Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization 1858-1954

Pierre Brocheux + Daniel Hémery

translated from the French by Ly Lan Dill-Klein
University of California Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
While there is plenty in English on the later history of Vietnam and Cambodia, the French colonial period is poorly covered. So the translation of Brocheux and Hémery's Indochine: La colonisation ambiguë (second edition, 2001) is a boon for anyone interested in the region.

An introduction gives a very brief account of earlier Vietnamese and Khmer history and some feel for the historiographical space, between anticolonial approaches on the one hand and neo-colonial or nationalist approaches on the other. As the title suggests, Indochina is a French history, from the perspective of France and the French, and offers a balance to regional or national histories.

The first chapter, "The colonial moment", describes the creation of French Indochina — the conquest of the south, the economic and political impetus for extension, the protectorate over Annam and Tonkin, the various forms of resistance (such as old mandarin networks) and their failure, and the ventures into Laos and southern China.

Six chapters then consider different aspects of the French colonial state, with the emphasis on the forty or so years of its heyday. "The structures of domination" describes the colonial political structure: the incorporation of protectorates into a modern state, colonial finances and the tax system, the removal of real power from the monarchies and the problems incorporating geographically heterogeneous traditional political structures at the local level, the dispersed nature of colonial interests, the effects of metropolitan ideologies on government, and so forth.

"Colonial capitalism and development" looks at exchange rates, the balance between private and government investment, trade balances with East Asia and with France, and so forth. In many ways French Indochina was better integrated into the global economy than France itself or any other French colony. (This chapter presents a fair bit of econometric detail that will only really be meaningful to those with something to connect it to, whether in French financial history or the economic history of Southeast Asia.)

A survey of "Colonial society" begins with the colonists, touching on their lifestyle, conflicts with the administration, and internal social cleavages. The colonized were divided by ethnicity and language as well as class, with peasants, workers in the mines and plantations, elites and an urban middle class which struggled for status equal to their French counterparts. "The logic of colonial relations favored arbitrary and brutal conduct towards the natives, whether they were coolies, peasants, laborers, or white-collar workers."

The most significant "Cultural transformations" of the colonial regime were the spread of Western education and the introduction of Quoc ngu, the transcription of Vietnamese into a Roman script which became the national writing system. "Cochinchina served as an educational laboratory, marked by the implementation in 1879 of Franco-indigenous education based on the French public school model." Only a tiny number obtained a high school or university education, but that was enough to start a Vietnamese modern literature. The reactions to notions of women's rights and disruptions of cultural values included millenarianism and new religious movements as well as the revival of "traditional" ideas.

The foundational "Impasses of Colonial Development" can be traced in the trends of demographics, public health (notably vaccination campaigns), agriculture, and the grain/population balance. The Great Depression brought some of these to a head. Policy responses were driven by metropolitan concerns, most notably in the locking of the Indochinese piastre to the franc and thus to gold at an elevated level, which decoupled Indochina from Asian trade.

"Resistance, Nationalism and Social Movements" describes the revival of traditional forms of resistance (such as Buddhism in Cambodia and secret societies in Vietnam), the rise of Vietnamese nationalism (and reformist Franco-Annamese collaboration), and the radicalisation of intellectuals and the spread of communist ideas. There was violence in 1929-32, notably at Yen Bay and Nghe Tinh, and a "crisis of colonization" was met by conservative reformism until the strike of 1936. Brocheux and Hémery argue that the years from 1936 to 1939 were "a forgotten turning point", when left-wing French governments could have taken a radically different course.

A final chapter briefly describes the end of French Indochina, covering the Second World War, the uneasy period immediately following, and the course of the First Indochina War. A very brief conclusion considers the role of Indochina in the development of the modern nations of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, but there is no attempt at a global evaluation of the French presence or its legacy.

Much of Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization is quite dry and will depend on the reader bringing their own contexts and finding their own connections. Anyone involved with the region, its modern nation states or broader French colonialism, however, should have no trouble doing that.

June 2011

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%T Indochina
%S An Ambiguous Colonization 1858-1954
%A Brocheux, Pierre
%A Hémery, Daniel
%M French
%F Dill-Klein, Ly Lan
%I University of California Press
%D 2009 [2001]
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780520245396
%P 490pp