A New Siam


I’m afraid I broke a promise.  A month ago, I predicted that future episodes would cover shorter time periods, but today, to get Siam done in one episode, I covered a 157-year time span, from 1782 to 1939.  That means this episode will be the longest so far in the podcast series, but fortunately it is still less than an hour; you won’t have to set aside a day to listen, like you would for Dan Carlin’s history podcast.  Here you will learn how Siam modernized, why it was the only Southeast Asian country that did not become a European colony, and why it changed its name to Thailand at the end of the period.



Here is a map of Siam in the early 1800s, when the kingdom was at its greatest size.  These borders lasted until 1863, when Britain and France started taking parts of the kingdom for themselves.  The core territory they left behind became present-day Thailand in 1939.


(Transcript, added 05/31/2020)

This episode is dedicated to Mark N., who made a generous donation a week before this episode went online. A few days ago, I read an article from another history podcaster, which told how making a history podcast demands about as much time as a full-time job, because of all the research required before each recording. I am glad I’m not the only one experiencing that, though in my case, most of the notes were written down before 1990. These days, my research goes into making sure my material is up to date, and that I did not leave anything out. Therefore, a donation not only keeps the proverbial lights on where the podcast is hosted, it is also compensation for my efforts, and it shows that others appreciate all that goes into producing an episode. Mark, thank you for your support, and I hope you will enjoy this episode, where I tell everyone how yesterday’s Siam became today’s Thailand.

Episode 27: A New Siam
or, The Unconquered Kingdom

Greetings, dear listeners! For several episodes we have been discussing how Southeast Asia fell under European rule. First we saw Spain explore and conquer the Philippines, all the way back in the sixteenth century. Most of the other conquests came after 1800. In the nineteenth century the Dutch took over Indonesia, the British annexed Burma, Malaya and part of Borneo, and the French grabbed Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. That left one nation in the middle of it all that managed to keep going strong – Siam. We last discussed Siam in Episode 20, where we learned about their last big war with Burma. Now we are going to learn how the Siamese did something unique – they were the only people in Southeast Asia to avoid becoming a colony.

If you have not listened to the previous episodes in this podcast about Siam, here are the ones I recommend. Episode 10 covers how Siam got started. Episodes 15 and 16 are a two-parter about the wars between Burma and Siam in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. You will especially want to listen to Episode 16, because there I tell the story of the great Siamese king Naresuan. Then in Episode 18 we hear about the strange Phaulkon affair, where one European tried to gain control over the king; you’ll be amazed at how close he came to succeeding. And finally the eighteenth-century events are covered in the episode I mentioned already, Episode 20.

Before we begin, I need to explain the current naming system of Siamese kings. I mentioned this once before, but here I need to explain it again, with a bit more detail. Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok, the general who became king in 1782, founded the dynasty that has ruled Siam and Thailand ever since; he called it the Chakri dynasty. However, most history texts simply call him Rama I. This was the doing of the dynasty’s sixth king, Vajiravudh. Vajiravudh was educated in England, and there he learned that Thai language names are too long for Europeans to pronounce easily. Tell me about it, your majesty – I’m sure I have mispronounced some Thai names over the course of this podcast series for the same reason! Therefore he added the simple name of Rama, followed by the appropriate number, to every king of the dynasty. Under that system, Vajiravudh became Rama VI, and the new king who took the throne last year is Rama X. If you could go back in time and meet Mongkut, the king played by Yul Brynner in “The King and I,” he would probably be shocked to learn that Rama IV was his name, too.

On a personal note, back in the 1980s I read some novels written by Somtow Sucharitkul, a science fiction writer and musical composer from Thailand. Suchaitkul also knew that his name was a jawbreaker, so he took for himself the pen name S. P. Somtow. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s jump into the narrative!


Siam was the strongest nation in Southeast Asia for most of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And after the British cut Burma down to size in the 1820s, it was the largest Southeast Asian state. Besides all of present-day Thailand, Siam held the Shan plateau, in what is now eastern Burma, almost half of the Malay peninsula, and all of Laos. They may have held some territory that now belongs to Vietnam, too; northern Vietnam’s border with Laos was fuzzy, poorly defined, until the 1880s. Finally, Cambodia paid tribute to Siam, so a map that shows Cambodia as part of Siam, like the one I shared on this episode’s Blubrry.com page, isn’t far off the mark.

One of the secrets to Siam’s success was keeping good relations with China, something the Thais were good at doing even before they moved from China to their present-day locations. What’s more, every Siamese king after 1767 had Chinese ancestry, and this also encouraged good relations. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants were allowed to enter the country; by 1850 there were 350,000 of them living in Siam. Gradually they gained control over the economy as bankers, managers of public works, and tax collectors; they were also the only Siamese citizens allowed to sell opium legally. When the Dutch East India Company collapsed, Chinese merchants stepped in to take the Company’s place, dominating Southeast Asia’s seaborne trade. Before 1850 there was a shortage of women among the Chinese immigrants, so many of them intermarried into Thai families, further blurring ethnic differences.

If you know much history, you have learned that while many countries, probably most of them, have chosen their leaders from a few specific families, ability and talent are not hereditary, so membership in the right family does not guarantee the new candidate will be a good ruler. In fact, the odds are that he won’t be good if he does not get proper training beforehand, or if the ruling family is inbred. In Western civilization, we have an excellent example of that with the Roman emperors of the second century; we call this the time of the “Five Good Emperors” because Rome had five emperors in a row that were not related to each other or to the emperors before them, but they did a very good job anyway. The last of those emperors, Marcus Aurelius, is considered one of the best Roman emperors because he was both a fine military leader and a Stoic philosopher, and the book he wrote on philosophy, Meditations, is still widely read today, but then he undid much of his good work by giving the throne to his son Commodus, and that son became one of the worst emperors. Go see the movie Gladiator if you haven’t heard of those emperors; the contrast between the wise Marcus Aurelius and the foolish Commodus is the real history behind an otherwise fictional story.

In the case of the Chakri dynasty, one good king was not followed by several bad ones. Siam has been blessed in that among the eleven kings it has had since 1767, most were very competent rulers. In fact, the only one I would call incompetent, in the period before the kings lost their absolute power, was Rama VII. Today the king is a constitutional monarch, like the kings and queens remaining in Europe; he is a national symbol, honored by the entire population, but he isn’t allowed to do much that would change the country. Later in this podcast, when we get to recent history, we will see that modern-day Thailand has experienced political instability for decades, but that is the fault of the prime ministers and generals who have the power now; many of them leave something to be desired.

The first three kings of the Chakri dynasty were mainly interested in restoring the country; they saw the previous 400 years, when Ayutthaya was the capital, as a golden age. In that sense, they were more conservative than the kings who came after them. Last year, the United States elected a president who campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” and these kings would have understood that sentiment perfectly; perhaps one of them said, “Make Siam Great Again!”

Rama I

Chulalok Rama I’s ancestry was less than 50% Thai; he had a Mon father and a part-Chinese mother. I said I was done talking about the Mons when the Burmese reconquered the last Mon state, in the mid-eighteenth century, so by producing the first king of Siam’s current dynasty, the Mons may have had the last laugh. He became king on April 6, 1782 and ruled until 1809. Under him, law codes and religious texts were rewritten, and works of literature in the Sanskrit, Chinese, Mon, Persian and Javanese languages were translated into Thai. He also did most of the work of building Bangkok from scratch; here the new temples and palaces were built using the same architectural designs, and sometimes even the very bricks, of old Ayutthaya.

