Indochina



Pre-French Indochina

The diverse cultures of what would eventually become French Indochina traced their roots to pre-modern kingdoms and empires. For centuries this area was shaped by numerous influences, most notably the expansive trade and political contacts of South and East Asia.

Learning Objectives

Describe the cultures of Indochina before French colonialism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the pre-modern era, significant parts of the region that would later become French Indochina belonged to what was known as Greater India. The kingdoms that belonged to Greater India and eventually overlapped with what would become French Indochina were Funan and its successor Chenla, Champa, and the Khmer Empire.
  • Champa controlled what is now south and central Vietnam since approximately 192 CE. The dominant religion was Hinduism and the culture was heavily influenced by India. Between the 3rd and the 5th centuries, Funan and its successor, Chenla, coalesced in present-day Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam. For more than 2,000 years, what was to become Cambodia absorbed influences from India. The Khmer Empire, with the capital city in Angkor, grew out of the remnants of Chenla, becoming firmly established in 802.
  • After a long series of wars with neighboring kingdoms, Angkor was sacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom and abandoned in 1432. The period that followed is today known as the Dark Ages of Cambodia, the historical era from the early 15th century to 1863. In the 19th century a renewed struggle between Siam and Vietnam for control of Cambodia resulted in the Siamese–Vietnamese War (1841–1845) that placed the country under joint suzerainty.
  • Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the 14th century by Lao prince Fa Ngum. Ngum made Theravada Buddhism the state religion. Within 20 years of its formation, the kingdom expanded eastward to Champa and along the Annamite mountains in Vietnam. In 1421, Lan Xang collapsed into warring factions for the next 100 years. In the 17th century, Lan Xang would further expand its frontiers and in today’s Laos, this period is often regarded as the country’s golden age.
  • In the 18th century, Burmese armies overran northern Laos and annexed Luang Phrabang, while Champasak eventually came under Siamese suzerainty. Chao Anouvong was installed as a vassal king of Vientiane by the Siamese. Under Vietnamese pressure, he rebelled against the Siamese in 1826. The rebellion failed and Vientiane was ransacked.
  • In 938, the Vietnamese lord Ngo Quyen defeated the forces of the Chinese Southern Han state and achieved full independence for Vietnam after a millennium of Chinese domination. Renamed as Dai Viet (Great Viet), the state enjoyed a golden era between the 11th and the beginning of the 15th centuries. Between the 11th and 18th centuries, Vietnam expanded southward, eventually conquering the kingdom of Champa and part of the Khmer Empire. Internal conflicts between local lords divided the country that eventually fell under the French rule.

Key Terms

  • Dark Ages of Cambodia: The historical era from the early 15th century to 1863, the year that marks the beginning of the French Protectorate of Cambodia. As reliable sources for the 15th and 16th century in particular are very rare, a fully defensible and conclusive explanation for the decline of the Khmer Empire, recognized unanimously by the scientific community, has so far not been produced.
  • Greater India: A term most commonly used to encompass the historical and geographic extent of all political entities of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. To varying degrees, these entities were transformed by the acceptance and induction of cultural and institutional elements of pre-Islamic India.
  • Indochina: A geographical term originating in the early 19th century and referring to the continental portion of the region now known as Southeast Asia. The name refers to the lands historically within the cultural influence of India and China and physically bound by India in the west and China in the north. It corresponds to the present-day areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and (variably) peninsular Malaysia. The term was later adopted as the name of the French colony of today’s Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Indochina

Indochina, originally Indo-China, is a geographical term originating in the early 19th century for the continental portion of the region now known as Southeast Asia. The name refers to the lands historically within the cultural influence of India and China and physically bound by India in the west and China in the north. It corresponds to the present-day areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and (variably) peninsular Malaysia. The term was later adopted as the name of the colony of French Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), and the entire area of Indochina is now usually referred to as the Indochinese Peninsula or Mainland Southeast Asia.

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An 1886 map of Indochina, Scottish Geographical Magazine (Vol. II) edited by Hugh A. Webster and Arthur Silva White.: The origins of the name Indo-China are usually attributed jointly to the Danish-French geographer Conrad Malte-Brun, who referred to the area as indo-chinois in 1804, and the Scottish linguist John Leyden, who used the term Indo-Chinese to describe the area’s inhabitants and their languages in 1808. As the French established the colony of French Indochina, use of the term became restricted to the French colony and today the area is usually referred to as Mainland Southeast Asia.

Greater India

In the pre-modern era, significant parts of the region that would later become French Indochina belonged to what is known as Greater India. Although the term is not precise, Greater India is most commonly used to encompass the historical and geographic extent of all political entities of the Indian subcontinent and beyond that had to varying degrees been transformed by the acceptance and induction of cultural and institutional elements of pre-Islamic India. Since around 500 B.C. Asia’s expanding land and maritime trade resulted in prolonged socioeconomic and cultural stimulation and diffusion of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs into regional cosmology, particularly in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. The kingdoms that belonged to Greater India and eventually overlapped with what would become French Indochina were Funan and its successor Chenla, Champa, and the Khmer Empire.

