodeling of the government, to imitate the Chinese bureaucracy and follow Confucian teachings as much as possible. The administration was organized into six ministries to shape policy, and under each ministry was a department to carry out its decisions. The land was divided into thirteen provinces called phu, which were subdivided into smaller districts called huyen, and those contained some eight thousand chau, or communes. A communications network just as complicated was set up to carry messages, and inspectors were regularly sent all around the country to make sure the local governments were working right, and to hear the grievances of the people, at least in theory. For military purposes, Le Thanh Tong maintained a standing army of 200,000 men; the country was organized into five military districts, and a census was conducted every three years, to make sure the authorities knew where young men were available for conscription. However, because communications were not instantaneous like they usually are today, the central government’s ability to enforce its decrees and laws was limited on the local level. As one popular Vietnamese proverb put it, quote: “The edicts of the emperor stop at the edge of the village.” End quote.


And that wasn’t all. Le Thanh Tong also enlarged the national university, adding a library and lecture halls. Civil service exams were improved, allowing more good students to have jobs in the government when they passed, and poetry contests were held to promote literature. Finally, the law code was revised to make it somewhat more humane, protect ordinary citizens from abuse by officials, allowed women to own property, and last but not least — made sure that every person knew his place in society. Rather than use my own words to explain how the laws worked, I will share what Stanley Karnow wrote on the subject, in his book “Vietnam: A History.” Quote:

<Insert quote here.>

End quote.


Today the Vietnamese regard Le Thanh Tong’s reign as the beginning of a golden age, but all was not well in the land. Ironically, one reason for the trouble was his victory against Champa. The sudden transformation of the Vietnamese nation from a small, compact state, centered on the Red River delta, into a realm 1,000 miles long, caused severe growing pains. As a result, two cultures developed: a heavily populated, conservative north, and a bolder, more aggressive south. The language also developed differently in different parts of the country. Today Vietnamese has three dialects, for north, central and south Vietnam, and they began diverging right after Le Thanh Tong’s victory.


During the nearly five and a half centuries since 1471, Vietnam has been divided three times, and the two halves have been at war much of the time. You have probably heard of the third division, the one from the 1954 cease-fire agreement to the official reunification in 1976. It was the shortest of the three divisions, and the one which caused the most death and destruction. That is the conflict we call the Second Indochina War, or if you’re American, you call it simply the Vietnam War. I know a lot of you would like to hear about that conflict, but talking about it now would put us way ahead of the narrative, so I will talk about the first two divisions noe and save the third for later. Besides, I will probably have to devote several episodes to the Vietnam War, in order to do it justice.


The other problem was that Le Thanh Tong was the last emperor of the Le Dynasty who was any good. During the thirty years after his reign ended, from 1497 to 1527, nine emperors came and went. Only the first avoided being deposed or murdered, most of the rest were usurpers, and three were on the throne for such a short time (1 year or less), that they aren’t considered real emperors; like the antipopes of the Vatican, they don’t appear on many lists of monarchs. Meanwhile the noble families began a power struggle that will look familiar to anyone who knows about the intrigues of Renaissance Italy; coincidentally, both happened around the same time!


By 1516 the country was engulfed in civil war, with four ambitious generals supporting candidates for the throne. Mac Dang Dung backed one would-be Le emperor, while the other commanders, Nguyen Hoang Du, Trinh Duy Dai and Trinh Duy San, backed the other Le candidate. Mac Dang Dung won in 1522, and executed the Trinh and Nguyen leaders. Five years later, in 1527, he got tired of running the country with a front man, ordered his figurehead emperor to commit suicide, and claimed the throne for himself. Then, after two more years of fighting rivals, he followed the example of some previous emperors, and stepped down so that his son, Mac Dang Doanh, could become the official emperor, while he stuck around to act as the power behind the throne.


Despite all this activity, the Mac ex-emperor had not defeated all potential opponents, and the new leaders of the Nguyen and Trinh families chose to back the new head of the Le family, Le Trang Tong. These generals were Nguyen Kim and his son-in-law, Trinh Kiem. Together they set up a new court for their candidate at the city of Thanh Hoa.


Before continuing, I need to make a correction from previous episodes. We heard the family name of the first general before, and I pronounced it Nuyen. However, I have been been corrected; in the north Vietnamese dialect it is pronounced more like Wen, while in the south Vietnamese dialect it comes out like Nwen. Since this family will have its base in the south, I will pronounce the most common name in modern Vietnam as Nwen from now on; that is probably the best I can do unless I become fluent in the Vietnamese language. My apologies in advance to any Vietnamese speakers who may be listening to this.


Between 1533 and 1545 the two generals regained control of the lands south of the Red River delta, but then Nguyen Kim was assassinated, and his sons were too young to finish what he started. This setback prolonged the civil war; Trinh Kiem had to continue the war alone for several years. At some point Nguyen Kim’s eldest son, Nguyen Uong, was poisoned, and the next son, Nguyen Hoang, feared that Trinh Kiem would do the same thing to him, so when he was old enough to act on his own, he requested that he be made governor of the southern provinces, the territory that used to belong to Champa. Trinh Kiem agreed, apparently thinking that Nguyen Hoang would get himself killed, while fighting southern rebels and bandits. This move put the two families far enough apart to make them stop plotting to kill each other. It also meant the Nguyens could no longer actively participate in the war, because their enemies and all the action were in the north. Still, they kept the alliance going by sending troops and money to help the Trinhs. Finally in 1592, the Le, Nguyen, and Trinh families together conquered Hanoi and executed the current Mac emperor. The remaining members of the Mac family fled to Cao Bang, a province on the Chinese frontier, and there they remained, always threatening to come back, until the Chinese stopped supporting them in 1677.


Theoretically the Le monarch was in charge of the whole country again, but he was really a figurehead; the Trinhs stayed in Hanoi and handled day-to-day affairs in the north for him. As for the Nguyens, in 1600 they founded a new city, Hue, a few miles from Indrapura, the old capital of Champa in the ninth and tenth centuries, and this became their headquarters in the south. Therefore, as soon as the first division of Vietnam ended, the second — and longest — division began. Now there were four dynasties (Le, Mac, Nguyen and Trinh), each claiming to be the rightful rulers over all of Vietnam. The Nguyens and Trinhs forgot that their ancestors had been friends, and now they got along as well as scorpions in a bottle. Both families prepared for war, which broke out in 1620 when the Nguyens refused to submit any longer to Hanoi. For over half a century the Trinh rulers tried in vain to conquer the south. The failure of the last campaign in 1673 was followed by a truce that lasted nearly a century. During this time both the Nguyens and Trinhs paid lip service to the Le dynasty but maintained two separate governments in the two halves of the country. And in a case of history repeating itself, the dividing line between them ran between Ha Tinh and Quang Binh Provinces, about 70 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone that would divide North and South Vietnam in the mid-twentieth century.


