(TURN of the CENTURY IMPERIALISM – continued)

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French Colonialism and Vietnam, to 1908

There was a tendency in France to associate empire with national worthiness, and imperialism of a great nation like France was helping to keep empire respectable. The French were feeling the need for more respect. French pride had been injured by Germany's defeat of France back in 1871, and French pride had been hurt by the minor role they were playing in European affairs. Some in France saw themselves as descendants of the Roman Empire and held up the Roman Empire as a model for France, and clinging to such glory they wished not to be outdone in empire by the British.

Already, since the early 1840s, the French had been ruling in Algeria, having conquered that country militarily. They had extended their rule into what is now Tunisia, which they were ruling indirectly, preserving local institutions and collaborating with local ruling elites. The French military had followed their Catholic missionaries to Tahiti and had fought a four-year war against the Tahitians, defeating them by 1847, creating what they called a protectorate over Tahiti and surrounding islands. They had acquired New Caledonia, near Australia, and in 1853 they turned it into a penal colony. They had annexed the Marquesas Islands. In the 1870s the French had pushed into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And they had established rule in Madagascar – a sparsely populated island off the southeastern coast of Africa – where, at the turn of the century they pacified a rebellion and unified the island politically.

Like the British, the French in Africa had ruled for decades at tropical spots along the Atlantic coast, places such as Senegal and farther south at Guinea (just south of Portuguese Guinea), and at the Ivory Coast, Dahomey and Gabon. Like the British, at the turn of the century the French were extending their rule inland, where their rule was to be indirect (rule through local chieftains) and by force of arms. At the turn of the century the French were expanding into the sparsely populated savanna, pasture lands and semi-desert areas of the western Sahara. In early 1900 the French fought a war against the black imperialist and sometime slave trader, Rabih Fadlullah, a doctrinaire Muslim and a brutal despot who had modern weapons. In April 1900 the French killed Fadlullah at the battle of Kousséri, fifty miles southeast of Lake Chad.

In Africa, the French were less racial in their attitude than were the British. They believed they could remake Africans and other colonized people into French persons. But the French did not translate this attitude into a greater benevolence for their African subjects. Unlike the British, they were taking agricultural land from Africans. In the tropics and semi-tropics of French controlled Western Africa, forty French companies held half the land, and backed by French troops these companies felt free to operate in ways they would not dare in France, such as using forced labor.

The French in Africa who managed affairs there denied local people the right to sell rubber. They compelled people to produce quotas of rubber and other products. They taxed the Africans, and rather than spend part of this tax money by hiring people to do public works, they exploited Africans further by regularly drafting entire communities to labor on public works. French overseers were often simple men who were poor at communicating other than with the threat of brute force. Occasionally people were worked to death. The patience of Africans had its limits, and revolts occurred that the French crushed them with considerable violence.

The average person in France was unaware of conditions in their African colonies. And the same can be said concerning French rule in Vietnam, where the French were equally oppressive. In the late nineteenth century, the French overthrew a feudal monarchy and fought extended military campaigns against resistance to their rule. Many of Vietnam's educated elite opposed French rule and would not work for the French, but the French found a few opportunistic Vietnamese who would.

In Vietnam, and elsewhere in Indochina, Frenchmen grabbed lands, and they built plantations that produced rubber and other forest products. In the first decade of the twentieth century, France's colonial administration in Vietnam encouraged French commercial enterprises. They built railways, roads and hydraulic works to serve these enterprises, but projects that would have served Vietnamese farmers were ignored. Vietnam was a predominately peasant society, and Vietnam's peasants continued to suffer from the usual droughts and floods. Per capita rice consumption declined. And what had been Vietnam's handicraft industry was destroyed.

A new class of Vietnamese had come into being: people who labored for the French as servants, or who labored in French-owned mines, on French-owned plantations, at French construction sites or in French-owned factories. The French paid them as little as they could – hardly enough for survival, and sometimes not enough. As in Africa, the French were taxing the Vietnamese and drafting them to labor on public works. On one such project – the Hanoi-Yunnan Phu railway – 25,000 Vietnamese died. Conditions in Vietnam in general were creating a decline in Vietnam's population.

The French in Vietnam established a monopoly in the production of salt, alcoholic beverages and opium. They taxed consumption of these. They encouraged Vietnamese to buy their opium, and money gained from their opium trade was an important part of the colonial administration's income. A French company, Fontaine, held a monopoly in making and selling alcoholic beverages in Vietnam, and all other distilling was banned and severely punished with imprisonment and confiscation of property. And in 1902 the colonial administration made buying alcoholic beverages compulsory, each Vietnamese village having to consume a definite quantity in proportion to its population – more of the behavior that French commerce and government dare not perpetrate on people in France.

In 1908, Vietnamese farmers responded to a rise in taxes by marching to the French administration headquarters. For weeks, thousands of peasants picketed the governor's office in Hue and made passionate speeches, not only against taxes but forced labor. The protest spread, and the French countered with ferocity. Demonstrators were gunned down. Whole villages were razed to the ground. Thousands were arrested, and two Vietnamese scholars who had spoken against French policies were executed.

But in Vietnam and Africa, while French commercial operations were benefiting privately owned French companies, revenues from France's colonies were not paying the cost of maintenance and administration. Average French taxpayers – like British taxpayers – were subsidizing their nation's colonies.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.