“The Renovation of Annam” by Frédéric Brévili, Revue du Pacifique, 15 January 1933

The main gate of the Viện cơ mật or “Secret Institute,” which functioned as the Privy Council and key mandarin agency of the royal court

Those interested in the development of our colonial policy in Indochina will have read with real appreciation about the significant reforms which have been promulgated in recent days by Emperor Bao-Dai.

Less than a year, in fact, has elapsed since the return of the young prince from France. We still remember the cordial words of farewell addressed to him before he boarded his ship in Marseille by the Colonial Secretary, M. Albert Sarraut, promising all the support of the French government to the sovereign called to deal with a situation which his long absence had made difficult. For what was already being called in Indochina the “Bao-Dai experiment” posed a number of questions.

Emperor Bảo Đại pictured in 1935 (Fonds Sogny-Marien)

How could the actions of a monarch whose reason now seemed so perfectly formed to Western conceptions be accommodated to that of certain circles of “old Annam,” with their strong attachments to the political and moral traditions of Confucianism?

We know now how events have taken shape so far. Welcomed by eager people in Tourane and Hue, and then through all the provinces of the kingdom, the young emperor has quickly gained sympathy and confidence through a series of happy gestures, abandoning obsolete protocol and demonstrating his desire to live in close contact with the Annamite people.

Moreover, by his regnal ordinance of 12 September, he announced his intention to undertake many reforms in the administrative, judicial and educational fields. Soon after, finally, he called to the leadership of his own cabinet, with the rank and prerogatives of a minister, an entirely new personality from Tonkin, M. Pham-Quynh, whose influence amongst young intellectuals has always been considerable.

Against this background, around two months ago, the Nam-Giao Festival was held. The accomplishment of the rites of this ceremony was to Bao-Dai a new and definitive consecration of the imperial power with which he was now fully clothed in the eyes of his subjects.

Phạm Quỳnh (1892-1945)

The time of the reforms approached. By an order of 3 May last, in full agreement with Governor General Pasquier, the young ruler of Annam came to initiate them. Whatever his good intentions, Bao-Dai was not slow to realise that his initiatives could, to some extent, be paralysed by the “atmosphere” of the court of Hue. For, undoubtedly, a gulf already begun to appear between the desires of the sovereign and those of his respectable mandarins, all of whom had been in his entourage for a good many years. These were people for whom policy was always blended perhaps a little too much with the games of small intrigue so often forged in the ancient courts of the Far East. No-one would doubt that a figure like H E Nguyen-Huu-Bai, a scholar of senior years and Prime Minister of the Court of Annam for the past quarter century, remains worthy of the highest honours. Yet is it desirable that in future the gatekeepers between the emperor and his people should continue to be tied by invisible bonds to the forms and traditions of a bygone era?

Absolutely not, declared the wish of the Emperor, which on this occasion was consistent with that of the administration of the protectorate.

In fact, it was less a problem for Bao-Dai to address the final implementation of the reforms promised by last September’s regnal order than to tackle the issue of the “atmosphere” in which these reforms could and should be realised.

Emperor Bảo Đại’s new ministers, from left to right: Hồ Đắc Khải, Phạm Quỳnh, Thái Văn Toản, Ngô Đình Diệm (later RVN President), Bùi Bằng Đoàn

Basically, it was a question of ensuring the quality of his entourage – finding men who were ready to co-operate loyally with the emperor, to bring him the support of their enlightened wills. After all, how could the sovereign initiate reforms if he were unsure whether his closest collaborators would apply them with the loyalty and perseverance necessary, in a period of transition, for their efficiency?

So here, briefly summarised, is what was eventually determined by Bao-Dai immediately after the Nam-Giao Festival. The resignations of the six ministers already in office were accepted by the sovereign, who then took responsibility for changing the composition of the government. With the exception of H E Thai-Van-Toan, who was moved from Finance to Public Works (with the addition of Rites and Fine Arts), the Cabinet today consists of four entirely or mostly new personalities – Pham-Quynh (who also occupies the post of Director of the Emperor’s Cabinet) in charge of Education, Ngo-Dinh-Diem in charge of the Interior, Bui-Bang-Doan in charge of Justice and Ho-Dac-Kai in charge of Finance – with the former Minister of War having not been replaced. An important indication is that all these new ministers, who between them have an average age of just forty years, have only been invested for a period of three years, the Emperor having also taken care to clarify in his ordinance that he had chosen them only by consideration “of their personal value, of their intellectual and moral qualities, and of the good reputation they enjoy in the eyes of the people, regardless of their seniority or rank in the mandarin hierarchy.”

The original main building of the Viện cơ mật or “Secret Institute,” which functioned as the Privy Council and key mandarin agency of the royal court

Of course, in Annam, and even in the whole of Indochina, these decisions by Bao-Dai were not without a considerable impact: we must go very far back to find any trace in the political actions of an Annamite sovereign of such radical changes to the state of affairs in the kingdom. Of particular note is the fact that the emperor also announced his will always to chair personally the meeting of the Council of Ministers, or Co-mat, “taking himself the direction of the country’s affairs,” that is to say actually governing, in contrast to his predecessors, slaves to the rites and traditions of the court, who were content not to.

