Piety and Power 7

Arriving in Vietnam in 1835 as a young missionary, Lefebvre stud¬ied the language and began preaching, often covertly to avoid arrest. In 1844, he joined a group of French priests conspiring to replace Thieu Tri with an emperor more receptive to Christianity, as Pigneau de Behaine had done a generation earlier. Apprised of the plot, Thieu Tri had Lefebvre caught and condemned to death but, seeking to avoid trouble, commuted the sentence on the pretense that the mis¬sionary was ignorant of the prohibition against Christianity.
Lefebvre, imprisoned in Hue, now sparked a chain of errors that would lead to the first direct French assault against Vietnam. One day in the spring of 1845, hearing that a Western warship had anchored at the nearby port of Tourane, he smuggled a message to its com¬mander. The vessel turned out to be “Old Ironsides,” the U.S.S. Constitution, whose captain, John Percival, was entertaining three or four mandarins when the secret note arrived. Alarmed by the call of a European in danger, Percival promptly held his Vietnamese guests as hostages against Lefèbvre’s release. But Thieu Tri declined to bar¬gain and left Percival no choice but to free the dignitaries and sail away. The United States government quickly disavowed Percival and apologized officially to Thieu Tri, who by then had handed Lefebvre, along with gifts, over to a French ship in the vicinity.
Lefebvre went to Singapore while Thieu Tri, now sensitive to Viet¬nam’s vulnerability, considered making a pact with the Europeans. But another incident occurred to prevent an accord, and once more it involved the persistent Lefebvre. Attempting to reenter Vietnam, he was again arrested, again sentenced to death, again released and again deported. This time, though, the French fleet in the area learned of his capture. Admiral Cecille, its commander and a veteran of the region, had long awaited such an occasion: he ordered two warships to Tourane, the Gloire and the Victorieuse, demanding that Thieu Tri free Lefebvre and cease repressing Christians.
Unaware that the emperor had released Lefebvre four weeks earlier, the French force reached Tourane on March 23, 1847. The officers in charge, Captain Lapierre and Captain Charles Rigault de Genouilly, stripped the sails from several Vietnamese boats in the port and bullied the town’s recalcitrant mandarins into accepting a letter for Thieu Tri. When the emperor’s response came from Hue eighteen days later, the French insisted that, as a gesture of Vietnamese submission, it be brought to one of their ships. Equally proud, the mandarins stalled and a clash occurred.
Who shot first has never been clarified. But within seventy minutes, the French had sunk three Vietnamese vessels, destroyed the harbor forts and killed hundreds of local inhabitants. They then put out to sea—without evident concern for the fate of the French missionaries left in Vietnam. Nor did they inquire into the fate of Lefebvre—who had fled to Singapore. He would again return to Vietnam, where he remained for another twenty years.
Thieu Tri reacted angrily to the French attack. He denounced Cath¬olic priests as foreign agents who should be killed on sight. But his fury was only rhetorical. In fact, fearful of French reprisals, he did not execute a single missionary during his reign and he freed those he arrested, as he had repeatedly released the intrepid Lefebvre. Thieu Tri understood his dilemma. He realized that the French, bent on conquest, were looking for pretexts. He also knew that Vietnam could not protect itself unless it modernized. But he would not break with tradition, for he knew that innovation would bring down his imperial structure.
Nor would his successor, Tu Duc, change the system. Tu Duc, who assumed the throne after his father’s death in 1847, clung even more stubbornly to the belief that Vietnam could not disrupt its feudal institutions, even for the sake of security. Embarking on a fierce campaign to eliminate Christianity, he thereby antagonized the French just as they were exploring ways to escalate their offensive against his country. His myopic intransigence made him the last independent ruler of Vietnam.
Contemporary French publicists depicted Tu Duc, as they had his father and grandfather, as a bloodthirsty beast. But Thieu Tri had chosen him as heir because of his mild disposition, and visitors to his court confirmed his moderation. One French traveler found him to be a “refined and distinguished” person with delicate hands and black eyes of “remarkable profundity,” a figure reminiscent of “Egyptian antiquity.”
Like his father and grandfather, however, Tu Duc regarded the forty or so Catholic missionaries then in Vietnam to be a menace to his nation, not only because their teachings threatened to subvert the Confucian order, but also because many actually represented French political and military interests. However, he cracked down on them only when he calculated that the French were too embroiled in do¬mestic trouble? to react effectively. He issued his first anti-Christian edict in 1848, amid the collapse of Louis Philippe’s monarchy, and he published a second in 1851 as Louis Napoleon, who had been elected president of France three years earlier, fought the parliament in his bid for absolute power. Tu Duc miscalculated.
He decreed that Vietnamese Catholics be branded on the left cheek with the characters ta dao, meaning “infidel,” and their properties confiscated. He deemed this punishment reasonable, since native Christians were “poor idiots seduced by priests.” On the other hand, European missionaries were to be drowned and Vietnamese priests cut in half lengthwise, and bounties of silver would be paid for their capture. Many baptized Vietnamese suffered, but many others escaped by bribing mandarins. And Tu Due’s wrath intensified when Chris¬tians were implicated in an abortive rebellion against him organized by his brother. In 1851, he executed a young French priest, Augustin Schoeffler, and had another missionary, Jean-Louis Bonnard, put to death the next year. Senior French missionaries throughout Asia now called for action, and they were joined by influential French officials in the region.

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