Because he was a former general, Rama I had his share of military accomplishments, both before and after he became king. In 1784 he sent 50,000 troops and 300 boats to help Nguyen Anh, a Vietnamese prince. However, this campaign was defeated by the current rulers of Vietnam, the Tay Son brothers. We saw in Episode 19 that Nguyen Anh did eventually win, but it happened eighteen years later and he did it with aid from the French. Rama I did better when he defeated the last major Burmese invasion, which we call the Nine Armies War; go back to Episode 24 if you don’t remember that conflict. And in 1795 he put a pro-Siamese prince on the throne of Cambodia, and the new king paid him back by giving him two Cambodian provinces, Battambang and Siem Reap. Those provinces would change hands more than once in the nineteenth century, between Cambodia, Siam and France.

Rama II

Because Rama I got so much done, in 1982, 200 years after his reign began, the Thai Cabinet awarded him an additional title, Maharat, meaning “the Great.” So if you hear modern Thais talking about Rama the Great, this is the Rama they mean. He left some big shoes to fill, but his son, Itsarasundthorn, was up to it. This king, better known to us as Phutthaloetla Naphalai Rama II, ruled from 1809 to 1824.

There was a small war with Burma as soon as the Burmese heard that Rama I was dead, in which they captured and destroyed the Indian Ocean port of Phuket, but then a Siamese army drove them back across the border again. Also in 1809, Prince Kshatriyanuchit, a son of the former king Taksin, announced that the throne belonged to him, and Rama put his twenty-one-year-old son, Thap, in charge of the army that put down that rebellion. Finally in 1821, Siam annexed the state of Kedah in northern Malaya. But even when you count those conflicts, the reign of Rama II was much more peaceful than that of his father. Today Rama II is mainly remembered as a poet. A number of commoners skilled in verse became the king’s favorites, forming a team of court poets. To make sure the country was administered properly, he brought back several ceremonies that had not been practiced since the fall of Ayutthaya, starting with his father’s funeral service. The first formal visits by Westerners in more than fifty years took place while he was king, with a diplomatic mission from Portugal in 1818, and one from Britain in 1820. Also, a missionary introduced the printing press to Siam in 1819.

A succession crisis was narrowly averted at the end of Rama II’s reign. His first son died shortly after birth, in 1801, but fortunately, he had many more children after that. The next son of Rama II and the queen, Mongkut, was born in 1804, and when Mongkut reached the age of 20, his father put him in a monastery, because young Siamese men are expected to become monks for a while. However, Rama II died only three weeks later, and there was an elder half brother, the previously mentioned Thap; the son of the king and a concubine. Since the late king had not declared which son would succeed him, the senior nobility got together to elect the next king. Because of the time when he led an army, Thap was given the title Chetsadabodin, and he served for several years as the minister of trade and foreign affairs. By comparison, Mongkut was too young to have any practical experience at running the country, so the nobles chose Chetsadabodin, though he was an illegitimate son of the previous king. To stay out of messy politics, Mongkut allowed this election to stand, and the nobles crowned Chetsadabodin as King Nangklao Rama III. Foreign observers saw the elevation of Rama III as a usurpation, since Mongkut had the better claim, but they also chose not to protest.

Rama III

Rama III ruled for twenty-seven years, from 1824 to 1851. The beginning of his reign coincided with the First Anglo-Burmese War, and three hundred years of bad relations between Burma and Siam meant it was a no-brainer for Siam to enter the war on Britain’s side. For their first campaign together, Britain said that Siam could have Mergui, a town in southern Burma that Siam had ruled before 1765. But when Siam occupied Mergui, the general on the spot ordered the removal of everyone living in the town. This was a common practice in Southeast Asian wars, but the British thought this was too much, and that civilians should be left alone. After some intense arguments over the matter, Rama III ordered Siamese troops to leave, so that tensions could cool down. Thus, Siam did not participate in the war after that, Mergui fell under British rule when the war ended, and today Mergui, now called Myeik, is part of Myanmar instead of Thailand.

We saw in previous episodes that Rama III put down a major rebellion in Laos between 1826 and 1828, and fought two wars with Vietnam over Cambodia in the 1830s and 1840s. To the south, he reduced the three remaining states of northern Malaya – Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu – to vassal status. Finally, we saw that the last war between Siam and Burma began in 1849, and ended during the reign of the next king, in 1855.

Officially Siam had been an isolationist state since the Phaulkon affair in the 1680s, and the Chinese merchants encouraged this policy to keep competition out. But eventually the West was able to pry open the closed doors of Siam anyway. Treaties signed with Britain in 1826 and the United States in 1833 allowed Protestant missionaries and a small amount of trade into the country. Because of the king’s already proven skill at managing trade and foreign policy, he could make sure the treaties did not give too many concessions or compromise Siam’s independence.

The first three kings named Rama had succeeded in making Siam great again, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a new challenge – how would the Siamese deal with bolder, more aggressive Europeans? What Siam needed now was a different kind of king, a reformer to modernize the country. Rama III knew this, and said as much when he was on his deathbed. I gave you these words a few episodes back, but they are worth repeating because in a nutshell, they explain what most Southeast Asians had to face at this time. Quote:

“Our wars with Burma and Vietnam were over, only the threats of the Westerners [are] left to us. We should study their innovations for our own benefits but not to the degree of obsession or worship.” End quote.

After the founding of the Chakri dynasty, the Siamese started giving names to the reigns of their kings. They called the era of Rama I “the First Reign,” and that of Rama II “the Middle Reign,” so many called the reign of Rama III “the Late Reign.” However, this also suggested that there would not be any more reigns after the third one. Along that line, Rama III had several concubines, but he never married, so none his children were eligible to succeed him. However, his half-brother Mongkut, now forty-seven years old, was still waiting on the sidelines; because he was the legitimate son of a king, he had the best claim to the throne again, and he would not be passed over a second time.

Rama IV

So what was Mongkut doing while his brother was king? He tried to be a good monk, but the more he learned about Buddhism, the more he was bothered by the current state of Buddhism in Siam. Monks and lay people alike, he concluded, had blindly followed traditions without checking the original texts to see if they agreed with their practices. In 1829 he met a monk who did know the scriptures and followed them strictly, and that inspired him to do likewise. When he carefully studied the texts that told how to ordain monks, Mongkut was upset to find that modern Siamese ordinations were invalid. He responded by creating his own order of monks in 1833. In so doing he reformed their daily practices, rituals, preaching and even their pronunciation of Pali, the ancient language of Therevada Buddhist texts. He even changed their uniforms; whereas Siamese monks usually wear orange robes that leave one shoulder bare, monks in the new order dressed in the Mon style, with dark red robes that covered both shoulders. I am guessing Mongkut did this because the Mons were the first Southeast Asians to become Buddhists. Mongkut named his followers Dhammayuttika Nikaya, meaning the “Order Adhering to the Teachings of the Buddha,” and called the order he had once belonged to the “Order of Longstanding Habit.” Mongkut’s attempts to reform Buddhism found little support – his order was not recognized as an authentic Buddhist sect until 1902 – but his activities showed he was a dedicated reformer. At the end of Rama III’s reign, the Siamese nobility concluded that Mongkut was the best man for the throne, whether they liked him or not. In a show of unity, they passed over Rama III’s sons and elected Mongkut to be the next king, Rama IV. Can you imagine today’s politicians putting aside their beliefs in such a way, for the good of their country?

While Mongkut was a monk, he sought out Western missionaries and learned as much as he could from them. Besides Christian doctrine, they taught him English, Latin, science and mathematics. That, and his constant exposure to ordinary people during that time, meant he understood other points of view better than the previous kings, and that helped him a lot when he became King Rama IV. As king he ruled from 1851 to 1868, and in 1855 he signed another treaty with Britain, the most comprehensive yet. This document gave the following privileges to the British: extraterritoriality (meaning British citizens were exempt from Siamese laws), most-favored-nation status, a consulate in Bangkok, and a maximum tariff of 3% on British goods. It also gave Britons the right to sell Siamese goods, lease land, build homes, and travel one day’s distance from Bangkok. Before long France and the other Western powers stepped in and demanded similar trade agreements; the king agreed to them all, because he saw rivalry between foreign powers as the best way to keep one of them from gaining too much influence over his country.

