Vietnamese emperors claimed sovereignty over Hoang Sa, research shows

VietNamNet Bridge – Vietnamese kings were once very interested in confirming Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly), especially Emperor Minh Mang.

Researchers of oriental history have reached a common assessment: Minh Mang was the first emperor in the region with a strategic vision of developing the marine economy.

While neighboring countries like China were busy developing the mainland, the Vietnamese emperor issued many policies to reinforce Vietnam’s sovereignty over and exploring aquatic resources from Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. He sent soldiers and residents to Hoang Sa to plant trees, build temples and houses.

Uninterrupted sovereignty

Vietnamese emperors, Nguyen Dynasty, sovereignty over Hoang Sa

An official document on Hoang Sa by the Nguyen Dynasty.

Two years after the Tay Son uprising, in 1773, the Tay Son occupied the land from Quang Nam to Binh Thuan. The Hoang Sa Flotilla in Vinh An commune of Quang Ngai province was under the control of the Tay Son. The Hoang Sa Flotilla’s activities were still maintained although the Tay Son had to confront the Trinh and the Nguyen dynasties at the same time.

Before leaving the mainland to Hoang Sa Archipelago, Mr. Ha Lieu, an official of Cu Lao Re Ward (Ly Son Island today), submitted an application to the Tay Son government, which said: “Now we restore the two teams of Hoang Sa and Que Huong, employing people out of the ward. We will go to the offshore islands to collect bronze and tin objects, seafood and tortoise-shells to present to the authorities".

On February 14, 1786, the Hoang Sa Flotilla received an instruction from the Tay Son court, asking it to send four ships to Hoang Sa to collect gold, silver, bronze items, weapons, gems and aquatic products for the royal court.

After the collapse of the Tay Son Dynasty, the Nguyen Dynasty strengthened its sovereignty and exploration of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa.

Only a year after coming to the throne, in July 1803, King Gia Long reinforced the Hoang Sa Flotilla. The parts covering the eras of Emperors Gia Long, Minh Mang, and Thieu Tri completed in 1848 in “Dai Nam Thuc Luc Chinh Bien” (The Main Part of The Chronicles of Dai Nam), the historical document collection about the Nguyen emperors, which record the events of: Emperor Gia Long’s possession of the Paracel Islands in 1816 and the temple construction, stele erection, tree planting, measurement and mapping of the islands following Emperor Minh Mang’s order.

Volume 52 of “Dai Nam Thuc Luc Chinh Bien” reads: “In the Binh Ty year, the 15th year of the Gia Long Era (1816) … His Majesty the Emperor commanded the naval forces and Hoang Sa Flotilla to sail to Hoang Sa Islands for sea route survey.”

From 1816, the king also sent naval soldiers to Hoang Sa together with the Hoang Sa Flotilla. The French who worked for Emperor Gia Long wrote about this event. Bishop Taberd wrote: "It was only in 1816 that His Majesty the Emperor (King Gia Long) solemnly hang the Cochin flag there (Hoang Sa)". Records by missionary Gutzlaff also show that Emperor Gia Long set up a small camp to collect taxes and protect Vietnamese fishermen in Hoang Sa.

Building temples, planting trees on Hoang Sa and Truong Sa

Vietnamese kings were very interested in confirming Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracels) and Truong Sa (Spratlys), especially Emperor Minh Mang.

Volume 104 of “Dai Nam Thuc Luc Chinh Bien” reads: “In the eighth month, during the autumn, of the Quy Ty year, the 14th year of the Ming Mang Era (1833) … His Majesty the Emperor told the Ministry of Public Works that: In the territorial waters of the Province of Quang Ngai, there is the Hoang Sa range. The water and the sky in that range cannot be distinguished from afar. Trading boats have recently become victims of its shoal. We shall prepare sampans, waiting until next year to go to the area to construct a temple, erect stele, and plant many trees. Those trees will grow luxuriant in the future, thus serving as recognition marks for people to avoid getting stranded in shoal. That shall benefit everyone forever.”

Volume 154 reads: “In the sixth month, during the summer, of the At Mui year, the 16th year of the Minh Mang Era (1835) … a temple was built on Hoang Sa Island, under the administration of Quang Ngai Province. Hoang Sa, in the territorial waters of Quang Ngai, has a white sand island covered by luxuriant plants with a well in the middle.

“In the southwest of the island is an ancient temple in which there is a stele engraved with four characters “Van Ly Ba Binh” (calm sea for a thousand dặm). Bach Sa Island has a circumference of 1,070 truong; previously referred to as Phan Tu Son, the island is surrounded by a gently-sloping atoll in the east, west, and south. In the north is an atoll named Ban Than Thach, emerging over the water level with a circumference of 340 truong, an elevation of 1.3 truong, as high as the sand island.

“Last year, His Majesty the Emperor had already considered ordering the construction of a temple and a stele on it, but the plan could not be executed due to harsh weather conditions. The construction had to be postponed until this year when the naval captain Pham Van Nguyen and his soldiers, the capital’s patrol commander, and laborers from the Provinces of Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh came and carried building materials with them to build the new temple (seven truong away from the ancient temple). A stone stele and a screen were erected on the left hand side and in the front of the temple, respectively. They finished all the works in 10 days and returned to the mainland.”

