In 1858, Spain set out to conquer Annam, the current strip of the central coast of Vietnam, together with the Army of Napoleon III. The decision was taken by the Spanish Government after the Spanish Bishop José María Díaz, Apostolic Vicar of the Tonkin region, was “barbarously sacrificed during an anti-Christian and anti-European persecution unleashed by the Anamites on July 20, 1857,” as he explained. ABC in a report
published almost a century later.
The military campaign lasted for four years, with the aim not only of expanding its influence in the territory, but also to avenge “the more than 10,000 Christians, whites and Asians who had been assassinated by order of Emperor Tu Duc
, the main ruler of Annam, a year before. ‘ Although most Spaniards have already forgotten, thanks to that adventure Spain possessed several territories in that distant region until well into the 20th century. It was its owner almost in secret, without anyone on the national and international political scene paying attention to it as the years passed.
The conquest operation, however, did not bring glory or recognition to any of the soldiers from the Iberian Peninsula who participated in it. On the contrary, his victory fell into oblivion despite the supposed importance of the mission, which was none other than putting an end to the slaughter of religious, who had been executed on the pretext that they were sticking their noses in troubled politics. native.
As Alfonso Ojeda explains in his work
‘Spain and Vietnam: A common story’ (Cataract, 2017), the history of Christianity in Vietnam has been written in letters of blood. The continuous persecutions, prohibitions, destruction of churches and expulsions are reminiscent of Ancient Rome. “Catholicism did not come to Vietnam to fill a religious void, but to replace existing moral and spiritual values, but local public powers criticized the ‘heterodox doctrine’ for fear that its influence could represent a counter-power to the local political system” , says the author.
War, despite the crisis
Napoleon III’s proposal to Queen Elizabeth II to carry out a punitive expedition came a few days after the murder of the Spanish missionary. Leopoldo O’Donnell, President of the Council of Ministers, was the one who made the decision to intervene. Spain had to make it clear that the lives of men who preached the Catholic faith could not be ended without retaliation.
The decision was reckless for financial reasons. The state coffers were in a very precarious situation due to the Carlist wars and the high cost involved in maintaining the Empire, mainly due to the difficulty of maintaining control of the Philippines, the greed of the pirates and the incipient independence movements from Cuba. Spain had many fronts open to face one more, but they accepted the challenge.
The expedition was made up of 2,500 French and 500 Spanish soldiers. This is how ABC recalled the first movements of the conquerors:
«The military operations were successful with relative ease. They first landed in Turana Bay, near Hue, on August 31, 1958. This was the scene of the massacres of Christians. This entire region was bombarded and taken at bayonet point quickly. Old Elizabethan engravings remind us of it with bittersweet nostalgia. The Spaniards, who constituted the main contingent of land, were located in the vanguard and the eternal military virtues of the race had the opportunity to prove their toughness and their spirit of sacrifice.».
Shortly after, a land flotilla made up of 800 land soldiers, half of them Spanish, embarked south of Conchinchina. The second phase of the campaign began on February 10, 1858 with the bombardment of Vung Tau and a series of fortresses that gave access to Saigon by river, the real objective. When they took over this other city, they left 900 men there (800 French and 100 Spanish) to maintain control. The courage shown by these troops was underlined in numerous newspapers of the time, which echoed the considerable loot obtained after the battle: ships, artillery pieces, rifles, gunpowder, rice in abundance and a treasure made up of silver bars.
In March 1860, when things were better, the French high command ordered its soldiers to evacuate the Bay of Turana and go to China. The Spaniards from that area returned to Manila. The Amanite army thought then that the invaders were not as invincible as they believed and launched a series of attacks on Saigon. The situation was critical, but the few Spanish-French forces that remained in that city defended it with heroism.
In February 1861, the emboldened Vietnamese army under General Nguyen Tri Phuong He did not give up and continued to besiege Saigon for a time, but the handful of few Spanish and French troops defended the position tooth and nail. The Annam empire gave up and definitively lost that important enclave, as well as many other territories.
At the end of China’s military campaign, the French returned again to reinforce the Vietnam front with 3,000 well-equipped men and a fleet of 70 warships. The battle quickly turned to the side of the European allies, who were taking control of other important areas, including the southern part of the country known as Cochinchina, in March 1862.
The end of the war
The signing of the peace treaty between France and the King of Annam finally took place on June 5, 1862. According to Juan Francisco Fuentes in
‘The end of the Old Regime (1808-1868)’ (Synthesis, 2007). The Government of Paris entered Indochina after the concession of three provinces. The Government of Elizabeth II, for its part, received financial compensation, some commercial rights and a 4,000-square-meter piece of land in Saigon: the current Bach Tung Diep park.
It is an area very visited by tourists who travel to Vietnam and almost no one in Spain ever knew that it belonged to them. This was revealed to EFE, in 2015, the British historian Tim Doling, author of the book
‘Exploring Ho Chi Minh City’ (Exploring Ho Chi Minh City): «I was surprised by the data, but there is no doubt because I found it in two different historical sources. It was just an abandoned lot in the center of the city and the French turned it into a public garden when they got it back. ‘
Located in front of a museum dedicated to the history of the city, a few meters from emblematic buildings such as the Opera, the Continental Hotel or the Ben Thanh market, it is a common place of transit for tourists. Until it was returned to France in 1922, it was one more Spanish possession that went unnoticed, even by the Spanish. In fact, there is currently no indication in the park about his Hispanic past or the reasons why he was reinstated.
The British historian pointed to the lack of interest of governments since the Bourbon Restoration. «Spain did not keep it in good condition and France recovered it to turn it into a public garden. Later, the Spanish authorities did not appoint anyone to administer it, so I suppose they were not interested, “he commented.
Only a small Franco-Spanish cemetery from the 19th century near Danang, in which dozens of soldiers from both countries are buried, remembers the heroes of that war. But their graves are little by little swallowed up by the growing industry in the surroundings. In one of its corners eaten by brush, the tombs of the 32 Spanish soldiers who died in the conquest of Vietnam can be found today.