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Early European Resources on Vietnam at the Library of Congress

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(The following is a post by Tien Doan, Special Assistant to the Chief, Asian Division.)

The history of European interaction with Vietnam can be traced back to “The Travels of Marco Polo,” which records, in the late 1280s, the noted Italian explorer’s experiences traveling through the area, that is modern Vietnam. More than one-hundred versions of this account can be found in various languages in the Library of Congress’ collections, including the 1485 Latin version translated by the Dominican friar Francesco Pipino and two English versions published in the early 1800s: London, 1808-1814 and Edinburgh, 1811-1817.

Figure 1 – Vietnamese coastline from “The English Pilot.” London, R. and W. Mount and T. Page, 1718.

In the late 15th century, attempts to challenge the Venetian monopoly of spice trade were made by European monarchs, merchants, and explorers to find an all-sea route to India and China. The Portuguese led the way with Vasco de Gama’s 1498 discovery of the sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope. Building on that success, later Portuguese explorers found and charted the sea route from India to China via the Malaysian peninsula and the South China Sea. Following the early Portuguese explorations, modern-day Vietnam began to appear on European maps under various names when navigators identified villages on the Vietnamese coastline to serve as possible storm shelters and resupply points. Instead of using the local names, the Portuguese maps and their later derivatives (i.e., maps that were based on the Portuguese maps) denoted these locations using European proper names. A prime example can be seen in this British map of the Vietnamese coast (Figure 1) from “The English Pilot” (1718). In contrast, later maps of the region show the names of Vietnamese locations with phonetic romanization. The various Vietnamese landmarks in this re-print of a pre-18th-century French map (Figure 2), are very close in spelling to their modern-day Vietnamese equivalents.

Figure 2 – Detail of “Royaume d’Annan, comprenant les royaumes de Tumkin et de la Cocinchine” (Kingdom of Annam, including the kingdoms of Tonkin and Cocinchina). (S.l. : s.n., 1971?). Note that the romanized spelling of the Vietnamese locations are very similar to their current spellings: Thinhoa vs. Thanh Hóa; Bochinh vs. Bố Chính. Geography & Maps Division. This 1971 reprint of an old French map by the Geography Department of the Republic of Vietnam came from the collection of Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774).

While early Portuguese interests in Vietnam focused on identifying routes for navigation and trade, the Catholic Church was also eager to spread its influence in the new territory. By the late 1580s, Portuguese priests from various orders began to arrive in Vietnam. To spread Christianity, a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Francesco de Pina (1585-1625) learned the Vietnamese language with the help of a local convert known only by his baptismal name, Peter. At this time in Vietnam, most official documents were written in classical Chinese, known as chữ Hán (“Chinese script”), while vernacular Vietnamese was typically written in chữ Nôm, literally “Southern script,” that is, the script used in the lands south of China. Nôm, as it is commonly called, contains unique combinations of Chinese characters to represent indigenous Vietnamese words not borrowed from Chinese. The complexity and vast number of characters required to attain literacy in Nôm posed challenges both for uneducated native speakers as well as Europeans seeking to learn the language. For his missionary work, de Pina systematically recreated Vietnamese sounds using the Latin alphabet and compiled a dictionary as well as a grammar book for this newly created written system, which became known as chữ Quốc ngữ, or “script of the national language.” He also opened a school where he taught Vietnamese to European priests using Quốc ngữ.

Figure 3 – The first page of one of the few original copies of “Cathechismus pro ijs, qui volunt suscipere baptismum in octo dies diuisus” (Eight days teachings for those who wish to receive baptism) (Romæ, typis sacræ Congregationis de propaganda fide [1651?]). Compare the Latin on the left with the Vietnamese written in Quốc ngữ on the right. Rare Book & Special Collections Division.
Due in part to political upheaval in Portugal resulting, in part, from the war of independence against Spain (1640-1668), French Jesuit missionaries began arriving in Vietnam in growing numbers in the 17th century. One of the earliest was Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660), a student of de Pina who published the first two books in Quốc ngữ: “Cathechismus pro ijs, qui volunt suscipere baptismum in octo dies diuisus” [Eight days teachings for those who wish to receive baptism] (Figure 3), a baptism book for new converts; and “Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum” [Annamese-Portugese-Latin Dictionary], a trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary and grammar book. The dictionary’s preface notes that it is the combined product of de Rhodes and de Pina’s scholarship, as well as that of two other Portuguese Jesuits who had compiled their own dictionaries, Gaspar de Amaral and Antonio Barbosa. Other original works by de Rhodes in the Library include:

