“The Court of Annam modernises,” Les Annales coloniales: organe de la “France coloniale modern,” 14 December 1912

“Annam – Hue – Tribunes et cavalier du roi, vue des jardins”

Packed with the usual colonial arrogance and assumptions of western superiority, this short 1912 article by Henri Cosnier sheds interesting light on French Governor General Paul Doumer’s policy towards the royal court in Huế

The powerful breath of modernism carries off, one after the other, the sumptuous traditions of the court of Hue.

Emperor Thành Thái in 1898 (Le Monde illustré, 11 December 1898)

The republican simplicity of the representatives of France accredited to that city seems to have affected the sovereigns of Annam and their entourage. The era of melon hats and varnished court shoes is finally at an end, for the greater good of the princes and mandarins, whose manners and dress tend to simplify ever more each day.

Where are the splendour and the regalia with which the Asiatic monarchs once surrounded themselves when they left their palaces to mingle with the flood of the populution? All ancient rites have long since disappeared; western civilisation has chased before it that grandiose spectacle which once accompanied even the smallest walks by Gia-Long, Minh-Mang and Tu-Duc. The present sovereign of Annam [Duy Tân], whom we raised in an atmosphere of extreme civilisation, is still too young to indulge in modernism, but his predecessor, the sinister Thanh-Thai, often ventured out alone into his capital, on foot or on horseback, on a bicycle or in an automobile, just like a mere mortal.

He was the first to modernise, to cut his hair short, to dine at the Résidence Supérieure, and to do the American square dance in the salons of the Cercle de Hué.

He also began to travel, visiting Cochinchina and Saigon several times, where, incidentally, he gave the chiefs of protocol something of a headache.

“The cyclist emperor of Annam,” from L’Empereur d’Annam en Cochinchine, L’Illustration, 22 January 1898

He then came to Tonkin to inaugurate the railway line from Hanoi to Haiphong, the Doumer Bridge and the Grand Palais de l’Exposition.

He attended military parades, the Philharmonic, parties at the Palais du Gouvernement général, and, as a mere mortal forgetting his divine origin, made innumerable yet futile purchases in our houses of commerce.

He also revelled in royal gallantly, earnestly asking the officers attached to his person if, for a great deal of money, he could not be permitted a tête-à-tête with one of our female compatriots!

In a word, he did just as Alfonso XIII or Edward VII had done when travelling to Paris: he modernised himself.

I dare not affirm that, in the eyes of his people and of the old mandarin guardians of millennial rites and historical traditions, he had plumbed new depths.

It is a certain fact that he lost the greater part of his prestige. And I have heard that the first trip which he made with M. Doumer had no other aim.

Paul Doumer, Governor General of Indochina from 1897 to 1902

The former governor wished to show him to his people, and at the same time to destroy the legend which represented the Emperor of Annam as a superman, a demi-god living in the mysteries and prodigies of a palace populated by spirits, inaccessible even to the gaze, and in constant relations with the divinity.

The popular imagination, so thirsty for marvels, had imagined him in a fairy-like setting, walking on clouds, as beautiful as the divinity itself, wise as a Buddha, on familiar terms with the immortals whose images are seen in the dim light and sandalwood smoke of pagodas.

The visit of H M Thanh-Thai to Hanoi was a disenchantment. The crowd, massed for his arrival on the banks of the Red River, was astonished and disappointed to see a small boat laden with tricolour flags appear, instead of a royal barge with a hundred oarsmen decorated with heavy banners featuring flaming dragons on yellow brocade.

Was that it? That was all? A vulgar gunboat, like the ones which carried our own chiefs of service. He was dressed in national costume, like a simple scholar or a modest interpreter, comprising a long “cai-ao” of black silk that did not fit the grand cordon de la Légion d’honneur, his head crowned with a turban of black grenadine and his feet shod in the French style.