To modernize Siam, Rama IV hired eighty foreign advisors. Before long, river steamships and new roads, canals, and bridges were built. A telegraph line from Singapore linked Bangkok to the world’s most advanced cities. Western furniture and dress were introduced into the palace of the uparat, or heir apparent. The uparat was Pinklao, Mongkut’s younger brother, and he also set up a modern machine shop to experiment with Western science. An American headed the customs service and a British financial advisor directed the economy. But most of these changes were only felt in the Bangkok area; elsewhere life went on as before, though the Chinese monopoly over trade was broken.

One more foreigner deserves special mention. This was Anna Leonowens, the wife of Thomas Leon Owens, a clerk for the British government. Over the course of their marriage, Anna and Thomas lived in India, Western Australia, Singapore and Penang, before Thomas died suddenly. To support herself and her two children, the widowed Anna set up a school for the children of military officers in Singapore, and this made her eligible for the job which made her famous; from 1862 to 1867 she served as tutor for the Siamese royal family. Rama IV was looking for a teacher who could provide an education that was both modern and secular, something the missionaries couldn’t do. Afterwards, Anna wrote her memoirs in two volumes: The English Governess at the Siamese Court in 1870, and Romance of the Harem in 1873. Her story was rewritten in the form of a fictionalized novel in 1944, Anna and the King of Siam, and in 1951 this became the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I; both versions of the story were later made into movies. By the way, when I read the obituary of King Rama IX last year, the article said the late king didn’t like The King and I, because it portrayed the Siamese court as semi-barbaric, and a more playful place than it really was. I guess he would know, since the king played by Yul Brynner was his great-grandfather.

Mongkut Rama IV used his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to predict a total eclipse of the sun in southern Siam on August 18, 1868. He invited several Siamese and European officials to come with him when he went to see the eclipse, and because his prediction turned out to be more accurate than those of the court astrologers and French astronomers, this eclipse is called “The King of Siam’s Eclipse” in modern Thailand. I found this interesting because on August 21, 2017, five days after this episode goes online, a total eclipse will be visible here in America, about 200 miles west of my home. I plan to go see it, and I’ll probably think about what the king of Siam saw as I do so. Unfortunately the king and his son, Chulalongkorn, caught malaria on that trip, and while the son recovered, the king died six weeks later.

Rama V

Because Mongkut Rama IV had been a monk until the last seventeen years of his life, and only married after he became king, his son Chulalongkorn was only fifteen years old at the time of the king’s death. We mentioned earlier that the king’s brother Pinklao was his heir, but Pinklao had died in 1865, so like it or not, the throne had to go to a son of the king, and Chulalongkorn was the eldest son of the queen. Rama IV’s prime minister, Somdet Chao Phraya Si Suriyawong, acted as regent for the next five years, and then in 1873 Chulalongkorn was crowned as King Rama V. His reign would be the longest Siam had seen so far, from 1868 to 1910. As for the office of uparat, that went to a son of Pinklao, Yingyot, the new king’s cousin.

Thanks to several trips abroad and Anna’s teaching, Chulalongkorn liked foreigners even more than his father did, and he pushed for progressive reforms vigorously. He started with the institution of slavery. A lot of people had sold themselves into slavery to escape economic hardship, or they became slaves when they could not pay their debts, and the children born to slaves became slaves as well. Consequently, by 1867 up to one third of the population was held in bondage. However, Rama V had heard how bloody the US Civil War was, figured the abolition of American slavery was the cause of that conflict, and chose to phase out slavery gradually, to avoid a bloody civil war in Siam, too. He started by passing a law in 1874 that lowered the price of freedom for the children of slaves born in 1867, and automatically freed them when they reached the age of twenty-one. Then he waited for the ex-slaves to find new jobs, either in the cities or on farms, and it wasn’t until 1905 that he passed a law banning slavery completely.

In the meantime Rama V overhauled the government to make it run more like those of Western nations. These changes were needed, because the organization of the government had not changed much in the four hundred years since King Trailok set up the system being used. The practice of prostration before officials was done away with first, since in Europe, nothing more than taking a bow was needed to show respect. A new tax collection office replaced the previous tax collectors, who were corrupt members of the noble families. The Council of State was set up as a legislative body, and the king’s personal advisors were enrolled in a British-style privy council; the king appointed members for both councils. Naturally there was opposition to these moves from the nobility, because they saw the reforms as threats to their wealth and status. The opposition was led by the uparat and the former prime minister and regent, and since a chunk of the army was more loyal to them than they were to the king, Rama V had to stop making political reforms for a decade. Fortunately time was on his side; by 1885 most of his opponents had died of old age, and he could resume making the changes he felt Siam needed. Since the uparat had been strong enough to threaten his rule, the king abolished that office; henceforth the heir to the throne would be a picked crown prince, usually a son of the king, like what the monarchs of Europe did.

The king’s non-political reforms can be listed quickly, and you will probably find them more interesting. In 1878 a modern secular school was set up in the palace, as an example of the kind of education the king wanted. The government subsidized the college educations of about 300 students in Europe and America every year; this included several sons of the king. A government printing press turned out textbooks and a weekly newspaper, The Royal Gazette, and freedom of the press and religion were guaranteed by law to encourage the development of other periodicals. Modern buildings were erected in Bangkok, and an arsenal and drydock were built to modernize the military. The first railroad extended 200 miles into the interior by 1900. In 1897 Siam began to overhaul the entire law code, making it less arbitrary and more impersonal. This was done to satisfy Western ideas of justice, which the West demanded before the unequal treaties could be renegotiated.

To pay for all of this, rice exports were increased, reaching half a million tons per year when they leveled off in 1893. Only one fourth of the potential farmland in the Menam valley was being cultivated, but the government could not get the people to produce any more than this. Moreover, there was a shortage of labor, caused by the termination of slavery. Another hindrance to modernization came from the Buddhist clergy, which was offended by the open toleration of Christian missionaries. And Chulalongkorn’s policy of giving out free vaccinations and modern medicines alienated the traditional “spirit doctors” who enjoyed great influence among the people. All in all, the modernization of 19th century Siam was a singlehanded effort by two enlightened kings, who succeeded only because they enjoyed absolute power over their subjects. There was some talk about turning the king into a constitutional monarch, but even Rama V didn’t think the country was ready for this yet.

Despite the best efforts of the kings, Siam suffered at the hands of the West. An early example was the loss of Cambodia to the French in 1863. After the French conquered Vietnam, they made an issue over the Siamese troops stationed in Laos, which had been used to keep order in that region since 1829. We saw in the previous episode that Chinese bandits turned Laos into a lawless zone, and when Rama IV and Rama V sent more troops to restore order, the result was a long conflict called the Haw Wars, that lasted for most of the late nineteenth century. In response, the French announced that any troops on the east bank of the Mekong River were an unacceptable threat to their new colony. Then in 1893 came the Franco-Siamese War, which we also learned about in the last episode; three French warships sailed into the mouth of the Menam River, won a minor battle, and threatened Bangkok, until Siam gave up nearly all of Laos. Then in 1904 and 1907 the French demanded, and got, further territorial concessions on the Mekong’s west bank; in return Siam renounced the extraterritorial privileges French citizens enjoyed in Siam. The British got a concession of their own in 1909, taking away Siam’s four vassal states in northern Malaya in exchange for revoking the 1855 treaty. Siam was saved from total conquest, however, by Anglo-French rivalry; Britain and France could not agree to a partitioning of the country, and both preferred an independent Siam to one dominated by the other side. One more concession came as a result of this: to get British support in keeping France from taking any more territory, Siam had to drop its claim to the Shan plateau of eastern Burma, an area Britain had occupied in the late 1880s. Siam entered the twentieth century clipped; it had lost half its land, more than half if you count Cambodia. Even so, the core territory remained independent, and it had been modernized; no other Southeast Asian state could match those achievements.

