Emperor Gia Long born Nguyễn Phúc Ánh was an emperor of Vietnam. He founded the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802 by unifying what is now modern Vietnam, establishing the last of the Vietnamese dynasties.
The nephew of the last Nguyễn Lord who ruled southern Vietnam, he was forced into hiding in 1777 as a fifteen year old when his family were slain in the Tay Son revolt. After several changes of fortunes in which his loyalists regained and again lost Saigon, Nguyễn Anh befriended the French Catholic priest Pigneau de Behaine. Pigneau championed his cause to the French government and managed to recruit volunteers when this fell through to help Nguyen Anh regain the throne. From 1789, he regained the ascendancy and began his northward march to defeat the Tay Son and moved eventually by 1802 to the border with China, which had previously been ruled by the Trinh Lords. When this was over, he had reunited Vietnam after centuries of feudal warring with a greater land mass than ever before, stretching from China down to the Gulf of Siam. Gia Long’s rule was noted for its Confucian orthodoxy. He repealed the Tay Son reforms and used a classical Confucian education and civil service system. He moved the capital from Hanoi south to Huế as the country’s populace had also moved south over the preceding centuries, and built up fortresses and a palace in his new capital. Using French expertise, he modernised Vietnam’s defensive capabilities. In deference to the assistance of his French friends, he tolerated the activities of Roman Catholic missionaries, something that was increasingly restricted under his successors. Under his rule, Vietnam strengthened its military dominance in Indochina, expeling Siamese forces from Cambodia and turning it into a vassal.
His uncle, Nguyễn Phúc Thuần (Dul Tung), lost his throne as feudal lord of southern Vietnam during the Tây Sơn peasant rebellion led by the brothers Nguyễn Huệ, Nguyễn Nhạc and Nguyễn Lữ in 1777. Nguyễn Phúc Ánh was the most senior member of the Nguyễn family to have survived the Tay Son victory and conquest of Saigon in 1777, all the sons of his uncle were slain.
In late 1777, the main part of the Tay Son army left Saigon to go north, and Nguyen Anh stealthily returned to the mainland, rejoining his supporters and reclaimed the city. This was in large part due to the efforts of a supporter Do Thanh Nhon, who had organised a new army for the Nguyen. This army was supplemented by Cambodian pirates and Chinese pirates. The following year, Nhon repelled further Tay Son troops from Gia Dinh province, and destroying the Tay Son naval fleet. With the situation optimistic, Nguyen Anh sent a mission to Siam to propose a treaty of friendship. This was derailed in 1779 when the Cambodians held an uprising against their pro-Siamese leader Ang Non. Nguyen Anh sent Nhon to help the uprising, which saw Ang Non defeated decisively and executed. Nhon returned to Saigon with high honour and concentrated his efforts on improving the Nguyen navy. Further forces were sent in 1781 to prop up the Cambodian regime against Siamese armies.
Then, Nguyễn Anh had Nhon murdered, although the reason is unknown, it was postulated to be due to that Nhon’s fame had overshadowed him. This was purported to have caused the Tay Son brothers to celebrate upon hearing of Nhon’s execution, as he was the commander that they feared the most. Nhon’s forces rebelled, weakening the Nguyen army, and within a few months, the Tay Son had recaptured Saigon mainly on the back of naval barrages. Nguyen Anh was forced to flee to Ha Tien, and then onto the island of Phu Quoc, as some of his forces contineud to resist in his absence.
In October 1782, the tide shifted again, when forces lead by Nguyen Manh, Nguyen Anh’s brother, managed to drive the Tay Son out of Saigon. Nguyen Anh returned to Saigon, as did Pigneau. The hold was tenuous, and a counterattack by the Tay Son in early 1783 saw a heavy defeat to the Nguyen, with Nguyen Manh killed. Nguyễn Anh again fled to Phu Quoc, where his hiding place was discovered. He managed to escape the pursuin Tay Son fleet to Koh-rong island in the Bay of Kompongsom. Again, his hideout was discovered and encircled by the rebel fleet. However, a typhoon hit the area, and he managed to break the encirclement and travel to another island amidst the confusion. In early 1784, Nguyen Anh went to seek Siamese aid, which was forthcoming, but failed to make an impact on the Tay Son control despite having access to an army of 20,000. He became a refugee in Siam.
