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VIETNAM – TÂN AN, LONG AN PROVINCE: “Poste de Tanan”.

1,800.00

Intriguing, unique, and historically important – one of only very few surviving original manuscript plans of the archetype army bases established in key towns across French Indochina (today’s Vietnam and Cambodia) that were the foundation of colonial power in the region; the present finely rendered and highly detailed plan showcases the French army base at Tân An, a provincial capital and vibrant commercial centre just southwest of Saigon, and carefully outlines all aspects of the walled bastion, including the various quarters of the officers, tirailleurs (ethnic Asian soldiers in French service), the armoury and storage facilities, the school (for the soldiers’ children), the gardens and farm animal pens, as well as the dock and armed junk on the adjacent river, that allowed the base to be its own secured, self-contained ‘village within a village’, that could withstand a potential siege by the locals until reinforcements could arrive from Saigon.

 

Manuscript, pen and ink and watercolour on thick paper (Good, exquisite draftsmanship and lovely colours, 3 significant tears entering image but closed from verso with no loss, some light stains, old tack marks to blank margins), 60 x 44 cm (23.5 x 17.5 inches).

 

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By the time that the present map was drafted, France had over a century of active military, political and religious involvement in Vietnam. In the late 18th century, France became a major backer of the Nguyễn Dynasty (which would unite Vietnam under its rule in 1802). Over the succeeding decades, they built many grand Vauban-style citadels around the country and trained Vietnamese officers in modern European martial techniques. France also established Christian missions across the country, while French traders enjoyed special commercial privileges in its major ports.

However, in the mid-19th century France and the Nguyễn Dynasty had a major falling out. The imperial court had come to resent the high level of French intervention in the country’s affairs and acted to limit French activities in the country. These measures enraged the hyper-imperialist French Emperor Napoleon III (reigned 1852-70), who launched an attack upon Vietnam called the Cochinchina Campaign (1858-62), during which France defeated the Nguyễn. The resulting Treaty of Saigon (1862) granted France control of 3 provinces in the far south of Vietnam (being Biên Hòa, Gia Định and Định Tường, plus the Côn Sơn (Condor) Islands), so creating the colony of French Cochinchina. The size of this domain doubled in 1867, when France pressured the Nguyễn court into ceding them the provinces of Châu Đốc, Hà Tiên and Vĩnh Long.

France’s hold upon Cochinchina generally rested upon coercion, as the Vietnamese resented their presence. While France occupied the series of and Vauban-style fortresses (such as the Saigon Citadel) in some key centres, its control of the countryside was predicated upon the archipelago of military outposts that it established across the colony. These, often crude and small garrisons, were generally not strong enough to withstand a siege or attack by an organized, armed force, and their presence was mainly to serve the ‘intimidation factor’, as it was reasoned that the mere presence of French armed troops in the towns would secure the ‘cooperation’ of the locals. In Cochinchina, in most places, this strategy was successful.

France conquered the remainder of Vietnam (being Annam and Tonkin) during the Tonkin Campaign (1883-6), although a ferocious, guerilla resistance movement continued in the north until 1896. There, the Vietnamese lightening, stealth strikes upon French positions, undermined any sense of security the colonizers maintained in the region.

France united it conquests in Vietnam and Cambodia into the mega-colony of French Indochina in 1887. This raised the importance of the region to the highest levels in Paris, guaranteeing much greater attention and funding, as France sought to create a modern state out of the colony, with stellar infrastructure.

Key to this was the dramatic upgrading of the military presence across French Indochina. As colonial insurgencies tended to have their geneses in rural areas, it was a priority to transform the small, lightly built provincial garrisons into modern, self-contained, supposedly ‘impregnable’ compounds. These ‘postes’ could withstand short sieges, and their presence inside the country towns would serve to further intimidate the locals. The garrisons would be connected to Hanoi and Saigon by telegraph, from where forces could be rapidly deployed to neutralize any local unrest before it got out of hand. This system was largely responsible for France being able to maintain a high degree of control over Indochina for decades, until World War II.

