The Nguyen Dynasty (1780-1887)

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

European Influence in Vietnam

The reign of Gia Long, the first ruler of the Nguyen dynasty, saw increased foreign involvement in Vietnam. The first Europeans to arrive in the country had been Portuguese sailors who landed in 1516. Eleven years later some Dominican missionaries from Portugal came to Vietnam to seek converts to Christianity, and, in 1535, the Portuguese established a trading post at the city of Faifo (modern-day Hoi An) in central Vietnam. At that time Faifo had a significant Japanese population, which remained until 1637, when the Japanese government forbade any of its citizens to have contact with the outside world. At that time, most Japanese from Faifo returned to Japan.

By the time of the Tay Son rebellion, the French had become interested in trade with Vietnam. Alexander of Rhodes (1591-1660), a French missionary who had promoted Roman Catholicism in southern Vietnam, was responsible for writing the first Portuguese-Latin-Vietnamese dictionary and also developed a transliteration system for the Vietnamese language. This system would enable many French to study about Vietnam. In 1765, the French adventurer and missionary Pigneau de Béhaine arrived at Phu Quoc Island to reestablish a seminary that had been destroyed and some of the pupils murdered. Nevertheless, the intrepid priest kept going, and in 1770, to encourage his efforts, Pope Clement XIV appointed him bishop of Adran, an ancient city in Asia Minor. The title was purely symbolic, but it helped give Pigneau increased prestige. Technically, the Portuguese still had a claim to the exclusive right to trade with Vietnam—at least as far as the papacy was concerned—and to have established a diocese there would invite diplomatic problems.

In 1775, Pigneau de Béhaine managed to make contact with Nguyen Anh who was believed to have fled to Phu Quoc. The bishop befriended the last member of the House of Nguyen and offered French greatly appreciated assistance against the Tay Son rebels. Although Pigneau did lobby the French authorities at Pondicherry in India, he soon decided that it would be best if Nguyen Anh accompanied him to France. Prince Canh, the son of Nguyen Anh, accompanied his father to the court of King Louis XVI in costume that was more Indian than Vietnamese, causing a sensation at Versailles. On November 28, 1787, the French foreign minister, Comte de Montmorin, signed a treaty giving Nguyen Anh 1,650 French officers and men, fully armed, in return for ceding the island of Poulo Condore and the port of Tourane (modern-day Da Nang).

The treaty was signed, but the French government had second thoughts and Louis XVI sent a message to Thomas de Conway, governor of Pondicherry, telling him that he need not provide the soldiers. While Conway was prevaricating, the outbreak of the French Revolution prevented France from involving itself too heavily in Asia. Pigneau de Béhaine, on his own account and with the support of French merchants, managed to organize some assistance, and Nguyen Anh was able to defeat the Tay Son.

Nguyen Anh had himself crowned the Emperor Gia Long in Hue on June 1, 1802, moving the capital of Vietnam to Hue and starting work on a vast palace complex, modeled on the Forbidden City in China, but more modest. The building focused on three structures. Work on the Kinh Thanh (Citadel) started in 1804, the site having been found auspicious by geomancers. Located on the northern bank of the Perfume River, the walls enclosed a large area, part of which was designated as the Imperial Enclosure, which contained within it the Forbidden Purple Palace. Tens of thousands of workers labored on the site and also on a lavish mausoleum that Gia Long built further up the Perfume River. By 1807, the Cot Co (flag tower), dominating the southern battlements, had been completed and the flagpole was erected. Outside the Ngo Mon Gate to the Imperial Enclosure, nine sacred cannons were placed symbolizing the five ritual elements (earth, fire, metal, wood, and water) and the four seasons. As with most Vietnamese and Chinese houses of the period, the buildings and walls from the southern Ngan Gate into the Thai Hoa Palace (the Palace of Supreme Harmony) in the Forbidden Purple Palace were staggered to confuse evil spirits.

Gia Long had renamed the empire Viet Nam, replacing the previous name Dai Viet. He was a Confucian in terms of his upbringing and had long been influenced by Chinese philosophy. With Chinese as the official language of Vietnam, Gia Long provided stability for a country that had been wracked by war for the previous 31 years. In 1815, he introduced the Gia Long Code, a penal code that replaced the Hong Duc Code and followed the Chinese legal approach, with less emphasis on local customs. Its central pillars were the maintenance of the power of the emperor and the Imperial Court and the provision of law and order for all the subject people. Gia Long died in 1820 and was succeeded by his second son, Emperor Minh Mang.

