Cochinchina campaign

Cochinchina campaign

The Cochinchina campaign (1858–62), fought between the French and the Spanish on the one side and the Vietnamese on the other, 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.


The French had only the most flimsy of pretexts to justify their imperial ambitions in Indochina. In the early years of the nineteenth century some Frenchmen believed that the Vietnamese emperor Gia Long owed France a favour for the help French troops had given him in 1802 against his Tay Son enemies, but it soon became clear that the Gia Long felt no more bound to France than he did to China, which had also provided help. Certainly, he and his successor Minh Mang flirted with the French. Although the Vietnamese soon learned to reproduce the elaborate Vaubanesque fortresses that had been built at the end of the eighteenth century by French engineers, and no longer needed French technical assistance in the art of fortification, they were still interested in buying French cannon and rifles. But this limited contact with the French counted for little. Neither Gia Long nor Minh Mang had any intention of coming under French influence. But the French were not prepared to be brushed off quite so easily. As so often during the era of European colonial expansion, religion offered an excuse for intervention. French missionaries had been active in Vietnam since the seventeenth century, and by the middle of the nineteenth century there were perhaps 300,000 Catholic converts in Annam and Tonkin. Most of their bishops and priests were either French or Spanish. Most Vietamese disliked and suspected this sizeable Christian community and its foreign leaders. The French, conversely, began to feel responsible for their safety. Harassment of the Christians eventually provided France with a respectable pretext for attacking Vietnam. The tension built up gradually. During the 1840s persecution or harassment of Catholic missionaries in Vietnam by the emperors Minh Mang and Thieu Tri evoked only sporadic and unofficial French reprisals. The decisive step towards the establishment of a French colonial empire in Indochina was not taken until 1858. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 25–9]

In 1857 the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc (1829–83) executed two Spanish Catholic missionaries. This was neither the first nor the last such incident, and on previous occasions the French government had overlooked such provocations. But this time Tu Duc’s timing was terrible. France and Britain had just despatched a joint military expedition to the Far East to chastise China, and the French had troops on hand with which to intervene in Annam. In November 1857 Napoleon III authorised Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly to launch a punitive expedition to teach the Vietnamese a long-overdue lesson. In September 1858 a joint French and Spanish expedition landed at Da Nang (Tourane) and captured the town. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 29–33]

Da Nang and Saigon

The allies expected an easy victory, but the war did not at first go as planned. The Vietnamese Christians did not rise in support of the French (as the missionaries had been confidently predicting they would), Vietnamese resistance was more stubborn than had been expected, and the French and Spanish found themselves besieged in Da Nang by a Vietnamese army under the command of Nguyen Tri Phuong. The Siege of Đà Nẵng lasted for nearly three years, and although there was little fighting disease took a heavy toll of the allied expedition. The garrison of Da Nang was sporadically reinforced from time to time, and occasionally mounted local attacks against the Vietnamese positions, but events further to the south around Saigon gradually engrossed the attention of both the French and the Vietnamese. The siege eventually ended with the unopposed evacuation of the French garrison in March 1860. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 38–41]

In October 1858, shortly after his capture of Da Nang, Rigault de Genouilly cast around for somewhere else to strike the Vietnamese. Realising that the French garrison at Da Nang was unlikely to achieve anything useful, he weighed up the possibility of action in either Tonkin or Cochinchina. He considered and rejected the possibility of an expedition to Tonkin, which would require a large-scale uprising by the Christians to have any chance of success, and in January 1859 proposed to the navy ministry an expedition against Saigon in Cochinchina, a city of considerable strategic significance as a source of food for the Vietnamese army.

The expedition was approved, and in early February, leaving "capitaine de vaisseau" Thoyon at Danang with a small French garrison and two gunboats, Rigault de Genouilly sailed south for Saigon. On 17 February 1859, after forcing the river defences and destroying a series of forts and stockades along the Saigon river, the French and Spanish captured Saigon. French marine infantry stormed the enormous Citadel of Saigon, while Filipino troops under Spanish command threw back a Vietnamese counterattack. The allies were not strong enough to hold the citadel, and on 8 March 1859 blew it up and set fire to its rice magazines. In April Rigault de Genouilly returned to Da Nang with the bulk of his forces to reinforce Thoyon's hard-pressed garrison. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 33–7]

