Archives par mot-clé : Indochina

Review: Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, “Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954”

Review by David Del Testa, Bucknell University – 1 June 2011.

Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954. Series “From Indochina to Vietnam: Revolution and War in a Global Perspective.” Translated by Ly Lan Dill-Klein, with Eric Jennings, Nora Taylor, and Noémi Tousignant. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009. XV + 490 pp. $60 U.S. (hb). Illustrations, notes, index. ISBN 978-0-520-24539-6.

Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery’s excellent Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization offers an English-language audience its first modern, single-volume, critical study of the history of France’s colonial occupation of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and the creation of a colonial collectivity known as Indochina. Over the years, many authors have addressed colonial Indochina’s history in volumes focusing on Vietnam, such as Joseph Buttinger in his classic, The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam; or focused on the Vietnamese, such as David Marr, in his unparalleled texts, including Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945; or on the relationship of France’s interaction with the Vietnamese, such as Eric Jennings with his excellent chapter, “Toward a New Indochina,” in his book, Vichy in the Tropics: Pétain and the National Revolution in Madagascar, Guadeloupe, and Indochina, 1940 – 1945. [1] But not since Virginia Thompson’s French Indo-China has an author attempted a comprehensive historical analysis of France’s Southeast Asian colony. [2] This book then satisfies an important need, not only for scholars interested in French colonial Indochina, but also anyone wanting a strong, critical summary of the events preceding the French and American wars in the countries that emerged from Indochina; those who want to make strong comparisons between contemporaneous colonial efforts; and those wishing to understand the potential impact of the colonization of Indochina on France.

The core of this book is not exactly a new. Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization is a revised and extended English-language version of Brocheux and Hémery’s Indochine: Une Colonisation ambiguë. [3] Many interested individuals snapped up therelatively few copies of the original edition of Indochine: Une Colonisation ambiguë issued by La Découverte in 1995 or the revised edition issued by the same publishing house in 2004. The French edition itself had already had a long genesis, with the original manuscript completed by 1988, but delayed for editorial reasons until 1995. Thus, the authors have had the time to eliminate many of the faults of its French-language predecessor (such as the incomplete replication of citations in the bibliography), to incorporate to an important degree the ample English- and French-language scholarship on Indochina that bloomed between 1995 and 2009 (including that of the author of this review), and to refine the overall presentation. Few local language sources informed the French-language editions and that remains the same for this version as well, but the volume is comprehensive otherwise.

In brief, Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization documents France’s colonization of what became known as Indochina between 1858 and 1954. The authors explore quickly the initial motivations for Napoleon III to authorize an attack on the pre-colonial, independent, imperial Vietnam in 1857, the conquest of what is now southern Vietnam, and the resistance to the French that accompanied its colonization. Thereafter, they illustrate in much greater detail the politics of the government of France and the court of Vietnam in, respectively maintaining or resisting colonialism, illustrating that certainly not all French wanted a colonial empire and that not all Vietnamese rejected the presence of the French. They also spend some time explaining why the Cambodian court would ally itself with France and subject the Cambodians to colonial occupation. After the treaties, commercial interests, and early anti-colonial resistance groups receive detailed attention, Brocheux and Hémery address the imposition of complete control over all of Vietnam and the extension of that control over Laos.

The remainder of the text addresses the hardening of colonialism and French control over these areas, with a strong focus on Vietnam, and the resistance to a hardening position that the opportunities provided by colonialism created. The modern state and commercial apparatus that the French imposed needed local collaborators who knew French and modern methods of accounting, engineering, and so on. This need, combined with an enduring official sponsorship of a colonial civilizing mission, created Vietnamese and to a much lesser extent Cambodians, Laos, and highlanders, well versed in modern Western thought. Brocheux and Hémery subtly illustrate how local peoples grappled with the fundamental hypocrisy of republican France’s colonialism and in the end used the very revolutionary ideas that the French had personified against them. They also show how, by the 1930s, Indochinaincreasingly became the stage for a global Realpolitik that had little to do with local people and more to do with life-and-death struggles between larger actors.

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization provides an impressive amount of detail in 490 pages. A long series of introductory features (foreword, preface, and introduction) precedes eight substantial chapters, and there is a substantive conclusion and supplementary materials as well. Each of the eight chapters of Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization addressesa particular theme (conquest, economics, culture) in a chronological fashion for greater or lesser periods of time between 1858 and 1940. For example, chapter three, “Colonial Capitalism and Development, 1858-1940,” covers the entire time-period of the book, whereas chapter seven, “Resistance, Nationalism, and Social Movements, 1900-1939” covers a briefer period. Some readers might find the constant back-and-forth coverage of the same eras annoying or repetitious, but Brocheux and Hémery explain each of the themes so carefully and holistically that little confusion results from the reading of them. Ten maps and thirteen charts within the main text, as well as thirty-seven tables distributed within the text and in appendices, aggregate and appropriately illustrate the exchanges, regional movements, and volumes of trade that the authors analyze in thorough detail throughout the book.

