The Case Against French Colonization
By Ho Chi Minh (Nguyễn Ái Quốc)
Translated by Joshua Leinsdorf
Copyright 2017, by Joshua Leinsdorf
Worker’s Library, Quai de Jemmapes, 96, Paris
[Translator’s note: Ho Chi Minh wrote in French, which was a foreign language for him.]
In 1923, French colonization was the subject of a sensational trial.
The scandals in Togo and Cameroon caused such excitement among the natives subject to the French “mandate,”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> that the League of Nations itself has ordered an investigation.
The case that we bring to court today includes the whole colonial domain belonging to French imperialism. We will, in turn, take the testimony of Senegalese, West Indians, Algerians, Tunisians, Malagasians, Annamese<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, etc…, and the claims, as well as the complaints, of fifty-nine million colonial slaves, will be religiously collected in a series of pamphlets.
We start the series with the deposition of an Annamite: Nguyen-Ai-Quoc.
Another thing – it is not the humanitarian zeal of the League of Nations that is our concern, it is the Judgment of History we want to address. Thanks to our many, diverse, accurate and “living” documents, future humanity, to whom we wish a better life, can judge the colonial crusade at its true value.
Then, it is to the colonial people themselves that we appeal. The day, and that day is coming, when these masses, who have been, in effect, enslaved, regain their freedom, they will then establish a revolutionary Tribunal to try the colonial clique as it deserves.
We are told – but what about civilization?<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> It is true; French colonization brings the railroad, the electric tram, wireless telegraphy (not counting the Gospel and the Declaration of the Rights of Man); the questions are, who opens their wallets to pay for these wonders? Who sweats to build these machines? Who benefits from the welfare they bring? And who receives the dividends they yield? – Is it us, or those who exploit and oppress us? Is it the blacks of Sudan and the yellow of Annam, or the conquistadors with pink faces, stealing our land and our herds, and taking the fruits of our labor, after killing our countrymen?
France, or more precisely the French people, have repeatedly been used to undertake distant, costly, and bloody, conquests. They are prevailed upon to justify the unspeakable crimes that plague the colonies daily, but go unpunished. Do these people take the least profit from the colonial scramble, or are they exploited, like us, by the same exploiters?
Ng. The Truyen.
I. War and the Natives
Before 1914, they were only niggers and dirty Annamese good at the very most for pushing rickshaws and receiving the blows of administrators. The joyous new war declared, they became “good friends” and “dear children” of our paternal and tender officials and even our more or less general governors.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> They (the natives) were suddenly promoted to the rank of supreme “defenders of justice and freedom.” This honor they suffered, however, cost them dearly, because to defend this justice and freedom of which they are deprived, they had to suddenly leave their rice fields or sheep, their children and wives, to cross the oceans and rot on the battlefields of Europe. During the crossing, many natives, after seeing a wonderful display of the scientific maneuver of torpedoing, went to the bottom of the waves to defend the homeland of the sea monsters. Others left their skin on the poetic desert of the Balkans wondering if the mother-country intended to be the first to enter the Turkish Harem, or else why were they being killed in this country? Others, on the banks of the Marne or mud of Champagne, were heroically massacred to sprinkle their blood on the leaders’ laurels and sculpt the marshals’ batons with their bones.
Finally, to not have to breathe the poison gas of the “Boches”,<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> those who toiled in the rear in the monstrous gunpowder factories, submitted to the glowing French fumes; which amounted to the same thing since the poor devils spit out their lungs as if they had been gassed.
In all, 700,000 Vietnamese natives came to France, and of this number, 80,000 will never again see the sun in their country!
II. The Enlisted
A colleague told<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> us that all forms of taxes, interest, corvée labor of every kind, mandatory purchases of alcohol and opium, constantly squeeze the native proletariat of Indochina. Since 1915 – 16, they have also undergone the ordeal of being enlisted.
The events of these last years have provided grounds for great grabs of human material throughout the country and confined them to barracks under the most diverse names: infantryman, semi-skilled workers, unskilled workers, etc.
In the opinion of all impartial powers that were called upon to utilize the Asian human material in Europe, this material did not produce results commensurate with the huge expenses incurred by its transport and maintenance.
`This hunting of said human material, called for the occasion “volunteers” (a word of frightful irony), then gave rise to the most scandalous abuses.
Here is how this voluntary recruitment is practiced: The “saytrap” that is each one of the Indochinese Résidents,<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> informs his mandarins that it is necessary that his Province supply a certain number of men by a fixed deadline. The means are unimportant. The mandarins manage. They are familiar with the coping mechanism, especially for monetizing this business.