If the consequences for Annam of the new order established in Hue have already appeared, it is not superfluous to attempt now to take a look at the future: for, to have been approved by Governor-General Pasquier, Bao-Dai’s decisions must interest the protectorate in a special way.

In this respect, it seems that our representatives in Indochina have nothing to fear from this small “palace revolution,” to call it by its name, which the emperor has just completed with such flexibility. Not that the Resident-Superior in Annam has always met systematic opposition to his wishes at the court of Hue. Although in the early years of the protectorate, obstruction was common, it has over time become more and more rare. However, the archaic organisation of the court, the multitude of client relationships connected to the various personalities, and the games of intrigue, still created frequent difficulties. Happily, the road to the royal residence Kien Trung Palace is now more level than it was before.

Emperor Bảo Đại pictured in 1932 (press image)

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 and Huế 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.

“Forgotten Statues of Cochinchina,” from Le Monde colonial illustré, 1937

Monsignor PIGNEAU DE BEHAINE — place de la Cathédrale, Saïgon

On that admirable fresco of the French project in Indochina, a living and harmonious multi-racial synthesis of activities and hopes, a few figures clearly stand out in the light of history.

Francis GARNIER – place Francis-Garnier, Saïgon

Whether French or Annamite, these public figures are entitled to recognition. Each of them, in pursuit of their respective ideals, have met on the same path leading to common action.

Pigneau de Béhaine, protector of a prince of Annam, fugitive and unhappy, laid the first foundations of Franco-Annamite relations. Indeed, one may wonder what would have become of Indochina if this prelate had not devoted his intelligence to the service of the last Nguyen prince.

Did this permit French influence to take root in the land of Annam? Without a doubt! But it also prevented the installation of the Dutch or the English, on whom Nguyen-Anh’s protégé was about to call for aid. And it enabled Nguyen-Anh, as Emperor Gia-Long, to carry out a constructive work of great significance in the annals of this country.

DOUDART DE LAGRÉE – place Rigault de Genouilly, Saïgon

Later, circumstances required that, in order to command respect for our flag, Admiral Rigault-de-Genouilly came to anchor at Tourane. The French peace has since been extended to areas long disturbed by dynastic rivalries and struggles between neighbours. The statues of Rigault-de-Genouilly, Francis Garnier, and Doudart-de-Lagrée in Saigon attest to the heroism of our sailors and soldiers, the genius of their commanders, the sacrifice, in a word, of all those who, far from their native land, fell during the gestation of our colonisation of Indochina.

But our officers were not just fighters. We had some who were explorers and scholars. Such was Général de Beylié, archaeologist and ethnographer, who, during his investigations to extract the secrets of this Asian land, died in the rapids of Tha-Dua (Laos) on 17 July 1910. His works greatly enriched our museum in Saigon and paved the way for other scholars.

Général de BEYLIÉ – rue Blancsubé, Saïgon

Similarly, in the long chain forged by all of us to unite the destinies of Indochina with those of France, the link added by the botanist Jean-Baptiste-Louis Pierre is certainly not the least solid. This world-renowned scientist has inventoried the flora of the colony and thus prepared the field on which farmers and botanists can work more easily.

Besides our great colonialists, impartial history has retained the names of many Annamites — generals, scholars, diplomats, pacifiers — who have all done great service to their country.

Thus, in the dark days of Annam, there were some soldiers who permitted Gia-Long to restore order and security in the kingdom: Le-Van-Duyet, Marshal of the Emperor and Viceroy of Cochinchina; Vo-Tanh, General; Vo-Di-Nguy, Admiral; Le-Van-Phong, General; and many others.

Maréchal LE-VAN-DUYET — Gia-Dinh

Among them, Le-Van-Duyet occupies a special place. His courage, his devotion to the king and public affairs, his loyalty and his disinterest have made him one of the most seductive figures of old Annam and justify the quasi-religious veneration of which his memory is still the object in Cochinchina. It was he who, at the risk of displeasing his sovereign, did not hesitate to tell him the truth. It was again he who refused to read to the French an edict of expulsion which reached him from the court. For he declared that he could not forget the services rendered by them to his country.

Similarly, one cannot forget Vo-Tanh, that other valiant and stoic soldier, who remains engraved in the memory of his compatriots.

Général VO-THANH — village de Phu-Nhuan (Gia-Dinh)

Enclosed for two years in the citadel of Qui-Nhon, obliged at the end of the resistance to repulse the furious and repeated assaults of an opponent superior in number, he nonetheless discouraged Nguyen-Anh from coming to his rescue, persuading him instead to go and take Phu-Xuan (Hue), whose capture was more important. By the time the Emperor’s victory had been achieved and a rescue mission was launched, Vo-Tanh and his soldiers were dead.

