Piety and Power 9

The dignitaries on the committee agreed with Cintrat that the 1787 treaty was irrelevant. Nevertheless, they upheld France’s right to pun¬ish Vietnam for persecuting French missionaries, recommended that three Vietnamese ports be occupied and affirmed that a French ex¬pedition to Vietnam was consistent with the “force of circumstances” that “propels the nations of the West to expand toward the East. ” In short, the advisory group concluded, France could not afford to lag behind: “Will we be the only ones without possessions in Asia, where the English, Dutch, Spanish and even Russians are strengthening their positions?”
If he needed additional justification, Napoleon III received it in a series of dispatches from Bourboulon, then stationed in Canton, who described the alarming repression of Vietnamese Christians in Viet¬nam, basing his information on biased missionary sources. He also stressed that halfhearted efforts in the past had only dramatized France’s weakness and thus prompted the Vietnamese to harden their anti-Catholic policies. The French should now deploy an overwhelm¬ing force, he urged, and they could count on the collaboration of a Spanish-led army of Filipinos, disciplined Catholics accustomed to the tropical climate. Spain’s wrath had been aroused by the execution of a Spanish Dominican missionary, Father Diaz, in the summer of 1857.
Suspicious of his unenthusiastic foreign ministry, Napoleon III put the expedition under the ministry of the navy. In November 1857, Rigault de Genouilly, now an admiral and commander of the French fleet in Asia, received his orders. A seasoned sea dog who had been involved in the hit-and-run assault against Tourane as a young officer ten years before, he was assigned to grab Tourane and adjacent ter¬ritories and hold them until Tu Duc conceded to a protectorate that would, in effect, mean French control of Vietnam. Failing that goal, Rigault could settle for a deal that indemnified France for lives and property lost in Vietnam.
The French armada of fourteen vessels and twenty-five hundred men set forth for Tourane the following summer. Rigault strode the bridge of his flagship, the Nemesis, with Bishop Pellerin alongside him, puffing choice Manila cigars and dispensing advice in his self- appointed role of political and military counselor. The Spanish initially failed to live up to Bourboulon’s expectations, having mobilized fewer than five hundred troops, who had to be transported by the French. Inspired by the government, meanwhile, the Paris press acclaimed the operation in heady superlatives, forecasting that Tourane would be¬come France’s Gibraltar in Asia. But the problems encountered by the expedition illustrated the enormous difficulties that beset Western forces in Vietnam.
The fleet reached Tourane on August 31, 1858, and easily subdued the port’s defenders. Then the trouble began. Bishop Pellerin’s prom¬ised Catholic uprising never materialized, presumably because local Christians feared reprisals if the enterprise failed. Pellerin’s Vietnamese spies also proved to be purveyors of false intelligence planted by clever mandarins. Nor were his agents able to enlist native laborers. The French established a beachhead, only to run into two devastating ene-mies—heat and disease.
Outfitted in heavy uniforms, the French wilted under the searing sun. Many died from dysentery, scurvy, cholera and fevers that defied diagnosis. Rigault considered a diversionary attack against Hue, but he lacked shallow-draft boats to navigate the Perfume River, and he ruled out an overland alternative, which required vehicles he had not brought along and indigenous porters he could not recruit. So the French remained mired in Tourane for weeks, only to face even worse conditions when the monsoon rains lashed them in late October. Un¬able to build substantial shelters, they were constantly drenched and vulnerable to disease. Mere scratches led to infections that required amputation; one officer recalled how a slight arm wound became gangrenous. When Vietnamese soldiers cautiously probed to within two miles of their camp in November, the French were too feeble to do more than hold them off in an indecisive skirmish. The glorious expedition had degenerated into a humiliating disaster.
Rigault and Pellerin inevitably blamed each other for the debacle— Rigault charged Pellerin with misleading him, while Pellerin claimed that Rigault had displayed insufficient vigor. Pellerin urged an attack against the north, where more numerous Catholics would emerge to help them, but Rigault, dismissing the advice, contrived a fresh strat¬egy. His gesture marked a new departure: no longer would French military policy in Vietnam be guided by missionaries, who plainly suffered from what, in later Vietnamese wars, would be termed a “credibility gap.” Leaving a small garrison at Tourane, he sailed south to Saigon.
In the cavalier fashion of the period, Rigault acted without official sanction, and his campaign there nearly repeated the Tourane fiasco. Arriving in Saigon in February 1859, his squadron of nine warships and transports managed to dominate the city within two weeks. As in Tourane, however, local Catholics were unwilling to assist him, and the southerners were uncommonly aggressive. Their guerrilla units prevented the French from gaining control of the nearby coun¬tryside, and they even staged attacks inside the city. Rigault might have then mobilized for a long struggle to hold Saigon, but he left a small detachment there to return to Tourane.
The French position had deteriorated in Tourane. It had withstood repeated Vietnamese assaults, but illness spread. For every French soldier killed in battle, twenty had died of disease, and the situation became abysmal in the summer of 1859, when epidemics of cholera and typhus broke out. Rigault made a stab at contacting Tu Duc, but the emperor spurned him. Bitter and discouraged, Rigault resigned and returned to France, leaving his successor the embarrassment of evacuating the French garrison. Before leaving, Rigault wrote the whole story of Western intervention in one of his last reports from the fighting front: “Everything here tends toward ruin.”

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