“The Annamese are certainly most skilful naval architects, and finish their work with great neatness. I was so much impressed by this portion of their economy…” exclaimed the US captain John White in the early 19th century when he visited naval shipyards of the Nguyen dynasty.
A small warship of the navy under the Nguyen - Documentary photo
From Vung Tau sea, I entered Saigon by the sea route via Can Gio estuary, which the old Franklin of John White had run through. Two hundred years have passed, the neglected shore which the U.S. captain once described has much changed, but his maritime vision is still felt today since it still serves as the marine artery, connecting the outside world with Sai Gon port.
In his memoir “A voyage to Cochinchina”, John White told that he arrived in Sai Gon in October 1819 and was very interested in the shipyards: “ Lying in the north-eastern part of the city, on the bank of a deep creek, is the navy yard and naval arsenal, where, in the time of the rebellion, some large war-junks were built… This establishment does more honour to the Annamese than any others object in their country… There were ample materials of the most excellent kind, for several frigates. The ship-timber and planks excelled any thing I had ever seen…”
Attracted by the naval shipyard, John White listed: “There were about one hundred and fifty warships of most beautiful construction, hauled up under sheds… Some of them mounted sixteen guns of three pounds calibre. Others mounted four or six guns each, of from four to twelve pounds calibre. All of them are made of brass and casted beautifully.
In addition, there were about forty other warships afloat, preparing for an excursion that the viceroy was to make up the river on his return from Hue… The Annamese are certainly most skilful naval architects, and finish their work with great neatness. I was so much impressed by this portion of their political economy, that I made frequent visits to the naval arsenal…”
By the time of 1819, what John White observed were the results of the strong naval development strategy of Nguyen Anh for the defence of territory and sovereignty of the country over the sea.
Having come to Viet Nam earlier than John White, Sir John Barrow, a renowned British navigator, who founded the Royal Geographic Society, reported in detail Nguyen Anh’s efforts to build his strong fleets.
In his “A voyage to Cochinchina in the years 1792 - 1793”, John Barrow told that: “He (Nguyen Anh) is most attached to such as relate to navigation and ship-building… In order to obtain a thorough knowledge of the practice as well as theory of European naval architecture, he purchased a Portuguese vessel for the sole purpose of taking in pieces, plank by plank, with his own hands, fitting in a new piece of similar shape and dimensions as the old one he removed, till every beam, tunber, knee and plank had been replaced by new ones of his own construction, and the ship thus completely renovated… Intendant of the ports and arsenals, master shipwright of the dock-yard, and chief engineer of all the works, nothing is attempted to be undertaken without his advice and instructions. In the former, not a nail is driven without first consulting him; nor a gun mounted on the latter but by his orders.”
It should be confirmed that John Barrow wrote very carefully, consulting and comparing various sources, such as the notes of Barysi, an effective advisor to Nguyen Anh. Therefore, John Barrow said truthfully about Nguyen Anh: “He then proceeds to the naval arsenal, examines the works that have been performed in his absence, rows in his barge round the harbour, inspecting his ships of war. He pays particular attention to the ordnance department; and in the foundery, which is erected within the arsenal, cannon are cast of all dimensions… He takes his breakfast in the dockyard, which consists of a little boiled rice and dried fish… He again rises, gives audience to the naval and military officers.”
More than twenty thousand marines
Nguyen Anh’s strategy of developing the navy was retold by John Barrow based on the results of what he saw and the authentic material from captain Barysi, who used to be naval assistant to Nguyen Anh: In 1800, Nguyen Anh’s navy force was numbered at 26,800 men. Of which 8,000 work at the naval shipyards, 8,000 others were on board of 100 row-galleys; 1,200 were on board of European type vessels, 1,600 were on the junks and 8,000 sailors were on duty at the harbour.
U.S. Captain John White added the figure of the Nguyen’s navy in the year he was present in the country: “The King has also a fleet of warships in Hue, and in 1819, two hundred more were building, some of which were pierced for fourteen guns. Of this number, about fifty are schooner-rigged, and constructed partly in the European style.”
By the reign of Minh Mang, it was clearly recorded in “Dai Nam hoi dien su le” (Repertory of administrative regulations in the Kingdom of Annam), that the number of vessels had developed further, for example, in 1828, in the capital city alone, there were 379 boats, as for other large cities, there were 105 in Gia Dinh, 85 in Nam Dinh; 40 in Nghe An; 40 in Quang Nam; 25 in Quang Ngai…
Foreign navigators held that the naval development of the Nguyen made a turning point under the time of Nguyen Anh. Besides his far-sightedness, the King also had the help of some French.
They also recognised that since the time of Nguyen Anh’s ancestors, the navy had been very strong and recorded many brilliant feats or arms. The most brilliant of which was the battle at Eo estuary, Thuan An, in 1644 when lord Nguyen Phuc Lan, with small warships, defeated a flotilla of Dutch warships. Although experienced in sea battles and with large vessels and heavy guns, the Dutch ships were disabled by the Nguyen with speedy and close tactics of small boats. A Dutch gunboat was sunken on spot, another, in no hope, exploded the gunpowder arsenal to destroy itself, and the remaining turned back on the run.
Besides the sea battle at Eo estuary, the Nguyen’s navy also repeatedly struck terrors to pirate vessels coming from China, Japan and Thailand./.