Prior to the appearance of the present colossal map, Indochina had been mapped in a piecemeal fashion. Cochinchina (the far south of Vietnam), and the adjacent parts of Cambodia, which France controlled since the early 1860s, were already very well mapped, while French expeditions (including one led by Dutreuil de Rhins) had charted the rest of lowland Vietnam to various degrees of accuracy. However, Laos, and the adjacent parts of Siam beyond the immediate Mekong Valley and some its main tributaries were scarcely mapped, with only the odd explorer’s forays breaking the void. While these sources were available to the French government, they had never been comprehensively or skillfully integrated into an accurate (as much as possible) general map. Yet, the French government was in desperate need of such a map of Indochina that showed stellar coverage of Vietnam beyond the far south and the main travel corridors up the Mekong, and their relationship to Vietnam – for France had ambitious plans to expand its presence in the region.
Enter Jules Léon Dutreuil De Rhins, a French former naval officer, merchant mariner, explorer and geographer, who while still in his mid-thirties had already explored much of the world. Significantly, in 1876-7, he led an academic (and espionage) mission to Annam, the central region of Vietnam, exploring its cultural sites and mapping its territory.
Upon his return to Paris, the French government charged Dutreuil De Rhins with creating an authoritative mega-map of Indochina that could be used to plan and guide France’s anticipated bold moves in the region. He spent two years combing the archives of the French government mapping agency, the Dépôt des Cartes et Plans de la Marine, while ordering any foreign sources, and assembling innumerable manuscript and printed maps made by various French official, academic and commercial expeditions and ventures, as well as maps made British, German, American, missionary, as well as various indigenous sources. In drafting the present work, Dutreuil De Rhins, a devout empiricist, was very careful to separate the wheat from the chaff, so choosing the best renderings of each area, while making clear the regions that were unknown or unreliably charted.
The engaging and detail-packed map is done to the ample scale of 12.8 miles to an inch, and embraces a vast expanse of territory, including the entirety of modern Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and extending to beyond Bangkok, in the southwest, and up to Hainan, in the northeast. The coverage of Cochinchna and the bordering parts of Cambodia, which the French had long scientifically surveyed, is incredibly accurate and detailed, labelling numerous cities, towns and villages and its sophisticated road network. The rest of lowland Vietnam is quite accurately mapped, with the mapping of Annam predicated in part on Dutreuil De Rhins’s own surveys. Inland, the projection of the Mekong and its major tributaries up to Luong Prabang is quite well assured, although the hinterland often remains enigmatic, labeled as ‘Inconnue’, and left largely blank, sometimes only with the names of the tribes that were thought to live there. Copious annotations describe the nature of the country or passages, and many historical and archeological sites are labeled (ex. Angkor Wat).
Importantly, the map pays close attention to the priorities of military movement. Innumerable roads and trails are recorded in all known sectors, and the Legend, in the lower left, identities the types of lines used show the main highway in Lower Cochinchina; the Great Postal Route from Annam and Tram that ran the length of Annam and Tonkin; the secondary routes favoured by Western travelers; as well as various inland routes (usually rough frontier paths) that are reported by both European and indigenous travelers.
Helpfully, in the lower left, is featured a table translating major geographical terms between French, Annamite (Vietnamese), Cambodian (Khmer), Siamese (Thai) and Laotian, Chinese, Burmese, as well as certain indigenous languages.
Dutreuil De Rhins’s grand map appeared at the perfect time for the French government, for it proved vitally useful as a strategic aid that could be hung from the walls or laid upon boardroom tables at French ministerial officers or at army HQs as they planned and executed the Tonkin Campaign (1883-5), France’s shambolic, but ultimately successful, military invasion to conquer the rest Vietnam (Annam and Tonkin). During this war, a good understanding of the terrain proved vital, and that France had access to stellar maps, such as here, proved to be a saving grace, in part making up for their horrendous operational and tactical errors, which were due to poor leadership, as opposed to a lack of geographical knowledge.
