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:
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.>
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.
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