Pigneau de Behaine

Pigneau de Behaine

Infobox ReligiousBio
background = #FFA500
name = Pigneau de Béhaine

religion = Roman Catholic
alias =
location = Vietnam
Title = Bishop of Adran
Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina
Period =
Predecessor =
Successor =
ordination =
post =
previous_post =
present_post =
date of birth = 1741
place of birth = Origny-en-Thierache, France
date of death = 1799
place of death = Vietnam

Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau (2 November 1741 Origny-en-Thiérache – 9 October 1799, Qui Nhon), commonly known as Pigneau de Béhaine, also Pierre Pigneaux, was a French Catholic priest best known for his role in assisting Nguyen Anh (later Emperor Gia Long) to establish the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam after the Tay Son rebellion.

Early life

Pigneau was born in Origny-en-Thierache (later Aisne, France), where the familly of his mother lived. The familly of his father had some land named Béhaine, in the nearby commune of Marle. Despite the particule "de Béhaine" in his name, Pigneau was not of noble extraction, and it seems the particule only appeared in the 1787 Treaty of Versailles. [Mantienne, p.204]

Pigneau de Behaine was trained as a missionary and sent abroad by the Paris Foreign Missions Society ("Séminaire des Missions Étrangères"). He left France from the harbour of Lorient in December 1765, to work in southern Vietnam. He arrived in Pondicherry on 21 June 1766. [Mantienne, p.37]

Pigneau had arrived just prior to the Burmese capture of Ayutthaya in Siam. After waiting for a few months in the Portuguese colony of Macau, Pigneau travelled on a Chinese ship to reach the coastal border town Ha Tien in Cochinchina, set up by missionaries who had been displaced by the Burmese. He arrived there in March 1767. [Mantienne, p.40–48]

uperior of the College General (1767–1774)

In Ha Tien, Pigneau worked as head of the Seminary of the Holy Angels, the Seminary established in Asia by the Paris Foreign Missions Society, which had been relocated from Ayutthaya in Siam following the 1765 Burmese invasion, with approximately forty students of Chinese, Siamese, and Vietnamese extraction.

In 1768, the missionaries were jailed for three months when Siamese authorities complained to the local ruler Mac Thien Tu that the school had afforded shelter to a refugee Siamese prince. He was put into a cangue, a wooden and iron frame fastened around his limbs weighing eight pounds. [Mantienne, pp.40–41] Pigneau refused family requests to return to France saying that his missionary work was more important than a comfortable life. In 1769, the school was attacked by Chinese and Cambodian pirates, who massacred some of the students and burnt down the establishment.Mantienne, p.53] They left for Malacca in December 1769. Pigneau was ultimately forced to escape with the survivors to Pondicherry (now in Tamil Nadu, India), then a French territory, after a long sea journey through Malacca. The College was established a few miles from Pondicherry, in Virampatnam.

While in Pondicherry, Pigneau completed his knowledge of Chinese and Vietnamese, so that he could read both languages rather easily. In 1773, he completed a Vietnamese-Latin dictionary with the help of eight Cochinchinese,Mantiennne, p.67] following in the footsteps of Alexandre de Rhodes.

Pigneau de Behaine was finally made Bishop of Adran (of Adranos in Bithynia, modern Orhaneli in Turkey, "in partibus infidelium"), and Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina on 24 February 1774. [Mantienne, p.57] After his ordination in 1774, he went to Macau to gather more staff before returning to re-establish himself in Ha Tien. He left macao on 1 March 1775, and reached Ha Tien later in the month, where he established himself. [Mantienne, p.73]

In 1775-76, Pigneau attempted to convert the Stieng people, but the missionaries he sent suffered greatly, and either fell ill or returned. [Mantienne, pp.74–75]

Encounter with Nguyen Anh

In 1777, the Tay Son brothers attacked Saigon and eliminated almost the entire Nguyen dynasty, with the fifteen-year-old Nguyen Anh managing to escape into the far south. He took refuge at Pigneau’s seminary in September and October, before both escaped to the island of Pulo Panjang in the Gulf of Siam. This was also a political step by Pigneau to align himself with Nguyen Anh, allowing himself a foray into politics. He became less of a missionary and more of a politician.

