Episode 25 is available! Actually it has been up since July 16. I didn’t announce here it until now because I was not happy with the sound quality, after I uploaded it. For some reason my computer added static in some places. Also, after uploading I discovered that one of the sources I used for Cambodia was in error. Therefore I re-recorded the episode, with the static gone and the error corrected. If you already listened to the episode, go ahead and download and listen to it again; it won’t cost you anything, after all. And sorry for the inconvenience.
Anyway, for this episode the podcast moves to the east side of the Southeast Asian mainland. This is the first in a two-part series on how the French conquered Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. If you are interested in what I may say in the future about the twentieth-century Vietnam War, this episode is an important stepping stone, setting the stage for that conflict by bringing in the French.
(Transcript, added 05/16/2020.)
This episode is dedicated to Florian H. And Yumeng W., who made donations a week before this episode went online. I believe both of you live outside the United States, so your donations show that the podcast has international appeal. Thank you very much for your support. To everyone else listening, let’s give Florian and Yumeng a hand!
You, the listener in Alabama, I didn’t hear you. Try clapping harder next time, okay? Now let’s go to the show.
Episode 25: French Indochina, Part I
Greetings, dear listeners! Or as Robin Williams used to say,
<GOOD MORNING VIETNAM!>
No, we are not going to talk about the Vietnam War yet. At the rate this narrative is going, I expect to reach World War II in November 2017; that’s four months from the time of this recording, for those of you who aren’t listening soon after I uploaded this episode. And after that, we will cover the Vietnam War sometime in early 2018. However, the events in this episode and the next lead up to that conflict. France was one of the key players, and now we will see how the French became the rulers over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a position they held until their defeat at the battle of Dienbienphu.
This will be our fourth episode to concentrate on the history of Vietnam. If you haven’t listened to all the previous episodes yet, Episode 4 covered Vietnam in ancient times, Episode 8 covered Vietnam’s medieval era, and Episode 19 covered the early modern period. For most of the early modern period, Vietnam was divided between rival families that each wanted one of their members to be emperor of the whole country, and that rivalry ended in 1802 with the victory of the Nguyen family. The faction leader at that time, Nguyen Anh, changed his name to Gia Long to symbolize the beginning of a new era, and ruled as emperor until his death in 1819. That is where Episode 19 broke off, so the narrative resumes here.
Gia Long saw the job of emperor as a balancing act. He won with the help of a French bishop, who provided him with modern arms, advice, and a voice to the French government, and he returned those favors by giving Christians and their missionaries a free hand in Vietnam. However, France did nothing to help him after the death of that bishop, so he felt he owed nothing to the nation of France. Therefore, he saw French activity in the Far East as a potential threat. Maybe the French were friendly now, but who could promise that they wouldn’t change, and try at some point in the future to take over? After all, a French agent had tried to control the king of Siam in the 1680s – we saw that in Episode 18 – and in other parts of Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines and Indonesia, European missionaries and merchants were followed by invading groups of armed men. By leaving the missionaries alone, Gia Long had let Europeans, especially the French, get their foot in Vietnam’s door, and he was determined that they would get nothing more than that. For example, he allowed a small amount of trade with the West so he would know about the outside world’s inventions, but he refused to sign any sort of trade agreement that would give the French an advantage. Eventually this attitude could be seen in the other things he did, like when he launched a building project in Hue, the Vietnamese capital, to make his palace look more like the Forbidden City in China.
We have seen previously that Cambodia used to rule the Mekong delta, but starting with Saigon in 1697, the Vietnamese moved into the delta, settling it and taking it from the Khmers bit by bit. The Khmer kings were reduced to paying tribute to both Vietnam and Siam, hoping that they could stop further advances from their big neighbors by buying them off. One king who followed this policy was Ang Chan II, and in 1811 his brother, Ang Sgnuon, got Siam’s King Rama II to support him in a coup by promising to pay tribute to Siam only, should he succeed in seizing power. Siamese troops marched into Cambodia, and Ang Chan fled to Saigon, where he requested aid from Gia Long to get his throne back. One year later he returned with a Vietnamese army, and because the Siamese didn’t want to fight the Vietnamese, they withdrew after some minor skirmishes. Ang Chan was reinstated as king, and the policy of paying tribute to two countries was resumed.