Emperor Thành Thái and Governor General Paul Doumer inaugurate the Doumer (now Long Biên) Bridge on 28 February 1902

Thus did the great emperor of the East step ashore beside Monsieur Doumer, his eyes roaming somewhat astray, astonished to find himself before this crowd.

He climbed into the Governor’s carriage, sat down opposite a general wearing a white feathered hat, and that was all.

The effect was instantaneous: The ancient prestige of the emperors of Hue had sunk in the eyes of their people.

Annamite plebeians repeated, skeptically: “So this is the Emperor!” They understood that henceforth, the absolute sovereign of the land of their ancestors was indeed the French Republic, and at the moment when the Emperor crossed the threshold of the Pagode des Pinceaux on the Little Lake [Hoàn Kiếm Lake], a coolie threw a stone into his face.

Henri Cosnier
Deputy for the département de l’Indre

Emperor Thành Thái and Governor General Paul Doumer pictured in Hà Nội in February 1902

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

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.

“Monsieur Doumer, his Emperor and his King,” Figaro (Paris), 21 January 1898

The Palace of the Government General in Saigon, illuminated for a ball

The King of Cambodia, H M Norodom I, and the Emperor of Annam, H M Thanh-Thai, have just paid a visit to the Governor-General in Saigon.

The stay of the old Khmer sovereign and the young Annamite emperor in the old capital of French Indo-China took place on the occasion of splendid week-long celebrations.

Saigon harbour at the turn of the 20th century

Celebrations in a French colony! Those people whose minds are anchored to the prejudice that our colonies are “lost, miserable, unhealthy” countries filled with unhappy people shivering with fever in “straw jungle huts” might believe that these celebrations are just vulgar rejoicings and sad feasts in which preserves provide the dishes of resistance. However, few large European cities could offer a festival a setting as beautiful as Saigon, that former Annamite city which the French colonising genius has so rapidly transformed into the capital many English people call their “loss in the Far East.”

These were my words when I reported on the festivities organised to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the conquest in 1884. I have not changed my mind after reading the details of the reception given to the two sovereigns sent to me by our correspondents from Saigon and our confrères from the newspaper Le Mékong. I only wish I could publish everything. But that would demand a review article, rather than a newspaper report. So it will have to be just a few lines.

On the first day, at the Palace of the Government General, there was a reception and a ball.

King Norodom was introduced first. The Cambodian king appeared a little old, a little “compacted.”

Emperor Thành Thái (1889-1907)

Then, accompanied by M. Doumer, came the young Emperor Thanh-Thai, who is not yet 20 years old. He was dressed in a multi-coloured costume constellated with gold and precious stones, the grand cordon de la Légion d’honneur around his neck. He wore a turban of yellow silk, an imperial colour which only he has the right to wear. His wife and younger brothers were at his side.

An amusing observation: though individually very straightforward, very natural with everybody, the two sovereigns, as soon as they were close to each other, adopted the attitudes of idols.

The fireworks amused both Majesties greatly. Less, however, than the gala the next evening at the Municipal Theatre. Would you like to know the programme?

“The Marseillaise, sung by Madame Dargissonne and choir, with apotheosis and grand staging by Mr. Maurel, director general. Then the second act of Lakmé. Then the serpentine dance by Madame de Lhérys, the ‘Loïe Fuller’ of Saigon. And, finally, the second act of Carmen.”

The young emperor of Annam was said to have been particularly seduced by the serpentine dance. On the following evening this would cause great anxiety to M. Doumer, who would wonder if he had perhaps led his Emperor astray.

A horse race meeting in Saigon

There was also a day at the races, complete with a betting shop. A grey horse named Ly-Tong, winner of the Festival Commission prize, was presented by the jockey Binh. It was bought for 1,500 piastres by M. Doumer and offered to the Emperor. Festival events on Tuesday were also popular: a fair, public games and a torchlight procession.

The Emperor wanted to visit the tombs of his ancestors at Go-Cong, so he was taken there.