On November 1777, the young Prince was able to recapture Saigon, and in 1778 pursued the retreating Tay Son as far as Binh Thuan.Mantienne, p.78]

In neighbouring Cambodia, a pro-Cochinchinese revolt erupted to topple the pro-Siam king Ang Non. In 1780, Cochinchinese troops intervened, and Pigneau helped them obtain weapons from the Portuguese. The Bishop was even accused by the Portuguese of manufacturing weapons for the Cochinchinese, especially grenades, a new weapon for Southeast Asia. [Mantienne, p.78] Pigneau de Behaine also organized the supply of three Portuguese warships for Nguyen Anh. In his activities, Pigneau was supported by a French adventurer, Manuel.Mantienne, p.81]

In 1782, the Tay Son led a new offensive to the South. Manuel died as he was commanding a warship in the Saigon river against the Tay Son offensive. Nguyen Anh was forced to retreat to the island of Phu Quoc. In October 1782, the tide turned again and Nguyen Anh and Pigneau returned to Saigon. [Mantienne, p.82]

In March 1783, the Nguyen were again defeated, and Nguyen Anh and Pigneau returned to Phu Quoc. They had to escape again when their hideout was discovered, being chased from island to island until they reached Siam. Pigneau de Behaine visited the Siamese court in Bangkok end 1783. [Mantienne, p.83] Nguyen Anh also reached Bangkok in February 1784, where he obtained that an army would accompany him back to Vietnam.Mantienne, p.84] In January 1785 however the Siamese fleet met with disaster against the Tay Son in the Mekong.

Nguyen Anh again took refuge with the Siamese court, and again tried to obtain help from the Siamese. [Mantienne, pp.84–85] Nguyen Anh also resolved to obtain any help he could from Western countries. Nguyen Anh asked Pigneau to appeal for French aid, and pledged to allow Pigneau to take his son Prince Canh with him. Pigneau also tried to obtain help from Manilla, but the party of Dominicans he sent was captured by the Tay Son.Mantienne, p.85] From Pondicherry, he also sent a request for help to the Portuguese Senate in Macao, which would ultimately lead to the signature of a Treaty of Alliance between Nguyen Anh and the Portuguese on 18 December 1786 in Bangkok. [Mantienne, p.87]

Embassy to France

The party reached Pondicherry in February 1785. [Mantienne, p.84, p.200] The French administration in Pondicherry, led by the interim Governor Coutenceau des Algrains, successor of Bussy, seconded by Captain d'Entrecasteaux, was resolutely opposed to intervening in southern Vietnam, stating that it was not in the national interest. In July 1786, Pigneau was allowed to travel back to France to ask the royal court directly for assistance. News of his activities reached Rome where he was denounced by the Spanish Franciscans, and offered Prince Canh and his political mandate to the Portuguese. They left Pondicherry for France in July 1786. [Mantienne, p.92] which they reached in February 1787. [Mantienne, p.93]

Arriving in February 1787 with the child prince Canh at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles, ["Dragon Ascending" By Henry Kamm p.86-87 [http://books.google.com/books?id=YgA1kBqOZYgC&pg=PA86&dq=Louis+XVI+Vietnam&sig=ACfU3U2aXpDtJUqyiUsOzS37SKDsw6IsaQ#PPA86,M1] ] Pigneau had difficulty in gathering support for a French expedition to install Nguyen Anh on the throne. This was due to the poor financial state of the country prior to the French Revolution. Pigneau was helped by Pierre Poivre who had been involved previously in French interests in Vietnam.