For Gia Long, the imperial succession was a problem because his crown prince, Nguyen Canh, had died in 1801, eighteen years before he did. In Episode 19 we saw this prince go with the first Vietnamese embassy to France, when he was just seven years old. Then when he grew up, he proved himself a competent general, so I believe he would have made a good emperor, had he lived to rule. Since his priority was keeping foreign influence from growing too strong, Gia Long eventually chose his fourth son, Nguyen Phuc Dam, to succeed him, because this son was the most xenophobic. The new heir changed his name to Minh Mang when he became emperor, and he ruled from 1819 to 1841.
Those who knew Minh Mang personally described him as a mild-mannered scholar, but because he wasn’t friendly to foreigners, the outside world saw him as a cruel tyrant. He believed in imitating the government of China to the letter, so under him Vietnam was run by a Confucian-style bureaucracy, with himself as another “Son of Heaven.” His cabinet had the usual departments to handle affairs like defense and finances, but there was no ministry of foreign affairs, because he felt foreigners didn’t deserve that much attention, and he distrusted all religions but Confucianism, because they did not teach submission to the emperor’s authority. This included Christianity, so he did not give missionaries the tolerance that his father had. And like his father, he rejected the treaties that foreigners offered. One of the rejected proposals came from Captain John White of Salem, Massachusetts, who sailed his clipper ship to Saigon in 1820. Captain White was the first American to visit Vietnam, so if you’re keeping track of when the complicated relationship between the United States and Vietnam began, this is an event to remember, though nothing came of it.
On the frontiers, Vietnam continued its expansion to the south and west. We saw back in Episode 18 that Vietnam supported Chao Anou, the last independent Laotian king, in his unsuccessful rebellion against Siam in 1828, and because of that, Minh Mang claimed eastern Laos as Vietnamese territory for a while. At one point, Minh Mang sent an ambassador with a retinue of one hundred men to Bangkok, and the general in charge of putting down the Laos rebellion only allowed one man from that party to go home alive – this told the emperor that there could not be a peaceful solution to the conflict. And like his father, Minh Mang had to send troops into Cambodia, because the Siamese were back in that country. The Siamese had moved in troops from the north, nibbling away at Cambodian territory, and when they defeated the Cambodians at the battle of Kompong Chang in 1832, Ang Chan fled to Vietnam again. Now the all-out war between Siam and Vietnam, which had been avoided in 1812, took place. Siamese forces invaded the Mekong delta provinces of Chau Doc and Vinh Long, but they were turned back by Vietnamese counter-attacks in 1833. The same year saw anti-Siamese revolts break out in eastern Laos and Cambodia, followed by a Vietnamese army of 15,000 men marching to Udong, the Cambodian capital at the time. The war ended in 1834, with Ang Chan as king once more and Cambodia as a Vietnamese puppet state. Incidentally, Vietnam annexed Soc Trang province, where the Mekong River meets the sea, in 1840, and with that, Vietnam’s conquest of the delta was complete.
Vietnam and Siam had a rematch in 1841, when Cambodia’s pro-Vietnamese government was overthrown and the rebels called on Siam to support their candidate, a pro-Siamese prince named Ang Duong. Ang Duong had spent his whole adult life in Bangkok, so when he went to Cambodia to become the new king, a Siamese army went with him. Because the Vietnamese were taken by surprise, they evacuated Cambodia, and Siam responded by invading the Mekong delta in 1842. Here the Siamese goal was to capture Saigon, and they got as far as Cô Tô Mountain. But now that the Vietnamese were back on familiar ground, they won a victory three months later that halted the offensive, took back the mountain, and captured a large number of Siamese prisoners. Then in 1845 came a Vietnamese counter-invasion of Cambodia, which took Phnom Penh and brought Udong under siege; at this point, the Siamese commander sued for peace. We call this war a draw, because Ang Duong remained king afterwards, neither Siam nor Vietnam gained any territory, and they agreed to have Cambodia resume paying tribute to both countries.