It is important to remember that this text is an overview of the whole history of the colonization of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and that in so doing it must tackle simultaneously the dynamics of French, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian societies, the motivations for and consequences of the encounters between those societies facilitated by colonialism, and transformations in each society as a result of this colonial occupation. Thus, it cannot address indetail any of those societies and it suffers from a lack of scholarship andperhaps expertise on some aspects of the relationships that it addresses, thus over-representing (perhaps justifiably) France’s presence in Vietnam and the consequences of colonialism for the Vietnamese, while hardly presenting any discussion of Cambodia and even less on Laos. Some critics may fault the authors for not addressing, for example, the importance of certain aspects of local societies, such as Vietnamese family networks or Cambodian social hierarchy, that influenced who participated and how in colonial society or resistance to it. Readers cannot expect in-depth analyses of the minutiae, but at least the authors present an up-to-date twenty-page bibliography in which interested individuals could trace those details should they wish to do so.

Because of the high vantage point from which Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization surveys the creation and eventual unraveling of colonial Indochina and because of their particular scholarly approaches to colonization, Brocheux and Hémery strongly favor analyses of elite political and economic institutions and the resulting politico-economic relationships to describe the institutional structures that provided the colony with its momentum. Individuals and conflicts between individuals receive ample attention, but they and their conflicts are always a part of a larger structure on which they depend or from which their perspective emanated. Both men are professors emeriti from the particularly productive Department of History at the University of Paris VII campus at Jussieu. They worked together productively for decades on various projects concerning colonialism and Vietnam, and they focused particularly on revolutionary history and colonial economics. The cross-fertilization of those topics between them is evident in this text.

Despite its subtitle, An Ambiguous Colonization, the reader leaves the text with a number of sureties about colonialism in Indochina. One is sure, particularly for Vietnam, that colonialism created modern Vietnam by simultaneously generating the skills necessary among the Vietnamese to operate a modern state and the hatred necessary to expel a modern occupier. One is sure that the French, or at least a certain well-positioned segment of French society, profited luxuriously from the imposition of a colonial economy over Indochina, and that the members of the colonial and metropolitan financial and commercial sectors used an ever-changing notion of a civilizing mission to provide excuses to encourage certain forms of development that favored their interests. Simultaneously many politicians, military leaders and idealists, both French and local, believed fervently in a civilizing mission for Indochina, and their dedication to the civilizing mission made colonialism there a going concern, even if they made choices that aligned with the desires of Indochina’s financial and commercial sectors. And one is sure that local people—Vietnamese, French, Lao, Khmer, highlander—left the experience of colonialism and entered independence profoundly changed because of the colonial experience. A reader must delve more deeply and elsewhere, however, to understand the peculiarities of the transformations that occurred and their longer-term origins and consequences. In this way, the strength of this text will remain its holism, and it will certainly serve in this capacity for decades to come.

David Del Testa
Bucknell University


[1] Joseph Buttinger, The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1966); David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial: 1920- 1945 (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982); Eric Jennings, Vichy in the Tropics: Petain’s National Revolution in Madagascar, Guadeloupe, and Indochina, 1940-44 (Stanford,Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[2] Virginia Thompson, French Indo-China (New York, Macmillan, 1937).

[3] Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, Indochine: La Colonisation ambiguë 1858-1954 (Paris: La Découverte, 1995, 2001, 2004).

* H-France Review Vol. 11 (June 2011), No. 121. Copyright © 2011 by the Society for French Historical Studies, all rights reserved. This review may be found on the H-France website.





Unraveling the Ambiguities of Colonial Indochina

Pierre Brocheux, Daniel Hémery. Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. xv + 490 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-24539-6.

Reviewed by Bruce Lockhart (Department of History, National University of Singapore)
Published on H-HistGeog (April, 2011)
Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg

Indochine: La colonisation ambiguë, 1858-1954 (Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization) is one of the most important and authoritative studies of colonial Indochina to have appeared in any language, and it is now available to an English-language audience. Authored by Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, two of the foremost historians of colonial Vietnam, the book (first published in French in 1995) is one of only a small number of academic monographs to look at colonial Indochina as a single entity and one of the very few to combine political, economic, and social perspectives. Like most studies of Indochina, the book devotes the bulk of its discussion to Vietnam, but there is enough information on Cambodia and Laos–some of it added to the English translation based on recent scholarship–to make the study reasonably “Indochina-wide.” Although the strong emphasis on quantitative data means that the text is more liberally sprinkled with numbers than some readers might want in a book that is not strictly speaking an economic history, the facts and figures are well integrated into a broader narrative of the colonial era from start to finish.