Eventually, he was able to seduce the technicians of military action with his precise instructions as to the conditions of warfare in Indochina and the equipment for the proposed campaign. He explained how France would be able to "dominate the seas of China and of the archipelago." The party met with King Louis XVI, Minister of the Navy de Castries and Minister of Foreign Affairs Montmorin on May 5 or 6, 1787. [Mantienne, p.96] Prince Canh created a sensation at the court of Louis XVI, leading the famous hairdresser Léonard to create a hairstyle in his honour "au prince de Cochinchine". ["Viet Nam" by Nhung Tuyet Tran, Anthony Reid, p.293 [http://books.google.com/books?id=Ex_Hy0sv4T0C&pg=PA292&dq=%22Nguyen+Phuc+Canh%22&sig=ACfU3U3LWBRtR_cl8q459sr2lGHalOGPvQ#PPA293,M1] ] His portrait was made in France by Maupérin, and is now on display at the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères in Paris. Prince Canh dazzled the Court and even played with the son of Louis XVI, Louis-Joseph, Dauphin of France, who was about the same age. ["He dazzled the Louis XVI court at Versailles with Nguyen Canh, ... dressed in red and gold brocade, to play with the Dauphin, the heir apparent." in "The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies" by Sheridan Prasso, p.40] ["The Dauphin, about his age, played with him." "French Policy and Developments in Indochina" - Page 27 by Thomas Edson Ennis]

By November, his constant pressure had proved effective. On 21 November 1787, the Treaty of Versailles was concluded between France and Cochin China in Nguyen Anh’s name. Four frigates, 1650 fully equipped French soldiers and 250 Indian sepoys were promised in return for Pulo Condore and harbour access at Tourane (Da Nang). De Fresne was supposed to be the leader of the expedition. [Mantienne, p.97]

The French government, on the eave of the French Revolution, was in tremendous financial trouble, [Mantienne, p.106] and saw its position weakened following the outbreak of civil war in Holland, theretofore a strategic ally in Asia. [Mantienne, p.104] . These elements strongly dampened its enthusiasm for Pigneau's plan between his arrival and the signature of the Treaty in November. [Mantienne, p.103-108] A few days after the treaty was signed, the foreign minister sent instructions on 2 December 1787 to the Governor of Pondicherry Thomas Conway, which left the execution of the treaty to his own appreciation of the situation in Asia, stating that he was "free not to accomplish the expedition, or to delay it, according to his own opinion" [Mantienne, p.98. Original French: "il était "maître de ne point entreprendre l'opération ou de la retarder, d'après son opinion personnelle""] Louis XVI himself told Pigneau that Conway was appointed Governor of Pondicherry simply to remove him from Europe.

Return to Vietnam

The party would leave France in December 1787 onboard the "Dryade", [Mantienne, p.109-110] commanded by M. de Kersaint and accompanied by the "Pandour", commanded by M. de Préville. The party would again stay in Pondicherry from May 1788 to July 1789. [Mantienne, p.110] The "Dryade" was ordered by Conway to continue to Poulo Condor to meet with Nguyen Anh and deliver him 1,000 muskets bought in France and Father Paul Nghi, a Cochinchinese missionary devoted to Mgr Pigneau.

However, Pigneau found the governor of Pondicherry unwilling to further fulfill the agreement. Although the Royal Council had already decided in October 1788 to endorse Conway, Pigneau was not informed until April. Pigneau was forced to use funds raised in France and enlist French volunteers. Pigneau was unaware of this duplicity. He defiantly noted: "I shall make the revolution in Cochinchina alone." He rejected an offer from the English, and raised money from French merchants in the region. Conway finally provided two ships to Pigneau, the "Méduse", commanded by Rosily, and another frigate. ["Conway finally provided the frigate Meduse and another vessel to repatriate the mission" in "The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia" - Page 14by John Frank Cady 1967 [http://books.google.com/books?id=fMaFAAAAIAAJ&q=Meduse+Pigneau&dq=Meduse+Pigneau&pgis=1] ] Pigneau used his funds to equip two more ships with weapons and ammunition, which he named the "Long" ("Dragon"), commanded by Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau, and the "Phung" ("Phoenix"), commanded by Philippe Vannier, and he hired volunteers and deserters. Jean-Marie Dayot deserted the "Pandour" and was put in charge of supplies, transporting weapons and ammunitions on his ship the "St. Esprit". Rosily, who had been commanding the "Méduse" deserted with 120 of his men, and was put in charge of recruitments."A History of Vietnam" By Oscar Chapuis p.178]

