The Trail Blazer Prince of Viet-Nam
Former Emperor Ham Nghi, Prince of AnNam
   Most people in the west, even educated people, do not know anything about Viet-Nam before the war against Communism. It is too often assumed that there was no independence movement in Viet-Nam until the coming of Ho Chi Minh. However, there were actually many others who fought against French colonialism, going back long before anyone in Viet-Nam had ever even heard of a Communist. There was the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, or Viet Quoc, which took their inspiration from the Chinese Kuomintang in much the same way that the Viet Minh followed the example of the Maoists. However, even before either of these there was the patriotic movement of Phan Boi Chau and Prince Cuong De. Yet, even Phan Boi Chau had been inspired by another before him, by an earlier movement upon which he built the foundation for his own program. This first independence movement, from which all the others followed, was led by the young Emperor Ham-Nghi.
Prince Nguyen Ung Lich (Nguyen Ham-Nghi) was only a teenager when he was chosen to succeed the virtuous Emperor Kien Phuc, who had been poisoned by the powerful court regents after discovering their corruption. Prince Nguyen Ung Lich had been raised poor, outside the palace walls, and was considered to be uneducated. This, along with his tender age, made the regents think he would be easy to control. However, after being enthroned as Emperor Ham-Nghi in 1884, everyone soon discovered that the youth was extremely bright, intelligent, and aware of all that was going on around him. The French were strengthening their hold on the country everywhere, and the young monarch made no secret of his anger at the fact that France refused to honor the treaties they had signed.
       The corrupt regent
Ton That Thuyet, realizing that French power would eclipse his own, also prepared to fight the French, but in a more devious way. He used stolen money to build a secret fortress in the highland jungles and began arming the Forbidden City. This caused the French to increase their military presence as well. Ultimately, Ton That Thuyet bursted into the Forbidden City and fled with several members of the Nguyen Dynasty on the night of July 4, 1885. The young emperor was at first confused, he did not understand why he was forced to flee his palace when he had done nothing wrong. When the regent finally explained his plan, Emperor Ham-Nghi was willing to leave behind all comfort and go into battle for his people. Yet, others had doubts. The queens believed it would be futile to fight the French and stated that the Emperor could not leave the Forbidden City. Indeed, not long after they returned, the French were able to declare that Ham-Nghi had abandoned the throne, and in accordance with Vietnamese law, enthroned his elder brother Nguyen Ung Xuy as Emperor Dong Khanh.
       In the countryside,
Emperor Ham-Nghi issued the now famous edict known as the "Can Vuong" decree or "Save the King". In it, he dutifully accepted responsibility as emperor for the condition of his country, and the victories of their enemies. He then called on the people to join him in revolt, restore their independence and build a new and better Viet-Nam. Because of this edict, the struggle became known as the Can Vuong Movement. People from all walks of life, from scholars to rice farmers, came to join the war effort. Probably the most famous of these was the mandarin Phan Dinh Phung. He had served as the guardian of court virtue and was a bitter enemy of Ton That Thuyet. He had been exiled for protesting against the regent's manipulation of the imperial succession. However, his loyalty to the Emperor and the independence of his country outweighed his personal differences with Ton That Thuyet and he fought bravely against the French for the rest of his life.
       The soldiers who fought for
Emperor Ham-Nghi were a diverse group. Some were uniformed, trained, disciplined and highly skilled such as in the army of Phan Dinh Phung. Others had no training whatsoever, and others fought simply out of revenge or hope for material gain. They were armed with few modern weapons, some muskets, but mostly bamboo spears, swords and crossbows. There only hope for success came in fighting the French guerilla style. France sent in well-armed reinforcements for what became the first of many campaigns to pacify Viet-Nam. Unfortunately, the noble quest for freedom was scarred by atrocities on both sides. The French were often indiscriminate in their cruelty, and confused about who was and was not an enemy guerilla. Likewise on the Vietnamese side, there was an outbreak of religious persecution. The Emperor Dong Khanh in Hue had proclaimed religious freedom, and the Vietnamese Christians were massacred for their association with the new monarch and their devotion to a faith introduced by French missionaries.
       Ultimately, after three years of fighting, mostly in the area around Quang Binh, the former
Emperor Ham-Nghi was betrayed to the French by the highland chieftan Truong Quang Ngoc and taken prisoner. The cowardly Ton That Thuyet had long since abandoned him in the mountains and fled to safety in China. However, the French were unsure if they had captured the right person. Their government had described the former emperor as a crude, uneducated, murdering villain. Yet, standing before them was a slender 18-year-old man with a firm look of dignity, intelligence and determined courage. Even after years of harship he remained strong and refused to answer any questions which would betray his won identity or his comrades. Mandarins were sent from Hue to identify him, but he refused to admit his position. Finally, the French sent his aged teacher Nguyen Thuan. As soon as he saw his old student, he dropped his cane and bowed down before him. In that moment, Ham-Nghi forgot himself and rushed to his esteemed teacher, lifted him up and knelt at his feet in the traditional gesture of respect the Vietnamese have always had for educators. Now his secret was out, but the former emperor never regretted his action, maintaining that the principle of showing respect for his venerable tutor came before his own safety.