Southeast Asia Studies Seminar Program
The MacMillan Center at Yale University
Feb 20, 2013

"A Pox on Tu Ðuc: the Social and Political Effects of Smallpox on the House of Nguyen"

C. Michele Thompson
, Department of History, Southern Connecticut State University

One can summarize the effects of smallpox on the House of Nguyen quite briefly. If smallpox had not killed Crown Prince Nguyen Phúc Canh (1780-1801) then Emperor Minh Mang (1791-1841) would not have inherited the throne. If Minh Mang had not inherited then of course his son Nguyen Phúc Miên Tông (1807-1847) would not have inherited and ruled as Emperor Thieu Tri and Tu Ðuc, the last fully independent emperor of Vietnam, could never have become Emperor. When the future emperor Tu Ðuc was born, 1829, smallpox had been affecting the health of members of the Nguyen Royal family, and also their political fortunes, since at least the death of Prince Canh although Minh Mang had taken steps to ensure that his children would be spared smallpox by sending a mission to Macau, 1820-21, to bring vaccination to the capitol at Hue. This mission was successful and the Royal Medical Service succeeded in propagating vaccine and vaccinating the royal children until at least July 1821. Tu Ðuc's father was eighteen when this mission returned and he may have been among the first of the royal children to have been vaccinated. However, by the time Tu Ðuc was born the royal children were no longer being vaccinated and he had and survived a case of smallpox when he was an adolescent. The most obvious effect of smallpox on Tu Ðuc and his reign is that his lack of children has long been attributed to this case of smallpox. Tu Ðuc's inability to sire a male heir added to the instability of the country as the unclear line of succession caused infighting within the royal family and the court and eventually led Tu Ðuc to adopt three of his nephews as his sons, which contributed to the years of upheaval which followed his death. By combining what we know about the history of smallpox from the time of the Nguyen struggle to establish the dynasty until Tu Ðuc's death we can find information on other aspects of Nguyen ruled Vietnam. This essay will present information on the demographics of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Vietnam, on medical care in Vietnam at that time, and on daily practices of the royal household as embedded in the history of smallpox in the region. This essay will then examine the profound political effects of smallpox on the Nguyen Dynasty concentrating on the life and reign of Tu Ðuc the fourth emperor of the Ngue?n and the last independent emperor of Vietnam.

C. Michele Thompson received a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian History from the University of Washington. She is currently an Associate Professor of History at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of several articles on Vietnamese Traditional Medicine and on French Colonial Science and Medicine in Indochina including: "Scripts and Medical Scripture in Vietnam: Nôm and Classical Chinese in the Historic Transmission of Medical Knowledge in Pre-Twentieth Century Vietnam." Thoi Daii Moi no. 5 (July 2005); "French Colonial Medicine and Pharmacology in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, 1802-1954" in Benedikt Stuchtey ed., Science Across the European Empires, 1800-1950. Studies of the German Historical Institute London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; "Medicine, Nationalism, and Revolution in Vietnam: the Roots of a Medical Collaboration to 1945." In EASTM: East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine (21) Summer, 2004; "Mission to Macau: Smallpox, Vaccinia, and the Nguyen Dynasty." in Portuguese Studies Review 9:1&2 Special Issue The Evolution of Portuguese Asia, 1498-1998 2001; Scripts, Signs, and Swords : the Viet Peoples and the Origins of Nôm Sino-Platonic Papers no.104. University of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Oriental Studies, March 2000.


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