CfP: From the Port to the World. A Global History of Indochinese Ports (1858-1956)

Call for papers, deadline 31 October 2021

[Also available in French and Vietnamese here:]

Ports, the quintessential sites of “naval imperialism”[1], were essential to the progressive colonization of French Indochina. As places where warships and merchants could anchor and set up trading posts, as well as a gateway for European and Asian diplomats, missionaries and merchants from the 16th century onwards, the Eastern ports of the Indochinese peninsula allowed French colonial power to be imposed in East Asia: firstly, in Tourane (Đà Nẵng), a military base for the Franco-Spanish expeditionary corps and the naval division in the China Seas between September 1858 and March 1860; then in Sài Gòn, a free port from 1860 and a support and supply base for the conquest of Cochinchina; and lastly in Hải Phòng, a colonial creation that became a military and commercial bridgehead that facilitated the conquest of Tonkin starting in the early 1870s. In addition to serving the imperial state and its ambitions, these ports were also essential to the interests of French and international business circles, becoming crucial cornerstones for the French entry into an “Asian Mediterranean”[2]; a place of complex connections between civilizations, where Asian and Western trade networks were structured and intermingled. 

As “matrices” of colonization, “ports in colonial context”[3] also offer valuable lenses for scholars that study the phenomenon of colonialism and the construction of colonial societies. Mediating between metropoles and imperial territories, ports stand out as “in-between” spaces defined by an interface between port societies under construction and pre-existent local societies placed under colonial rule. As “contact zones”[4] that bring into focus the “hegemonic transaction”[5] of the “colonial moment”, colonial port-cities constitute fertile ground for analyzing relations between the colonizer and the colonized, the native and the outsider, and the production of a hybrid society[6] that maintains more or less active ties with the rest of the world. Indochinese ports are a singular object of study; they can be applied to all scales of connectivity, to the French empire, to other colonial empires, and to the wider Asia-Pacific. 

Nevertheless, these complex environments, within which new relations of domination were constructed from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, have received very little attention from historians and other researchers in the humanities and social sciences. Over the past decade, important efforts have been made to bring the fields of colonial history and imperial history into dialogue with that of maritime and port history. Surprisingly, however, within this emerging historiography, very few works are specifically dedicated to Indochinese ports.[7] Two exhibitions recently organized in France have highlighted part of the maritime history of French Indochina[8], but nothing specific has yet been done on the subject of Indochinese ports themselves. Regarding the colonial period, no collaboration has been implemented between scholars in France and Việt Nam on these issues despite abundant sources and genuine interest in mobilizing them. 

Consequently, this international conference will have three main ambitions: to contribute to filling the gap in the historiography; to adopt a globalized approach to Indochinese ports, much like what Bruno Marnot has endeavored for the major French commercial ports[9]; and finally, to go beyond monographic studies while reinforcing discussions between historiographies and researchers, all in a multidisciplinary manner. 

Comparative approaches will therefore be particularly welcome, as will studies devoted to the small coastal ports of Indochina, the importance of which has been wholly neglected compared to the larger ports. Finally, we feel it is essential to welcome papers devoted to the pre-colonial history of these ports, as well as to their more recent realities. 

Given the broad scope of the questions that the conference hopes to address, we would like to propose the following themes to structure the overall debate. These are meant as a reference only and we welcome all submissions that seek to contribute to the conference’s central aims. 

Proposed themes

  • The role of Indochinese ports within the process of colonization and exerting control over coveted territories, not only in a military sense, but also in the sense of policing and law enforcement. Vietnamese ports will be considered from a military and (geo)strategic point of view, if possible in a multi-scalar manner, both during the period of colonial settlement as well as during the conflicts that marked the colonial period (e.g. Pacific War, First Indochina War).
  • The role that economic exchange plays in the history of Indochinese ports. Particular attention will be paid to port’s commercial zones of influence, i.e. the port hinterland and foreland, the port economy (local and/or “Indochinese”), and the flow of goods (legal or smuggled). By extension, this conference’s economic dimension will take into account the important issue of the development of port and land communication infrastructures (projects, achievements, failures, financing, etc.). This issue is made even more crucial by the fact that the Indochinese peninsula concentrated most of the materials necessary for infrastructure projects undertaken both for the economic development of the Indochinese Union and to extend control over more remote territories (Indochina and Yunnan Railways, colonial roads, and engineering works). Finally, it is important to take into account maritime and shipping companies, which largely contributed to connecting Indochinese ports and inserting them into the regional, imperial and trans-imperial economic circuits.
  • The complexity of Indochinese urban port societies. The conference will examine the modalities and nature of urban development (spatial cohabitation/segregation) in port-cities and the social diversity of their populations. The cosmopolitan character of these interfaces will therefore be considered, with a close look at the relationships that French colonists maintained among themselves, but also, and above all, with the Vietnamese populations, the Chinese congregations (Bang - 帮), and the labor force (hired coolies and stevedores, for example). This section may also include papers that address strikes and anti-colonial struggles that developed in or carried out from the ports.
  • Cultural history and representations of Indochinese ports. A final dimension, equally important for a global history of Indochinese ports, will be to consider these environments through the notions of the “social imaginary” and the “colonial imaginary”, and to identify more clearly their place within sources as diverse as literature, the press, painting, photography, and propaganda posters. This multidisciplinary component could also integrate a more contemporary dimension, that of port heritage, as well as colonial and post-colonial legacies. 