Alexandre de Rhodes


What’s the matter, you never heard a Vietnamese reggae song before? But seriously, during the past few episodes we have seen individual Europeans come to the other nations on the Southeast Asian mainland and leave their mark. We saw Diogo Veloso & Blaz Ruiz in Cambodia, Philip de Brito in Burma, Constantine Phaulkon in Siam, and so on. Vietnam also had European visitors in the early modern era. The first that we know of was Antonio da Faria, a Portuguese ship captain. Da Faria arrived in 1535 and set up a trading post at Faifo, a village about fifteen miles south of Da Nang. He hoped it would become a major base for Portugal, like Goa and Macao, but it never prospered. The main result of this venture was that Portugal invented a new name for Vietnam. They called the land Caucichina, which we think came from Giao Chi, one of the oldest names the Chinese used when Vietnam was a Chinese province. Later on, when the French became active in Vietnam, they would apply a very similar name, Cochin China, to the southern third of the country; the “China” part was added so that people would not confuse this Cochin with the part of South India called Cochin. After the Portuguese faded away, the Dutch established their first trading post in Vietnam in 1636, at Hanoi, and the French established theirs at Hung Yen, a city in the Red River delta, in 1680.


We don’t hear of any Christian missionaries in Vietnam before 1615, when the first Catholic mission in the country was set up at Da Nang. Initially the orders of the Catholic Church preferred going to other countries in the Far East, especially Japan; most Europeans thought Vietnam was too hot, for crying out loud! As the seventeenth century went on, the missionaries enjoyed increasing success; it’s no coincidence this happened after they were kicked out of Japan, when the Japanese shoguns decided they didn’t want European priests around anymore. Today, thank to the missionaries, Vietnam’s population is almost 7 percent Catholic, making this the second largest Christian community in Southeast Asia, after the one in the Philippines. The Vietnamese rulers were never sure how they felt about the missionaries. One the one hand, the missionaries were well educated, especially the Jesuits, and they knew useful skills like astronomy and mathematics, so like the Chinese emperors at this time, the Vietnamese rulers thought it was a good idea to keep few Jesuits at the imperial court. In addition, allowing missionaries to preach in the country meant other Europeans would be willing to sell manufactured goods from their homelands, especially guns. On the other hand, they didn’t like the Christian emphasis on individual salvation, which went against the Confucian idea that everyone should submit to authority, and the idea that a Christian could divide his loyalty between God and an earthly government disturbed them for the same reason. As one seventeenth-century emperor explained it, each person, quote, “owes all his allegiance to the state and his sovereign.” End quote. Finally, they gradually came to fear that if they let the population convert to Christianity, it would invite Europeans to take over the country in other ways — we will see that happen in a future episode, when we get to Vietnam in the nineteenth century.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, two French clergymen would play a major role in shaping modern Vietnam, and now it is time to introduce the first one, Alexandre de Rhodes. Born in Avignon, the southern French city that was a headquarters for the Papacy in the late Middle Ages, Alexandre became a Jesuit when he grew up, and was sent to Southeast Asia in 1619, when he was twenty-eight. When he first arrived at Hanoi he was shocked by the Vietnamese language, which he said, quote: “resembled the singing of birds.” End quote. But in six months he learned enough of the language to start preaching in Vietnamese, and then he went on to learn Japanese, Chinese, Hindustani and Farsi. This was also the time when he developed a Vietnamese alphabet, which used Roman letters with special marks to indicate what tone should be used with them.


Previously, whenever the Vietnamese needed to write something, they used the Chinese writing system. But Chinese writing is very difficult, since it uses thousands of different characters, and it is not meant to work with any language besides Chinese, so only a few Vietnamese mastered it. Now that the Vietnamese language had its own alphabet, most of Vietnam’s population could learn to read and write. This is exactly what the European priests wanted, to make their job of spreading the Gospel easier — and it was exactly what Vietnam’s elite didn’t want. In 1630 the Trinh bosses of Hanoi decided they didn’t want Rhodes around anymore, and expelled him from the northern half of Vietnam. Next, Rhodes tried his luck in the south, only to find that the Nguyen lords wouldn’t have him either. At this point, he withdrew to the Jesuit headquarters in Macao, but tried to return to Vietnam several times in the 1640s, risking his life with each attempt. The closest call was in 1645, when Rhodes was thrown in jail, sentenced to death, but then released and expelled three weeks later. That time, Rhodes was the only priest in the mission to get away in one piece — literally. Of the nine priests who came with him, two were beheaded, and the authorities chopped off a finger from each of the other seven.


These experiences convinced Rhodes that Vietnamese leaders would find Christianity less threatening if Vietnamese priests promoted it, rather than European missionaries. He went to Rome to make the case for ordaining native clergymen, but got nowhere. The Portuguese opposed such a move, because it would mean ending the monopoly on Asia that the pope had granted to Portugal in 1494, and the Vatican, like bureaucrats in other times and places, decided that doing nothing was the best response. Next, Rhodes went to his homeland, France, urging French religious leaders to support his project, and inviting French merchants to finance it, telling them there were fabulous fortunes to made in Vietnam if the country became Christian. Eventually he convinced them to give it a try, but he would not get to take part in the venture. For his next missionary project, the Vatican sent Rhodes to Persia, and died at the Persian capital, Isfahan, in 1660. Four years after his death, in 1664, France launched the French East India Company, and a French organization to promote missionary work in Asia, the Society of Foreign Missions, was founded in the same year. In Vietnam, the merchants and missionaries worked so close together that it was difficult to tell them apart. An Englishman on the scene reported that the French had arrived, and added, quote: “but we cannot make out whether they are here to seek trade or to conduct religious propaganda.” End quote. And that is how French involvement in Indochina began, which would end with the battle of Dienbienphu three centuries later.


The End of Champa


In the struggle for supremacy in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Vietnam, you would think the Trinh family had the advantage, because they controlled Hanoi and the official emperors, the Le dynasty. However, they were at a disadvantage when it came to expanding their realm. To the east was the Pacific Ocean, and to the north was China; forget about expanding in those directions. To the west was jungle and mountains, not prime real estate, and difficult places to hold and fight in. Also in the west was the Laotian kingdom of Lan Xang, which we saw in the last episode was strong enough to keep the Vietnamese at arm’s length, and after Lan Xang fell apart, Siam moved into that area. And to the south was the realm of the Nguyen family; the Trinhs could only expand here by defeating their rivals. The Nguyens, on the other hand, could expand, and increase the resources available to them, because the lands to the south and west of their realm had non-Vietnamese groups who were too weak to oppose them. Those groups were the Khmers, and the Chams.


