Piety and Power 3

The earliest Christian missionaries to visit Vietnam were intrepid travelers like Odoric de Pordenone, a fourteenth-century Franciscan who related fanciful accounts of a land where, among other whoppers, turtles were bigger than cathedral domes. Three hundred years later, expelled from Japan, the Jesuits arrived to proselytize, founding the Cochinchina Mission at Faifo, the Portuguese trading station. Though tireless and dedicated, they were all outshone by Alexandre de Rhodes, a uniquely talented figure who opened the gate to French influence in Vietnam.
Born in the southern French town of Avignon, once a papal seat, Rhodes arrived in Vietnam under Portuguese tutelage in 1627, when he was twenty-eight. At first he recoiled at the language, which sounded to him like “twittering birds.” But within six months, he was fluent enough to preach in Vietnamese—and he later mastered Japanese, Chinese, Hindustani and Persian. And, of course, he rev¬olutionized the Vietnamese tongue with his streamlined alphabet.
Impressed by his linguistic skills, the Jesuit hierarchy assigned Rhodes to Hanoi, where he wooed the northern emperor, Trinh Trang, with such gifts as an intricate clock and a gilded volume on mathematics. The delighted monarch allowed him to stay, and over the next two years, according to his own careful records, Rhodes delivered six sermons a day and baptized 6,700 Vietnamese, including eighteen nobles. But the emperor and his counselors soon reacted against Christian subversion, their suspicions kindled by the court concubines, who denounced the Christian injunction against poly-gamy as a menace to their position. Banished from the north in 1630, Rhodes retreated south, only to discover that the rival Nguyen dynasty had become equally hostile.
He retired to the Jesuit headquarters in Macao but repeatedly re¬turned to Vietnam during the next decade, risking his life on each trip. In 1645, for instance, he was sentenced to death, then expelled after three weeks in jail; of the nine priests who accompanied him two were beheaded, and each of the other seven had a finger cut off.
Rhodes soon realized that its waning prestige no longer made Por¬tugal a credible patron of Christianity in Asia. He calculated, too, that “hearts and minds” could be won more effectively by Vietnamese priests than European missionaries. He went to Rome to plead his case, arguing in effect for the abrogation of the fifteenth-century papal edicts that had granted Portugal its Asian domain. But he ran into stiff Portuguese opposition and the intractable Vatican bureaucracy, and he turned to his native France for help. To succeed, however, he would have to persuade French religious and commercial leaders to underwrite his project. Thus he lobbied with both, depicting Vietnam as ripe for Christian conversion and portraying it as an El Dorado of boundless wealth where, as one of his accounts put it, Vietnamese fishermen wove their nets of silk.
The Vatican finally accepted his program, though Rhodes died be¬fore it went into action. In 1664, four years after his death, French religious leaders and their business backers formed the Society of Foriegn Missions to advance Christianity in Asia. In the same year, by no coincidence, French business leaders and their religious backers created the East India Company to increase trade. Their similar as¬pirations were apparent in their cooperation. A commercial firm es¬tablished in Rouen at the time paid transportation for missionaries to Vietnam in exchange for their services there as sales agents and book¬keepers. And Franqois Pallu, a founder of the missionary association, pledged to give the East India Company “as many promoters … as there will be bishops, priests and believers in Vietnam.” Observing this cozy relationship in Vietnam, an English competitor reported home that the French had arrived, “but we cannot make out whether they are here to seek trade or to conduct religious propaganda.”
Their objective, of course, was to do both. But they accomplished little during most of the eighteenth century, since the Vietnamese emperors continued to harass or restrict foreign missionaries and mer¬chants. Back in France, moreover, the idea of acquiring overseas ter¬ritories enthralled neither the public nor government officials. They focused on other concerns, such as France’s domestic, economic and social problems and its conflicts with England in Europe and America. But the imperial dream was kept alive by a handful of determined individuals and groups which, in present-day jargon, would be called vested interests. In Paris, they were constantly drafting blueprints for the conquest of Vietnam, while irrepressible adventurers in Asia con¬cocted schemes that would prove to be fruitless. One was Pierre Poivre, the son of a prominent Lyons silk tycoon.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, Poivre started out as a missionary in Vietnam then switched to commerce and obtained a license from the southern Nguyen rulers to open a trading post at Tourane. When the operation collapsed for lack of enthusiasm in France, he blamed local Vietnamese mandarins for swindling him and decided to punish them. In 1768, he teamed up with Charles Hector d’Estaing, an aristocratic buccaneer whose indirect descendant, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, became president of France in 1974. Spoiling for action, Hector d’Estaing had earlier been deterred by a storm from mounting an elaborate attack on the palace at Hue, the ancient imperial capital in central Vietnam. He and Poivre proposed to muster a con¬tingent of three thousand troops, seize Tourane and drive inland to invade the country. The plan was carried out a century later, but at the time it fizzled. D’Estaing transferred his energies to the American War of Independence, in which he distinguished himself by blockading the English fleet outside New York harbor. He died on the guillotine during the French Revolution.
Most foreign descriptions of Vietnam during this period publicized its riches, but there were also gloomy reports of its poverty. One French missionary wrote, for example, that such famine pervaded the country that people practiced cannibalism and entire families were committing suicide “to avoid slow death by starvation.” Whatever the truth, periodic revolts testified to Vietnamese restiveness. The most important uprising, the Tayson Rebellion, so called for its origin in mountains of that name, offered the French a chance to grab Viet¬nam. They missed the opportunity, but they gained what some would later consider to be a legitimate claim to intervention.

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