The “Affair of the Tombs,” 1912-1913

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

In late 1912, an illegal treasure hunt in the Tự Đức tomb compound in Huế reduced the 13-year-old Emperor Duy Tân to tears, ended the career of the Resident Superior of Annam Georges Mahé, and was cited by Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh as one of the immediate causes of the Hà Nội bombing of 26 April 1913. Here is a selection of newspaper reports on the events surrounding the so-called “affair of the tombs.”

Straits Times, 17 May 1913: Hanoi bomb outrage – two French commandants killed, Europeans and natives injured

L’Avenir du Tonkin prints an extensive report of the bomb outrage in Hanoi mentioned in our telegraphic columns recently.

A bomb exploded on the terrace of the Hanoi Hotel on the evening of 26 April, killing two French superior officers and injuring a number of Europoeans and Annamites. The date mentioned was a Saturday, on which evening the hotel was more than usually crowded. About 300 people had assembled and were seated, some on the terrace, some in the restaurant room. The scene of pleasure and animation was rudely distubed just after half past seven by a loud report on the terrace and clouds of smoke ascended. This was followed by cries of pain.

Commandant Chapuis, one of the two French officers killed in the bombing of 26 April 1913

When the smoke cleared, it was seen that a number of people had fallen to the ground. Blood seemed everywhere on the floor, and windows were shattered. At once the cry was raised that a bomb had been thrown, and it was discovered that the miscreant responsible for the dastardly outrage was an Annamite. It had fallen right in the entrance to the hotel, mortally wounding Commandant Montgrand of the Son-Tay, and Commandant Chapuis, old comrades who had met to renew old acquaintance. They were seated at a round table in the entrance. Several people seated at the next table received terrible injuries and were removed to hospital. Others in different parts of the building were more or less injured, one man’s hat being riddled.

Despite the late hour, the news of the outrage spread rapidly, and soon all the officials, including the Governor General and the Police, were on the scene. Soldiers were posted in the cafés, and precautions were taken to prevent a recurrence of the outrage. Commandant Montgrand died after terrible suffering at 10 o’clock the same evening, and Commandant Chapuis expired at 1.30am. The police made 65 arrests. The funeral of the victims took place on Tuesday. It was attended by the Governor General and military officials.

Bulletin de l’Institut colonial de Nancy, May 1913

INDO-CHINA – De-Tham, our old enemy, died on 11 February 1913. His death can only serve the cause of peace.

On the other hand, the 26 April 1913 bombing in Hanoi was a revolutionary act which could not be considered a simple incident. It has drawn our attention to the wisdom of monitoring in China those nests of conspiracy which are likely to organise unrest in Tonkin. Punishments have been handed out to 85 defendants: seven were sentenced to death, 14 imprisoned and 60 sentenced to forced labour or prison. This shows well enough the extent of the criminal process, but from the French point of view, there will be much to fear if the indigenous people harbour feelings of union with these conspirators who have learned to handle bombs.

It comes soon after “affair of the tombs of Hue,” which certainly caused injury to the traditionalist sentiments of the Annamites. It was an administrative error to carry out excavations in an imperial tomb which, in the eyes of the native people, had thus suffered desecration.

Le Journal, 1 May 1913: The bombing of Hanoi

Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of Annam, who lost his job for carrying out the illegal excavations

Monsieur Georges Mahé, the Resident Superior in Annam, has been recalled; he will be given compulsory retirement.

The Governor General of Indochina has not yet addressed new information to the Minister of Colonies about the bombing of Hanoi; we think that Monsieur Sarraut has not wished to send details on the progress of the investigation by cable, preferring to ship them by post and thus to exclude any possibility of indiscretion. Be that as it may, the report of Monsieur Sarraut on this case is eagerly awaited; we hope to receive it via the first Trans-Siberian mail.

On the subject of Monsieur Sarraut, the rumour was spread that the Governor General had also been recalled, but it is not so. Since his departure, the Governor General, who went to the Far East with the firm intention of carrying out long-term work, has never taken any leave, and right now, when his presence in the colony is most needed, he would never consider taking the ship home. As for the government, it has no reason to recall the Governor General, who has its confidence. However, just a few days before the attack in Hanoi was known, the Minister of Colonies recalled from office Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident Superior in Annam.

Having been told confidentially by an indigenous person that treasure was hidden in the area around the tomb of Emperor Tu-Duc, Monsieur Mahé asked the Governor General for permission to proceed with excavations inside the sacred enclosure, but Monsieur Sarraut forbade him from doing so. Ignoring this prohibition, Monsieur Mahé obtained from ministers of Annam a resolution authorising an excavation, and proceeded with the violation of the tomb of Tu Duc. The indigenous population was outraged, and Monsieur Sarraut, sharing their indignation, ordered the cessation of excavation and reported the incident to the Minister of Colonies. It was for this reason that Monsieur Mahé was recalled. We understand that he will be given compulsory retirement as soon as the matter has been heard by the minister, his personal responsibility for the affair being, we are assured, absolute.