If you are a longtime listener, you will remember the Khmers were the stars in Episode 7 of this podcast series, and in the Middle Ages they ruled the mightiest state on the Southeast Asian mainland. I also mentioned more than once that they ruled the Mekong delta, in addition to present-day Cambodia. I’m sure you will also remember the Chams, who had a kingdom named Champa in what is now central Vietnam. The Chams were related to the peoples of Indonesia or the Philippines, but had accepted Indian culture hook, line and sinker, so that Hinduism was their religion and most of their kings had Sanskrit names. In Episodes 4 & 8 they played a major role in our narrative, as the arch-rivals of the Vietnamese.


Because both Cambodia and Champa had fallen on hard times, after the Nguyens and Trinhs agreed to a cease-fire in 1673, the Nguyens had a green light to expand into Khmer and Cham territory. In 1697 they reached the Mekong River and occupied the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor. You probably haven’t heard of Prey Nokor, but that’s okay; the Vietnamese soon renamed it Saigon, or if you are too young to remember the twentieth-century Vietnam War, you will call the place Ho Chi Minh City. By 1757 the whole Mekong delta was in Vietnamese hands. There were also attempts to put pro-Vietnamese monarchs in charge of Cambodia and Laos as we noted in previous episodes, but none of these succeeded for long.


After the Vietnamese victory of 1471, Champa was reduced to a small state southwest of Cam Ranh Bay; I called it a “rump state” at the end of Episode 8. Most of the brick Hindu temples the Chams had built previously were abandoned to the jungle, and more than half of the Chams converted to Islam. Because of this conversion, they enjoyed an alliance with Johore, the southernmost state in the Malay peninsula, in the late sixteenth century, and a few immigrated to Aceh on Sumatra, since that was the safest place to go in Indonesia if you were Moslem. We don’t know for sure why they converted; if they did it win aid from a powerful Moslem state, it never came. Nor did the Vietnamese allow the Chams to rebuild their kingdom to be anything more than a protectorate of Vietnam. In 1693 they decided to do away with even the protectorate, and began nibbling away at Cham territory. First they passed through the highlands to get at the Mekong delta, in effect going around the Chams and confining them to the coast. Then they nibbled away at the Cham cities until they had them all in 1720.


In response, the Cham king and most of his people fled into Cambodia. The city where the largest group of refugees settled became known as Kompong Cham, or Cham Landing, because of them. The last king of the Chams died in 1822. We have a report from that time which asserts that the Vietnamese forced Moslem Chams to eat lizard meat and pork, and Hindu Chams were forced to eat beef, in a move to assimilate them into Vietnamese culture. More recently, some Vietnamese have suggested that the problems their country suffered in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries — the French occupation of their country, World War II, the Indochina Wars and the partititon of the country into North and South Vietnam — are divine punishment for what their ancestors did to Champa.


If you can trust Wikipedia’s figures, there are 400,000 Chams alive now. 217,000 of them, a little more than half, are in Cambodia; while estimates of the number in Vietnam range from 98,000 to 162,000. The Chams that continue to practice Hinduism are in the Vietnamese community, while most of the rest are Moslem. They suffered terribly under the Pol Pot terror of the 1970s, because their distinctive clothing and practice of Islam made them obvious targets to the godless communists; an estimated 100,000 Chams, 40 percent of their population at that time, are thought to have died while the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. Another 10,000 Chams live in Malaysia, and there are small groups of Chams in Thailand, China, France, the United States and Laos. Finally, I have learned since starting this podcast that while modern Vietnam claims the nearest islands in the South China Sea, it refuses to mention the best fact that could strengthen their claim — that the Chams colonized those islands in the early Middle Ages. That would draw attention to a part of history the Vietnamese would like to forget, as well as to the human rights violations against Vietnam’s Cham minority that continue to this day.


And that’s all she wrote for the Chams. They have been important players in our narrative for the past two thousand years, and while a remnant of the Cham people have survived, we will not need to mention them anymore. Now how did a divided Vietnam get back together again?




When the Nguyen and Trinh families agreed to their truce in 1673, both sides expected it would only last until one side had enough arms and troops to make victory a sure thing. Even so, peace with bad intentions is still peace, and when the truce was broken in 1772, it happened because a new group of players entered the game. These were three brothers named Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu, and Nguyen Hué, no relation to the Nguyen family ruling the south; history calls them the Tay Son brothers, after the name of their home village. In those days most of the land was owned by a few landlords, and they were supported by a bureaucracy that was both oppressive and corrupt. In addition, the peasants in the south detested the Nguyen family, because they were constantly getting called up by the Nguyens to go fight in Cambodia. As long as the Vietnamese were winning on this front, the Nguyens were able to keep a lid on peasant discontent, but in 1769 the current king of Siam, Taksin, led an army into Cambodia, defeated the Vietnamese, and took back some of the land the Nguyens had recently captured, so when the Tay Sons marched south, they found the peasant discontent boiling over.


To take advantage of the peasant anger against the system, the Tay Sons started out by launching a Robin Hood style rebellion; their chief goal and slogan was to, quote: “seize the property of the rich and distribute it to the poor.” End quote. Whenever they captured a village, they punished the rich and powerful members of that village, and redistributed their land. And that wasn’t all; the Tay Sons also abolished taxes, burned records of taxes and property ownership, freed prisoners from jails, and gave food to the hungry. Within a year they had gained control over two southern provinces, Quang Nam and Binh Dinh, and declared the city of Qui Nhon as their capital. Because of that success, support for them snowballed, as people from all walks of life joined their peasant army. One of the Tay Sons, Nguyen Hué, turned out to be a skilled military leader, too. By 1777 they had conquered all of the south, and they massacred the entire Nguyen family, except for one member, sixteen-year-old Nguyen Anh, who escaped. Then the Tay Sons turned their attention to the north, and Nguyen Anh attempted to establish himself as king of Saigon, with Siamese troops backing him up, but the Tay Sons drove him out again in 1783. In the north the Tay Sons also succeeded, overthrowing the Le and Trinh dynasties in 1786. Nguyen Hué now became the new emperor, changing his name to Quang Trung.


The last Le emperor fled to China, and persuaded the current Chinese emperor, Qianlong, to help him regain his throne. A Chinese army invaded for this purpose, capturing Hanoi in 1788. How did that go? Not too good! If you listened to Episodes 4 & 8, you will remember that when China invaded Vietnam in the past, the Vietnamese found ways to ambush them and regain their freedom. That happened here; the Tay Sons, with some help from Chinese pirates, staged a surprise attack while the Chinese army was celebrating the 1789 New Year festival. They defeated the Chinese, and sent the survivors fleeing back to China. The Vietnamese also celebrate the lunar New Year, calling it Tet, so if you know anything about Vietnam’s wars in the twentieth century, you can call this ambush the first Tet Offensive.


