Of Pirates, Postcards, and Public Beheadings

The Pedagogic Execution in French Colonial Indochina

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Author: Michael G. Vann
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While there is a large body of literature on violence in colonial history, most studies have looked at either the bloodshed of conquest, major revolts, or decolonization. Despite the undeniable importance of such moments in the history of empire, an over-emphasis on these events creates a punctuated narrative where violence enters the story line, rears its ugly head, and then retreats. This paper argues that a complete understanding of the colonial encounter requires us to look at the violence in the many days between the arrival of the colonizers' expeditionary forces and the final achievement of national liberation. By examining the intersection between a rebellious band of pirates, a colonial state bent on revenge, and an opportunistic postcard maker, the portrait that emerges is one of a colonial society where violence was not just commonplace but an essential technique in maintaining the colonial order. Be it in the form of criminal violence that challenged French rule, the institutionalized violence of the state execution, or the symbolic reminders of such violence in the form of cheap postcards for sale in the city streets, acts, images, and memories of colonial violence were omnipresent. Importantly, the colonial state publicized its violence, making its ability to punish known to all. This violence terrorized the conquered native population and reassured the vulnerable white community. It is only in this context that other topics in colonial history such as educational reforms, city planning, and economic development can be understood.

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