Born in Vinh Long Province in 1796, the mandarin diplomat Phan Thanh Gian was destined to be involved in a chain of events that was to shape over a century of Vietnamese history.
On August 31, 1858, French naval forces attacked Da Nang, citing persecution of Catholic missionaries as their justification. The French colonial land-grab, that would culminate in 1885 in the total conquest of Vietnam, had begun. By 1861, the three eastern provinces of Cochinchina had been conquered by the French Expeditionary Corps, and although there were popular anti-French uprisings Emperor Tu Duc sold out the following year, when the three provinces were formally ceded to the French by the Treaty of Saigon, which was signed by Phan Thanh Gian. A year later he had the opportunity to redress the situation, when he journeyed to Paris as ambassador to Emperor Napoleon III, to thrash out a long-term peace – the first Vietnamese ambassador ever to be despatched to Europe.
However, efforts to reclaim territory given up under the terms of the treaty failed, and by 1867 France moved to take over the rest of Cochinchina. Unable to persuade the spineless Tu Duc to sanction popular uprisings, Phan Thanh Gian embarked on a hunger strike in protest at French incursions and Hué’s ineffectuality. When, after fifteen days, he had still not died, he swallowed poison, and his place among the massed ranks of Vietnamese heroes was assured.