For a short time Vietnam was united under the Tay Son brothers, but Nguyen Anh was able to make a comeback. The first time he fled from the Tay Sons, he went to Phu Quoc Island, a Vietnamese-ruled island in the Gulf of Siam. What made this island special was that it had a seminary, which was being used to train Vietnamese, Chinese and Siamese priests, thereby carrying out the project Alexandre de Rhodes had proposed. Therefore it is appropriate that here is where we will introduce the second important French clergyman in our story. The headmaster of the seminary was a French bishop named Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau, but we usually call him by the title he gave himself, Pigneau de Béhaine. He immediately became both a friend and advisor to the fugitive Nguyen Anh. From this point onward, Pigneau would be more of a politician than a priest. You can see this in the fact that his client’s enemies, the Tay Sons, allowed Christian missionaries to preach without restrictions in Vietnam and even assigned guards to protect them; why would a man of the cloth oppose that? He would only do so if he had motives that had nothing to do with Christianity.


For a while after that meeting, Nguyen Anh tried to do things his way, but after his 1783 defeat he agreed to try what Pigneau had suggested — get help from France. Acting as Nguyen Anh’s representative, Pigneau sailed off to the nearest French outpost, Pondicherry in India. To show his good faith and let the French know that he trusted them, Nguyen Anh sent his seven-year-old son, Nguyen Canh, with the bishop. I have seen some paintings done of the prince, and in them he is wearing a curious costume made specifically for his trip, that includes an Indian-style turban. Evidently in early modern Europe, people believed that any Oriental king or prince had to wear a turban. A few years before our story, in the early 1770s, the English explorer James Cook went on his second voyage around the world, and brought back a young man named Omai from Tahiti. The portrait we have of Omai shows him wearing a white turban and a white robe, not a fashion you would expect to see on a Pacific islander. And when the famous artist Rembrandt, painted the Biblical King David, he showed David wearing a turban, too.


Anyway, at Pondicherry the French authorities told Pigneau that sending aid to Vietnam was quote, “difficult and useless.” End quote. Not the type to give up, the bishop took his case all the way to the king of France, Louis XVI. In early 1787 he and Nguyen Canh arrived at Versailles. The exotic prince and his retainers caused an instant sensation, and eventually Pigneau signed a treaty with the French foreign minister; in return for 1,650 French troops, the arms and ammunition they needed, and four frigates to transport them, Nguyen Anh would let the French have the port of Da Nang and Con Son, a Vietnamese-ruled island in the South China Sea.


However, it never went into effect because the French government was broke. On the way back to Vietnam, Pigneau expected to pick up the promised men and materiel at Pondicherry, but King Louis secretly sent a message to the governor of Pondicherry, telling him to spend as little money as possible on the Vietnamese expedition, and even cancel it, if possible. So when Pigneau reached Pondicherry, the governor gave him nothing, and kept him waiting until early 1789. Quick now, what happened in France in 1789? If you said the French Revolution, go to the head of the class! Just two years after Pigneau’s visit, France experienced bankruptcy, the calling of the Estates General, the Tennis Court Oath, and the storming of the Bastille; with all that, the Revolution was on. All this meant there would be no official French aid, despite the promises made.


Declaring, “I shall lead the expedition alone,” Pigneau then collected funds from some French merchants eager to trade with Vietnam. With these he bought two ships, weapons and ammunition, and recruited four hundred deserters from the French army as mercenaries.


Back in Vietnam, Nguyen Anh captured Saigon and the Mekong delta in 1788. Pigneau and the mercenaries arrived in the following year, and from then on Pigneau continued to provide modern arms and advice. Most of the mercenaries got bored and quit afterwards, but Nguyen Anh now had the power base he needed. What also helped him was that the Tay Sons were wearing out their welcome. After Quang Trung’s death in 1792, he was succeeded by his ten-year-old son, Quang Toan, and the family split into factions that fought among themselves. Even worse, there was famine in parts of the country, and in many places the new officials proved to be just as brutal as the ones they had replaced. Thus, in the campaigns fought over the next ten years, Nguyen Anh had the advantage. In 1799 an army led by his son Nguyen Canh, now nineteen years old, captured Qui Nhon, but it was soon lost and had to be taken again in 1801. In 1801 Nguyen Anh also captured Hue, and in 1802 he took Hanoi. The war ended with some grim events. Nguyen Anh’s soldiers dug up the bones of Quang Trung and his wife and urinated on them, while their son Quang Toan was forced to watch. Then they executed Quang Toan by tying his limbs to four elephants, and they said to the elephants, “Giddyup!”, thereby tearing him to pieces. The last Tay Son general, a woman named Bui Thi Xuan, was trampled to death by another elephant.


Because of its central location, the city of Hue became the new capital. A lot of Vietnamese changed their family name to Nguyen, to show their allegiance to the dynasty that was now in charge. As a result, Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese name today; 40 percent of the Vietnamese people have it. Nguyen Anh changed his name as well, to Gia Long. This name showed that he ruled all of Vietnam, because it combined the name of the province containing Saigon, Gia Dinh, and the province containing Hanoi, Thanh Long. An embassy was immediately sent to China, to secure Chinese recognition of Gia Long as the new emperor. Gia Long also exchanged letters with the Chinese emperor, and in this correspondence he proposed calling the country Vietnam, instead of older names like Nam Viet, Dai Viet or Annam. That is how Vietnam got its present-day name.


The new emperor’s French benefactor, Pigneau de Béhaine, did not live to see the ultimate victory; he went with Prince Nguyen Canh to the first battle of Qui Nhon, and there died of dysentery in 1799. Before his death, he said he would like to be buried in a bamboo grove near Saigon, so Gia Long built a fine tomb for him here, and staged the grandest funeral ever given to a foreigner in Vietnam; Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, 12,000 troops and 40,000 mourners took part in the funeral procession. Unfortunately you cannot see the tomb today; the communist government of present-day Vietnam destroyed every trace of the tomb in 1983. The bishop’s remains were cremated, placed in a porcelain urn, and sent to France; the urn is now in the Paris headquarters of the Society of Foreign Missions. Of course, communists on principle dislike anything that promotes religion and those associated with it, but Hanoi’s leaders may also believe that the Tay Sons would have made better emperors, had their dynasty not been overthrown so soon.


Because the French government did not keep the treaty it had signed, Gia Long felt he owed France nothing, and gave France nothing. The one French person he did owe something to was Pigneau, and he paid that debt not only with the grand burial, but also by giving Christianity and its missionaries full toleration for the rest of his life. He ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1819, but contrary to the wishes of the French, he never became a Catholic, and afterwards, his successors were less friendly to Christians. That would eventually give the French an excuse to come back in force. The French were too busy with affairs at home to get involved in Vietnam until the middle of the nineteenth century, but they would return someday, now that the door had been opened for them.


Well! Have you noticed that we’re finding more sources, and thus more information, as we get closer to the present? Thanks to the relative wealth of info, compared with what we had in the past, this episode was longer than most. Join me next time as we finish our narrative of Southeast Asia in the early modern era. For this we will go to the mainland states in the west once more. Would you believe our coverage of the Burmese-Siamese rivalry isn’t done yet? They are going to fight again in the eighteenth century. This time Siam will be devastated so badly that it will look like it will go the way of Champa, but instead, incredibly, the Siamese will bounce back with amazing speed, making a full recovery in only fifteen years. I’m sure you won’t want to miss that story.