In the wake of the war, the map, and its derivatives, proved vitally useful to France for military planning and civil administration as they created their new mega-colony in the region, Indochine française, which came to embrace all of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Jules Léon Dutreuil De Rhins: Explorer, Geographer and Spy on Three Continents
Jules Léon Dutreuil de Rhins (1846 – 1894) was an intrepid and multi-talented French explorer, geographer and cartographer. He studied at the Naval Academy and entered the French Navy, whereupon he was posted to Mexico, during the French Intervention (1861-7). After the conflict, he worked for a time as the captain of long-range commercial vessels, giving him the chance to explore many countries.
In 1876-7, Dutreuil de Rhins made an academic tour of Annam, the region of central Vietnam which France not so secretly coveted. He extensively explored and mapped the countryside, proving himself to be a highly skilled cartographer. He was welcomed by the local potentates and had the opportunity to experience many of the land’s cultural wonders. When he returned to France, he published his entertaining and valuable memoir of the tour, Le royaume d’Annam et Annamites: journal de voyage de J.L. Dutreuil de Rhins (Paris, 1879).
While Dutreuil de Rhins’s Annam tour had genuaine academic objectives, it was also an espionage mission, and he managed to gather a great deal of geographic and military intelligence that would soon prove critically useful to the French military, which would subsequently invade Annam. Dutreuil de Rhins was duly charged to compile the present exquisite map of Indochina, based upon his own superb manuscript maps and the best printed and manuscript surveys and sketches of the region that were housed in French official archives.
In 1883, he accompanied the legendary explorer Savorgnan de Brazza (the founder of Brazzaville, Congo) on a mission to explore West Africa.
Dutreuil de Rhins spent the rest of the 1880s in France, updating his grand map of Indochina and working upon various other academic projects. In 1891, he, and his young assistant, Fernand Grenard, along with their entourage, embarked upon a tour of Eastern Turkestan (now Xinjiang) and Tibet. Tragically, in 1893, Dutreuil de Rhins was murdered by a group of Golok tribesmen in eastern Tibet. The memoirs of the trip were subsequently published under the direction of Grenard.
A Note on Editions
Something must be said about the editions and variations that followed the map, a subject which can easily lead to confusion. To be clear, the present map is the first and the largest format version of Dutreuil De Rhins’s Carte de L’Indo-Chine Orientale, done to a scale of 1: 935,000 (12.8 miles to an inch) and published in 1881. This was immediately followed by a “reduced” edition of 1881, done to scale of 1: 1,820,000, around half the size.
The map remained popular and indispensable throughout the Tonkin Campaign (1883-6), and a “revised”, updated edition, done to scale of 1: 1,525,361 was published in 1886. This was followed by a final version, published in 1888, slightly revised from the 1886 edition.
A Note on Rarity
The present map is very rare. It was expensive (costing 15 Francs), very large, and would have been made in only a very small print run, while such grand maps are prone to damage and have a low survival rate.
We can trace only 3 institutional examples of the map, held by the British Library; University of Cambridge (formerly the British War Office’s example); and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. We can trace only a single sales record for another example, which appeared at a French action in 2019.
For comparison purposes, the 1881 smaller format edition is scarce, but there are several institutional examples, and it appears on the market from time to time, while the mid-sized 1886 and 1888 editions are very rare, both institutionally and commercially.
Historical Context: The French Conquest of Vietnam
After a long period of civil war, from 1802, Vietnam was ruled as a unified state by the Nguyễn Dynasty. In addition to controlling the three traditional regions of Vietnam, being Cohinchina (the south), Annam (central) and Tonkin (north), the Nguyễn also ruled over parts of Cambodia and Laos. Curiously, during the late 18th century, French interests backed the Nguyễn ascendency. For a time, the Nguyễn emperor’s righthand man was a French missionary, Pierre Georges Pigneau (1741-99), who introduced French military architecture to Vietnam. Beginning in late 18th century, and for decades thereafter, numerous Vauban-style citadels (like Đồng Hới, completed in 1824-5) were built across the country. Through the first half of the 19th century, France considered Vietnam to be a place of special interest, and it spent much effort spreading Catholicism and gaining special trading and legal privileges in the country, while technically supporting the sovereignty of the Nguyễn regime.