The journey passed without incident. All along the Go-Cong road to the tombs (about two kilometers), the natives had massed themselves, dressed in ceremonial garments and bearing the attributes of cult and emblems of war. There were also a number of small portable shrines, and many tricolour flags and banners. But not a single yellow flag (let us recall that it is the national flag of the Annamites, the ancient masters of Cochinchina). There was only a yellow curtain at the door of the tomb pagoda, which was also very richly decorated. The Emperor, after having made his devotions before the funerary altar of his ancestors, wrote several inscriptions.

Emperor Thành Thái with his brothers in 1900 (source unknown)

The return journey was undertaken without popular ovations. Six gendarmes, the interim Lieutenant Governor, and M. Briere, the Résident Supérieur of Annam, accompanied the young sovereign, who was doubtless unaccustomed to travelling without being greeted by a soul. But he seems to have taken this very philosophically.

On the subject of reports on the Emperor, here are some amusing details.

As soon as they heard that their sovereign was coming to Saigon, the natives were surprised, and they then stamped with impatience, curiosity, and joy.

The Emperor came, and with him disappointment, in spite of the appearance of the reception, the bells, the bulwarks, and the cannon shots.

They all knew the secular customs: the people must prostrate themselves before the sovereign, never raise their eyes to his august person. They also knew that this sovereign, according to rites, should only leave his palace once a year for a pious festival. They knew that he must always maintain a divine attitude, barely turn his head, be transported only in a sedan chair. And yet here he was, this young emperor who loves to break with traditions, travelling by car, by train, to the theatre to see Saigon’s “Loïe Fuller,” to revues, parades….. And how he delights in them! He does the round of dinners, social evenings, soirées, buffets. He smokes like a Swiss, tours the salons, and even attempts to sing madrigals.

Emperor Thành Thái on the throne in the Thái Hòa Palace, from Empire colonial de la France. L’Indo-Chine: Cochinchine, Cambodge, Laos, Annam, Tonkin by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (1901)

This was truly the end of the world for old Annamites.

Then there was a large review of troops. Three thousand men marched before the two sovereigns.

There were also regattas, a municipal ball, a “battle of the flowers” parade and a bicycle race which inaugurated the first Indochinese vélodrome. And then, yet more balls, more dinners, at the Cercle militaire, the Lieutenant-Governor’s Palace, the Town Hall, aboard the imperial ship, and so on. Until 15 December, the date of the departure of the Emperor, when M. Doumer would accompany him back to Hue.

The impressions of the young sovereign himself? It is said that he found the parties too short. He wanted to stay in Saigon. He found much more to amuse him there than in the palace of Hue, in those dull temples where his boredom is as divine as his person.

These festivals will have a considerable influence on our policy in the Far East.

This friendly view of the sovereigns of two races, of two peoples who were always enemies, indicates well to the Oriental people (for whom mere phrases, speeches, proclamations, edicts, promises signify nothing) that all the inhabitants of the Indo-Chinese peninsula are now definitively united under our high and firm protection. Above their respective countries, there will henceforward be another country greater and more powerful: France.

Jean Hess

“The cyclist emperor of Annam,” from L’Empereur d’Annam en Cochinchine, L’Illustration, 22 January 1898

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

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.

“The Little King,” Le Petit Parisien: journal quotidien du soir, 25 October 1895

Emperor Thành Thái in court costume

M. Rousseau, Governor-General of Indo-China, is on his way to France.

We know that he was recently elected as a senator of Finistère. And since, on the eve of his departure from Tonkin, he went to visit the king of Annam in Hue, the rumour has circulated that this was a farewell visit, and that Rousseau would not return to his post. However, this news has now been overturned. It is now asserted that M. Rousseau has not been dismissed of his functions as governor-general of Indo-China.

His visit to the king of Annam was therefore a simple visit of politeness, on the eve of an absence of several months.

There is much talk at this moment of the sovereigns of our various colonial possessions.

