Piety and Power 11

Similarly, in 1867, La Grandiere unilaterally occupied the three west¬ern provinces of Cochinchina not yet in French hands on the pretense that Vietnamese in the area threatened France’s presence in Cambodia. He had secretly prepared the move without advising Napoleon III in advance. Nor did La Grandiere warn Phan Thanh Giang, the Viet¬namese viceroy in the western provinces, who had negotiated earlier treaties with France. Shocked and shamed, the venerable mandarin committed suicide—after pledging his sons never to collaborate with the French. Tu Due, equally appalled, published a remarkable confes¬sion of his sorrow and his impotence: Never has an era seen such sadness, never a year more anguish. Above me, I fear the edicts of heaven. Below, the tribulations of the people trouble my days and nights. Deep in my heart, I tremble and blush, finding neither words nor actions to help my sub¬jects. . . .
Alone, I am speechless. My pulse is feeble, my body pale and thin, my beard and hair white. Though not yet forty, I have already reached old age, so that I lack the strength to pay homage to my ancestors every morning and evening. . . .
Evil must be suppressed and goodness sought. The wise must offer their counsel, the strong their force, the rich their wealth, and all those with skills should devote them to the needs of the army and the kingdom. Let us, together, mend our errors and re¬build. . . .
Alas! the centuries are fraught with pain, and man is burdened by fear and woe. Thus we express our feelings, that they may be known to the world.
Royal writ. Respect it.
Napoleon III fell in 1870, defeated by Prussia and his own rash gam¬bles, and Paris became a battleground between republicans and mon¬archists. Nationalist passions concentrated more on demands to recover Alsace and Lorraine from Germany than on efforts to expand France’s dominions overseas. French naval officers in Saigon were thus left to promote their own schemes. One, conceived in the mid- 1860s, gave the impulse for France later to push northward and dom-inate all of Vietnam.
Could the mighty Mekong, the sacred serpent of Asian legend, serve as a trade route between its delta in Cochinchina and its upper reaches in the western Chinese province of Yunnan, that misty region of untapped wealth? Would that not validate France’s investment in Southeast Asia? To answer those grand questions, Admiral de La Grandiere, the dynamic governor in Saigon, organized a voyage of exploration to be led by a subordinate, Captain Doudart de Lagree, with Lieutenant Francis Gamier as his deputy. Gamier, a promising colonial officer then in his twenties, was to make the expedition im¬mensely influential—and his heroic exploits came to symbolize the glories of imperialism.
An unalloyed idealist, Gamier fervently believed that France had been divinely designated, as he wrote, to bring “into light and into liberty the races and peoples still enslaved by ignorance and despotism.” In pursuit of that mission civilisatrice, he had quit the navy to join the corps of “native affairs” officers that administered Cochin- china. The pioneers of Garnier’s breed were no routine French func¬tionaries, like those later assigned to Vietnam. They were dedicated men who studied local customs, learned the language and sincerely considered themselves to be progressive—like America’s Green Be¬rets, who a century later believed that “civic action” would win “hearts and minds.”
The Mekong expedition fit the great tradition of the period, com¬parable to John Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. Ten French explorers and their native bearers left Saigon in June 1866, paused to gaze at the fantastic temple ruins of the Cambodian empire at Angkor, then proceeded upstream into Laos. Frequently frustrated by rapids and sandbars, they soon surmised that the river had no commercial potential. But Gamier, obsessed by what he himself called an almost maniacal drive, persuaded the group to press on to southern China. Doudart de Lagree died there, exhausted by fatigue and fever; Gamier took over and led the column down the Yangzi river to Shanghai and back to Saigon. Altogether, the journey took two years, but its full effect would not be felt for another five.
In 1873, Gamier published his two-volume Voyage d’Exploration, a sumptuously illustrated collection of historical, anthropological, ag¬ricultural, geological, meteorological and other details amassed during the trip. In it, he expounded his geopolitical theories and warned that decadence awaited France unless it fulfilled its imperial destiny. But most important in practical terms, he concluded that while the Me¬kong was not navigable, a lucrative trade in Chinese silk, tea, and textiles could be carried along the Red river, which flowed from the heights of Yunnan down through northern Vietnam to Haiphong, a port on the Gulf of Tonkin. France’s next step, then, was to reach up from Cochinchina to dominate the rest of the Indochinese peninsula.
Garnier’s notion of opening the Red River might have come to naught but for the daring enterprise of Jean Dupuis, a French merchant based in Hankou. The two men had met there during Garnier’s journey down the Yangtze. Dupuis, a purveyor of weapons to the warlord of Yunnan province, needed an alternative to the rugged overland route to Indochina. After experimenting successfully on the Red River, as Gamier suggested, he obtained approval to use the waterway from Admiral Jules-Marie Dupre, French governor of Cochinchina, who even guaranteed him a loan from a British bank in Saigon. But the government in Paris reacted cautiously. Vietnam beyond Cochinchina was still a sovereign state, and Dupuis had not acquired its authori¬zation. Besides, the French ministry of foreign affairs, headed by Duc Albert de Broglie, an eminent Catholic scholar, disliked imperialistic gambles. Admiral Dupre, acting on his own, could only deploy the French warships near Haiphong as a gesture of “moral” support for Dupuis.

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