Francis Garnier

Marie Joseph François, Garnier (1839-1873) was a French naval officer and adventurer who took a leading role in the exploration and colonization of Indochina.

The son of a disappointed royalist, Francis Garnier was born in Saint-Étienne on July 25, 1839, and was raised by maternal relatives in Montpellier. He entered the naval academy in 1855. After a short period of service in the South Atlantic and South Pacific, where he heroically saved the life of a fellow officer, he volunteered for service against China and Vietnam and saw action in 1860. In 1863 he entered the colonial administration of Cochin China (southern Vietnam) and by 1865 was in charge of the administration of Cholon, Saigon's Chinese mercantile quarter.

Quickly learning indigenous languages and studying the history and customs of the people among whom he worked, Garnier at the same time became an enthusiastic proponent of France's role in "civilizing" Indochina. His pamphlet La Cochinchine française en 1864 (1864) was a protest against the retrocession of the colony to the Vietnamese empire and brought him to the attention of the Minister of the Navy and Colonies, Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat. When the ministry organized a mission to explore the upper Mekong River and the "back door" to southern China under Doudart de Lagrée in 1866, Garnier was assigned as his second in command. The party left Saigon in June 1866, paused to study the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, and ascended the Mekong River through Laos into the Chinese province of Yunnan, where Lagrée died in March 1868. Renouncing his hopes of discovering the sources of the Mekong, Garnier led the party on to the Yangtze River and quickly down it to Shanghai.

Garnier returned to France to write his account of the mission, Voyage d'exploration en Indochine (1873), and participated in the defense of Paris (1870). Sailing again to China in 1872 he revisited Yunnan, intending but failing to reach Tibet. Returning to Shanghai, he found awaiting him a letter from Admiral Dupré, the governor of Cochin China, asking him to return to Saigon. Dupré sent him with 200 men to mediate a dispute between the Vietnamese government in Hanoi and the French merchant and adventurer Jean Dupuis, who had seized part of Hanoi on being refused permission to sell salt there. Reaching Hanoi early in November, Garnier found the officials unwilling to yield and so declared the Red River open to commerce. When the Vietnamese began making military preparations to evict him, Garnier seized the citadel of Hanoi, provoking an attack in which he was killed on Dec. 21, 1873.

Garnier, at Hanoi and in his explorations, gave voice to French colonial aspirations which were not to be denied, and most of the territory which he explored was under French control by 1893.

Further Reading on Francis Garnier

The only extensive biography of Garnier is in French, Albert de Pouvourville, Francis Garnier (1931). His life is seen in perspective in Joseph Buttinger, The Smaller Dragon (1958).

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