|Prince Anh during his sojourn in Siam|
While the Tay Son turned their aggression on the Trinh, abandoning their earlier promise and ousting the Le emperor to establish their own, short-lived, imperial dynasty and even defeating a Qing Dynasty army from China sent in to rescue their Le Dynasty vassal, Prince Nguyen Anh rallied the remnants of his family’s forces. Despite his young age, he proved a very inspirational figure, cunning leader and, above all, a young man of boundless determination. After regrouping, he succeeded in re-taking Saigon from the Tay Son forces and, for a time, a sort of stalemate ensued as the two sides battled back and forth for domination of southern Vietnam. In 1783, however, the stalemate was broken and the Nguyen forces once again suffered a devastating defeat. Having earlier taken refuge in Siam, this time Prince Anh fled to Phu Quoc. A Catholic seminary was there and he was given a safe haven by the French missionary Pierre Joseph Pigneau de Behaine, a Catholic priest and eventual Bishop of Adran. Pigneau and Prince Anh quickly became very devoted friends.
The Tay Son had originally posed as the friends of the Christian minority in Vietnam but, after achieving power, began persecuting them. Pigneau wanted to do something to end the suffering of his fellow Catholics, naturally, and also to secure special favor for his native Kingdom of France in what was then known as Dai Viet. Prince Anh, likewise, knew that his own forces were far too depleted and he would need foreign assistance, particularly advanced foreign warships and firearms, to achieve his goal of victory over the Tay Son. Despite his setbacks, he was more determined than ever to not only regain his family’s rule over the south of the country but to reunite the whole country under his leadership.
|Pigneau de Behaine|
Pigneau finally returned in 1789 with two ships filled with French soldiers of fortune and various war materials along with Crown Prince Canh, who had been baptized into the Catholic faith. Prince Anh would be forever grateful to his friend Pigneau for this and used these forces to regain control of his ancestral lands in the south. He won over the locals who had become disenchanted with the Tay Son who had promised much but delivered little. Prince Anh impressed the people with his honesty as he admitted that his family had made mistakes in the past, had acted incorrectly but promised to set things right with a renewed commitment to morality and good government based on the ethical code of the great Confucius. Spears were made, muskets and swords distributed, ships were stocked, cannon were loaded and the war elephants were prepared. Prince Anh launched a massive and devastating offensive against his enemies, sweeping inexorably north through the country until the Tay Son were totally defeated and he stood victorious as the master of all.
To their annoyance, France did not receive the pride of place they had expected due to the fact that they had not fulfilled their promise to aid Gia Long. He knew that what help he received was due to Pigneau and not to the government in Paris. Therefore, out of respect for his late friend, Christianity would be tolerated in Vietnam as long as Gia Long was alive. He was, however, not entirely pleased that his late son and heir had been converted to Christianity and was careful not to allow western influence to spread in his country. Rather than any particular religion, Confucianism was to be the backbone of the country under Gia Long and trade and contact with the west was restricted. This was the basis of what has become the major criticism of Emperor Gia Long, which is that he isolated Vietnam and allowed the country to stagnate and thus become vulnerable to French expansion in later years. This, however, is not entirely fair.
Most of the reign of Emperor Gia Long was concerned with consolidation. Fairly early on there developed two different factions at the imperial court, one of which was more focused on establishing ties with the west, based around the family of the late Crown Prince Canh, and the other which favored closer ties with China and isolation from the west which was focused on the family of Prince Nguyen-Phuc Dam and this was the faction that Emperor Gia Long favored, naming Dam as his heir and successor. Emperor Gia Long was obliged to neglect the navy so as to have funds for the building of fortresses and an extensive infrastructure project of building roads to improve travel and communication as well as canals and other waterway projects to boost agricultural production. Again, not all of these were popular at the time, but all of them paid dividends in the long run though the lack of a modern navy would be problematic when the French came calling in the years to come.
Emperor Gia Long, first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, founder of the last Vietnamese imperial line, died at the age of 57 on February 3, 1820. He was buried at Thien Tho Tomb, which he had originally built in 1814 for his beloved wife Empress Thua Thien, but which has since, sadly, fallen into disrepair. For someone who had such a remarkable life, rising from the ashes of defeat and the massacre of his entire family, to triumph over his enemies and forge an empire, the historical legacy of Emperor Gia Long has been grossly distorted due to the political bigotry of those who have come to power since the Nguyen reign. While generally dismissive of the entirety of traditional Vietnamese history, the Communist Party seized on Emperor Gia Long as a particular enemy in their propaganda. Taking the side of the Tay Son rebels, they tended to heap all blame for any misfortunes which befell Vietnam on Emperor Gia Long and his policies. This is quite unfair and quite outrageous considering the extent to which Emperor Gia Long is responsible for what most recognize as traditional Vietnam even today.