If you enjoyed this episode, consider making a donation to support this podcast, using the Paypal button on this episode’s Blubrry.com page. And as you heard at the beginning of this show, you will get your first name or initial mentioned at the beginning of the next episode to be recorded. And thanks for the reviews on iTunes, too; keep those reviews coming, they are starting to make a difference. Again as always, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!

Episode 18, Arakan and All That



No, this is not an April Fool’s joke. Episode 18 of the podcast has just gone online. However, you may find it tough to verify the accuracy of the material covered; these stories from the seventeenth century are some of the most obscure in the entire podcast series! Check the episode out, for some stories you have never heard before.



(Transcript, added 03/04/2020.)

Episode 18: Arakan and All That


Greetings, dear listeners! I spent the day before recording this episode in Ohio, and when I turned around to go home, I was in a small town called Batavia. I don’t know what the founders of Batavia, Ohio were thinking when they named the place. They were probably thinking of the original Batavia, which we noted in the last episode was the Roman name for the Netherlands, but I was also reminded of the Batavia I talked about last time — the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Indonesia.


But enough of recent memories. Now, for this episode, we are going to visit the Southeast Asian mainland again, specifically in the neighborhood of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. I know, it hasn’t been long since we were last there; Episodes 15 and 16 covered the wars between those nations during much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and often Cambodia was involved as well. However, I have been moving in chronological order as much as possible, and because most of the Dutch East India Company’s adventures took place before the last seventeeth-century events on the mainland, I took care of the Dutch first. In order to wrap up the seventeenth century, I have several small-scale events, not a few big ones, so this episode will include them all together. No more showdowns between kings and princes riding elephants, anyway.


Back in the earliest days of this podcast, when I introduced myself, I said I have a thing for remembering and sharing obscure history. Well, all the history covered today is obscure; this may be the most obscure episode in the entire podcast series! I mean, if you don’t live in or near Myanmar, did you ever hear of Arakan before you started listening here? Especially since Arakan is no longer called by that name; when it appears in today’s news, it is called Rakhine.


But I’m not in the mood for a lengthy introduction today. Let’s start tying up these loose ends now!


Arakan: The Mrohaung Era


I sure hope everybody listening has heard some of the episodes before downloading this one. For those who haven’t, I’ll describe Arakan once more; the rest of you will have to bear with me. Arakan, modern Rakhine, is a province of Myanmar on the west coast, between the Irrawaddy delta and the border of Bangladesh. It is 350 miles long, and shaped like a thin triangle or pie slice, 90 miles wide in the north, and narrowing to a point in the south. On the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode, I have reposted the map I used in Episode 5 to show where Arakan is: Arakan is yellow, and the rest of Myanmar is pink. A mountain range, called the Arakan Yoma or the Rakhine Yoma, separates Arakan from the other Burmese provinces, and is the main reason why Arakan was an independent state for most of history. Like most people in present-day Myanmar, the Arakanese are Tibeto-Burmans, and mostly Buddhists. However, this province also has a significant Moslem minority, called the Rohingyas. They speak a language related to the Chittagonian language of Bangladesh, and we believe their ancestors started coming from the west during the fifteenth century, the beginning of the time period covered by this episode.


Previously, I talked the most about Arakan in Episode 5, where I covered the little bit we know about that kingdom’s origins, and speculated on the possibility that the area’s first inhabitants were Indians, because the oldest inscriptions found were in Sanskrit, rather than in a Southeast Asian language. The Tibeto-Burmans that live there today arrived much later, possibly as late as the tenth century A.D. Then in Episode 9 I mentioned that the first Burmese empire, the kingdom of Bagan, conquered the northern half of Arakan, but never ruled the whole land, and when Bagan fell at the end of the thirteenth century, Arakan regained its independence completely. Finally in Epidoes 15 and 16 we saw Arakan’s role in the wars between Burma and Siam in the sixteenth century.


For this story we will step back a bit and begin in the fourteenth century, when the lands east and south of Arakan were divided between the Burmese kingdom of Ava, the Mon kingdom of Hanthawaddy, and several minor states belonging to the Shans, the nearest cousins of the Thais. From at least the 1370s onward, Arakan saw serious poltical instability; rival factions of the Arakanese court were supported by the two big neighboring states, Ava and Hanthawaddy.


In 1404 Narameikhla, also called Min Saw Mon or Mengtsaumwun, became king. However, he inherited a bad situation; his reign began in the middle of the Forty Years War between Ava and Hanthawaddy. Only two years later, the war spilled across the border, as the crown prince of Ava led an invasion that captured Launggyet, the capital of Arakan at that time. A puppet king from Ava was installed as king of Arakan, and he ruled until 1412, when he was ousted by Hanthawaddy and a puppet ruler from the southern kingdom took his place. Meanwhile, Narameikhla fled west to the nearest Indian state, Bengal. Islam had just been introduced to this part of India around 1200, so Bengal now had a Moslem sultan, Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah. Narameikhla became an officer in Bengal’s army, and after years of fine service, he persuaded the sultan to help him regain his throne. The first attempt, in 1429, failed because Narameikhla could not get along with the Bengali general commanding the force, but in the following year he tried again, and this time he took back Launggyet. Because of the support Narameikhla got from Bengal, Arakan was a vassal of Bengal for the last part of his reign, and Moslems from Bengal began migrating into the realm, forming the Rohingya community mentioned previously.


It didn’t take long for Narameikhla to decide to move the capital. He began building a new one in 1430; then it was called Mrohaung, and now it is called Mrauk U. The new location was not far from Launggyet, but it was much more defensible. According to the Arakanese royal chronicle, which was only written down in its present-day form in 1788, the king was warned by his court astrologers that he would die within a year after the new capital was finished. He answered that he would choose to die young if it meant leaving a safer kingdom to his descendants, rather than live long and leave the kingdom as weak as ever. Sure enough, the capital was finished in 1433, Narameikhla moved in, and died a year later. Nevertheless, he had his way. Because of the splendid new capital, Arakan’s golden age began with him.


The next king, Min Khayi or Menkhari, ruled from 1434 to 1459. He took advantage of politcal turmoil in Bengal to seize the southernmost part of his overlord’s territory, thereby ending Arakan’s vassalage to Bengal, and in 1455 the Burmese kingdom of Ava also recognized Arakan’s independence. He was followed by Ba Saw Phyu, who began his reign by taking Chittagong, the second largest city in modern Bangladesh. Thus, Arakan controlled southern Bangladesh for the next two hundred years, from 1459 to 1666.


