France had a long history of involvement in Vietnam, in the form of trade, Roman Catholic missionary activity, and of offering military assistance to domestic stakeholders. France was instrumental in supporting the Hue-based Nguyen Dynasty in uniting Vietnam under their rule in 1802, as evidenced by the numerous Vauban-style citadels that dotted the country. Their reward from the Nguyen Regime were preferential trading privileges and the right to expand their missionary activities in the country as they saw fit. However, beginning in the 1830s, the Nguyen court gradually started to turn again the French presence in their country, imposing restrictions on trade and harassing missionaries. While France protested, the Nguyen seemed undeterred.
Matters came to a head when France launched the Cochinchina Campaign (1858-62), an invasion of Vietnam. While originally intended to be a punitive strike with the objective of getting the Nguyen to back down and return Franco-Vietnamese relations to the pre-1830s status, ‘mission creep’ ensured that it ended up becoming a full-scale war. The French encountered surprisingly strong resistance and had to pour vast resources into the conflict. While France was eventually triumphant, the conflict costed far more men and hundreds of millions more Francs that anyone expected.
The heavy toll of the war motivated France to demand that Vietnam pay a very high price upon the peace settlement. At the Treaty of Saigon (June 5, 1862), Vietnam was compelled to cede three (of the six) provinces of Cochinchine (Cochinchina, far southern Vietnam). These provinces were Bien Ho, Gai Dinh and Dinh Tuong, located near the mouth of the Mekong River, and which included Saigon. Plus, Vietnam agrees to pay France large financial indemnities over the coming years.
Unexpectedly, France now found itself in sovereign control of a sizeable piece of Vietnam, founding the colony of Basse-Cochinchine (Lower Cochinchina), that was to be provisionally governed by the French Navy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc almost immediately after signing the Treaty of Saigon disavowed its contents, claiming that it was agreed to under duress. The people of Vietnam, particularly in the south, were outraged by the ‘betrayal’ of ceding the three provinces to France, and Tu Duc feared that his own people might turn against him.
The creation of the colony of Basse-Cochinchine became a lightning rod for political controversy in France. In the wake of France’s annexation and ongoing conquest of Algeria, which commenced in 1830, a fierce contest had underway between those who favoured French colonial expansion, and those who wanted France to have only a light overseas footprint, confined to missionary activities and trade. While the takeover of Algeria was generally viewed to have been successful, it was very costly in blood and treasure. The Cochinchina Campaign had cost a fortune, and the French regime was already facing rebellions mounted by locals whose aim to eject France from Vietnam wholesale. This led many French politicians to believe that the Basse-Cochinchine colony was a poison chalice.
From 1862 to 1864, there developed two main camps in the French elite regarding the Vietnam question. The ‘Retrocessionists’, led by the Foreign Minister, Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys, advocated that France return the three provinces to Vietnam, in exchange for a sizable financial payment, the right to maintain some French commercial and military bases in the area, along with iron-clad assurances for the safely and freedom of French missionaries and traders. As such, it was hoped that French should reap the economic and social benefits of engaging with Vietnam without incurring immense costs and stoking the enmity of the Vietnamese people.
Opposing them were the ‘Colonialists’, led by the Colonial & Navy Minister, the Comte Prosper de Chasseloup-Laubat. They dreamed of France regaining a vast overseas empire, with large colonies supplying precious resources to feed the French industrial economy. The military and administrative costs would pale in comparison to the potential bonanzas.
With specific reference to Vietnam, the Colonialists believed that handing back the three provinces would be the death knell of the French presence in the country, as merely holding small outposts would prove indefensible against widespread Vietnamese resistance. More romantically, some envisaged the creation of a French Roman Catholic empire in the Far East (assuming that the missionaries would be ultra-successful in their objectives!). In short, if France wanted to remain in Vietnam, it needed to occupy large amounts of coherent territory, and lock it down, regardless of the costs, which would eventually be redeemed anyway.
