Piety and Power 8

One of them, Comte de Bourboulon, was a singular specimen. An ugly little man married to an affable American woman a foot taller than himself, Bourboulon professed to be a socialist and an atheist. As France’s envoy to China during the early 1850s, he had urged missionaries to behave with “extreme circumspection” lest they trans¬gress local customs. But soon he became a resolute advocate of French vigor, and he introduced a new jargon of a kind that would be used by radical French imperialists later in the century. The extension of French power in the East helped “all humanity,” he intoned, prom¬ising that it would put European relations with Asia on a “liberal and equitable basis.”
Bourboulon’s almost exact opposite, physically and ideologically, was Louis Charles de Montigny, the French consul in Shanghai. A large, imposing man of great energy, fanatically religious, Montigny had carved out the famous French Concession in Shanghai soon after his arrival there in 1848 simply by hoisting the French flag over a district of the city and declaring it to be part of France. He and Bour- boulon could work toward the same objective, largely because of political changes then evolving in Paris.
Louis Napoleon, who proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III at the end of 1852, had staged his coup d’etat with the support of the Church. His Spanish wife, Eugenie, was devoutly religious as well. Thus he could not escape a commitment to missionary goals in Asia. That aim also fit his own vision of enhancing France’s national gran¬deur and his own prestige through foreign adventures, as his illustrious uncle, Napoleon I, had done. His priority, however, was to deal with France’s alignments in Europe, which were shifting as revolutionary movements spread. He had also cemented a relationship with England that would ally the two nations against Russia in the Crimean War. So he was too distracted by other matters to focus on the East.
In Asia, though, French officials were preparing for intervention. Bourboulon sent a memorandum to the French foreign ministry sug¬gesting that the Vietnamese emperor, Tu Duc, be coerced into ceding Tourane to France as an indemnity for his mistreatment of mission¬aries—a legitimate project, considering Nguyen Anh’s treaty with Louis XVI forty-five years earlier. Bourboulon recommended that a French naval force seize Tourane, and he even outlined battle tactics. A naval operation in Vietnam would be economical, he stressed, since the French fleet “costs almost as much unoccupied as it does active.” Admitting that missionaries functioned “at their own risk and peril,” he asserted that France nevertheless “shares a responsibility for injuries committed against them.”
The foreign ministry’s reply arrived in record speed by steamship.
It instructed Bourboulon to refine his military plans, noting that the acquisition of Tourane not only would give France a valuable harbor for commerce and a strategic base for war but would also restore its international “dignity.” Meanwhile, Catholic spokesmen in Paris urged Napoleon III to approve the expedition, and they were en¬couraged by French officers and civilian officials in the field. General Philippe Marie Henri Roussel de Courcy, then in China, took it upon himself to pledge to the Catholic bishops throughout Asia that France would protect missionaries.
In early 1856, after much hesitation, Napoleon III endorsed the proposals put forth by Bourboulon and others. The assignment was entrusted to Montigny, the former French consul in Shanghai, and it gave a renewed impetus to the French drive toward Vietnam.
Montigny was scheduled to proceed to Vietnam accompanied by two French warships that would enforce his demands on Tu Due. But he was also instructed to negotiate a treaty with Siam. He stopped in Bangkok and afterward dallied in Cambodia, sending the vessels ahead with a letter to the Vietnamese ruler. One of them, the Catinat, reached Tourane in mid-September of 1856, meeting the same kind of recep¬tion that the French had encountered there nine years before. The local mandarins refused to accept Montigny’s message to the emperor. The ship’s commander, a Captain Le Lieur, eventually lost patience and fired at the Vietnamese. After destroying the harbor forts, he landed a detachment of marines to occupy the town’s citadel. The frightened mandarins agreed to parley, but Le Lieur stalled, awaiting Montigny. Weeks passed. The other ship, the Capricieuse, delayed by a storm, limped in, but still no Montigny. The two vessels, running short of supplies, departed for Macao.
Montigny appeared two months later. But without the warships, he lacked the strength to impose his conditions on Tu Duc. Instead of disenchanting the missionaries and their supporters, the setback fired’their enthusiasm to try again. They appealed to French business groups with inflated accounts of Vietnam’s wealth in silver, gold, coal and timber. A pair of veteran priests, Father Huc, the Lazarist, and Bishop Pellerin, journeyed from Asia to Paris to lobby. Huc told Napoleon III that the treaty of 1787 gave France an incontestable right to Tourane and claimed that the conquest was the “easiest thing in the world,” since the Vietnamese would greet the French as “liberators and benefactors.” Pellerin, who had narrowly escaped death in Viet¬nam, preached emotional sermons to Paris congregations on France’s duty to aid Vietnamese Christians, and he even obtained the Vatican’s blessing for the venture.
The notion of intervention worried several senior French figures. The keeper of the foreign ministry archives, Pierre Cintrat, carefully argued that France had never fulfilled its obligations under the 1787 pact, and therefore an attack against Tourane—which would be costly and dangerous—would also be an illegal act of war. His opinion was supported by the foreign minister, Comte Alexandre Walewski, the illegitimate son of Napoleon I and his Polish mistress, Marie Wal- ewska.
Walewski judiciously backtracked after Napoleon III personally de¬cided in favor of action. The emperor had succumbed to Catholic pressure as well as to his own obsession with national glory. He also felt encouraged by evidence that England, itself carving out an empire in Asia, would not block a French counterweight in Vietnam. But, as government leaders often do at critical moments, Napoleon III appointed a special committee to provide the rationale for his decision.

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