Champa controlled what is now south and central Vietnam since approximately 192 CE. The dominant religion was Hinduism and the culture was heavily influenced by India. By the late 15th century, the Vietnamese—descendants of the Sinic civilization sphere—conquered the last remaining territories of the once powerful maritime kingdom of Champa. The last surviving Chams began their diaspora in 1471, many resettling in Khmer territory.

Between the 3rd and the 5th centuries, Funan and its successor, Chenla, coalesced in present-day Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam. For more than 2,000 years, what was to become Cambodia absorbed influences from India, passing them on to other Southeast Asian civilizations that are now Thailand and Laos. The Khmer Empire, with the capital city in Angkor, grew out of the remnants of Chenla, firmly established in 802 when Jayavarman II declared independence from Java. He and his followers instituted the cult of the God-king and began a series of conquests that formed an empire, which flourished in the area from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Around the 13th century, monks from Sri Lanka introduced Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia. The religion spread and eventually displaced Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism as the popular religion of Angkor.

After a long series of wars with neighboring kingdoms, Angkor was sacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom and abandoned in 1432 because of ecological failure and infrastructure breakdown. This led to a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation when the kingdom’s internal affairs came increasingly under the control of its neighbors. The period that followed is today known as the Dark Ages of Cambodia: the historical era from the early 15th century to 1863, the year that marks the beginning of the French Protectorate of Cambodia. As reliable sources from this period are very rare, a fully defensible and conclusive explanation for the decline of the Khmer Empire, recognized unanimously by the scientific community, has so far not been produced.

In the 19th century a renewed struggle between Siam and Vietnam for control of Cambodia resulted in a period when Vietnamese officials attempted to force the Khmers to adopt Vietnamese customs. This led to several rebellions against the Vietnamese and appeals to Thailand for assistance. The Siamese-Vietnamese War (1841–1845) ended with an agreement to place the country under joint suzerainty. This later led to the signing of a treaty for French Protection of Cambodia by King Norodom Prohmborirak.

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Angkor Wat, the front side of the main complex, photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.: Angkor was the capital city of Khmer Empire, which flourished from approximately the 9th to 15th centuries. It was a megacity supporting at least 0.1% of the global population during 1010-1220. The city houses the magnificent Angkor Wat, one of Cambodia’s popular tourist attractions. In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world.

Lan Xang

Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the 14th century by Lao prince Fa Ngum, who with 10,000 Khmer troops took over Vientiane. Ngum made Theravada Buddhism the state religion. Within 20 years of its formation, the kingdom expanded eastward to Champa and along the Annamite mountains in Vietnam. Following the exile of Ngum, his eldest son, Oun Heuan, came to the throne under the name Samsenthai and reigned for 43 years. During his reign, Lan Xang became an important trade center. After his death in 1421, Lan Xang collapsed into warring factions for the next 100 years.

In the 17th century, Lan Xang would further expand its frontiers and in today’s history of Laos, this period is often regarded as the country’s golden age. In the 18th century, Burmese armies overran northern Laos and annexed Luang Phrabang, while Champasak eventually came under Siamese suzerainty. Chao Anouvong was installed as a vassal king of Vientiane by the Siamese. He encouraged a renaissance of Lao fine arts and literature. Under Vietnamese pressure, he rebelled against the Siamese in 1826. The rebellion failed and Vientiane was ransacked. Anouvong was taken to Bangkok as a prisoner, where he died.

Lan Xang had ethnic diversity from trade and overland ethnic migrations. The multiple hill tribe peoples were grouped into the broad cultural categories of Lao Theung (which included most indigenous groups and the Mon-Khmer) and Lao Sung. The Lao Loum were ethnically dominant and there were several closely related Tai groups. Perhaps because of the complicated ethnic diversity of Lan Xang, the structure of society was fairly straightforward, especially in comparison to the Khmer with their complex caste system and concepts of a divine kingship or devaraja.

Dynastic Vietnam

In 938, the Vietnamese lord Ngo Quyen defeated the forces of the Chinese Southern Han state and achieved full independence for Vietnam after a millennium of Chinese domination. Renamed as Dai Viet (Great Viet), the state enjoyed a golden era between the 11th and the beginning of the 15th centuries. Buddhism flourished and became the state religion. In the 15th century, Vietnamese independence was briefly interrupted by the Chinese Ming dynasty, but was restored by Le Loi, the founder of the Le dynasty. The Vietnamese dynasties reached their zenith in the Le dynasty of the 15th century. Between the 11th and 18th centuries, Vietnam expanded southward, eventually conquering the kingdom of Champa and part of the Khmer Empire. From the 16th century, civil strife and frequent political infighting engulfed much of Vietnam. Although the state remained nominally under the Le dynasty, actual power was divided between the northern Trinh lords and the southern Nguyen lords, who engaged in a civil war for more than four decades before a truce was called in the 1670s. During this time, the Nguyen expanded southern Vietnam into the Mekong Delta, annexing the Central Highlands and the Khmer lands there.