Pigneau and French assistance
Nguyen Anh then asked Pigneau to appeal for French aid, and pledged to allow Pigneau to take his son Canh with him. This came after he had considered enlisting English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish assistance. Pigneau left in December, arriving in Pondicherry in February 1785 with Nguyen Anh’s royal seal. Nguyen Anh had authorised him to make concessions to the French in return for military assistance. The French administration in Pondicherry was resolutely opposed to intervening in southern Vietnam. In addition, he was denounced by Spanish Franciscans in the Vatican, and he offered to transfer his political mandate to Portuguese forces. In July 1786, Pigneau was allowed to travel back to France to ask the royal court directly for assistance. Arriving in February 1787 at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles, Pigneau had difficulty in gathering support for a French expedition to install Nguyen Anh on the throne. This was due to the poor financial state of the country prior to the French Revolution. Pigneau was helped by Pierre Poivre who had been involved previously in French interests in Vietnam. In November 1787, a treaty of alliance was concluded between France and Cochin China in Nguyen Anh’s name. Four frigates, 1650 fully equipped French soldiers and 250 Indian sepoys were promised in return for Pulo Condore and harbour access at Tourane ( Da Nang), as well as tree trade to the exclusion of all other countries. However, free exercise of Christianity was not allowed. However, Pigneau found the governor of Pondicherry unwilling to fulfil the agreement, and he was forced to use funds raised in France and enlist French volunteers.
Meanwhile, Nguyen Anh had stayed in Siam with a contingent of troops until August 1787. His troops served in the Siamese war against Bodawpaya of Burma. When the Tay Son, having consolidated their hold in southern Vietnam, decided to move north to unify the country, the withdrawal of troops from the Gia Dinh garrison had weakened them. With an offer of help from King Rama I of Thailand, Nguyen Anh secretly left Siam to return to southern Vietnam, but his attempt to capture Gia Dinh failed. He then captured My Tho, making it the base of his operations, and rebuilt his army. After a hard fight, his forces captured Saigon on September 7 1788. Eventually, around four hundred men and four vessels were assembled to sail to Vietnam from Pondicherry, arriving as Saigon was reclaimed. The forces helped to consolidate southern Vietnam under Nguyen Anh’s control.
Unification of Vietnam
The French officers were used to train the navy, lead by Jean Maire Dayot which destroyed the Tay Son fleet at Qui Nhon in 1792. Olivier de Puymanel was responsibility for training the army and construction of fortifications. Pigneau served as an advisor and de facto foreign minister to Nguyen Anh until his death in 1799. On Pigneau’s death in 1799, Gia Long’s funeral oration described him as “the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina.” He was buried in the presence of the crown prince, all mandarins of the court, the royal bodyguard of 12,000 men and 40,000 mourners. In 1792, the last of the Tay Son brothers, Quang Trung, who had been recognised as Emperor by China, died, and Nguyen Anh attacked the north. Heavy fighting occurred at the fortress of Qui Nhon, until it was captured in 1799 under Nguyen Canh’s forces. The city was recaptured quickly, and not regained by the Nguyen until 1801. After that the end of the Tay Son lead by Quang Trung’s son Quang Toan came quickly. In June, Hue fell and Nguyen Anh was crowned King. He then overran the north, with Hanoi captured in July 22 1802. He had already proclaimed himself Emperor of Vietnam at Hue and assumed the title of Gia Long. After a quarter century of continuous fighting, he had unified what is now modern Vietnam, and elevated his family to a position never previously occupied. Vietnam had never occupied a larger landmass and was in a stronger military position than it ever had been in the past.
