Daily Archives: 23 October 2004

The Fall of Saigon, 1861

Spurred on by the combined enthusiasm of the merchants of Bordeaux, the Catholic missionary lobby, and a navy thirsting for colonial glory; Napoleon III had ordered the invasion of Vietnam in 1857. The initial attack directed against the port of Tourane (Danang) on the central coast of Vietnam failed to do more than leave the expeditionary force exposed to harassment by the enemy and to the depredations of tropical disease. By 1859 the French command had moved its forces to southern Vietnam and besieged Saigon, the one major city in the south of the country and a commercial centre offering much greater potential rewards than Tourane.

The Western world was well acquainted with Saigon before the French forces invested the city in 1859. French mercenary adventurers who had helped the first Nguyen emperor to gain the Vietnamese throne and control of the entire country at the end of the eighteenth century had provided accounts of the city. But among the accounts circulating in Europe none provided a better picture of the city than that written by John White of Marblehead, Massachusetts, a lieutenant in the United States Navy. Published in both Boston and London, White’s A Voyage to Cochin China drew on a sojourn of three months in Saigon, in late 1819 and early 1820, and contains a mass of information about the city, its buildings and inhabitants in the one hundred and fifty pages he devotes to the subject. Some of his history is astray; and he notably failed to recognise that the Imperial Viceroy he encountered in Saigon, Le Van Duyet, was a eunuch, clearly mistaking the females he encountered in the Viceroy’s palace as his ‘wives and concubines’. But, overall, White gives a vivid and accurate picture of a lively city, one that still sheltered under a massive citadel which the Emperor Minh Manh later destroyed in 1835. Despite the admiration White had for Saigon’s buildings, this did not transfer to the inhabitants. ‘It would be tedious to the reader,’ he wrote, ‘and painful to myself, to recapitulate the constant villany and turpitude which we experienced from these people during our residence in the country.’

Once before Saigon, the French forces again encountered strong Vietnamese resistance and could do little more than dig in for a long siege. And, once again, the help from Vietnamese Christians promised by French missionaries failed to materialise. Not until reinforcements arrived in late 1860 was Vietnamese resistance finally overcome in a decisive battle in February 1861 and Saigon seized. The following year a treaty was concluded with the court at Hue that ratified French control of Saigon and of three surrounding provinces. The French now ruled the area of southern Vietnam that they called Cochinchina.

SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 73-74

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The Ruins of Vientiane, 1867

In June 1866, a French expedition began exploring the Mekong, heading upriver from Saigon.

[T]he explorers were increasingly anxious to reach the once important city of Vientiane. They knew it had been sacked in the 1820s, but they thought it just possible that there might be some some trace of the rich market described by van Wuysthoff more than two hundred years earlier. Vientiane, after all, was set in unknown territory; outside the area explored by Mouhot in his travels in Laos. Their hopes were not very high, not least because they had already found how hollow were the claims made about the supposed riches of Laos by two of the most erudite geographers in France, Cortambert and de Rosny. Writing in 1862, these pillars of the Ethnographic Society had suggested that Laos might hide riches beneath its soil that could make it another California. At this stage the explorers hoped for rather less, yet even for their more modest commercial hopes the sight of an almost deserted river that greeted them as they drew nearer to Vientiane was depressing. And when they reached the site of the formerly important city; on 2 April 1867, any remaining expectations of its providing commercial opportunities vanished.

It was immediately clear how thorough had been the destruction wrought by the Thai king in 1828. Yet the vestiges that remained of the city’s former greatness impressed the explorers. The royal pagoda, Wat Pha Kaew, still preserved its basic form, with delicately carved wooden panels, fading gold leaf on the pillars supporting the roof and decorative chips of glass that glistened in the sun like a gigantic setting of diamond brilliants. Wat Si Saket was virtually untouched by time or the advancing forest, having been the one temple spared by the Thai invaders, and That Luang, the most famous monument in Vientiane, had only recently been restored when the explorers saw it. They had some sense of this great stupa’s importance, but they could scarcely know how deeply it was held in reverence by the population of the Lao principalities. Nor, of course, could they have predicted that That Luang was to become in the twentieth century a potent symbol for Lao identity; So much so that when Laos was caught up in the Vietnam War the communist-led Pathet Lao forces used the monument as one of the decorative motifs on their banknotes, aligning the traditional past alongside such decidedly modern scenes as delicately engraved soldiers shooting down American aircraft over the war-torn Plain of Jars.

SOURCE: The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, 2000), pp. 92-93

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