The division of the country ended a century later when the Tay Son brothers established a new dynasty. However, their rule did not last long, and they were defeated by the remnants of the Nguyen lords aided by the French, who soon took over the region.

The French Protectorate in Indochina

To ensure their presence in Southeast Asia, the French used the pretext of anti-Catholic persecution in Vietnam to take advantage of the internal weaknesses of Cambodia and Laos, establishing a colony with the predominant goal of economic exploitation.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the French reasons for establishing a protectorate in Indochina

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The French were determined to establish their presence in Southeast Asia and used religious persecution as pretext for intervention.
    In 1857, the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc executed two Spanish Catholic missionaries. It was not the first incident of this nature but this time, it coincided with the Second Opium War. France and Britain had just dispatched a joint military expedition to the Far East, so the French had troops on hand and could easily intervene in Annam.
  • In 1858, a joint French and Spanish expedition landed at Tourane (Da Nang) and captured the town. What began as a limited punitive campaign known as Cochincina Campaign ended as a French war of conquest. By 1884, the entire country gradually came under French rule. Cochichina, Annam, and Tonkin were formally integrated into the union of French Indochina  in 1887.
  • During the 19th century, the kingdom of Cambodia was reduced to a vassal state of the kingdom of Siam. In 1863, King Norodom of Cambodia, installed as a leader by Siam, requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. In 1867, Siam renounced suzerainty over Cambodia and officially recognized the 1863 French protectorate on Cambodia. Under the treaty with the French, the Cambodian monarchy was allowed to remain, but power was largely vested in a resident general to be housed in Phnom Penh.
  • After the acquirement of Cambodia in 1863, French explorers went on several expeditions along the Mekong River to find possible trade relations for the territories of French Cambodia and Cochinchina to the south. In 1885, a French consulate was established in Luang Prabang, which along with the province of Vientiane was a vassal kingdom to Siam. Following French intervention in a conflict between Chinese forces and Siam, King Oun Kham, who had received support from the French, requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. Luang Prabang became a protectorate of France in 1889.
  • In 1893, France went to war with Siam. The kingdom was quickly forced to recognize French control over the eastern side of the Mekong River. Pavie continued to support French expeditions in Laotian territory and gave the territory its modern-day name of Laos. Following Siam’s acceptance of the ultimatum to cede the lands east of the Mekong including its islands, the Protectorate of Laos was officially established and the administrative capital moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
  • On paper, Cochinchina was the only region of French Indochina with direct rule,  but the differences between direct and indirect rule were purely theoretical and political interference was equally intrusive across the entire area. The French adopted a policy of assimilation rather than association. However, their settlement in Indochina did not occur at a grand scale as French Indochina was seen as a colonie d’exploitation économique (economic colony) rather than a colonie de peuplement (settlement colony).

Key Terms

  • French Indochina: A grouping of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia consisting of three Vietnamese regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south), Cambodia, and Laos, with the leased Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan added in 1898. The capital was moved from Saigon (in Cochinchina) to Hanoi (Tonkin) in 1902 and again to Da Lat (Annam) in 1939. In 1945 it was moved back to Hanoi.
  • Cochincina Campaign: An 1858–1862 military campaign fought between the French and Spanish on one side and the Vietnamese on the other. It began as a limited punitive campaign and ended as a French war of conquest. The war concluded with the establishment of the French colony of Cochinchina, a development that inaugurated nearly a century of French colonial dominance in Vietnam.

Background: French Imperial Ambitions in Indochina

The French had few pretexts to justify their imperial ambitions in Indochina. In the early years of the 19th century, some in France believed that the Vietnamese emperor Gia Long owed the French a favor for the help French troops had given him in 1802 against his Tay Son enemies. However, it soon became clear that Gia Long felt no more bound to France than he did to China, which had also provided help. Gia Long believed that as the French government did not honor its agreement to assist him in the civil war—the Frenchmen who helped were volunteers and adventurers, not government units—he was not obliged to return any favors. Vietnamese leaders were interested in reproducing the French strategies of fortification and in buying French cannon and rifles, but neither Gia Long nor his successor Minh Mang had any intention of coming under French influence.

However, the French were determined to establish their presence in the region and it was religious persecution that they eventually used as pretext for intervention. French missionaries had been active in Vietnam since the 17th century and by the middle of the 19th century, there were around 300,000 Roman Catholic converts in Annam and Tonkin. Most of the bishops and priests were either French or Spanish. Many in Vietnam were suspicious of this sizable Christian community and its foreign leaders. The French, conversely, began to claim responsibility for their safety. The tension built up gradually. During the 1840s, persecution or harassment of Catholic missionaries in Vietnam by the Vietnamese emperors Minh Mang and Thieu Tri evoked only sporadic and unofficial French reprisals. In 1857, the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc executed two Spanish Catholic missionaries. It was neither the first nor the last such incident and on previous occasions the French government had overlooked them. But this time, the incident coincided with the Second Opium War. France and Britain had just dispatched a joint military expedition to the Far East, so the French had troops on hand and could easily intervene in Annam.