Now tracking the interaction between Vietnam, Siam, Laos and Cambodia is helpful in understanding where those countries stood on the eve of the French invasion, but most history texts breeze over these events quickly, only saying a few words about them, because what the Europeans did mattered the most, and everybody knew it. And it was Minh Mang’s crackdown on Catholicism that offended Europeans the most. At first he tried to stop the missionary work by offering jobs to the priests. He summoned the French clergy to Hue and told them that they had several useful skills, especially their ability to translate between Vietnamese and French; if they would work for him, he would give them the title of mandarin, meaning they would be high-ranking officials in the government. But the priests would have to give up converting the Vietnamese if they accepted, and the offer did not prevent new priests from coming into the country. Therefore the emperor decided to get tougher. In 1825 he issued his first anti-Christian edict, forbidding any new missionaries from coming to Vietnam because, as he put it, quote: “The perverse religion of the Europeans corrupts the hearts of men.” End quote. After that, when revolts broke out in various parts of the country, Minh Mang suspected that Catholics, both foreign and native followers of the faith, were involved in stirring up discontent.
The emperor did not catch any priests behind the revolts until he put down a particularly bad one in 1833, led by his adopted son, Le Van Khoi. This time he ordered the arrest of all French and Vietnamese priests who did not leave the country immediately, and though many escaped, one of those captured was Father François Isidore Gagelin, who had once worked at the imperial court as a cartographer. He was brought to Hue in irons, condemned to death for quote “preaching the religion of Jesus,” unquote, and slowly strangled by six guards as he knelt on a scaffold. The emperor knew the story of the resurrection of Jesus, so three days later he ordered the body of the priest dug up, to make sure he was still dead.
During the next seven years, ten more foreign missionaries were executed. As awful as this sounds, keep in mind that in the history of Western civilization, plenty of religious persecutions were worse. Just look at the Albigensian Crusade, or the wars of the Reformation, both of which pitted Christians against other Christians. In France there were calls for military action against Vietnam to protect missionaries and their converts, but the current French king, Louis Philippe, wasn’t in the mood for an overseas adventure that far from home, so the French didn’t act in the 1830s. However, at the end of the decade the notorious Opium War broke out, between Britain and China, over the question of whether the British East India Company had the right to sell drugs to the Chinese. When Minh Mang saw how easily the British Navy beat the Chinese ships in each battle, he decided that he’d better negotiate with the Europeans, or Vietnam might become the next target. Accordingly, he sent two mandarins to France. But Catholic activists loudly protested the arrival of these diplomats from a country that persecutes Christians, and when the Vatican found out, it voiced its disapproval of them, too. King Louis Philippe chose to play it safe and refused to grant the mandarins an audience. This was the first time the Western nations missed an opportunity to fix poor relations with Vietnam, and it would not be the last.
Soon after this mess-up, Minh Mang died and was succeeded by his son, Thieu Tri. The new emperor shared his father’s anti-foreign and anti-Christian sentiments, but during his short reign, he executed no foreign missionaries. Thieu Tri knew that harming the missionaries could provoke Europe – after the Opium War, European ships were patrolling Pacific waters at any given time – so he was happy if all the missionaries did was get out of the country. The problem was that the missionaries were passionate about their calling to win souls for Jesus, and once they left Vietnam, they looked for a way to sneak back in.
The most troublesome of these missionaries was a Frenchman named Dominique Lefèbvre. Lefèbvre first came to Vietnam in 1835, when he was 25 years old, and managed to keep from getting arrested by doing much of his preaching in secret. However, in 1844 he got involved in an unsuccessful plot to replace Thieu Tri with an emperor who would be friendlier to Christians. Thieu Tri first condemned Lefèbvre to death, but later, to avoid trouble, he had the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, supposedly because the missionary was ignorant of the laws against Christianity. Not long after that, an American warship, the USS Constitution, dropped anchor in Da Nang harbor. Yes, this was the famous ship that has been called Old Ironsides, for winning battles in the War of 1812! Lefèbvre was locked up in nearby Hue, but managed to get a message smuggled to the Constitution, where the captain, John Percival, was entertaining three Vietnamese mandarins. Percival tried to get the missionary freed by holding the mandarins hostage, but the emperor refused to compromise, until the captain gave up trying and released the mandarins. The United States government denied Percival was acting on orders from Washington and eventually apologized, while Thieu Tri tried to defuse the matter when a French admiral, Jean-Baptiste Cécille, showed up on the scene; the emperor gave him Lefèbvre and some gifts for the king of France.