Pigneau's expedition left for Vietnam on June 19 1789 and arrived at Vung Tau on 24 July 1789. The forces helped to consolidate southern Vietnam and modernized its army, navy and fortifications. Olivier de Puymanel, a former officer of the "Dryade" who has deserted in Poulo Condor, built in 1790 the Citadel of Saigon and in 1793 the Citadel of Dien Khanh according to the principles of Vauban. He also trained Vietnamese troops in the modern use of artillery, and implemented European infantry methods in the Vietnamese army of Nguyen Phuc Anh. ["The Vietnamese Response to French Intervention", 1862-1874 by Mark W. McLeod, p.11 [http://books.google.com/books?id=hWjx-6WM6PMC&pg=PA10&dq=Puymanel&sig=ACfU3U3Ocuw437Tw_CuVvnFnAws_Ro56eA#PPA11,M1] ] In 1792, Olivier de Puymanel was commanding an army of 600 men who had been trained with European techniques. [Mantienne, p.153] Puymanel is said to have trained the 50,000 men of Nguyen's army. ["Colonialism" By Melvin Eugene Page, Penny M. Sonnenburg, p.723 [http://books.google.com/books?id=qFTHBoRvQbsC&pg=PA723&dq=Puymanel&lr=&sig=ACfU3U0QtLHIsVz76dH6VpFbsBYgm8FA8Q] ] French bombs were used at the siege of Qui Nhon in 1793. [Mantienne, p.132]

French Navy officers such as Jean-Marie Dayot and Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau were used to train the navy. By 1792, a large Navy was built, with two European warships and 15 frigates of composite design. [Mantienne, p.129] In 1792, Dayot forced the harbour of Qui Nhon, opening the way to the Cochinchinese fleet which then defeated the Tay Son fleet. In 1793, Dayot led a raid in which 60 Tay Son galleys were destroyed.Mantienne, p.130]

From 1794, Pigneau participated to all the campaigns, accompanying Prince Canh. He organized the defense of Dien Khanh when it was besieged by a vastly more numerous Tay Son army in 1794. [Mantienne, p.135]


Heavy fighting occurred in Qui Nhon to capture the fortress, until it was captured in 1799. Pigneau died there of dysentery in the same year, on 9 October 1799, after having served his final years as an advisor and "de facto" foreign minister to Nguyen Anh. He was buried at Saigon with full military honours. Nguyen Anh's funeral oration described him as "the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina." He was buried on 16 December 1799 in the presence of the crown prince, all mandarins of the court, the royal bodyguard of 12,000 men and 40,000 mourners.

Pigneau de Behaine was the object of several funeral orations on behalf of emperor Gia Long and his son Prince Canh. [Mantienne, p.219-228] In a funeral oration dated 8 December 1799, Gia Long praised Pigneau de Behaine's involvement in the defense of the country, as well as their personal friendship:

Only a few of Pigneau's men stayed more than two or three year, disappointed in the lack of a quick fortune. Pigneau had wanted a Catholic as Vietnamese king. However he failed to convet Canh, who died twenty years before his father in any case.

He often compromised his religious principles when they came into conflict with political and diplomatic imperatives. Initially he had taught Canh to refuse to engage in ancestor worship, something that shocked and angered Nguyen Anh. He later changed his mind on the papal ban and proposed to consider ancestor worship as a civil ceremony, a simple manifestation of respect for the dead. He cited the apostles as being tolerant of local customs as his justification.

In 1983, the tomb of Pigneau de Behaine was dismantled by the Vietnamese government, and the area was replaced by a park. His remains were incinerated and sent to France, where the are now housed in the Paris Foreign Missions Society. [Mantienne, p.229]

ee also

*France-Vietnam relations



*cite book|title= South East Asia: Its historical development| first= John F.|last=Cady | publisher=McGraw Hill |year=1964
*cite book|title= The smaller dragon : a political history of Vietnam | first= Joseph|last=Buttinger | publisher=Praeger |year=1958
*cite book|title= A history of South-east Asia| first= D. G. E.|last=Hall | publisher=Macmillan |year=1981
*cite book|last= Mantienne |first=Frédéric |year=1999 |title=Monseigneur Pigneau de Béhaine |publisher=Editions Eglises d'Asie |location=128 Rue du Bac, Paris |issn=12756865 |isbn=2914402201

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