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Far East Kingdoms

South East Asia


French Indochina (Union of Indochina) (South-East Asia)
AD 1887-1956

The region of Asia which is usually known as South-East Asia has a long history of its own kingdoms and empires, as well as incursions by outside forces. The term 'Indochina' refers to the intermingling of Indian and Chinese influences in the region's culture, with three modern countries having evolved within its general borders in the form of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

The former Champa kingdom had its roots in what is now Vietnam. This was a long-running rival of the Khmer empire, which had undergone a long period of decline by the time the French arrived in the region. Siam also regularly engaged in expansion at the expense of smaller kingdoms in Laos and the Khmer empire. During the Ming dynasty period, the Chinese regularly sent fleets to South-East Asia to attack pirates, to engage in trade, and to interfere in local political conflicts.

France began colonising Vietnam in full force under Emperor Napoleon III. With a force which was supported by Spanish troops who were based in the Philippines, the French attacked the important port city of Danang in central Dai Nam in September 1858 and renamed the city Tourane. This was followed by the capture of Saigon in 1859. However, the conquest of Cochinchina in the south was not completed until 1862. In the north, the regions of Tonkin and Annam came under French rule in 1884-1885. Dai Nam had fallen.

France consolidated its rule of South-East Asia by declaring the formation of the 'Union of Indochina' (or 'Indochinese Union') in 1887, which it viewed as part of its broader civilising mission throughout the French colonial empire. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, a belief had emerged in France that it was the nation's mission to spread French culture and civilisation (and preferably before the British got there first), to turn the populations of the colonies into Frenchmen.

Similar to past invaders, France sought to take advantage of Indochina's strategic location as well as its valuable resources. Indochina also helped secure France's access to trade with China, where France had invested in gaining access to treaty ports. In 1884 they enforced a name change from 'Viet Nam' or 'Vietnam' to 'Annam' and, in 1887, merged this country with Laos into French Indochina. Cambodia remained a protectorate.

In 1940 the Japanese occupied the Tonkin area of northern Vietnam and, in the following year the rest of Indochina. Other than Vietnam and the western provinces of Cambodia, which the Japanese ceded to their Thai ally, Indochina was unaffected by the Japanese invasion. The local French Vichy government was even allowed to remain in office until March 1945, when the Japanese interned local French personnel and proclaimed the autonomous state of Vietnam.

Traditional House, Vietnam

(Information by Peter Kessler and the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from Vietnam: A New History, Christopher Goscha, from Early Mainland Southeast Asia, C Higham (River Books Co, 2014), from Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopaedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Keat Gin Ooi (ABC-Clio, 2004), from A History of the Vietnamese, Keith W Taylor (Cambridge University Press, 2013), from Times Atlas of World History (Maplewood, 1979), from Historical Atlas of the World, R R Palmer (Ed, Chicago, 1963), from The Times Atlas of World History, Geoffrey Barraclough (Ed, Hammond Inc, 1979), from Kingdoms of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, Gene Gurney (Outlet, 1986 (reissued 1988)), from Oxford Atlas of World History, Patrick K O'Brien (Ed, First Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999), from The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Weller Taylor (University of California Press, 1983), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Vietnam (Countrystudies), and Vietnam from the 10th century AD to the mid-20th century AD (Vietnam National Museum of History), and Vietnam (Rulers.org), and French Indochina (Study.com).)

1887 - 1888

Ernest Constans

French governor-general.

1887 - 1888

Now firmly in control of the imperial throne of Dai Nam, the French unite Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina, and Cambodia into the 'Union of Indochina', otherwise known as French Indochina. In 1888, the French capture Emperor Ham Nghi and exile him to Algeria.

Viet Emperor Gia Long
Emperor Gia Long was aided in the winning of his Viet kingdom by French mercenaries and other western soldiers of fortune, but he never fully trusted Europeans or their motives

1888 - 1889

Étienne Richaud

French governor-general.

1889 - 1891

Jules Georges Piquet

French governor-general. Formerly in Cochinchina.



Acting French governor-general (Apr-Jun only).

1891 - 1894

Antoine de Lanessan

French governor-general (from Jun).


France creates a new state formation known as Laos out of the kingdoms of Champasak, Luang Phrabang, and Vientiane, and the province of Xieng Khouang. Laos is added to French Indochina. The kingdom of Luang Prabang survives, but the other provinces are placed under the direct authority of a French official.

However, Siam has been refusing to give way to French advances along the Mekong, so French ships make a show of strength off Bangkok. Later in the year, on the advice of their British advisors, Siam withdraws from the eastern bank of the Mekong and gives official recognition to the French protectorate within the evacuated territory.