The violation of the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc gave an extremely disastrous impression in Annam. The young Emperor Duy Tan, who is 13 years old, visited the tomb of Tu Duc, and there, bursting into tears, he reproached his ministers, who were present, for the sacrilegious desecration of which they were guilty. His reaction was, we are told from Hue, very moving.

All of these events occurred before the bombing of Hanoi; however, we are assured by cable from Saigon that there is no correlation between these incidents and the attack.

Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of Annam is received in Thanh Hóa province by its Resident Pierre Pasquier and provincial governor Tôn Thất Nhiệm in 1912 (BAVH 3, 1941)

It is difficult to pronounce on the case before circumstantial details are available; but we believe that the spirit of the indigenous group which manufactured and launched the bombs was determined by various causes, including Chinese revolutionary agitation involved in anti-dynastic activity against Duy-Tan and renewal of the alcohol monopoly. Perhaps the affair of the tombs also added to the excitement of the agitators.

Whatever the case, Indochinese officials currently in France – and they are of the highest grade – regard the bombing in Hanoi as a very serious symptom. According to the latest news from Hanoi, the funerals of Commandants Chapuis and Montgrand have been celebrated in this city with solemnity. Monsieur Albert Sarraut addressed an emotional farewell to the two officers who died in battle; The French and the indigenous population remained calm.

Fernand Hauser

Les Annales coloniales: organe de la “France coloniale modern,” 6 May 1913: Cochinchina

Although we are still unable to speak with absolute certainty, there is now more and more reason to believe that those who carried out the armed attack of 26 April 1913 (our readers will already know the detail: a bomb in Hanoi killed two French officers) have a close relationship with Chinese revolutionaries. The Cochinchina community believes that this is the natural consequence of our cowardice towards the indigenous people.

The Governor General suspects further that one of those who has funded the revolutionaries in our colony is the brother of Sun-Yat-Sen, but thus far he has sent no evidence about it to the Department.

Preparations for attacks had been made for several months already in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. The main Annamite involved would be the son of Te-Kieu, a big landowner and former gang leader in Tonkin.

Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh (1872–1926)

A meeting took place in Saigon on 30 April to protest against the policy of abandonment followed towards the indigenous people, which, by encouraging protest, is dangerous by virtue of the audacity and ambition it gives to the Annamites. Yet, while this meeting was going on, another voice was heard here in Paris.

The mandarin-scholar Phan-Chau-Trinh (who was sentenced to death in 1907, then pardoned and sent to Poulo Condor, where he spent three years before his release on the intervention of our collaborator Maurice Viollette, before being given permission to enter France), has confided to our friend Fernand Hauser, in the Journal.

In particular, he told him: “The alcohol monopoly has been renewed, although it was solemnly promised that it would not be; our patriots still languish in Poulo Condor prison, although they were promised grace; the education we demand is always denied us; the contempt of which we complain is always thrown at us; and to all these faults are added new ones: Now they have even violated the sacred tomb of Emperor Tu-Duc in search of money!

In that there are both truths and falsehoods. Phan-Chau-Trinh-mocks the public when he says: “There is talk now of establishing a regime of terror in Annam. That’s easily said. But when you’ve arrested 500,000 persons and cut off their heads, what then? You will only inflame passions.”

But it becomes truly grotesque when the mandarin clearly shows us what sin we have committed by increasingly admitting our Annamite protégés to various administrative positions, saying: “Do you not think that it is in the interest of France to get along with the Annamites? On the day when it gives the people of Annam their autonomy, France, by instructing us, by preparing us for freedom and by giving us that freedom peacefully, would retain our sympathies, and we would remain close friends and allies.”

Oh come on! Was it for such a comedy that Annamite land was watered everywhere with the best French blood? Our dead would rise from their Asian mass graves in protest on the day when France would act this way. For there is no doubt that, after many years of political carelessness, according ever-increasing autonomy to the indigenous people, they would now waste no time expelling our compatriots from the land they conquered at the price of their lives.

Members of the Council of the Government pictured at the Imperial palace in Huế, including Governor General Albert Sarrault and Resident Superior of Annam Georges Mahé (BAVH 3, 1941)

Where Phan-Chau-Trinh was mistaken – because we refuse to believe that he abused the good faith of Monsieur Fernand Hauser – is when he talked about the contempt for the French which has been nurtured amongst the indigenous people. During the rule of Monsieur Sarrault? Nobody would believe it for a moment, not least our settlers! What would they say?

Le Temps, whose communiqué is official, said that the Indochinese police had been informed for several months of preparations by revolutionaries based in China, and before 26 April they had succeeded in preventing any attacks.

Phan-Chau-Trinh infers that the attack of 26 April is a direct consequence of the famous “affair of the tombs.” Read more:

“What do you think the population thinks of that? Ah! When I learned about the sacrilege committed in Hue, I shuddered! I thought something bad might happen, in fact I warned a friend of the terrible consequences of this desecration, which had occurred after so many previous harmful acts! I know that the government was informed of the letter in which I raised my concerns. And just 22 days after I wrote, that bomb exploded in Hanoi!”

