A Prince, A Missionary and Three Revolutions

Hien V. Ho



In 1773, three brothers from the small village of Tây Sơn ( Western Mountain ) in Central Vietnam started a revolution that toppled the nearly two hundred year old dynasty of the Nguyen Lords and sent their last heir, Prince Nguyễn Ánh, on a long exile. The youngest and the most famous among the brothers, Nguyễn Huệ ended the Trinh Lord’s rule in the North, chased the last Lê King out of the country and eventually defeated the 200,000-strong Qing army in one of the most celebrated victories of Vietnam’s history.

On the other side of the world, in 1774, Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America , wrote “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” and became the most thoughtful spokesman of the Revolution. In 1776, he was in charge of the draft of the proposed American Declaration of Independence, which in turn became an inspiration for the French Revolution in 1789-1780. Jefferson later met a very young envoy from Vietnam , Prince Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh, brought to France on a mission to get military aid for his father Nguyễn  Ánh who was struggling for years to regain South Vietnam from the hands of the Tây Sơn brothers. This article will try to take a new look at events more or less related to the lives of the little Prince and his mentor the missionary in the last decades of the eighteen-century when three revolutions took places in three countries in three continents.


Thomas Jefferson and the quest for the ideal rice.


In July 1787, Thomas Jefferson[1], then American Minister to France , expressed an interest in acquiring rice seed from Vietnam and that “may constitute the first official American awareness of that distant foreign country.” Jefferson quoted Poivre, a French farmer general of Isle de France, who had traveled to many countries throughout Asia , with particular attention to the objects of their agricultures, as saying that “in Cochinchina, they cultivate 6 different kinds of rice, three of them requiring water, and three growing on highlands.” Jefferson wrote: “The dry rice of Cochinchina has the reputation of being whitest to the eye, best flavored to the taste, and most productive. It seems then to unite the good qualities of both the others known to us. Could it supplant them, it would be a great happiness, as it would enable us to get rid of those ponds of stagnant water so fatal to human health and lives. But such is the force of habit, and caprice of taste, that we could not be sure beforehand it would produce this effect. The experiment however is worth trying, should it only end in producing a third quality, and increasing the demand. I will endeavor to procure some to be brought from Cochin-china. The event will be however uncertain and distant.”

Six months later, in January 1788, Jefferson wrote: “I have considerable hope of receiving some rice from Cochin-china, the young Prince of that country, lately gone from here, having undertaken that it shall come to me. But it will be some time first.”

In March 1789, Jefferson wrote to Malesherbes[2], a botanist but also a lawyer, a writer and a politician, asking him to use his influence to obtain “one of the species of rice which grow in Cochin-china on high lands and which needs no other watering than the ordinary rains.”[3] Jefferson also tried to obtain the famous Cochinchinese rice seeds from other sources but to no avail.

This was the first official contact between America and Vietnam . An interesting and important fact about that contact is that the Vietnamese prince who promised to Jefferson that a sample of South Vietnamese rice seed would come to him was only seven or eight years old when they met in Paris .

Even before the French revolution of 1789, a Vietnamese child went to France , became the darling of the French court and then came back to his country to play a very important role in his father’s initial struggle to build a unified Vietnamese empire which eventually included Cambodia and a large part of Laos [4].

Chân dung hoàng tử Cảnh do họa sĩ Maupérin vẽ tại Pháp vào năm 1787

Figure 1 : Prince Nguyễn  Phúc Cảnh at Versailles , Paris (Wikipedia)

(by French artist Mauperin in 1787)



Figure 2 Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, or Nguyễn Ánh (later became Emperor Gia Long) (Source Wikipedia)

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:GiaLong.jpg;”public domain”)


The Little Prince:

Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh, or prince Cảnh was born on April 6, 1780, in Gia định (Cochinchina) where his father Nguyễn Phúc Ánh was leading a struggle against the Tây Sơn brothers since 1777. Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (or Nguyễn Ánh), born on February 8th 1762, was the grandson of Võ Vương (1738-1765) who was the Lord[5] of the Southern part of Vietnam . Vietnam had been divided into a Northern part called The Outer Region[6] under the Trinh Lord and a Southern part or The Inner Region under the Nguyen Lord since the 17th century; the Lê Emperor in Hanoi served only a ceremonial role in the government of the country. At the death of Võ Vương Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, the designated heir Nguyễn Phúc Côn was put aside and later died in prison due to a conspiracy by Trương Phúc Loan, who altered his will and who wanted to put his 16th son Huệ Vương, still a 12 year old child, on the throne.[7] Huệ Vuong reigned under the regency of Truong Phuc Loan who usurped his powers and provoked revolts among the population.

In 1773, three brothers, Nguyễn Văn Nhạc, Nguyễn Văn Lữ and Nguyễn Huệ [8], natives of the Village of  Tây Sơn , led a revolutionary movement against the Nguyen Lord. Nguyễn Nhạc, the eldest, organized bands of looters and got hold of the city of Qui Nhơn and established their strongholds.[9] In 1774, the Trinh Lord sent an attack against the South and occupied their capital Huế in 1775. The Tây Sơn joined forces with the Northerners against the Nguyễn Lord who took refuge in Cochinchina.

In 1776, the Tây Sơn reached Saigon , captured the Nguyen King, Huệ Vương, and killed him in 1777. His 15-year-old nephew Nguyễn Phúc Ành, son of Nguyễn Phúc Côn, the most senior survivor of the Nguyễn Lord family, became the legal holder to the rights to the throne[10] and the commander in chief of the Nguyễn army. At the end of 1777, with the help of Đỗ Thành Nhơn, who had reorganized his army and supplemented it with Chinese and Cambodian pirates, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh was able to reclaim Saigon and defended the surrounding area (Gia định) from Tây sơn successive assaults, destroying their naval fleet.[11] Later, however, the 19 year old Nguyễn Ánh, offended by his general arrogance and lack of deference toward him, decided to get rid of him in a complicated assassination plot; the young king feigned illness, called his general next to him and then had his throat slit. He then ordered grandiose funeral for the general and lavished on him honors and titles, posthumously.[12] However, he lost the major source of his military strength and the Tây sơn came back. His forces were expelled from Saigon twice again, before he found refuge on an island in the Bay of Kompongsom . He asked the Siamese for help but the Tây sơn defeated their naval army of 20,000 and 200 vessels[13] at Rạch Gằm and Xoài Mút  (near Mỹ Tho). Nguyễn Ánh still ended up as a refugee in Thailand (1785-1787). From his headquarters at Long Kỳ settlement outside of Bangkok that the King of Siam reserved for the Vietnamese, his government in exile was active in different directions: working the land for subsistence, building war ships and sending recruiters to Gia Định to get ready for an eventual return to Cochinchina. He even helped the Siamese King in his war against the invading Burmese and the Malays attacking at the Siamese south borders[14].