Like the earlier capture of Da Nang, the capture of Saigon also proved to be a hollow victory for the French and Spanish. As at Da Nang, the invaders were soon placed under siege, this time by a Vietnamese army of about 10,000 men. Meanwhile, the French government was distracted from its Far Eastern ambitions by the outbreak of the Austro-Sardinian War, which tied down large numbers of French troops in Italy. In November 1859 Rigault de Genouilly was replaced by Admiral François Page, who was instructed to obtain a treaty protecting the Catholic faith in Vietnam but not to seek any territorial gains. The Vietnamese, aware of France's distraction in Italy, refused to negotiate. Meanwhile, the French were unable to reinforce the garrisons of Da Nang and Saigon. Although the Austro-Sardinian War soon ended, by early 1860 the French were again at war with China, and Page had to divert most of his forces to support Admiral Léonard Charner's China expedition. In April 1860 Page left Cochinchina to join Charner at Canton, and the defence of Saigon was entrusted to "capitaine de vaisseau" d'Ariès. The Franco-Spanish force in Saigon, only 1,000 men strong, had to support a siege by greatly superior numbers from March 1860 to February 1861. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 37–43]

Ky Hoa and My Tho

The military stalemate was only broken in 1860, when the war with China ended. Admirals Charner and Page were now free to return to Cochinchina and resume the campaign around Saigon. A naval armada of 70 ships under Charner's command and 3,500 soldiers under the command of General de Vassoigne were transferred from northern China to Saigon. Charner's squadron, the most powerful French naval force seen in Vietnamese waters before the creation of the French Far East Squadron on the eve of the Sino-French War (August 1884–April 1885), included the steam frigates "Impératrice Eugénie" and "Renommée" (Charner and Page's respective flagships), the corvettes "Primauguet", "Laplace" and "Duchayla", eleven screw-driven despatch vessels, five first-class gunboats, seventeen transports and a hospital ship. The squadron was accompanied by half a dozen armed lorchas purchased in Macao. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 45]

With this powerful reinforcement, the allies eventually began to gain the upper hand. On 25 February 1861 the French in Saigon defeated Nguyen Tri Phuong's besieging Vietnamese army in the Battle of Kỳ Hòa. [Thomazi, "Histoire militaire de l'Indochine française", 29–31]

The victory at Ky Hoa allowed the French and Spanish to move to the offensive. In April 1861, My Tho fell to the French. An assault force under the command of "capitaine de vaisseau" Le Couriault du Quilio, supported by a small flotilla of gunboats, advanced on My Tho from the north along the Bao Dinh Ha creek, and between 1 and 11 April destroyed several Vietnamese forts and fought its way along the creek to the environs of My Tho. Le Couriault de Quilio gave orders for an assault on the town on 12 April, but in the event the assault was not necessary. A flotilla of warships under the command of Admiral Page, who had been sent by Charner to attack My Tho by sea, presented itself before the town on the same day. My Tho was occupied by the French on 12 April 1861 without a shot being fired. [Thomazi, "Histoire militaire de l'Indochine française", 32–3]

Bien Hoa and Vinh Long

The Capture of Mỹ Tho was Charner's last military success. He returned to France in the summer of 1861, and was replaced in command of the Cochinchina expedition by Admiral Louis-Adolphe Bonard (1805–67), who arrived in Saigon at the end of November 1861. A mere fortnight after his arrival in Saigon, in reprisal for the loss of the French lorcha "Espérance" and all her crew in an ambush, Bonard mounted a major campaign to overrun Bien Hoa province. Bien Hoa, the provincial capital, was captured by the French on 16 December 1861. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 63–5]

The French followed up the Capture of Biên Hòa with the Capture of Vĩnh Long (21 March 1862), and in April 1862 Tu Duc sued for peace. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 65–9]

The peace

By then the French were not in a merciful mood. What had begun as a minor punitive expedition had turned into a long, bitter and costly war. It was unthinkable that France should emerge from this struggle empty-handed. Tu Duc's minister Phan Thanh Gian signed a treaty with Admiral Bonard and the Spanish representative Colonel Palanca y Guttierriez on 5 June 1862. The Treaty of Saigon required Vietnam to permit the Catholic faith to be preached and practised freely within its territory; to cede the provinces of Bien Hoa, Gia Dinh and Dinh Tuong and the island of Poulo Condore to France; to allow the French to trade and travel freely along the Mekong River; to open Da Nang, Quang Yen and Ba Lac (at the mouth of the Red River) as trading ports; and to pay an indemnity of a million dollars to France and Spain over a ten-year period. The French placed the three southern Vietnamese provinces under the control of the navy ministry. Thus, casually, was born the French colony of Cochinchina, with its capital at Saigon. [Thomazi, "La conquête de l'Indochine", 69–71]



* Taboulet, G., "La geste française en Indochine" (Paris, 1956)
* Thomazi, A., "La conquête de l'Indochine" (Paris, 1934)
* Thomazi, A., "Histoire militaire de l'Indochine français" (Hanoi, 1931)

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