The history book of Annam contains some other beautiful pages of the same kind. To ensure order, there have always been both leaders and humble auxiliaries ready to devote their lives to the cause. Pham-Van-Khanh, for example, victor of the attack on My-Tra by the plunderers of the plaine des Joncs on 22 July 1865; Le-Van-Phong, younger brother of Le-Van-Duyet; Phan-Thanh-Giang; and many others.

Capitaine Félix SALICÉTI — village de Trung-Ngai (Vinhlong)

In the work of pacification which followed the conquest, French and Annamites mixed their blood for the same cause. The Saliceti monument in the village of Trung-Ngai is proof of this. Captain Saliceti, who entered the service of France on 17 February 1872 at the age of 29, had his head cut off. At his side, also succumbing to the attack, were canton chief Tran-Cong-An, interpreter Vien, and militiamen Chon, Tao, Nay and Van.

The stele in Baria to the modest notable Bui-Thanh-Lièm is also worthy of the admiration of his fellows for his 40 years of community service.

When we move from the plan of collaboration for the maintenance of public order and security in the country to that of intellectual co-operation, we find another great Annamite, Pétrus Truong-Vinh-Ky, whose centenary will be celebrated in Saigon at the end of this year.

PETRUS KY — boulevard Norodom, Saïgon

Petrus Ky put his knowledge in the service of France and Annam, believing that true brotherhood lies in the heights of human intelligence.

This initiative of the Monde Colonial Illustré, bringing many forgotten faces out from the shadows, is one of the happiest. For it allows us to see, through the successive stages of colonisation, men who, each according to his own temperament, endeavoured to work for the greatness of their country.

It shows, above all, how their spirits and hearts merged to escape from daily pettiness and collaborate in the realisation of a unique, solid and eternal work.


List of Monuments and Locations
Monument d’Odera – Xuan-Lôc (province de Bienhoa)
Monument de l’Enseigne de vaisseau Lareynière – Tan-Son-Nhi (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Monument de Morère – Nui-Bara (province de Bienhoa)
Monument du Capitaine Paulus – Tan-Thoi-Nhi (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Monument du Capitaine Saliceti – Trung-Ngai (prov. de Vinhlong)
Pagode et Tombeau du General Vo Tanh – Phu-Nhuan (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Pierres tombales du Maréchal Nguyen-Ngoc-Thoai – au pied du Nui-Sam (province de Chaudoc)
Statue à la mémoire de Doudart de Lagrée – place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saigon
Statue à la mémoire de Jean-Baptiste-Louis Pierre – jardin Botanique, Saigon
Statue à la mémoire de Lamaille – place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saigon
Statue de Francis Garnier – place Francis Garnier, Saigon
Statue de Gambetta – parc Maurice Long, Saigon
Statue de George Washington – place George Washington, Saigon
Statue de l’Amiral Rigault-de-Genouilly Saïgon – place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saigon
Statue de Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine – place de la Cathédrale, Saigon
Statue de Pétrus Ky – boulevard Norodom, Saigon
Statue de Quach-Dam – Marché central, Cholon (Gia-Dinh)
Statue du Général Léon de Beylié – rue Blancsubé, Saigon
Statues de P. Doan-Cong-Qui et E Le-Van-Phong – devant l’église de Chau-Doc
Stèle à la mémoire de Bui-Thanh-Liem – près du marché de Long-Dien (province de Baria)
Stèle à la mémoire de l’Administrateur Hugon – Soc-Trang, cimetière de la ville
Stèle à la mémoire de l’Administrateur-adjoint Luciani – Hoa-An (province de Bienhoa)
Stèle à la mémoire de Nguyen-Duc-Ung – Long-An (province de Bienhoa)
Stèle à la mémoire de Pham-Van-Kanh – My-Tra, Cao-Lanh (province de Sadec)
Stèle à la mémoire de S. E. Phan-Thanh-Giang – Bao-Thanh (province de Ben-Tre)
Stèle à la mémoire de Thoai-Ngoc-Hau – Thoai-Son (province de Long-Xuyen)
Tombeau de l’Amiral Vo-Di-Nguy – Phu-Nhuan (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Tombeau de Le-Van-Phong – Tan-Son-Nhut (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Tombeau de Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine – Tan-Son-Nhut (Province de Gia-Dinh)
Tombeau du Général Mac-Cuu – sur une colline à 200m. de Hatien
Tombeau du Maréchal Le-Van-Duyet – Gia-Dinh
Tombeau du Pere Jacob Liot – Tan-Son-Nhut (Province de Gia-Dinh)

Amiral RIGAULT DE GENOUILLY — place Rigault-de-Genouilly, Saïgon

LE-VAN-PHONG — village de Tan-Son-Nhut (Gia-Dinh)

Enseigne de vaisseau LAREYNIÈRE – village de Tan-Son-Nhi (Gia-Dinh)

QUACH-DÀM — Marché central, Cholon

BUI-THANH-LIEM — près du marché de Long-Dien, Baria

Jean-Baptiste-Louis PIERRE —jardin Botanique, Saïgon

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 and Huế 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.