Piety and Power 13

The government in Paris, absorbed in internecine political squab¬bles, neglected Vietnam for the next few years. Imperialist attitudes, always simmering, again boiled up a few years later, but France lacked a towering literary partisan of expansion like Rudyard Kipling, who mobilized Britain behind his thesis of the “white man’s burden.” So the colonial issue divided the French in acrimonious controversy. Some argued that rival European nations such as England, Germany and even little Belgium were outpacing France overseas. They asserted that France’s global power would slip unless it offset its loss of Alsace and Lorraine by extending its hegemony elsewhere. The French mil¬itary establishment, humiliated in France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870, also wanted fresh foreign enterprises to salve its wounded pride. French businessmen, prospering from industrialization, were capti¬vated as well by potential investment outlets, raw materials and mar¬kets abroad. The imperialist revival at the time spawned a proliferation of geographical societies, dedicated to publicizing the political, eco¬nomic and moral advantages of expansion. A featured speaker at the Paris Geographical Society in 1877, for instance, was Jean Dupuis, the former Hanoi arms peddler, who criticized the pusillanimous French withdrawal from Tonkin.
The most vocal adversary of French expansion was Georges Cle- menceau, the famous “Tiger” who would lead France during World War I. Then a left-wing radical, he cursed imperialism as a policy that enriched capitalists and wasted funds that should be spent on domestic social programs. France’s security, he insisted, lay in rebuilding its European relationships, and he decried faraway colonial ventures that distracted from the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine. Oddly enough, conservative extremists shared his views, largely for unrelated internal political motives. The strongest expansionists, in contrast, were staunch anticlerical progressives who regarded themselves as the ideological heirs of the French Revolution. With many differences, their contemporary American equivalent might have been the liberals of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who went into Vietnam with what they considered to be enlightened intentions.
Their spokesman was Jules Ferry, the first French prime minister to make imperialism his principal platform. Stocky, energetic and arrogant, he had defied the wrath of the Catholic church when, as minister of education, he made French schooling secular, free and obligatory. An intensely nationalistic native of Lorraine, he saw in overseas conquests the compensation for his lost birthplace. His con¬victions reflected the concept, then prevalent among many French, that it was France’s duty “to civilize inferior peoples.” But above all, he articulated the aspirations of the burgeoning French business com¬munity. Unless manufacturers could sell abroad, their factories would founder, creating unemployment and social unrest of “cataclysmic” proportions. As he put it: “Colonial policy is the daughter of industrial policy.”
The rule of the admirals in Saigon ended in 1879 with the appoint¬ment of Cochinchina’s first civilian governor, Charles Marie Le Myre de Vilers, a seasoned colonial administrator. Even more aggressive than his naval predecessors, he lobbied vigorously for the occupation of Tonkin, asserting that “the moment has come to pluck the ripe fruit.” The government in Paris required no encouragement from Saigon. It could count on support from French industrial interests, then concerned that foreign competitors would beat them to Vietnam’s resources. French investors who had incorporated to develop the rich anthracite deposits at Hongay, in northern Tonkin, now worried, for example, that Tu Duc might grant the coal-mining concession to a British group. Time was vital.
A pretext was easy. Liberally interpreted, the treaty signed by Tu Due in 1874 authorized French intervention in Tonkin to quell dis¬orders. Black Flag pirates and other bandits menaced both French subjects in Hanoi and trade along the Red River. Paris therefore di¬rected Le Myre de Vilers to defend Vietnam’s “sovereignty.” He selected Captain Henri Riviere to lead two companies of troops to the north. Riviere’s expedition repeated the Gamier operation—but with a different aftermath.
Riviere was an unusual figure in the colonial cast of characters. A career naval officer who wrote plays and novels, he had a list of friends that included Dumas, Flaubert and other French literati. Unlike Gar- nier, he had no sense of mission, and in contrast to Philastre, he detested the natives. In his midfifties at the time, he was worn out by the tropical climate, which may have explained his volatile conduct.
China, which had not recognized the French pact with Tu Duc, made clear its disapproval of France’s aggressive designs against Ton¬kin. Le Myre de Vilers thus instructed Riviere to proceed “diplo¬matically and peacefully.” But Riviere wanted a “more solid” French presence in Hanoi. So, as Gamier had, he seized on allegedly “bellig¬erent preparations” by local mandarins to storm the Hanoi Citadel. The humiliated Vietnamese governor, Hong Dieu, hanged himself in a gesture of shame and protest.
Riviere, leading six hundred men, then followed in Garnier’s foot¬steps by occupying the area between Hanoi and the sea. He took the Hongay coal mines as well, presumably to prevent a British attempt to grab them. But he would share Garnier’s fate. Black Flag forces, fighting for the Vietnamese, ambushed and killed him near Hongay— and they carried his head from village to village to symbolize France’s defeat. Later, one of his friends commented: “I respect those who have fallen bravely, but they have reaped what they have sown. . . . They attack the Vietnamese, violate their rights, then call them murderers for defending themselves.”
Jules Ferry and his associates in Paris disagreed. Though they had hoped for a cheap way to dominate Tonkin, the momentum of Ri¬viere’s operation propelled them forward. On May 15, 1883, four days before Riviere’s death, the French parliament overwhelmingly voted more than five million francs in appropriations for a full-scale expedition to impose a “protectorate” on Vietnam. One of the few politicians to oppose the decision, the ultraconservative Jules Dela- fosse, bluntly described its real purpose: “Let us, gentlemen, call things by their name. It is not a protectorate that you want, but a possession. ”
Tu Duc died two months later, “with curses against the invader on his lips,” as a court communique put it. His hectic reign had lasted thirty-five years. Probably sterile, he had left no sons, and a struggle for succession promptly ensued at the palace in Hue. Within a year, rival mandarins enthroned and deposed three young princes, poisoning one of them, Hiep Hoa, for capitulating to the French in the final act that deprived Vietnam of its independence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Categories

Meta