Resistance and Cooperation in the French Empire
          After all of the turmoil that was the Year of the Three Kings everyone in power in Vietnam, both the French and the Vietnamese court, hoped for a period of peace and stability. The French looked for a suitable candidate for the throne who was young, unable to play an active role in government and who could be brought up as a model of Franco-Viet cooperation. Their choice was Emperor Ham Nghi, the younger brother of the recently deceased Emperor Kien Phuc. He had a common mother and had never had any thought of rising to the golden yellow when, at the age of fourteen, court officials plucked him out of squalor and hauled him to the Forbidden City. It was a real life rags to riches moment as he was washed, dressed in the finest robes and went from living in poverty to having the highest officials in the country bowing down before him.
          Emperor Ham Nghi did have the traditional education of Nguyen emperors but at 14 he was certainly old enough to see that it was the French who actually ruled the country and the Vietnamese court and officials were expected to follow along. Yet, if France thought Ham Nghi would be their ideal protégé they were sorely mistaken for those who had the greatest influence on him were not those friendly with France. They had made the great mistake of not removing the regents first appointed by Emperor Tu Duc when they had the chance. The young emperor was taken in by regent Ton That Thuyet who made sure the monarch came to openly detest the French and who would stop at nothing to ensure his own power was preserved. Ton That Thuyet used a variety of means to empty state coffers into his own pocket and used the money to begin construction of a secret military base and to start hoarding weapons.
Emperor Ham Nghi
          The French naturally noticed when artillery began to be emplaced in the Holy Citadel and how the currency had become so devalued that cash coins thrown into the PerfumeRiver would float on the top of the water. They, in turn, increased their own military presence in the capital and Ton That Thuyet was finally forced to act before his plans were completed. On the night of July 4, 1885 he and his private troops stormed into the Forbidden City and demanded that the Imperial Family flee with them into the jungle. Ham Nghi was confused by the whole situation but had no choice but to go with the regent. The French, alerted to the situation, unleashed a vengeful attack on the Holy Citadel that made the infamous sacking of the Summer Palace in China pale in comparison. Not far beyond the city most of the Imperial Family members Ton That Thuyet had taken with him turned back, seeing nothing but ruin for themselves and the dynasty if they made enemies of the French. Emperor Ham Nghi had no choice but to remain and become nominal head of the new rebellion unleashed by Ton That Thuyet.
          At the instigation of the regent, Ham Nghi issued an imperial call to arms under the title Can Vuong (Save the King) which called on the people to rise up in rebellion against the French. It was a very traditional document, taking all moral responsibility for the disasters that had overtaken the country in proper Confucian style. This led to the outbreak of what became known as the Mandarins Revolt which was really the last traditional rebellion in the history of Vietnam which had occurred many times over thousands of years previous. The French, however, did their best to discredit Ton That Thuyet and Ham Nghi by announcing that since the law said the country could not be one day without a king and since Ham Nghi had fled (or been kidnapped) from the Forbidden City he had abandoned his throne and could be legitimately replaced. So it was that the French placed Prince Nguyen Canh Tong on the throne as Emperor Dong Khanh.
          Emperor Dong Khanh, though he had been the eldest of the heirs adopted by Tu Duc, knew that it was only because of the French that he had achieved the throne and throughout his friend was a cooperative (if not always enthusiastic) friend and ally of the French with whom his destiny was bound up. He even dispatched loyal Vietnamese troops (under his father-in-law General Nguyen Than) to assist the French in suppressing the Mandarins Revolt. That revolt caught fire and became a significant problem and attracted the enemies of France from all sections of society. Probably the best, morally and militarily, was the mandarin Phan Dinh Phung who had been driven from court by Ton That Thuyet for opposing his manipulation of the imperial succession. The overall problem with the revolt was that it was not a unified or coordinated effort. Some who fought the French were upright and believed in Vietnamese independence while others were simple pirates looking for a cause to add legitimacy to their actions. Atrocities were committed by both sides. Since the rebellion was aimed at foreigners the Christian community was often singled out for persecution, perhaps even more after the Emperor Dong Khanh issued an edict of religious toleration for the first time since the reign of the first Nguyen emperor Gia Long. It was an attack by rebel Can Vuong forces on the Catholic Church at Tra Kieu which led to the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose miraculous intercession ensured a victory for the forces of Emperor Dong Khanh. To this day the second most enduring Christian icon in Vietnam is Our Lady of Tra Kieu.