They begin by gathering available subjects, who, without resources, are sacrificed without recourse. Then they summon the sons of the rich; if they are recalcitrant, an occasion is easily found to examine their history, or their family’s, and, when necessary, imprison them until they have resolved the following dilemma: “enlist or pay.”
It is conceivable that people picked up under such circumstances lack any enthusiasm for their intended profession. Just barely barracked, they watch for any opportunity to escape.
Others, unable to protect themselves from what is for them a bad fate, inoculate themselves with the most serious diseases, the most common is purulent conjunctivitis, from rubbing the eyes with various ingredients, ranging from lime to gonorrheal pus.
Even so, having promised to give mandarin rank to Vietnamese volunteers who survived and posthumous titles to those who are dead “for the native land,” the general government continued its proclamation:
“You enlisted in droves: you riflemen, to give blood; you workers, to offer your arms; and left your homeland though to which you are so attached, without hesitation.”
If the Annamites were so delighted to be soldiers, why were they taken to the capital in chains, while others awaited embarkation locked within the College of Saigon, under the eye of French sentinels with fixed bayonets and loaded guns? The bloody events in Cambodia, the riots in Saigon, Bien-Hoa and elsewhere, were they, therefore, manifestations of this eagerness to join up “in droves” and “without hesitation”?
The escapes and desertions (50 percent in the class of reservists) provoked ruthless repressions, and these revolts were suppressed in blood.
The General government took care to add that, of course, to merit the “visible benevolence” and the “great goodness” of the administration, “You (Indochinese soldiers) must conduct yourselves well and give no cause for dissatisfaction.”
The senior commander of the troops in Indochina took another precaution; he had inscribed on the back or wrist of each recruit an indelible number made using a solution of silver nitrate.
As in Europe, the great misery of some is the cause of profit for others: commissioned officers, for who this windfall of recruitment and management of natives permits them to remain as long as possible away from perilous operations in Europe; suppliers who enrich themselves quickly by starving the unfortunate recruits; and black marketeers who have illicit dealings with officials.
Let us add, in this connection, there is another kind of volunteering, volunteering for subscriptions to various loans. Identical procedures. Whoever has the means is required to subscribe. Persuasive and coercive methods are used against the recalcitrants such that all subscribe.
As most Asian subscribers are ignorant of French financial mechanisms, they consider the payments to loans as new taxes and value the securities as receipts.
Now see how volunteerism has been organized in the other colonies.
Take, for example, West Africa (now Senegal, Mauritania, Sudan, Upper Volta, Guinea, Niger, Ivory Coast and Dahomey):
Commanders, accompanied by their armed forces, went from village to village to force the Notable natives to provide IMMEDIATELY the number of men they wanted to recruit. Was a commander not considered ingenious to make young Senegalese who fled before him leave their hiding place and don the military Fez, by torturing their parents? Did he not stop the elderly, pregnant women, young girls, and make them strip off their clothes and burn them before their eyes? Naked and bound, under the blows of the cane, the unfortunate victims were run through the towns on the double “to set an example”! A woman carrying her baby on her back had to ask permission to have a free hand to balance her child. Two old men dropped from inanition during the journey; girls, terrorized by such cruelties, had their menstrual period for the first time; a pregnant woman gave birth prematurely to a stillborn child; another gave birth to a blind child.
The processes of recruitment elsewhere were highly diverse. This one was particularly expeditious:
A string is stretched at the end of the main street of a village and another string at the other end. And all the Negroes found between the two strings are automatically volunteered.
“March 3, 1923, at noon,” a witness wrote us, “the wharfs of Rufisque and Dakar having been ringed by the constabulary, all of the natives who worked there were rounded-up. As these fellows did not seem willing to go immediately to defend civilization, they were asked to get into trucks that led them to prison. From there, after they had taken the time to reconsider, they were taken to the barracks.
“There, following patriotic ceremonies, 29 volunteers to the last man were proclaimed potential heroes … All now burning with desire to return the Ruhr to the mother-country.
“Only,” wrote General Mangin, who knew them well, these are the troops “to consume before winter.”
We have in hand a letter from a native of Dahomey, a veteran who has done his “duty” in the just war. Excerpts from this letter will show you how “batouala”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> are protected and how our colonial administrators manufacture the native loyalty that decorate all official speeches and feed all the articles by the Regismansets and Hausers.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
“In 1915,” the letter said, “At the time of forced recruiting ordered by Mr. Noufflard, Governor of Dahomey, my village was pillaged and burned by police officers and the Circle<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> guards. During the looting and burning, all I had was taken from me. Nevertheless, I was enlisted by force, and in spite of this heinous attack of which I was the victim, I have done my duty at the French front. I was wounded at Aisne.