Emperor Napoleon III (reigned 1852-70), embarked upon an aggressive policy of colonial expansion which placed French control of Indochina as a top priority. In 1862, France took control over Saigon and much of the rest of Cochinchina, making it a protectorate. The following year, they assumed control over much of Cambodia. Over the coming years, relations between the Nguyễn Dynasty and France remained tense, as it became increasingly clear that the colonial usurpers wanted much more.
In what became known as the Tonkin Campaign (June 1883 to April 1886), France endeavored to conquer all of Vietnam. This war was bewilderingly complex and is difficult to summarize. Franco-Vietnamese hostilities commenced in the spring of 1882, when a French force struck Hanoi, taking the city’s citadel on April 25. From then on, sporadic fighting occurred throughout northern Vietnam.
A full-scale war did not begin until June 1883, then the Tonkin Expeditionary Force (which eventually numbered 35,000 French troops) arrived with the object of pacifying northern Vietnam. The force possessed an overwhelming technological advantage. Yet, over the next two years brutal fighting followed, and while the French often able to mount technical victories in conventional battles, they were unable to effectively counter the ingenious guerilla tactics of the Vietnamese. The result was that while the French possessed more and more citadels and some major cities, they were unable to gain any real control of the countryside. As such, their isolated garrisons lived under the constant threat of stealth attack, creating an uneasy, fluid atmosphere.
To make matters more complex, in what became known as the Sino-French War (August 1884-April 1885), China invaded Tonkin and attacked French forces (Chins long considered Vietnam to be a ‘tributary state’). While France botched many elements of the conflict as it extended into China, it was able to gain the upper hand in the fighting in Vietnam, effectively removing China from the equation.
During the final phase of the formal Franco-Vietnamese conflict, in what can be called the period of the ‘pacification’ of Tonkin’ and the ‘raids’ upon Annam (April 1885 to April 1886), French forces sought to seize control over the countryside of Tonkin, while making strategic strikes upon key targets in Annam (a full-on invasion of Annam was overruled by Paris, as it would stretch French forces too thin).
The French became involved in a savage guerilla conflict in Tonkin and barely managed to secure the perimeters of their key bases, while their troops were ravaged by a cholera epidemic.
In Annam, the French were incensed to hear reports of Nguyễn forces attacking Vietnamese Christians (whom they accused of being loyal to France), and this drove them to prosecute their operations with greater drive and brutality. However, the French faced the Cần Vương (Vietnamese for ‘Aid the King’) movement, which fought a determined guerrilla war in the name of the Nguyễn emperor.
The French operations in Annam were often poorly executed, and while some important citadels (like Đồng Hới) were taken, many missions failed, or the invaders were later often forced to give up their gains.
A modern academic analysis of this phase of the campaign aptly described it as:
“Comme dans un drame shakespearien, des grotesques s’agitent sur le devant de la scène pendant que la tragédie se poursuit dans le sang, sur toute l’étendue du Tonkin ravagé et de l’Annam…” [“As in a Shakesperian drama, clowns gambolled at the front of the stage while the tragedy was played out in blood, not only across ravaged Tonkin but in Annam too…”]
(Fourniau, C., Annam–Tonkin 1885–1896: lettrés et paysans vietnamiens face à la conquête coloniale (Paris, 1989), p. 23).
Annam descended into total anarchy, and it was only in the spring of 1886 that the French, having received massive reinforcements, managed to gain control over much of Tonkin and Annam. It is at this point that France publicly declared victory, claiming the conquest of all Vietnam.
In 1887, the country was rolled into the new, giant colony of Indochine française, which included all modern Vietnam and much of Cambodia. In 1893, France took over most of Laos, adding it to Indochina.
Despite their conventional military victories, the French still had only limited control of the countryside in Tonkin and Annam, and had to fight a determined and, in some cases, large-scale, Vietnamese resistance until 1896.
References: British Library: Cartographic Items Maps 46900.(63.); University of Cambridge: Maps.342.88.1-4: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin: Kart. E 8668; OCLC: 557750428; Adrien Jean Quentin BEUCHOT (ed.), Bibliographie de la France (1881), p. 875; ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY (GREAT BRITAIN), Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, vol. III (1881), p. 443; Louis Vivien de SAINT-MARTIN, Nouveau dictionnaire de géographie universelle, vol. 2 (1884), p. 846.