The admiral took Lefèbvre to Singapore, and that should have been the end of the story, but instead the pesky missionary re-entered Vietnam in 1846. What happened next was a repeat of what happened the first time: Lefèbvre was arrested again, sentenced to death again, pardoned again, released again, and put on a ship headed for Singapore again. Unfortunately, while that was going on, Admiral Cécille sent two warships to Dan Nang. The French did not know that Lefèbvre had already been set free, so when the ships arrived, a letter was sent to the emperor, demanding the release of Lefèbvre and another missionary, and for the Vietnamese government to grant freedom of worship to all Catholics in the country. Eighteen days later a letter with the emperor’s response came back. The French and the local mandarins got into an argument over whether the Vietnamese should deliver the letter to one of the ships. The Vietnamese feared being taken hostage if they went on the ships, while the French feared being ambushed if they went ashore to pick up the letter. Instead of settling this impasse peacefully, on April 15, 1847, somebody – we don’t know who – ordered the French to fire, and the French ships bombarded the harbor, sinking three Vietnamese ships, and killing more than a hundred natives. Then the French sailed away, without checking to see if the missionaries were safe.
Afterwards, Admiral Cécille recommended that in the future, France should talk to Vietnam, quote: “Only with guns.” End quote. Likewise, Thieu Tri ordered the killing of all missionaries and their Christian followers, but his subordinates didn’t carry out the order, and the emperor’s death later in the same year meant nobody had to obey it after all. As for Lefèbvre, he went to Vietnam once more, and this time hid so well that he was not captured a third time. He died a free man, in the French city of Marseilles in 1865.
The next Vietnamese emperor was Thieu Tri’s son, Tu Duc, who ruled from 1847 to 1883. Thieu Tri had passed over his eldest son and chose Tu Duc as his successor, because he believed that Tu Duc would do the most to maintain traditional values and keep foreign influences out. Tu Duc did just that, but ironically, when he took the throne, there was a revolt from the more conservative mandarins, who thought Confucianism was best observed when only the emperor’s eldest son got to rule. Tu Duc put down the revolt, and the elder brother in question committed suicide in prison, but I think you’ll agree this isn’t the best way to begin a reign. Tu Duc’s opponents tried again in 1865, when they joined a revolt led by a pretender, who claimed descent from Vietnam’s fifteenth-century rulers, the Le dynasty. It certainly didn’t help that Tu Duc had 104 wives but fathered no children, because he was rendered sterile by a case of smallpox.
From the Christian point of view, Tu Duc was definitely bad news. Like his father and grandfather, he saw Christianity as a threat to the country’s Confucian-style order, and Catholics as potential or actual French agents. But to keep the French from attacking again, he acted when he thought the French were too busy with affairs at home to respond. For example, he issued his first anti-Christian edict in 1848, when revolution swept France and forced King Louis Philippe to abdicate. Then the second anti-Christian edict was issued in 1851, right after the new French president, Louis Napoleon, staged a coup to make himself president for life. These edicts ordered all Vietnamese Catholics to renounce their faith; those that didn’t were branded on the cheek with two Chinese characters meaning “infidel,” and any property that they owned was confiscated. As for the clergymen, Tu Duc ordered Vietnamese priests to be cut in half and European priests to be drowned; bounties in silver were paid for priests turned in to the authorities. Tu Duc’s strategy didn’t work as planned because Louis Napoleon soon declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, and both he and his wife Eugenie were devout Catholics, so they could not ignore the persecution of Catholics.
