Piety and Power 10

Rigault could have plausibly complained, as so many other foreign officers frustrated in Vietnam would later, that the “politicians back home had let him down.” Indeed, Napoleon III had vacillated, shifting his focus to reckless wars in Europe and conflicts in China. But soon the pressure for intervention in Vietnam again built up in Paris, and Napoleon III could not resist. Manufacturers and merchants seeking overseas markets, officers and officials yearning for adventure—all raised their voices. And the chorus was joined by a new breed of nationalistic intellectual stirred by the dream of carrying French culture to “backward” peoples, just as Rome civilized the “barbarians” be¬yond its borders.
The call for action sounded even louder in late 1860, when Justin Chasseloup-Laubat became minister of the navy and the colonies, a newly created hybrid post that would generate the main impulses of imperialism. He persuaded Napoleon III to concentrate on Vietnam, and he reinforced an expedition headed by Admiral Leonard Victor Joseph Charner sent to relieve the beleaguered French force in Saigon.
Commanding two thousand men, Charner fought his way slowly inland from the sea, and in July 1861, six months after launching the campaign, he entered Saigon and claimed the city for France. His successors pushed deeper into the Mekong Delta, inflicting heavy casualties on the Vietnamese who resisted them. A year later, Tu Duc paid an exorbitant price for peace: he gave France the three provinces adjacent to Saigon in addition to Poulo Condore island, accorded Catholic missionaries the freedom to proselytize, opened three ports to European commerce and, among other concessions, granted the French the right to forbid Vietnam to cede any part of its territory to another power. Pigneau de Behaine was more than vindicated seventy- five years after his bold voyage to Versailles.
The surrender of Tu Duc astonished both French and Vietnamese, but the emperor had no Other options. France’s seizure of Saigon and its surrounding provinces—the rice bowl of Vietnam—was starving his armies. He was also being menaced by rebels in the north, a greater threat in his estimation than the French occupation of the south. His archaic anti-Western policies were bankrupt, he now realized. Against the advice of his more enlightened counselors, he had refused to turn to Europe for help in modernizing Vietnam; now, having isolated his nation, he could not count on any outside power to aid him against France. He showed just how desperate he was on the eve of his ca¬pitulation to the French, when he sent a futile appeal to Abraham Lincoln for American support.
Vietnam’s archaic feudal structure had by this time so decayed that Tu Duc had lost the moral authority to rally his people against the French. Vietnamese peasants may have hated and feared the foreign invaders, who killed and looted indiscriminately, but they also de¬spised their own corrupt and despotic mandarins. Their first priority was survival, not the fate of the regime.
Not that this sentiment always served the French. On the contrary, many Vietnamese patriotically resisted the foreign intruders even though they no longer respected their emperor. Throughout the Me¬kong delta, local officials who disdained Tu Duc nevertheless quit the provincial administration rather than submit to alien rule. An anony¬mous poster addressed to the French illustrated the sense of Vietnamese nationalism then emerging: “If you persist in bringing to us your iron and flame, the struggle will be long. But we are guided by the laws of Heaven, and our cause will triumph in the end.”
By late 1862, the resistance in the south had spread with such in¬tensity that the French could crush it only with reinforcements from China and the Philippines. But while they fought the southern guer¬rillas, the French did nothing for the northern rebels, being urged by Christian missionaries to overthrow Tu Duc. Plainly, Catholic pres¬sure had ceased to be a key factor in French policy. Forty years later, a French historian would deny that the missionaries had ever been significant in Vietnam’s conquest. Their persecution, as he put it, had only been “the pretext for our intervention.”
The prospect of a protracted Vietnamese conflict especially worried Napoleon III, and he began to display doubts about France’s future in Vietnam. He needed funds for another foreign venture—his plan to install Maximilian, the Austrian archduke, on the throne of Mexico. So he not only tried to cut the costs of his force in southern Vietnam, but also showed interest in a Vietnamese proposal to limit French designs on the country as a whole.
Having given them Saigon and its three adjoining provinces, Tu Duc soon sensed that the French would ultimately push on to conquer all of Vietnam and doom his tottering monarchy. He therefore con¬trived a bargain. In exchange for the return of the three provinces he had ceded to France directly, he would accept a French protectorate over the six provinces of Cochinchina, as southern Vietnam was then called. He offered France full control over Saigon and commercial advantages in Vietnam as well as annual tribute. He sent a prominent mandarin, Phan Thanh Giang, to Paris to promote the package. Na¬poleon III endorsed it immediately as a cheaper alternative to continued French operations, agreeing to revise the treaty that France had con¬cluded with Tu Duc in 1862.
But Napoleon III had not anticipated the cries of outrage that would come from the champions of French intervention. Naval officers fore¬most among them, they denounced his decision with such vigor that he quickly scrapped the amended pact and gave free rein to the French forces in Cochinchina.
The French commanders in Vietnam only occasionally sought clear¬ance from Napoleon III. They had learned to employ the fait accompli, facing their superiors with the deed already done, a tactic that became standard in Vietnam. Admiral Pierre Paul Marie Benoit de La Gran¬diere, one of the early French governors of Cochinchina, elevated the device to an art. In 1863, he acted on his own authority to extend French control over Cambodia, claiming that France had inherited Vietnam’s alleged supremacy over its neighbor. When the Cambodian king tried to flee to Siam, an alert French officer compelled the un¬cooperative monarch at gunpoint to ratify a French protectorate over his country.

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