His Imperial Majesty
Emperor Gia Long



His Imperial Majesty
Emperor Minh Mang



Prince Canh


 Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine



Monsignor Pigneau de Béhaine

Pierre Joseph Georges Pigneau (2 November 1741 Origny-en-Thiérache – 9 October 1799, Qui Nhon), commonly known as Pigneau de Béhaine, also Pierre Pigneau and Bá Đa Lộc, was a French Catholic priest best known for his role in assisting Prince Nguyen Anh (later Emperor Gia Long) to establish the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam after the Tay Son rebellion.

Pigneau was born in Origny-en-Thierache (later Aisne, France), where the family of his mother lived. His father's family owned a small estate named Béhaine, in the nearby commune of Marle.

Pigneau de Béhaine was trained as a missionary and sent abroad by the Paris Foreign Missions Society (Séminaire des Missions Étrangères). He left France from the harbor of Lorient in December 1765, to work in southern Vietnam. He landed in Pondicherry on 21 June 1766.

Pigneau had arrived just prior to the Burmese capture of Ayutthaya in Siam. After waiting for a few months in the Portuguese colony of Macau, Pigneau traveled on a Chinese ship to reach the small coastal town Ha Tien in Cochinchina near the Cambodian border, set up by missionaries who had been displaced by the Burmese. He arrived there in March 1767.

Superior of the College General (1767–1774)

In Ha Tien, Pigneau worked as head of the Seminary of the Holy Angels, the Seminary established in Asia by the Paris Foreign Missions Society, which had relocated from Ayutthaya in Siam following the 1765 Burmese invasion, with approximately forty students of Chinese, Siamese, and Vietnamese extraction.

A page of the 1773 Annamite-Latin manuscript dictionary created by Pigneau de Béhaine.

In 1768, the missionaries were jailed for three months when Siamese authorities complained to the local ruler Mac Thien Tu that the school had afforded shelter to a fugitive Siamese prince. Pigneau was put into a cangue, a wooden and iron frame fastened around his limbs weighing eight pounds. He ignored family requests to return to France, saying that his missionary work was more important than a comfortable life. In 1769, the school was attacked by Chinese and Cambodian pirates, who massacred some of the students and burnt down the establishment. Pigneau was forced to flee in December 1769 with the survivors to Pondicherry (now in Tamil Nadu, India), then a French territory, after a long sea journey through Malacca. The College was established a few miles from Pondicherry, in Virampatnam.

 Pigneau de Béhaine’s dictionary was published in 1838 by Mgr Jean-Louis Taberd

Pigneau de Béhaine was made Bishop of Adran (of Adranos in Bithynia, modern Orhaneli in Turkey, in partibus infidelium), and Apostolic Vicar of Cochinchina on 24 February 1774 in São Tomé near Madras. After his ordination in 1774, he went to Macau to gather more staff before returning to resume his work in Ha Tien. In Macau, he was able to publish and print a catechism in Cochinchinese (containing an introduction in Chinese, the body of the text in the Vietnamese alphabet, and a translation in Latin), and dispatched a copy to Rome.[8] He left Macau on 1 March 1775, and reached Ha Tien later in the month, where he again re-established missionary operations.[11]

In 1775-76, Pigneau attempted to convert the Stieng people, but the missionaries he sent suffered greatly, and either fell ill or returned

Encounter with Prince Nguyen Anh (future Emperor Gia Long, Founder of Vietnam – H.I.H. Princess Thi-Nga’s Great-great-great grandfather)

Episcopal seal of Mgr Pigneau de Béhaine.


In 1777, the Tay Son brothers attacked Saigon and eliminated almost the entire Nguyen dynasty, with the fifteen-year-old Nguyen Anh managing to escape into the far south. He took refuge at Pigneau’s seminary from September to October before both were forced to flee to the island of Pulo Panjang in the Gulf of Siam. The move was a political step taken by Pigneau to align himself with Prince Nguyen Anh, allowing himself a foray into politics. He became less of a missionary and more of a politician thereafter.

On November 1777, Prince Nguyen Anh was able to recapture Saigon, and in 1778 pursued the retreating Tay Son as far as Binh Thuan.

In neighboring Cambodia, a pro-Cochinchinese revolt erupted to topple the pro-Siam king Ang Non. In 1780, Cochinchinese troops intervened, and Pigneau helped them procure weapons from the Portuguese. The Bishop attracted accusations by the Portuguese of manufacturing weapons for the Cochinchinese, especially grenades, a new weapon for Southeast Asia. Pigneau de Béhaine also organized the supply of three Portuguese warships for Prince Nguyen Anh. In his activities, Pigneau was supported by a French adventurer, Manuel.

Pigneau de Béhaine and Prince Nguyen Anh took refuge in the island of Phu Quoc.


In 1782, the Tay Son Revolutionaries led a new offensive to the South. Manuel died in his command of a warship in the Saigon River against Tay Son troops. The defeat, with its battle plan deemed faulty, towers high in the list of setbacks suffered. Prince Nguyen Anh was forced to retreat to the island of Phu Quoc. In October 1782, the tide turned again and Prince Nguyen Anh and Pigneau returned to Saigon.