Seizing Control

In 1858, a joint French and Spanish expedition landed at Tourane (Da Nang) and captured the town. What began as a limited punitive campaign, known as Cochincina Campaign, ended as a French war of conquest. Sailing south, French troops captured the poorly defended city of Saigon in 1859. In 1862, the Vietnamese government was forced to cede three additional provinces and Emperor Tu Duc was forced to cede three treaty ports in Annam and Tonkin as well as all of Cochinchina, the latter formally declared a French territory in 1864. In 1867, three other provinces were added to French-controlled territories. By 1884, the entire country had come under French rule, with the central and northern parts of Vietnam separated in the two protectorates of Annam and Tonkin. The three Vietnamese entities were formally integrated into the union of French Indochina in 1887.

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French marine infantrymen in Tonkin, c. 1884-1888: French troops landed in Vietnam in 1858 and by the mid-1880s had established a firm grip over the northern region. Nationalist sentiments developed in the 19th century and intensified during and after World War I, but all the uprisings and tentative efforts failed to obtain any concessions from the French overseers.

During the 19th century, the kingdom of Cambodia had been reduced to a vassal state of the kingdom of Siam (present-day Thailand), which had annexed its western provinces while growing influence from the Vietnamese Nguyen Dynasty threatened the eastern portion of the country. In 1863, King Norodom of Cambodia, installed as a leader by Siam, requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. At the time, Pierre-Paul de La Grandière, colonial governor of Cochinchina, was carrying out plans to expand French rule over the whole of Vietnam and viewed Cambodia as a buffer between French possessions in Vietnam and Siam. The country gradually fell under the French control. In 1867, Siam renounced suzerainty over Cambodia and officially recognized the 1863 French protectorate on Cambodia in exchange for the control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces, which officially became part of Thailand. These provinces were ceded back to Cambodia by a border treaty between France and Siam in the first decade of the 20th century. Under the treaty with the French, the Cambodian monarchy was allowed to remain, but power was largely vested in a resident general to be housed in Phnom Penh. France was also to be in charge of Cambodia’s foreign and trade relations and provide military protection.

After the acquisition of Cambodia in 1863, French explorers went on several expeditions along the Mekong River to find possible trade relations for the territories of French Cambodia and Cochinchina to the south. In 1885, a French consulate was established in Luang Prabang, which along with the province of Vientiane was a vassal kingdom to Siam. Siam soon feared that France was planning to annex Luang Prabang and signed a treaty with them in 1886 that recognized Siam’s suzerainty over the Lao kingdoms. By the end of 1886, however, Auguste Pavie was named vice-consul to Luang Prabang and was in charge of expeditions occurring in Laotian territory, with the possibility of turning Laos into a French territory. Following French intervention in a conflict between Chinese forces and Siam, King Oun Kham of Luang Prabang who had received support from the French, requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. Luang Prabang became a protectorate of France in 1889.

In 1893, France went to war with Siam. The kingdom was quickly forced to recognize French control over the eastern side of the Mekong River. Pavie continued to support French expeditions in Laotian territory and gave the territory its modern-day name of Laos. Following Siam’s acceptance of the ultimatum to cede the lands east of the Mekong including its islands, the Protectorate of Laos was officially established and the administrative capital moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. However, Luang Prabang remained the seat of the royal family, whose power was reduced to figureheads, while the actual power was transferred over to French officials.

Outcome

On paper, Cochinchina was the only region of French Indochina with direct rule imposed, with the province legally annexed by France. The rest of the provinces, Tonkin, Annam, Cambodia, and Laos, had the official status of French protectorate. However, the differences between direct and indirect rule were purely theoretical and political interference was equally intrusive across the entire area.

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Map of French Indochina from the colonial period showing its subdivisions, c. 1930

French Indochina was formed on October 17, 1887, from Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina (which together form modern Vietnam), and the Kingdom of Cambodia. Laos was added after the Franco-Siamese War in 1893.

The French adopted a policy of assimilation rather than association. This allowed the colonialists to rule through native rulers while upholding their traditional cultures and hierarchy, similar to British rule in Malaya. However, the French chose to adopt the policy of assimilation. French was the language of administration. The Napoleonic Code was introduced in 1879 in the five provinces, sweeping away the Confucianism that has existed for centuries in Indochina.

Unlike Algeria, French settlement in Indochina did not occur at a grand scale. By 1940, only about 34,000 French civilians lived in French Indochina, along with a smaller number of French military personnel and government workers. The principal reason why French settlement did not grow in a manner similar to that of French North Africa (which had a population of over 1 million French civilians) was that French Indochina was seen as a colonie d’exploitation économique (economic colony) rather than a colonie de peuplement (settlement colony).

Economic and Social Impacts of Imperialism in Indochina

As French Indochina was the colony of financial exploitation, economic and social development in the region aimed to benefit the French and a small group of local wealthy elites, with limited investments to produce immediate returns rather than long-term benefits for the local populations.