The Missionaries in South East Asia and the Bishop:

It was during this period that Nguyễn Ánh met the missionary who would become his most intimate advisor, Mgr Pierre Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran. Pigneau was born in 1741, in the village of Origny- en- Thierache (Aisne, Picardie , France ) where there is a rarely visited museum dedicated to him next to the village church.[15]It was eighteen century France with Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Encyclopedists, where Catholicism, as a revealed religion with its rigid dogmas, was under intense  attack by the rationalist movement[16]. For the ambitious young men born outside of nobility like Pigneau, with dreams of adventure and salvation the world, there was the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris founded by the two Vicar Apostolics of Tonkin and Cochinchina in 1658-63. From its inception to the end of the 18th century its evangelization efforts were aimed mostly at the remote countries in South East Asia [17]. Student in Paris of the Seminary of the Foreign Missions, Pigneau had left France at the age of twenty-four and started his career in Cochinchina, at the Hòn Đất Seminary.

 “For years, I have felt inside me this urge to go and work for the salvation of so many people who sacrifice their souls to the demon of errors and lies”, wrote the young man to his parents when he was already in Lorient , on his way out of France without their blessing[18]

According to Mathilde Tuyết Trần, who also gives a detailed account of her visit of his birth place and a chronology of his early years in France : “In Cochinchina during that period, to preach their religion, missionaries had to disguise themselves as workers of a variety of professions like carpenters, bricklayers, medicine men, merchants. They received strong support from the merchants, so much that the latter let them train their students aboard their ships. Their seminaries consisted only of thatch huts with wall made of dirt; and they had to move frequently. Teaching was done in Latin and moral, religion history, geography, the basics of mathematics and astronomy. There were a lot of difficulties involved in the education of seminarians due to the lack of books and dictionaries and the constant fear of the local law which forbade Christianity.”[19]

Modern Vietnamese written with the Roman script (quốc ngữ) had its roots in the works of these missionaries. The most important pioneer is a 17th century Jesuit priest from Avignon , Alexandre de Rhodes who wrote the first catechism in Vietnamese (and Latin) and a Portuguese –Latin-Vietnamese dictionary[20]. Pigneau authored a new Vietnamese-Latin dictionary (Dictionarium Anamitico Latinum) in 1774, probably based on previous works by other missionaries.


Figure 3 Alexandre de Rhodes’ Portuguese –Latin-Annamese (Vietnamese) dictionary (1651)

Figure 4 Cover of Annamese (Vietnamese)-Latin dictionary by Pigneau, edited by Taberd


After an intrusion by Chinese pirates, he had to flee to Pondichery, where he stayed four years until his nomination as “vicaire apostolique” of Cochinchina in 1774. He then settled  in Hà Tiên, where he was received by Mạc Thiên Tứ, a loyal Nguyễn Ánh’s subject.

The Young King Met the Bishop.

In 1777, Nguyễn Ánh, hunted by the Tây Sơn, was hiding in the woods near Hà Tiên when he was rescued and provided with fresh supplies by Pigneau and a Vietnamese priest named Paul Hồ Văn Nghi. The two missionaries then sent the young prince to the island of Poulo Penang in the straight of Malacca while waiting for the withdrawal of the rebel forces, which were soon diverted to the north of Vietnam to fight against the Trinh Lord (Trịnh Sâm).

By 1783, after 5 years of guerilla warfare against the Tây Sơn, Nguyên Ánh had realized that he would never succeed unless he could obtain foreign military aid. In fact, the Dutch, Portuguese, and the British had offered their aid, but because of the personal ascension of Pigneau who proposed to solicit aid from France for him, Nguyen Ánh decided to turn to the French for help.[21] In 1784, he entrusted his four year old son and the seal of the kingdom[22] to the priest, who, accompanied also by a member of his family and Vietnamese servants[23], would lead a mission to France to negotiate for help. They left Thailand and made a stop in Pondichery[24] in February 1785, where the governor, de Cossigny[25], allowed them to travel, at the French King’s expenses, on a commercial vessel in July 1786.[26] In the mean time, Nguyễn Ánh stayed in exile at the court of the Siamese King.

Figure 5 Statue of Pierre Pigneau and Prince Canh in Saigon

(Photo by Nguyễn Tấn Lộc)

( http://nguyentl.free.fr/autrefois/sud/saigon-cholon/saigon_statue_mgr_pigneau.jpg )

“Royal enfant” in Paris .

