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Viet Nam’s Sovereignty Over Hoang Sa And Truong Sa Archipelagoes (Part 1)

Viet Nam’s historical sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes

In the old days, with vague information about Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes, navigators only knew about a large area in the middle of the sea with submerged cays, which was very dangerous for watercrafts, referred to as “Bien Dong” (East Sea) by the Vietnamese. Vietnamese ancient documents indicate this area with various names, including “Bai Cat Vang” (Golden Sandbank), “Hoang Sa” (Golden Sand), “Van Ly Hoang Sa” (Ten-thousand-Li1 Golden Sand), “Dai Truong Sa” (Grand Long Sand), or “Van Ly Truong Sa” (Ten-Thousand-Li Long Sand).

Most of the nautical maps made by western navigators from the 16th to the 18th centuries depict Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes as a single archipelago and name it “Pracel”, “Parcel”, or “Paracels”2. Later progress in science and navigation allowed the differentiation between the two archipelagoes. It was not until 1787-1788 that Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes were located clearly and accurately as they are known today by the Kergariou – Locmaria survey mission to help distinguish Hoang Sa archipelago from Truong Sa archipelago in the South. All of the abovementioned maps define Pracel (including both Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes) as an area in the middle of the East Sea, to the east of mainland Viet Nam and located further offshore compared to Viet Nam’s coastal islands.

The two archipelagoes indicated as the “Paracels” and the “Spratley” or “Spratly” islands in current international nautical maps are indeed those that are Viet Nam’s Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes.

The Vietnamese people have long discovered Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes, and Viet Nam has exercised its sovereignty over the two archipelagoes in a continuous and peaceful manner.

  • Many ancient geography books and maps of Viet Nam clearly indicate that “Bai Cat Vang”, “Hoang Sa”, “Van Ly Hoang Sa”, “Dai Truong Sa” or “Van Ly Truong Sa” (Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes) have long been included within the territory of Viet Nam.

Toan Tap Thien Nam Tu Chi Lo Do Thu (Route Maps from the Capital to the Four Directions), compiled in the 17th century by a man named Do Ba, clearly noted in the maps of Quang Ngai prefecture in Quang Nam area that “In the middle of the sea is a long sandbank, called Bai Cat Vang, with a length of 400 li and a width of 20 li, spanning in the middle of the sea from Dai Chiem to Sa Vinh Seaports3. Foreign ships would be drifted and stranded on the bank if they traveled on the inner side (west) of the sandbank under the southwest wind or on the outer side under the northeast wind (east). Their sailors would starve to death and leave all their goods there”.

In the book entitled Giap Ngo Binh Nam Do (The Map for the Pacification of the South in the Giap Ngo year) made by duke Bui The Dat in 1774, Bai Cat Vang is also indicated as a part of Viet Nam’s territory4.

A 16th- century Portuguese nautical map depicting Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes as a single archipelago located to the east of Viet Nam’s mainland.

During his assignment in South Viet Nam, scholar Le Quy Don (1726-1784) in 1776 compiled the book named Phu Bien Tap Luc (Miscellaneous Records on the Pacification at the Frontier) on the history, geography, and administration of South Viet Nam under the Nguyen lords (1558-1775), In this book, Le Quy Don described that Dai Truong Sa, including Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes, was under the jurisdiction of Quang Ngai prefecture.

A page of “Toan Tap Thien Nam Tu Chi Lo Do Thu”

“An Vinh commune, Binh Son district, Quang Ngai prefecture has a mountain5 outside its seaport called Re island, which is 30-li wide. It takes four watches to reach the island, on which there is a ward named Tu Chinh with bean-growing inhabitants. Further offshore is the Dai Truong Son island, where there are plenty of sea products and other goods. It takes Hoang Sa Flotilla, founded to collect those products and goods, three full days to reach the island, which is near Bac Hai.”

“… Binh Son district of Quang Ngai prefecture includes the coastal commune of An Vinh. Offshore to the northeast of An Vinh are many islands and approximately 130 mountains separated by waters which can take from few watches to few days to travel across. Streams of fresh water can be found on these mountains. Within the islands is a 30-li long, flat and wide golden sand bank, on which the water is so transparent that one can see through. The islands have many swift nests and hundreds or thousands of other kinds of birds; they alight around instead of avoiding humans. There are many curios on the sandbank. Among the volutes are the Indian volutes. An Indian volute here can be as big as a mat; on their ventral side are opaque beads, different from pearls, and as big as fingertips; their shells can be carved to make identification badges or calcinated to provide lime for house construction. There are also conches that can be used for furniture inlay, and Babylon shells. All snails here can be salted for food. The sea turtles are oversized. There is a softy-shell sea turtle called “hai ba” or “trang bong”, similar to but smaller than the normal hawksbill sea turtles; their thin shell can be used for furniture inlay, and their thumb-sized eggs can be salted for food. There is a kind of sea cucumbers called “dot dot”, normally seen when swimming about the shore; they can be used as food after lime treatment, gut removal and drying. Before serving “dot dot”, one should process it with crab-extracted water and scrape all the dirt off. It will be better if cooked with shrimps and pork.

