French Indochina

French Indochina
French Indochina

The French had interests in what was to become Indochina as far back as 1787 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed between Nguyen Anh, the pretender to the Vietnamese throne, and France.

It allowed for Pigneau de Behaine, the French bishop of Adran, to support Nguyen Anh, who was trying to take over Vietnam, in return for Nguyen Anh’s promising to give the French a privileged trading status should he come to power.

He also granted commercial and missionary rights to the French, as well as control over the central Vietnamese city of Danang and the island of Poulo Condore off the southern coast of Vietnam.

With the French Revolution taking place in 1789, the French were unable to fulfill their commitments. However, in 1802 the forces of Nguyen Anh won control of Vietnam and centralized power around the imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam.

Five years after Nguyen Anh’s victory, the Vietnamese expanded their lands by establishing a protectorate over Cambodia. However, the king of Cambodia, Ang Duong, was keen on Cambodia becoming independent of its two more powerful neighbors, Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east, and sought help from the British in Singapore.

When that failed, he enlisted the help of the French. In 1863 the French established a protectorate over Cambodia. The French had also been active in southern Vietnam and, after the Battle of Ky Hoa near Saigon (modern-day Ho Chi Minh City), the Treaty of Saigon in 1862 resulted in the Vietnamese ceding three provinces in southern Vietnam to France.

french colonization of vietnam
french colonization of vietnam

The remaining provinces of southern Vietnam were conquered by the French in 1867. By the end of the French Second Empire in 1870, the French were in control of southern Vietnam and all of Cambodia. The Philaster Treaty of 1874 confirmed French sovereignty over the whole of Cochin China.

The French then decided to expand their control over the rest of Vietnam. In 1882 a French army captain Henri Rivière decided to attack Hanoi. He managed to storm the citadel of Hanoi but was killed the following year.

However, this did not stop French advances, and the Harmand Treaty of 1883 established a French protectorate over both northern Vietnam, known as Tonkin, and central Vietnam, known as Annam. This was confirmed in the Patenôtre Treaty of 1884.

Three years later, in 1887, the Indochinese Union was established over Vietnam and Cambodia, with Laos joining in 1893. From November 16, 1887, when the Indochinese Union was established, the French ruled through a governor-general based in Saigon, capital of Cochin China.

There were residents in Laos and Cambodia, a resident-superior in Annam, and a resident-superior in Tonkin, who ruled with the support of the regent, and took instructions from the resident-superior in Annam.

The Vietnamese imperial family continued to live in the imperial palace at Hue, but they were quickly deprived of any power. In July 1885 the French demanded that Emperor Ton That Thuyet resign or be deposed and when the Emperor refused to countenance this, the French, in a show of force, surrounded the imperial palace with over 1,000 soldiers, and the French commander, General Roussel de Courcy, demanded an audience with the emperor.

Ton That Thuyet overestimated his own strength and sent out soldiers to attack the French. These were easily repulsed, and the French invaded the imperial palace, which they sacked. As well as looting it, the French also destroyed the imperial library, where scrolls and documents dating back to medieval times were burned.

French ship in Tonkin
French ship in Tonkin

Save the Emperor

In July 1885 the new emperor, Ham Nghi, issued an appeal called Can Vuong (“Save the Emperor”) urging the wealthy to give their money, the strong their might, and the poor their bodies to defend Vietnam from the French.

Three days later the emperor fled from Hue with Ton That Thuyet and some close advisers. From their jungle stronghold in what is now Laos, Ham Nghi’s supporters formed the Can Vuong movement.

The French responded in September 1885 by deposing the emperor and replacing him with his brother Dong Khanh. Ham Nghi was eventually captured in November 1888 after being betrayed by Hmong mountaineers, and Ton That Thuyet escaped to China.

The French executed all members of the Can Vuong movement whom they captured, except Ham Nghi, who was sent into exile in French Algeria, where he remained until his death in Algiers on January 4, 1943.

In Cambodia, King Norodom I, who had accepted the French but then became nervous about having given them too much power, died in 1904 and was replaced by his brother King Sisowath, who was more pro-French. In Laos, there was a token French presence, with the French residents-superior working alongside King Sakkarin and, after his death in 1904, King Sisavang Vong.

French rule barely affected many of the peasants in the countryside throughout Indochina, whose main interactions with the French were taxation. However, gradually, many peasants were encouraged to work in plantations, which the French established throughout Vietnam and in eastern Cambodia. These centered on the rubber industry and other cash crops.

Plantation life was hard but promised, initially at any rate, guaranteed supplies of food, particularly important as Vietnam did experience a number of famines. Gradually, these plantation companies and mining companies came to dominate the export economy of Indochina, with the emergence of business enterprises such as the Companie du Cambodge.

The major impact of the French was in the cities, especially Saigon. Prior to the establishment of French rule, Saigon had been a small port. Under the French it rose to be an important trading hub, joining up with the nearby Chinese area, Cholon, to form what was to become Saigon-Cholon.

The French built sections of what is now central Ho Chi Minh City, with the center of French society being in rue Catinat, where French rubber planters and their families would meet with colonial officials, businessmen, and wealthy Chinese and Vietnamese entrepreneurs and middlemen.

In Hue, the north bank of the city was dominated by the imperial palace, so the French established their city on the opposite side of the Pearl River. In Hanoi, the French enlarged the city, with their quarter to the south of the citadel and the old city. Similarly, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, in Laos, the French added their own quarters.

Colonial Education

In terms of education, the French provision of education in Cochin China was adequate, at least when compared to other colonial powers, but apart from an institute for tropical medicine in Hanoi, its contribution to the education of the people of Indochina was woeful.

By 1945, there were only two high schools in the whole of Cambodia; in Laos, European-style education was nonexistent. Many boys from the Cambodian and Laotian elites attended Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon.

Some wealthy Vietnamese and scholarship winners studied in France, along with a handful of Cambodians. Western-style medical care was only available in major cities and largely restricted to the small European populations and the local wealthy elite.

There were protests against French colonial rule. Initially these were largely revolts by people loyal to the rulers, such as that of Ham Nghi in 1885, or the Poukombo and Si Votha uprisings in Cambodia, the first led by a monk who claimed to be from the Cambodian royal family and the latter led by a brother of the king of Cambodia.

Together with an earlier rebellion by another monk, Assoa, who also claimed royal heritage, they show a distinct theme of rebels having or claiming to be members of the royal family, with some peasants keen to follow them as royal pretenders, viewing them as the only way they could envisage an end to French rule. None of these rebellions was successful.

There had been limited political freedoms in Cochin China, and by the first part of the 20th century there were a range of legal political parties. Most of the modern nationalist ideas in Vietnam come from the intellectual Phan Boi Chau, who founded the Vietnamese Restoration Society in 1912.

As well as political turmoil, there were occasions of farce such as when French adventurer Marie Mayréna proclaimed himself King Marie I of Sedang, issuing medals and postage stamps to support his claim of a kingdom in the highlands of Vietnam.

He eventually settled on the Malayan island of Tioman, where he died soon afterward. Certainly he also drew the focus of world attention on French Indochina during the 1880s and early 1890s.