With a small, but growing, population of Catholic converts in Vietnam, the French government began to assert the right to protect French missionaries and local converts, which gradually led to conflict with the ruling Nguyễn dynasty. French colonization of Vietnam officially began in 1862 with the Treaty of Nhâm Tuất, when the Vietnamese court was forced to pay war reparations and cede the Mekong Delta to France in exchange for peace. By the end of the 19th century, France had established the colony of French Indochina, consisting of modern Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Figure 4 – Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) has stood as a distinctive landmark in the city since its completion in 1880. “Saïgon et ses environs” (Saigon and its surroundings). (Paris, A. Paul, C. Vigier & Cie [192-?]).
Figure 5 – Indigenous mountain people of Vietnam, photographed in the late 1890s. “Saïgon et ses environs” (Saigon and its surroundings). (Paris, A. Paul, C. Vigier & Cie [192-?]).
Given Vietnam’s history as a French colony, the bulk of early European resources on Vietnam are in French, consisting primarily of books and maps. In addition to the de Rhodes books cited above, other eminent early prints in the Library’s collections are original 17th and 18th century publications of letters by Pierre François Favre (1746) and travel notes from Cristoforo Borri (1631), Jacques de Bourges (1668), Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1682), and Samuel Baron (1732), to name a few. Nineteenth-century original prints include accounts from the French military conquest of Vietnam, while late 19th-century and early 20th-century publications focus on the study of Vietnam and its people. Notable among the military conquest books are those authored by Jean Dupuis (1828–1912) and Francis Garnier (1839–1873). Dupuis was a French entrepreneur whose dispute with the Vietnamese government in 1873 led to the first French military attempt to take Tonkin (i.e., the French name for the area that is now northern Vietnam). Captain Francis Garnier led this military expedition, which failed with Garnier’s death during an ambush at Ô Cầu Giấy (Paper Bridge).

Figure 6 – This hand-drawn map of the area surrounding a French garrison in the mountainous province of Tuyên Quan dates to 1887 and indicates levels of elevation. In one of the largest battles fought to gain control of northern Vietnam during the Sino-French War (1884–1885), the garrison depicted in this map was besieged for four months by a force led by the Chinese general Tang Jingsong and the Chinese Black Flag bandit Liu Yongfu. “Poste de Ban-Yen-Nien. Journal de poste. 1886-1888” (Yen-Nien Village station. Post Journal. 1886-1888). Hanoi: Herold, Adam, 1886-1888.
Figure 7 – Kep fortress, located in northern Vietnam, was the site of an important early battle in the Sino-French War (1884–1885). Topographical details in maps such as this one were crucial for planning military strategy. “Poste de Ban-Yen-Nien. Journal de poste. 1886-1888” (Yen-Nien Village station. Post Journal. 1886-1888). Hanoi: Herold, Adam, 1886-1888.
Figure 8 – A report titled “A Study Summary of the Eastern Region of Tonkin”. The report contains descriptions of the area with small accompanying elevation maps, comments on activities by the Chinese Black Flag bandits, and notes about frequently used trails. “Poste de Ban-Yen-Nien. Journal de poste. 1886-1888” (Yen-Nien Village station. Post Journal. 1886-1888). Hanoi: Herold, Adam, 1886-1888.

In addition to books, photographs and maps represent two other important types of early European resources on Vietnam. While old photos of Vietnam are rare and exist primarily as images contained in printed book formats (Figures 4, 5), the Library’s holdings of Vietnam-related maps are quite extensive and contain hidden surprises. One collection of particular interest is a set of manuscripts and hand-drawn maps grouped under the title “Poste de Ban-Yen-Nien. Journal de poste. 1886-1888” [Yen-Nien Village station. Post Journal. 1886-1888]. A close examination of this collection, which was purchased by the Library in 2012, reveals several items likely to interest researchers: an extensive grouping of maps of the northern Sino-Vietnam border with French citadels and fortresses drawn to scale (Figures 6, 7); scouting reports of the north and northeast area of modern-day Vietnam (Figure 8); and two garrison patrol logbooks dating from 1886 to 1888. Given that 1887 was the year when French Indochina was established and that rebellions against French rule persisted in this region well until 1913 this collection captures a unique moment in the country’s modern history.

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