Foreign boats often take refuse at these islands to avoid storms. The Nguyen rules have established Hoang Sa Flotilla with 70 sailors selected from An Vinh commune on a rotational basis. Selected sailors receive their order in the third month of every year, bring with them sufficient food for six months, and sail on five small fishing boasts for full days to reach the islands. Once settled down on the islands, they are free to catch as many birds and fish as they like. They collect goods from boats passing by, such as sabers, jewelries, money, porcelain rings, and fur; they also collect plenty of sea turtle shells, sea cucumbers, and volute shells. The sailors return to mainland in the eighth month through EO seaport. On their return trip, they first sail to Phu Xuan Citadel, where the goods that they have collected shall be submitted to be measured and classified; they can then take their parts of volutes, sea turtles, and sea cucumbers for their own trading businesses, and receive licenses before going home. The amount of collected materials varies; sometimes the sailors could not collect anything at all. I have personally checked the notebook of the former flotilla captain Thuyen Duc Hau, which recorded the amount of collected goods: 30 scoops of silver in the year of Nham Ngo (1762), 5,100 catties of tin in the year of Giap Than (1764), 126 scoops of silver in the year of At Dan (1765), a few sea turtle shells each year from the year of Ky Suu (1769) to the year of Quy Ty (1773). There were also years when only cubic tin, porcelain bowls, and two copper guns were collected.

The Nguyen rulers also established Bac Hai Flotilla without a fixed number of sailors, selected from Tu Chinh village in Binh Thuan or from Canh Duong commune. Sailors are selected on a voluntary basis. Those who volunteer to join the flotilla will be exempted from poll tax, patrol and transportation fees. These sailors travel in small fishing boats to Bac Hai, Con Lon island, and other islands in Ha Tien area, collecting goods from ships, and sea products such as turtles, abalones, and sea cucumbers. Bac Hai Flotilla is under command of Hoang Sa Flotilla. The collected items are mostly sea products and rarely include jewelries.”

Among those documents that have been preserved until today is the following order dated 1786 made by Lord Superior:

“Hereby command Hoi Duc Hau, captain of Hoang Sa Flotilla, to lead four fishing boats to sail directly towards Hoang Sa and other islands on the sea, to collect jewelries, copper items, cannons of all sizes, sea turtles, and valuable fishes, and to return to the capital to submit all of these items in accordance with the current regulation”.

An Nam Dai Quoc Hoa Do

Dai Nam6 Nhat Thong Toan Do (The Complete Map of the unified Dai Nam – the map of Viet Nam under the Nguyen Dynasty in 1883) indicated that “Hoang Sa” and “Van Ly Truong Sa” are Vietnamese territories. These archipelagoes were depicted to be further offshore compared to those near the central coast.

Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi (The Geography of the Unified dai Nam), the geography book completed in 1882 by the National History Institute of The Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1845), indicates that Hoang Sa archipelago is part of Viet Nam’s territory and was under the administration of Quang Ngai province.

In the paragraphs describing the topography of Quang Ngai province, the book wrote:

“In the east of Quang Ngai province is Hoang Sa island, in which sands and waters are alternate, forming trenches. In the west is the area of mountainous people with the steady and long rampart. The south borders Binh Dinh province, separated by the Ben Da mountain pass.

The north borders Quang Nam province, marked by the Sa THo Creek…”

“… The previous custom of maintaining Hoang Sa Flotilla was continued in the early days of the Gia Long Era but later abandoned. At the beginning of the Minh Mang Era, working boats were sent to the area for sea route survey. They found an area with verdant plants over white sands and a circumference of 1,070 truong7. In the middle of Hoang Sa island is a well. In the southwest lies an ancient temple with no clear indication of the construction time. Inside the temple is a stele engraved with four characters “Van Ly Ba Binh”8. This island had previously been called “Phat Tu Son”9. In the east and the west of the island is an atoll named Ban Than Thach (coral reef). It emerges over the water level as an isle with a circumference of 340 truong and a height of 1.2 truong. In the 16th year of the Minh Mang Era, working boats were ordered to transport bricks and stones to the area to build temple. In the left side of the temple, a stone stele was erected as a remark, and trees are planted all over three sides, namely the left, the right, and the back, of the temple. While building the temple’s foundation, the military laborers found as much as 2,000 catties of copper leaves and cast iron.”

Many Western navigators and Christian missionaries in the past centuries attested that Hoang Sa (Pracel or Paracels) belongs to Viet Nam’s territory.
A Western clergyman wrote in a letter during his 1701 trip on the ship Amphitrite from France to China that: “Paracel is an archipelago of the Kingdom of An Nam”10.

Bishop J.L. Taberd, in his 1837 “Note on the Geography of Cochinchina”11, also describes “Pracel or Paracels” as a part of Cochinchina’s territory and indicates that Cochinchinese people refer to Paracles as “Cat Vang”. In An Nam Dai Quoc Do (Tabula geographica imperii Anamitici – The Map of the An Nam Empire)12 published in 1883, Bishop Taberd depicted part of Paracels and noted “paracel seu Cat Vang” (Paracel or Cat Vang) for the archipelago farther than those near the shore of central Viet Nam, corresponding to the area of Hoang Sa archipelago nowadays.

J.B Chaineau, one of the counselors to Emperor Gia Long, wrote in the 1820 complementary note to his “Mémoire sur Cochinchine” (Memoir on Cochinchina)13 that: “The Country of Cochinchina, whose emperor has just ascended to the throne, includes the Regions of Cochinchina and Tonkin14 … some inhabited islands not too far from the shore, and the Paracel archipelago composed of uninhabited small islands, creeks, and cays.”

In the article “Geography of the Cochinchinese Empire”15, written by Gutzlaff and published in 1849, some parts clearly indicate that Hoang Sa is part of Viet Nam’s territory and even noted the archipelago with the Vietnamese name “Cat Vang”./.



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