Gia Long’s rule was noted for its Confucian orthodoxy. Upon toppling the Tay Son dynasty of Quang Trung, he subsequently repealed their reforms and used a classical Confucian education and civil service system. He moved the capital from Hanoi south to Hue as the country’s populace had also moved south over the preceding centuries, and built up fortresses and a palace in his new capital. Using French expertise, he modernised Vietnam’s defensive capabilities. In deference to the assistance of his French friends, he tolerated the activities of Catholic missionaries, something that was increasingly restricted under his successors. Under his rule, Vietnam strengthened its military dominance in Indochina, expelling Siam from Cambodia and turning it into a vassal. In spite of this, he was relatively isolationist towards European powers.
Under the rule of Gia Long, Vietnam was divided into three administrative regions. The old patrimony of the Nguyen formed the central part of the empire, with nine provinces, five of which were directly ruled by the sovereign. Hue was the seat of the empire. Tonkin, with the administrative seat of its imperial governor general at Bac Thanh (Hanoi) had thirteen provinces, and in the Red River Delta, the old officials of the Le administration continued in office. In the south, Gia Dinh (Saigon) was the centre of the four provinces of Cochin China, as well as the seat on imperial governor general. The central administration was divided among six ministries: Public affairs, finance, rites, war, justice and works. Each was under a president, assisted by two deputies and two or three councillors. The heads of these ministries formed the Supreme Council. A treasurer general and a Chief of the Judicial Service assisted a governor general in charge of a number of provinces.
Gia Long was not regarded as being innovative in his attempts to re-establish a stable administration after centuries of civil war. He used the traditional administration framework. When Gia Long unified the country, it was described as Maybon as being chaotic: “The wheels of administration were warped or no longer existed; the cadres of officials were empty, the hierarchy destroyed; taxes were not being collected, lists of communal property had disappeared, proprietary titles were lost, fields abandoned; roads bridges and public granaries had not been maintained; work in the mines had ceased. The administration of justice had been interrupted, every province was a prey to pirates, and violation of law went unpunished, while even the law itself had become uncertain”.
Foreign military relations
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Cambodian empire had been in decline as the Vietnamese had migrated south into the Mekong Delta and displaced what had been Cambodian territory. Cambodia had been periodically subjected to invasions by both Vietnam and Siam. Cambodia lurched between both poles of domination as dictated by the internal strife of her two neighbours. In 1796, Ang Eng, a pro-Siamese king had died, leaving Ang Chan, who had been born in 1791. When Gia Long unified Vietnam, Eng was given investiture by Siam in order to hold out Vietnamese influence. In 1803, a Cambodian mission paid tribute to Vietnam in attempt to placate Gia Long. This became an annual routine. In 1807, Ang Chan requested investiture as a vassal of Gia Long. Gia Long responded by sending an embassy bearing the book of investiture together with a seal of gilded silver. In 1812, Ang Chan refused a request from his brother to share power, leading to a rebellion. Siam sent forces in order to support the rebel prince, hoping to enthrone him and wrest influence from Gia Long over Cambodia. In 1813 Gia Long responded by sending a large force that forced the Siamese and the rebel prince Ang Snguon to leave Cambodia. As a result, a Vietnamese garrison was permanently installed in the citadel at Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. From then on, Siam did not attempt to regain control of Cambodia during Gia Long’s rule.
Napoleon’s aims to conquer Vietnam as a base to challenge British supremacy in India never materialised, having been occupied by extravagant military ambitions on mainland Europe. France was the only country with permanent spokesmen in Vietnam during his reign.
Pigneau’s aborted deal with France allowed Gia Long to not open his country to western trade. Gia Long was generally disinterested in trade. In 1804, a British delegation attempted to negotiate trade privileges with Vietnam. It was the only offer of trade until 1822, such was the European disinterest in Asia during the Napoleonic Wars. He had purchased arms from British firms in Madras and Calcutta on credit. This revived British interest in Vietnam and in 1804, the British East India Company sent J W Roberts to Hue. His presents were turned away and no commercial deal was concluded. He asked for exclusive right to trade with Vietnam and also the cession of the island of Cham near Faifo to the United Kingdom. Further approaches from The Netherlands were turned away, attributed to the influence of the French mandarins. He tried to secure friendly relations with every European power by granting favours to none. In 1817, the French Prime Minister Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis dispatched the Cybele, a frigate with 52 guns to Tourane (now Da Nang) to “show French sympathy and to assure Gia Long of the benevolence of the King of France”. The captain of the vessel was turned way on ground of protocol, not carrying a royal letter from the French king.