How to contribute, practical information

Proposals for papers should be sent by email before October 31st, 2021,


Proposals should consist of a (provisional) title and an abstract that is 2500–3000 characters in length. Proposals should be accompanied by a short CV that lists the submitter’s main publications.

A reply will be given to participants by January 15th, 2022. Selected participants should submit completed papers (about 30, 000 characters long) along with a short abstract in English by June 25th, 2022, at the latest, so that papers can be translated for publication, upon selection, in the conference proceedings. We plan to publish in French and Vietnamese.

Selected papers for the conference will eventually be grouped into thematic panels. The authors concerned will be informed.

Finally, the organizers have opted for a hybrid conference format that will take place both in person and online. Therefore, speakers who cannot travel to Việt Nam will not be excluded from the program. Modalities concerning travel and accommodation expenses will be shared later, once the selection of speakers has been made official. 

Organizing Committee

Sunny Le Galloudec (PhD candidate in History, UMR IDEES 6266 - Le Havre, University of Le Havre Normandie); Thomas Claré (PhD candidate in History, IRASIA, Aix-Marseille University): organization and coordination.

  • Dominique Barjot (Professor emeritus of Modern Economic History at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, Vice-President of the 2nd section of the Académie des Sciences d'Outre-Mer) 
  • Éric Guerassimoff (Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Paris, CESSMA UMR 245; main coordinator of the Cooliebrokers research program - ANR 20-CE41-0011)
  • Jean-François Klein (Professor of Modern Maritime History at the University of Bretagne-Sud, researcher at UMR 9016 TEMOS, holder of the Senghor Chair of Maritime Francophonie - RICSF, Académie des Sciences d'Outre-Mer)
  • Lê Thị Hồng Oanh (Head of the International Relations Department at the University of Đà Nẵng)
  • Philippe Le Failler (Associate Professor in Early and Late Modern History of Việt Nam, director of the EFEO in Hà Nội)
  • Jean Martinant de Préneuf (Associate Professor in Modern History at the University of Lille, Head of the Research, Studies and Teaching Division at the SHD)
  • Nguyễn Phương Ngọc (Associate Professor in Vietnamese Studies, Director of IRASIA)
  • Nguyễn Thị Hạnh (Professor of Modern History, Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam, holder of the Senghor Chair of Maritime Francophonie - RICSF)
  • Nguyễn Văn Sang (PhD in History, and Head of the External Relations Office of the Đại học Sư phạm Đà Nẵng)
  • Olivier Tessier (Associate Professor in Anthropology of Việt Nam, head of the EFEO Center in Hô-Chi-Minh-City)
  • Thomas Vaisset (Associate Professor in Modern History, UMR IDEES 6266-Le Havre)


[1] Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, Indochine, la colonisation ambiguë, 1858-1954, Paris: La Découverte, 1995, p. 29.

[2] François Gipouloux, La Méditerranée asiatique, villes portuaires et réseaux marchands en Chine, au Japon et en Asie du Sud-Est, XVIe–XXIe siècle, Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2009.

[3] Jean-François Klein and Bruno Marnot (eds.), Les Européens dans les ports en situation coloniale (XVIe-XXe siècle), Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes (PUR), 2014, 170 p.

[4] Mary-Louise Pratt, « Arts of the Contact Zone », Profession, 1991, p. 33–40.

[5] Jean-François Bayart and Romain Bertrand, « De quel “legs colonial” parle-t-on », Esprit, n° 12, 2006, p. 134–60.

[6] Caroline Herbelin, Architectures du Vietnam colonial. Repenser le métissage, Paris: CTHS-INHA, 2016.

[7] So far, the two main Indochinese ports—Sài Gòn and Hải Phòng—have been the main focus of historians. See in particular the PhD theses of Gilles Raffi and Trần Văn Kiên on the city-port of Hải Phòng and the conference “Saigon, témoin de l'histoire à travers les archives”, organised by the Service Historique de la Défense and the Institut d'Asie Orientale (Vincennes, May 21st, 2019). Also worth mentioning is Sunny Le Galloudec’s PhD dissertation, currently in progress, which is dedicated to the history of the former French concession and city-port of Tourane (present-day Đà Nẵng, in central Việt Nam), in a comparative approach with the other ports of the Indochinese Union.

[8] Les Marins, la Marine et l’Indochine. 1856–1956, an exhibition organized by the Service historique de la Défense (SHD) in partnership with IRASIA, November 2017–February 2018 (curated by Cyril Canet and Nguyễn Quốc Thanh); L’Indochine et la mer (1858–1954), an exhibition co-organized by IRASIA and the Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM), in collaboration with the SHD and on the initiative of Nguyễn Quốc Thanh (September–November 2018); the exhibition and catalogue coordinated by Christophe Bertrand, Caroline Herbelin and Jean-François Klein, Indochine : Des territoires et des hommes 1858–1956, Paris: Gallimard/Musée de l’Armée, 2013, had already given an important place to these pivotal sites.

[9] Bruno Marnot, Les grands ports de commerce français et la mondialisation au XIXe siècle, Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2011, 589 p.