The bishop and his Vietnamese little prince landed in Lorient [27] in February of 1787 and arrived in Paris soon afterwards. Pierre Pigneau started a campaign on behalf of his protégé whose ‘Romanesque’ situation and exotic costumes resembled those of heroes from oriental tales, very popular then among the elite of Parisian salons. Marie Antoinette herself made sure that his traditional Vietnamese tunique was replaced with more fashionable clothing. “His misfortunes and his charming appearance softened the courtiers hearts. The latter, thirsty of exoticism, hoisted their headgears the style of the royal prince of Cochinchina (‘au prince royal de Cochinchine’) and their spouses wore their chignons ‘à la Chinoise’. The whole court chanted ‘Royal child, get over it. You will reign. [The Bishop of] Adran loves you.’”[28]

Initially, the French administration had reservations about his “plan of assistance to the King of Cochinchina,[29]” but thanks to the help of Bishop Loménie de Brienne[30], and some other high placed officials, Pigneau was allowed to defend his projects in the presence of King Louis XVI, his Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Count of Montmorin, and the Minister of the Navy. On November 28, 1787, the Treaty of Versailles was signed by Montmorin and Pierre Pigneau, establishing an alliance between France and Vietnam for the purpose of helping Nguyễn Ánh in his recovery of his estates. France would provide four frigates with a force of 1400 men,[31] all due equipments and notably a field artillery (artillery de campagne).[32] In exchange for its military assistance, France would have sovereignty over the port of Đà Nẵng (Tourane)[33]in Central Vietnam and over the Island of Poulo Condore (Côn Sơn, off the coast of South Vietnam ).[34] The French would enjoy rights to total free trade, at the exclusion of all other European nations. As we will see later, the French government’s help to Nguyễn Ánh never materialized but the treaty would not be forgotten, even after France went through the upheavals of a revolution. In 1817, Count Kergariou coming on the French vessel Cybele to Đà Nẵng and in the name of King Louis XVIII , would unsuccessfully ask Gia Long to implement the above treaty and to grant to France the rights to Đà Nẵng and Poulo Condore.[35]  

The journey home.

One month later, December 27th, 1787 the Bishop and his company left France on the frigate La Dryade, escorted by the ship La Méduse. Artillerymen and volunteers of the Navy had embarked on these two vessels. Two barges (gabarres), loaded with six months worth of provisions and carrying 200,000 piastres were to follow later. Two frigates “L’Astrée” and “Le Calypso”, already in service in India would join them to form the fleet of the Cochinchinese expedition.[36]

Despite its apparent success, Pigneau’s project was undermined since the beginning. The French Minister of Foreign affairs, still apprehensive about the feasibility of a far away campaign, had sent secret instructions to the Count of Conway,[37] Marechal de Camp, Commander of French forces in India, and a veteran general of the American Revolution, giving him the power to decide on whether or not to go ahead with the expedition, based on local circumstances. There were a lot of difficulties at the court in Paris during the period preceding the French Revolution. Also, Conway was hostile to Pigneau and in a letter to Paris described the latter’s plans as “rêves d’une tête exaltée” (dreams of an exalted mind). Reportedly, part of this hostility was due to the fact that Pigneau forgot to call on Conway ’s mistress while visiting the wives of the local officials upon his arrival.[38] Conway interpreted, in the most unfavorable way, vague intelligence information collected by La Dryade’s reconnaissance mission on August 15, 1788. He refused to help the missionary who, upon his arrival in Pondichery, became “Commissioner of the King of France in Cochinchina.” Determined to fulfill his promise to his Vietnamese friend, Pigneau declared to Conway “If this is the way it goes, I will make the revolution by myself.”[39]

Indeed, Pigneau took the matter in his own hands and spent the next 18 months of waiting in Pondichery arming two commercial vessels, buying arms and ammunition and acquiring for their transportation the frigate La Meduse that Prince Cảnh and his mentor boarded in June 1789. He also organized an intense campaign of propaganda, recruiting numerous navy officers in service in India and in the Far East , particularly fellow travelers on La Dryade and La Meduse. On July 24, 1789, they landed at Bãi Dừa ( Cocotrees Beach ), Cap Saint Jacques, Vũng Tàu.[40] By then, Nguyễn Ánh had reconquered Gia Định since 1788. It was with great emotion that Nguyễn Ánh finally could see his son and his old friend again. Soon after, he thanked Louis XVI by writing him “By reuniting the father and the son, you have put back into water a fish that had been taken out of it.” However, by then the court of Louis XVI was in dire financial distress, in part due to support given to the colonists in the American Revolution; the French Revolution of 1788-1789 had been well under way and the Bastille was stormed on July 14,1789. Thomas Jefferson, who earlier asked Prince Cảnh for Cochinchinese seeds, was an avid supporter of the French revolutionaries, and as a U.S. Minister, even allowed his residence at the Champs Elysées to be used as a meeting place for the rebels led by Lafayette .[41] He left France in 1789 to serve as Secretary of State under Washington , and then was elected as president in 1801, the same year Prince Cảnh died, reportedly of small pox, and a year before Nguyễn Ánh regained his throne to become King Gia Long.

 In Saigon, however, after his return from abroad, Pigneau was given a “royal guard” (ngự lâm quân) force of 200 men, moved his seminary from Thailand to Cochinchina and established the siege of his diocese at Lái Thiêu, near Saigon . Prince Canh was crowned as Prince of the East Pavilion in 1792 (Đông Cung thái tử), and a few years later was appointed as Duke-General Commander (Nguyên Súy Quận Công). In 1797, he was at his father’s side when they attacked the Qui Nhơn citadel. In another campaign in 1799, they were able to penetrate the citadel under the command of Võ Tánh, but found themselves encircled by 15,000 enemies. Pigneau died of dysentery on October 9th, with his “last words reserved for the Cochinchinese.” Nguyễn Ánh called him “Grand Maitre” (Great Master) and led a huge and sumptuous procession at his funerals. He was interred in an opulent tomb near his home in Tân Sơn Nhất, a Saigon landmark nowadays referred to as Lăng Cha Cả (Tomb of the Great Father). Dr. Morice, a French naturalist who visited Saigon in 1872 described the missionary’s tomb in his book ‘Voyage en Cochinchine’ as follows:

“A tomb in a style similar to that of the mounds of the Plain of Tombs[42], but much more interesting to see, is Bishop of Adrian’s who has left imperishable memories in Cochinchina. It is situated not far from Saigon , near the road of Go Vap. This monument, because it deserves this appellation, is surrounded by an enclosure that a guardian assigned to its care has to open for us. The strangest frescos, made by Annamese artists, decorate its walls. I still remember an enormous tiger, with its body in vivid yellow color with black stripes, and with the menacing gaze of its two large enameled glass eyes. An immense inscription in Chinese characters describes the titles and the great accomplishments of the Bishop, sleeping under this earth that owes him so much”.[43]  

The education of the young prince.

