Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia

Book Cover

Book Title

The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859-1905). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969


Osborne, Milton E.


This study seeks to appraise the impact of the alien French colonial presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia during a period of fifty significant years, from the late 1850s to the first decade of the twentieth century. The context is set for the arrival of the French in the 1850s. This was the period of weakness for the polities of Indochina: the Cambodian court possessed only a fragment of her former greatness; Vietnam was a polity split by intense rivalries between two great lord houses based in the north and south, and by a major rebellion, which during the last decades of the eighteenth century had successfully usurped power throughout most of Vietnam. Initially consumed by her own problems and with her neighbors, Vietnam was finally unified in the early nineteenth century and were competing with Siam for suzerainty over Cambodia and Laos.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The period examined ranges from pre-colonial Indochina, examining the form of government that was then in place in parts of Indochina, particularly Vietnam. Vietnam followed largely those structures possessed by China. The author then proceeded to discuss the establishment of the framework of the French colonization of Vietnam(1859-1879), a gradual process of experimentation and development of a new administration combining some elements of the former political structures with new ones.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The establishment of the framework (1859-1879) was deemed to be a gradual event in the French colonization of Vietnam. Throughout 1863, the Vietnamese court still hoped that a permanent French presence in Cochinchina might be avoided if they paid a heavy indemnity - similar to the treaty port provisions in China. In addition, Osborne argued that most of the Vietnamese collaborateurs would have had training in traditional administration important for understanding the system of government that had existed before the French arrival.

However, a turning point in the administrative structure occurred when the mandarins fled from Cochinchina, resulting in Vietnam being cut off from its traditional source of Vietnamese guidance. Because of the French insistence on the dangers of preserving traditional forms of education and the use of Chinese characters, Cochinchina was therefore in the forefront of a radical change that eventually spread throughout the whole of Vietnam.

Annotated by Michelle Djong