Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Transfer of Western Military Technology to Vietnam in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: The Case of the Nguyen

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Transfer of Western Military Technology to Vietnam in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: The Case of the Nguyen

Article excerpt

Vietnamese rulers of the Nguyen Dynesty showed considerable interest in foreign military technology. Their adoption and adaptation of this technology constitute an important chapter in the history Vietnam's relations with the West.

The first French military operation against Vietnam can be dated to April 1847, when a naval engagement between Vietnamese vessels and the French navy occurred off the coast of Tourane (Da Nasng). In their reports, French officers mentioned five Vietnamese corvettes of typical European design, as well as traditional war junks. (1) Later, during the colonial conquest between 1858-84, French officers were consistently and greatly impressed by the strength and design of the citadels they had to storm to take different parts of the country. In both cases, specialists in the French navy and army emphasised the excellent Vietnamese adaptations of European techniques to local conditions. This study focuses on Vietnamese mastery of fortifications and naval arts from the late eighteenth through the first half of the nineteenth centuries.

Vietnam in the eighteenth century: the transfer of European military technology


From roughly 1600 onward, what had been the kingdom of Dai Viet was divided into two parts. In the North, usually known to Europeans as Tonkin, the Le Dynasty was on the throne but the real power belonged to a succession of Lords (Chua) from the Trinh family. In the South, the Nguyen Lords governed from what is now Hue; they were nominally under Le suzerainty but enjoyed de facto independence. Their kingdom, called Cochinchina by Westerners, gradually expanded to the bottom of the Mekong Delta. After several decades of sporadic warfare through the first half of the seventeenth century, the two sides reached a truce which lasted until the outbreak of the Tay So'n conflict in 1771. The three Tay So'n brothers, who took the name of their village in the upland region of Binh Dinh province, succeeded in overthrowing both the Nguyen and the Le/Trinh ruling houses but never completely consolidated their power. After three decades of warfare, the Nguyen defeated them and founded an imperial dynasty ruling over a unified Vietnamese kingdom.

Although both the Trinh and Nguyen Lords were anxious to acquire guns of European manufacture during the seventeenth century, technologies related to fortifications and ship building seem to have been of little interest to them. (2) The 'importation' of military technology became particularly important in Vietnam during the Tay Son civil war. After a key Tay Scan victory in 1773, and the subsequent death of almost all princes of the Nguyen family, the last one to resist-Nguyen Anh, the future Emperor Gia Long (r. 1802-20)-was forced to free deep into the Mekong Delta. The young prince became acquainted in 1776 or 1777 with a French missionary, Pierre Pigneaux de Behaine, Bishop of Adran, who was then living in Ha Tien. Nguyen Anh managed several times to raise troops to fight the Tay So'n, but every year between 1775 and 1788, the powerful Tay So'n armies and fleet routed his forces and occupied more of the Delta, driving him back into the marshlands and then off the mainland to the islands in the Gulf of Siam.

The centre of Tay So'n power was located in what had been the central provinces of the Nguyen kingdom; they could therefore rely on the most populous provinces to raise soldiers. Their armies have often been said to number as many as 200,000 men and sometimes more. Nguyen Anh, by contrast, could only rely on the sparse ethnic Vietnamese population in the southern part of the Delta, along with Chinese and Malay settlers in the area. In terms of numbers, these heterogeneous forces were not a real match for the large armies of the Tay So'n, who also had a powerful navy consisting of hundreds of war galleys and smaller boats, strengthened by Chinese pirates manning their junks. The combined operations of Tay So'n naval and land forces led to several severe defeats for Nguyen Anh's forces. …

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