          This was, though, a guerilla war with all of the cruelty and confusion which that entails. The rebels were a mixed group with some having a more uniform appearance and more modern firearms while others were armed with crossbows and bamboo spears. Some were untrained, unorganized mobs while other groups, like that of Phan Dinh Phung, were well trained and highly disciplined. In the end though, they could not overcome the combined might of France and the Vietnamese forces loyal to the court in Hue and they were ultimately defeated after a period of time. It took three years for the French to suppress the rebellion, mostly in the Quang Binh region, and the fugitive Ham Nghi was finally betrayed to the French by Truong Quang Ngoc and taken prisoner. Ton That Thuyet had already abandoned the boy and fled to the safety of China. To avoid the scandal of executing a former emperor the French exiled Ham Nghi to their colony of Algeria. This was thanks to some high placed individuals in the Vietnamese court as well as the understanding that it had really been Ton That Thuyet who instigated the whole uprising rather than the prince. The young Ham Nghi refused to retract any of his positions but was kept in Africa by the French in case he might be needed again. The fact that he later married a French noblewoman suggested that he might have come around to at least some level of belief in Franco-Viet cooperation after all.
          By that time, however, the French had lost their ideal Vietnamese sovereign, Emperor Dong Khanh, after less than three years on the throne. For France at least he had been the ideal colonial monarch in the grand, worldwide French imperial system. He had carried out his moral and spiritual duties as Vietnamese emperor and the Son of Heaven while maintaining a policy of peace and friendship with the French who handled all major political decisions. They were troubled though by the fact that half of his eight children died very young and that the Emperor, before his life was cut short, suffered from various illnesses and hallucinations. Because of this, when he died on January 28, 1889 they were reluctant to allow his son and heir to succeed him on the throne. They decided to go in a different direction but would eventually come to regret the move.
          Their choice for a successor was the son of the 3-day king Duc Duc who was only 10 years old but who was taken from his frightened mother and enthroned as Emperor Thanh Thai. This marked the beginning of what was certainly the most bizarre and controversial reign of all the Nguyen dynasty emperors. Although he was recognized as a bright child, as he grew older many felt that he had come into too much too soon and exhibited very strange behavior. It is hard to separate the fact from the fiction regarding Emperor Thanh Thai with some arguing that he was only playing the fool to distract the French from his real, revolutionary intentions while others come to no other conclusion than that he was absolutely a perverse maniac. In any event, his odd behavior was tolerated by the French since it did them no harm and they continued to run the country as usual while Thanh Thai became a sort of bizarre tourist attraction for those seeking shocking and scandalous stories.
          It is truly difficult to know what to make of Thanh Thai with accounts of his eloquent poetic compositions combined with those of palace maids who were found raped and chewed all over by the young monarch as if he wished to eat them alive. In any event, his actions were only to the embarrassment of the Vietnamese court until he started making his opposition to the French presence better known. The court clamored for the French to do something and when rumors spread of the Emperor sympathizing with the anti-French resistance they were finally spurred to action. In 1907 the Emperor left the Forbidden City, some said on his way to join an independence movement in China under the Vietnamese royal pretender Cuong De and the French arrested him, declared him legally insane and unfit to rule and removed him from the throne. Hoping to maintain the family line (and there were those who viewed Duc Duc as the most legitimate successor to Tu Duc just as there were those who said the same about Dong Khanh) the French replaced Thanh Thai with his young son Prince Nguyen Vinh San who became Emperor Duy Tan on September 5, 1907.
