Piety and Power 4

The Tayson insurrection, which erupted in 1772 against the Nguyen rulers, was ignited by three brothers of a wealthy merchant family said to have been accused of fraud. Their resistance to the kings, at first centered in the region of Quinhon, rapidly grew into a populist movement as peasants, eager for revenge against harsh mandarins, swelled its ranks. Within three years, the Tayson army had captured Saigon, then a tiny port, where the insurgents vented their fury against the town’s Chinese inhabitants, who ran its trade, and killed more than ten thousand of them. But the rebels introduced an equitable tax system and an agrarian reform program, distributing land to poor villagers. They also permitted Catholic missionaries to preach publicly and even assigned soldiers to protect them. After subduing the south, they marched north, eventually ousting the Trinh rulers and unifying Vietnam for the first time in a century.
A young survivor of the defeated Nguyen clan, Nguyen Anh, re¬fused to abandon his struggle. He and his sympathizers continued the fight, recapturing and losing Saigon again and again over the next decade. During this turbulence, he met the prodigious French priest Pigneau de Behaine, who for his own motives rallied to the Nguyen cause. Together they wrote a new and significant chapter in Vietnam¬ese history.
The eldest of nineteen children of a humble tanner, Pigneau later ennobled his name by adding the “de” to Behaine, his birthplace in Lorraine. He had entered the priesthood against his father’s wishes, because, as he told his family, “we must, with unquenchable ardor, propagate our sacred religion.” In 1765, when he was twenty-four, the Society of Foreign Missions assigned him to a seminary on Phu Quoc island, in the Gulf of Siam, where, consistent with the policy promoted by Alexandre de Rhodes, he trained some forty Vietnamese, Chinese and Siamese novices to become native missionaries.
The school was nothing more than a wretched collection of bamboo huts, and young Pigneau quickly faced the hardships that confront a European in that alien environment of unbearable heat, humidity and chronic disease. Worse, he was caught in the cross fire of local conflicts. Soon after his arrival, he sheltered a Siamese prince, whose enemies appeared in pursuit. They destroyed the seminary, arrested Pigneau and shackled him in an eighty-pound wood and iron frame. Wracked by fever, he exalted in his martyrdom. “Bless the Lord a thousand times,” he wrote to his parents, “that I may suffer or die in His holy name.”
Released after three months, he rebuilt the school, only to experience a more harrowing ordeal a year later, when Chinese and Cambodian pirates attacked the place and murdered some of the pupils. Pigneau escaped with a few of the youths and made his way in a frail boat through the Strait of Malacca and across the Bay of Bengal to Pon¬dicherry, the French base in India.
In 1770, Pope Clement XIV appointed him bishop of Adran, an ancient Christian city in the Middle East that had fallen to the Turks during the Crusades. The title was symbolic, the pope having decided that to give him a real diocese in Vietnam would offend the Portu¬guese, who had still not yielded their claim to Asia.
Five years later, back at the site of his seminary on Phu Quoc island, Pigneau was transformed by a remarkable incident from priest to politician. The Nguyen survivor, Nguyen Anh, had fled to the island with his Tayson foes behind him. As the story goes, Pigneau hid the fugitive prince and became his adviser. Employing guerrilla tactics, Nguyen Anh regained Saigon and its surrounding provinces but lost in 1784, when the Tayson forces returned to defeat him. Desperate, he now accepted Pigneau’s repeated proposal that he appeal to France to intercede on his behalf. Nguyen Anh authorized Pigneau to ne¬gotiate for him, and, in time-honored Asian style, he sent his young son off with the missionary as a sign of his good faith.
At Pondicherry, where Pigneau went first, the French authorities spurned his project as “difficult and useless.” He then decided to take his case directly to the French king, Louis XVI. Accompanied by his protege and a train of Vietnamese flunkies, Pigneau arrived at Ver¬sailles in early 1787, his exotic entourage causing a sensation among courtiers always looking for fresh fads.
France was then tottering on the brink of bankruptcy, and Louis XVI, an indecisive man, initially rejected the idea of a costly expedition to Asia. But Pigneau cautioned the king’s advisers that England would grab Vietnam should France demur, and he even outlined a precise military plan for conquest. The reluctant Louis XVI finally came around. On November 28, 1787, Pigneau and the Comte de Mont- morin, the French foreign minister, signed a treaty. France agreed to furnish Nguyen Anh with 1,650 French officers and men, weapons, ammunition and transportation, and Vietnam would cede Tourane and the island of Poulo Condore to France in addition to commercial privileges “to the exclusion of all other European nations.” Conspic¬uously absent was any Vietnamese concession permitting the free prac¬tice of Christianity in Vietnam—an indication that Pigneau, though still a priest, had really become a diplomat. In another twist, Pigneau abruptly ceased to represent Nguyen Anh and became royal com¬missioner of France for Cochinchina. In theory, France had created a client relationship that, with variations, would bind the West and Asia for more than a century.
Louis XVI soon had misgivings. He sent a secret message to Thomas de Conway, governor of the French base at Pondicherry, who was to provide the men and ships for the Pigneau expedition. He reminded Conway of France’s dismal finances and instructed him to exercise prudence, even to the extent of canceling the operation. Conway greeted the message as a chance to thwart Pigneau, less out of personal envy than because, to him, Asia was “unhealthy, uninhabitable and miserable” and not worth the effort of conquest.

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