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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 3, 2023

Last time we spoke about how France ended up in Indochina. Yes while Britain got her hands very messy in China, France had likewise done the same in Southeast Asia. It began with Jesuit priests trying to convert those to Catholicism but they soon found themselves becoming increasingly more involved. The Nguyen empire grew weary of the tiresome catholics and began to crack down on them, leading to conflicts with the French and to a lesser extent the Spanish. Before they knew it a full blown war emerged where the Vietnamese tried desperately to fight off a Franco-Spanish force, but in the end were forced to capitulate to brutal demands. Yet again unequal treaties were placed upon a nation of the far east, but worse than that, the French took colonial possession of what became known as French Indochina. Today we continue that story.


#42 Francis Garnier’s Insane Expedition


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

So we ended off the last episode with the signing of the Treaty of Saigon, yet again another unequal treaty in the east. It was so harsh, the Nguyen Emperor, Tu Duc sent an embassy to France in 1863 trying to revise it. The embassy failed their mission as Napoleon III had no intentions of lightening his grip on the new territorial acquisitions. Those territorial acquisitions to refresh your minds were Bien Hoa, Gia Dinh and Dinh Tuong. Thus by 1864 France had acquired a large part of southern Vietnam and declared it the French colony of Cochinchina. Also in August of 1863 the King of Cambodia Norodom signed a protectorate treaty with France cutting off the Kingdom of Siam and Empire of Nguyen’s suzerainty over his country. If you think that is humiliating, just wait to hear this. Tu Duc’s envoy to France, Phan Thanh Gian returned to Vietnam and was nominated governor ship of 3 southwestern provinces, Vinh Long, Chau Doc and Ha Tien. His French counterpart the Governor of the news Cochinchina, Pierre-Paul de la Grandiere was worried the 3 provinces to his west might be troublesome so he secretly organized an expedition to occupy them. Perhaps Phan Thanh Gian was told, or perhaps not, but it seems the French convinced Tu Duc to simply hand over the provinces which he did. Phan Thanh Gian told his people not to resistance, awaited orders which never came and killed himself via poisoning. Thus France now controlled all of southern Vietnam. Emperor Tu Duc officially handed the provinces over in the 1874 treaty of Saigon. The treaty officially made the rest of Vietnam a protectorate of France, to which she promised military protection against the Qing dynasty. A large reason why the Vietnamese signed off on this was because of another event that occurred in 1873, known as the Garnier affair.

In 1873 the French explorer Jean Dupuis traveled up the Red River to attempt trade with Yunnan province, specifically to sell guns to its governor. While that sounds bad, Dupuis also performed the heinous crime of carrying salt up the river. Yes it turns out this was strictly prohibited by the Nguyen empire. A dispute emerged and Dupuis found himself stuck in a district of Hanoi alongside 90 of his Chinese hired mercenaries. The Vietnamese feared french reprisals, thus instead of using force to get rid of them they issued a complaint to the French admiral Marie Jules Dupre who was acting governor of Cochinchina. Dupre seemed to think he had something to gain from the situation, so he sent an expedition led by Lt Francis Garnir to Hanoi to solve the mater. Garnier took the ships D’estree and Fleurus alongside 83 men. Another 60 men would join them 2 weeks later aboard the Decres.

The D’estree arrived at Tonkin on October 23rd , while Garnier and his men traveled to Hanoi using local junks. On November 5th Granier’s party arrived and met with Dupuis. Despite being told to tell Dupuis to simply leave, Dupuis managed to convince Garnier he had been greatly mistreated by forces led by Marshal Nguyen Tri Phuong. Garnier then tried to negotiate with the local Nguyen authorities, but they would not budge on anything, so Garnier decided for military action. When the second part of his expeditionary forces arrived on, plus some additional units he requested, a total of 180 men, he decided to use them to capture Hanoi. Garnier wrote a letter and sent it back to Admiral Dupre using the D’estree to justify his actions. Garnier took the 2 gunboats he had left, the Scorpion and Espingole and anchored them roughly 1200 meters away from the walls of Hanoi, in the perfect position to fire upon her citadel, but being out of range of the Vietnamese cannons. 