The Colonialist-Retrocessionist battle proved to be real tug-of-war, with both sides backed by very powerful figures. Resolving the matter was not helped by the fact that Emperor Napoleon III seemed to be afraid to speak his mind, leading the drama play out in the Assemblée Nationale and the salons of ministries. Complicating matters, while Chasseloup-Laubat’s Colonial & Navy Ministry governed and supplied most of the military and administrative manpower for Basse-Cochinchine, Drouyn de Lhuys’s Foreign Ministry had the prerogative of negotiating and signing treaties with foreign powers.
Strengthening the Retrocessionist cause, in 1863, the Vietnamese sent a high-level diplomatic delegation to Paris, led by the clever senior minister Phan Thanh Gian, to convince France to return the three provinces to Vietnam, in return for financial considerations and security assurances. The delegation made a strong showing, ensuring that, at least for a time, that the Retrocessionists gained an edge.
It was in this context that Drouyn de Lhuys made his move. He appointed Commander Gabriel Aubaret (1825-94), a brilliant and ambitious French naval officer and diplomat, to travel the Hue to renegotiate the Saigon Treaty, with the aim of returning the three provinces to Vietnam, in return for the desired provisions.
Gabriel Aubaret was then serving as the French Consul-General in Bangkok. A veteran of missions in Egypt, the Crimean War, the Second Opium War and the Cochinchina Campaign, he was an astoundingly gifted linguist. He had mastered Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, with his command of the latter being so perfect that he was perhaps the finest Vietnamese speaker in the world who was not a native of that country (Aubaret would later write the pioneering and definitive Vietnamese dictionary, grammar and law book). He would later rise to become one of the most important people in Constantinople, as the President of the Ottoman Public Debt Commission (1882-92). Aubaret’s impeccable command of Vietnamese language and customs ensured that he was held in exceptionally high regard by the Hue court.
Ironically, Aubaret was known to personally be a Colonialist and, as a very devout Catholic, believed that the only way for missionary activities to survive in Vietnam was for France to comprehensively colonize the country. However, the chance to be in charge of renegotiating a major international treaty was a major career boost that he simply could not be turned down, and anyway ‘orders were orders’.
The ‘Aubaret Treaty’ of 1864: The Temptation of Counterfactualism
In mid-1864, Gabriel Aubaret proceeded to Hue to negotiate with Tu Duc’s court a new treaty that would have France return the provinces of Bien Ho, Gai Dinh and Dinh Tuong to Vietnam. In turn, Vietnam would grant France military control of several key locations in the region, being the city of Saigon, the port of Thudau-mot, the citadel of Mytho, the canals of Poste, Bobo and Benduc, the mountain of Ganh Ray including Cape St. Jacques, the anchorages of Ganh Ray and Cangio, the passes of Cua Tien and Cua Dai, and the island of Poulo Condor. Additionally, Vietnam would have to pay an indemnity, in addition to what they had already agreed to pay in 1862 Saigon Treaty, while confirming that all six provinces of Cochinchina should be French protectorates (although Vietnamese officials would maintain temporal authority in most areas). Moreover, Vietnam had to guarantee comprehensive privileges to French traders and Roman Catholic missionaries.
Aubaret and the Vietnamese delegates agreed the Treaty of July 15, 1862, which was commonly known in French diplomat circles as the ‘traité de Aubaret’ (Aubaret Treaty). It included all the provisions as initially proposed, except that the Vietnamese bulked on the amounts of additional indemnities demanded by France. Consequently, the two parties agreed to go ahead with the treaty minus the financial arrangements, which would supposedly be agreed at later date.
While the Vietnamese thought and hoped that the agreement was a ‘done deal’, the truth was anything but. While Aubaret had the authorization to negotiate the treaty, it was still only a provisional document that had no legal validity until it was ratified by the French government.
Meanwhile, a fierce rearguard action was being mounted by the Colonialists in both Paris and Saigon. The Governor of Basse-Cochinchine, Admiral Pierre-Paul de La Grandière was ardently opposed to retroceding the three provinces. He feared that Tu Duc had no intention of honoring the Aubaret Treaty and would easily be able to attack and seize the isolated French bases that were mandated by the Aubaret Treaty. Without maintaining the entirety of the three provinces, the French presence in Vietnam simply could not survive. He wrote innumerable letters to key powerbrokers in Paris expressing these concerns, which carried much weight.
