Monday, July 18, 2011

The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia by John F. Cady

(Book Review)

Every schoolchild knows that the about the French colonial legacy in Indochina. But how exactly did the French get over there in the first place? Given the fact that the British dominated the sea lanes of the 19th Century, and given the fact that 19th Century France was notoriously - politically - unstable, how did the French find time to set up an empire in Eastern Asia?

Well, if these questions have ever kept you up at night wondering, then this is the book for you.

This book was published way back in 1954. (Ironically enough, the same year that the French would lose their empire in Indochina, although I think that’s just by coincidence. The author says he began his research for the book back in 1938.)

It is, as you would expect of an academic history book from this era, a bit dry and dull reading in parts. It’s not badly written, but it’s not written for the general public. The author is clearly more interested in filling in a gap in the historical research than he is in creating the next bestseller.

It’s also one of those academic books that is littered with footnotes. There’s not a single page that doesn’t have several footnotes at the bottom.
(In my humble opinion most of the footnotes should have been integrated into the text. It’s a bit disorientating to constantly have to refer down to the bottom of the page, and a lot of the information contained in the footnotes seems to be important, so I’m not sure why it is buried at the bottom of the page. But then I’m no expert on academic writing conventions.)

The only reason you would subject yourself to this book is if you were interested in its subject material. And as it happens, I was. Having moved to Indochina, I decided I wanted to fill in this gap in my historical knowledge and learn a bit more about why the French had been in this area to begin with.

All that being said, some sections of this book are more interesting than others. The political sections I thought were fairly interesting. I enjoyed reading Cade’s description of the various political factions during the Orleanist Monarchy, or of the conflict between Liberal Catholicism and Conservative Catholicism, or how Louis Napoleon’s need to gain political support among the Catholics would lead him to undertake ventures to safeguard Catholic missionaries in Asia (which in turn would be the start of French Imperialism in that region).

In contrast, some of the chapters describing the long slow back and forth diplomacy between the Chinese and French diplomats are not so interesting. But I sucked it up and kept reading anyway.

As the title implies, the book only looks at the roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia. It describes the French policies leading up to the conquest of Vietnam in the 1880s, but stops short of actually describing the conquest itself. To find out how the French actually gained control and ruled in Indochina, I suppose I’m going to have to turn to other books on my reading list. But this book does a good job of describing all the developments leading up to the French acquisition of Indochina.

The author posits two duel reasons for French imperialism in Asia. One is the need to enhance French prestige, especially in light of the growing British Empire in Asia. The second is agitation by French Catholic missionaries to establish pro-Christian regimes in Asia.

Napoleon III, clearly aware of how fragile his legitimacy was, did all he could to court Catholic support as a way to hang onto power. And that lead him to attempt to set up Catholic empires in Mexico and Vietnam.

The bulk of the book doesn’t actually deal with Indochina, but with the French in China. (Imperialism in Indochina is presented almost as an afterthought when the French Imperial ambitions in China were thwarted.)

The French were competing with other Western powers for influence in China, and in order to tell the whole story there are some chapters were Cade feels it necessary to spend as much time talking about the British, American and Russian diplomats in China as he does the French.

In particular, the French rivalry (and at times entente) with Britain make up much of the book. Cade spends a whole chapter describing the diplomatic events that lead Britain and France to form a joint alliance during “The Arrow War.”

[This book, which focuses heavily on the European reaction to the Taiping rebellion, and also on the Anglo-French expedition to Peking, covers most of the historical events dramatized in “Flashman and the Dragon”, which I just finished recently. Had I read this book first, I probably would have been able to give “Flashman and the Dragon” a more intelligent review. On the other hand, sometimes it’s more interesting to read the historical novel first, and then once your interest has already been aroused later go back and read the real history afterward.]

Various stray observations:

Interesting to think that at the time the author was writing (1954), the American War in Vietnam had not yet actually begun, and so the subject matter had not yet acquired the polarizing connotations that it would have ever since.
There are a few passages in this book however which eerily seem to foreshadow the American involvement.

For example, when trying to persuade the French government to occupy Vietnam, the Catholic missionaries proclaimed that the Vietnamese people actually wanted the French to invade them and liberate them from their oppressive government.

Abbe Huc, a former Lazarist missionary…had written and spoken volubly on the subject, finally gaining a hearing at court. In a secret memorandum prepared for Louis Napoleon in January, 1857 Huc argued that….The suffering Annamite [Vietnamese] population would receive the French as liberators and benefactors, and only a short time would be required to make them entirely Catholic,” (page 178-179).

Napoleon III actually takes the bait and invades Vietnam, only to find out that the Vietnamese desire to be invaded by the French had been greatly exaggerated. The French army encounters fierce resistance, no native support, and suffers heavy losses.

And another passage which seems prescient of American involvement appears.

During these years [the 1860s], Saigon was a prestige liability for the Emperor [Napoleon III] rather than an asset. One informed nationalist spokesman in 1864 levelled a trenchant attack against the whole Indo-China venture on the ground that it had not been thought out in advance in terms of defined objectives and the difficulties and sacrifices entailed,” (p.277).

[I suppose it would probably be all too obvious to point out how these passages also relate to the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars.]


Unfortunately one does not emerge from this book with a very positive view of Christian missionaries. The 19th century Catholic missionaries seemed to have been unable to separate their evangelizing mission from their belief in imperialism.

This history presents the Catholic missionaries as actively driving imperialism. The missionaries lobbied the French government to provide them with protection in countries which were hostile to Christianity, such as China, Korea and Vietnam. And the missionaries would encourage the French government to invade and set up French protectorates in all of these areas. In the cases of Korea and Vietnam, missionaries who had been in the country evangelizing would take advantage of their presence inside the country to provide the French military information about the country’s internal defenses, and advice about the best route to take on an invasion.
In the case of Korea, this advice was ignored. But in Vietnam, the first joint French-Spanish invasion of the country was a result of missionary lobbying and missionary advice.

One would hope that this era of Christian history is now over. But there’s no denying that Christian missionaries have had a very mixed historical track record. And this history is no doubt better remembered by the colonized countries than by the colonizers.

I had at least one Calvin professor who implied that China’s reluctance to allow foreign missionaries into the country was in part based on this history legacy, and that the aggressive pushing by some evangelical groups to enter China showed an insensitivity to this legacy.
It’s worth remembering the next time you see one of those church bulletins complaining about how China (or Vietnam) is curtailing missionary activity again.


This book has long been out of print, but in this day and age you can find anything you’re looking for on Amazon. And, if you don’t mind reading things off of a computer screen, the whole text is also available online [LINK HERE].

Link of the Day
Q&A with Noam Chomsky

1 comment:

Joel said...

Now just slightly over a year on, I regret writing the last part of this review.

It is true that this book does portray Catholic missionaries acting abhorrently in Asia.
That does not justify present religious persecution in China, and I regret writing that.