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  • Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954
  • Marie-Paule Ha
Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954. By Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery. Translated by Ly Lan Dill-Klein, with Eric Jennings, Nora Taylor, and Noémi Tousignant. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 508 pp. $60.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 is the English translation of Indochine: La colonization ambiguë 1858-1954, which came out in 1994 and had gone through a second expanded edition in 2001. The current English version under review could be considered a third edition of the book since it has also been further updated with the inclusion of a large number of recent publications in the field. As suggested by its title, one of the ostensible purposes of the book is to foreground the "ambiguous" character of the colonial situation in Indochina. This objective has to a large extent been achieved as the authors of the book, Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, have done a superb job of teasing out the highly complex and often convoluted strands of [End Page 880] the century-long history of colonization of the Indochinese peninsula, and weaving the various discordant voices and contesting perspectives of a politically and ideologically diverse spectrum of players from both sides of the colonial divide into the fabric of their narrative. The result is a multilayered interpretative synthesis of a voluminous literature of primary and secondary materials that is interspersed with the authors' own unique insights.

The book is structured around a chronological and thematic order. The study starts with a reconstruction of the key stages of the French conquest of the peninsula from the mid ninteenth century all the way to its final pacification in the late 1890s and ends with an analysis of the demise of the French domination in the Far East on the heels of World War II. The intervening six chapters focus each on a specific aspect of French colonization of the region. Chapter 2 delineates the many challenges the colonial administration had to face in their efforts to create a new political and administrative entity, which came to be known as the Indochinese Union. One of the core debates within the colonizing camp was the choice between direct rule and protectorate as the most appropriate form of colonial control, a dilemma that was further compounded by the financial constraints imposed by the métropole for whom "colonization must not cost France a thing" (p. 70), as well as the existing political realities of the region. Chapter 3 discusses the financial and economic transformations of the peninsula brought about by the mise en valeur (or economic exploitation) of local natural resources, the modernization of the colony's infrastructure, and the implementation of the structures of modern capitalism. These developments made Indochina, "after Algeria, the principal outlet of the French economy" (p. 179) and "an essential part of France's equilibrium" (p. 180).

The following two chapters focus on the social and cultural impacts of colonization on the various categories of stakeholders living in the colony. One major consequence of the colonial conquest was the creation of a colonial society constructed along racial lines with the Europeans occupying the summit of the social pyramid and the Indochinese relegated to the lower rungs. However, the colonizer and colonized divide alone could not account adequately for the new colonial social formation as there were within each of the two camps further internecine divisions informed by social, cultural, ethnic, regional, and class differences, some of which had existed prior to the arrival of the French while others were brought on by the reforms introduced by the colonizers such as colonial education and language policies. Chapters 6 and 7 trace the gradual unraveling of the colonial regime, which proved [End Page 881] incapable of managing the economic, cultural, social, and political upheavals that resulted from the very changes it had imposed on the colonized societies. In the face of the mounting discontent of its colonial subjects and the rapid acceleration of the contestations of various national and revolutionary movements in the 1930s, the colonial administration could only come up with the program of a conservative...