Rama VI

Chulalongkorn Rama V was succeeded by his son Vajiravudh, who ruled from 1910 to 1925, and as we saw earlier, was also named Rama VI. He was also a reformer, but he didn’t accomplish as much as his father, mainly because his reign was shorter. In 1917 he opened Chulalongkorn University, the first university in Siam, and in 1921 he made primary education compulsory. Also in 1917, he led Siam into World War I, declaring war on Germany and sending an expeditionary force of Siamese soldiers to the Western Front. They barely saw any action – the troops did not arrive on the Front until the middle of September 1918, less than two months before the war ended. The number of Siamese casualties was exactly 19; two died before they went to France, and the rest fell victim to accidents and disease; none were killed in action, in a war notorious for its body counts. That minimal involvement gave Siam the respect it wanted from the Western nations – soon they would revoke the last of the unequal treaties they had made Siam sign in the past – and Siam got to take part in the Versailles Peace Conference after the war, and become a member of the League of Nations. When not running the government, the king wrote dozens of novels, short stories and plays, and translated important works of English, French and Sanskrit literature into Thai.

Rama VI gets the credit for creating the flag of present-day Thailand. Back in the Ayutthayan era, the Siamese flag was a plain red banner, and in the nineteenth century, the flag was still red, but now it featured a white elephant in the middle. That was an appropriate symbol, since Southeast Asians have always been fond of white elephants. According to one source I was not able to verify, in 1916 the king visited a part of the country that had recently experienced flooding, and he saw the flag flying upside down; in Siam, as in most other places, an upside down flag is a sign of distress. The king didn’t like the idea of the national flag being used this way, so he designed a new flag that was symmetrical; it would look the same whether it was rightside up or upside down. The new design had five horizontal bars; from top to bottom the colors of the bars were red, white, blue, white and red; the blue bar in the middle is twice as thick as the others. Vajiravudh reportedly chose those colors because most of the Allied nations used them in their flags: France, Russia, Britain and the United States all have red, white and blue flags. The new flag was adopted on September 28, 1917, so it was available to go with the Siamese unit when they went to the war.

Finally, Vajiravudh was the last Siamese king to have more than one wife. He did not marry until his reign was nearly over, in 1921, and his only child, a girl, was born just two days before his death. Since the royal family was getting smaller, now that it was switching to Western-style monogamous marriages, he changed the succession law in 1924, so that women could inherit the throne, should the dynasty ever run out of men. So far that hasn’t happened, but the Thais will be ready if it does happen at some future date.

Rama VII

Of course a newborn baby girl couldn’t rule, so the crown went to a brother of Rama VI; we call him Prajadhipok Rama VII. He was the youngest son of Rama V, and since he wasn’t expected to become king some day, he pursued a military career. Like Rama VI he attended college in England, and eventually he became an officer in both the British and Siamese armies. When World War I broke out, Prajadhipok wanted to go to the Western Front with other British soldiers, but Siam was neutral at this point; it would not enter the war for another three years. Rama VI forced his brother to resign his British commission, an order which greatly annoyed Prajadhipok. It’s a good thing he did not go; at the beginning of the war, most Europeans believed the war would be like the wars of the late nineteenth century – short and not very bloody. Little did they know that new military technology would turn the Western Front into a meat grinder, that devoured men as fast as they could be sent to the Front. Listen to Dan Carlin’s “Blueprint for Armageddon” series if you want to know how bad World War I really was.

Prajadhipok did not get training for the job of king until 1924, less than a year before he became Rama VII. That lack of training may help explain why he was a weak monarch. Rama VI had lived extravagantly, and the government was spending too much money when Rama VII took charge, so the new king ordered layoffs at the beginning of his reign. Another round of layoffs was ordered when the Great Depression hit Siam in 1930. The personnel cuts caused severe economic hardship for many government officials and their families. But wait, there’s more! During the Great Depression, the price of rice fell by two thirds, land values fell 85%, and the king got all the blame for the misery that caused. On top of all that, the king’s practice of filling job vacancies during the Depression years with members of the royal family led to growing discontent with the monarchy, especially from the middle class, which was no longer willing to let a few families make all political decisions.

Now that Siam had freedom of the press, those who were unhappy with the current system had a voice. These included the students who had been educated abroad during the 1920s and early 1930s; some of them became politically radicalized when they saw how the Western Nations worked. One of them was Pridi Phanomyong, a brilliant young lawyer studying in Paris, and he became leader of an organization of overseas Siamese students. He teamed up with Phibun Songgram, a career artillery officer studying military science in France, and in 1927 they formed the People’s Party, a revolutionary group that believed absolute monarchy could longer meet the challenges of the modern world. Remember those two men, Pridi Phanomyong and Phibun Songgram; one or the other of them would run Siam until the late 1950s. When they returned to Siam, they and their associates became known as the Promoters, as they recruited students, non-royal government officials, and military officers to join their revolutionary group.

By 1932 the Promoters had 114 members. On June 24, 1932, while the king was on vacation, they staged a bloodless coup, seizing power before the military could react. They became a new State Council, set up a parliamentary body called the National Assembly, and declared that henceforth Siam would be a constitutional monarchy. Since the king accepted these changes without making a fuss, it appears that he wanted to be a constitutional monarch all along.

The new government, despite its proclamations, was hardly democratic. It kept some members of the old government in their posts, and they turned out to be quite conservative. Soon quarrels broke out between the civilian faction, led by Pridi, the military faction, led by Phibun, and the royalist faction, led by the king. In early 1933 Pridi presented an economic plan for the country that was downright socialist. Many members of the new government refused to accept the plan, and arguments in the National Assembly became so heated that the king dissolved it. Fearing that the king was trying to regain control over the government, the military ordered the National Assembly to remain in session. This was followed by an unsuccessful royalist counter-coup in October 1933, led by the king’s cousin. Although there was no evidence that the king was involved in this, he never could get along with the other factions afterwards. In 1934 Rama VII decided to get out of politics completely, and went to England again; in the following year he abdicated. Since England had become his home away from home, the ex-king stayed there until his death in 1941.

We won’t talk about Siam’s next king here; he will have to wait until the next time this podcast does an episode about Siam. In the meantime, I’ll let you guess what his name was.

Back in Siam, the military was now the strongest faction. It took over the government completely, and it has run Siam for much of the time since the 1932 revolution. The officers saw militant Japan as their role model, so during the 1930s they tripled the military budget, started a paramilitary youth movement with fascist overtones, like the Hitler Youth in Germany, and improved relations with Japan.

In December 1938 the prime minister, General Phraya Phahon, was forced to retire because of a government scandal, and Field Marshall Phibun Songgram took his place, declaring himself both the new prime minister and Commander of the Royal Siamese Army. He launched a policy that was strongly nationalist, anti-Chinese, irredentist and pro-Japanese, his goal being to recover the lands lost to Britain and France. At home he invented a code of personal conduct called wiratham, the “code of the warrior,” that borrowed much from Japanese bushido, the code followed by the samurai. One of his first acts, in 1939, was to change the name of Siam, as a reminder to the world of how much Siam had changed in just a few years. The new name he chose was Muang Thai. In the Thai language, Muang means “Nation” and Thai means “Free Men”, so Muang Thai meant “Land of the Free.” In English, that name became Thailand.