The bishop was one of the primary teachers of the prince, and he likely had the most influence on the education and the formation of the young man, given the number of years they had lived with each other. The prince received a catholic education from  his mentor[44], was more open to western influences and religions and friendlier with westerners. There was reportedly a strong clash of culture between the King and his followers and the prince, at least during the earlier period following the son’s return from abroad. The missionaries had high hopes that Nguyễn Ánh himself one day would be converted to Catholicism and allusions were made to a potential modern version of Constantinewho after his conversion , legalized Chritianity in theRoman Empire  with the Edict of Milan in 313 and became a great patron of the Church. 

The King trusted Pigneau who helped him rule with justice and humanity. For example, Pigneau was assigned to review death sentence cases before executions before they were finalized and tax policies before they were decreed.

Some of the Vietnamese mandarins were converted to Catholicism and “masses were regularly celebrated in the palace, on Sundays and holidays, for officers of the court and catholic mandarins. The King often attended them and listened attentively to the speeches that the bishop delivered in a clear and very elegant style because he knew about all the finer points of the language of the scholars.”[45]

However, the Vietnamese King would never be converted to Christianity[46]. He was still imbued in the Vietnamese cult of ancestors and other traditions; he would be disappointed and angered by his eldest son , who dutifully observed the intransigent stance of Catholicism, which among other things, forbade Christians to pay respect to ancestors by bowing or kneeling in front of their altar.[47] According to a letter of Father Lelabousse written in June 1792, “In a ceremony at the end of July 1789, prince Cảnh decidedly refused to kowtow before the altar of his ancestors, which made the Nguyễn King, angry and humiliated, rip away his own ceremonial robe and his hat, saying that he was an unfortunate father.”[48] In fact the Catholic’s church position regarding the wide spread South East Asian and Chinese practice the cult of ancestors was a major obstacle in proselytizing in Asia . Only in 1965, after the Second Ecumenical Council of Vatican (1962-1965) allowed local and national customs to be incorporated in the Catholic liturgy, did the Vietnamese Bishop Councils allow Catholics to practice of the cult of ancestors[49]. 

Prince Cảnh’s behavior is believed to be a major factor in Nguyễn Ánh’ s progressive change of attitude toward the French . Other factors were the expanding control of Western powers, particularly the British in Asia and the close association, either real or apparent, between their political, military or trade ambitions and the missionary efforts of the Catholic Church[50]. At the end of his life, he reportedly told Prince Nguyễn Phúc Kiểu[51] who would succeed him as Emperor Minh Mạng: “Be grateful to the French, but never let them set foot in your court.”[52]The prince who reportedly had praised the Japanese for having eradicated Christianity from their country[53], would espouse Confucian orthodoxy and follow literally the second part of his father’s advice. Under his reign (1820-1841), Vietnam closed its doors to the missionaries as well as to all westerners, especially the French. Later, religious persecution would become a pretext for French military expeditions against Vietnam .  

Steps in Nation Building .

During that period when Pigneau was on his way back to Vietnam to join forces with Nguyễn Ánh, the youngest Tây Sơn brother Nguyễn Huệ was busy fighting in Northern Vietnam ( Tonkin ), chasing away the former King Lê and Lord Trinh. He then defeated the large Qing army led by the governor of Guangdong and Guangxi Sun Shiyi[54] who came to rescue the throne of Lê Chiêu Thống in February 1789, and then was recognized as “King of An Nam” (An Nam Quốc Vương) by the Chinese Emperor.

However, in the southern part of the country, Nguyễn Lữ, the brother responsible for Cochinchina, died. The eldest, Nguyễn Nhạc, consolidated his positions in Central Vietnam and built his fleet for the purpose of a Southward expedition against the Nguyen.

Nguyễn Ánh, under the military and political tutoring of Pigneau and with the help of his other French advisors, was fortifying and building Saigon into a modern, western style city. Pigneau studied the Encyclopedia among other sources of military knowledge and helped Nguyen Anh build a fortress a la Vauban[55] and the strongest and most modern armed forces in Southeast Asia at the time, completed with artillery and a modern fleet.

“Under the direction of Olivier de Puymanel,[56] a deserter fromLa Dryade and appointed ‘chef d’etat major’ (chief of staff), the Cochinchinese army was composed of foot soldiers and artillerymen maneuvering in the European way. Canons were fired  ‘a la bricole.’ There were also engineering units (genie) and ‘aerostiers’ who operated a balloon. The cavalry of 24 squadrons was made of men riding buffaloes and 3200 elephants, forming a shock unit. Each pachyderm was served by a team of four cornacs.[57] Following Pigneau’s advice, Nguyen Anh had ‘the most formidable Navy that any power in the Indies ever had.’ A British diplomat in transit in Saigon in 1793 wrote that he had seen on the river leading to Cap Saint-Jacques ‘a colossal armada of 1200 sails, including three very modern vessels maneuvering in the most rigorous order.’ To fund for such a fleet, the King had to borrow 270000 piastres from French businessmen in the Indies ’.

Development of Saigon and a Vietnamese Pierre L’Enfant.

Puymanel also “dedicates himself to the edification of the citadel,’an octogonal structure made of laterite (red clay) and Biên Hòa stone, with six meter high walls and eight gates’. That complex, gigantic by the time’s standards cannot be realized without the requisition of 30,000 coolies, which annoyed greatly the population prone to uprisings against westerners. Puymanel was going to build thirty or so other fortresses. His students later will be responsible for the construction of others in Huế, Sơn Tây and Tuyên Quang. ”[58]Some of these fortresses would be the sites of Vietnamese resistance against the French expeditionary forces at the end of the nineteen century.