On the morning of October 20th, Lt Garnier took a large portion of his forces towards the south eastern gate of Hanoi. Once they were in position they began to fire upon its thick door. The Vietnamese defenders atop the walls attempted to fire down upon the enemy with their cannons, but they were placed “en barbette” instead of inside embrasures, basically they were aimed to hit ships out in the water and could not properly aim downwards. The cannons failed to hit the french, while the French returned fire using Chassepot rifles. The defenders then tried to use older style riles, and as a french eye witness noted began throwing nails on the floor, which he assumed was to try and stop them from walking closer to the wall. Regardless the nails did not work. Once the gate had been demolished the defenders began to rout and the French quickly seized the south western entrance to the city. 

Meanwhile the two gunboats bombarded the northern and western gates and Garnier led another party to use land artillery to hit the south eastern gate. Garnier entered through a breach and this began a general rout for the enemy. Meanwhile Dupuis and 30 of his mercenaries including a former EVA member named Georges Vlavianos held the eastern gate to make sure the enemy did not escape there. During the chaos the French who came across Dupuis force assumed the chinese mercenaries were Vietnamese defenders and began to fire upon them causing some casualties until Dupuis stopped them. In the end Garnier took the city with a force of around 200 men, a city with a population of 80,000. Marshal Tri Phuong was captured alongside 2000 of his soldiers.

On November 23rd, Garnier dispatched the Espingole from Hanoi to go obtain the submission of Nguyen officials at the fortified cities of Hung Yen and Phu-ly. The next day the small force aboard the Espingole arrived to Hung Yen and they met with some Nguyen officials. The officials promised the europeans they would capitulate as quote ‘you have managed to capture the great citadel of Hanoi. We will not have the audacity to attempt defending this one against you”. The Governor officially submitted, so the Espingole left Hung Yen and proceeded for Phu Ly. It was only a 3 hours journey. This time the French found the doors closed to them, with a few defenders offering fight. The French force began firing at those they saw and this caused the defenders to flee. The French entered Phu Ly finding some cannons, a few low quality rifles and a lot of rice and local currency. They waited a week holding the city and on December 1st a Vietnamese man named Le Van Ba, whom Garnier had appointed to be in charge of Phu Ly arrived with a small militia force. The French force greeted them, handing over some weapons to help them garrison the city and then proceeded to take the Espingole to Hai Duong.

Hai Duong held strong fortifications, outfitted with a large number of cannons, including some more modern european ones and was defended by roughly 2000 men. The French delegation was met by the governor of Hai Duong, Dang Xuan Bang who politely had tea with them. The French demanded he come aboard their ship to officially begin handing over the city. He politely refused to go aboard their ship, so a French officer threatened him stating “we will capture Hai Duong like we captured Hanoi”. The governor politely refused their demands again, notably being charming and polite the entire time. The French went back to the Espingole, carrying some gifts the governor gave them. The last thing they told the governor was if he did not come over to their boat by 3pm, the city would be considered an enemy. 3pm went by without any sight of the governor, so the Espingole began to open fire on the citadel firing 10 shells to devastating effect. The French then ceased their fire hoping the damage to the citadel would entice the governor to surrender. The next day a junk came to the Espingole and aboard was an official, but not the governor himself. The French demanded the governor come himself or they would continue their attack. Well the governor did not show up so at 8:30 at night the Espingole made its way to fire on the nearest fort. The fort returned fire, but its cannons fire right over the Espingole’s mast. The French sent 15 marines and 12 sailors aboard two sampans to assault the fort. Once they got within 50 meters of the fort they began firing their rifles which routed the forts defenders. They seized the fort with ease which was 600 meters from the cities citadel. From the fort they began to fire upon the Vietnamese soldiers. Eventually they began a march towards the citadel’s main gate, but it had a moat. From atop its walls the Vietnamese were firing cannons, but the French simply waited for the cannons to fire and bolted towards the gate while they were reloading. The French had brought not artillery nor scaling ladders and were forced to run around the citadels walls looking or a weak spot to breach which they did find on its southern end. By 10:15am the French got inside the citadel and hoisted the french flag from its highest tower. They captured a few hundred vietnamese soldiers, but countless got away, including the governor.