Look at how much we covered! Our narrative is up to the beginning of World War II, so this is a good place to break off. Next time we will go east across the South China Sea, and see what is happening in the Philippines. Can you believe we haven’t talked about those islands since Episode 14? I estimate it will take two episodes to catch up on that archipelago, as we discuss the rise of the Philippine nationalist movement, and the United States takeover of those islands.

Keep those donations coming! If you would like to support the podcast, you can make a donation by clicking on the Paypal button, at the bottom of this episode’s Blubrry.com page. Donations start at one US dollar, and you can either make it a one-time donation, or begin making a monthly contribution.

And that’s not all you can do. Write a review or rate the podcast, on iTunes or wherever you listen to it. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, if you are on Facebook, and don’t forget to tell your friends who might be interested in listening. Indeed, almost every day I tell the people I meet about the podcast. Like I have said before, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!



French Indochina, Part 2



The latest podcast episode finishes what the previous episode started, covering the French conquest of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, from 1867 to 1907.



(Transcript, added 05/22/2020)


Episode 26: French Indochina, Part II


Greetings, dear listeners! Since it went so well last time, I decided to let Robin Williams welcome you again. As you probably guessed from the title, Episodes 25 and 26 of the podcast are a two-part series, and this is the second part. If you haven’t listened to Part I already, that is, Episode 25, I urge you to go listen to it, and then come back for this one. That way you’ll know what’s going on, and I won’t have to re-introduce the players again. I’ll let Bill Murray back me up on this; he said the same thing when he reviewed a movie called “Chapter Two”:

<Bill Murray quote>

Now last time we saw French involvement in Vietnam increase as the nineteenth century progressed. First more missionaries came in, but merchants did not follow, because Vietnam had a series of anti-foreign emperors who refused to sign trade agreements with the West. When these emperors persecuted Catholic missionaries and their Vietnamese converts, France was angered, and eventually made this the excuse to bombard the port of Da Nang twice. Then in 1858 the French invasion began, which captured Saigon and half of the Mekong delta region by 1862. Meanwhile to the west, Cambodia had been a vassal state of Vietnam in recent years, and the French used that relationship to claim in 1863 that Cambodia was now a protectorate of theirs. To wrap up these two campaigns, the French annexed the rest of the delta region in 1867. So at the point when the previous episode ended, France dominated Cambodia and the southern third of Vietnam. How did the French gain control over Laos and the rest of Vietnam? That’s what this episode is about, so stay tuned!

Before we resume the narrative, I have to explain the geographical names used for Vietnam under French rule. We saw that the part of Vietnam conquered by the French in the 1850s and 60s was called Cochin China. I mentioned in the past that Cochin China appears to come from an old Portuguese name for Vietnam, Caucichina, and the “China” part of the name was added because there is already a place named Cochin, in south India. Later on, when the French conquered the north, they would call the land around the Red River delta Tonkin, after Dong Kinh, an old name for Hanoi that was used around the fifteenth century. To refresh your memory, Tonkin has been the Vietnamese heartland for more than two thousand years, and before the Vietnamese crushed their southern neighbor, Champa, Tonkin was pretty much their whole country. For most of history, Vietnam’s two largest cities were located here – Hanoi and Haiphong – only since 2009 has Saigon grown larger. The central third of Vietnam, the land that once belonged to the kingdom of Champa, was called Annam by the French, and that name could also mean all of Vietnam. I’m sure you’ll remember Annam from previous episodes about Vietnam; it is a Chinese name meaning “Pacified South.” Likewise, while the French were in charge, the Vietnamese were usually called Annamese or Annamites. Of course the Vietnamese didn’t like these names, and never used them. Most of the time, they called the northern part of their country Bac Ky, the center Trung Ky, and the south Nam Ky.

Also, I need to apologize in advance for any French names I mispronounce. This goes for the French names I said in the previous episode, as well as this one. I had French classes in high school, but that was forty years ago, and unfortunately, French is not a phonetic language. Now where were we?

<Ja Nam 1>

Three years after France finished conquering southern Vietnam, the French emperor, Napoleon III, went down in defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the Second French Empire was replaced with the Third Republic. Because of that, the French government did not try to take more colonies in Asia during the 1870s. The French economy needed to recover from that disaster, and the French people were more interested in taking back the two eastern provinces of France that were lost in the war, Alsace and Lorraine. Still there were individual Frenchmen on the ground who worked to expand French power and influence overseas.

In our episode about the British conquest of Burma, I mentioned that one of the reasons for British expansion in Southeast Asia was the desire to open up a trade route into the Chinese province of Yunnan; if they succeeded, merchants could bring their merchandise to millions of new customers. The French had the same idea, because Yunnan was on the border of Laos and Vietnam as well as Burma. Of course, the merchants could hike overland from Southeast Asia to Yunnan, but to do so they had to cross mountains and jungle, and those who tried it decided right away that there must be a better way to make the journey. What was wanted and needed was a water route to south China. Because the Mekong River begins in China, and the French now controlled the end of that river, it looked like that river could be the answer.

To find out if the Mekong could be navigated all the way to China, Admiral de La Grandière sent an expedition to explore the river, composed of ten Frenchmen and an assortment of native porters, and led by another naval officer, Captain Doudart de Lagrée. Leaving Saigon in June 1866, they went upstream, and cruised through Cambodia without any problems, but in Laos they encountered so many rapids and sandbars that they decided most ships could not go past that point. Still, the second in command, Lieutenant Francis Garnier, urged the men to keep going, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on them, so they continued to China. Here Doudart de Lagrée died from exhaustion and fever, and Garnier became the expedition’s new leader. He directed the group to sail down the Yangtze River to Shanghai, and when they reached the Pacific, they sailed down the Chinese coast to Southeast Asia. They returned to Saigon two years after they left, in 1868.

Afterwards, Garnier wrote a two-volume book called Voyage d’Exploration, which was full of illustrations and told everything the explorers learned concerning Southeast Asia’s history, anthropology, agriculture, geology, meteorology, and so forth. This made the expedition a scientific success, if not a commercial success. Now Garnier and other Frenchmen turned their attention to northern Vietnam, because it had a river that might be suitable for commerce, the Red River.

The first European to try the Red River route was Jean Dupuis, a French merchant who had been trading at the Yangtze River city of Hankow when Garnier met him. His top customer was Ma Rulong, the warlord ruling Yunnan Province, and Dupuis was determined to deliver a cargo of modern arms to him. The French governor of Cochin China, Jules-Marie Dupré, approved of the trip, and even helped Dupuis by guaranteeing a loan from a British bank in Saigon. However, the authorities in Paris were not thrilled with the idea of such a big intrusion into a sovereign nation’s territory; all they did was give Dupuis permission to buy French-made cannon. Vietnam did not approve of the venture, either. Dupuis sailed from Hong Kong to Vietnam with his cargo in November 1872, used threats and bribes to keep the Vietnamese from interfering as he went up the Red River, and reached Yunnan in March 1873. Two months later he was back in Hanoi, with a cargo of tin and copper.