Intervention in Southeast Asia had to wait until events in Europe no longer got in the way. One of those events was the Crimean War, where France teamed up with Britain to attack Russia in the mid-1850s. After the Crimean War was done, France sent two more ships to Vietnam, commanded by Louis Charles de Montigny, the former French consul in Shanghai. But Montigny also had another assignment, to negotiate a treaty with Siam, and though this was successful, the negotiations took so long that Montigny told the ships to go ahead without him, after writing a letter for them to deliver to the emperor. On the way a storm struck the ships, damaging one, but the other made it to Da Nang in September 1856. The result was the same as when French ships came calling in 1847: the local mandarins refused to accept the letter, the ship captain ordered the harbor forts destroyed with the ship’s guns, and after the bombardment the ship’s marines came ashore to occupy the town citadel. Now the frightened mandarins were willing to talk, but the ship captain thought it would be best to wait for Montigny. After a few weeks of waiting, the second ship straggled into Da Nang harbor, but Montigny wasn’t onboard, and supplies were running low, so both ships withdrew. Then Montigny showed up in early 1857, but without warships backing him up, the Vietnamese found it easy to reject everything he demanded.
The bad timing and failure of that expedition did not discourage the French. On the contrary, it made them want to act even more, and now the priests calling for French intervention pointed to the treaty signed between France and the Nguyen family in 1787, because it said France could have Da Nang. We talked about that treaty in Episode 19, and in the seventy years since then, nobody had kept the treaty, or even thought it was worth much attention. Napoleon III delayed responding until news arrived that a Spanish missionary had been beheaded in Vietnam, and finally gave the navy orders to invade in July 1857. After more delays, a task force of 14 ships and 5,000 men, commanded by Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, reached Da Nang on August 31, 1858. And they weren’t all French; about half the soldiers were Spaniards, sent from Manila to avenge the slain Spanish priest. The objective was to grab Da Nang and as much surrounding territory as needed to make Tu Duc agree to a treaty that would turn Vietnam into a French protectorate.
It only took a day to occupy Da Nang, and the French renamed it Tourane, a name it would hold for the rest of the French colonial era. However, the French could not threaten the Vietnamese capital, because they lacked the shallow-draft boats needed to go up the Perfume River to Hue. Nor did they have the animals, carts and porters that would be needed for a march to Hue on dry land. Worse than that, no reinforcements arrived–they went to join the British in the Second Opium War against China, and the French expected Vietnamese Catholics to rise up in revolt against the emperor, but that did not happen. On top of all that, French casualties from tropical diseases were mounting; we have reports of slight scratches getting infected and requiring amputation. Then when the rainy season started in October, the army was completely immobilized, both by the weather and by surrounding Vietnamese forces. By the end of the year the quick victory at Tourane was looking more like a disaster.
I know what some of you are thinking. No, the French did not surrender to get out of that mess. I have heard the jokes about today’s French surrendering at the drop of a hat, like this one from The Simpsons:
Well, in the 1850s the French were nothing like that. The French army was first-rate at the time, it fought well in the Crimean War, and the commander-in-chief was a Napoleon. Instead of surrendering, or waiting for new orders from Paris, Admiral Rigault pulled most of his ships and men out of Tourane, and sent them south, into the Mekong River delta. After two weeks of fighting in February 1859, they took the most important city in the delta region, Saigon. Because the delta was one of the richest parts of the country, this REALLY hurt. But Vietnamese guerrillas soon appeared on the scene, keeping the French from taking any of the territory around Saigon. Some guerrillas even made raids into Saigon itself. For those of you who know anything about the twentieth-century Vietnam War, this should remind you of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Back in Tourane, the situation continued to deteriorate; now for every soldier killed in combat, twenty were getting killed by disease. Therefore, Admiral Rigault soon got tired of the stalemate in Saigon, and returned to Tourane, again bringing most of the troops with him. From Tourane he tried to contact the emperor, but Tu Duc refused to negotiate, since it appeared that nature was fighting on the side of the Vietnamese. The admiral resigned and went home, leaving to his successor the inglorious job of evacuating French forces from Tourane.