During this mess, the Espingole party was informed the governor of Ninh Binh and some Hanoi officials who had run away during the battle were organizing forces to oppose the French. The Espingole received 400 reinforcements who had been sent to help garrison their recent earnings. The Espingole commander sent word to Garnier about the Vietnamese building up a force to face them, prompting Garnier to send a force to subdue Ninh Binh. Garnier dispatched Aspirant Hautefeuille with a squad for the task and enroute he found out the Vietnamese were building large dams in the riverways to thwart their movements. Hautefeuilles force tore down the first dam operation they found only to find out another one was being built closer to Ninh Binh. They made their way to Ninh Binh and Hautefeuille got aboard a canoe with some sailors to parley at its citadel. When they landed they were swarmed by local civilians trying to give them gifts of oxen. As soon as the French reached the citadels gate they were swarmed by Vietnamese troops who proded them with spears trying to entice a battle. Hautefeuille noticed not to far away was the provincial governor, one Nguyen Vu, he recognized him because he had four parasols. Hautefeuille raised his pistol and screamed at the governor to submit to Garnier. The governor replied he would submit whole-heartedly. So Hautefeuille went over to him with a paper and pen demanding he write down his submission officially and allow him to escort the governor into the citadel, but to this the governor rejected. Apparently Hautefeuille grabbed the governor by his collar, but his gun to the mans head and threatened to kill him. A tense standoff occurred until the governor gave in and soon the french flag was raised over the citadel. For this achievement Hautefeuille would be appointed governor of the province by Garnier later in early December.

Throughout early december Garniers garrisons were attacked by Vietnamese guerilla forces and hire Black Flag mercenaries. I had mentioned them once before, but to explain who exactly they are, they were the remnants of a bandit group that had ventured into northern vietnam from Guangxi province. Basically they were products of the Taiping Rebellion and when the Qing cracked down, they took up their shop and left for Vietnam. Nguyen officials loved to hire them to fight the French as they had experience fighting westerners. Garnier ended up visited some of the garrisons having issues with attacks, offering reinforcements and instructions on how to hold onto their cities. On December 18th, Garnier was back in Hanoi, receiving reports the Black Flags were becoming a real problem for its defenses. Garnier was just about to plan a assault of Son Tay where it was alleged the Black Flag’s were operating, when a Nguyen envoy party showed up proclaiming a truce. Garnier began negotiations with the party, when on December 21st suddenly 2000 Vietnamese soldiers led by Hoang Ke Viem and 600 Black Flags approached Hanoi. The Black flags attacked Hanoi’s citadel while the Vietnamese forces held back a further km away. The French lookouts saw an elephant amongst their force, which indicated the presence of a high Nguyen official.

Garnier distributed his men around the walls while his men used their French cannons upon the Black Flag’s, refusing to use the outdated Vietnamese swivel cannons. The French cannons began to cause a panic amongst the vietnamese army which quickly turned into a rout, while the Black Flag forces made an orderly retreat. Garnier was not satisfied with this, knowing full well they would attack again, so he decided to send a decisive blow against the Black Flags. Garnier sent Ensign Balny D’Avricourt with a squad of 12 men to hit the enemies left flank while he took 18 men to hit the village of Thu Le, around 1.2 kms southwest of the citadel where it looked like the Black Flag’s were holding up. The two French forces went their separate paths and met up to bombard Thu Le. Garniers force saw the Black Flag force withdrawing and pursued them only to run into a swamp. Their cannon got stuck, but Garnier simply yelled “A la baionnette, en avant!”. Garnier charged through the swamp as his men tried to keep up with him. They were suddenly met with a volley from the Black Flag who had lured them in, killing a few of the French. Garnier unhit, kept charging with his handgun, but tripped and fell. Upon seeing this the Black flag forces rushed forward and stabbed Garnier multiple times with spears and swords while firing at his comrades. The French retreated back to the citadel losing more men, as the Nguyen forces took Garniers head and some others back to Son Tay. 

