by Jim Goodman
The British had already taken lower and central Burma, Siam was strong enough to resist, so the French turned to Vietnam and forced a treaty in 1862 that gave them control over several provinces in Cochinchina, the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. The following year they signed a treaty with Cambodia that made that country a French protectorate, probably saving it from annexation by Siam. Now that they possessed lands along the Mekong River the next question was how to take advantage of it. Most importantly, was this the river road to China’s riches?
Led by Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier, it departed Saigon 5 June 1866. Before the year was over they had discovered the Khone Falls in southern Laos, an effective barrier to long-distance navigation. Nevertheless, the party continued upriver, traversing ever-rougher country in ever-hotter weather until they reached Luang Prabang 29 April. There they took a four-week rest.
Having jettisoned most of its baggage, sent its collections of jungle specimens on to Bangkok, and reduced loads to one bag per person, the party set out again 25 May soon after the onset of the rainy season. The journey was further complicated by political troubles trying to pass through the petty states of northern Burma. Eventually they got into Menglong for a first meal on Chinese soil. They admired the White Pagoda there and began trekking north, passing exotic peoples like the Aini, with their unusual head-dresses.
Departing Jinghong 2 October 1867, in two weeks they reached Simao (today’s Pu’er). A fortified city 300 years old, lying in a plain surrounded by low mountains, Simao was their first genuinely Chinese city and they were overjoyed to be there, past the petty intrigues of the Dai and Burmese. But they were aware they had walked into a province wracked by the Muslim Revolt and as they traveled further north they would come across evidence of the devastation wrought by the war.
One of them, though, tried to remove Lagrée's hat to see the back of his head. Rumor had it that Europeans were so powerful because they had a third eye in the back of the head, with which they sought out riches while appearing to be looking at something else. The explorers thought this humorous, so it did not cause offence. The mandarins were anyway cooperative, both here at Simao and at the next stops of Pu'er (now called Ning’er) and Mojiang.
On 17 November they came to Yuanjiang, where they had their grandest reception, greeted by a party of mandarins with an escort for them of 200 soldiers and porters. Posters bearing the guests' names were hoisted aloft, cannons boomed and music played. The chief magistrate demonstrated that even in so remote a place as Yuanjiang he was not without his own small collection of modern gadgets. These included a watch, a telescope and a stereoscopic viewer, which he used to look at erotic pictures.
That this waterway, which empties into the sea below Haiphong in Vietnam, might be the river road to China, rather than the Mekong, ignited flames in Garnier's imagination. He tried taking local boats as far as they would go, but soon came to dangerous rapids banked by high, perpendicular cliffs. No amount of cajoling or threatening could induce the boatmen to take him any further.
Arriving ahead of them through the magnificent Chaoyang Gate, he aroused the immediate and overbearing curiosity of the local residents. When the crowd took to hurling stones at him to see how he would react, Garnier fired off a few quick shots with his revolver. The crowd, amazed that a firearm could shoot successive rounds without having to reload, quickly scattered.
Under this powerful magistrate’s protection the explorers were safe from unwanted scrutiny. They experienced similar conditions in Tonghai and were obliged to barricade themselves there. (In Tonghai they also experienced a freak early snowstorm, which for the Vietnamese in the party was their first ever look at snow.) But nothing untoward happened in Jiangchuan and from here on their reception was normal and civil.
There on a plain beside the lake stood hundreds of unburied coffins, containing victims of a cholera epidemic that followed recent fighting in the area. Continuing towards Kunming they passed by many villages that had been burnt to the ground. They spent a night on the southern shore of Dian Lake and arrived at Kunming 23 December for a two-week rest and a discussion of what to do next. It was the biggest city they had soon so far and was heavily fortified, as the war was always in mind.
They proceeded north to Huizi, in Qujing Prefecture, where Lagrée stayed to convalesce. Garnier's group then turned west into Sichuan to the Jinshajiang (River of Golden Sand--Upper Yangzi), becoming the first Westerners since Marco Polo to see the river this far into the interior of China. They then re-entered Yunnan and swung southwest through present-day Dayao County en route to Binchuan.