“Now that the war is over, I will return to my country, homeless and without resources.
“Here is what I was robbed of:
“1,000 francs in cash;
“8 loin cloths;
“1 silver necklace;
“2 trunks containing various objects.
“Here are the names of comrades living in the same neighborhood as me who were enlisted by force, the same day as me, and whose houses were looted and burned. (Seven names follow.)
“Many are still the victims of Governor Noufflard’s military exploits, but I do not know their names to give them to you today….”
The “Boches” of [Kaiser] Wilhelm could have done no better.
III. The Fruit of Sacrifice
As soon as the guns were sated with the black or yellow flesh, the romantic declarations of our leaders fell silent as if by magic and Negroes, and Annamites automatically changed back into people of the “dirty race.”
In commemoration of services rendered, before embarking from Marseilles, were not the Annamites stripped of everything they had: new clothes purchased at their expense, watches, various souvenirs, etc…? Were they not subjected to the control of thugs who beat them for no reason? Were they not fed like pigs and laid as such in humid holds, without berths, airless, and without light? Having arrived in their country, were they not warmly received by the grateful administrator with this patriotic speech: “You have defended the homeland. This is good. Now, we no longer need you, go away!”
And the former “poilus”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> – or what remains of them – after having valiantly defended law and justice, returned empty handed to their native status where law and justice are unknown.
According to the Indochinese newspapers, opium vendor licenses would be granted to mutilated Frenchmen and to widows of the French soldiers killed in the war.
Thus, the colonial government committed two crimes against humanity at the same time. On one hand, it is not happy to do the dirty work of poisoner personally, it wants to involve the poor victims of fratricidal butchery. On the other hand, it values the life and blood of its dupes so low, that it believes that by throwing them these rotten bones; it is sufficient payment for dismemberment or mourning a husband.
We have no doubt that the cripples and widows of war will reject this repugnant offer by spitting their indignation in the face of its author. We are certain that the civilized world and the good French are with us in condemning the colonial sharks that do not hesitate to poison an entire people to fill their own pockets.
Following the Annamite custom, if, in a village, someone died, the rice hullers must show respect for the repose of the soul of the deceased and the grief of his family by refraining from singing, as they normally do, during their work. Modern civilization, implanted by force among us, is different. Read the following story that was published in a Cochinchinese newspaper:
Celebrations of Bien Hoa
“The committee to organize the celebrations for the benefit of the monument to the dead Annamites from Bien Hoa Province is actively working to put together a wonderful program.
“We are talking about a garden-party, fairgrounds, a country dance, etc…., in short, the attractions are many and varied to allow everyone to collaborate on a good work in the most pleasant way in the world.
“Gentlemen aviators of Bien Hoa air base will lend their aid and organizers can already count on the presence of the highest Saigonese authorities to boost the radiance of the festival.
“Let us add that the Saigonese men and women will not need to return to the capital for dinner, which would thus cut short their cakewalk. A beautifully prepared, specially garnished buffet will satisfy the most discerning palates.
“Let’s all go to Bien Hoa January 21st. There will be lovely celebrations, and we will have shown the families of Bien Hoa’s Annamites who died during the war that we know how to remember their sacrifice.”
Other times, other manners.
But what manners!
The following letter was sent to us:
“…It is a painful and grotesque anomaly to celebrate the victory of ‘law’ and ‘justice’ to people who both suffer injustice and have no rights. This is exactly what has been done here. It is unnecessary to tell you about the festivities and ‘public pleasures’ that took place in this city on November 11th. It is always the same everywhere: torchlight parades, fireworks, review the troops, a ball at the Governor’s Palace, flower parade, patriotic collections, advertisements, speeches, banquets, etc. Of all these hypocrisies, I have retained only one psychologically interesting fact. Like the crowds of all countries, those of Saigon are very fond of movies. Thus, a dense mass camped in front of the Charlot and Palace Theaters where films run continuously and glorious cowboys march by one after the other. The crowd took over the street, invading the boulevard. Then the owner of the Saigon-Palace, wanting to unblock the sidewalk in front of his establishment, hit the crowd with a rattan cane. Madame also helped and beat the multitude. A few newsboys succeeded in ‘pinching’ the cane of the missus; and we applauded. Enraged, the proprietor returned to the contest, this time with a club, and he struck, heroically, with a vengeance. The ‘peasants’<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> were pushed back to the boulevard, but drunk with his ‘victory’, this good Frenchman bravely crossed the street and continued to rain his big cane on the head, shoulders, and backs of these poor natives. A child was taken by him and generously ‘bastinadoed’….