In March 1783, the Nguyen prince was again defeated, and Prince Nguyen Anh and Pigneau once more set sail for Phu Quoc. Sanctuary was at once both fleeting and illusory. They had to escape again when their hideout was discovered, being chased from island to island until they reached Siam. Pigneau de Béhaine visited the Siamese court in Bangkok in late 1783. Prince Nguyen Anh also arrived there in February 1784, where he enlisted an army to accompany him back to Vietnam. In January 1785 however the Siamese fleet met with disaster against the Tay Son in the Mekong river.

Prince Nguyen Anh again took refuge with the Siamese court, and again tried to seek help from the Siamese. Resolving to muster any support he could from Western powers, Prince Nguyen Anh asked Pigneau to appeal for French aid, and pledged to allow Pigneau to take his son Prince Canh with him. Pigneau in return attempted to obtain assistance from Manila, but the party of Dominicans he sent was captured by the Tay Son.revoltionaries. From Pondicherry, he also sent a request for help to the Portuguese Senate in Macao, which would ultimately lead to the signature of a Treaty of Alliance between Prince Nguyen Anh and the Portuguese on 18 December 1786 in Bangkok.

Embassy to France

The party reached Pondicherry in February 1785.] The French administration in Pondicherry, led by the interim Governor Coutenceau des Algrains, successor of Bussy, seconded by Captain d'Entrecasteaux, was resolutely opposed to intervening in southern Vietnam, stating that it was not in the national interest. In July 1786, Pigneau was allowed to travel back to France to ask the royal court directly for assistance. News of his activities reached Rome where he was denounced by the Spanish Franciscans. Pigneau at that point offered Prince Canh and his political mandate to the Portuguese. They left Pondicherry for France in July 1786, which they reached in February 1787.

Portrait of crown prince Nguyen Phuc Canh (Prince Canh) in France, 1787.


Arriving in February 1787 with the child prince Canh at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles, Pigneau had difficulty in gathering support for a French expedition to install Prince Nguyen Anh on the throne. This was due to the poor financial state of the country prior to the French Revolution. Pigneau was helped by Pierre Poivre who had been involved previously in French interests in Vietnam.

Eventually, he was able to seduce military figures with precise instructions as to the conditions of warfare in Indochina and materiel for the proposed campaign. He explained how France would be able to "dominate the seas of China and of the archipelago." The party met with King Louis XVI, Minister of the Navy de Castries and Minister of Foreign Affairs Montmorin on May 5 or 6, 1787. Prince Canh created a sensation at the court of Louis XVI, leading the famous hairdresser Léonard to create a hairstyle in his honour "au prince de Cochinchine". His portrait was made in France by Maupérin, and is now on display at the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères in Paris. Prince Canh dazzled the Court and even played with the son of Louis XVI, Louis-Joseph, Dauphin of France, who was about the same age.

Signatures of the 1787 Treaty of Versailles: Montmorin, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Navy, and Evèque d'Adran, i.e. Pigneau de Béhaine.


By November, his constant pressure had proved effective. On 21 November 1787, the Treaty of Versailles was concluded between France and Cochinchina in Prince Nguyen Anh’s name. Four frigates, 1650 fully equipped French soldiers and 250 Indian sepoys were promised in return for Pulo Condore and harbor access at Tourane (Da Nang). De Fresne was supposed to be the leader of the expedition.

The French government, on the eave of the French Revolution, was in dreadful financial trouble, and saw its position weakened even more with the outbreak of civil war in Holland. French enthusiasm for Pigneau's plan was severely dampened. A few days after the treaty was signed, the foreign minister sent instructions on 2 December 1787 to the Governor of Pondicherry Thomas Conway, which left the execution of the treaty to his own appreciation of the situation in Asia, stating that he was "free not to accomplish the expedition, or to delay it, according to his own opinion". Louis XVI himself told Pigneau that Conway was appointed Governor of Pondicherry simply to remove him from Europe.


Return to Vietnam

The Citadel of Saigon was built by Olivier de Puymanel according to the designs of Théodore Lebrun, following the principles of Vauban, in 1790.

Jean-Marie Dayot (left) took a leading role in the Navy of Prince Nguyen Anh.

The party left France in December 1787 on board the Dryade, commanded by M. de Kersaint and accompanied by the Pandour, commanded by M. de Préville. They would again disembark in Pondicherry from May 1788 to July 1789. The Dryade was ordered by Conway to continue to Poulo Condor to meet with Prince Nguyen Anh and deliver him 1,000 muskets bought in France and Father Paul Nghi, a Cochinchinese missionary devotee of Mgr Pigneau.