Eight more kings ruled over the next fifty years, before the next important king came along. This was Minbin, who ruled from 1531 to 1553. His reign began with two lucky breaks. First, the second Mogul emperor of India, Humayun, invaded Bengal and started a civil war in that state. Minbin took advantage of this to invade Bengal. Although he captured and briefly held Dhaka, the Bengali capital, in 1532, he never achieved firm control over any territory north of Chittagong. To celebrate this victory, Minbin built Mrohaung’s most impressive Buddhist temple, the Shitthaung Temple.


The other lucky break was the arrival of the Portuguese, who began raiding the Bay of Bengal in the 1530s. In 1535 a small Portuguese force went so far as to attack Mrohaung. Although the Arakanese army was larger, and Minbin managed to throw the Portuguese back into the sea, he realized that their troops were better equipped than his own–the Portuguese had the best available guns in those days. He also realized that the Portuguese were not going to go away quietly, so he made a deal with these newcomers. After this, Portuguese soldiers and sailors were hired as mercenaries.


Because the Portuguese recruited by Arakan continued to raid places around the Bay of Bengal that Arakan didn’t rule yet, you can call them mercenaries, privateers, pirates, raiders — whatever you want. Dianga, a port just south of Chittagong, became their base of operations; they plundered far and wide, especially in the Ganges delta, and brought back thousands of slaves to their market in Dianga every year. The Arakanese called them Feringhi, and that name has nothing to do with a race of greedy aliens from “Star Trek.” For one thing, it is spelled differently: F-E-R-I-N-G-H-I. The word is of Hindi origin, and was used to mean white foreigners, or foreigners in general. It appears to come from the Arabic al-Faranj, which meant “the Franks,” and Moslems used that word during the Middle Ages to refer to anyone from Western Europe, just as Europeans often referred to all Moslems by the term “Saracen.” Along that line, in my music collection is an album named “Farewell Ferengistan,” from the electronic group Banco de Gaia; Ferengistan is a catch-all name used by Central Asians for the Western nations of Europe and North America.


Okay, now I’m digressing again, so back to the narrative! With the help of the Feringhi, Minbin fortified Mrohaung with massive earthworks, Portuguese-made cannon, and a deep moat, just in time to ward off the 1547 invasion by the Burmese king Tabinshwehti, which we covered in Episode 15. Thanks to these defenses, Arakan became an important regional power, and Mrohaung became the Bay of Bengal’s largest center for commerce. At its peak, in the early seventeenth century, Mrohaung was home to an estimated 160,000 people.


Under Min Razagri, who ruled Arakan from 1593 to 1612, there was a temporary falling out between the Feringhi and their employers. Both had taken part in the burning of Bago in 1599, and the Feringhi captured the port of Syriam, in the Irrawaddy delta. Min Razagri expected the Portuguese to hand over Syriam to him, but instead the Feringhi leader, Philip de Brito, kept it for himself, and defeated the Arakanese flotilla sent to dislodge him. We saw in Episode 16 that de Brito ruled over Syriam until 1613, when the Burmese took back the town and executed him. Meanwhile, Min Razagri decided that his mercenaries had grown too powerful, and now he feared that they would call in conventional Portuguese forces to overthrow him; in 1607 he made an all-out attack on Dianga, killing six hundred of its inhabitants without mercy. Those who escaped declared war on Arakan, making raids up to the very walls of Mrohaung, but the capital’s defenses saved it again; even a Portuguese fleet of 14 ships, sent by the Viceroy of Goa in 1615, could not prevail.


Eventually Arakan and the Feringhi had to bury the hatchet, because they now had a neighbor who was a threat to both of them. By 1576 Akbar, the greatest of the Mogul emperors, had conquered all of Bengal, except for the part ruled by Arakan, and this time Bengal stayed under Mogul rule until the eighteenth century. Consequently, the Feringhi and the next Arakanese king, Min Khamaung, renewed their previous alliance in 1620. Min Khamaung was succeeded by his son Thirithudhamma, who ruled from 1622 to 1638, and under him the Arakanese state reached its greatest extent. In 1625 the Feringhi captured Dhaka for him; by this time Arakan controlled the southern half of the Ganges delta, and the raids of the Feringhi armada had been so thorough that there was not a house left inhabited between Dhaka and Chittagong.


The early seventeenth century was also the time when the Dutch became active in Southeast Asia, as we saw in the previous episode. For that reason, Dutch merchants started visiting Arakan, buying up all the slaves and rice the Arakanese were willing to sell. On several occasions a Dutch East India Company warehouse was set up in Mrohaung, but politics kept it from running smoothly. The king of Arakan wanted more than just trade; he also wanted a military alliance with the Dutch, to keep his enemies away and to provide an alternative to the unpredictable Feringhi. The Dutch refused, since warfare would be bad for business, and often they would close shop when the king became too overbearing. They never gave up on Arakan, though, and always reopened the warehouse a few years later.


Relations with the Mogul Empire went from bad to worse as the seventeenth century progressed, and that brought an end to Arakan’s glory years. The first Mogul attack, in 1629, retook Dhaka, but Arakan still had the better navy, and it smashed the Mogul fleet before it could get out of the Ganges delta. Then in 1657 Shah Jehan, the Mogul emperor who built the Taj Mahal, fell ill, and his four sons began fighting over which of them would succeed him. One of those princes was Shah Shuja, the governor of Bengal, and he failed to keep his brother, Aurangzeb, from seizing the Mogul throne; in 1660, after losing more than one battle, he fled to Arakan.


The Arakanese king, Sandathudamma, gave Shah Shuja a house in Mrohaung, and initially promised ships to carry his family and retinue to Mecca, but when Shah Shuja said he was ready to go, the king went back on his promise, and supplied no ships. Evidently Sandathudamma was amazed at the camel loads of gold and jewels Shah Shuja had brought with him, and was looking for a way to get his hands on part of this wealth. He failed to persuade his guest to hand over any of it, so next he asked for Shah Shuja’s eldest daughter in marriage, and the prince indignantly refused. Fearing he would be handed over to the Moguls, Shah Shuja tried to escape. On the first attempt part of the city was set on fire and many of the prince’s followers were massacred; on the second attempt Shah Shuja was killed in a riot, and his treasures were confiscated. There was a rumor that Shah Shuja did get away, to the Indian state of Manipur, but this isn’t likely, because he was never seen again, alive or dead, after the riot. We also hear that Sandathudamma’s mother tried to talk him out of mistreating the prince, reminding him that his ancestor, Narameikhla, had once taken refuge in Bengal, the country Shah Shuja had come from, and that if he killed Shah Shuja, it would set a dangerous precedent; what goes around comes around, so to speak.


Back in India, when Aurangzeb heard about all this, he demanded the surrender of Shah Shuja’s children. Sandathudamma refused, had the prince’s three sons executed, and just to show what he thought of the Moguls, he had a number of Bengalis and other Moslems in the capital killed as well. You can guess how Aurangzeb responded.


(Insert Bugs Bunny sound file here.)