Despite losing their leader, the French held onto the garrisons, sending word of his death and receiving word a new French envoy would be sent. At this point French authorities had found out about the Garnier expedition and were quite embarrassed by the entire thing. Actually they had found out a bit early in late november, prompting Lt Paul-Louis-Felix-Philastre to relieve Garnier and send a scathing letter to him that he never got a chance to read “Have you thought about the shame that will befall upon you when it will be known that, having been sent to expel some ruffian, you allied yourself with him to attack people who hadn't caused you any harm?

Lt Philastre arrived in Haiphong to meet with Nguyen officials to end the unsanctioned campaign. On December 29th, Philastre went to Hai Duong where he ordered the garrisons to be evacuated, where the local french forces tried to persuade him otherwise. Philastre then went to Hanoi to speak to more Nguyen officials about his orders for the French to leave the cities they stole. This led to the 1874 signing of the new treaty of Saigon where the French gave back the stolen cities, thus concluded what was in essence a short undeclared war. So Garnier had been sent to simply tell a guy caught smuggling to leave an area in Vietnam, only to begin a war stealing a bunch of major cities. The French government was deeply embarrassed by the ordeal, disavowing Garnier for his actions, but because of how incredible his accomplishments were, many in France saw him heroic. Yes he was romanticized, much like the conquistador Francisco Pizarro or Hernan Cortez, absolute psychopaths that they were. 

So while you think, boy oh boy France sure loves to send people on expeditions that results in them stealing territory…well France was nowhere near done with this recurring activity. 

In 1881 the French naval officer Henri Riviere was sent with a small military force to Hanoi to investigate Nguyen complaints involving French merchants. As you can already guess by now, Henri acted in defiance of orders placed upon him. As he would later argue, based on the fact the Nguyen dynasty was not respecting the Treaty of Saigon, still having a tributary relation with China, was paying the Black Flags to attack French in southeast asia and not complying with trade regulations, Henri took a force of 2 gunboats and some forces straight to the citadel of Hanoi and stormed it. When he showed up to Hanoi he told the Nguyen officials he was simply leading his forces to stamp out Black Flag soldiers in the area, but instead immediately set to work stationing his forces within the citadel. The governor, Hoang Dieu was given an ultimatum to have his forces stand down, but instead Hoang Dieu sent a letter of apology to his emperor and killed himself. It was yet again another embarrassment for France who handed Hanoi back over to the Nguyen officials, but Henri was not done yet. In the meantime, Henri’s actions pushed the Nguyen Empire to seek aid from the Qing dynasty and Black Flag army. The Qing seeking to help their Vietnamese allies, but not at the cost of incurring the wrath of France again said they would aid them via the Black Flag’s. In the summer of 1882 Chinese forces from Yunnan and Guangxi crossed the border into Tonkin, beginning to covertly occupy Hung Hoa, Bac Ninh, Lang Son and other cities. The French and Qing saw the paint on the wall, despite the covert activity leading Li Hongzhang and a French envoy to try and work out a deal where they would divide Tonkin into French and Qing controlled spheres of influence, but the deal never came to be.