There seemed to be high hopes for the development of the city of Saigon : Théodore Le Brun, a deserter from “La Meduse” and appointed “Captain Engineer Responsible for all the Fortifications of the State”, designed “a plan of a modern capital, with forty arteries, 15 to 20 meters wide, and intersecting at a right angle”. The plan never materialized due to lack of financing[59]. On the other side of the world, around the same period, another Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant, was appointed by President Washington to design the new District of Columbia . However, due to limited funds, and L’Enfant’s temperament and his insistence that his city designed be realized as whole, he was dismissed a year later. A revised version of his plan served as the basis for the new American capital’s construction[60]. Likewise, in Cochinchina, Le Brun, taking offence at being placed under the orders of lower ranking Puymanel, quitted Cochinchina after only a year of service.

Final offensives

After two years of preparations, Nguyễn Ánh started the offensive in 1792 and inaugurated the tactic of seasonal campaigns. In September same year, Nguyễn Huệ  (Emperor Quang Trung) suddenly died of illness at the age of thirty nine[61] (1753-1792) and was succeeded by his son Nguyễn Quang Toản, a ten year old child. Nguyễn Huệ  was the hero at Đống Đa three years prior, who had nourished ambitions of fighting China one day and reclaiming Guangdong and Guangxi, (lands that Vietnam, then known as Nam Việt’ lost to China in 111 B.C. under the weaker successors of King Triệu Đà). A few months later, in France , Louis XVI was accused of conspiracy against public freedom and general security of the state. Malesherbes, the lawyer and botanist to whom in 1788 Thomas Jefferson had written a letter asking for assistance in securing the Cochinchinese rice seeds, was now the King’s main defender. Louis XVI died under the guillotine January 21, 1793.  Queen Marie-Antoinette, who had made sure that Prince Cảnh wore Parisian fashion years earlier, also found her death under the guillotine, only nine months later, at the age of thirty-eight.

After his enemies Tây Sơn  had become much weaker after the death of their strongest leader Nguyễn Huệ, , Nguyễn Ánh’s fleet would leave port from Gia Định in June and go north toward Qui Nhơn, their main citadel, when the south monsoons (gió nồm in May-Sept) were well established. After a methodic and prudent conquest and pacification, the fleet went back south to Saigon ; only well-provisioned outposts were left behind during the winter. Surprisingly enough, the local population, resentful of harsh inequities imposed on them by the new  Tây Sơn administration,, seemed to  be in favor of Nguyễn Ánh and prayed for his victory:  

Lạy trời cho chóng gió nồm
Cho thuyền chúa Nguyễn thuận buồm thẳng ra.[62]

(We pray Heaven to speed up the southern monsoons

so that Lord Nguyễn’s fleet could sail straight to us.)

After a series of successful annual raids, they took over Qui Nhơn[63] and renamed it Bình Định (meaning “pacified’). In 1801, the year Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States , Nguyễn Ánh reclaimed Huế, the capital city of his ancestors. However, it was during the siege of the city that he learned of his eldest son’s death in Saigon . Prince Cảnh apparently died of fever with a skin rash (fievre eruptive), most likely small pox at the age of 21 or 22, leaving behind a wife and two sons. Many years later, after Gia Long’s death and under Minh Mạng, his wife would be executed and his sons banned from the court.[64] With Prince Cảnh’s death, all the missionaries’ hopes built on him also died. No one would be able to guess what kind of monarch he would have been if he had survived the illness. There is the rhetorical possibility that he would have inaugurated a Meiji style era in Vietnam early in the 19th century after his father death, when European powers were still not strong enough to initiate war in South East Asia, therefore averting the tragedies to come of French colonization, and prepping Vietnam to become a developed country by the turn of the 20th century. However, more than a century later, another Nguyễn prince, Vĩnh Thụy, would also receive a totally western education from France and become the last Nguyễn King Bảo Đại, only a powerless monarch under French control and totally estranged from his country. Anyway, for the catholic missionaries, it would be next to impossible that under his reign persecution of Christianity could ever happen as it did later under the Nguyen’s dynasty. Near his end, Prince Cảnh, always a ‘Christian at heart’, but who probably was not allowed to openly practice his religion at his father ‘s court, asked to be alone a moment with one of his domestics and received his baptism.[65]

In 1802, Nguyễn Ánh conquered Hanoi , unifying Vietnam ’s three parts (traditionally called Tonkin in the North, Annam at the Center and Cochinchina in the South) under one single government, for the first time in its history. His vanquished enemies, both the living and the dead, were harshly punished, often by slow, barbaric and atrocious executions, and this has always stayed as a dark smear in his otherwise heroic and impressive life career.


Pigneau and his people who came to Vietnam to help Nguyễn Ánh definitely played a very important role in the latter’s final military success.[66] However, there was an even more important contribution to be considered. They somehow “globalized” us and conditioned us to the changing world. They must have exerted a very lasting influence on Southern Vietnamese culture despite Vietnam ’s abrupt changes to hostile policies toward the West and the Catholic Church after the end of the reign of Nguyễn Ánh.  

Current considerations.

There are possible parallels to draw with our current situations:

1) Rice almost linked the young American nation with the far away Vietnam , at the highest level of diplomacy.

2) The ambitions of the Catholic Church and its missionary became intertwined with national and dynastic conflicts in Vietnam . This is a reminder of the role of religion in the modern world conflicts, and even of some aspects of American politics.

3) The chain reaction of events: Participation in the American Revolution contributed to the bankruptcy of Louis XVI ‘s court, which was a factor in preventing France from keeping its promise of helping Nguyễn Ánh. Also, coincidentally, de Conway, the governor of Pondichery who denied Pigneau any help, was a general in the American Revolutionary war.

4) The way Prince Cảnh was received at the Parisian salons and the French Court may be seen as an indication of relative absence of racial prejudice and discrimination. It is possible that as royalty, the way Prince Cảnh was received was based on his social status (class conscience?), rather than his nationality or ethnic identity.

5) After Gia Long’s death his son Minh Mang embraced the Chinese Confucian model for his administration, but interestingly his persecution of Catholics might be inspired by his admiration of the Japanese shogun’s eradication of Christians.