Learning Objectives

Explain how French imperialism affected the people of Indochina

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer ethnic groups formed the majority of their respective colony’s populations. According to a 1913 estimate, around 95% of French Indochina ‘s population was rural and urbanization grew slowly over the course of French rule. French was the principal language of education, government, trade, and media, widespread among urban and semi-urban populations and the elite and educated. Local populations still largely spoke their native languages.
  • French Indochina was designated as a colonie d’exploitation (colony of economic exploitation) by the French government, but both exploitation and economic development differed significantly across the main regions of the colony. The economic and social policies introduced under Governor-General Paul Doumer, who arrived in 1897, determined the development of French Indochina.
  • Vietnam was to become a source of raw materials and a market for tariff-protected goods produced by French industries. Funding for the colonial government came from taxes on local populations, and the French government established a near monopoly on the trade of opium, salt, and rice alcohol. The exploitation of natural resources for direct export was the chief purpose of all French investments, with rice, coal, rare minerals, and later rubber as the main products.
  • At the turn of the 20th century, the growing automobile industry in France resulted in the growth of the rubber industry in French Indochina. Plantations were built throughout the colony, especially in Annam and Cochinchina. France soon became a leading producer of rubber and Indochinese rubber was prized in the industrialized world. The success of rubber plantations in French Indochina resulted in an increase in investment in the colony by various firms. However, because all investments aimed to attain immediate high returns for investors, only a small fraction of profit was reinvested.
  • Economically, the French did not develop Laos and Cambodia to the scale that they did Vietnam. The colonial government’s budget originally relied largely on tax collections in Cambodia as its main source of revenue, and Cambodians paid the highest taxes per capita in French Indochina. As French rule strengthened, development slowly began in Cambodia, where rice and pepper crops allowed the economy to grow. As the French automobile industry grew, rubber plantations like the ones already in Cochinchina and Annam were built and run by French investors.
  • Economic progress made under the French benefited the French and the small class of the local wealthy created by the colonial regime. The masses were deprived of economic and social benefits. The French imposed high taxes to finance their ambitious program of public works and recruited forced labor from local populations without protection against exploitation in the mines and rubber plantations.

Key Terms

  • French Indochina: A grouping of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia consisting of three Vietnamese regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south), Cambodia, and Laos, with the leased Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan added in 1898. The capital was moved from Saigon (in Cochinchina) to Hanoi (Tonkin) in 1902 and again to Da Lat (Annam) in 1939. In 1945 it was moved back to Hanoi.
  • colony of economic exploitation: A colony conquered to exploit its natural resources and native population. The practice contrasts with the colonies of settlement conquered to establish a branch of the metropolis (Motherland) and for the exploitation of its natural resources and native population.

French Indochine Society

The Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer ethnic groups formed the majority of their respective colony’s populations. Minority groups such as the Muong, Tay, Chams, and Jarai were collectively known as Montagnards and resided principally in the mountain regions of Indochina. Ethnic Han Chinese were largely concentrated in major cities, especially in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia where they became heavily involved in trade and commerce. According to a 1913 estimate, 95% of French Indochina’s population was rural and urbanization grew slowly over the course of French rule. Since French Indochina was seen as a colonie d’exploitation économique (economic colony) rather than a colonie de peuplement (settlement colony), by 1940 only about 34,000 French civilians lived in the region, along with a smaller number of French military personnel and government workers.

During French colonial rule, French was the principal language of education, government, trade, and media. It became widespread among urban and semi-urban populations and among the elite and educated. This was most notable in the colonies of Tonkin and Cochinchina, where French influence was particularly prominent, while Annam, Laos, and Cambodia were less influenced by French education. Despite the dominance of French among the educated, local populations still largely spoke their native languages.

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A French government official and Lao children in Luang Prabang, 1887, French National Library.

The French did not plan to expand the Laotian economy and geographic isolation also led to Laos being less influenced from France compared to other French colonies. In a 1937 estimate, only 574 French civilians along with a smaller number of government workers lived in Laos, a figure significantly smaller than in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Economy

French Indochina was designated as a colonie d’exploitation (colony of economic exploitation) by the French government, but both exploitation and economic development differed significantly across the main regions of the colony.

The economic and social policies introduced under Governor-General Paul Doumer, who arrived in 1897, determined the development of French Indochina. The railroads, highways, harbors, bridges, canals, and other public works built by the French were almost all started under Doumer, whose aim was a rapid and systematic exploitation of Indochina’s potential wealth for the benefit of France. Vietnam became a source of raw materials and a market for tariff-protected goods produced by French industries. Funding for the colonial government came from taxes on local populations and the French government established a near monopoly on the trade of opium, salt, and rice alcohol. The trade of those three products formed about 44% of the colonial government’s budget in 1920 but declined to 20% by 1930 as the colony began to economically diversify. Indochina was the second most invested-in French colony by 1940 after Algeria, with investments totaling up to 6.7 million francs.

