Establishment of the Nguyen and the Start of the Colonial Era
         Throughout the reign of Gia Long, the Emperor became increasingly wary of foreign influence at his court, an attitude which history would prove to be well founded. It is no surprise then that he left his throne to his son Prince Nguyen Phuc Dam who was well known for his opposition to any foreign presence or influence in Vietnam. His reign began in 1820 with the era name of Minh Mang, the radiant mandate whose motto was to "conform to the movements of Heaven". During the time of Emperor Minh Mang Vietnam would reach the height of Nguyen power and plant the seeds of war with France.
          Minh Mang was the second son of Gia Long by a concubine and his conservative nation-alism was the main reason for his elevation rather than the son of the late Prince Canh. He was in many ways the personification of the zealous Confucian scholar. He worked to bring greater order and organization to the government of Vietnam and opposed all outside ideas as subversive to the Nguyen Confucian monarchy. His goal was to further establish Vietnam as a traditional empire along the lines of the Chinese Qing Empire.
         Inside Vietnam, Minh Mang built up the Imperial capital at Hue, established a more intricate system of administration and divided the country into 31 provinces, each with a governor answerable to the Emperor in the same way as Imperial China. He was a Confucian scholar without equal and seems to have had a genuine concern for public welfare, building roads to improve transportation and communication as well as improving irrigation and land use to encourage the agricultural economy to further develop. In typical Nguyen fashion, he also sought to eliminate the competition of powerful land-owning nobles. It was also during this time that Vietnamese armies conquered most of Cambodia, taking it in as a vassal kingdom for the Vietnamese Emperor. This caused trouble with Thailand, the former masters of Cambodia, who invaded Vietnam in retaliation. Fortunately for the Nguyen, Minh Mang's forces were able to beat back the Thai incursion.
          However, the reign of Emperor Minh Mang was hardly a peaceful one. Rebellions among the poor peasants became a common occurance as conditions for the farmers failed to improve, despite the programs of the Emperor. Minh Mang, though a very docile and peaceful man himself, was extremely distrustful of any foreign presence in Vietnam, particularly the Catholic missionaries who he accused of encouraging revolution and spreading subversive ideas. He allowed for trade with the west as long as it was strictly controlled, but limited the number of foreigners allowed in Vietnam, failed to adopt any technological improvements and eventually banned Christianity entirely. The relative tolerance of the Gia Long era was over and many Christians were tortured and martyred. When news reached France it caused an outcry for French intervention in Vietnam and depicted Minh Mang as a cruel tyrant. There were diplomatic efforts made, even by the United States, but all ended in failure.
          In a letter written on behalf of Minh Mang to the French Minister of Marine it was related quite simply that Vietnam had no desire to open up to the west. It said in part, "
The frontiers of Annam are situated to the extremities of the South and those of the French to the extremities of the West. The boundaries of these two States are separated by several seas or by several thousands of leagues....The people of our country come rarely to yours....If the people of your land desire to trade with us, they must conform to our regulations, which are reasonable". The French, however, saw the actions of Minh Mang as anything but reasonable and became bent on conquering the area. Minh Mang was well aware of this and of his more than a hundred children, made sure to leave the throne to one who would fight against any hint of Western encroachment as strongly as he did before his death in 1841 at age 50.
          His successor, Nguyen Mien Tong, reigned as Emperor Thieu Tri from 1841 until 1847 and may have been the last chance of Vietnam to retain her total independence. Thieu Tri was an intelligent man, well educated in the Confucian tradition, a lover of nature and was eager to learn from the west and keep peace with them while still keeping foreigners at a distance. There was still a great deal of
unrest and Christians were still being arrested, charged with encouraging peasant rebellions against the dynasty. Anxious to avoid trouble, Thieu Tri released many missionaries rather than putting them to death. However, the French naval forces in the area were not prepared to let the matter drop and were concerned that Britain was gaining more influence in the Far East with France being left out.
          In 1847 the French naval squadron issued a formal demand that Emperor Thieu Tri release all foreign prisoners and tolerate Christianity. When Thieu Tri prepared to defend himself, the French
destroyed the Vietnamese fleet, coastal defenses and bombarded the coast at Da Nang. The Vietnamese were soundly defeated, but the French attack had been unauthorized and they were not prepared to follow up their victory. Thieu Tri angrily responded by ordering the massacre of all Westerners in Viet Nam, but his order was not carried out. The mandarins knew that this would only further inflame French public opinion for an all-out war against Vietnam. Perhapse hurried on by the defeat, Emperor Thieu Tri died only a short time later, leaving the throne to his son Prince Nguyen Hong Nhiem.
         Hong Nhiem ascended the throne as Emperor Tu Duc with trouble already at hand. His older brother, Crown Prince Hong Bao, had been passed over and there were plenty of dissatisfied sections of society ready to start a rebellion on his behalf. There was a wide assortment of conspirators, Confucian traditionalists, Le dynasty loyalists, disgruntled peasants and Catholic priests who declared in favor of Hong Bao. Emperor Tu Duc succeeded in defeating the rebellion and capturing his brother, who committed suicide while in prison.
1