Wat Xiengthong temple in Luang Prabang, Laos
Wat Xiengthong, one of the most renowned temples in Luang Prabang, has a prominent place in local life, having been built in the sixteenth century and being the location for every royal coronation until the revolution


Léon Jean Laurent Chavassieux

Acting French governor-general (Mar-Oct).

1894 - 1895

François Pierre Rodier

Acting French governor-general.

1895 - 1896

Armand Rousseau

French governor-general.

1896 - 1897

Augustin Julier Fourès

Acting French governor-general.

1897 - 1902

Paul Doumer

French governor-general.


Laos is fully integrated into French Indochina, largely formalising the act of 1893. A colonial governor is later installed in Vientiane and Laos is reorganised from the provinces of Haut-Laos and Bas-Laos into ten provinces.

The royal seat at Luang Prabang is still recognised as being the official controller of its own province but the royal court soon gains a layer of French-appointed officials. The remaining nine provinces are governed directly by the French governor in Vientiane.

1901 - 1910

A revolt breaks out in the south of Laos, principally on the Bolaven plateau and involving groups of Lao Theung who are led by a self-proclaimed holy man and his messianic cult.

French Zouaves in the Crimea
This illustration of French Zouaves (light infantry, generally drawn from North Africa) in the Crimea was published in The Charleston Mercury on 21 November 1861

Ong Keo challenges French control over Laos and his revolt is not fully suppressed until he is killed in 1910. His successor and second-in-command, Ong Kommandam, later becomes an early leader in the Lao nationalist movement.

In the north there is unrest from tribal hill chiefs at the imposition of French rule. It is primarily Khmu and Hmong minority groups which lead the resistance to change, but they later concentrate their efforts in protecting the local opium trade.

1902 - 1907

Paul Beau

French governor-general.

1904 - 1907

French annexation of its protectorate of Laos - a state formation which is its own creation - is completed by treaties which are agreed with Siam in 1904 and 1907. However, the 1904 treaty results in the formal dissolution of Champasak on 22 November of that year, a kingdom which has little value to the French.

In fact, once Laos loses its usefulness as a conduit for a desired French annexation of Siam - now allied firmly with Britain - Laos as a whole is generally allowed to become a backwater territory.

French colonial residence in Laos
The French colonial presence in Laos built the Bureau de la Residence in 1915 (today it serves as the offices of the country's Ministry of Information and Culture)

1907 - 1908

Louis Alphonse Bonhoure

Acting French governor-general.

1908 - 1910

Antony Klobukowski

French governor-general.

1910 - 1911

Albert Picquié

Acting French governor-general (to Feb).


Paul Louis Luce

French governor-general (Feb-Nov only).

1911 - 1914

Albert Sarraut

French governor-general (from Nov).

1914 - 1915

Joost van Vollenhoven

Acting French governor-general.

1915 - 1916

Ernest Roume

French governor-general.

1916 - 1917

Jean Charles

Acting French governor-general.

1917 - 1919

Albert Sarraut

French governor-general.

1919 - 1920

Maurice Antoine François Monguillot

Acting French governor-general. Later full governor.

1920 - 1922

Maurice Long

French governor-general (to Apr).


François Marius Baudouin

French governor-general (Apr-Aug).

1922 - 1925

Martial Merlin

French governor-general (Aug-Apr).


Maurice Antoine François Monguillot

French governor-general (Apr-Nov only).

1925 - 1928

Alexandre Varenne

French governor-general (Nov-Jan).


Maurice Antoine François Monguillot

French governor-general again (Jan-Aug only).

1928 - 1934

Pierre Pasquier

French governor-general (from Aug).

1934 - 1936

René Robin

French governor-general.

1936 - 1939

Jules Brévié

French governor-general.

1939 - 1940

Georges Catroux

French governor-general.

1940 - 1941

Japanese influence from 1940 is instantly very strong, but turns into full invasion of French Indochina in 1941 (although there seems to be disagreement about that occupation as Hammond's states 1940 and Rulers says 1945, which is when the Japanese over the region's administration).

French Indochina
French colonial holdings in South-East Asia were generally referred to as French Indochina, but officially they were the Indochinese Union until 1947, and then the Indochinese Federation

The takeover is firm but gradual, with French colonial authorities still largely free to act within their own regional interests. The emperor of Annam remains a puppet but now under new masters in Japanese Occupation Vietnam. Laos, too, comes under Japanese occupation.

In 1941 the Japanese mediate a ceasefire between the French and Thai authorities after war breaks out along the Mekong. The French colonial government is ordered to cede Champasak and Xaignabouli province in Laos and Battambang province in Cambodia. This ends the war but makes the French realise they are losing control.