As soon as the first journey was finished, Dupuis prepared for a second one, and this time he would bring a cargo of salt to Yunnan. But this was a violation of the Vietnamese government’s salt monopoly; the local mandarins arrested the Vietnamese working for Dupuis, and refused to let his expedition leave Hanoi. Dupuis still had some two hundred European, Chinese and Filipino crewmen, armed and ready; they occupied the neighborhood of Hanoi they were in, raised the French flag, and called on the French in Saigon to help them. For Governor Dupré, this couldn’t have happened at a better time. He had been arguing that France needed a colony next to China; Tonkin would work very well, and he predicted that if France did not take it, the British, Germans or Americans would. Now Dupré had the excuse he needed to invade Tonkin. Sending a telegram to Paris, Dupré requested that the French government endorse a raid to rescue Dupuis. He also showed the confidence of most Westerners at this time by including these lines in the message. Quote: “Need no assistance. Can act with means at my disposal. Success assured.” End quote.

Paris responded by telling Dupré not to do anything that would cause an international incident, so the governor kept the rescue force small, at just sixty men, with Francis Garnier, the eager young commander of the Mekong expedition, leading it. Then he told Tu Duc, the Vietnamese emperor, that they were only going to remove Dupuis. So far, so good, but when the rescuers got to Hanoi, in November 1873, they joined Dupuis, seized the citadel at Hanoi and declared the Red River open to foreign trade. Here is an excerpt of the report Garnier sent, announcing the mission’s success at this point. Quote:

“All right! With a mere two hundred I have taken Hanoi. For us, not a scratch. The surprise was complete and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Our gunboat cannon stunned the poor brutes, who had never seen an exploding shell. It has been a model operation. If I am supported soon all Indo-China is French.” End quote.

Next, Garnier sent his handful of men east, to conquer as much of the Red River delta as possible, and open up a path for the French between Hanoi and the sea. They were joined by Vietnamese Catholics and local opponents of Tu Duc; within a month they reached the sea, and took the port cities of Haiphong and Nam Dinh. But as it turned out, Garnier was being over-optimistic. The French and the Vietnamese government were not the only players in Tonkin. In the 1850s and 60s, China was shaken to its roots by the Taiping Rebellion, and the end of that rebellion left many soldiers of fortune unemployed. Some of these mercenaries crossed the border into Tonkin, where they formed gangs of bandits and found new ways to earn a living, either by helping the Vietnamese government suppress revolts from non-Vietnamese mountain tribes, or by running a “protection racket” along the Red River, taking a 10% tax on the profits of riverboats that passed through their neighborhood. These bandits were called the Black Flags, because, as you might guess, the largest gang marched under a black banner. Since the Vietnamese army had lost every battle with the French, Tu Duc recruited the Black Flags, and put six hundred of those warriors in the front of the Vietnamese army, when it marched to take back Hanoi. On December 21, 1873, they attacked the west gate of Hanoi; Garnier responded by firing a cannon at them, and when the Black Flags withdrew from cannon range, Garnier and eighteen French marines sallied forth to chase them. That was where Garnier’s luck ran out; there were simply too many enemies, and when Garnier slipped and fell in a ditch, they turned around, ambushed and killed the pursuers. Garnier was only thirty-four years old.

In the aftermath of Garnier’s death, Paris disavowed Garnier’s actions, declaring that he had acted without their approval. Jean Dupuis was expelled from Vietnam, and what remained of the French force in Hanoi was withdrawn. For nearly a decade after that, France was in no mood to send the money or manpower needed for new conquests in Asia. The anti-colonial faction in the Paris government declared that the recovery of France from the Franco-Prussian War should take precedence over all other matters for the time being.

Over the next few years the French chose to negotiate with Tu Duc, rather than fight him, and in 1879 Cochin China got its first civilian government; up until now the navy had managed that territory. However, Tu Duc took these actions as a sign that France had gone weak, so he began persecuting the Catholics again, because they had supported Garnier in Tonkin. Thousands of Catholics were killed and their villages were destroyed; he also encouraged the Black Flags to attack commercial traffic on the Red River, though he had previously agreed to allow free trade on that waterway. Those actions, and rapid economic growth in France, would eventually encourage the French to raise the Tricolor over more colonies. This was especially the case from 1883 to 1885, when Jules Ferry was the prime minister. Ferry was a native of Lorraine, one of the provinces lost in the Franco-Prussian War, and because France could not take Alsace and Lorraine back from Germany, he became a strong advocate for colonial expansion, telling the French they should restore their damaged pride by going overseas to conquer new lands. In so doing they would also strengthen French industry, and he declared it was France’s duty, quote, “to civilize inferior peoples.” End quote.

The next French venture came in April 1882, and it was a repeat of the one Garnier had led. This time a force of 600 men was sent from Saigon to Hanoi, led by Captain Henri Riviere. Whereas Garnier was young and enthusiastic, Riviere was 55 years old and worn out from his tour of duty in the tropics. Officially the mission was to suppress the Black Flags, who had grown to dominate most of Tonkin by this time, and Riviere was told to do it, quote, “diplomatically and peacefully.” End quote. But Riviere believed that a solid French presence in Hanoi would be needed to get the job done, and after he arrived, he talked about “belligerent preparations” by the local mandarins, and made that his excuse to storm Hanoi Citadel. The local governor, Hong Dieu, hanged himself in a gesture of both shame and protest. During the next year, like Garnier, Riviere used his troops to occupy the land between Hanoi and the sea. That caused him to suffer the same fate as Garnier. On May 19, 1883, at Paper Bridge, a few miles west of Hanoi, Riviere and 450 of his men were ambushed and killed by Black Flag troops, and his head was taken to several villages, to show that France had been defeated. Later, a friend of Riviere said this about the fiasco. Quote: “I respect those who have fallen bravely, but they have reaped what they has sown . . . They attack the Vietnamese, violate their rights, and call them murderers for defending themselves.” End quote.

For Jules Ferry and the other French imperialists, the news of Riviere’s failure was the last straw. Even before Riviere’s death, they realized that sending small expeditionary forces was not going to work. A few years earlier, when the Russians threatened to take Constantinople from the Turks, the people of Britain announced they opposed Russian expansion with this verse. Quote:

“We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money, too!”

End quote.

Now the French felt just as militant; they would spare no expense, and send as many men as were needed, to get the job done. The Chamber of Deputies immediately voted to spend five million francs on a major expedition to impose a “protectorate” on all of Vietnam. The vote was almost unanimous in favor of this appropriation. One of the few politicians who opposed it, Jules Delafosse, explained what was really happening. Quote: “Let us, gentlemen, call things by their name. It is not a protectorate that you want, but a possession.” End quote. By the time the next campaign in Vietnam ended, the French would have 20,000 troops in the country. What the French didn’t know was that Tu Duc had recently formed an anti-French alliance with China, in effect using Vietnam’s oldest enemy to get rid of the newest foe.

Emperor Tu Duc did not see the French invasion, because he died in July 1883. His court reported that his last words were a curse on the invaders approaching the country. We noted in the previous episode that Tu Duc had no children. The dynasty did not die with him because he had brothers, and those brothers had kids. However, it wasn’t clear where the line of succession was, and chaos resulted. First a nephew of Tu Duc was crowned, and then removed after ruling for only three days. Next came a brother of Tu Duc, Hiep Hoa. One month later, the French force arrived, and the fleet dropped off most of its troops in Tonkin; then the fleet went to Hue and bombarded the mouth of the Perfume River, without knowing that Tu Duc was already dead. The new emperor quickly surrendered the whole country to the French, and then he was deposed by the court mandarins for doing that. Another nephew of Tu Duc was crowned, the third new emperor in 1883, but he was a sickly teenager who died less than eight months later. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Ham Nghi. The new emperor’s mother was a commoner, and although he was born in the palace, he had been raised in a suburb of Hue with his mother’s family, because nobody expected the crown to go to him.
In the north, the Chinese crossed the border into Tonkin, keeping the alliance by entering the war on Vietnam’s side. In response, the French force spread out from Hanoi in three groups. One unit defeated a combined force of Chinese, Vietnamese and Black Flags at Son Tay, just west of Hanoi, in December 1883. Then it turned to the east side of Hanoi and crushed the Chinese army at Bac Ninh in March 1884, and returned to the west side to defeat the Black Flags at Hung Hoa in April. As for the other French units, one marched north to capture Thai Nguyen, Vietnam’s tea-growing center; and one marched northwest to Tuyen Quang, where it routed the Black Flags. At this point it looked like the French would soon gain control over all of Tonkin. In fact, they were already acting like all of Vietnam was theirs. There was one French general who did not treat captured Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers as prisoners of war from sovereign nations; instead he declared them “rebels” and had them all beheaded.