          The reign of Emperor Duy Tan marks one of the greatest missed opportunities, probably for all sides, in the latter half of the history of Nguyen dynasty Vietnam. By the end of his life he had managed to become respected by both the French and the Vietnamese nationalists and even many of the communists as impossible as that seems. In many ways his story was similar to that of Emperor Ham Nghi. He was only 7 when he ascended the golden, dragon throne and it was hoped that he could be brought up as an ideal monarch of the French protectorate in Vietnam. However, he too came under the influence of nationalist mandarins of the independence movement, particularly Tran Cao Van. However, even at a very young age, he challenged the French in many clever ways. He studied the laws and the protectorate treaty with France and called them to account for not keeping to their agreements; namely by taking far more authority than what the actual treaty entitled them to. He also earned quite a reputation for his honesty and sincere efforts to ease the burden on his lowliest subjects.
          No matter where ones primary loyalty might be it is hard not to admire the young boy Emperor Duy Tan. He was very polite with the French of course, but challenged them for not keeping their word and for saying one thing while doing another. He also cut back on the spending of the imperial court (one area he did have control over) and when the French raised taxes on the Vietnamese peasants he cut his own salary in a demonstration of solidarity with his people and even of his reduced allowance he gave half of it to the poor! He also showed himself to be a good Vietnamese emperor in the traditional Confucian fashion by demonstrating his filial piety. When the French invaded the tomb of his predecessor Emperor Tu Duc in search of treasure he protested vehemently and took the opportunity to point out their other less than honorable actions in the occupation of Vietnam, drawing a parallel between their desecrations of the tomb of the late emperor to their presence in Vietnam as a whole. Needless to say the French quickly became quite annoyed with him while the common folk who heard of his actions had nothing but admiration for their outspoken, young emperor who seem so genuinely concerned for their welfare.
          With the coaching of his more rebellious mandarins Emperor Duy Tan was also eventually moved toward outright rebellion against the French protectorate. The conspirators waited until France was involved in a fight for her life against Germany in World War I as the ideal time to strike. For French people everywhere this was to have enormous significance. Throughout World War I the French Empire as a whole was expected to rally together against the German invasion and Vietnam provided troops just as did native peoples from every corner of the French empire. One Vietnamese native who drove trucks for the French in World War I would later come to great notoriety under the name of Ho Chi Minh. Politically and militarily speaking Emperor Duy Tan and his mandarins picked the ideal time to strike but in the hearts and minds of French people everyone there could be no worse time and most would view the planned rebellion as the most wicked and treasonous act possible, an attempted stab in the back while France was fighting for her life against German domination. Nonetheless, the rebellion was set to begin on May 4, 1916, a year when the French war effort in Europe was most critical.
          However, luckily for the French, the attempted rebellion was betrayed to them at the outset and before it could begin to organize and get off the ground the colonial authorities pounced and arrested the leadership, including Emperor Duy Tan and Tran Cao Van. This time it was very different than it had been for Ham Nghi and the outraged French demanded blood. Treason in time of war has always been considered the blackest of offences and the authorities and perhaps most of the public too, in a state of hyper patriotism because of the world war, wanted to see every last conspirator put to death. The French held a trial and all those involved were found guilty and duly sentenced to death and beheaded at An Hoa. Tran Cao Van died shouting his loyalty to the Emperor. Duy Tan himself might have been executed were it not for the intervention of the Minister of Instructions Ho Dac Trung (father-in-law of the next Emperor Khai Dinh) who pleaded with the French that Duy Tan was too young to be responsible for his own actions and that it would be needlessly scandalous to kill a young monarch so popular and venerated. The French reluctantly agreed and took the opportunity to rid themselves of both of the recent monarchs by exiling both Thanh Thai and Duy Tan to ReunionIsland in the Indian Ocean.
The rebel Tran Cao Van and the newly enthroned Emperor Duy Tan with his courtiers