France and Spain Invade Vietnam

Persecution of Christian missionaries in Vietnam led France and Spain to declare war on the Vietnamese, ending Vietnamese independence and creating French Indochina.

Summary of Event

Angered by Tu Duc’s blatant policy on persecuting and executing Christian missionaries Missionaries;in Vietnam[Vietnam] , France attempted an offer of peace and friendship to Vietnam in 1856. The offer demanded for the French trade rights, the ability to navigate the Mekong River, and religious freedom. Tu Duc, however, believed the Christians were a detrimental influence in Vietnam, and fearing instability, he promptly rejected France’s offer, despite its promise of trade. Vietnam;and France[France]
Spain;and Vietnam[Vietnam]
French Empire;and Vietnam[Vietnam]
Tu Duc
Genouilly, Charles Rigault de
[kw]France and Spain Invade Vietnam (Aug., 1858)
[kw]Spain Invade Vietnam, France and (Aug., 1858)
[kw]Invade Vietnam, France and Spain (Aug., 1858)
[kw]Vietnam, France and Spain Invade (Aug., 1858)
Vietnam;and France[France]
Spain;and Vietnam[Vietnam]
French Empire;and Vietnam[Vietnam]
Tu Duc
Genouilly, Charles Rigault de
[g]Vietnam;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[g]Southeast Asia;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[g]France;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[g]Cambodia;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[g]Spain;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[c]Colonization;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug., 1858: France and Spain Invade Vietnam[3260]
Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Vietnam[Vietnam]

During negotiations, brief clashes erupted between French and Vietnamese forces. Fearing a Vietnamese attack, French forces prepared for battle, eventually destroying harbor forts. Two years of relative peace ensued while French forces attended to the Second Opium War Opium Wars;and France[France] in China and Charles de Montigny, French consul-general to Siam Siam and Cambodia Cambodia , attempted to pressure Tu Duc into accepting France’s offer. Unsuccessful, Montigny left Vietnam, which Tu Duc interpreted as French weakness. With French forces virtually absent, Monsignor Diaz, the Spanish bishop of Tongking (northern provinces of Vietnam, also referred to as Tonkin), was arrested in 1857 and decapitated in July of 1858, thus beginning a war with France.

Unfortunately for Vietnam, French forces were positioned off the coast of China and available for retaliation. The execution of Diaz offended the Christian French, hardening their resolve to control Vietnam. Eager for revenge, Spain united with France, sending Catholic Filipinos to fight in Vietnam. Spain specifically wanted Tongking as payment for the execution of Diaz. In August, 1858, a French and Spanish force of fourteen war vessels and three thousand men appeared off Da Nang. Within forty-eight hours, the European forces landed and took Da Nang. Their victory stemmed primarily from the inadequate weaponry of the Vietnamese, who used eighteenth century cannon. With the fall of Da Nang, the French were hoping for a Christian-led rebellion in Tongking. The rebellion did not occur, and the French planned on marching to Hue, the imperial capital. The French forces were not prepared for the harsh conditions of the tropics, and the Vietnamese forces were able to hold the French at bay.

The French did not have the necessary provisions to fight, and rather than wait for supplies, Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly changed his tactic and instead sailed for Gia Dinh in February, 1859, to attack from the south, despite Spanish protest. Admiral de Genouilly attacked the city and took it in one week. Gia Dinh was a fertile rice area, and with its capture the French were able to feed the troops for an extended amount of time. However, they still were short on some supplies, and in April, Genouilly left some troops garrisoned in Gia Dinh and headed back to Da Nang to join the troops he had left. Genouilly found the situation at Da Nang the same as it was at Gia Dinh.

A major clash between French and Vietnamese forces occurred in May, and, despite the overwhelming French advantage, cholera Cholera;in Vietnam[Vietnam] and typhoid fever Typhoid fever outbreaks, a lack of reinforcements, and Tu Duc’s will took a toll on the French. Genouilly opened peace negotiations in June, which demanded religious freedom, trade, and territory for the French. Tu Duc did not accept, and in August, Genouilly reduced the demand: creating a protectorate over Christians and establishing a consulate-general. Tu Duc again did not accept, and Genouilly issued an ultimatum. The ultimatum went unanswered, and when the French were unable to advance on Hue because of disease, they began to leave in 1860. By March the French forces were completely out of Da Nang.

After Genouilly had left troops in Gia Dinh, the French force was plagued with constant attacks by the Vietnamese. A Vietnamese force of twelve thousand men descended on Gia Dinh in mid-1860, but superior weaponry made up for being outnumbered. In February, 1861, Admiral Leonard V. J. Charner brought reinforcements of seventy ships and three thousand men up the Dong Nai River to Gia Dinh. With these forces and modern weapons, the French maintained control and forced the Vietnamese to evacuate from around the city. The French took My Tho, Gia Dinh province, and parts of Bien Hoa and Go Cong provinces in May. Charner sought to negotiate with Hue, but Tu Duc still had hope of ousting France. Guerrilla fighting against France increased, and after France unilaterally annexed Gia Dinh in July, the Vietnamese attacked. However, the French were stronger and their counterattack in early 1862 resulted in the control of all of Baria and Bien Hoa provinces, including the fertile rice region of the Delta islands.