The exploitation of natural resources for direct export was the chief purpose of all French investments, with rice, coal, rare minerals, and later also rubber as the main products. Doumer and his successors up to the eve of World War II were not interested in promoting industry, which was limited to the production of goods for immediate local consumption. Among these enterprises—located chiefly in Saigon, Hanoi, and Haiphong (the outport for Hanoi)—were breweries, distilleries, small sugar refineries, rice and paper mills, and glass and cement factories. The greatest industrial establishment was a textile factory at Nam Dinh, which employed more than 5,000 workers. The total number of workers employed by all industries and mines in Vietnam was some 100,000 in 1930.

At the turn of the 20th century, the growing automobile industry in France resulted in the growth of the rubber industry in French Indochina and plantations were built throughout the colony, especially in Annam and Cochinchina. France soon became a leading producer of rubber and Indochinese rubber became prized in the industrialized world. The success of rubber plantations in French Indochina resulted in an increase in investment in the colony by various firms. With the growing number of investments in the colony’s mines as well as rubber, tea, and coffee plantations, French Indochina began to industrialize as factories opened in the colony. These new factories produced textiles, cigarettes, beer, and cement, which were then exported throughout the French Empire. Because the aim of all investments was not the systematic economic development of the colony but the attainment of immediate high returns for investors, only a small fraction of the profits was reinvested.

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Palace of the Governor-General (Norodom Palace) in Saigon, about 1875, photo by Émile Gsell.

Saigon became a principal port in Southeast Asia and rivaled the British port of Singapore as the region’s busiest commercial center. By 1937, Saigon was the sixth busiest port in the entire French Empire. French settlers further added their influence on the colony by constructing buildings in the form of Beaux-Arts and added French-influenced landmarks such as the Hanoi Opera House and Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.

Economically, the French did not develop Laos to the scale that it did Vietnam, and many Vietnamese were recruited to work in the government in Laos instead of the Laotian people, causing conflicts between local populations and the government. Economic development occurred very slowly in Laos and was initially fueled primarily by rice cultivation and distilleries producing rice alcohol. Although tin mining and coffee cultivation began in the 1920s, the country’s isolation and difficult terrain meant that Laos largely remained economically unviable to the French. More than 90% of the Lao remained subsistence farmers, growing just enough surplus produce to sell for cash to pay their taxes.

Originally serving as a buffer territory for France between its more important Vietnamese colonies and Siam, Cambodia was not initially seen as an economically important area. The colonial government’s budget originally relied largely on tax collections in Cambodia as its main source of revenue and Cambodians paid the highest taxes per capita in French Indochina. Poor and sometimes unstable administration in the early years of French rule in Cambodia meant infrastructure and urbanization grew at a much slower rate than in Vietnam, and traditional social structures in villages remained in place. However, as French rule strengthened after the Franco-Siamese War, development slowly began in Cambodia, where rice and pepper crops allowed the economy to grow. As the French automobile industry grew, rubber plantations like the ones in Cochinchina and Annam were built and run by French investors. Economic diversification continued throughout the 1920s, when corn and cotton crops were also grown. Despite economic expansion and investment, Cambodians still continued to pay high taxes and in 1916, protests broke out demanding for tax cuts.

Infrastructure and public works were developed to some extent under French rule, and roads and railroads were constructed in Cambodian territory. Most notably, a railway connected Phnom Penh with Battambang on the Thai border. Industry was later developed but was primarily designed to process raw materials for local use or for export. As in nearby British Burma and British Malaya, foreigners dominated the work force of the economy due to French discrimination that kept Cambodians from holding important economic positions. Many Vietnamese were recruited to work on rubber plantations and later immigrants played key roles in the colonial economy as fisherman and businessmen. Chinese Cambodians continued to be largely involved in commerce but higher positions were given to the French.

Effects of Colonial Rule

Whatever economic progress was made under the French, it benefited the French and the small class of the local wealthy created by the colonial regime. The masses were deprived of economic and social benefits. Through the construction of irrigation works, chiefly in the Mekong delta, the area of land devoted to rice cultivation quadrupled between 1880 and 1930. During the same period, however, the individual peasant ’s rice consumption decreased without the substitution of other foods. The new lands were not distributed among the landless and the peasants but were sold to the highest bidder or given away at nominal prices to Vietnamese collaborators and French speculators. These policies created a new class of Vietnamese landlords and a class of landless tenants who worked the fields of the landlords for rents of up to 60 percent of the crop, which was sold by the landlords at the Saigon export market. The mounting export figures for rice resulted not only from the increase in cultivable land but also from the growing exploitation of the peasantry.

The peasants who owned their land were rarely better off than the landless tenants. Peasants continually lost their land to the large owners because they were unable to repay loans given them by the landlords and other money lenders at exorbitant interest rates. As a result, the large landowners of Cochinchina (less than 3 percent of the total number of landowners) owned 45 percent of the land, while the small peasants (who accounted for about 70 percent of the owners) owned only about 15 percent of the land. The number of landless families in Vietnam before World War II was estimated at half of the population.

The French had imposed high taxes to finance their ambitious program of public works and recruited forced labor with no protection against exploitation in the mines and rubber plantations, although the scandalous working conditions, the low salaries, and the lack of medical care were frequently attacked in the French Chamber of Deputies in Paris. The mild social legislation decreed in the late 1920s was never adequately enforced.