Emperors Minh Mang and Thieu Tri

In the year before Nguyen Anh had himself crowned as Gia Long in 1802, Prince Canh, his eldest surviving son, died. Undecided as to who should be his anointed successor, Nguyen Anh passed over the son of Prince Canh, settling instead on Minh Mang, the oldest son of his empress, Nhan Tuyen Tu Khanh-Thai. This decision was partly based on Minh Mang’s own suspicion of the French, and Gia Long being worried about a boy emperor succeeding himself with the growing influence of the French.

Minh Mang was eager to reorganize the administration of the country so as to strengthen the power of the Nguyen dynasty. To do this he divided the country into 31 tinh (provinces), each of which was placed under the control of either a tong duc (governor) or a tuan phu (governor-general) who was appointed by, and loyal to, the central government in Hue. To improve the economy of the country, Ming Mang expanded the road network, and his local officials were encouraged to further irrigate the farmland to increase food production for a growing population. He also used some of the country’s resources to enlarge the imperial palace complex at Hue, with the Ngo Mon gate into the Imperial Enclosure being rebuilt allowing for five entrances. The emperor alone was able to use the central entrance paved with stone; the mandarins and soldiers used the side entrances that were paved with brick.

The rise in population led to a foreign policy whereby Vietnam enlarged its borders at the expense of the Cambodians. Many of the Khmer Krom—ethnic Cambodians living in southern Vietnam—were forced off their land. From 1811 to 1812, the Vietnamese were involved in a war with the Siamese who contested Vietnamese influence in Cambodia. The death of King Ang Chan of Cambodia in 1834 led to another war after Queen Ang Mei came to the throne and ruled the country with Vietnamese advisers. In 1835, Cambodia was annexed by Vietnam and remained under Vietnamese control for the next five years.

Minh Mang disliked the way in which the French spread their influence through the use of missionaries. As a result he restricted the numbers of missionaries and their activities, prohibiting the practice of Christianity in Vietnam. His father had been lucky that France was more concerned about events in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars than in conquests in the East, but Minh Mang realized that the situation had changed when Louis XVIII of France requested that the French be allowed to increase trade in the country. The emperor said that this was possible as long as the merchants conformed to Vietnamese law. Although Minh Mang did not ban foreign traders, as some of his court advised, he was keen on restricting their number and keeping a careful watch on them and the money that trade generated. In 1820, Captain John White of Salem, New Jersey, sailed his clipper ship to Saigon in the hope of trading, but he was spurned.

Some Vietnamese officials disagreed with Minh Mang’s policies and wanted further trade with the West. Le Van Duyet was a court official who had risen to power as one of the military commanders of the Nguyen forces who vanquished the Tay Son rebels. Gia Long had appointed him as regent of southern Vietnam, and he had been invested with the authority of conducting foreign relations with other Southeast Asian nations and the West. He protested when moves were made against Christian missionaries, and when he died in 1832, he was posthumously convicted of treason and his grave was desecrated. This enraged his adopted son Le Van Khoi, who staged a revolt against Minh Mang, seeking help from Westerners, including missionaries and the Siamese. The rebellion caused great consternation, and throughout Vietnam. Christian missionaries were rounded up with one of them, the unfortunate cartographer François Isidore Gagelin, being taken to Hue where he was slowly strangled by soldiers on October 17, 1833. Le Van Khoi held out in Saigon until the next year and died while his stronghold was being attacked by the imperial army.

Minh Mang died on January 11, 1841, and he was buried in his mausoleum near Hue. His son, Thieu Tri, became the third emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and was formally crowned at Hue on November 11, 1841. The change in emperor in Vietnam seemed to have encouraged Ang Mei, Queen of Cambodia, to try to amend her previous policy of subservience to Vietnam. The new Vietnamese administration quickly arrested her, which precipitated fighting throughout Cambodia. This conflict effectively ended Vietnamese rule, as the Siamese sent in large numbers of soldiers to occupy the country and support the new Cambodian King Ang Duang.