Critically, Chasseloupe-Laubat lobbied his colleagues and Emperor Napoleon III to disavow the Aubaret Treaty. He was aided by the fact that he had a spy on Aubaret’s staff, a Sergeant Duval, who clandestinely provided a day-by-day account of the treaty negotiations. Negating the Retrocessionsts’ most convincing argument, Chasseloup-Labat curculates a series of studies that showed that the costs of maintaining Basse-Cochinchine were falling, while the revenues from the colony were rising, such that its accounts might soon be in a financial surplus. He also managed to convince his colleagues that La Grandière in his assessment of the security situation.
A decisive moment occurred in June 1864, when reports of unrest in Basse-Cochinchine, allegedly secretly fanned by Tu Doc’s court, managed to convince Drouyn de Lhuys that the security provisions mandated by the Aubaret Treaty would not be honoured, and that retrocession of the three provinces would be untenable. As such, Drouyn de Lhuys switched sides, giving his support to the Colonialists.
On July 20, 1864, only five days after signing the treaty, Aubaret received an unpleasant surprise, a letter from Drouyn de Lhuys informing him that France would reject the treaty he spent so much effort negotiating, although a formal decision as still some months away.
In January 1865, France officially informed the Vietnamese that they would not ratify the Aubaret Treaty and would adhere to what was originally agreed at the Treaty of Saigon, come hell or high water.
The decision to reject the Aubaret Treaty marked a definitive moment, a hinge of fate, in the history of France and Vietnam, and indeed geopolitics. In 1867, France would use its control of the three provinces as base to take over the other three provinces of Cochinchina, the prelude to the Tonkin Campaign (1883-6), whereupon France conquered all Vietnam. Combined with its conquests in Cambodia and Laos, the mega-colony of French Indochina was formed in 1887.
Had France accepted the Aubaret Treaty, the French presence in Indochina might not have endured, or at least France might not have come to dominate the region. As such, there might never have been a Vietnam War, and many other events, but this is all a matter of ‘what if’.
The Present Map in Focus
The present map is an amazing and unique artefact of the Aubaret Treaty and the high-level diplomatic melodrama that existed between France and Vietnam in the period following the Cochinchina Campaign. It comes in the form of a very rare printed map of Basse-Cochinchine bearing extensive manuscript additions added by an ‘insider’ in the French diplomatic corps. In precise detail, the manuscript additions illustrate the enclaves and forts in Basse-Cochinchine that France was set to retain under the precepts of the Aubaret Treaty.
Importantly, the map was owned by Comte Prosper de Chasseloup-Laubat (1805-73), the French Colonial & Navy Minister, and the man responsible for killing the Aubaret Treaty before it could be ratified. The map is sourced from his estate papers and bears his hand-stamped monogram below the pastedown title label, verso.
Prosper de Chasseloupe-Laubat (1805-73) was a political heavyweight and one of Emperor Napoléon III’s most trusted associates. He had previously served as the French Navy Minister (briefly, in 1851) and subsequently became the Minister for Algeria & the Colonies (1859-60). From 1860 to 1867, he held the new the ultra-powerful combined portfolio of Minister of the Navy & Colonies (1860-7), whereupon he spearheaded the consolidation of French colonial expansion in Africa and Southern Vietnam.
Chasseloup-Laubat was a noted bibliophile and highly carto-literate, and one can be certain that he would have spent a great deal of time pouring over the present map, whereupon he could see how the Aubaret Treaty would leave the proposed remaining French outposts in Basse-Cochinchine dangerously isolated and exposed to possible future Vietnamese attack. Indeed, Chasseloup-Laubat may even have used the map a rhetorical device, showing it to other minsters and insiders, to help prove that the Aubaret Treaty should be rejected.
The map is the only cartographic record of the Aubaret Treaty of which we are aware, which is not surprising, given the secret nature of the treaty and associated deliberations. The handwriting on the map (while formally composed) bears some resemblance to the style of Gabriel Aubaret’s penmanship, although this is perhaps a matter for further analysis. The map was plausibly sent to Chasseloup-Laubat by Aubaret, although less likely it could have been supplied by Sergeant Duval (the minister’s spy in Aubaret’s delegation). In any event, it would have been the definitive graphic record of the high-level diplomatic events that were then the focus of the French government in Paris.