The Present Map in Focus

The map is a highly detailed original manuscript masterplan of the French military compound at Tân An (called by the French Tanan), an important regional centre, located about 47 km southwest of the centre of Saigon. It lies on the banks of the Vàm Cỏ Tây (West Vàm Cỏ River), a navigable major tributary of the Mekong Delta, where it meets the important Bảo Định Canal. While the area had been inhabited for millennia, it was only in 1705 that the town was properly established. Tân An first gained significance as a trading centre during the early years of the Nguyễn Dynasty, while eventually hosting a French Catholic mission.

In the wake of the Cochinchina Campaign, Tân An, as part of Gia Định Province, was one of the first areas of Vietnam to be brought under French control. The French soon established a small military base at there, whereupon the garrison was housed in a series of low, unprotected buildings on the edge of town, occupying a very insecure position. In 1869, the outpost was terrorized by a tiger that left the troops cowering; it obviously was not fit to sustain any kind of armed attack.

Upon the French conquest of all Vietnam and the creation of Indochina in 1887, the French endeavoured to redevelop Tân An. It was upgraded to become the capital of its own eponymous province in 1889, when Gia Định was divided into four provinces. The famed Eiffel company was brought in to build iron bridges across the waterways, while the town was extensively modernized.

The military base at Tân An as entirely rebuilt as a modern, self-contained compound that could resist a concerted enemy attack, or siege, until help could arrive from Saigon.

The present finely executed manuscript was drafted by an anonymous French officer, who obviously had formal training in surveying and draftsmanship, if not being a member of the army engineers. It provides a highly detailed view of the “Poste de Tanan”, which is shown here to be its own self-contained, well protected compound, almost as if it was its own ‘village within a village’.

Importantly, by this time, the French forces in Indochina largely consisted of French officers commanding ‘tirailleurs’, being ethnic Asian soldiers in French service. Usually, the French ensured that the tirailleurs were from different regions than that where they were posted, to avoid any conflicted loyalties. Moreover, many officer and tirailleurs bought their families to live with them at bases such as Tân An.

The walled, roughly rectangular fort is shown to be strategically located upon the south bank of the “Vaïcao Occidental” (Vàm Cỏ Tây River), while to the east runs the “Canal de Ceinture”. The centre of the compound is comprised of a large square, with buildings on all sides, with the details labelled by the ‘Légende’. The buildings labeled A and F comprise the residence of the ‘Capitaine’, the commander of the base, which are abutted by gardens for his use and that of the other officers, while the officer quarters (p) lie adjacent. B is the home of the lieutenant, while C and D are the junior officers’ lodgings. E is the Police Station, which, importantly, was responsible for maintaining law and order on the streets of Tân An on a day-to-day basis. The schoolhouse for the children of the officers and troops is represented by a. The letter b labels the lodgings of the interpreter, as well as for 10 “tirailleurs” and their families, while c,d,e are likewise qaurters for both married and unmarried tirailleurs. The ‘Hangar et Atelier” (g) is the armoury and martial supplies storehouse; h is the magazine; while l and m are warehouses. In addition to the gardens, used for growing vegetables, there are small paddocks for cattle (i) and chicken coops (j), while k is the target practice range. Along the river, r and s represent the locations of the base’s patrol boat (junk) and its dock. While not labeled, a sizable area in the lower right of the bastion is reserved for the physical exercise of the troops, with the relevant equipment. The text, “Ressources totales du Poste”, to the right of the legend, provides details on the sizes of floor plans of key buildings, as well as some of their internal amenities.

All considered, the base possessed all the garrison’s needs for accommodation, defense, and nourishment, without relying upon anything from the outside world for a time, such that it could withstand a short siege.

The present plan is not only significant for being a specific record of the “Poste de Tanan”, but possesses a broader importance, as it is one of only very few surviving maps detailing an archetypical military outpost in French Indochina as they were after the upgrades of the 1890s. As such, it showcases what was the essence of the daily exercise of French colonial in Vietnam for around 50 years.

References: N / A – Manuscript seemingly unrecorded.

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