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Sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Archipelagoes

International law and sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes (Part 11)

Part 11: Legitimate occupation

If the voyages for surveys and drawing of maritime routes can be considered as acts for general recognition, then the planting of wooden markers by the order of the kings created an indisputable act in establishing the power of the Annamese kingdom over the uninhabited islands.

In 1833, the King ordered the Ministry of Public Works:

“In the territorial waters of Quảng Nghĩa province (present-day Quảng Ngãi), there is the Hoàng Sa range, the water and the sky in which cannot be distinguished from afar. Trading boats have recently been in distress. Boats should be prepared now in order to go to the area next year for constructing temple, erecting markers, and planting many trees. Those trees will grow luxuriant in the future, thus serving as recognition marks for people to avoid getting stranded in shoals. This will be for the benefit of many generations to come.”

In 1835, naval captain Phạm Văn Nguyên and his soldiers, the Capital’s patrolmen (giám thành), and laborers from Quảng Ngãi and Bình Định provinces arrived in the archipelago, building a new temple (70 metres away from the ancient temple). A stone stele was erected on the left of the temple and a screen was built in the front of the temple.” This clearly shows King Minh Mạng’s desire to affirm the sovereignty and maritime navigation safety in waters surrounding the islands.

Dropping symbolic bamboo crafts with substitute puppets to the sea - an important ritual in the Lễ khao lề thế lính Hoàng Sa (substitute offering ceremony to Hoàng Sa soldiers). - Photo: Hiến Cừ.

Dropping symbolic bamboo crafts with substitute puppets to the sea – an important ritual in the Lễ khao lề thế lính Hoàng Sa (substitute offering ceremony to Hoàng Sa soldiers). – Photo: Hiến Cừ.

The possession of the Hoàng Sa also allowed the Nguyễn kings to impose tax on foreign vessels passing through this region. According to Gutzlaff, a station or a garrison was set up on the archipelago several months a year to monitor the growing traffic and protect fishing rights of the kingdom of Annam. Rescue activities for foreign vessels in distress in waters surrounding Hoàng Sa were recorded. A few cases can be cited as follows:

In 1714, three Dutch merchant vessels were caught in a storm near Hoàng Sa on the way from Japan to Batavia (Indonesia), one of which was sunken. The Vietnamese took the survivors to the mainland. They were received by the Nguyễn Lord, provided with money and food to continue their voyage.

The report of the Governor of Đà Nẵng in the 11th year of the reign of Minh Mạng (1830) also recorded the rescue of a French merchant ship wrecked in Hoàng Sa [1]. In 1836, Quốc triều chính biên toát yếu (Brief chronicle of the dynasty] reported that in the 12th lunar month, a British merchant ship sank at a shoal near Hoàng Sa. More than 90 British sailors were drifted to the coast of Bình Định. Emperor Minh Mạng provided them with shelter and food before ordering Nguyễn Tri Phương to send them to Hà Châu for their repatriation.

Apart from the official sources, the documents kept by the common people in localities also contribute to the verification of the aforesaid activities. Today, there exist in Vĩnh An village, Lý Vĩnh commune, the island district of Lý Sơn (Ré Island) the Âm Linh tự (Temple for the souls of the dead in Hoàng Sa), house of worship dedicated to Phạm Quang Ánh, annals of the Phạm family, traces of dummies, earthen men, and cemetery for the use in ceremonies to give feast and offer live sacrifices to the soldiers of Hoàng Sa detachment before they set off for duty. The speech red at the offering ceremony for the Hoàng Sa soldiers was in both Nôm and Han scripts, which reads: “Today (or tonight or this morning), following the wish of (name) in the province of ……… of the Kingdom of Đại Nam, a mock-up vessel is hereby donated as a substitute to drift to Hoàng Sa, some banquets, feasts and jewelries in response to the deities are hereby presented to khảo thủy đạo (sea route superintendent) with abundance of offerings that are respectfully displayed…[2]

These images were also portrayed in folk poetry such as “Going to Hoàng Sa without return. But once the order is given by the king, there will be no hesitation,” or “Trường Sa are boundless amid the sky and sea. Men, who are going there without returning home.” The evidence cited from Vietnamese and Western historical sources convincingly demonstrates the will and practices of the then feudal sovereign of Vietnam. The voyages of the naval units, the building of temples, the planting of wooden markers and trees, the protection of fishermen, the fulfillment of obligations for rescue of foreign sunken ships… by the nature of such activities as well as by the capacity of the executor of such activities are sufficient to qualify for the acquisition conditions of unclaimed territories (res nullius). These are an obvious manifestation of a state who is the real master of these archipelagoes.

The legitimacy of the possession of the islands by the Vietnamese can be possibly contested by a country showing them the same interest, namely China. However, the events that took place in that time indicate that China, in the capacity of a state, had shown its indifference to the fate of these archipelagoes.

By Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Thao

[1] VN / CT 1 Han, MM 11/27 (MM Q43/57), VN / CT 3 Han, MM 11/27.6 (MM 43/59).
[2] Documents kept at the House of Worship of the Võ family by Mr. Nguyễn Xuân Cảnh, Tây village, Lý Hải commune, Lý Sơn district – Theme BDHD-01, collection and archives. KKK

Source: Thanh Nien News

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