Phan Chau-Trinh probably believes that in France there are only people ignorant of all that which has been contrived for years by indigenous communities to try to make us swallow such nonsense. That we should submit to the demands of the Annamites for privileges which prejudice our own, that’s something we will never permit, indeed only a fool or a madman would agree to such a thing. It would be the death of all colonisation!

A word in conclusion. Phan-Chau-Trinh also told Mr. Fernand Hauser: “This oppressive regime [it’s the so human and so benevolent regime of Albert Sarraut which Phan-Chau-Trinh judges thus!] is the wood accumulated in the hearth, and only a small spark could start a fire! Beware! I love France. I hope with all my heart that it retains its reputation for justice and that it will wish to weigh the public interest and specific interests regarding our country; enabling it to see that it has everything to gain by giving us the necessary reforms.

Vietnamese nationalist Phan Châu Trinh (1872–1926)

The French administration will say, perhaps, that nothing is urgent, that the situation is not serious. I am of the opposite opinion, and it’s because I love France deeply that I tell you this. To those we love, we owe the truth.”

These sentences undoubtedly contain a threat, the truth of which the mandarin has incompletely articulated. If Phan-Chau-Trinh knows something and believes he can advance the facts, if he loves France, his duty is clear. If he loves his country, even in his own interests, his duty is to dispel the misunderstandings of these ambiguous words. And perhaps the duty of the authorities would be to question him further on this.

The bombing of Hanoi has deeply moved, as we have said, the Saigon population. We have already reported on a meeting held recently in Saigon, which was attended by over 600 of our compatriots. The chairman of the meeting, Monsieur Foray, sent us the following telegram:

“Saigon, 3 May – The French people of Cochinchina, gathered in a large meeting under the chairmanship of Monsieur Foray, are rightly concerned at the recent series of crimes, including that in Hanoi, and believe that the situation has been aggravated primarily due to the policy advocated by some parliamentarians, who are unaware of the real relationships existing between the various elements inhabiting our colony. It is they who have spread their false humanitarianism and sought unhealthy popularity by exciting the dregs of the indigenous population against alleged colonial excesses, even at the expense of the vast majority of honest and loyal Annamites. The said French people, convinced that this situation poses the most imminent danger to the interests acquired by our compatriots at the price of innumerable sacrifices consented by themselves in men and money since our establishment in Indochina, protest strongly against the continuation of this harmful policy. They demand the full reinstatement of indigenous justice, in order to remedy a situation which has become unbearable, and to prevent the inevitable recurrence of attacks similar to those already perpetrated, and to this end they are ready if needed to support their legitimate demands by all means within their power.”

It should be recalled that out of Saigon’s 70,000 inhabitants, there are 7,000 Europeans, including over 6,500 French (civilian population), and 2,000 French in the rest of Cochinchina. This telegram reflects clearly the opinion of the majority of French people in the colony.

Chợ Lớn in the early 20th century

We should add that Monsieur Foray, a lawyer in Saigon, is a candidate for a parliamentary seat.

Recently, on 27 or March 28, a band of 500 Annamites, enlisted by the enemies of our domination, marched out of the interior, in particular from Mytho, Tanan and the banks of the Vaïco, to disturb the peace in Cholon. A total of 80 arrests were made. These individuals were dressed in clothes made almost all from white cloth. The security police raided the home of a rickshaw company manager named Tu-Mang on quai Testard, Cholon, seizing 16 combat swords. They are continuing their search for other weapons. Searches were also made at the premises of an indigenous hôtelier, but they found only the works of Pascal, Rousseau, Descartes and Lamennais. The conspirators, who were mainly engaged in crimes against persons, said they left their family homes at the instigation of certain leaders to come in great number to Cholon and Saigon. There they were to have been given weapons and all necessary instructions. One of the leaders was a certain Truong, of Tang-Tru, in the province of Cholon. Numerous patrols are now criss-crossing Saigon and Cholon, their officers are armed with revolvers. Many of the European population have also bought Brownings and even Mausers and Lebels – the city’s armourers are doing a great trade at the moment. The Administrator of the province of Cholon posted a large sign warning the Asian population against the actions of some individuals and demonstrating the absurdities contained in the seditious placards. His call for peace has, it appears, produced favourable results among all the Asian population.

Le Matin: derniers télégrammes de la nuit, 19 May 1913: The case of the tombs of Annam – the first punishment

In response to the question put to him by Monsieur Doisy, Socialist deputy from the Ardennes, who wished to know whether responsibility was being sought regarding the desecration of the imperial tombs of Hue and what sanctions had been or would be taken, the Minister of the Colonies made this statement, which was published yesterday in the Journal officiel: “The responsibilities have been thoroughly investigated and the necessary measures taken.”

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

The first punishment was given to Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident-Superior of Annam, who has been placed in retirement. Monsieur Mahé, who is 53 years old and has completed many years of service, will soon return to France. There will be other punishments. Those will most likely be handed out after Governor General Sarraut has, by a thorough enquiry, established the responsibility of each person. Moreover, only after much thought will decisions will be made, with all the necessary sang-froid.