The French had it so easy that at the battles of Hung Hoa and Tuyen Quang, they did not suffer a single casualty. The Chinese changed their mind about fighting in Vietnam, and France and China were on the verge of signing a peace treaty in June 1884, but then a Chinese army ambushed and badly mauled a French unit at Bac Le, near the town of Langson. Peace talks broke off and a new round of fighting began in August, which we call the Sino-French War because it was mainly a conflict between the Chinese and the French, with the Vietnamese and the Black Flags as minor partners of the Chinese.

The first battle of the Sino-French War was fought in China, not Vietnam. On August 23, 1884, Admiral Amédée Courbet led a French squadron to the Chinese port city of Fuzhou, and sank nine Chinese warships so quickly that the commissioner of customs in Fuzhou reported that, quote: “It cannot be called a battle, it was a butchery.” End quote. Next, the French destroyed a modern shipyard and arsenal on the Min River, which ironically France had helped the Chinese build only a few years earlier. With their mission accomplished, the French ships returned to the sea, but as they left, the ship guns took out several Chinese shore batteries from behind. All this was watched by British and American ships anchored nearby, which the French had left alone. David Wilmshurst, author of a book on the war entitled Bearding the Dragon, reports that the British and American crews rooted for the French. According to Wilmshurst, when a French midshipman delivered a message to British Admiral William Dowell before the battle, warning the British to stay out of the fight, Dowell poured the tired young Frenchman a whiskey and wished him “Bon Chance,” which is French for “good luck.” When the battle took place, Wilmshurst reported, quote, “As victorious Admiral Courbet sailed through the ranks of the anchored ships, there was spontaneous applause and cheering from the neutral vessels.” End quote.

The battle of Fuzhou was followed by anti-foreign riots in China and in Hong Kong. One of the French warships was damaged in that battle, and when it sailed to Hong Kong to get the repairs it needed, dock workers went on strike for a month, until some new workers were found who didn’t care for politics and were willing to do the job. As for the rest of the French ships, after the battle of Fuzhou, Admiral Courbet immediately took them to Taiwan. Here they captured the port of Keelung, and imposed a limited blockade over northern Taiwan when it turned out they didn’t have enough troops to conquer the rest of the island.

Back in Vietnam, the French found that the Chinese force in Tonkin was too strong to drive out completely. In fact, the Chinese defeated French attempts to invade China from Tonkin in early 1885. But then near the end of March, after defeating a Chinese attack on Langson, a French general, François Oscar de Négrier, was shot in the chest while he was out scouting the Chinese positions. Although he eventually recovered, command of the army went to Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Gustave Herbinger, who was drunk at the time and panicked. Thinking that the Chinese had surrounded Langson and were beginning another attack, Herbinger ordered the French to abandon the town and flee to the mountains. The French suffered no casualties during the retreat, and there were no clashes with the Chinese, since the French were doing exactly what the Chinese wanted, but Herbinger ordered the troops to go so fast that they left much of their food, ammunition and equipment behind, and they were exhausted by the time they stopped. In Paris, news of this reverse was seen as a defeat; France thought the situation was worse than it really was, and Jules Ferry and his government fell to a no confidence vote.

While the Chinese were doing better on land, their navy was hopelessly out of date, and that decided the war in France’s favor. On the Chinese coast, Admiral Courbet won a battle at Shipu on February 14, another battle at Zhenhai Bay on March 1, and captured the Pescadores Islands in late March. Thus, when the Ferry government fell in Paris and the new government proposed peace talks, the Chinese immediately agreed. Both sides accepted a cease-fire on April 4, 1885, and a peace treaty ending the war was signed on June 9. Here China recognized that the French were the new rulers over Vietnam, and pulled Chinese troops out of Tonkin in order to get Taiwan and the Pescadores back, two places they would lose to the Japanese in their next war, just ten years later.

The Chinese were now out of the game, but the Vietnamese had not given up yet. Since the current emperor, Ham Nghi, was just a kid, two court regents, Nguyen Van Tuong and Ton That Thuyet, ran the government for him. These two individuals were also plotting an anti-French uprising, and had smuggled artillery into the palace, for use in the first battle, an attack on the French garrison in Hue. Before that battle took place, the French found out what was happening, and that Ton That Thuyet was behind the plot. The French army commander in Tonkin, General Roussel de Courcy, surrounded the palace with troops, called for Thuyet to resign, and demanded an audience with the emperor. Instead, on July 4, 1885, the two regents launched the attack they had been planning. It failed, and the French stormed the palace. Three days of killing and looting followed; the French burned the imperial library, and stripped the palace of anything valuable they could cart away: gold and silver objects, gemstones, carpets, silk curtains, statues, and even mosquito nets, cuspidors and toothpicks. Afterwards, the value of the haul was estimated at 25 million francs.

The regents escaped the palace, taking the boy emperor, the imperial seal, and much of the royal family with them. This marked the beginning of a revolt called the Can Vuong, or “Save the King” movement. Ham Nghi served as a figurehead, since he was too young to actually lead the movement. They fled across the border, and set up a headquarters in the highlands of Laos. But most of the royal family did not follow; they decided to return to Hue and make peace with the French, because they believed the revolt could not succeed and that the regents were not really fighting for the dynasty but to maintain their own power. Back in Hue, the French reminded everyone of an ancient law that said Vietnam could not go for one day without a king, and proclaimed the emperor’s brother, Dong Khanh, as the new ruler; he was more willing to cooperate with the French than his predecessors had been.

The Can Vuong revolt became a guerrilla war against the French. Unfortunately, many of the rebels saw it as a war against anything foreign, leading them to kill missionaries and Vietnamese Christians. For a few months the rebels enjoyed success in central Vietnam, because most of the French forces were still in the north, but the struggle tipped in favor of the French and the pro-French emperor Dong Khanh, when those troops moved into the neighborhood of Hue. Finally in November 1888, one of Ham Nghi’s guards turned him over to the French. He was exiled to Algeria for the rest of his life; he married a French woman, had three children, died in 1943 and was buried in France. Today’s communist government in Vietnam regards Ham Nghi as a legitimate former emperor, because he resisted French rule over the country, today almost every city in Vietnam has a street named after him. In 2000 Vietnamese officials asked the last surviving child, a daughter, for permission to re-bury the former emperor’s remains in Vietnam. Evidently she refused. As for Dong Khanh, he died in January 1889, right after Ham Nghi went into exile; he was on the throne for only three and a half years. For those keeping track, there had been five emperors in five and a half years, and now the French would crown another one. In both Tonkin and Annam, a number of Vietnamese guerrillas, bandits and pirates continued to resist the French until the beginning of the twentieth century, before they were finally suppressed.