Back in France, many people called on Napoleon III to finish what had been started in Vietnam. In the history of Western civilization, we are up to the age of imperialism, when the nations of Europe sent their armies and navies overseas to conquer as much of the non-European world as possible. Many factors encouraged this aggressive behavior. Merchants wanted to find new customers overseas, and secure resources for the factories at home; military men looked for adventure; those who believed in the superiority of Western civilization thought it should be introduced to the rest of the world, thereby bringing a better way of life to primitive peoples. Those voices grew loud enough to prompt the sending of reinforcements in 1861. By now the Second Opium War in China was over, and the French troops returning from that expedition were sent to Saigon, instead of bringing them home right away. The French commander in Saigon now had two thousand soldiers available, and he went on the offensive, using those soldiers to spread out and capture three of Vietnam’s six provinces in the Mekong delta. Tu Duc was unable to resist the modern military technology of the West, and without the delta provinces, his army was in danger of starving. You can see how desperate he was because he sent a request for military aid to US President Abraham Lincoln; of course with the American Civil War having just begun, this plea went unanswered. In 1862 he finally gave up. The war ended with the signing of a treaty that gave France the three conquered southern provinces, and Con Son Island in the South China Sea. And that wasn’t all; three ports in the rest of Vietnam were opened to trade with Europe, Catholic missionaries were allowed to preach freely again, and Vietnam promised not to give any of its territory to another nation besides France. I wonder why?
The Lost City in the Jungle
While the war was going on in southern Vietnam, a different kind of expedition took place in neighboring Cambodia, and this got the French interested in that country, too. Since 1858, a French naturalist named Henri Mouhot had been exploring the jungles of Siam, Cambodia and Laos. He was mainly in Southeast Asia to collect rare butterflies and shells, but in 1860 he stumbled upon the ruins of Angkor, the spectacular former Cambodian capital. I talked about Angkor back in Episode 7 of this podcast series; go listen to it if you haven’t already, and you’ll know why this is a big deal. Mouhot returned to France to report on what he found, and then went on another expedition in the following year. This time he died of a jungle fever in Laos, and was buried near Luang Prabang. The French built a small monument over his grave in 1867, which was lost when the jungle grew around the site, and then it was just re-discovered in 1989.
Mouhot was subsequently called the discoverer of Angkor and the Khmer civilization, but the truth is that Angkor was never truly “lost.” The Khmers still knew about it, after all, even if they didn’t live there anymore, or remember the details about the city’s history. My online sources report that Portuguese merchants were in the neighborhood of Angkor as early as 1550, and a Portuguese monk named António da Madalena visited the ruins in 1586. Apparently Europe did not pay attention to pre-1860 reports of Angkor because those who wrote the reports weren’t as eloquent as Mouhot. Here is a sample from the book Mouhot published on his travels. Quote:
“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings . . . It makes the traveler forget all the fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as would be experienced on finding a verdant oasis in a sandy desert. Suddenly, and as if by enchantment, he seems to be transformed from barbarism to civilization, from profound darkness to light.”
When I was a kid in school, my American history textbooks claimed that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We know better now. Somebody else crossed the oceans separating the Old World from the New World before 1492; the Viking Leif Ericson did it, and maybe some others as well. Still, Columbus got the credit because once he made the journey, America stayed “discovered”; the Old World didn’t forget what he found, the way it had forgotten Ericson’s “Vinland.” Likewise, I believe Henri Mouhot got the credit for discovering Angkor because we have remembered it ever since.
Cambodia and Cochin China
Now let’s go back to Vietnam. When the previously mentioned war between Vietnam and France ended, the Spanish troops supporting the French withdrew from Saigon, since their mission had been accomplished. However, the French were not finished yet. In 1863 a naval officer, Admiral Pierre Paul Marie Benoît de La Grandière, was appointed governor of Saigon, and right before he took the job, he acted boldly to expand the French Empire some more. Because Cambodia had been a vassal state of Vietnam in recent years, the admiral now claimed that the latest war had transferred Cambodia’s vassalage from Vietnam to France.