Le Petit Parisien: journal quotidien du soir, 21 May 1913: Profanation of the tombs of Hue

Marseille, 20 May – Monsieur Georges Mahé, Resident Superior of France in Annam, arrived in Marseille this morning on the ship Ernest-Simons of the Messageries maritimes Far East courriers. Asked on arrival about the excavations that were made last December in the imperial tombs of Hue, Monsieur Mahé refused to provide any information, saying that he had nothing to say as he had not yet met with the Minister of Colonies.

As yet, the news of the forced retirement of this official, published a few days ago, has no official status. It is only after the Minister of Colonies has spoken to Monsieur Mahé that he will make a formal announcement.

Let me say first that the desecration of the imperial tombs of Hue has no connection with the bombing of Hanoi on 26 April, a work planned long ago by Annamite revolutionaries based in China.

According to reports, the Resident Superior in Annam was the victim of intrigues which he would not be happy to acknowledge. Several ministers, part of the Regency Council of the young Emperor of Annam, suggested to Monsieur Mahé that secret treasure was hidden in a royal tomb in Hue. The Regency Council is divided into two rival clans, each of which deploy a prodigious arsenal of tricks and machinations. In the circumstances, one of these clans would eagerly have seized any opportunity to lead our protectorate into trouble.

The Khiêm Mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-1883), where the illegal excavations were carried out in December 1912

The Annamite population has conserved a religious respect for the person of its sovereign. In addition, it observes to a very high degree the worship of ancestors. The excavations at the royal tomb in Hue were seen as a desecration, because according to the Annamite custom, the body is never buried in the actual tomb assigned to it. The imperial tombs are spacious gardens with lawns, walkways and woodlands, and it is in any part of a tomb enclosure, with no external distinguishing mark, that a body may be buried. In this way, taking a pick axe or shovel to any area inside the enclosure, according to indigenous beliefs, risks violating the royal corpse.

This is why the excavations, although they were quickly stopped, produced a feeling of discontent which was quickly exploited by xenophobes. Monsieur Mahé, who had thought to enrich the reserve funds of the colony without damage to anyone, was thus heavily deceived. These, we believe, are the facts with which he has been charged, and for which he must now find justification.

Le XIXe siècle: journal quotidien politique et littéraire, 22 May 1913: The affair of the tombs of Annam

Marseille, 20 May – This morning at 8am, the Messageries Maritimes steamship Ernest-Simons arrived from the Far East. On board was Monsieur Mahé, Resident-Superior of Annam, who had been called home by the Minister of Colonies to provide explanations on the violation of the imperial tombs of Hue, an act which was committed last December.

Interviewed after coming ashore, Monsieur Mahé refused formally to answer any questions, saying that he had a duty to provide explanations to the Minister first. Monsieur Mahé left for Paris in the evening.

Le Temps, 11 July 1913: Indochine: A short speech by the King of Annam (from our special correspondent)

Hanoi, 12 June – According to agency telegrams, the Governor General has installed Monsieur Jean-François Charles as Resident Superior in Annam, in succession to Monsieur Mahé, whose departure was prompted by the famous “affair of the tombs.”

The Emperor Duy Tân as a child

The memory of this unfortunate incident is completely erased today, and the action taken with regard to Monsieur Mahé seems to have produced a favourable response in the Annamite community. An outstanding and entirely unexpected event has also shown the excellent disposition of the court of Annam. His Majesty Duy-Tan usually responds to speeches by the Governor General merely by reading a short statement in the Annamite language, which is then translated directly by an interpreter. This time, however, to everyone’s surprise, the king spoke in French and delivered the following speech, which he had prepared himself, without the knowledge of the Governor General:

“I would like, Governor General, to express my gratitude and to tell you what a precious comfort you have been for everyone here in the wake of the sad events which plunged Tonkin and all Indochina into mourning. Annam feels today as never before the need for the support and protection of France, and you came, responding to the secret call of my heart, like the silent desire of the Annamite people, to bring through your presence the certainty of that protection, the assurance of the interest that a great nation carries to her adoptive child.

On behalf of my people and myself, I also address to you, Governor General, the expression of our gratitude for the appointment of Monsieur Charles to the post of Resident Superior in Annam. We have known him for a long time and I am happy to say here that he has our confidence.

I drink to the health of the President of the French Republic, to your health, Governor General, and to the health of the Resident Superior.”

For those who know Annam, this royal initiative is a small revolution. I understand, moreover, that the king has spent much time with the Governor General and has testified to his satisfaction at the liberal policies being followed by France in Indochina.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

Inauguration of the Pigneau de Béhaine statue, 10 March 1902

Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh pictured during the colonial era

This 1902 article from the Annales des Missions étrangères de Paris describes the inauguration of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran and Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina on 10 March 1902. The statue was removed during the August Revolution of 1945 and replaced in February 1959 by the present Virgin Mary statue by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ciocchetti.

The statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine, Bishop of Adran, Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina in the 18th century, was recently inaugurated on the most beautiful square in Saigon, capital of our colony of Cochinchina.

Before recounting the festivities which took place on this occasion, let’s briefly summarise the career of the missionary bishop.

Pigneau de Béhaine, painted by Maupérin during his 1787 trip to Paris with Crown Prince Cảnh, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society

Monsignor Pierre-Joseph-Georges Pigneau de Béhaine was born on 3 November 1741 in Origny, in the département of Aisne. His studies were begun at the Collège de Laon, continued at the Séminaire de la Sainte-Famille in Paris, and completed at the Séminaire des Missions-Étrangères.

He left for the Far East in 1765. At first, he became a teacher at the Collège général, which was then based in Hon-Dat, in the Gulf of Cambodia. However, when the Siamese invaded this part of the Annamite kingdom, Monsignor Pigneau was thrown into prison, where he remained for several months. After his release, he went to Pondicherry with what remained of the college faculty, and settled in Virampatnam. In 1771, he received the papal bull nominating him as bishop of Adran. He was consecrated in Madras in 1774, and in 1776 he returned to Cochinchina, a land which was then experiencing the horrors of civil war.

The legitimate sovereign, Nguyen-Anh, better known under the name of Gia-Long, had been driven from the capital of Hue by the Tay-Son rebels. Hoping that our country would find great benefit from settling in Cochinchina, Monsignor Pigneau offered Nguyen-Anh the aid of France, which he accepted. He then came to Paris with the eldest son of the deposed king, Prince Canh, who was then aged five or six years. Thanks to his skill, a treaty was concluded between France and Cochinchina and signed on 28 November 1787, offering us many commercial benefits.

Unfortunately, the government of Louis XVI did not keep the promises it had made, and did not send to the king of Cochinchina the troops it had undertaken to provide. However, Monsignor Pigneau was not discouraged, and, with courage and perseverance, brought to Saigon two ships loaded with around 100 French officers and soldiers, as well as munitions.

Feeble as it appeared, this aid, consisting of elite men, was sufficient to ensure the victory of Nguyen-Anh and to permit him to regain the throne of his ancestors.

Seven-year-old Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh, painted by Maupérin during the prince’s 1787 trip to Paris with Pigneau, on display at the Paris Foreign Missions Society

The political role of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine in particular has struck the minds of the historians and colonisers of our epoque; but his religious role was no less important. Of that we can be convinced by reading the biography which one of our colleagues, M. Louvet, dedicated to the great and holy bishop, under this title: “Missionary and Patriot, Monsignor d’Adran.”

Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine died on 21 October 1799. His protégé, Gia Long, organised a splendid funeral for the man he called, out of respect, “Master.” He also delivered a great eulogy at his tomb, a translation of which we provide below, and raised a monument to him which time and persecutions have since respected.

It was in memory of this missionary bishop that, on 10 March 1902, our colony of Cochinchina inaugurated a bronze statue.

The idea of the installing a statue of Monsignor Pigneau first came to Bishop Colombert (died 31 December 1894). Sadly, his successor Monsignor Dépierre (died 17 October 1898), who followed him so quickly to the grave, did not have the joy of seeing the realisation of the vow made by his late predecessor. However, it was on his initiative that, on 28 April 1897, a meeting composed of all senior officials of the colony and presided over by M. Doumer, Governor General of Indochina, was organised to deliberate on the opportunity and convenience of raising a monument in memory of the Bishop of Adran.

This project having been adopted unanimously, the inauguration of the monument was fixed for 16 December 1899, the 100th anniversary of the great royal funeral which Gia Long (the name taken after his coronation by Nguyen-Anh) organised for the late Bishop of Adran.

A special Statue Committee was set up, and at its first meeting, an action group was formed, made up of the most honourable personalities of Saigon, and a public subscription launched to raise the necessary funds. Within very little time, fundraising was carried out throughout of all French Indochina, passing through the Court of Hue and all provinces of Annam, and eventually raising the figure of 50,000 francs, including 3,000 francs granted by the French Minister of Fine Arts, on the request of M. Le Myre de Vilers, deputy from Cochinchina.

Another view of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh pictured during the colonial era

The Saigon Municipal Council, uniting behind the movement of sympathy which flocked to the cause of our patriotic missionary bishop, authorised, by means of a resolution dated 8 January 1898, the installation of his statue in the Cathedral square.

The statue itself was commissioned from the well known sculptor, M. Édouard Lormier, and its casting was entrusted to the Maison Barbedienne, a foundry famous for this kind of work.

M. Blanchet, Director of the Compagnie des Messageries fluviales de Cochinchine and President of the Chamber of Commerce of Saigon, being in France at that time, was specially appointed by the Statue Committee, of which he was then Vice President, to confer and agree with the artist and the foundry, so that the statue might be in Saigon by 16 December 1899, the day fixed for the ceremony of its installation. However, unexpected obstacles led to delays, so that sadly the statue could not be installed at the appointed time.