War was declared, and at first it went well for Arakan, with the Feringhi making two devastating raids on the Bengal coast. But at a crucial moment they quarreled with the Arakanese, and when the Moguls offered employment with them, most of the Feringhi switched sides. The result was an overwhelming Mogul victory in 1666 at the battle of Dianga, where the Arakanese fleet was destroyed and Chittagong was taken back.


The pirate habits of the Arakanese survived long after their fleet and Portuguese teachers were gone. Between 1682 and 1785, when Burma finally conquered Arakan for good, 25 kings rose and fell in Mrohaung. Political chaos now became the national hobby, and Arakan was no longer a threat to anybody.


The Phaulkon Affair


Oupa! No, your mobile device or computer hasn’t switched to another podcast. I thought a bit of Greek music would be appropriate, because the main character in the next story is a Greek adventurer, Constantine Phaulkon.


So far in this podcast series, the only place on the Southeast Asian mainland that the Europeans were able to conquer and hold for long was the city-state of Malacca. Major states like Siam and Vietnam were strong enough at this stage to keep native rulers in charge. However, that didn’t mean they were safe from European meddling, and a bizarre incident proved that to the Siamese.


Born in Greece in 1647, Constantine Phaulkon ran away from home at the age of 12 and became a crewman on an English merchant ship, thereby joining the English East India Company. In this career, Phaulkon showed not only a talent for the merchant business, but also a talent for languages — over the next twenty years he learned to speak Portuguese, Malay, French and English. When the Company sent him to Siam in 1675, he learned the Thai language as well. This allowed him to serve as an interpreter when the Company sent agents to the royal court at Ayutthaya, and here his skills got the attention of King Narai.


Narai had ruled Siam since 1657, and he was friendlier to foreign visitors than most kings, in part because he wanted good relations with both England and France, to keep the Dutch influence on his country from getting too strong. He invited Phaulkon to start working for him, and soon Phaulkon was the minister in charge of two government agencies, the treasury and foreign affairs. Of course the Dutch were not happy with this, and Phaulkon’s former English co-workers grew jealous. When the English accused him of corruption, Phaulkon broke with them completely. First he became a Catholic, a move which offended both the Protestant Dutch and English. Even worse, he offered his services to England’s archenemy, France.


The French were delighted at this turn of events. France had started to build its own colonial empire in the seventeenth century, but they had only enjoyed much success in North America and the Caribbean. In Asia all the French had were a few outposts in India; the French East India Company had only been founded in 1664, more than sixty years after the English and Dutch had launched their companies. In 1684 Siam sent an embassy to France, and the French king Louis XIV responded by sending an embassy to Siam. A large number of missionaries came with the French ambassador, and when Narai allowed them to preach without restrictions the French thought (wrongly, as it turned out) that the king was about to become a Catholic, too.


Three years later two English frigates arrived at Mergui, a Siamese port on the Bay of Bengal. The English demanded £65,000 in damages from Siam, about $14.6 million in today’s American dollars, for giving shelter to pirates that attacked English shipping. At Phaulkon’s urging, the Siamese did not pay, but opened fire on the ships and massacred every Englishman they could find; around sixty Englishmen were killed.


Now it looked like a war between Siam and England would begin. The next time French priests arrived, they came with 600 French soldiers who occupied the ports of Bangkok and Mergui. This is the first time we hear of Bangkok in our historical narrative, so keep in mind that Bangkok did not become the Siamese capital until 1782; at this stage, Ayutthaya was still the capital. Anyway, even King Narai was worried about having French soldiers in his country, so Phaulkon reassured him by drawing up a treaty which turned the French soldiers into mercenaries employed by Siam, and gave the French permission to build European-style star-shaped forts for the mercenaries to stay in.


But then in early 1688 Narai became terminally ill, and a rumor went forth claiming that Phaulkon planned on making the heir to the throne a puppet king, so that Phaulkon, and through him the French, would be the real rulers of Siam. This persuaded the anti-French faction of the court, led by the king’s stepbrother, to act before it was too late. They staged a palace coup, in which they seized and beheaded Phaulkon. Narai was furious, but he was also too weak from his illness to do anything about it; in fact he died a few days later. With the whole country turned against them, the small French garrisons could not defend themselves for long, and had to be evacuated.


In the seventeenth century, several important Asian countries introduced isolationist foreign policies, to keep Westerners from interfering. China kept foreigners confined to Canton; Japan locked out foreigners completely; Korea wanted nothing to do with any foreigners besides the Chinese, and thus came to be known as the Hermit Kingdom. Now Siam followed their example, with a new policy that called for minimal contact with the West. It would be more than 150 years before Siam’s doors were opened to the outside world again. Likewise, the French would have to wait more than a century and a half before they got another chance to gain control over any Southeast Asian territory.


Before we move on to the next subject, if you are listening to this episode from Blubrry.com, or have access to the podcast’s Facebook page, I want you to look at a picture I posted in those places. I scanned it from the March 1971 issue of National Geographic Magazine, and it shows a lacquer panel painting, made in Siam during the eighteenth century. Here is a scene from a Buddhist legend, which shows the enemies of the Buddha attacking, led by Mara, the Lord of Evil. Most of them are demons, like the group hauling a cannon at the bottom of the scene, but in the middle of the crowd is a European — a Dutchman to be exact — riding a horse and taking aim with a musket. The author of that article did not mention what specifically might have caused the artist’s anti-European attitude, but since this was made just a few years after the Phaulkon affair, I would not be surprised if the artist was thinking about that incident.


The Fall of Lan Xang


Like Burma and Siam, the kingdom based in Laos, Lan Xang, was at peace for most of the seventeenth century. However, after Setthathirat, the king we saw in Episode 15, Lan Xang did not have a good ruler for more than sixty years, so it didn’t amount to much. Then in 1637 an outstanding king named Souligna-Vongsa came to the throne. He ruled for fifty-seven years, until 1694, and the kingdom enjoyed its best years during this long reign. Because he did not have to fight any wars with neighboring countries, the way his predecessors had, Souligna-Vongsa was able to spend lavishly on building new palaces and temples; he also revised the country’s laws and established many judicial courts. Dutch merchants and Jesuit missionaries who visited during Souligna-Vongsa’s reign have left us travel accounts with glowing descriptions of Vientiane, the capital since 1560.


Alas, in this world all good things must come to an end, and two things happened that made sure the good times would end when Souligna-Vongsa’s reign did. The first event was something the king couldn’t do anything about, because he wasn’t willing to start a war. Since Laos is a landlocked country, Burma, Siam and Vietnam found it easy to keep Europeans from visiting Laos, by forbidding them to travel across their own lands. Keeping Laos from trading with the outside world meant future generations of Laotians would be poor.


