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Dai Viet in the 17th century & the presence of the Portuguese

The century of the 17th – 18th is said to be the very important historical period in the process of development of the nation of Vietnam.

Because in this two centuries, the map of Vietnam was fully established, by the great South movement progress of the Vietnamese residents. Also in this century, the East-West interaction brought a new wind, strongly affecting the ideology of Vietnamese feudal ideology, and facilitating Vietnam’s close contact with Western and Western civilization in particular. In which, it was noted about the presence of the Portuguese and the foundation of the Vietnamese language script.

Map of Vietnam around 1760 prepared by Covens e Mortier Company, Amsterdam

The presence of Western clerics

According to many studies, prior to the fifteenth century, the East – West or East – West culture did not really have many opportunities to contact, even quite separate.  However, since after the fifteenth century, with the rapid development of science and technology, it created the wings of the transportation industry to develop equally. As a result, there have been a lot of explorations, trading … taking place in many countries in two regions.

Particularly in Vietnam, this period was still the struggle for power of the feudal powers between Cochinchina – Tonkin. In that historical context, contact with Western culture also began with the presence of trading groups and Roman and Portuguese clerics… spreading Catholicism. During this period, the spread of Catholicism in Vietnam was of major importance to the Jesuits in Vietnam, namely the two clerics Francesco Busomi and Diego Carvalho, who arrived in Cochinchina in 1615. In the first 10 years of missionary in Cochinchina, the clerics received the permission of Sai Vuong, so the missionary activity was strong. Around the same time, about 20 Jesuits – mostly Portuguese – arrived in Cochinchina for missionary, where the Portuguese cleric- Francisco De Pina (arriving in Cochinchina in 1617) was said to be the first to lay the foundation and the “natural father” making up the Vietnamese language script by historical researchers.

The researchers also affirmed that although there were differences in permitting or restricting the missionary between Tonkin and Cochinchina of Trinh lord and Nguyen lord, the presence of clerics spreading Catholicism brought a whole new and different world of Western civilization, introducing to the Vietnamese  technology, engineering, science, medicine… both in theoretical as well as practical aspect.

Trading activities of Portuguese merchants

The Tokin society in the 17th and 18th centuries under the eyes of Western clerics
The Tokin society in the 17th and 18th centuries under the eyes of Western clerics

In addition to the missionary activity, Western cultural contacts were also taking place at the trading activity of Portuguese, Dutch, English and French merchants in both Cochinchina and Tonkin from the late 16th century and the early 17th century. For the purpose of trade, they mainly concentrated in urban areas, urban port such as Pho Hien, Ke Cho, Hoi An … In these places, they set up European trading firms and carried out the exchange of goods with the Chinese, Japanese merchants,… At the same time, they established trade relations with both Cochinchina and Tonkin, in which mainly the purchase of weapons.

Among them, the Portuguese merchants were recognized as the first Westerners to come to Dai Viet. According to Birdwood, the Portuguese traded with Cochinchina around 1540. They sold, bought silk, pepper, precious wood through Chinese or Japanese agents in Hoi An and turned boats to the above places. In order to establish trade relations with Asian countries, Portugal established a trading firm system throughout Asia, but for Vietnam, Portugal did not establish a trading firm system so all trading activities were throughout intermediaries to collect goods or transactions.

From 1640, the trade relations between Portugal and Cochinchina were strengthened. The products that merchants buy from Cochinchina were yellow silk, some Agarwood, Ky Nam (first class of Agarwood) and a little benzoin. In return, Portuguese merchants carried guns, potassium nitrate, zinc, copper … had technicians accompanying them for sale to Cochinchina … Among the ports of Cochinchina, Hoi An was considered one of the busiest trading ports where concentrated and distributed and exported some local products such as Ky Nam, gold, of which Ky Nam was a precious oil that was favorite of the Portuguese merchants.

It can be said that Cochinchina created all favorable conditions for the Portuguese merchants to come to trade, including allowing the Portuguese merchants to build businesses in Hoi An, allowing to establish streets and build warehouses like Japanese and Chinese merchants. However, due to Portugal’s trading method, that was mainly through intermediaries or transactions, there was no firm basis in Cochinchina and subsequently declined. In addition, the trade relations of Western merchants with the lords in this period also created a clear division. If in Cochinchina, the relationship between the Nguyen lord and the Portuguese merchants emerged, then in Tonkin was the relationship between the Trinh lord and the Dutch merchants.

Although there were many ups and downs, the presence of merchants and the formation of Western trading firms in Dai Viet in this period had contributed to enriching the diversity of the colorful picture of the 17th century foreign trade and economy in Dai Viet.

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