The underlying printed map is the first complete scientific survey of the southern six provinces of Vietnam, predicated upon mapping conducted by the hydrographic engineers Léopold Manen (1829 – 1897), who subsequently became the Chief Engineer of the French Navy, and his colleague, Gabriel Héraud (1839 – 1922). The map is beautifully rendered, noting all major topographical and manmade details, with the provinces outlined in their own bright hues, while the scene extends inland up the Mekong as far as Phnom Penh (Cambodia).
The manuscript “Légende”, lower left, explains the meaning of the manuscript additions to the map:
On a indiqué par une teinte rouge les portions de territoire réservées par la traité définitif. Pout le territoire de Mytho la teinte rouge clair indique pat partié que l’on conservait dans le projet de traité et qui a été abandonné dans le traité définitif.
La teinte foncée indique la seule partié que nous conservions.
La Pte. Chruey-Chauva située aux quatre bras du Cambodge.
– Un pavillon Rouge indique les citadelles françaises conservées.
– Un pavillon rouge et jaune indique les citadelles cédées aux annamites.
– Un pavillon jaune indique les citadelles des trois provinces annamites.
Enfin on a passé une teinte rouge sur les cours d’eau, passes, mouillages et embouchures qui demeurent la propriété exclusive de la France.
Portions of territory reserved by the final treaty have been indicated by a red tint. For the territory of Mytho, the light red tint indicates the part that was retained in the draft treaty, and which was abandoned in the final treaty.
The dark shade indicates the only part we keep.
The Pte. Chruey-Chauva located at the four arms of Cambodia.
RED FLAG – A red flag indicates preserved French citadels.
RED AND YELLOW FLAG – A red and yellow flag indicates citadels ceded to the Annamese.
YELLOW FLAG – A yellow flag indicates the citadels of the three Annamese provinces.
Finally, a red tint has been applied to the rivers, passes, anchorages and mouths which remain the exclusive property of France.]
As such, it shows that per the Aubaret Treaty, France would return to Vietnam the provinces of Bien Ho, Gai Dinh and Dinh Tuong, save for the city of Saigon, the port of Thudau-mot, the citadel of Mytho, the canals of Poste, Bobo and Benduc, the mountain of Ganh Ray including Cape St. Jacques (with its French-built lighthouse), the anchorages of Ganh Ray and Cangio, the passes of Cua Tien and Cua Dai, and the island of Poulo Condor (located off the map).
The map is an intriguing insight into counterfactualism, showing what ‘could have been’ the fate of Vietnam. It can be supposed that had France agreed to the Aubaret Treaty, then (as Chasseloup-Laubat and La Grandière feared) the French presence in Vietnam would likely not have survived, and perhaps the mega-colony of French Indochina would never have been created, with great consequences to world history.
The present example of the map is, of course, unique, owing to its extensive manuscript additions. However, the underlying printed map is still extremely rare. While it was generally issued separately, it was also included in Léopold Manen’s rare work, Atlas de la Basse-Cochinchine (Paris: A. Bry, ). We can trace only 2 institutional examples of the separate map, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Bibliotecas del Ministerio de Defensa (Madrid), while we can trace only 2 examples of the Atlas de la Basse-Cochinchine, held by the University of Leiden and the University of Chicago. Moreover, we can trace only single other example of the map as having appeared on the market in the last 25 years.
References: Present Map with Mss. Additions Unrecorded. Cf. [Underlying printed map:] Bibliothèque nationale de France: GE C-15211; OCLC: 963959685; [As part of the Atlas de la Basse-Cochinchine:] University of Leiden: COLLBN Atlas 365; University of Chicago: 912.59 M300; Cf. [historical background:] Oscar CHAPUIS, The Last Emperors of Vietnam: From Tu Duc to Bao Dai (2000), pp. 49-53; R. Stanley THOMSON, ‘France in Cohinchina: The Question of Retrocession 1862-65’, The Far Eastern Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 4, (Aug., 1947), pp. 364-378.