The island fortress of Vinh Long, which also happened to be one of the richest rice producing areas, fell to the French in March. Faced with the loss of food supplies and a Christian rebellion in the north, Tu Duc opened negotiations with France and signed the Treaty of Saigon (1862) Saigon, Treaty of (1862) . France received the eastern provinces of Gia Dinh (including Saigon), My Tho, and Bien Hoa, which they named Cochin China, and the island of Pulau Condore. Da Nang, Ba Lat, and Quang Yen were opened to trade, French ships were allowed to use the Mekong River, and Catholicism was to be tolerated. In addition, the French demanded that a third power could not intervene in Vietnamese affairs without the consent of Paris. In return, France left Vinh Long.

Despite agreeing to the treaty, Tu Duc had no desire to ratify it. The documents were delayed en route to Vietnam, and Tu Duc took this opportunity to again try to oust the French. Tu Duc tried to exploit the differences between France and Spain, but his attempts failed. Under the threat of aiding the rebels in Tongking, France forced Tu Duc to ratify the Treaty of Saigon in April, 1863.

The Treaty of Saigon, in addition to giving the Vietnamese provinces, also gave France Vietnamese territories. Because Vietnam claimed suzerainty over Cambodia Cambodia , France assumed that Cambodia would now become a French protectorate. However, the Khmer monarchy had agreed to joint suzerainty to Siam Siam and Vietnam after bloody fighting in the 1840’s. Thus, when France wanted to assert its rights over Cambodia, it was met with Thai resistance. In an effort to protect Cambodia from Vietnamese and Thai fighting, King Ang Duong Ang Duong (r. 1841-1860) had courted the French in 1856, but, under Thai pressure, the French diplomats were turned away.

Ang Duong’s successor, Norodom Norodom , ascended the throne at a time when Cambodia was constantly plagued with rebellions seeking to oust Vietnamese and Thai control. In 1862, Norodom fled the capital Odong. In August, 1863, France forced Norodom to return and sign a treaty that denied the rights of Siam Siam and Vietnam. The treaty gave Cambodia Cambodia the protection of the French, and France received rights to explore the kingdom and use its mineral and forest resources.


Vietnam had been able to remain independent for nine hundred years, fighting off China and other Asian powers. With the age of imperialism, however, European countries such as Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain sought to expand their empires, increase trade, and Christianize other countries.

France’s emperor, Napoleon III, was particularly interested in expanding his empire to rival that of Napoleon Bonaparte’s, and he felt that a military post in Asia was an imperial necessity. In an effort to secure that post, Napoleon III involved French troops with the Second Opium Opium Wars;and France[France] War in China. Great Britain and France were imperial rivals, and Napoleon III wanted to secure before Britain any land possible. The first attempts at gaining territory were to use Christian missionaries Missionaries;in Vietnam[Vietnam] , a tactic that the emperors of Vietnam, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc, viewed as dangerous to their rule. Their policy of persecution served as Vietnam’s downfall. French Empress Eugénie sympathized with the missionaries and saw them as martyrs, and Catholics were given the necessary means to persuade the reluctant government to take over Vietnam. Britain already controlled Burma, and afraid of further expansion, France eyed Vietnam and Cambodia Cambodia and its direct access to southwestern China.

The Treaty of Saigon marked the end of Vietnam’s independence and the rise of French Indochina, beginning a colonial period that did not end until the First Indochina War began (1946; ended 1954). Without the persecution of the Christian missionaries, Napoleon Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Vietnam[Vietnam] III would not have had the support of the French government to expand his empire into Southeast Asia, and Vietnam might have remained independent or fallen to Britain, either of which would have changed the political atmosphere of Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. General history of Vietnam that places Tu Duc’s reign in a larger context.
  • _______. The Last Emperors of Vietnam: From Tu Duc to Bao Dai. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. A discussion of the emperors of Vietnam during the country’s status as a French protectorate. The book focuses more on the actions and motives of the emperors than on the war itself.
  • Sardesai, D. R. Vietnam: Past and Present. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2005. A detailed discussion of the history of Vietnam with an emphasis on colonial expansion, the colonial period, and the rise of nationalism in Vietnam.
  • Tarling, Nicholas, ed. From c. 1800 to the 1930’s. Vol. 2, part 1 in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A detailed analysis of the war with a discussion on the motives of the Europeans, the political atmosphere in Europe, and how those two factors affected the colonization of Southeast Asia.
  • Tate, D. J. M. The Making of Modern South-East Asia: The European Conquest. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 1977. A detailed discussion of the war from many angles, with an emphasis on events and their dates.

First Opium War

Second Opium War

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

French Indochina War

Korean Military Mutinies Against Japanese Rule

Sino-Japanese War

Scramble for Chinese Concessions Begins

Boxer Rebellion

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