But they never did get to meet Du Wenxiu, for he and his advisors would not believe they were French explorers on a scientific survey. Rather, the court at Dali considered them English spies and made it clear the party would be killed if they tried to enter Dali.
Garnier's group then had to retreat, over much the same route, to Huizi, which they reached 3 April and learned that Lagrée had died of amoebic dysentery 12 March. The Expedition was over. Garnier gathered the survivors and took them to Shanghai, where they embarked for Saigon. Garnier himself and expedition member Louis de Carné published their findings, a wealth of information about Yunnan, hitherto a practically unknown province, to guide and excite all who would follow in their wake. They had failed to find a viable trade route into China after all, along the Mekong anyway, but hinted that perhaps it would be the Red River instead. It ran through northern Vietnam and the optimistic imperialists expected France to seize control of that territory soon.
Within four years of this prediction Jean Dupuis, an adventurous French businessman, put it to the test. He had heard of the Red River commercial possibility in Shanghai when the Mekong Expedition members were there at the end of their long journey, and thus began pursuing the connection almost at once. For his first cargo he chose a commodity that was in great demand by the Chinese government--arms and ammunition. In the spring of 1871 Dupuis obtained a commission from Kunming to bring a shipment into Yunnan.
Brazenly passing the border town of Lao Cai, Dupuis entered Yunnan at Hekou (then called Songping) and sailed over another 100 km to Manhao. Today Manhao is a small, riverside town on the Gejiu-Jinping route, near a picturesque view of this river. There Dupuis unloaded his cargo and transferred it to a pony caravan to go north to Mengzi, where the government buyers waited. Flushed with success, Dupuis claimed credit for both proving and discovering the commercial potential of the Red River, ignoring Garnier.
Next, instead of trying to secure permission from the Tonkin government in Hanoi, Dupuis went to France to talk up his project. When he departed in spring, 1872, he had what he thought was semi-official backing. This implied the French government hoped he would succeed, but couldn't openly support the attempt. This gave this impetuous adventurer all the sanction he needed. After the rains concluded that autumn, Dupuis loaded his arms in shallow-draft vessels and sailed into Yunnan, brandishing his commission from Kunming as his excuse to ignore Vietnamese objections.
The following year (1873) Dupuis was ready for another run. Only this time he chose salt for his cargo. Salt was a government monopoly in Tonkin, exacerbating the attitude of the Vietnamese, already outraged by Dupuis' first shipment. This time they blocked passage. Dupuis promptly hoisted the French flag, as if to display official French government backing. At this point both Dupuis and the Vietnamese contacted Admiral Dupré of the French mission in Saigon. Dupré saw the situation as an opportunity to advance French interests in Tonkin. He dispatched Garnier with a small force to help Dupuis.Together Dupuis and Garnier had but 400 armed men with them, not all of them soldiers. Some were Vietnamese supporters of the Le family and the Trinh Lords of the north, who had been displaced after the civil wars by the Nguyen of Hue. But Garnier, convinced of Western superiority, styling himself "the Great Mandarin of France," demanded the Vietnamese give up the citadel in Hanoi, which they of course refused. On 20 November Garnier's forces made a surprise attack and captured it.
Next day the Vietnamese, allied with Chinese Black Flag bandits, counter-attacked. After repulsing the first assault, Garnier decided to make a sortie. But in pursuing the enemy he split up his small band and then ran into an ambush set by the Black Flag forces. They captured and beheaded him. Dupuis escaped. Dupré disavowed Garnier's actions and the French had to sign a treaty with Tonkin that expressly prohibited commercial use of the Red River by foreigners.
Yet in 1882 the French took over Tonkin anyway. Theoretically the Red River route to China was open again. But first the border had to be demarcated, which began in 1884. The Black Flag bandits were still a force in the region and harassed the border commission constantly. Based in Hekou, they sailed downriver to attack the French commission, killing a few. But eventually the work was completed and commerce with Yunnan commenced. Hopes were high for trade in tin and other minerals and a French Trade Mission was set up in Mengzi. But the volume never amounted to much. The river was just too shallow.
* * *