In the 17th century, Vietnam was divided between the Trịnh Lords to the north and the Nguyễn Lords to the south. The northern section was called Tonkin by Europeans, and the southern part called Cochinchina by most Europeans and Quinam by the Dutch.
During the French colonial period, the label moved further south, and came to refer to the southernmost part of Vietnam, controlled by Cambodia in prior centuries, and lying to its southeast. The area was called Cochinchine in French, and its capital was at Saigon. The two other parts of Vietnam at the time were known as Annam and Tonkin.
The name "Cochin" derives from the Malay Kuchi which referred to all of Vietnam. This term was in turn derived from the Chinese jiao zhi, pronounced giao chỉ in Vietnam. "Cochinchina" derives from the need or desire to distinguish this Cochi/Kochi/Kuchi from the city (and princely state) of Kochi in India.
The conquest of the south of present-day Vietnam was a long process of territorial acquisition by the Vietnamese. It is called Nam Tien by Vietnamese historians. Vietnam (then known as Đại Việt) nearly doubled its territory in 1470 under the great king Lê Thánh Tông, at the expense of the Champa. The next two hundred years was a time of territorial consolidation and civil war with only gradual expansion south.
As a result of a civil war that started in 1520, the Emperor of China sent a commission to study the political status of Annam in 1536. As a consequence of the delivered report, he declared war against the Mạc Dynasty. The nominal ruler of the Mạc died at the very time that the Chinese armies passed the frontiers of the kingdom in 1537, and his father, Mạc Đăng Dung (the real power in any case), hurried to submit to the Imperial will, and declared himself to be a vassal of China. The Chinese declared that both the Lê Dynasty and the Mạc had a right to part of the lands and so they recognized the Lê rule in the southern part of Vietnam while at the same time recognizing the Mạc rule in the northern part, which was called Tunquin (i.e. Tonkin). This was to be a feudatory state of China under the government of the Mạc.
However, this arrangement did not last long. In 1592, Trịnh Tùng, leading the Royal (Trịnh) army, conquered nearly all of the Mạc territory and moved the Lê kings back to the original capital of Hanoi. The Mạc only held on to a tiny part of north Vietnam until 1667, when Trịnh Tạc conquered the last Mạc lands.
In 1623, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, the lord of the (then) southern provinces of Vietnam, established a trading community at Saigon with the consent of the king of Cambodia. Over the next 50 years, Vietnamese control slowly expanded in this area but only gradually as the Nguyễn were fighting a protracted civil war with the Trịnh Lords in the north.
With the end of the war with the Trịnh, the Nguyễn were able to devote more effort (and military force) to conquest of the south. First, the remaining Champa territories were taken; next, the areas around the Mekong river were placed under Vietnamese control.
At least three wars were fought between the Nguyễn Lords and the Cambodian kings in the period 1715 to 1770 with the Vietnamese gaining more territory with each war. The wars all involved the much more powerful Siamese kings who fought on behalf of their vassals, the Cambodians.
In the late 1700s, Vietnam was briefly unified under the Tây Sơn. These were three brothers, former peasants, who succeeded in conquering first the lands of the Nguyễn and then the lands of the Trịnh. But final unification came under Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, a remarkably tenacious member of the Nguyễn noble family who fought for 25 years against the Tây Sơn and ultimately conquered the entire country in 1802. He ruled all of Vietnam under the name Gia Long.
Gia Long and his successors (see the Nguyễn Dynasty for details) conquered more lands from Cambodia and even annexed Phnom Penh and surrounding territory. However, the Vietnamese were forced to relinquish these conquests in the latter part of the 1800s.
For a series of complex reasons, the French government of Napoleon III, with the help of Spanish troops arriving from the Philippines (which was a Spanish colony at the time), decided to take over the southern part of Vietnam. In September 1858, France occupied Đà Nẵng (Tourane). On 18 February 1859, they conquered Saigon and three southern Vietnamese provinces: Biên Hòa, Gia Định and Dinh Tuong; on 13 April 1862, the Vietnamese government was forced to cede those territories to France.
In 1867, the provinces of Châu Đốc, Ha Tien and Vĩnh Long were added to French controlled territory. In 1864 all the French territories in southern Vietnam were declared to be the new French colony of Cochinchina.
In 1887, it became part of the Union of French Indochina. In 1933, the Spratly Islands were annexed to French Cochinchina. On 28 July 1941, imperial Japanese troops were based in French Cochinchina (de facto occupation), followed on 9 March 1945 by formal Japanese occupation until 15 August 1945.
From 16 May 1945 – 1946 it was nominally part of the Empire of Vietnam until it became the Republic of Cochin China from June 1 1946 to June 14 1949. On 14 June 1949 Cochin-China ceased to exist, and was replaced with the State of Vietnam within the French Union.
It ceased to exist in 1949 replaced by the de facto “South Vietnam” under the successive names of State of Vietnam (1949-1955), Republic of Vietnam (1953–75) and Republic of South Vietnam (1975-1976). South Vietnam was not a recreation of Cochinchina as it controlled half of the former French administrative unit of Annam in addition to Cochinchina.
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