Thieu Tri was intellectually curious and eager to learn from the West but he had developed his father’s wariness of French involvement in the country. He wanted to modernize Vietnam, but court officials frustrated many of his attempts. His arrest of a missionary Dominique Lefèbvre was to cause him much grief. Lefèbvre had been plotting to find another member of the imperial family who was more sympathetic to Christianity, if not himself a Christian, to replace the emperor. This was, of course, an act of treason, and Lefèbvre was arrested and held in prison at Hue. In the spring of 1845, he managed to smuggle a message to a U.S. naval captain, John Percival, whose ship, the U.S.S. Constitution, was at the nearby port of Tourane (modern-day Da Nang). The message arrived as Percival was hosting a party for a number of local mandarins on board his ship. Percival held the officials as hostages demanding that Lefèbvre be released. When the Vietnamese refused, Percival meekly released them and left, with the U.S. government subsequently disavowing Percival’s actions and apologizing. In February 1847, Lefèbvre was handed over to a French ship and left for Singapore. A month later two French warships arrived at Tourane, unaware of the developments, and demanded the release of the missionary. After 18 days, when the Vietnamese prevaricated, the French bombarded Tourane, killing hundreds of the local people. They claimed that the Vietnamese had opened fire on their ships, but who attacked first remains a matter of academic dispute. The French ships then sailed away. Thieu Tri died on November 4, 1847, at the age of 40, leaving many sons, and being succeeded by his second son Tu Duc.

Tu Duc and the Decline of the Nguyen Court

Tu Duc, born as Huong Nam, was proclaimed emperor on November 10, 1847, and reigned for 36 years, the longest reign of any emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. For much of his reign Tu Duc suffered from ill health and faced dynastic and foreign threats. Court intrigue had sidelined the claim of his older brother, Hong Bao, to the throne, and Tu Duc’s long reign was to be one of balancing the court against the French. Eventually he became resigned to Vietnam becoming a French protectorate.

The first problem facing Tu Duc was not the French but rather how he should deal with the supporters of Hong Bao. They had plotted a coup to put Tu Duc’s elder brother on the throne, but the emperor’s spies found out and Hong Bao was arrested and sentenced to death. Tu Duc’s mother, Empress Mother Tu Du, intervened, however, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In jail, Hong Bao hanged himself, but conspiracies against Tu Duc continued. The main plot was the Giac Chia Voi Rebellion of 1866, which involved a group of noblemen and palace officials who planned to put Hong Bao’s son on the throne. They also failed, but they did much to upset the politics at court.

The real threat to Vietnam was from the French. In July 1857, Napoleon III decided to invade Vietnam. He was eager to establish new markets for French goods and build a large empire in Asia that could compete with the British Empire. To this end, Napoleon III ordered his naval commander in East Asia, Rigault de Genouilly, to attack and capture Tourane and to use it as a French naval base. Napoleon cited the agreement with Nguyen Anh (Gia Long) in 1787, and received support from the Vatican for defending the rights of missionaries and Christians in Vietnam. The French foreign minister, Comte Alexander Walewski, the illegitimate son of Emperor Napoleon I and his Polish mistress, and a powerful figure at court, opposed the move, claiming that as the French had not carried out their promises in the 1787 treaty, an attack on Tourane would be a declaration of war; however with Napoleon 111 so keen on taking the port, Count Walewski demurred.

Admiral Rigault de Genouilly’s fleet of 14 ships, with 2,500 French sailors and marines, arrived off Tourane on August 31, 1858. They were also supported by the Spanish in the Philippines, who were also anxious to expand Christianity in the region. On September 1, the French marines landed and by the end of September 2, they had taken the entire city. The French soon recognized, however, that they could not use Tourane as a base to attack other parts of Vietnam, as their military strength was largely reliant on their naval guns, and the soldiers were already suffering badly from tropical diseases. After five months in Tourane, in February 1859, Rigault de Genouilly sailed for Saigon, which he captured two weeks later. These two campaigns left the French in control of two ports, but they were unable to advance beyond them without risking long lines of communication and making them vulnerable to guerrilla attacks. As a result of outbreaks of cholera and typhus among the marines, the French decided to leave a small detachment at Saigon and move the bulk of their forces back to Tourane in the hope of making contact with Tu Duc.