The other event was the king’s fault; he ruined the royal succession. When the crown prince was found guilty of commiting adultery with the wife of a palace attendant, the old king did not make an exception for his son, and ordered the prince executed. There was another son, but he fled to Siam with his mother, step-mother and 600 followers, after he was found co-habiting with his half-sister, and the king ordered his execution as well. With one prince dead and the other one having flown the coop, it was no longer clear who would be the king’s heir.


The first prince left behind two sons of his own, and when the king died, both of these royal grandsons claimed the empty throne. So did two daughters of the late king. In the struggle that followed, a senior minister, Tian Thala, seized the throne and held it for six months, before he was ousted by one of the grandsons. Then in 1700 Sai Ong Hue, a son of the second prince, returned from exile with a Vietnamese army backing him up. When he took over, he changed his name to Setthathirat II, and Lan Xang effectively became a Vietnamese satellite. In 1705 he went one step further and moved the country’s most sacred artifact, the Prabang Buddha, from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, making it clear to everyone that Luang Prabang was not the capital anymore.


Other members of the royal family refused to submit to Vietnam, and they turned to another big neighbor, Siam, for assistance. One of these rivals, a grandson of Souligna-Vongsa named Kingkitsarat, marched from the northernmost part of Laos, an area on the border of China, and took Luang Prabang in 1707. This divided Lan Xang into two kingdoms, each named after its capital: Luang Prabang in northern Laos and Vientiane in central and southern Laos. As the Siamese described it, Laos now became “a bird with two heads” – a weak country that paid tribute to two masters, while trying to play one off against the other. But that wasn’t all; in 1713 the south seceded from Vientiane to become a third Laotian state, calling itself the kingdom of Champassak.


For the next sixty-five years the three Laotian states played a diplomatic game to keep their freedom. It lasted as long as it did because another devastating war broke out between Burma and Siam in the middle of the eighteenth century; I will give you details on that in a future episode. However, Siam bounced back quickly, and in 1778 it conquered all three states. A famous statue of the Buddha made from green jasper stone, the so-called Emerald Buddha, was taken from Vientiane to Bangkok, where you can see it today. The Siamese also took away the Prabang Buddha, but because Siam soon suffered from a great spell of political instability, the Siamese decided that was a mistake, and returned the Prabang Buddha in 1782. The Laotian kings were allowed to keep their thrones but were reduced to figureheads, with real power given to a Siamese commissioner.


One Laotian king attempted to shake off the Siamese yoke. This was Chao Anou, also called Anouvong, who became king of Vientiane in 1805. The first thing he did after his coronation was to send gift-bearing ambassadors to Vietnam, since it was now Siam’s new rival to the east; at this date, both Siam and Vietnam claimed Xiengkhouang, the Laotian city at the Plain of Jars. Then in 1819 a rebellion in Champassak, led by a charismatic monk, caused the king of that state to flee. Chao Anou put down the rebellion and persuaded the Siamese to make his son, Chao Yo, the new king of Champassak, a move which gave him indirect control over two-thirds of Laos. Chao Anou got along with the king of Siam, Rama II, and all three Laotian kings attended Rama II’s funeral in 1824, but the next king, Rama III, was brutal to his ethnic Lao subjects. He relocated many Lao to the underpopulated Khorat Plateau, and conscripted them for several labor projects, such as digging canals, harvesting bamboo, and cutting down palm trees. Worst of all, he instituted a forced tattooing policy, for identification purposes.


Chao Anou mobilized Lao troops to launch a revolt, but he made a fatal error in 1826, when he heard that English warships had sailed to Bangkok. Believing a rumor that the English, who had just defeated Burma, were about to invade Siam next, he marched three armies to Bangkok, claiming that the troops were coming to the rescue. A fourth army was sent by his son in Champassak. But no invading Europeans were on the door of Siam’s capital; instead the English were in Bangkok to sign a treaty with Rama III. The Laotian rebels got within three days’ march of Bangkok before Siamese forces rallied and drove them back, defeating them in three battles on the Khorat Plateau in 1827. The bloodiest battle, fought at the fortress of Nong Bua Lamphu, lasted either three days or seven days, depending on who you’re reading, and afterwards, Chao Anou fled across the Mekong River. The pursuing Siamese advanced to Vientiane, deported many of its inhabitants, cut down the fruit trees surrounding Chao Anou’s capital, and then pillaged the city so thoroughly that when French explorers came to Vientiane in the 1850s, they found most of the city was still in ruins. The only thing the Siamese spared was the Wat Si Saket Temple, which had just been completed in 1824, because it was built in the Siamese architectural style, and the troops used it as their headquarters after taking the city. Ironically, they missed a subtle insult directed against them; Chao Anou built the Wat Si Saket Temple with a specific orientation, so that when Chao Anou’s vassals came every year to swear loyalty to him, they would turn their backs on Bangkok.


In 1828 Chao Anou asked the Vietnamese emperor for soldiers to help him take back Vientiane, but most of the troops deserted before they met the Siamese, and the ones he had left were defeated easily. He fled again, this time to Xiengkhouang, whose ruler betrayed him and handed him over to the Siamese. Chao Anou and his family were taken to Bangkok in iron cages, where they were put on display. After suffering from physical abuse at the hands of his Siamese captors for eight says, Chao Anou died. When that happened, the rest of the family was released from the cages, since they were not seen as responsible for the rebellion, but they had to stay in Bangkok. The Prabang Buddha was also taken to Bangkok again, and this time it wasn’t returned until 1867.


Siam now annexed all territory the Lao had settled west of the Mekong River, and the Khorat Plateau became the Isaan provinces in present-day Thailand; that is why most of today’s ethnic Lao live in Thailand instead of Laos. Although puppet kings remained in Luang Prabang and Champassak, first under Siamese and then under French rule, Vientiane now became a directly-ruled Siamese province. For that reason, Laotians consider Chao Anou both the last king of Lan Xang and the last king to rule in Vientiane, and while communist governments as a rule don’t like kings, the one now ruling Laos has made an exception for Chao Anou, regarding him as a hero and a martyr for the country. Thus, in present-day Vientiane you can see statues of three important Laotian kings, representing Fa Ngum from the fourteenth century, Setthathirat from the sixteenth century, and Chao Anou from the nineteenth century.


That’s it for today’s episode. There is one place left in Southeast Asia that we haven’t discussed for the early modern era, and that is Vietnam. The last time we had much to say about Vietnam was in Episode 8, can you believe it? So join me next time as we see what Vietnam was doing from 1471 to 1802. Although Europeans did not have much influence in Vietnam until the end of the eighteenth century, the land underwent two periods of disunity that gave them serious problems. And what about Vietnam’s neighbor and rival, Champa? We’re going to learn what happened to that state, too, since Champa obviously isn’t around today.


If you enjoyed what you just heard, I would greatly appreciate a donation, which you can make by going to the Paypal button on this episode’s Blubrry.com page. Also consider writing a review on iTunes, and if you are on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so you won’t miss new episodes and podcast-related announcements. Like I said in the past, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!