Part 10: The will to affirm the sovereignty of Vietnam
The evidences introduced by Vietnam show that activities carried out by the Nguyễn Lords and Kings in Hoàng Sa (Paracels) and Trường Sa (Spratlys) mostly focus on the five following areas:
1. Systematic exploitation of the islands.
2. Organization of measurements and surveys for better understanding of the territories and also for the inspection and control of the sea.
3. Building pagodas, temples, trees as symbols of sovereignty of Annam over the islands.
4. Organization of tax collection on the spot.
5. Rescue of foreign vessels in distress.
Concerning the organization of the Hoàng Sa and Bắc Hải detachments for the exploitation of marine resources and goods in the sea, Phủ biên tạp lục (Miscellany on the Pacification at the Frontier) written in 1776, reads:
The Nguyễns used to form Hoàng Sa detachment made up of An Vĩnh villagers and sent on duty in the third month of every year, taking along enough food for six months, sailing in small fishing boats and reaching the islands after a three days-and-nights voyage. Once settled down on the islands, they are free to collect things and catch as many birds and fish for food as they like. Goods collected from ship wrecks include sabers, jewelries, coins, silver rings, copperware, tin ingots, lead, guns, ivory, bee-wax, porcelain ware, and fur as well as catch of sea turtle shells, sea cucumbers and shells in large quantities.
The detachment returned in the eighth month of the year, entering Eo estuary to go to Phú Xuân Citadel to hand over the things it had gathered. Having the things weighed and classified, they sold their share of conches, turtles and sea-cucumbers, got certificates and went home. The Nguyễns also established Bắc Hải detachment without a fixed number of sailors, selected from Tứ Chính village in Bình Thuận or from Cảnh Dương commune with sailors being selected on a voluntary basis; those who volunteer to join the detachment will be exempted from poll tax, patrol and transportation fees and travel in small fishing boats to Bắc Hải, Côn Lôn Island, and other islands in Hà Tiên area, looking for and collecting goods from ships, and sea products such as turtles, abalones, and sea cucumbers; Bắc Hải detachment is also under the command of Hoàng Sa detachment .
With the set-up of special naval detachments for the exploitation of the islands, the Nguyễn Lords and Kings clearly showed the will of the state. This activity was conducted annually and put under the discipline of the state. The members of the detachment were granted with papers for mobilization, exempted from tax and transportation fee and rewarded with money. On the contrary, those who failed to fulfill duties would be punished depending on the severity of the error. The voyages and patrols of the islands were regularly organized. Whenever postponement was needed by the situation, it required an edict to be issued by the king for approving such postponement.
Even under the Tây Sơn era, a short dynasty interrupting the Nguyễn Dynasty, that tradition was maintained without discontinuity. The book Đại Nam thực lục chính biên (The Main Part of The Chronicles of Đại Nam) recorded a series of activities of the Nguyễn Kings to consolidate their administration on the islands. In 1815, 1816, 1833, 1834, 1835 and 1836, King Gia Long and his successors – King Minh Mạng, all issued imperial edicts to order naval troops and Hoàng Sa detachment to go Hoàng Sa to record the routes. Volume 165 wrote:
“In the year of Bính Thân, the 17th year of the reign of Ming Mạng (1836)… The Ministry of Public Works submitted a petition to the Emperor, saying that: In the frontier of our country’s territorial waters, Hoàng Sa is a critical and difficult-to-access area, due to its wide and long topography, the map drawn only covers part of it, and this coverage is not sufficiently detailed. Each year, we deploy people to the area for detailed sea route survey. From now on, in the last ten days of the first month of every year, we shall send naval soldiers and Capital’s patrolmen (vệ giám thành) to take a vessel to travel to Quảng Ngãi within the first ten days of the second month, requesting the provinces of Quảng Ngãi and Bình Định to employ four civilian boats to travel together to Hoàng Sa.
At whatever place they reach, be it an islet or a sandbank, they will have to examine its length, width, height and perimeter and the depths of the surrounding waters, and to ascertain whether underwater rocks and reefs exist and whether the terrain is difficult or not. All these data must be included in their maps. Moreover, they will have to record the date and the point of their departure, the direction taken and the distance covered. On each arrival, they will also have to locate exactly the names and directions of the coastal provinces facing them and those which are on their right and left, and to note down the estimated distance to the mainland in terms of dặm. Upon completion of their tasks, they will have to submit a detailed report.”
“The Emperor approved the petition, ordered the naval detachment commander Phạm Hữu Nhật to command a battleship and bring ten wooden steles to be installed as markers in the area (each wooden stele is five thước long, five tấc wide, one tấc thick, and is engraved with characters meaning: The 17th year of the reign of Minh Mạng, the Bính Thân year, Commander Phạm Hữu Nhật of the naval detachment, complying with the order to go to Hoàng Sa to look after the survey, arrive here to perpetuate the memory of the event.”
By Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Thao
 From the White Book of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 1981, p. 9-11.