The Year of the Three Kings
| The death of the Tu' Du'c Emperor was a truly traumatic and pivotal event in the history of the Nguyen Dynasty. As French power and influence were expanding, this was a time Vietnam desperately needed strong leadership from Hue, a clear direction and a united front to deal with the crisis. However, just at the time a strong and intelligent emperor was needed, there was a succession crisis, court conspiracies and struggles for power that ultimately worked to the advantage of no one but the French. The root of the problem was the fact that Emperor Tu Duc had been unable to have children, however, the immediate source of the crisis was predominately the ambition of the three regents, the division of the Nguyen court and the growing discontent against the Nguyen Dynasty.
As stated, despite having a famously large harem of beautiful wives, a severe case of smallpox as a child prevented Tu Duc from having children. Therefore, he adopted three nephews to be his heirs and appointed three regents; Ton That Thuyet, Nguyen Van Tuong and Tran Tien Thanh, to rule after him. Unfortunately, strict instructions as to his wishes for a successor were either neglected or deliberately supressed as there is no solid agreement among Vietnamese historians as to who exactly Tu Duc wished to succeed him of the three nephews, the future emperors Nguyen Duc Duc, Dong Khanh and Kien Phuc, though it seems that it was either Kien Phuc or Duc Duc. However, regardless of his actual wishes, with the support of the Empress-Dowager Tu Du, the regents chose the oldest, Nguyen Duc Duc as the next Emperor.
However, there were extreme divisions and rivalry between the mandarins, the regents and the queens surrounding the enthronement of Nguyen Duc Duc. There were problems from the start in spite of the brief agreements between the queens and regents on the candidate. Most accounts are that Duc Duc was a depraved and immoral prince who associated with actors, entertainers and other people at the time deemed "undesireable". Others, however, say that it was rather his opposition to the corruption of the regents and powerful mandarins which spelled his doom. According to one account, Tu Duc had questioned the character of Nguyen Duc Duc and had specified in his will that Kien Phuc was to be his successor. When it was decided that Duc Duc would succeed, he ordered those lines be struck from Tu Duc's will so that the country would not be divided by further succession disputes. Regardless of which is the case, his enthronement as Emperor was halted when regent Ton That Thuyet reportedly became angry when Duc Duc invited some of his unsavory friends to the ritual at which time Thuyet brought a halt to the proceedings by reading out the full will of Emperor Tu Duc. The ceremony was halted while the court ordered an investigation into the matter.
Because of this, Nguyen Duc Duc never had a reign name and was nominal Emperor of Vietnam only from July 19 - July 21, 1883 and so gained the nickname of the "3 day king". The actual events of his brief reign are hard to verify. One account is that Duc Duc, rather than being deposed by the moral outrage of the mandarins, was quite contrarily due to Duc Duc learning of an illicit affair between the regent Nguyen Van Tuong and the imperial concubine Hoc Phi. In any event, he was 'declared' guilty of an outrageous list of charges by the mandarins and died in prison, possibly of starvation. This extremely unprecedented, even treasonous, behavior by the regents caused a vehement protest by the loyal and upright mandarin Phan Dinh Phung, who was subsequently banished from the court by the regent Ton That Thuyet.
It is understandable that, after such a horrific event, there was not exactly a huge rush of princes willing to take the throne. Rather than one of the younger heirs of Tu Duc, the regents decided on the 37-year-old Emperor Hiep Hoa, by most accounts an upright man. However, considering the grisly fate of Duc Duc, Hiep Hoa was understandably reluctant to ascend the Golden Throne but was finally persuaded by the powerful Empress Dowager Tu Du, the mother of Tu Duc and long-time focus of power inside the 'Great Within'. He was enthroned on July 30, amidst bad omens for the future. France was ready, willing and able to take advantage of the internal chaos in Hue to extend their power over Vietnam.
Only a month after taking the throne, Hiep Hoa was confronted by a French fleet under the Admiral Courbet who sailed his ships to the Holy Citadel itself, blockaded the River of Perfumes and bombarded the Vietnamese coast. Lacking modern artillery, an unfortunate result of the noble wish to maintain the purity of Confucian ethics, the Vietnamese were all but defenseless against such an attack. The French soon confronted Hiep Hoa with an ultimatum: surrender or face the total destruction of your dynasty and country. The French official, Francois Harmand, warned the Emperor that Vietnam would be swept off the map if he refused the French offer of "protection".
|Regent Nguyen Van Tuong|
|Regent Ton That Thuyet|
|H.M. Emperor Hiep Hoa|