They not-so-secretly encourage a sense of nationalism and patriotism amongst their Laotian subjects. French schools are suddenly being built in large number, and the king of Luang Prabang receives assurances that any military expansion of his kingdom will not be prevented.

Wat Phou temple ruins in Champasak
The ruins of Wat Phou temple in Champasak, today a province and town but once also the seat of an independent kingdom for the best part of two centuries

1940 - 1945

Jean Decoux

French governor-general (to Mar).


Tran Trong Kim

Indochina prime minister (Apr-Jun only).


Tran Trong Kim

Vietnamese prime minister (Jun-Aug only).

1945 - 1947

Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu

French high commissioner (Oct onwards).

In spring 1945, Japan removes the Vichy French administration of Indochina and authorises Cambodia, Laos, and Annam to declare independence within the Japanese 'Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere'. The idea is to receive local support in its failing Pacific campaign, but many French officials are imprisoned and executed.

The kingdom of Luang Prabang is incorporated into this region on 7 April 1945, primarily within that territory which forms occupied Laos. It will not regain its independence.

With Japan being forced out of the region in August 1945, the French protectorate of Vietnam is re-established, but Ho Chi Minh's communist forces in the north refuse to submit.

Japanese troops surrendering at Guadalcanal
Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal was largely successful thanks to bombing attacks on the US fleet, with very few Japanese troops surrendering to the allies, but it marked the beginning of a series of setbacks for Japan

On 2 September 1945 a democratic republic is proclaimed there, with a capital at Hanoi, while on 15 September the kingdom of Laos is proclaimed, without French permission being granted. On the same date the principality of Champasak, nominally a French protectorate, is incorporated as a principality into Laos.


In the spring, France re-establishes its domination in the region by restoring its protectorate of what is now the kingdom of Laos. On 1 June 1946, Vietnam becomes a de facto divided country when the French establish the autonomous republic of Cochinchina.

The First Indochina War between North Vietnam and what soon becomes South Vietnam and their respective supporters becomes a key battleground in the Cold War. Vietnam suffers enormously by being the focus of this particular theatre of operations.

Ho Chi Minh
Founder of the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and its successor, the Viet-Minh in 1941, and president from 1945 to 1969 of the 'Democratic Republic of Vietnam' (North Vietnam), Ho Chi Minh died on 2 September 1969

1947 - 1948

Émile Bollaert

French high commissioner.

1947 - 1948

In October 1947, the 'Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina', effectively the southern part of the preceding empire of Annam, becomes South Vietnam. On 28 May 1948, 'South Vietnam' is reduced to 'Vietnam' even though it is still based in the south alone.

1948 - 1950

Léon Pignon

French high commissioner.


Laos ends its membership in French Indochina on 19 July 1949 to become an associated state within the 'French Union', although some sources state that it leaves this union in 1956.

On 14 June 1949, the state of Vietnam is renamed again, this time as the 'French Associated State of Vietnam', still part of French Indochina. The Dai Viet emperor, Bao Dai, who had abdicated in 1945 when Japanese Occupied Vietnam had been liberated by the forces of Ho Chi Minh, is now restored as the country's head of state.

King Sisavang Vong of Laos
Born in 1885, King Sisavang Vong was the last ruler of the Lao kingdom of Luang Prabang and the founding monarch of the kingdom of Laos

1950 - 1952

Jean de Lattre de Tassigny

French high commissioner.

1952 - 1953

Jean Letourneau

French high commissioner (to Apr), then comm-gen.


Jean Letourneau

French commissioner-general (Apr-Jul).

1953 - 1954

Maurice Dejean

French commissioner-general (Jul onwards).

1954 - 1955

Paul Ély

French commissioner-general.

1954 - 1955

On 7 May 1954 the Viet Minh defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu, effectively ending French involvement in Indochina. The democratic republic of Vietnam is confirmed in the north of the country (North Vietnam), but this does nothing to end the fighting.

Even so, the newly-declared republic is recognised internationally by the Geneva Accords, with Hanoi as its capital. South Vietnam is also recognised, officially dividing the country in two. France withdraws from Indochina, ending its involvement in the increasingly complicated situation.

North Vietnamese army
Not to be confused with the Viet Cong guerrilla forces in the south which were supported by North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese armed forces themselves often came into contact with South Vietnamese and American forces, especially towards the end of the conflict when the south had been partially occupied

1955 - 1956

Henri Hoppenot

Last French commissioner-general.


President Diem of South Vietnam begins to campaign against political dissidents, but all this does is trigger a communist insurgency in the south in 1957, supported by North Vietnam.

Within two years weapons and men from the north are infiltrating the south, leading by 1960 to the Vietnam War, or Second Indochina War. Laos is also facing increasing internal destabilisation as the region takes on a very different appearance.

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