The queen of Madagascar has naturally for several months deserved the honours of our chronicles. Now, the sons of King Toffa, one of the most powerful chiefs of Dahomey, are our guests in Paris. Before any attention was paid to them, there had been much discussion about another king of Dahomey, our opponent Behanzin, who is at present imprisoned at Fort-de-France. There is even a story going round that the prisoner of Fort-de-France is actually a fake Behanzin, but the most authoritative testimony has now put paid to this legend – it is without doubt the true Behanzin whom our troops captured after the taking of Abomey.

Emperor Thành Thái and his three brothers, with his interpreter and French personal attache (Le Monde Illustre, 12 November 1898)

After all these African monarchs, why should an Asian monarch not be the order of the day? Thanh-Thai, king of Annam, also deserves to be spoken of. The visit which M. Rousseau has just paid to him gives us an opportunity to do so. He is scarcely 16 years old, this little king of Annam, and has reigned since 1889. His existence has hitherto been very tranquil, and there is no proof that it will not continue to be so. The same could not be said about his direct predecessors, for in less than a few months, several of these sovereigns disappeared in a tragic way, in the prime of life.

One of them, Duc-Duc, who was very devoted to us, reigned for only four days; he was killed at the instigation of his regents on 21 July 1883. His successor was Hiep-Hoa, who was forced to take a poisoned beverage after six months. Kien-Phuc had been on the throne for only a short time before he, too, became a victim of assassination.

There was also another king of Annam, whose reign was equally ephemeral. This one was called Ham-Nghi. He was supported by regents who were hostile to French influence. When these fierce mandarins were taken prisoner by our soldiers, Ham-Nghi, who had fled with them, remained a cause of division in Annam. He still had partisans who believed in his return to power; it was therefore decided to exile him far from Annam, so he was conducted to Algeria, where he remains still, and where, faithfully enlightened as to the lamentable fate of the rebellious Annamite sovereign, he has accepted his lot and now lives peacefully, without any monarchical ambition.

Yet Thanh-Thai is perhaps less fortunate than he. It is true that, now that French influence is completely established, he no longer fears poison or the dagger. But while Ham-Nghi is now free in his movements, even to the extent that he was recently able to visit France, Thanh-Thai passes cruelly monotonous days behind the ramparts of the palace of Hue, where he is confined.

Inside the Purple Forbidden City

In his Tour d’Asie, M. Marcel Monnier, who passed through the Annamite capital in May of last year, describes this palace. “The light,” says he, “penetrates from above, as if into a prison courtyard, reverberating on the flagstones, a blinding and crude light which accentuates the despairing sadness of that royal residence where silence reigns. Here, the calm has a je ne sais quoi of menace. We can only guess how many intrigues, how many cruel dramas were slowly prepared in recent years under the cover of this deceitful peace. Nevertheless, it must not be supposed that the palace of Thanh-Thai is a residence without grandeur; it occupies a considerable area and consists of constructions of many kinds, palaces and pavilions.

On certain days, solemn ceremonies take place. So it seems that Asiatic life is resuming its rights in the vast enclosure. Mandarins of all ranks, in tight formation, bow down before their master, who, diminished but not fallen, remains for them the living symbol of nationality.

There are several large halls, that of the throne and that of audiences, with heavy pillars covered with red and gold lacquer, and that of the ministers’ council, where, at dawn, between 5am and 6am, the regents come to await the moment to make their daily appearance before the king. The royal palace itself is closed to all, guarded day and night. Further on, no less well guarded, are the harem and the apartments of the three queen-mothers.

There are currently no less than three queen-mothers in Hue. “They live a life of seclusion,” says M. Marcel Monnier, “turned into idols and fetishes, and the king himself may only appear before them barefooted, he may only speak to them on his knees.” One is the mother of Tu-Duc, the king of Annam at the time of the French conquest, who is 87 years old and blind. The second is Tu-Duc’s widow, now 70 years old. The third, the mother of the current king, has just reached her 40th year, and the few people who have seen her taking promenades, when the wind spreads the curtains of her golden palanquin, say that she is very graceful, almost beautiful.

