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Sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Archipelagoes

International law and sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes (Part 9)

Part 9: Documents that objectively recognize Vietnam’s sovereignty

In order to resolve the prolonged debate on the historical title of the archipelagoes, it is best to consult the opinions of third parties.

Westerners had spoken about the inclusion of the Paracel archipelago into Annam. The French missionaries on the ship Amphitrite, on their way to China, wrote in an article in French in 1701: “Paracel is an archipelago belonging to the Kingdom of Annam. It’s a terrible submerged reef, stretching hundreds of miles, ships had been wrecked there many times”[1].


One of the navigation maps of the Portuguese in the 16th century, in which the archipelagoes of Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa were combined as one with the name “Paracel” in the East Sea, off the coastal islands in Central Vietnam – Documentary photo

Jean-Louis Taberd noted:

“Pracel or Paracels (Bãi cát vàng), although this archipelago has nothing but rocks, beaches and great depth promising more disadvantages than advantages, Emperor Gia Long thinks of expanding his territory by occupying this bleak land. In 1816, he visited the site, solemnly planting the flag, formally taking possession of these islands without any one disputing with him [2].”

For his part, J.B. Chaigneau, the counselor to the Emperor of Annam, wrote in the memoir on Cochinchina:

“The country of Cochinchina, whose emperor has just ascended to the throne, includes the regions of Cochinchina and Tonkin … some inhabited islands not too far from the shore, and the archipelago…

Paracel is composed of uninhabited small islands, reefs and rocks. Not until 1816, did the Emperor take the possession the archipelago [3].”

Dubois de Jancigny wrote in his book “The world, history and description of the peoples of Japan, Indochina, Ceylon, etc.” (L’univers, Histoire et Description de tous les peuples Japon, Indo-Chine, Ceylan etc.): “We observe that for thirty years now, the Paracel archipelago (referred to as Cát Vàng by the Annamese), a real labyrinth of  small islands, rocks and sand banks, full of distrust to navigators which can be counted among the most deserted and useless parts of the globe, has been occupied by the Annamese (Cochinchina). We do not know if they have built any construction there (in order, perhaps, to protect fisheries); but it is certain that King Gia Long will have this jewel added to his crown when he himself came there to take the possession, this event took place in 1816 when the King solemnly planted Annam’s flag there.”[4].

Gutzlaff in his article “Geography of the Cochinchinese Empire” published in 1849 in London (UK) also recorded Cát Vàng (to indicate the Paracel) of Cochinchina. Gutzlaff wrote:

“Whether it is because of the coral animals or of other causes that  these rocks have because gradually begger but one thing is clear that the islets rise ever every year higher and higher, and some of them are now permanently inhabited, through which the waves, only a few years ago, broke with force. They would be of no value if the fishing job was very productive, and did not remunerate all the perils of the adventurer. From time immemorial, junks coming largely from Hainan, have annually visited all these shoals, and proceeded in their excursions as far as coast of Borneo. Though more than ten per cent are annually wrecked, the quantity of fish taken is so great as to ensure all loss, and still leave a very good profit. The Annam government, perceiving the advantages which it might derive if atoll were raised, keeps revenue cutters and a small garrison on the spot to collect the duty on all visitors, and to ensure protection to its own fishermen”[5].

In Italy’s Geography Summary (Compendio di Geografia) compiled by Adriano Balbi in 1850, page 641 describes the geography of the Kingdom of Annam that: Also belonging to this Kingdom is the Paracel archipelago, Pirati Islands and Poulo Condor Islands (i.e. the Hoàng Sa archipelago, the clusters of Hải Tặc Islands and Côn Đảo Islands). Also in this work, from pages 644-648 written about Chinese geography, no mention was made to Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa.

Even Chinese books recognize the inclusion of these islands into Annam. We can read this in the preface of the book Hai-lu (Note on the sea voyage) in 1842 in which Yang Bingnan recorded the things seen and heard by Xie Qinggao, a Chinese sailor, who had been to many countries and regions:

“Vạn lý Trường Sa (Wanli Changsha) are sand banks emerging from the sea, which span to thousands of li and serve as wattle fences of Annam.”

Hai wai ji shi (Overseas Chronicle) written in 1695 by Shi Dashan, a Chinese monk under the reign of Kangxi, recounting the journey to Đằng Trong (Southern Vietnam) and  acknowledging Vietnam’s sovereignty over the  archipelagoes of Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa

In Hai wai ji shi (Overseas chronicle) written by Shi Dashan, a Chinese monk, in 1696 [6] the part recounting his return to Guangdong from Quảng Nam in Volume 3 reads: “…the sand bank stretches hundreds of li with endless length that cannot count, which is called “Vạn lý Trường Sa (Wanli Changsha) without any house and tree in sight; boats drifted by opposite wind, if not wrecked, would have no rice and no water and sailors would die of starvation [7]. The place is from Đại Việt seven days of voyage, about 700 li. The previous kings ordered fishing boats to go along the sand bank every year to collect gold, silver and tools washed ashore from wrecked ships.” This description confirms the exercise of sovereignty of the Nguyễn.

The descriptions about the Paracel by foreign sources prove that Hoàng Sa islands are not the coastal islands along Central Vietnam. While there are many intermediate documents proving the ownership of the Nguyễn Lords and Kings, there is no source of documents showing China’s possession of these islands.

By Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Thao

[1] Cited by P.B. Lafont, cited book, page 248.

[2] J.L Taberd, “Note on geography of Cochinchina” in the Journal of Bengal, Calcutta, Volume VI, September 1837, page 737 – 745.

[3] Tập san của người bạn cũ của Huế (Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Hué) No. 2, 1923, page 257.

[4] M.A. Dubois de Jancigny, L’univers, Histoire et Description de tous les peuples Japon, Indo-Chine, Ceylan etc., Paris, éd. Firmin Didot Frères, 1850, p. 555.

[5] Journal of the Geographical Society of London (Tạp chí Hội Địa lý London), Volume 19 (1849), London, John Murray, 1849, p. 93-94.

[6] Hai Wai Ji shi is are notes of author Shi Dashan about his trip from the Changshou Temple in Guangdong province to Thuận Quảng area of Đại Việt in the Jihai year of the Kangxi reign (1695) and his return trip to China in the next year (1696). The original book in Chinese consists of six volumes which was translated into Vietnamese by Viện Đại học Huế (Hue University) in 1963. Later, a campaign was launched by the Chinese to defame the author, describing him as abnormal and insane in order to play down the truthfulness of his work. Nguyễn Quang Ngọc, the cited book, page 43.

[7] Phạm Hoàng Quân holds that there in an error in the Hán-Nôm translation, “thất canh lộ” does not mean seven days and nights, “canh” means a measurement of length in this case. However, he admits that one “canh” equals to 100 dặm. Therefore, the distance described in the Hai Wai Ji Shi is quite exact about the distance from the shore to the Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa archipelagoes. The correct translation suggested is: “The distance from Đại Việt is seven canh of travel, about 700 miles.”



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