The situation changed on November 24, 1860, when Justin de Chasseloup-Laubat was appointed as French minister of the navy and colonies, and he decided to send Admiral Léonard Victor Joseph Charner to head an expeditionary force to Saigon in spite of the new-found French military commitments in Mexico. In July 1861, the French took Saigon and proclaimed it a French city. The Vietnamese court went into turmoil. Emperor Tu Duc was resigned to the French taking over Vietnam, and he eventually signed a peace agreement with them. In June 1862, he formally ceded to France Saigon and the three provinces around it, as well as the island of Poulo Condore. He also opened three ports to the French for trade and agreed that Roman Catholic missionaries would have the right to preach anywhere in the country. He also agreed not to cede any other part of the country to any power without French permission.

The next year the French, at the request of the Cambodians, established the Protectorate of Cambodia. The Cambodian king was concerned about a possible invasion from Vietnam and sought a Western ally to guarantee the borders of his country. The French move into Vietnam was unpopular, and small rebel forces continued to assault the French. Worried that the fighting might provoke the French into attacking Hue and possibly overthrowing the imperial dynasty, Tu Duc sent an envoy directly to Napoleon 111 in France offering to cede another three provinces in exchange for peace. Napoleon was tempted to accept, but Admiral Pierre Paul Marie Benoît de La Grandière moved first and in 1867 annexed three more provinces of southern Vietnam, which he formed into the colony of Cochinchina, which was to remain an entity until 1947.

Having lost a large section of his country, in 1867 Tu Duc retired from his palace in Hue and moved to his nearby mausoleum, where he spent the last 16 years of his life. He lived in palatial splendor surrounded by the empress, 103 other official wives, and many concubines. There he devoted his time to scholarship, poetry, and promoting literary endeavor. Tu Duc himself wrote several books, including 4,000 poems, a philosophical treatise, and some historical works. He also personally oversaw the construction of the mausoleum where he was buried after his death on July 19, 1883.

With the French defeat by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the French were briefly rendered militarily impotent. Unable to afford another costly war, the French decided to embark on several geographical expeditions. Their hope was to trade with southern China, and several French geographers believed that the Mekong River might allow river traffic to reach into southwestern China. The Mekong River Expedition had actually started in 1866, four years before France’s defeat by the Prussians, and was led by Francis Garnier. The concept caught the imagination of French businessmen, but it showed that the Mekong did not reach into China, and attention then focused on the Red River Delta, and Hanoi. In 1873, a French merchant, Jean Dupuis, who had been selling guns, managed to persuade Garnier to launch an attack on Hanoi, beginning with the storming of the city’s citadel. Soon afterwards, on December 21, 1873, Garnier was killed while fighting Chinese mercenaries who were supporting the Vietnamese. The French held back for the next nine years. In April 1882, the French in Saigon, with the support of the French government, sent Captain Henri Rivière to Hanoi with 250 men with the aim of seizing part of the Red River Delta. Rivière was killed in May 1883, but the French did not give up their goal of taking Hanoi, as the French Prime Minister Jules Ferry was eager to restore French glory.

Despite having 104 wives, Tu Duc had no children, and when he died, the succession passed to his adopted son, his nephew Duc Duc. In some ways it was a relatively easy succession, but soon after becoming emperor, Duc Duc started inviting wayward friends and acquaintances to court. Vietnamese accounts of the time refer to the arrival of notorious gamblers, womanizers, and practitioners of black magic, along with their mistresses and hangers-on. Soon after the death of Tu Duc, and with the changes at court, the French had exploited the power vacuum to take control of northern Vietnam, which was named Tonkin, and central Vietnam, which took the name Annam, based on an early Chinese name for the area. Officially Annam was under a protectorate under the control of the emperor, with Tonkin a protectorate with an imperial regent, appointed by the emperor. In reality the concept of a protectorate was merely an administrative device. The French controlled both Annam and Tonkin, and when French warships arrived at Hue, the new emperor, Duc Duc, signed the Harmand Treaty in August 1883 and acknowledged French rights to the whole of Vietnam.

But that was not the end of the trouble for Duc Duc. When he was being formally enthroned as emperor on October 6, some conservative court officials read a suppressed portion of Tu Duc’s testament in which he debarred Duc Duc from the throne because of, what was then only suspected, moral depravity. The ceremony was halted and the gathered officials decided to convene a court. They immediately sentenced Duc Duc to death for failure to observe the official period of mourning for Tu Duc and for forcing himself on his adopted father’s concubines. Condemned to commit suicide by taking poison, Duc Duc was not even provided with a formal burial; his naked body was buried without any ceremony, although in 1899 a small mausoleum was built for the emperor who reigned for less than three months.