It cannot be denied that Nguyen Anh’s contingent of foreign helpers played a vital role in his uniting the country together. This aspect of the story has been used frequently, in particular by the Vietnamese Communist side, as an argument for labeling and debasing his dynasty as traitors to the nation, for doing what is referred to as “bringing home a snake on his shoulder to let it bite his own chickens (cõng rắn cắn gà nhà).”  On the other side, it may be surmised that all those foreigners from the West, Pigneau in particular, must have brought to Vietnam “a new culture of knowledge” (Pigneau’ s encyclopedia, Vauban style fortresses, military technology, monastery scholarship) and a cosmopolitan view of the world well beyond the traditional Chinese horizon (America, Paris, Thailand, India, Christianity). This has likely been helpful in shaping the mindset of South Vietnam , making it more open to the world, particularly to the West, to the free flow of ideas, to democracy and free trade. It is possible that this has something to do with the recent rapid economic resurgence of South Vietnam after years of abysmal conditions under planned economy policies immediately following the events of April 1975.

Hien V. Ho

April 15th, 2008











   Figure 4; Pierre Pigneau, Bishop of Adran.


[1] Robert Hopkins Miller, ‘ United States and Vietnam : 1787-1941’, Washington , DC , National Defense University Press.

[2] Malesherbes or Lamoignon-Malesherbes (December 6, 1721April 23, 1794) was a French statesman, minister, and afterwards counsel for the defence of Louis XVI. He was a member of the French Academie des Sciences and Academie francaise. (Wikipedia)

[3] Ibid vol. 12,p.508

[4] Under the Nguyễn Lords, Chân Lạp (modern Cambodia ) was a Vietnamese protectorate. The Cambodians switched their allegiance to Siam ( Thailand ) after The Nguyễn lost Gia Định to the Tây Sơn. Under King Gia Long, the Chân Lạp paid allegiance to Vietnam and Thailand alternatively, depending on the current monarch. In 1813, Lê Văn Duyệt brought King Nặc Ông Chân back to his throne in Phnom-Penh, backed by more than 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers. Lê Văn Duyệt built the Phnom-Penh Citadel and a 10,000 strong Vietnamese force stayed in Cambodia which became a Vietnamese protectorate again..

.In the case of Laos, under King Minh Mạng  (1827), Sầm Nứa, Trấn Ninh, Cam Môn and Savannakhet belonged to Vietnam, under the administrative names of  Trấn Ninh’, Trấn Tĩnh Phủ’, ‘Lạc Biên Phủ’, ‘Trấn Biên’, Trấn Định’ and Trấn Man. These areas were mostly annexed to Vietnam at the request of their own Lao chiefs, who wanted to get the protection by the Vietnamese King against their Thai and Nam Chưởng [Luang Prabang] western neighbors’ aggression. (Ref: Trần Trọng Kim in Việt nam Sử Lược, Saigon , Bộ Giáo Dục Trung Tâm Học Liệu Xuất Bản, pp.179,221)

[5] “Vua Lê, Chúa Trịnh, Chúa Nguyễn”: Translations of “Vua”, “Chúa”, “Vương” and “Đế” may be difficult and confusing. ‘Vua’ can be translated as King or Emperor (Đế), Chúa is usually translated as Lord. However Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh proclaimed himself as Nguyễn Vương (Vương meaning King, or also Prince as in Hưng Đạo Đại Vương); in 1804 Ching (Chinese) Emperor bestowed on him the title of Vương, but in 1806 he took the title of Emperor (đế hiệu). The eldest Tây Sơn brother Nguyễn Nhạc took the title of Tây Sơn Vương in 1776 then proclaimed himself Hòang đế in 1778.  His brother Nguyễn Huệ became Quang Trung Hoàng Đế (Emperor Quang Trung) in 1788. (Trần Trọng Kim in Việt Nam Sử Lược, Bộ Giáo Dục Trung Tâm Học Liệu, pages 106, 108,130, 170).

[6] Nguyễn Tấn Lộc, Gialong, Vietsciences; http://vietsciences.free.fr/

[7] Gia phả Tộc Nguyễn Phúc-Tùng Thiện Vương-Thừa Thiên Huế:

Vietnamgia pha.com


[8] The  Tây Sơn brothers are not related to the Nguyễn Lords, despite their common family name. They originated from Nghệ An, Central Vietnam and are descendants of King Hồ  Quý Ly (reign 1400). Their ancestors were forced to move to Qui Nhơn area during previous wars between the Trinh Lords in the north and the Nguyễn Lords in the south.

[9] Andre Masson, ‘Histoire du Vietnam ’, Paris , 1967, Presses Universitaires de France. p.39

[12] Andre Masson, ibid. p. 40

[13] It must be a very bloody battle. According to Trần Trọng Kim in ‘Việt Nam Sử Lược’, only a few thousand Siamese survived.

[14] Trần Trọng Kim, ‘Việt Nam Sử Lược’

[15] Tuyết Trần, Đi tìm dấu vết Bá Đa Lộc, http://vietsciences.free.fr/biographie/nhanvatdacbiet/badaloc.htm

[16] Mac Caffrey, ‘History of the Catholic Church, From the Renaissance to the French Revolution’, 1914

  , http://catholicity.elcore.net/MacCaffrey/HCCRFR1_Chapter08a.html ( retreived 4-18-08)  

[18]Adrian Launey, ‘Histoire générale de la Société des missions étrangères’, 1894,  p. 135


[19] Tuyết Trần, ibid

[20] The first Vietnamese-Portuguese dictionary was compiled by Gaspar d'Amiral and the first Portuguese-Vietnamese dictionary by Antonio Barboza, both Portuguese missionaries. Neither of these works is now extant, but they formed the basis of the ground-breaking Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum by Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660), which appeared in 1651. Rhodes, who was French and not Portuguese, depended heavily on the two earlier dictionaries in compiling his work. The Rhodes dictionary was printed in the Roman script (quoc ngu) and contained over 8000 Vietnamese entries with glosses in Portuguese and Latin. (http://www.cjvlang.com/Dow/Port.html)  

[21] Colonel Maurice Rives, Les premiers Marins et Soldats Francais dans le Sud Est Asiatique., Bulletin de L’A.N.A.I., No 10, July 1st 2007

[22] Nguyễn Văn Kiệm challenges the idea that the Royal Seal was given to the missionary, because usually it is a ‘national treasure’, the “inseparable symbol of the political life of a chief of state”, and supposes that a copy of the Royal Seal or another less important seal was involved.