Volume 165 reads: “On the first of the first month, during the spring, in the Binh Than year, the 17th year of the Ming Mang Era (1836) … The Ministry of Public Works submitted a petition to His Majesty the Emperor, saying that: In the frontier of our country’s territorial waters, Hoang Sa is a critical and hardly accessible area. We have had the map of the area made; however, due to its wide and long topography, the map only covers part of it, and this coverage is not sufficiently detailed. We shall deploy people to the area for detailed sea route survey.

“From now on, in the last 10 days of the first month of every year, we shall implore Your Majesty’s permission to select naval soldiers and the capital’s patrolmen to form a unit on a vessel. This unit shall travel to Quang Ngai within the first 10 days of the second month, requesting the Provinces of Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh to employ four civilian boats to travel together to Hoang Sa. For every island, cay, or sandbank that they encounter, they shall measure its length, width, elevation, area, circumference, and the surrounding water’s depth; they shall record the presence of submerged cays and banks, and the topography. Maps shall be drawn from these measurements and records. Also, they shall record the departure date, departure seaports, directions, and estimated distance estimated on the traveling routes. These people shall also look for the shore to determine the provinces, their directions and distances to the surveyed positions. One and all must be recorded clearly and presented once they return.”

“His Majesty the Emperor approved the petition, ordered the naval detachment commander Pham Huu Nhat to command a battleship and bring ten wooden steles to be used as markers in the area. Each wooden stele is five meters long, five decimeters wide, one meter thick, and is engraved with characters meaning: The 17th year of the Minh Menh Era, the Binh Than year, Detachment Commander Pham Huu Nhat of the Navy, complying with the order to go to Hoang Sa for management and survey purposes, arriving here and therefore placing this sign.”

During 400 years of history lasting from the Nguyen Lords to Nguyen Kings, there were many dramatic events attached to a dynasty with lots of turbulences. For the first time, the Royal City was located near the sea. Through ups and downs, Hue now becomes the ancient Royal City and the remaining sites still recall a glorious time. The stories of heroic troops, at the King’s order, sailing through rough seas and winds to defend Hoang Sa, Truong Sa Islands are still intact in the memories of families living in the place once the Capital of country.

Under the reign of King Thieu Tri (1841 - 1846), the Nguyen Dynasty had to fight the Siam invaders in a war between 1841 - 1845. Therefore, the royal naval forces could not totally focus on the work related to sea and island extraction. The dispatch of people to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa was delayed a number of times. However, sovereign activities related to sea and islands were maintained. During this period, there were many petitions applying to go to Hoang Sa, Truong Sa and there were notes from the King that due to work schedule or weather condition, it was not possible to send people to Hoang Sa, Truong Sa.

The time of King Tu Duc was a difficult one in history. In 1847, combat ships of France fired for the first time to Vietnamese vessels in the coastal area near Hue. In 1858, France and Spain attacked Da Nang and occupied Son Tra Peninsula, marking the start of the invasion of France. The naval forces had to cope with the invasion of France, thus could not regularly go to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. However, the awareness on the country’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa did not fade away.

Especially, during the reign of King Thieu Tri and King Tu Duc, a number of historical books of the Nguyen Dynasty were completed with clear notes about the exercise of sovereignty of Viet Nam over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, such as Dai Nam Thuc luc Chinh Bien (Veritable Records of Dai Nam) compiled in the form of year book from 1778 to 1888; Kham dinh Dia Nam hoi dien su le (The Dai Nam Administrative Records) compiled by the cabinet of the Nguyen Court following the edict of King Thieu Tri and completed in the 4th Tu Duc Year (1851) and printed in the 21st Tu Duc Year (1868); Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi (the Geography of the Unified Dai Nam), as its name suggested, was a common, official geographical book of Dai Nam compiled at the edict of King Tu Duc, which started in 1865 and basically finished in 1882; Viet su cuong giam khao luc (A brief history of Viet Nam) was a set of geographical books written by Nguyen Thong, including 7 volumes, of which the first two were about history and the last five about historical geography; Khai dong thuyet uoc (a textbook teaching children social knowledge, included a map depicting Hoang Sa and noting that it belongs to Viet Nam) was printed in the 34th Tu Duc Year (1881).

Since the beginning of the 19th Century with the Nguyen Dynasty reigned over the unified territory and waters, which formerly had belonged to three ancient states. The milestone for such an establishment and sustained management was in 1757, and since then, the East Sea was understood in a uniformed manner as the long, wide sea areas running along and sheltering the entire Eastern part of the country, from Mong Cai (Northern farmost) to Ca Mau (Southern farmost) as well as extending to not only near - shore islands, but also Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. In other words, the consistent and popular perception of the Vietnamese people today on the East Sea was established right from the beginning of the 19th century.

To be continued…

Duy Chien

* The article uses research materials by Dr. Han Nguyen Nguyen Nha, founder and advisor of the Cultural Education Fund in HCM City.

Vietnamese emperors, Nguyen Dynasty, sovereignty over Hoang Sa