Piety and Power 5

Conway, then in his mid-fifties, was a dissolute Irishman at the end of a controversial career. After fighting in the French army in Europe, he had joined the Americans struggling against England, rising to the rank of inspector general of George Washington’s forces. But, an inveterate plotter, he conspired in 1777 with several disgruntled Amer¬icans, among them Benjamin Rush and Thomas Mifflin of Pennsyl¬vania, to replace Washington with General Horatio Gates. The Marquis de Lafayette foiled the intrigue and denounced Conway as an “ambitious and dangerous man.” Nevertheless, Conway returned to France to be hailed as a hero of the American War of Independence, promoted to senior grade in the French army and assigned to Pon¬dicherry despite his disdain for Asia. When Pigneau arrived there from Versailles, expecting to mobilize his Vietnamese operation, Conway stalled him until the spring of 1789 in the knowledge that, months earlier, Louis XVI had decided to drop the project. The king’s timing was fortuitous. In July, a Paris mob stormed the Bastille and sparked the French Revolution.
“I shall lead the expedition alone,” announced Pigneau when told that Louis XVI had betrayed him, and he proceeded to fulfill that promise. Offering them trade with Vietnam, he persuaded French merchants in India to buy him two ships, weapons, and ammunition. He also hired nearly four hundred deserters from the French forces and put them at Nguyen Anh’s disposal. One of them, Olivier de Puymanel, a twenty-year-old subaltern, trained the Vietnamese army, whose fifty thousand men included a large number of Catholic con¬verts; Jean-Baptiste de Chaigneau, who manned the naval cannon, was later an important figure in Vietnam. At the end of the century, the Tayson challenge waned, fragmented by internal dissension. Des¬potic officials emerged to supplant the oppressive mandarins they had ousted. The Tayson forces staged their last desperate defense in 1799 at Quinhon, a coastal town, where they were defeated by Nguyen Anh’s nineteen-year-old son Canh, the young prince who as a boy had accompanied Pigneau to Versailles.
In 1802, Nguyen Anh crowned himself emperor at Hue and adopted the title of Gia Long. He showed no mercy to his beaten adversaries, dead or alive. His soldiers exhumed the bones of a deceased Tayson leader and his wife and urinated on them before the eyes of their son, whose limbs were then bound to four elephants and ripped apart. The new ruler revived the name of Vietnam, which the French would soon discard in an effort to efface the country’s national cohesion. But the dynasty lasted until 1954, ending with the final Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, a French protege.
Pigneau did not live to see Nguyen Anh’s triumph. In 1799, while encamped with Prince Canh’s army, he died of dysentery at the age of fifty-seven. He was extolled as no other foreigner in Vietnamese history, before or since, in a funeral of unprecedented splendor. His embalmed body was transported in a teak coffin to Saigon, where both Catholic priests and Buddhist monks conducted rites in his honor; astrologers chose the moment for his burial. Twelve thousand troops, garbed in multicolored uniforms and flanked by elephants, headed a procession of forty thousand mourners, among them Nguyen Anh, borne on a lacquered palanquin, that marched to a bamboo grove outside Saigon, the site that Pigneau had picked for his grave, where Nguyen Anh delivered a eulogy praising his “intimate confidant [and] precious friend,” to whom he and his subjects owed an “eternal debt.” Nguyen Anh later built a tomb on the spot; the Chinese ideographs on the stele declared that Pigneau’s actions “deserve to be transmitted to posterity.” The tomb has since disappeared.
Of the four Frenchmen who remained at the court of Gia Long after Pigneau’s death, the most prominent was Jean-Baptiste de Chaigneau, the former naval gunner, son of a Breton nobleman and a cousin of the Romantic poet Rene de Chateaubriand. Chaigneau married a Viet¬namese woman, and Gia Long promoted him to the rank of mandarin first-class, inviting him to meetings of the imperial council and ex¬empting him, by special decree, from having to prostrate himself at the emperor’s feet. But France failed to benefit from his special po¬sition, primarily because Napoleon, by now in power in Paris, was too preoccupied with conquering Europe to focus on Asia.
Nor did Gia Long encourage France. He realized that he owed an “eternal debt” to Pigneau rather than to France, and he discharged the obligation to his late mentor by tolerating Christianity. Also, perceiving that the European powers would sooner or later try to dominate Asia, he prudently avoided any gestures that would give them an advantage. Thus, while he welcomed some Western imports, he granted the French no favors. He deliberately withdrew into the kind of isolation that China had also adopted in defense against the West, even modeling his capital at Hue on Beijing, a walled “forbidden city.” As his reign neared its close, he selected an heir whom he knew to be xenophobic. Pigneau’s dream of consolidating French influence in Vietnam had evaporated.
In 1819, following the Napoleonic wars, when European merchants again contemplated commerce with Asia, Chaigneau tried to resurrect the dream. But Gia Long died during Chaigneau’s absence in the West, and his successor, Minh Mang, sensing that concessions to France would erode his sovereignty, rebuffed proposed pacts. He similarly spurned the first American to set foot in Vietnam, a Captain John White of Salem, whose clipper ship visited Saigon in 1820. He sus¬pected unrestricted commerce might eventually open Vietnam to Eu¬ropean domination, and he obliquely communicated his concern in a reply to a request from Louis XVIII that he accord privileges to France: “If your compatriots desire to trade with our kingdom, it is only reasonable that they conform to its laws.”

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