The Laos Annexation

As the fighting came to a halt, the French consolidated their gains. In 1887 they declared that France’s Southeast Asian holdings were a single political unit, the Indochinese Union, and its components were Tonkin, Annam, Cochin China and Cambodia. Unlike the Burmese under British rule, the Vietnamese and Cambodians were allowed to have a monarch, but he was a figurehead, who could be appointed or removed as the French saw fit; the real leader of Indochina was a French governor-general. At first the governor-general resided in Saigon, but in 1902 his headquarters was moved to Hanoi, where it stayed until just before World War II began. Previously geographers used the term “Indochina” to mean the whole Southeast Asian mainland, but because the French used it for their colonies, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “Indochina” meant just Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Did I say Laos? Laos has barely been mentioned for the past few episodes; how did Laos get in there? We saw in Episode 18 that Siam conquered all of Laos in 1778. There were three Lao kings in those days; Siam abolished the kingship of Vientiane after the Chao Anou revolt in the 1820s, but let the kings of Luang Prabang and Champassak serve as governors over their areas. The French became interested in Laos after French explorers like Henri Mouhot and Francis Garnier passed through the area, and they thought that the resources of the upper Mekong valley would be good for France to have. Since Vietnam had claimed rule over parts of Laos in the past, the French would claim Laos now, just as past Vietnamese activity in Cambodia had given France an excuse to add Cambodia to the French Empire.

The former rebels who left China to become the Black Flag gangs in Vietnam also migrated into Laos, where they formed other gangs called the Yellow Flags, Red Flags and Striped Flags. Some of these ruffians were Chinese Moslems from Yunnan Province, and because of them, all Chinese in the area came to be known as Haw, from the Mandarin Chinese word for Moslem, Hui. Also, a number of Sino-Tibetan tribes like the Hmong, Mien and Yao were migrating southward, leaving China because of pressure from the growing Chinese population. You can think of this as an epilogue or afterthought to the Sino-Tibetan migration that brought the Burmese to Southeast Asia, back in Episode 5. Laos was underpopulated, because Siam had relocated most ethnic Lao to the Khorat Plateau after the Chao Anou rebellion, and more recently, slave raids from Siam had taken away more Lao, so the newcomers found little resistance to their advance here, and hence, settled in Laos. We will be hearing from the Hmong again when we get to Laos in the mid-twentieth century.

The arrival of the brigands meant that Laos entered a state of lawlessness, with the Red Flags dominating the northeast and the Striped Flags taking control of the Plain of Jars and Xiengkhouang. Siam sent the army into Laos to deal with the gangs, but because a lot of the Siamese were untrained and poorly equipped, it took twenty-five years, from 1865 to 1890, to break up the gangs; we call this conflict the Haw Wars. France also had an agent in Laos; Auguste Pavie had been working in Vietnam and Cambodia since 1869, promoting French interests, and in 1886 he was appointed French vice-consul in Luang Prabang. Besides being a diplomat, Pavie was also an explorer and a scholar who genuinely cared for the people of Laos; he believed that Siam’s leaders were corrupt and cruel to the Lao, and the enlightened nation of France could free the Lao from ignorance and feudalism. One year later, Haw bandits sacked Luang Prabang and burned down most of the city; Pavie rescued Luang Prabang’s elderly king, Oun Kham, preventing his capture and taking him to a safe place outside the city. The grateful king in return asked Pavie for French protection, because France was clearly stronger than Siam and Siamese rule hadn’t done him any good. Pavie took the hint, but he couldn’t promise anything; it would take force to eject the Siamese.

Pavie got his chance to do something in 1892, when he became the Resident Minister in Bangkok. From this new position he encouraged a French policy that denied or ignored Siamese rule over any land east of the Mekong. On the one hand he declared that the Mekong was the real western border of Vietnam, on the other hand he announced that France didn’t like the fact that slavery was still legal in Siam, and it would not allow the Siamese to enslave or deport any more people living east of the Mekong. Siam responded by accusing three French merchants in the Mekong valley of opium smuggling, and expelled them. Then in early 1893 Pavie demanded that Siam withdraw all its troops east of the Mekong. Soon after that, three French columns marched into the disputed area, and a French gunboat sailed up the Menam River to Bangkok – to protect the French embassy, of course. Most of the Siamese troops evacuated Laos to avoid a fight with the French, but there was a nasty incident in the south, where a Siamese surprise attack on a village killed 17 Vietnamese militia men and their French commander.

Naturally France demanded reparations for this attack, and when the Siamese did not comply, two more gunboats were sent to Bangkok in July 1893. This time Siam refused to grant them permission to enter the Menam River. To guard the mouth of that river, the Siamese had built two forts, and stationed five of their own gunboats around the forts; two of the gunboats were modern enough to give European warships a challenge. Finally, there were mines sprinkled in the water around the forts. All this should have been enough to keep the French out. Instead, French daring paid off; the French gunboats charged through the line of ships, sinking one and damaging another. The French gunboats were steam-powered and their engines were not strong enough to sail quickly upstream, so a commercial ship was towing both of them. The Siamese caused this improvised tugboat to run aground on an island, but that was their only success; the French dodged both the mines and the shots from the guns in the forts. When it was over the French had suffered three dead and two wounded, while at least twenty Siamese were killed. Afterwards, with three French warships in Bangkok, training their guns on the king’s palace, Siam had no choice but to negotiate. Three months later a treaty was signed in which Siam gave up everything east of the Mekong, most of modern-day Laos, and this land, like Cambodia, was declared another French protectorate.

Through gunboat diplomacy, France had gained a huge tract of real estate at little cost. But the French were not satisfied, since the land east of the Mekong was, quote, “a depopulated, devastated country,” unquote, and that most of the Lao people now lived west of the Mekong. During the 1893 conflict, which we sometimes call the “Franco-Siamese War,” French troops had occupied two Siamese provinces next to Cambodia, Chanthaburi and Trat, and the French demanded that Siam hand over more territory to get those provinces back. In 1904 Siam gave up two strips of land just west of the Mekong. One tract was just west of Luang Prabang, and it became the modern Laotian province of Xainaburi; the other tract was added to Champassak Province. Then in 1907 Siam gave up Battambang and Siem Reap, the two Cambodian provinces that France allowed Siam to have, forty years earlier. Only then did France evacuate the two Siamese provinces.

At this point, France wanted to keep expanding its Asian empire. French Imperialists like Pavie wanted to annex the Khorat Plateau next, and maybe the rest of Siam. However, Britain put its foot down and said that France had taken enough. The British thought it would be a good idea to leave an independent Siam in the middle of the Southeast Asian mainland, between British and French colonies; that would prevent future wars between England and France in this part of the world. France had to back down, because in Europe, with the signing of the Entente Cordiale, it was now officially an ally of Britain, and with World War I about to begin, the French soon had other things on their minds anyway, so French colonial expansion stopped on what would become the present-day eastern border of Thailand.

We noted back in Episode 10 that the Lao are really a Thai tribe, so in culture, language and religion, there aren’t many differences between the Lao and the Siamese. For that reason, we believe the French occupation of Laos kept the Laotians from becoming Siamese, just as France had saved the Khmers from assimilation a few years earlier. For that reason, if the French had not come along, there probably would not be a nation called Laos today. On the other hand, if France had succeeded in taking the Khorat Plateau as well, modern Laos would probably look more like the ancient Lan Xang kingdom, it would have more people and more resources, and it probably would not be Southeast Asia’s poorest country. Because of the events this episode described, the Lao are a divided people, with more of them in Thailand than in Laos itself; you will find more people speaking the Lao language in Bangkok than in Vientiane, the Laotian capital.

Whew, I have said enough for this episode! Now that we are done talking about colonial expansion in the southern, western and eastern parts of the Southeast Asian mainland, we have one place left to talk about, and that is the country in the center of the mainland – Siam. Join me next time as we see Siam modernize, and become the only Southeast Asian country to escape conquest by other nations; for that reason, I sometimes call Siam the unconquered kingdom. And then at the end of the episode, you will see Siam change its name to Thailand.

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