The Queen Mother Empress Từ Minh, mother of Thành Thái (BAVH 39, 4)

However, it seems that they are not always tender towards the little king, these three queen-mothers.

Hidden behind a veil of silk, in the midst of their courtiers, they allow him to approach them only after long reverences, during which he pronounces several times the single word “con,” which means “child.” It is only after he has prostrated himself nine times with his forehead against the ground that the curtain is pulled back. And then, still on his knees, he must listen to their orders and remonstrances.

This posture is a bit humiliating for a king. It is true that the power of this one is very precarious. But if the young sovereign deserves a reprimand, that’s not the only humiliation he must endure – one of the serving women comes to him, carrying on a tray a cane made of rattan, a symbol of punishment. It is almost like the European martinet, reserved for mutinous children. M. Marcel Monnier informs us that one day, Thanh-Thai tried to revolt against the use of the cane, seizing and breaking it. But the correction which followed was such that, since then, the little king no longer has the slightest inclination to rebellion.

The apartment of Thanh-Thai is separated from the harem by a series of pools large enough for women to bathe in. The latter go to their lord and master only when he asks for them. Their names are inscribed on plates of jade, and the king indicates which one he chooses by turning over the plate. His servants then hurry to seek the chosen one.

At 5am each day, Thanh-Thai is already up. He is dressed by ladies of the royal wardrobe. After a light breakfast, he goes to his study room, where his teachers await him. After a few hours of study, cut off from others, followed by an interview with his ministers, he has another meal. From 10am to 12 noon he retires to his apartments. At noon, lessons resume. The king learns French and speaks it well enough. At about 4pm, he takes physical exercise in the gardens. Then to dinner, where a European dish is served. By 8pm his majesty is in bed.

Such is the daily existence of this 16-year-old sovereign.

Emperor Thành Thái

At times he does not hide his annoyance. He also anxiously awaits the four or five annual ceremonies over which he must preside – the Feast of the Spring, the Feast of the Harvest, the visit to the Tombs of the Kings, etc – during which he gets the chance to leave the palace. Along the avenues he processes, past incense burners and through rows of altars loaded with flowers and fruit, followed by mandarins in superb silk tunics and escorted by guards dressed in red and wearing lacquered hats. On the route he sees not a single inhabitant, for to go outside during the passage of the king and stare at him would be tantamount to an insult. The procession proceeds to the river, where a richly decorated junk awaits the king. Forty oars row him for about an hour. And all the time the boat is followed by skilful swimmers who swim alongside in relays, ready to catch the little monarch in the event that the boat capsizes.

M. Marcel Monnier, who met Thanh-Thai during a visit to the French Resident in Hue, describes him in a long robe of golden cloth studded with precious stones. He speaks little, and when he does speak, it is above all to ask questions.

On that day, he enjoyed the snack which was served, and even drank several glasses of champagne, while his two brothers, standing behind him and all dressed in green like small parakeets, ate cakes and sweets.

France has, to some measure, instituted in Indo-China the system of the British in India. While assuming the direction of the government and ensuring our full influence, we have not infringed on national traditions.

In India, the rajahs who submitted to the British crown still guard their thrones and their ancient prestige, which are like a facade concealing foreign domination. Likewise, the king of Annam, considered by his people less as a leader than as the representative of traditions and rites, preserves in the eyes of his subjects all the authority of his ancestors.

We must not think of suppressing at one stroke such centuries-old customs, of destroying the traditions of a country which we wish to pacify.

Mandarins in front of the Thái Hòa Palace

We have applied this same system to Cambodia, and many would like it to be so in Madagascar, where Queen Ranavalo will be kept on the throne. Others are in favour of annexation, pure and simple.

But whatever type of regime is ultimately decided upon, protectorate or annexation, we may trust that we will not lose the benefit of our efforts, and that so many sacrifices of men and money will not be in vain.

Jean Frollo

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

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.