From The Mad Monarchist (6 August 2012)
Nguyen-Phuc Hong Dat, who would be the sixth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam, was born Prince Nguyen-Phuc Ung Thang on November 1, 1847 in the Forbidden City of Hue. He was the youngest son of HM Emperor Thieu Tri and had a normal upbringing for a Nguyen prince, he was kept mostly in the comfortable seclusion of the “Great Within” and was given a traditional Confucian education by the appropriate mandarins. In 1865 he was raised to the rank of Duke of Lang and no one, in those days, expected there would be any chance that he would ever come to the throne. However, dramatic changes were coming for the ‘Land of the Ascending Dragon’ and coming very quickly. France was looking to offset British gains in the Far East and had taken an interest in Vietnam since the time of King Louis XVI. For Emperor Napoleon III the road to Indochina was paved by the many Catholic missionaries who had been at work in the country for some time. The Nguyen Dynasty first showed great tolerance and even favor to the Christians but the two sides eventually had their problems.
France rushed to defend the missionaries, there was a rebellion in Vietnam, land had to be ceded to France to end the war with them so the rebellion could be crushed and added to all this drama was the fact that Emperor Tu Duc had no sons. Upon his death the succession came to be manipulated by three regents and there were struggles for power and in 1883 Vietnam saw no less than three emperors take their turn on the Golden Dragon Throne. In the year of 1883 Vietnam was in the grip of an immense crisis. Earlier, the Vietnamese had called on Imperial China for help in dealing with the French but, to the shock of everyone in the neighborhood, the army of the massive Qing Empire was defeated by the French who then became the acknowledged masters of the region. The Vietnamese were somewhat divided over how to deal with this situation. Some wanted to ally with the French, survive by staying in their good graces, while others would have nothing to do with the “foreign devils” other than to destroy them and anything they brought with them, be it their trade goods or their religion.
This, the effort to fend of France while struggling internally for power, was the cause of the rapid turnover in the imperial succession. After the death of Emperor Tu Duc the throne had gone to Nguyen Duc-Duc but he reigned for only three days, not long enough to even be given reign-name. To replace Duc-Duc (who would soon be murdered) the powerful regents Nguyen Van Tuong and Ton That Thuyet (Tran Tien Thanh being the less ambitious third), after a great deal of fretting and threats and arguments, decided to enthrone the 37-year-old cousin of the “3-Day King” and son of Thieu Tri. Prince Ung Thang was an upright man, not ambitious but very proud. He knew, as most at court did, of the dubious reputation of the regents and he had seen what sad fate had befallen his cousin Nguyen Duc-Duc. The Prince wanted nothing to do with the regents and their plots and schemes and the regents were not extremely enthusiastic about him either. However, the prince was finally persuaded to accept the throne by the very astute and very powerful Grand Empress Dowager Tu Du. She was the second wife of Emperor Thieu-Thri, mother of Emperor Tu Duc and the woman about whom it was said that she only had to lift her little finger and the whole world would tremble. So, with that, no matter how much the regents wanted to get rid of him and no matter how reluctant he was, the Prince took the reign-name of Hiep Hoa and was formally enthrone as the Son of Heaven and Emperor of the Great South on July 30, 1883.
Problems continued to fester between the pressure from France on one hand and the ambitious schemes of the regents on the other. It was on August 30, 1883 that Emperor Hiep Hoa saw the troublesome sign of a blue-hued sun, interpreted as foretelling doom. This omen soon proved correct as French ships under Admiral Courbet blocked the Perfume River leading to Hue and began bombarding the Vietnamese coast. By the power of canon France forced a protectorate treaty on the Emperor. Of course, they tried to be as civil as possible about the whole affair. Admiral Courbet told Emperor Hiep Hoa, “We have no intention to annex your country but you must accept our protection. This is the only way your dynasty can survive.” The Emperor did not need his court astrologers to tell him what that meant and Hiep Hoa had no choice but to sign the document, the Harmond Treaty, making France “protector” and master of Vietnam’s foreign relations.
Many of the mandarins at court were outraged by this and, even though they had done nothing to save the situation, blamed the Emperor for giving in to the French, totally ignoring the fact that the Emperor had little choice in the matter. But the blame was placed on him, particularly by the two most ambitious regents who portrayed themselves as the champions of national independence and the Emperor as the man who had given in to the “foreign devils”. They ignored their own inactivity, even ignored the French for the time being, and placed all responsibility on the Emperor. The regent Ton That Thuyet (who had brought down Emperor Duc-Duc) had sufficient power at court and audacity to insult Emperor Hiep Hoa to his face, in front of the entire court. When Hiep Hoa tried to assert his authority, the regent refused to kowtow to him, a shocking breach of protocol and defiance of imperial authority. This was serious and fearing (rightly so) for his life, Hiep Hoa had no one to turn to but the French protectorate for help. He had signed the treaty with the French and so now called on them to save him from the power-hungry regents. Unfortunately for the Emperor, Ton That Thuyet found out about his secret diplomatic dealings and on November 28, 1883 had the Emperor, Son of Heaven himself, arrested and confined.
For Hiep Hoa, all of his worst fears about taking the throne had been realized. A show trial was organized, in a strictly private, “closed court” session in which Ton That Thuyet charged his Emperor with all sorts of ridiculous things such as wasting government money, failing to follow the “advice” of the regents (in other words he refused to be ruled by them) and most seriously of plotting with the “foreign devils” by signing the Harmond Treaty with France. Naturally, no consideration was given to the fact that the Emperor had been almost literally forced at gunpoint to sign the treaty, neither was any consideration given to the fact that Vietnam would have faced certain destruction and defeat and the overthrow of the Nguyen Dynasty if they had refused to ‘play ball’ with France. But it was never meant to be a fair trial anyway and the result was a forgone conclusion. Regicide was not unknown but it was still considered an ugly business and best avoided but it effectively came to the same thing as Emperor Hiep Hoa was forced to commit suicide by taking poison. He was essentially given the option of taking the honorable way out rather than being executed. So it was that Emperor Hiep Hoa died on November 29, 1883 and afterwards all those who had been loyal to the Emperor were likewise murdered by Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong. When their fellow regent Tran Tien Thanh protested against such cruel and repressive measures the other two regents had him assassinated as well and the crisis in Vietnam continued.