Pirates and bandits seen by the army. Irregular opposition to the French domination at Tonkin at the end of the 19th century

Michael Finch

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    For over a decade following the conclusion of the Sino-French War that brought Tonkin under nominal French control, the French military waged a near constant campaign against a variety of groups whom they dubbed 'pirates'. These irregular warriors, arranged into a patchwork of bandit groups which rose and fell, amalgamated and divided over the course of these years, offered the most persistent early opposition to the implantation of French colonial rule in Vietnam's borderland region. Whilst the exoticism of fighting 'pirates' afforded an enticing backdrop for tales of imperial heroism penned in the early twentieth century, the real pirates left rather less of a mark on the historical record.1 Bradley Camp Davis has recently highlighted the role of the Black Flags - Tonkin's most famous pre-1885 pirate group - as power-players navigating the limits of state power in the China-Vietnam borderlands, whose influence extended beyond the termination of the Sino-French War.2 This article uses French military sources to investigate Tonkin's pirates in more detail. It considers how pirates have been viewed since the late 19th century, particularly with regard to the place of piracy as part of nationalist and patriotic resistance to French rule. It contends that whilst French military sources should be approached with some caution, they can offer a useful means to consider the dimensions and characteristics of pirate bands. It also places pirate activities under French rule within the wider context of the second half of the 19th century. In so doing, it demonstrates that whilst elements of continuity can be traced through the French imperial era, 1885 represents a rupture point in Tonkin's history of piracy: thereafter, those groups which emerged were more numerous, more disparate, and more fragmented than those of the previous age.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)25-40
    JournalVingtieme Siecle: Revue d'Histoire
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


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