Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Extortion and Exploitation in the Nguyen Campaign against Catholicism in 1830s-1840s Vietnam

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Extortion and Exploitation in the Nguyen Campaign against Catholicism in 1830s-1840s Vietnam

Article excerpt

Bribery and extortion, unremarkable features in imperial Vietnam, ensured a relative degree of stability between officials and communities. A timely transaction could neutralise the threat of severe punishment for an individual or, in some cases, enable a village to avoid full compliance with a deleterious bureaucratic measure. Such arrangements, however, rarely led to balanced results; the abuse of authority more often cancelled out benefits for communities in their dealings with mandarins, in turn exposing them to further exploitation. In the late 1830s, the Nguyen campaign to expel missionaries from the kingdom and force local Catholics to recant brought new pressures to such arrangements. To ensure religious and cultural conformity Hue employed repressive measures, which Catholic communities sought to avoid through bribing local officials. In turn, the Court responded with spectacular rewards for those who denounced the presence of missionaries. The cycle of bribery and extortion which ensued had wide repercussions, not only for Catholics but for local officials and mainstream society as well.

The hostilities against the mission in the late years of the Minh Mang reign (r. 1820-41) saw the most intensive persecution in the pre-colonial period, with the execution of some seven missionaries, at least 20 local priests and hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics. (1) Half a world away, the violence aroused outrage in France and inspired a groundswell of support for mission work in Vietnam, which in time culminated in support for a heightened French naval presence in the region. In 1847, Captain Augustin de Lapierre launched an abortive attack on Da Nang harbour. This was followed in 1856 by the Montigny expedition, which preceded a full-scale invasion by French and Spanish forces in 1858. Despite the significance of mission work during this period and the political impact of the naval attacks, little is understood of the less obvious political and social changes occurring under Minh Mang. Instead, historiography has long focused on the impact of external forces to explain the culmination of tensions that led to the Franco-Spanish invasion. The mission presence in particular has received consistent attention for its role in the politics of the period. One result has been the disproportionate scrutiny of individual missionaries and their involvement in compromising political matters. One key example who will be discussed below is Joseph Marchand (1803-35), whose ambiguous role in the Le Van Khoi Rebellion (1833-35) has aroused considerable speculation as to mission motives in Vietnam and the subsequent French imperial aggression.

Concern for a favourable portrayal of Marchand undoubtedly led his organisation, the Societe des Missions-Etrangeres de Paris (MEP), to restrict access to its most sensitive documents, a suppression which has only served to arouse speculation about political activities by missionaries and to distract inquiry away from other changes during this period. Following Yoshiharu Tsuboi's suggestion, attention needs to be averted from such prominent 'missionary caricatures' and instead turned to the implications of the mission presence at the local level. (2) Mission Catholicism certainly played a key role in the precipitous changes of the period. However, this role needs to be historicised and placed in context with other changes in the local setting.

The following discussion is an attempt to bring local experiences in this period into sharper focus. Investigating changes in Nguyen Court policy towards Catholicism in the aftermath of the Le Van Khoi Rebellion, this article examines the development of deepening social divisions between communities and authorities, and between Catholics and non-Catholics. From the raid-1830s, Vietnamese Catholics were forced to negotiate safety from the threat of state-sanctioned violence as the Court employed increasingly coercive measures to search for and arrest missionaries and to force converts to recant. …

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