Regarding the age of the prince, Nguyễn Văn Kiệm cites ‘Đaị Nam Thực Lục Chính Biên’by the Nguyễn National History Service (Qu ốc Sử Quán)  as saying that Nguyễn Ánh and Pigneau met as early as in August 1783, the visit lasting two weeks, and Nguy ễn Ánh decided by then use “ his  four year old son Cảnh as a token of his good faith”. Nguyễn văn Kiệm argues that Pigneau was a fugitive during that period and the meeting could not have happened then. He quotes Pigneau as saying in a letter that he met Nguyễn Ánh twice in January and December 1784 when the King entrusted to the care of the priest  his six year old son.

Nguyễn Văn Kiệm also challenges the authenticity of the French translation of the”Quyết  nghị  của Hội Đồng Hoàng Gia” (Resolution of the Royal Assembly), a credentials letter (quốc thư) reportedly made in the 43th year of Cảnh Hưng (1783) as a formal request for aid from France . Its Chinese script original (chữ Hán) version has never been found or mentioned in Vietnamese records. Nguyen Van Kiem hypothesizes that Pigneau himself wrote the French document, probably based on oral instructions given to him by the King before his departure and Pigneau predated it. (Nguyễn Văn Kiệm, ‘Những Vấn Đề Lịch Sử Triều Nguyễn’, Saigon, Nhà Xuất bản Văn Hóa Sàigòn, 2007, p52)

[23] “Phó Vệ Úy Phạm Văn Nhân và Cai cơ Nguyễn Văn Liêm” (minor military officers) (Nguyễn Văn Kiệm, ‘Những Vấn Đề Lịch Sử Triều Nguyễn’, Saigon, Nhà Xuất bản Văn Hóa Sàigòn, 2007)  

[24] In 1674, the French acquired Valikondapuram from the Sultan of Bijapur and thus the foundation of Puducherry was laid. Initially, the objectives of the French were purely commercial. then political motives began to overshadow the desire for commercial gain.

In the 18th century the town of Puducherry was laid out on a grid pattern and grew considerably. It was lost to the British for a while until 1765 when the town was returned to France after a peace treaty with England in Europe . During the next 50 years Puducherry changed hands between France and Britain with the regularity of their wars and peace treaties. http://cgi.ebay.in/French-India-Doudou-Pondicherry-Mint-1700-1790-AD_W0QQitemZ310034732004QQihZ021QQcategoryZ118376QQcmdZViewItem  

[25] French Governers of Pondichery during this period:

 David Charpentier de Cossigny, October 1785–1787
Thomas, comte de Conway, October 1787–1789


[26] Andre Masson, ibid, p.40

[27] Seaport in Morbihan , Brittany , Northwest France .

[28] “Royal enfant, consolez -vous.Vous regnerez. Adran vous aime”’ (Colonel Maurice Rives, Les premiers Marins et Soldats Francais dans le Sud Est Asiatique., Bulletin de L’A.N.A.I., No 10, July 1st 2007)  

[29] Plan d’assistance au roi de la Cochinchine. ( Colonel Maurice Rives, ibid)

[30] Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne was president of the Assembly of Notables in 1787. He later became a cardinal, the repudiated Catholicism during the French Revolution, and eventually died in prison.


[31] 1200 foot soldiers (fantassins), 200 artilleurs, and also 250 Cafres  (Africans) according to Colonel Maurice Rives, ibid.

[32] ibid

[33] or Faifo (now Hội An, a tourist destination in central Vietnam , according to other sources).

[34] Côn Đảo in Vietnamese.

[35] Phạm Văn Sơn, Việt Sử Toàn Thư, Saigon , 1960,Tủ Sách Sử Học, p592

[36] ibid

[37] Thomas Conway (Feb 27,1735-1800) was a French soldier from Ireland . He was a major general in the Continental Army during the (American) Revolutionary War. As a French colonel, he volunteered his service to the American cause in 1777, was a hero at the battle of Germantown and reached the rank of Major General despite George Washington ‘s objection. He resigned from the American Army in 1778, was wounded in a duel but survived to come back to France . Afterwards he became the Governor of Pondichery. In 1793, he fought unsuccessfully on the royalist side against the French revolutionaries, went back to Ireland and died there.


[38]  Huynh Ích Lợi, in a letter to the newspaper Đông Pháp in 1928, quoted this paragraph from E. LavisanHistoire Generale: « Il repartit pour Pondichéry, dont le gouverneur, le comte de Conway, Irlandais d’origine, devait commander l’expédition. L’histoirien anglais John Barrow que l’évêque d’Adran, ayant à son arrivée rendu visite aux femmes des différente fonctionnaires, oublit d’aller voir Mme de Vienne, maitresse de Conway aurait usé de son pouvoir pour faire retarder l’envoi des troupes. Ce qui est sur, c’est que le gouverneur, peu favorable à l’éxpédition, qu’il ne considérait pas avantageuse pour la France, ne donna pas de suite à ces projets, et le traité de Versailles ne fut pas exécuté. Des instuctions secrètes, ignorées de l’eveque, laissaient à Conway toute latitude »

http://www.viet-studies.info/Phankhoi/HuynhIchLoi_DaiNgoDiem.htm (accessed 4-16-2008)

[39] Andre Masson, ibid, p.43

[42] a Vietnamese cemetery near the botanical garden in 1872 described in another paragraph about Saigon by Dr Morice

[43] ‘Voyage en Cochinchine 1872 par Mr. le Docteur Morice’. http://collin.francois.free.fr/Le_tour_du_monde/textes/Cochinchine/cochinchine1.htm

[44] Tuyết Trần,ibid

[45] Adrian Launey’ ‘Histoire générale de la Société des missions étrangères’, 1894. p137

[46] Adrian Launey, ibid


[47] Tuyết Trần, ibid.