IV. THE CONTINUOUS MILITARISM
Upon his arrival in Casablanca, Field Marshal Lyautey sends the troops of the Moroccan occupation army the order for the next day:
“I owe you the highest military merit with which I have been honored by the Republican government because, for nine years, you gave unstinting dedication and your blood.
“We will launch a campaign that will ensure the final pacification of Morocco for the common benefit of its loyal populations and of the protectress nation, etc.”
Yet, on the same day (the 14th of April) comes this press release:
“During an engagement with the Beni-Bou-Zert at Bab-el-Harba we had 29 killed and 11 injured.”
When you think that it took the blood of one million five hundred thousand workers to manufacture six marshals’ batons, the 29 poor bastards who died is not enough applause for the eloquent speeches of the résident Field Marshal. But where is the right of peoples to self-determination, for which we killed each other for four years? And what a funny way to civilize: to teach people to live well, by killing them.
Here (in Haiphong), there are also seamen’s strikes. Thus Thursday (August15) two ships had to leave taking a large number of Annamite infantrymen to Syria.
The sailors refused to leave, claiming that their wages were not being paid in piasters. In fact, the piaster’s market value was 10 francs instead of the official rate of 2.5. The companies established an unheard of abuse, the sailors’ rate was in francs while the officials were paid in piasters.
Everyone was then disembarked and the men of the crew were immediately arrested.
As you can see, sailors in the Yellow Sea have nothing to envy of the Black Sea sailors.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
We protest with all our strength against sending Annamite troops to Syria. Is it believed, in high places, that not enough of our unfortunate yellow brothers were massacred on the battlefields between 1914 and 1918, during the “war for civilization and justice?”
It is customary among our glorious ones “to educate” the natives with kicks and caning.
The unfortunate Nahon was twice murdered, first by Captain Vidart, and then by the avaricious quack in charge of the autopsy, who, to save his buddies’ skins, did not hesitate to steal and hide the brain of the deceased – he is not, unfortunately, the only victim of colonial militarism. One of our colonial colleagues reported another:
“This time,” he said, “It was at the headquarters of the 5th Infantry. The victim was a young soldier of the 21st class, Terrier, a native of Ténès. [Algeria]
“The circumstances of his death are particularly painful. On August 5, the young soldier Terrier went to the regimental infirmary to ask for a purgative. He was given, or more precisely what he believed to be, the purgative; he drank it, and a few hours later, writhing in agony, he died.
“Mr. Terrier’s father then received a telegram telling him, bluntly without explanation, his son, - his only son, - had died and that he will be buried next day, Sunday.
“Mad with grief, the poor father runs to Algiers, to the 5th Infantry headquarters. There he learns that the body of his son is in the Maillot hospital. (How was he carried there? Is it true that to avoid the regulatory verification required for all deaths occurring in the infirmary, he was taken dead to the hospital, under the pretense of having died on the way?)
“In the hospital, the unfortunate father asks to see the corpse, he is told to wait.
“Long after, a Major arrives who tells him that the autopsy just done revealed nothing and leaves without giving him permission to see the body of his son.
“The latest news - it seems that Mr. Terrier, the father, who asked for an explanation from the 5th Infantry Colonel, has received this response: his son died drunk.’
1 A commission issued by the League of Nations (1919-46) authorizing a selected power to administer, control and develop a territory; the territory so allocated.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> France considered Vietnam to be three separate colonies: Tonkin in the north, Annam in the middle and Cochinchina in the south. Combined with Laos and Cambodia, these countries constituted French Indochina.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Mission Civilatrice – the French fashioned their occupation of colonies as a civilizing mission.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> general governors is a pun. The administrative head of Indochina was called the Governor-General.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Slang for German soldiers in World War I.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ho Chi Minh had been away from Vietnam for thirteen years at this point.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> French colonies were administered by a Governor-General in Saigon, a Résident-General for each of the colonies, and Résidents, or local governors, for each Province. Hence, the author’s use of “our more or less general governors” above is a sarcastic play on words.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Batouala, the name of an African prince in a 1921 French novel of that title.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Charles Regismanset and Henri Hauser, French authors who wrote on colonial questions.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Cercle (Circle) was the smallest unit of political administration in French African colonies. Cercle consisted of several cantons each of which consisted of several villages.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> poilu – literally means hairy. It was used to denote virility and was the informal term for the French infantryman during World War I.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> nha quês – Used by the French as a pejorative term for the Vietnamese peasant.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> On April 19, 1919, French crews of the battleships Jean Bart and France, sent to the Black Sea in support of intervention in the Russian civil war, mutinied.
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