The new king of Cambodia, Norodom, disagreed and tried to flee to Siam, but Admiral de La Grandière caught up with him at Udong; with the guns of French warships pointed at the king’s palace, the admiral forced the king to sign a treaty declaring Cambodia a French protectorate. Siam wasn’t out of the game, though. King Norodom had not been crowned yet because the Cambodian royal regalia, meaning the king’s crown and sword, were in Bangkok. The Siamese had been holding onto these items since the death of the previous king, Ang Duong, to keep the Vietnamese from crowning the next king. To get the royal stuff back, Norodom would have to go to Bangkok and let the Siamese stage his coronation, a move which would make it look like Siam was still in charge. In March 1864 Norodom tried to do just that, and sneaked out of Udong to begin the journey to Bangkok. But of course the French were not going to allow this. As soon as they heard that Norodom had fled, fifty French soldiers went into Udong, raised the French flag over the city, and fired a 21-gun salute to the flag. Their message was that Cambodia would become a directly-ruled French province, if Norodom left the country. Rather than lose his kingdom, Norodom returned immediately, and after a round of negotiations between France and Siam, all sides reached a compromise. The coronation was finally held in Udong on June 3, 1864, where Norodom crowned himself while French and Siamese representatives watched the ceremony.
In 1867, de La Grandière acted again without notifying Paris first. This time he annexed the three Mekong delta provinces that were still under Vietnamese control, claiming that the Vietnamese in the area were a threat to French interests in Cambodia. With that move, the whole southern third of Vietnam, a territory Europeans called Cochin China, was now under French rule. Also caught by surprise was Phan Thanh Giang, the Vietnamese governor over the annexed provinces. Phan had been helpful in the past – he was the chief negotiator on the Vietnamese side when the previous treaty was drawn up, and in 1863 he led a 70-man embassy to France to meet with Napoleon III. Now he felt so shamed that he committed suicide, after making his sons pledge to never cooperate with the French.
The same year, 1867, saw the French compel Siam to sign a new treaty, which ended Siam’s protectorate over Cambodia, but allowed the Siamese to annex two provinces in the northwest, Battambang and Siem Reap. This area included the Angkor ruins, and we’ll be coming back to that in the next episode, since Cambodia without its ancient city was an incomplete country. Imagine the United States without Virginia and Massachusetts, two of the oldest states, and you’ll get the idea. But bringing the rest of Cambodia under French rule wasn’t all bad. In 1865 France moved the capital from Udong to Phnom Penh, where it has been ever since. Also, when the French took over, King Norodom was facing a serious rebellion from the country’s Cham minority, and in 1885 Norodom’s half brother launched another revolt against him; he probably couldn’t have gotten the upper hand against these rebels without French help. Finally, Vietnamese and Siamese expansion in the early nineteenth century had been a threat to the very existence of the Cambodian people. If the French hadn’t intervened when they did, it is likely that the Cambodians would have been absorbed into one of their larger neighbors, and they would not exist as a separate ethnic group today.
On that note, I am breaking off the narrative here. Originally I was planning to devote one episode to French expansion in Southeast Asia, since one episode was enough to cover the British conquest of Burma. But as I found in other cases, the amount of available information is growing exponentially as the narrative covers events closer to the present. Now that I have a year of podcasting experience behind me, I could record a multi-hour episode like Dan Carlin does, but with the way I record and edit, that would have made this episode late for sure. Therefore, in the next episode we will cover the rest of the French conquests, in the period between 1867 and 1907. How about that, only forty years! There won’t be any more episodes in this podcast series where the narrative jumps across centuries in one sitting! Heck, we only have a century and a half to go, from 1867 to now!
We’ll finish with the usual requests from me. As I have said before, write a review of the podcast on the website where you listen or download it. Last week I was notified of a review on Podbean.com. I didn’t even know the podcast was on Podbean; my thanks to whoever added it to their fine list of shows! So reviews not only tell other people where the podcast is, they tell me, too. Now there are nine places online (that I know of) where you can access the episodes:
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