Fortunately, for peace and order, imperial troops quickly crushed the rebellion and Prince Hong Bao was arrested. Emperor Tu Duc was inclined to inflict the legal punishment for treason but his mother, the powerful Empress-Dowager Tu Du, persuaded him to show mercy. In any event, it did not finally matter as the prince committed suicide in prison. The throne was secured but it was an inauspicious start to the reign of Emperor Tu Duc. In all the years since his reign, the image of Emperor Tu Duc has been subject to a great deal of distortion by many people. Contemporary foreign accounts tended to portray him as brutal, cruel and close-minded. However, the truth was exactly the opposite. Emperor Tu Duc was an upstanding Confucian monarch, a great scholar and generally was in every way what a good, traditional Asian emperor was expected to be according to time-honored values. Much of the “bad press” Emperor Tu Duc has been subjected to involves his treatment of the Christian minority. This is worth considering since it was, to some extent, the treatment of Christians that was used as a pretext for the French Emperor Napoleon III invading Vietnam and setting the course for the eventual French colonization of all of Indochina. Despite what many say, Emperor Tu Duc was not completely intolerant of Christianity though, like most Confucianists, he was wary of it.
Moreover, this was not an isolated incident. There had been missionary involvement, possibly backed by the French government, in several coup attempts and there had been many Christians involved in the initial rebellion against him when Emperor Tu Duc took the throne. It is unfortunate that the missionaries and converts did not refrain from involving themselves in politics in this way rather than working to show that they were loyal and that Catholicism did not contradict being a loyal subject of the Emperor. Yet, all too often many were inclined to join in subversive activity in the hope (usually naïve) that a new ruler would be more favorable and give greater privileges to Catholics. The result was that in 1848, at a time when it was hoped that France would be too busy in Europe to meddle in southeast Asia, Emperor Tu Duc decreed that all Vietnamese Catholic converts must renounce Christianity and return to their traditional beliefs or be branded as heretics and lose all privileges. He also cracked down on French and Spanish missionaries which brought western opinion down against Emperor Tu Duc, most having never heard of the previous intrigues against the Emperor by spiritual men trespassing into temporal affairs. The devoutly Catholic French Empress Eugenie (who was Spanish by birth) championed the cause of intervention and soon French troops were landed in the far south, Cochinchina, and began attacking north.
|French land at Danang|
In the years since, many accounts have been unfairly critical of Emperor Tu Duc. He was the longest reigning emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty and had to deal with problems and enemies of a sort no previous monarch had ever had to face. He was highly educated, intelligent and refined, devoted to the Confucian moral code and the traditional rites. Because of an affliction with smallpox as a child he was unable to have children of his own, though he had many wives and concubines. He was an accomplished poet and probably the most literary of any Vietnamese monarch. A French official who met him was surprised that he was so different from the beast he was portrayed as, describing his delicate manners, soft voice and comparing his features to those of an ancient pharaoh. If a wise and upright ruler had been all that was called for, the reign of Tu Duc would have been very different but, instead, his reign saw rebellion, invasion and ultimately the first beginnings of what would become the era of French colonial rule.