Apologists for the colonial regime claimed that French rule led to vast improvements in medical care, education, transport, and communications. The statistics kept by the French, however, appear to cast doubt on such assertions. In 1939, for example, no more than 15 percent of all school-age children received any kind of schooling and about 80 percent of the population was illiterate, in contrast to precolonial times when the majority of the people possessed some degree of literacy. With more than 20 million inhabitants in 1939, Vietnam had one university with fewer than 700 students. Medical care was well organized for the French in the cities, but in 1939 there were only two physicians for every 100,000 Vietnamese.

Resistance to French Rule

The first wave of resistance to French rule emerged in Indochina shortly after France colonized the region, with particularly active nationalist movements in Vietnam, more limited and mostly elite-based opposition in Cambodia, and fragmented, often ethnically-divided rebellions in Laos.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate instances of resistance to French rule

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Nationalist sentiments emerged in French Indochina shortly after colonial rule was established. In 1885, Phan Dinh Phung led a rebellion against the colonizing power. The Can Vuong movement, which sought to expel the French and install the boy Emperor Ham Nghi at the head of an independent Vietnam, initiated the revolt. The insurrection in Annam spread and flourished in 1886, reached its climax the following year, and gradually faded out by 1889. The Can Vuong movement was the first resistance movement that saw all of Vietnamese society, royalty, scholar-gentry, and peasantry, working together against the French.
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, two parallel movements emerged. The Dong Du (“Go East”) Movement led by Phan Boi Chau planned to send Vietnamese students to Japan to learn modern skills so in the future they could lead a successful armed revolt against the French. Duy Tan (“Modernization”) led by Phan Chau Trinh favored a non-violent struggle to gain independence, stressing education for the masses and modernization. The French suppressed both movements and Vietnamese revolutionaries began to radicalize.
  • Phan Boi Chau created the Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi in Guangzhou, planning armed resistance against the French. In 1925, French agents captured him in Shanghai and spirited him to Vietnam. Due to his popularity, Chau was spared from execution. In 1927, the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnamese Nationalist Party) and the party launched the armed Yen Bai mutiny in 1930 in Tonkin, which resulted in many leaders captured and executed by the guillotine.
  • In 1885, Si Votha, half brother of king Norodom and contender for the throne, led a rebellion to dispose of the French-backed Norodom after returning from exile in Siam. Gathering support from opponents of Norodom and the French, Si Votha led a rebellion that was primarily concentrated in the jungles of Cambodia and the city of Kampot. French forces later aided Norodom to defeat Si Votha. Unlike in Vietnam, Cambodian nationalism remained relatively quiet during much of French rule, although Khmer nationalism began to emerge outside of Cambodia.
  • In 1901, a revolt broke out in the south of Laos among groups of Lao Theung led by Ong Kaeo. The revolt challenged French control over Laos and was not fully suppressed until 1910. Between 1899 and 1910, political unrest in the northern Phongsali Province occurred as local hill tribe chiefs challenged French rule and assimilation policies being carried out in the highlands. Although the revolt initially started as a resistance against French influence, it focused on stopping French suppression of the opium trade.
  • Instability continued in the north of Laos in 1919.  Hmong groups, the chief opium producers in Indochina, revolted against French taxation and special status given to the Lao Loum, minorities in the highlands, in a conflict known as the War of the Insane. After the revolt, the French government granted Hmongs partial autonomy in the Xiangkhouang Province.

Key Terms

  • War of the Insane: A Hmong revolt against taxation in the French colonial administration in Indochina lasting from 1918 to 1921. Pa Chay Vue, the leader of the revolt, regularly climbed trees to receive military orders from heaven. The French granted the Hmong a special status in 1920, effectively ending the conflict.
  • Can Vuongcmovement: A large-scale Vietnamese insurgency between 1885 and 1889 against French colonial rule. Its objective was to expel the French and install the boy emperor Hàm Nghi as the leader of an independent Vietnam.
  • Yen Bai mutiny: An uprising of Vietnamese soldiers in the French colonial army in 1930 in collaboration with civilian supporters who were members of the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnamese Nationalist Party).

Nationalist Movements in Vietnam

Nationalist sentiments emerged in French Indochina shortly after the colonial rule was established. By the mid-1880s, French troops established a firm grip over the northern region of Vietnam and in 1885, Phan Dinh Phung, a prominent imperial court official, led a rebellion against the colonizing power. The Can Vuong movement, which sought to expel the French and install the boy Emperor Ham Nghi at the head of an independent Vietnam, initiated the revolt in 1885 when Ton That Thuyet, another court official, launched a surprise attack against the colonial forces after a diplomatic confrontation with the French. Thuyet took Ham Nghi northwards to the Tan So mountain base near the border with Laos after the attack failed.