[48] Nguyễn Tấn Lộc , ‘Gia Long’, in Vietsciences.  http://vietsciences.free.fr/ )

[49] “Có thời người ta chỉ trích rất nhiều về lòng bất hiếu với tổ tiên của người Công giáo Việt Nam . Thú thực chúng ta chẳng bao giờ quên tổ tiên, nhưng thay vì cúng, chúng ta xin lễ, cầu nguyện. Vấn đề cấm không cho giáo dân tham dự lễ cúng ông bà, cha mẹ, quả thật có gây nên sự hiểu lầm. Nhưng ngày 20-10-1964 , Tòa Thánh đã cho phép áp dụng huấn thị Plane Compertum Est ở Việt Nam . Huấn thị này cho phép người Trung Hoa được phép tham dự các nghi lễ ông bà, lễ Đức Khổng, lễ anh hùng dân tộc. Ngày 14-6-1965 Hội Đồng Giám Mục Việt Nam đã cho phép giáo dân tham dự những nghi lễ tỏ lòng hiếu thảo với người quá cố, với tổ tiên, như vái lạy, lập bàn thờ tổ tiên, dùng nhang… một cách chủ động. Huấn thị cũng cho phép vái lạy thi hài người quá cố, đốt hương theo phong tục địa phương. ( http://www.giaophanvinhlong.net/LoiChua/daoongba.htm )  

[50] Phạm Văn Sơn, Việt Sử Toàn Thư, Saigon , 1960,Tủ Sách Sử Học,p581

[51] Also known as Nguyễn Phúc Đảm

[52] Phạm Hy Tùng, ‘Tư liệu mới về vua Gia Long qua chiếc ấm trà cổ’ in Những vấn đề lịch sử Triều Nguyễn, Saigon,Nhà Xuất bản Văn Hóa Sàigòn, 2007 p168.

[53] Article ‘Minh Mang’, in the Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minh_M%E1%BA%A1ng

Japan of the Edo period from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of 19th century practiced isolationism and proscribed Christianity.

[54] The much celebrated victory of Nguyễn Huệ over the Chinese invasion at Đống Đa in the spring of in 1789 as reported by mainstream Vietnamese history texts is still a matter of controversy, in particular regarding the extent of military genius of Nguyễn Huệ and the size of the Chinese invasion. According to Nguyên Gia Kiễng, a political activist who urges Vietnamese to have a realistic reassessment of their nation and its history,” In the eyes of most Vietnamese, Nguyễn Huệ is not only a superman and a national hero, he is also an unassailable paragon of virtue”, and the Vietnamese Communists “have reasons to idolize “ him. He states ”Qing documents clearly indicate that not only did emperor Qianlong have no intention of occupying our country, he even forbade Sun Shiyi (Tôn Sĩ Nghị), to start a war with any of the Vietnamese factions’. Nguyen Gia Kieng reasons that the often reported size of Chinese army, supposedly 200,000 –strong, is an “exaggeration”, given the mountainous terrain that they had to move across to reach Hanoi, and 50.000 Chinese would have been more than enough “to crowd the Vietnamese population” (at most 20,000 at the time) out of Thăng Long, as Hanoi was called then. He also quotes Taiwanese Vietnam history specialist Professor Jiang Junzhang as saying that Sun Shiyi lead a 6,000- strong only cavalry formation to stage a show of force, but lost badly, returned to China and was dismissed.

(Nguyen Gia Kieng, Whence...Wither... Vietnam ? Paris-Melbourne 2005, p.89-90)

[55] Sebastian Vauban (1633-1707), Commissaire général des fortifications, responsible for the fortifications at several sites of French frontiers, author of “Traité de Défense des Places’ (1703). (According to Le Petit Larousse Illustré, 2004).

[56] Olivier de Puymanel (1768-1798), with a Vietnamese name “Ông Tim’, one of the most effective artisans of Nguyễn Ánh victory. He met Pigneau in Paris and boarded La Dryade as a volunteer. He deserted the French ship at Poulo Condor, was brought to Nguyễn Ánh by the Vietnamese priest Ho Van Nghi. Nguyen Anh made him a mandarin and also chief-of-staff of his forces. He soon organized the Vietnamese army according to European norms, created naval dockyards, manufactures of firearms and built the citadel of Saigon, which was able to accommodate 50,000 men (reference: Maurice Rives’ article cited below).

[57] Portuguese term (of Indian origin) for person who takes care of and rides an elephant.

[58] Quoted from the article by Colonel Maurice Rives ‘Les premiers Marins et Soldats Francais dans le Sud Est Asiatique’, Bulletin de L’ANAI, July 1st, 2007, Numero 10.p8.

[59] Colonel Maurice Rives, ibid.

[61]  The age of 40 at his death mentioned in Vietnamese texts is due to the fact that regardless of their birth date, Vietnamese get one year at birth then one year added to their age every Lunar New Year, not at their birthday.  

[63] Andre Masson, ibid, p.44

[64] Prince Cảnh was married to Tống Thị Quyên. They had to boys Mỹ Đường and Mỹ Thủy. Under the reign of Minh Mạng, Tống Thị Quyên was condemned to death by drowning for alleged incestuous crime with her son. Both her sons were later excluded from the court under different pretexts, probably because as direct descendants of the eldest son of Gia Long, the founding king, they were potential pretenders to the throne. Cường Để, a direct descendant of Prince Cảnh, was designated by Phan Bội Châu as leader of Việt nam Quang Phục Hội, a nationalist political movement at the beginning of the 20th century.

[65] Adrian Launey, ibid, page 386

Launey writes that the prince requested “un moment de solidude  avec un de ses domestiques” and  was baptized.


[66] According to Nguyen Văn Kiệm, the role of Pigneau (Bá Đa Lộc) has been frequently overestimated and is not a decisive factor in Nguyễn Ánh‘s victory over the Tây Sơn. He mentions as the more important causes such as Nguyễn Ánh’s strong will and energy, division among the Tây Sơn brothers,  Nguyễn Huệ’s sudden early  death and the current political situation.(Re: see note 14)