Ton That Thuyet and Resistance against French Rule

After the death of Duc Duc, his uncle Hiep Hoa, a younger brother of Tu Duc, became emperor in October 1883. He took over at a delicate time in Vietnamese history with the disgrace of Duc Duc and the increased French demands on the country. The imperial court was split between those who were prepared to accede to increasing French demands and those who wanted to resist. The latter were led by Ton That Thuyet, one of the most powerful men at court, and the man who had led the move that deposed Duc Duc. It was not clear whether Duc Duc’s mental state had only been the excuse to get rid of him. Ton That Thuyet and his supporters were keen on fighting the French, but they were unsure of when and how to act.

Soon after becoming emperor, Hiep Hoa was faced with an ultimatum from the French Admiral Courbet that the French had no intention of annexing the country, but that the emperor had to accept French protection as the only way the Nguyen dynasty could survive. Hiep Hoa reluctantly agreed to ratify the Harmand Treaty by which France controlled all of Vietnam’s foreign relations, and the French territory of Cochinchina was further enlarged. When Ton That Thuyet found out about the treaty, he condemned Hiep Hoa for signing it and forced him to abdicate. The emperor was then sentenced to death and was given the choice of being beheaded by sword, strangled with a scarf, or poisoned with a mixture of opium and vinegar. He chose the last and died in the evening of November 29, 1883, after a reign of one month.

With Hiep Hoa dead, Kien Phuc, the previous emperor’s nephew (and also another adopted son of Tu Duc), was proclaimed emperor. He was only 15 when he acceded to the throne, and his coronation took place all in one morning in the hope that the French would accept the succession as a fait accompli. The coronation was also a sign to the French that they did not have the right to advise on matters of dynastic succession.

Emperor Kien Phuc was never in good health and he rapidly became a puppet for Ton That Thuyet, who controlled the court and was a vigorous opponent of the French. On June 6, 1884, however, the French managed to get the Vietnamese emperor to agree to the Patenotre Treaty, which confirmed the French protectorates of Annam and Tonkin. Soon afterward, palace rumors revealed that one night Kien Phuc found his adoptive mother, Hoc Phi, with her lover Regent Nguyen Van Tuong. Although he vowed to get revenge for their infidelity, he was unsuccessful. Instead it was the emperor who was poisoned soon afterwards and died on August 1, 1884, after ruling for only eight months. The poisoners may have been settling a private score on behalf of the regent, or, alternatively, the deed may have been the work of officials who were against further French encroachments in the country.

The death of Kien Phuc brought his younger brother, Ham Nghi, to the throne. He was crowned on August 17, 1884, two weeks after his 13th birthday. Ton That Thuyet had appointed himself as regent, and the teenager became reliant on the anti-French official. In July 1885, the French demanded that Ton That Thuyet either resign or be fired, and when the emperor refused to agree, the French, in a show of force, surrounded the imperial palace in Hue, with more than 1,000 soldiers, and the French commander, General Roussel de Courcy, then demanded an audience with the emperor.

Ton That Thuyet overestimated his own strength and sent out imperial soldiers to attack the French. These were easily repulsed and the French then invaded the imperial palace, which they sacked. The French also destroyed the imperial library, and scrolls and documents dating back to medieval times were burned. Other parts of the palace were looted in a destruction that was reminiscent of the sacking of the summer palace in Beijing by the British in October 1860. Ham Nghi then decided to issue an appeal called Can Vuong (Save the Emperor) in which he urged the wealthy to donate money, for the strong to give their might, and the poor their bodies to defend Vietnam from the French. It was an attempt to rally the Vietnamese nationalists, but it was a disaster. Facing the French armed forces, three days after issuing his brave appeal, the emperor and Ton That Thuyet fled from Hue. They established a jungle stronghold in what is now Laos, and the people who came to support them formed the Can Vuong movement. The French responded in September 1885 by officially deposing the emperor and replacing him with his brother Dong Khanh. Ham Nghi was eventually captured in November 1888 after being betrayed by Hmong mountaineers, but Ton That Thuyet escaped to China. The French executed all members of the Can Vuong movement whom they captured except Ham Nghi who was sent into exile in French Algeria where he remained until his death in Algiers on January 4, 1943; he was buried in France. Another resistance group against the French arose in Annam in 1885 and was led by Phan Dinh Phung. It was active until his death in 1895.