A Maritime Cultural Landscape of Cochinchina: The South China Sea, maritime routes, navigation, and boats in pre-colonial central Vietnam


Charlotte Minh Ha PHAM

PhD defended at: 

Murdoch University, Western Australia



This thesis depicts aspects of maritime life along the coast of central Vietnam, Cochinchina, between the 16th and the 19th centuries. During that period of time, maritime activity along the coast of Cochinchina was bustling. Boats were central to the development of the region under the reign of the Nguyen Lords (1558-1802), for defence and expansion, for trade, and for sustaining daily life. Concurrently, Europeans in the age of sail followed the traditional maritime route to China that hugged the coast of Cochinchina, and often sailed into its harbours.
The aim of the thesis is to provide a general understanding of the traditional use of boats, and in doing so, the thesis examines from several vantage points maritime routes, the characteristics of the South China Sea and its navigation, various maritime activities, Cochinchinese seafaring and seamanship, and finally, the boats themselves.
In this thesis, the maritime aspect is the component that links these various topics together. As such, it uses a framework initiated by the Annales School, and deepened by the New Thalassology. Within that framework, the sea is considered as a fundamental force that shaped life along the coast, and the South China Sea is thus central to this thesis. At the same time, the methodology relies on a multi-disciplinary approach that draws upon a range of sources, in order to address a particular region of Vietnam over the longue durée. The thesis therefore draws upon archival documents, including travellers’ accounts, missionaries’ letters, and embassies’ reports from the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, to reconstruct a sense of the navigation conditions on the South China Sea, along the coast of central Vietnam, and shed light on the boats and mariners that sailed there. It also draws upon ethnography, from the 19th century to the present, to address the continuity of boat use, and Cochinchinese specific boatbuilding features over time.
As such, this thesis illuminates the maritime past of Cochinchina from a maritime perspective, and by making the multi-disciplinary study of boat use its centrepiece, it stands at the cross-roads of maritime archaeology, nautical technology and maritime history.