Brocheux and Hémery in their preface lay down several principal objectives for the book. First, they “have chosen to approach Indochina as a historical construct … rooted … within the tensions and dynamics of the social and anthropological space of the peninsula.” Second, as noted above, they “approach Indochina through its multiple dimensions–political and military, economic, social, and cultural–and various temporalities,” including both the period of colonial rule and “the brief, violent ruptures of decolonization.” Finally, they attempt to transcend the dichotomy between a “colonial” historiographical perspective, which treats French rule as “fundamentally civilizing, even if faulty,” and an anticolonial and national one, which portrays it as “purely dominating, repressive, and exploitative” (pp. xiv-xv).

The authors are arguably the most successful in achieving the last of these three objectives, no mean feat considering the ideological divide among French academics working on Indochina. The book is an articulate critique of colonial rule in Indochina, yet it is not polemical, and it does not essentialize or oversimplify the complexities of the colonial system. When it comes to the various strains of Vietnamese nationalism, the authors do tend to focus more on the Left of the political spectrum than on the Right. Although this is to some extent understandable given their own particular research interests and ideological proclivities and the historical reality that the Left was ultimately triumphant in Vietnam, a more balanced treatment would have been welcome. Similarly, despite the presence of a chapter entitled “Cultural Transformations,” much of the text is devoted to political and economic developments, with comparatively little attention to the cultural dilemmas that plagued the indigenous elites. Cambodia and Laos are given particularly short shrift in this respect, but to be fair, much of the important work done on the interaction among nationalism, Buddhism, and colonialism in Cambodia has appeared since the book was written. Thus although the book’s approach is perhaps sufficiently “multi-dimensional” to fulfill the second of the authors’ stated objectives, it leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied where cultural and intellectual developments are concerned.

The relative lack of careful attention to noneconomic developments in Cambodia and Laos means that the first of the three stated objectives, to look at “Indochina” as a “historical construct” within its broader “social and anthropological space,” is not pursued as completely as the reader might wish. The book provides a thorough overview of policy developments in Indochina within the broader framework of French colonialism, but there is not much attention to the specific issues involved in attempting to construct “Indochina” or an “Indochinese identity.” The complexities and contradictions of this agenda–notably the promotion of Vietnamese immigration into the areas traditionally most wary of Vietnamese influence–and the interplay between anti-Vietnamese and anti-French elements in Cambodian and Lao nationalism are matters that deserve more attention than they receive in most studies of “Indochina,” including this one. The authors argue that “a number of Vietnamese ended up, at least for several decades, also thinking of themselves as ‘Indochinese,’” but they do not thoroughly examine the implications of that claim (p. 378).

That said, however, Brocheux and Hémery do succeed admirably in their determination to show the many ways in which French colonization of Indochina was “ambiguous.” They articulate these ambiguities quite clearly and accurately in their preface: “the appropriation by the colonized of the innovations imposed by colonization,… the reversibility of modes of domination as soon as circumstances permitted them, and … the subtle investment in these modes on the part of subjugated societies who redirected and deflected them” (p. xv). They pay particular attention to the extremely ambiguous nature of “modernity” and “modernization” as a product of colonial rule. None of these, of course, are unique to the particular colonial experience of Indochina, but the authors do provide a solid and articulate overview of the ways in which these issues played out in this particular context.

Although it is certainly valuable to have an English edition of this important book, it is unfortunate that the translation itself is mediocre to say the least. It reads as if it had been done by a translation program that stuck as closely as possible to the original French syntax and automatically chose French cognates in English whether or not they were the best equivalents. There is a good reason why deceptively similar cognates are called “faux amis” (false friends), and the text is riddled with them from start to finish. In a few cases the translations are quite simply wrong (such as “high commissioners” for “hauts fonctionnaires,” meaning high-ranking civil servants, or “genius” for “génie” in a context where it means “spirit” in the sense of a supernatural entity). Academic French is admittedly a difficult challenge, but if it is going to be translated, then the final product should not be a literal translation that sounds as if it had been written by a native French speaker.

Citation: Bruce Lockhart. Review of Brocheux, Pierre; Hémery, Daniel, Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954. H-HistGeog, H-Net Reviews. April, 2011.
Source: H-Net Reviews