Thus both sides gradually increased their power in the region and in February of 1883, France sent a 500 man battalion of marines led by Lt Colonel Carreau to Hanoi who would be at the disposal of Henri Riviere. On the other side the Nguyen officials received aid from the warlord and leader of the Black Flag Army, Liu Yongfu. Liu Yongfu came from Guangxi and joined a local militia during the Taiping Rebellion, some claim this militia also fought for the Taiping. When the Taiping Rebellion came to a close, Liu Yongfu’s prospects looked dire so he took his forces southwest, until they were finally pushed to cross the border into northern Tonkin. Liu Yongfu then established a camp outside Son Tay where he formed the “Heiqi Jun / black flag army” based on his dream of becoming “general of the black tiger”. Though seen initially as an invader, the Vietnamese officials also were surprised at how proficient the Black Flag army was and reasoned it would be difficult to dislodge them. They reasoned if the Black Flag army could be hired to fight their enemies that served them just fine. When the Black Flag’s killed Garnier that certainly earned them praise from the Vietnamese who would increasingly call upon them.

Henri Riviere upon receiving the new forces was instructed specifically that they were not to venture past the French occupied parts of Tonkin. So Henri did the opposite of that, because French. He had learnt in early march of 1883, the Nguyen government was planning to lease some coal mines in Hon Gai to the Qing dynasty, but this proved to be a front for the British ironically enough. If the British were to gain this it would spell the end of French colonial expansion in Tonkin, this Riviere could have none of that. Riviere ordered Commandant Berthe de Villers to take 50 marines aboard the Parseval to take Hon Gai, and they did just that meeting zero resistance. As Riviere put it in a letter to the governor of Cochinchina, Charles Thomson “"I have taken possession of the entire mining district. We have always coveted it, but have always hesitated to act. This will force them to take forward their Tonkin Question!"” Now Riviere did not stop there, he received word that Liu Yongfu was preparing to attack Hanoi with an army of 5000 Black Flag troops. Over in Nam Dinh, their citadel had been warned by their governor of the incoming battle, prompting Riviere to act first. In Riviere’s words "As this indecisive government has been imprudent enough to send me 500 men. I have decided to use them to do what it did not decide I should do."

Riviere elected to strike at Nam Dinh, similar to how Garnier did in 1873. Nam Dinh was defended by around 6000 Nguyen soldiers and 500 Chinese led covertly by the Black Flag officer Vinh Thong Chat. These chinese soldiers wore the Black Flag Army uniforms, but in reality were Qing troops. French reconnaissance indicated around 8000 men defended Nam Dinh, regardless Riviere decided to go forward and attack the city with 520 men. They traveled the red river using 6 gunboats, reaching the Nam Dinh by march 25th. They quickly went to work seizing the naval barracks which were unoccupied. They also cleared fields of huts to set up firing lanes for their gunboats and set up artillery pieces. The next morning the bombardment began as Riviere simultaneously summoned the governor of Nam Dinh, Vu Trong Binh to come to his ship Pluvier to submit the citadel before 8am. Governor Vu Trong Binh was able to reject this before 8am.

Nam Binh had 15 feet thick walls, unscalable and pretty much impossible to breach vie cannons, thus Riviere decided to force an entrance into the city by destroying one of its main gates with explosives.  While his gunboats and artillery smashed the Vietnamese cannons along the walls, on March 27th his marines went ashore carrying dynamite blowing a gate up. The French then charged the citadel under heavy fire with Riviere at the front urging them on. The Vietnamese soldiers were overwhelmed by the superior firepower and by the afternoon the city fell as the governor fled. Riviere jubilantly stated “This will force them to take forward their Tonkin Question!'”

Now Riviere expected to be punished for his renegade actions, but he lucked out enormous, for back home in France there was a change of government. The new administration led by Jules Ferry strongly supported colonial expansion and backed Riviere up from the offset. The new government followed this up by sending word to Li Hongzhang that Tonkin was going to be under French protection and to back off immediately. The Nguyen officials now were in quite a plight without their Qing defenders and wholeheartedly tossed their lot in with Liu Yongfu and the Black Flags.

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

Francis Garnier died in a blaze of glory or insanity and now it seemed he had a successor found 10 years later in Henry Riviere. Would southeast Asia be able to thwart off the colonizing efforts of France or fall like domino pieces?