Gia Long kept four French officers in his service after his coronation: Philippe Vannier, Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau, de Forsans and Despiau. All became mandarins of high rank. Recommendations from Pondicherry to Napoleon Bonaparte suggesting the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Vietnam were fruitless due to the preoccupation with war in Europe. In 1817, French merchants from Bordeaux began trading with Vietnam after the efforts of the Duc de Richelieu, minister to Louis XVIII.
Domestic policies and capital works
Gia Long abolished all large landholding by princes, nobles and high officials. He abolished the 800 year old practice of paying officials and of rewarding or endowing nobles with a portion of the taxes from a village or group thereof. He repaired highways and built new ones, and resorted the north south highway from Saigon to Lang Son. He organised a postal service to operate on the highways and organised public storehouses to alleviate starvation in drought years. Gia Long enacted monetary reform and implemented a more ssocializedagrarian policy. However, the growth in population outstripped the growth in land clearing and cultivation. Gia Long’s rule was marred by allegations that people worked all day and part of night in all weather condition building fortifications for capital works, and that as a result, land went fallow. Complaints of mandarin corruption and oppressive taxation were often leveled at his government.
In 1803 Gia Long revived the Confucian court examinations, promulgated a new legal code in 1812. His legal code was almost a total copy of that used by the Qing dynasty in China at the time and was later translated into French by Paul-Louis-Félix Philastre. Now that Vietnam was unified and the centre of gravity of the country was further to the south following centuries of southerly migration and conquest, Gia Long moved the seat of government from Hanoi to Hue. Gia Long rebuilt Hue into a fortress stronghold. It was a square of 2.5 km per side. A 9m rampart was cased with masonry and protected by protruding bastions, each defended by 36 guns. The exterior was flanked by a moat. Moats and canals reinforced the inner and outer walls. The army included an eight hundred strong elephant war brigade.The new capital city, protocol and court dress were all taken directly from Ming Dynasty styles. Gia Long built a palace and fortress that was intended to be a smaller copy of the Chinese Forbidden City in the 1800s. In English it is called the “Imperial City”. The name of the inner palace complex in Vietnamese is translated literally as “Purple Forbidden City”, which is the same as the Chinese name for the Forbidden City in Beijing.
He respected the Catholic faith of his French allies and permitted unimpeded missionary activity out of respect, mainly Spanish in Tonkin and French in the central and southern regions. At the time of his death, there were six Christian bishops from Europe in Vietnam. The population of Christians was estimated at 300,000 in Tonkin and 60,000 in Cochin China. He however expressed dismay at the Catholic condemnation of ancestral worship, a basic tenet of Vietnamese culture. However he began to take a more isolationist position as peasant revolts and claimants to the former Lê Dynasty were often linked to Catholic agitation and destablisation of his rule. Gia Long was also known for his disdain for Buddhism, which was the religion practiced by the majority. Despite its popularity among ladies of the court, Gia Long often restricted the activities of Buddhists.
In August 1802 he retaliated against the captured Tay Son who had had executed his family in the 1770s. The surviving members of the family and its leading generals and their families were executed. The remains of Quang Trung and his queen were exhumed and desecrated, and his son the last Tay Son monarch Quang Toan was bound to four elephants and torn a part. He repealed the changes enacted by Quang Trung and reverted to the prior Confucian orthodoxy. This included restoring the civil service to the forefront of decision making ahead of the army, reversing the plan to put science before the study of Confucian literature, and reversed education reform.
It was assumed that his grandson and son of Nguyen Canh would become the next Emperor, but in 1816, appointed Chi Dam, the son of his first concubine. Gia Long chose him for his strong character and his deep aversion to westerners. Before his ascension, Minh Mang was reputed to have praised the Japanese for having expelled and eradicated Christianity from their country. He told his son to treat the Europeans well, especially the French, but not to grant them any position of preponderance.