The Can Vuong movement lacked a coherent national structure and consisted mainly of regional leaders who attacked French troops in their own provinces. It initially prospered but failed after the French recovered from the surprise of the insurgency and poured troops into Annam from bases in Tonkin and Cochinchina. The insurrection in Annam spread and flourished in 1886, reached its climax the following year, and gradually faded out by 1889. The Can Vuong movement was the first resistance movement that saw all of Vietnamese society, royalty, scholar-gentry, and peasantry, working together against the French. However, although there were some 50 resistance groups, they lacked collaboration and unifying military authority. Actions taken by the resistance were never national, but the narratives of their struggle against foreign domination were passed down to the next generations.

At the beginning of the 20th century, two parallel movements emerged. The Dong Du (“Go East”) Movement started in 1905 by Phan Boi Chau. Chau’s plan was to send Vietnamese students to Japan to learn modern skills so that in the future they could lead a successful armed revolt against the French. With Prince Cuong De, he started two organizations in Japan: Duy Tan Hoi and Viet Nam Cong Hien Hoi. Due to French diplomatic pressure, Japan later deported Chau. A second movement, Duy Tan (“Modernization”), led by Phan Chau Trinh, favored a peaceful, non-violent struggle for independence. It stressed education for the masses, modernizing the country, fostering understanding and tolerance between the French and the Vietnamese, and peaceful transitions of power.

The French suppressed both movements and Vietnamese revolutionaries began to turn to more radical paths, particularly after witnessing revolutionaries in action in China and Russia. Phan Boi Chau created the Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi in Guangzhou, planning armed resistance against the French. In 1925, French agents captured him in Shanghai and spirited him to Vietnam. Due to his popularity, Chau was spared from execution and placed under house arrest until his death in 1940. In 1927, the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnamese Nationalist Party), modeled after the Kuomintang in China, was founded. The party launched the armed Yen Bai mutiny in 1930 in Tonkin, which resulted in its chairman Nguyen Thai Hoc and many other leaders captured and executed by the guillotine.

Resistance in Cambodia

The first decades of French rule in Cambodia included numerous reforms into Cambodian politics, including the reduction of the monarch’s power. In 1884, the governor of Cochinchina, Charles Anthoine François Thomson, attempted to overthrow the monarch and establish full French control over Cambodia by sending a small force to the royal palace in Phnom Penh. The movement was largely unsuccessful as the governor-general of French Indochina prevented full colonization due to possible conflicts with Cambodians and the monarch became a mere figurehead. In 1885, Si Votha, half brother of king Norodom and contender for the throne, led a rebellion to dispose of the French-backed Norodom after coming back from exile in Siam. Gathering support from opponents of Norodom and the French, Si Votha led a rebellion that was primarily concentrated in the jungles of Cambodia and the city of Kampot. French forces later aided Norodom to defeat Si Votha under agreements that the Cambodian population be disarmed and acknowledge the resident-general as the highest power in the protectorate.

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King Norodom, the monarch who initiated overtures to France to make Cambodia its protectorate in 1863 to escape Siamese pressure

In 1904, King Norodom died and the French passed the succession to Norodom’s brother Sisowath, whose branch of the royal family was more submissive and less nationalistic. Norodom was viewed as responsible for the constant Cambodian revolts against French rule. Norodom’s favorite son Prince Yukanthor, his natural successor, had on one of his trips to Europe stirred up public opinion about French colonial brutalities in occupied Cambodia.

Unlike in Vietnam, Cambodian nationalism remained relatively quiet during much of French rule. The population had limited access to education, which kept literacy rates low and prevented nationalist movements like those in Vietnam from widely circulating their message. However, among the French-educated Cambodian elite, the Western ideas of democracy and self-rule and French restoration of monuments such as Angkor Wat created a sense of pride and awareness of Cambodia’s powerful status in the past. Cambodian students resented the favored status of the minority Vietnamese. In 1936, Son Ngoc Than and Pach Choeun began publishing Nagaravatta (Notre cité),  a French language anti-colonial and at times, anti-Vietnamese newspaper. Minor independence movements, especially the Khmer Issarak, began to develop in 1940 among Cambodians in Thailand who feared their actions would have led to punishment if they operated in their homeland.

Resistance in Laos

In 1901, a revolt broke out in the south of Laos in the Bolaven Plateau among groups of Lao Theung led by Ong Kaeo, a self-proclaimed “holy man” who led a messianic cult. The revolt challenged French control over Laos and was not fully suppressed until 1910 when Ong Kaeo was killed. His successor Ong Kommadam became an early leader in the Lao nationalist movement.

Between 1899 and 1910, political unrest in the northern Phongsali Province occurred as local hill tribe chiefs challenged French rule and assimilation policies being carried out in the highlands. At the height of the revolt, the unrest spread to the highlands of Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and was largely concentrated among the minority groups of the Khmu and Hmong. Although the revolt initially started as a resistance against French influence and tightening of administration, it later focused on stopping the French suppression of the opium trade.

Instability continued in the north of Laos in 1919 when Hmong groups, the chief opium producers in Indochina, revolted against French taxation and special status given to the Lao Loum, minorities in the highlands, in a conflict known as the War of the Insane. Hmong rebels claimed that both Lao and French officials treated them as subordinate and uncivilized groups. They were defeated in 1921. After the revolt, the French government granted Hmongs partial autonomy in the Xiangkhouang Province.