It is only fair to pay a very special tribute here to the zeal of M. Blanchet, and to recognise that it was only through his goodwill, his remarkable activity and his unfailing perseverance that everything was finally ready for 10 March 1902.

On that day, in front of a large crowd which came to applaud the work realised by Monsignor d’Adran, the inauguration of the statue took place at 7am.

The statue depicts the bishop standing, larger than life (2.9m), with his right hand outstretched and holding the Treaty of Versailles (28 November 1787), which his diplomacy had secured from Louis XVI, and which assured Gia Long, Emperor of Annam, the alliance and the aid of France.

His left hand, lowered, falls gently on that of Prince Canh, his royal pupil, who, standing at his side, seems be presented by Monsignor Pigneau to the people. The plinth, made of beautiful red granite from Scotland, measures 3m in height. One detail is not without interest: M. Lormier himself made the voyage from France to Cochinchina to oversee all of the preparations, and was thus able to witness the triumph of his work.

The inauguration of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh on 10 March 1902

The Public Works Directorate made all the necessary preparations with exquisite taste. The stands allocated for guests and VIPs, along with those for the military band and the choir of the cathedral, were decorated with beautiful palm leaves, in the midst of which floated the colours of France.

The inauguration day arrived. This was one of those most beautiful days of the Far East, where the sunlight brought a special lustre, highlighting the various ornamentations of flowers and palms mingling with flags and banners.

Already by 6am, many delegations from neighbouring Annamite parishes of Saigon had arrived with their banners and taken their places around the lawn, in the middle of which stood the covered statue of the bishop of Adran. From that time onwards, the crowd increased steadily, and soon the great square of the Cathedral had an unusual animation.

A few minutes before 7am, the six bells of the beautiful church built by France sounded with great solemnity. The Church, France and Annam had come together to join in their respects and worthily honour the hero of the day, Monsignor d’Adran, who during his lifetime was able to unite the three loves to which he was dedicated: the love of the Church, of which he was the representative; the love of France, of which he was a son, and the love of Annam, of which he was a missionary and later a saviour.

At 7am precisely, the Governor General, M. Paul Doumer, arrived to preside over the ceremony. He was received by Monsignor Mossard, Monsignor Caspar (Apostolic Vicar of Northern Cochinchina based in Hue, who had come to Saigon for the occasion), M. Cuniac, Mayor, and M. Blanchet, latterly President of the Statue Committee. Then, followed by his staff and his Christian Annamite secretary, the Governor General took the seat reserved for him. At his side were Admirals Pottier and Bayle, Commanders of the French Fleet in the Far East and their staffs, military and civilian authorities of the colony, and many missionaries. The ceremony began.

Monsignor Lucien Mossard delivers his speech at the inauguration of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh on 10 March 1902

In an excellent speech, M. Blanchet, in the name of the Statue Committee, entrusted the monument to the city; it was accepted by the Mayor of Saigon, M. Cuniac.

After the veil which had previously covered the statue fell to the ground, M. Lormier’s work was blessed by Monsignor Mossard, clad in a cassock with capelet, waist sash and skull cap, while military music intoned a patriotic song. Thus did France salute one of its most illustrious sons.

Monsignor Mossard then addressed the meeting, arguing cogently that, in this world, it is Divine Providence which sends men out in pursuit of God’s glory.

A high Annamite dignitary, the Phu Nghiem (an Annamite title designating a great mandarin), wearing all the insignia of his rank, spoke on behalf of the Annamite people, adding his voice to that of the Bishop and the Lieutenant Governor, M. de Lamothe, in recognising the benefits brought to the country by Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine.

Finally, with the speeches at an end, a cantata composed specially for the occasion was sung by the Annamite children’s choir of the Cathedral. Their voices seemed to be voices of hope, celebrating in advance the glories and the beautiful promises for the future reserved for those Annamite people who, in greater numbers every day, have come to stand in the shadow of the Cross.

Speech by Monsignor Mossard, Apostolic Vicar of Western Cochinchina, delivered at the inauguration of the statue of Bishop Pigneau de Béhaine on 10 March 1902

Ladies and gentlemen,

Monsignor Lucien Mossard (1851-1920), Apostolic Vicar of Western Cochinchina

This monument, raised to the glory of the Bishop of Adran, and intended to perpetuate his memory in Cochinchina, illuminates with a new clarity a great truth which is all too often ignored: I refer to the intervention of Divine Providence in all things here on earth. The Pigneau de Béhaine statue, standing in the shadow of the Cathedral of Saigon, is one of the answers of Providence to three centuries of bloody persecution.

The famous “reasons of state,” so often invoked by governments of all epochs to justify their excesses, were not ignored by the emperors of Annam. Over time, ladies and gentlemen, this “reason of state,” so greatly advocated yet so little understood, and almost always misapplied when it was not an expression of morality and law, was eventually turned against those very people who had transformed it into a criminal abuse. In this way did the almighty hand of God bring the true point – the death on the Cross of Jesus Christ – into our human affairs.

