The authors immediately got my attention by summing up what makes the region fascinating to me: “Although geography does not create history, it does condition it . . . and this was one of the world’s great historical frontiers, along which contacts and exchanges occurred among material cultures, myths and religions, various writing systems, and of course, empires. It was within this complex region of intermingling civilizations that imperialist France constructed Indochina.” (1)
The complexities include colorful characters and conflicting agendas on all sides, such as those resulting in a couple hundred Vietnamese uprisings from 1802 to 1883 during the reigns of the emperors Gia Long and Tu Duc. France got seriously involved in the 1840s, first setting its sights on China and hoping to best the British by dominating “the vast hinterland” between China and India. The plan was to assume “exclusive, therefore colonial, control of the mouths of the Mekong and Red Rivers” as well as the shores of the South China Sea. From 1859 to 1879 the French Navy appropriated and ran Cochinchina; Saigon Harbor would rank second only to Marseilles in the “global network of bases able to provide coal, wood and supplies” to the imperial fleet in what became known as “the era of the admirals.” (21)
Economics and related quantitative data take more pages than I’d like, but the fact that I skimmed does not make those details less important. I learned a lot about the influence of French industry and banking but most enjoyed chapters exploring the geography and detailing colonial society.
The emphasis throughout is on Vietnam, where the first dynasty of historical record commenced in 2879 B.C. I recommend also reading Understanding Vietnam by Neil Jamieson, A Short History of Vietnam by Nguyen Van Thai and Nguyen Van Mung, and Overturned Chariot: The Autobiography of Phan Boi Chau, translated by Vinh Sinh and Nicholas Wickenden. Together the books provide an engaging exploration of the oft-slighted (in western accounts) intellectual and cultural brilliance of Vietnamese history and nationalism.
Originally published in France in 1995, Brocheux's first English edition was released in 2009. Before reading it I checked a review of the translation, and the review was not glowing. The language lacks finesse and is often awkward, occasionally slighting the finer points, not to mention it makes the going even slower through already dense material. Nevertheless, the general academic consensus has ruled this “a groundbreaking historical synthesis” that “fully explores the ambiguity of the French colonial period."
For readers wanting more specifics about what they're getting into, the conclusion sums up the main points as follows, and the text is mostly verbatim here, though the numbering is mine.
1. French Indochina was first and foremost an enterprise of political domination aiming for economic exploitation, and its establishment was incredibly violent.
2. Colonialism presented itself as the historical vector of modernization and everything the word signified at that time: industry, science, wage labor, machines, and a market economy.
3. The initially great success of Indochinese colonization was fundamentally determined by its promoters: plantations and mines, banks and trading firms.
4. Through most of the 20th century, Laos and to a lesser degree Cambodia would be considered territorial reserves of an Indochina thought of as fundamentally Vietnamese.
5. The colonial regime could not function without securing a partnership, however fragile, with the dominant native classes and the colonized elites, who hoped to use modernization for their own ends, which were in the long run anticolonial.
6. French Indochina was constructed on the evolutionary convergence of solidarities and antagonisms between the dominant and the dominated. It was until the 1930s a provisional compromise, strongly unequal of course, but not fictional, to such an extent that some Vietnamese defined themselves, at least for a time, as French Indochinese.
7. Most Vietnamese intellectuals considered modernization a means of resisting colonization and promoting political democracy.
8. Imperial France was overtaken in Indochina by a largely unforeseen national and international communist revolution, but regardless of politics, by 1945 colonization had become intolerable to all Indochinese.
9. As early as 1911, Jean Jaures was sounding the alarm: “If we carry on, we will reap nothing from these lands but hatred and disappointment.”