However, Pigneau found the governor of Pondicherry unwilling to further fulfill the agreement. Although the Royal Council had already decided in October 1788 to endorse Conway, Pigneau was not informed until April. Pigneau was forced to use funds raised in France and enlist French volunteers. Of this duplicity, he defiantly noted: "I shall make the revolution in Cochinchina alone." He rejected an offer from the English, and raised money from French merchants in the region. Conway finally provided two ships to Pigneau, the Méduse, commanded by François Étienne de Rosily-Mesros, and another frigate. Pigneau used the raised funds to equip two more ships with weapons and ammunition, which he named the Long ("Dragon"), commanded by Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau, and the Phụng ("Phoenix"), commanded by Philippe Vannier, and enticed volunteers and deserters to man the vessels. Jean-Marie Dayot deserted the Pandour and was put in charge of supplies, transporting weapons and ammunitions on his ship the St. Esprit. Rosily, who had been commanding the Méduse deserted with 120 of his men, and was put in charge of recruitments.


Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau in mixed Franco-Vietnamese uniform.

Pigneau's expedition left for Vietnam on June 19 1789 and arrived at Vung Tau on 24 July 1789. The foreign contingent helped to consolidate southern Vietnam and modernized its army, navy and fortifications. Olivier de Puymanel, a former officer of the Dryade who has deserted in Poulo Condor, built in 1790 the Citadel of Saigon and in 1793 the Citadel of Dien Khanh according to the principles of Vauban. He also instructed Vietnamese troops in the modern use of artillery, and implemented European infantry methods in the Vietnamese army of Nguyen Phuc Anh. In 1792, Olivier de Puymanel was commanding an army of 600 men who had been trained with European techniques. Puymanel is said to have trained the 50,000 men of Nguyen's army. French bombs were used at the siege of Qui Nhon in 1793.

 French Navy officers such as Jean-Marie Dayot and Jean-Baptiste Chaigneau were used to drill the navy. By 1792, a large naval fleet was formed, with two European warships and 15 frigates of composite design. In 1792, Dayot attacked the strategically important port of Qui Nhon, opening the way to the Cochinchinese ships which then defeated the Tay Son fleet In 1793, Dayot led a raid in which 60 Tay Son galleys were destroyed.

From 1794, Pigneau took part in all campaigns, accompanying Prince Canh. He organized the defense of Dien Khanh when it was besieged by a numerically vastly superior Tay Son army in 1794.



Tomb of Pigneau de Béhaine.

Heavy fighting raged in Qui Nhon for control of the fortress until it was captured in 1799. Pigneau died there of dysentery on 9 October in the same year, after serving his final years as an advisor and de facto foreign minister to Nguyen Anh. He was buried at Saigon with full military honors. Prince Nguyen Anh's funeral oration described him as "the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina." He was buried on 16 December 1799 in the presence of the crown prince, all mandarins of the court, the royal bodyguard of 12,000 men and 40,000 mourners.

Pigneau de Béhaine was the object of several funeral orations from Emperor Gia Long and his son Prince Canh. In a funeral oration dated 8 December 1799, Gia Long praised Pigneau de Béhaine’s involvement in the defense of the country, as well as their personal friendship:

Funeral oration of emperor Gia Long to Pigneau de Béhaine (excerpt):Funeral oration of Emperor Gia Long to Pigneau de Béhaine, 8 December 1799."(...) Pondering without end the memory of his virtues, I wish to honour him again with my kindness, His Highness Bishop Pierre, former special envoy of the kingdom of France mandated to obtain a sea-based and land-based military assistance sent by decree by warships, him, this eminent personality of the Occident received as a guest of honour at the court of Nam-Viet (...) Although he went to his own country to address a plea for help and rally the opinion in order to obtain military assistance, he was met with adverse conditions midway through his endeavor. At that time, sharing my resentment, he decided to act like the men of old: we rather rallied together and outshone each other in the accomplishment of duty, looking for ways to take advantage of opportunities to launch operations (...) Everyday intervening constantly, many times he marvelously saved the situation with extraordinary plans. Although he was preoccupied with virtue, he did not lack humor. Our agreement was such that we always desired to be together (...) From the beginning to the end, we were but one heart (...)" – Funeral oration of Emperor Gia Long to Pigneau   dBéhaine, 8 December 1799.

Statue of Pigneau de Béhaine, with Prince Canh and holding the Treaty of Versailles, in Saigon.

Only a few of Pigneau's men stayed for more than two or three year, disappointed in the lack of a quick fortune. Pigneau himself had wanted a Catholic as ruler of Vietnam. His ambition never materialized with the failure to convert Canh, who predeceased his father Nguyen Anh by twenty years.

Pigneau often compromised his religious principles when they came into conflict with political and diplomatic imperatives. He had initially taught Canh to refuse to engage in ancestor worship, something that greatly shocked and angered Prince Nguyen Anh. He later changed his mind on the papal ban and proposed to consider ancestor worship as a civil ceremony, a simple manifestation of respect for the dead. He cited the apostles as being tolerant of local customs as his justification.

Ashes of Pigneau de Behaine, at the Paris Foreign Missions Society.




The 1787 painting of Pigneau de Behaine by Maupérin is visible at the Paris Foreign Missions Society.

Pigneau's 1772 Dictionarium Anamitico-Latinum, at the Paris Foreign Missions Society.

In 1983, the tomb of Pigneau de Béhaine was dismantled by the Vietnamese government, and the area was replaced by a park. His remains were incinerated and sent to France, where they are now housed in the Paris Foreign Missions Society.[48]