And if we seek a human agent of this Divine Providence, do we not find one in the missionary bishop, to whom the Emperor Gia Long gave public testimony of civility, and whom the Prince Canh, standing next to him here, seems to present to the Annamite population as the most perfect model of a teacher and a wise, dedicated and loyal friend.

It has rightly been said that, in troubled periods of history, the challenge has been not so much doing one’s duty as knowing what that duty is. The Bishop of Adran was in Cochinchina when the revolt of the Tay-Son triumphed. Having dethroned the reigning Nguyen dynasty, the Tay-Son then threatened to extinguish its last scion, Prince Nguyen Anh, who, reduced to helplessness, found himself at the mercy of the conqueror, condemned to lead the hard life of a fugitive and outlaw. Our illustrious prelate, whose soul was kneaded with loyalty, courage and respect for established authority, espoused without hesitation his righteous, yet still unrecognised, cause.

Emperor Gia Long (1802-1820)

Not only did he save from death the heir of legitimate kings, he also helped Nguyen-Anh to recover his belief in the future of his cause, and strengthened the resolve and courage of his followers. Furthermore, he secured for his royal protégé the assistance of his homeland, our generous nation of France, which has always been willing to help others in times of misfortune. The wise approaches and prodigious activity of the Bishop, together with the valour of the French officers and soldiers he enlisted to his cause, soon changed the course of events.

The fugitive Nguyen-Anh was finally able to bring victory under his standard, and when, the uprising crushed, he ascended the throne of his forefathers, he could add a new jewel to his crown: Tonkin and Annam permanently removed from the hands of the defeated Tay Son. There we have it, ladies and gentlemen, a point of Annamite history which I hope no-one will ever contradict.

It was his selfless service rendered to their royal dynasty, his tireless dedication to the cause of their country, that so many of the Annamite literati, from Saigon to Hue, from Haiphong to Hanoi, wanted to recognise and reward. Indeed, they responded well to the call of committee for the installation of this statue. While understanding how grateful they were for the contributions made by this great bishop, we must thank them for having so spontaneously and sometimes so delicately expressed their feelings about his memory.

As for us, French outsiders who follow anxiously the progress of our national flag around the world, whose hearts leap with joy at the triumphs of France and bleed with anguish during its setbacks, we salute this man of broad and fruitful ideas who was determined that, in the Far East, the French name should be synonymous with progress, civilisation and true freedom.

We salute one whose whole life was dedicated to the service of God, Annam and France, and who died in pain, having accomplished – alas! – only a very small part of what he had intended to do for the good of all three. We welcome this statue. It will be like an open book, for future generations to read a glorious page of Gestes de Dieu par les Francs.

Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau, who served the Nguyễn dynasty

It will speak out loud, telling us that the strife and struggles of political parties, in short everything that today agitates the minds of our mother country, could not, in this colony, divide truly French hearts. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it will say that we all stood together here, to offer this bronze statue to an illustrious compatriot, the Bishop of Adran, a long famous name, now the most honoured, the most popular in Cochinchina.

Alongside the bishop of Adran, let’s also salute with emotion and gratitude all of our other brave compatriots who supported him with courage and dignity. Let’s salute Dayot, Magon, Vannier, Girard, Guillon, Chaigneau! Let’s salute Oliver, Lebrun, Barisy, Despiaux! Let’s salute the sailors and soldiers who followed them into danger, and to glory! To them, we say: Today your names may mostly remain unknown; but this statue will remind us of your heroic phalanx. Through it, you will live again in this land of Cochinchina, in the company of the missionary bishop who you loved, and with whom you now share, I hope, endless rest.

I thank the Governor General for the kindness with which he deigned to accommodate the proposed installation of the monument proposed by my venerable predecessor in order to celebrate, as befitting, the 100th anniversary of the death of the bishop of Adran.

I thank the members of the Saigon Municipal Council for unanimously taking the decision which conceded this town square, unquestionably the most appropriate in the circumstances, for the installation of the statue. For this act of patriotism, they are entitled to our gratitude and to the recognition of the Annamite people.

I also have the duty to say a warm thank you to the committee members, department heads, officials and colons who echoed and responded to the call for subscription funding which we sent out.

Emperor Thành Thái (1889-1907) contributed a 300 piastre subvention to meet the cost of the statue’s inauguration ceremony

Let me, in closing, express my admiration and offer the homage of my recognition for the well-known artist, M. Lormier. May the great bishop, whose virtues he has revived in this bronze statue, one day give him the rewards due to those whose civic virtues have been supernaturalised by Divine Faith, Hope and Charity.

Imperial Order

On the occasion of the inauguration of the statue of Bishop of Adran, the first Mandarin of the Emperor of Annam brought to Bishop Mossard an Imperial letter, together with the sum of 300 piastres destined for the celebration of a solemn service for Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine. Here is a translation of the letter:

The 26th day of the 1st month of the 14th year of Thanh Thai (5 March 1902).

Imperial Order issued by the Secret Council (Co-Mat) of the Government of the Empire of Annam.

At the start of the establishment of our Empire, His Majesty the august Emperor and founder of our dynasty, The-To-Cao-Hoang-De (Gia Long), instructed His Lordship the Bishop of Adran, provided with the rank of Thai-Tu-Thai-Pho (Great Tutor to the Crown Prince) and the high noble title of Bi-Du Quan-Cong, to take his eldest son, the Crown Prince (Dong Cung) under his charge to France, in order to request assistance from that noble country in the form of warships and soldiers.

It was thus that His Majesty the Emperor Gia Long was able to reoccupy the capital of Phu-Xuan, and finally to secure the submission of all the countries making up the Empire of Annam.

His Lordship the noble Bishop and the Dong Cung in effect rendered important services to our dynasty. After the establishment of our Empire, We honoured the memories of all those who served in the cause of our dynasty, notably His Lordship the Bishop and the Dong Cung. Now, the Protectorate and the Mission, by mutual agreement, have installed in the province of Gia-Dinh a statue of the late Bishop and the Dong Cung, forever to bequeath their illustrious memories to posterity.

A frontal view of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh

We are very pleased with the marks of sympathy given in this circumstance to these two illustrious personages.

We order our Imperial Treasury to send to the Mission of Saigon, via our Minister at the Mission, Nguyen Than, Kham-Mang-Dai-Than, Can-Chanh-Dien-Dai-Hoc-Si, Dien-Loc-Quan-Cong, the sum of 300 piastres for ritual or memorial services.

Let this be respected.

That is our message.

(Seal of the Co-Mat).

Speech by King Gia Long at the funeral of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine on 16 December 1799:

“I had a sage, the confidant of my most secret thoughts, who, despite the distance of thousands of miles, came into my kingdom and never left me, even when fortune eluded me.

Why must it be now, at the moment when we are the most united, that this premature and untimely death comes to separate us forever? I talk of Pierre Pigneau, Bishop of Adran, and keeping always in mind the memory of his virtues, I want to give him a new token of my gratitude. I owe it to his rare merits. If in Europe he was known as a man of superior talent, here he was regarded as the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina.

In my youth, I had the pleasure of meeting this precious friend, whose character fitted so well with mine. When I took my first steps towards the throne of my ancestors, I had him at my side. For me he was a rich treasure, from whom I could draw all the advice I needed to direct me.

The text of Nguyễn Phúc Ánh’s eulogy at Pigneau’s funeral on 16 December 1799 

But all at once, a thousand misfortunes fell down upon the kingdom, and my feet became as shaky as those of Thieu-Khang dynasty of the Ha, so that we had to take a path that separated us as far as heaven from earth. But you, dear Master, you embraced our cause with a firm and faithful hand, following the example of four old Hao sages who reinstated the Crown Prince of the Emperor Han-Cao-Te to his rightful status! I confided to you our Crown Prince, when you accepted the mission to go and seek on my behalf the interest of the great monarch who reigned in your country. And you managed to get help for me.

They were already at the half way point when your projects encountered obstacles that prevented them from succeeding. Despite this, you wanted to return to my side, regarding my enemies as yours, to seek the opportunity and the means to combat them. In 1788, when my flag was once more raised over Saigon, I looked forward with impatience to some happy noise announcing your return from France. And in 1790, your boat came floating back onto the waters of Cochinchina. In the skilful and full way of gentleness with which you trained and led the Prince, my son, we saw that heaven had singularly gifted you with the skills of education and youth leadership.

My esteem and affection for you grew day by day. In difficult times, you provided us the means that only you could find. The wisdom of your advice and virtue that shone into the playfulness of your conversation brought us closer and closer, we were such friends and so familiar together that when business called me out of my palace, our horses walked side by side. We never had anything but the same heart.

Another colonial-era view of Édouard Lormier’s statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh

Since the day when, by happy chance, we met, nothing could alter our friendship, our mutual dedication and boundless confidence that marked our relationship. I hoped that robust health would enable me to continue tasting the sweet fruits of such unity for a long time! But now the dust covers this beautiful tree! What bitter regrets!

To show everyone the great merits of this illustrious foreigner and spread abroad the fragrance of the virtues he always hid under his modesty, I deliver to him the title of Tutor of the Crown Prince, confer on him the dignity and title Quan Công and give him the name Trung Ý. Alas! When the body dies and the soul rises towards the sky, who could keep it chained here? I have finished this short elegy, but my regrets will never end. Oh, beautiful soul of the Master! Receive this homage!”

For Pétrus Ký’s detailed description of Pigneau’s funeral, see Pétrus Ký – Historical Memories of Saigon and its Environs, 1885, Part 1
For more information on Pigneau’s tomb, see Lăng Cha Cả – From Mausoleum…. To Roundabout!

Édouard Lormier’s 1902 statue of Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine and Crown Prince Cảnh pictured during the colonial era and Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ciocchetti’s 1959 Virgin Mary statue pictured today, from the Facebook group page “Saïgon Chợ Lớn Then & Now”

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.