Colonial ecological control and aristocratic privileges: a study of big-game hunting in Indochina

By Clémentine Ducasse

Dashing through the night, a car hurtled madly down the banyan tree-lined road. The car headlights, dazzling in the darkness of the jungle, met two luminous reflectors. A shot! The mad dash ended. Two men stepped out of the car and came closer to glimmering eyeballs belonging to an exhausted, soon-to-be-dead tiger. This story of a hunt could have taken place in colonial India – except that it describes the practice of “chasse à l’automobile”, a famous hunting activity in the French colony of Indochina.

While India and Africa may be the best known big-game hunting regions in popular culture, it is less-known that South-East Asia also hosted hunting expeditions. Between 1900 and 1950, big-game hunting took place in Indochina, which tried to attract the best sportsmen from all over the world while developing tourism. The region offered intriguing big game for the western hunters, such as gaurs, oxen, bantengs, elephants, tigers, koupreys, panthers and bears. [1]

Introduced by Anglophile French aristocrats, big-game hunting in Indochina never reached the scale and reputation of its counterpart in the British Empire. However, the published big-game hunting novels about brave hunters, the amount of tourist guides, and the policies enforced to control hunting are indicative of the efforts made by the French colonial authorities to make Indochina into a must-see hunting destination. Largely ignored by historians, the study of big-game hunting in Indochina adds to the global synthesis of a “colonial ecological control”, as conceived by the historian Richard Grove. [2] The first policies on the preservation of animals in the colony of Indochina, fostered by aristocrat hunters, made hunting a privilege.

The introduction of big-game hunting in the late 19th century in the Asian colony was followed by the slaughter of numerous animals. In 1914 in the plain of Lagna, the Governor of Cochinchina noted the massacre of herds “whose carcasses remain to rot on the ground”. He denounced the acts of colonial hunters “with no other goals but to set records”. [3] Hunters posed proudly on photographs with their hunting trophies, and boasted about their hunting tally. In the 1917 guide on the Lang-Bian region by Pierre Bouvard, a photograph features three dead elephants lying at the bottom of a mountain, with two colonial hunters. It was the typical photograph of a “hecatomb”, meaning the massive destruction of animals. [4] However, the animals were depleting in Indochina and the government wanted to develop hunting tourism in the colony. Hunters’ and government interests were clashing.

Inspired by the same change of hunter’s ethics which took place in America and in the British Empire, a group of aristocratic hunters advocated for the convergence of their own hunting practices and the colonial administration’s will to preserve animal resources. [5] Where quantity used to be the goal of big game hunting, aristocratic hunters now defended quality. Animals had to be killed according to a sporting code. [6] Shooting females was prohibited. The use of trap and bait was deemed unsporting. In setting these rules, aristocratic hunters distinguished themselves from regular European hunters and from natives. The idea of the “true hunter” emerged – as opposed to what the Marquis de Barthelemy considered “rifle carriers”. [7] Both aristocrats and non-aristocrats who accepted these sporting rules could be part of the Syndicat des Grandes Chasses Coloniales Françaises, which lobbied government commissions on hunting. 

Joining their interests to the colonial state, sportsmen became models of conservationism. Conservationist policies gave them the privilege to hunt. In 1927, a law on hunting restricted the activity in all Indochina. Hunting licences and national game reserves were created. It defined what was legal hunting and what was poaching. Natives could only hunt during the day with “spear, lances, crossbows or bows”, and could not peddle their catch. [8] Furthermore, they were not allowed to hunt in the game reserves except in self-defence.

The regular colonial hunters, who also felt disadvantaged by the new law, opposed it. In the journal Le paysan de Cochinchine, a colonist declared: “However, in order to turn Indochina into a private hunting ground for the sole entertainment of a few privileged men from metropolitan France, hunting lodges will have to be created in the farthest reaches for the benefit of these gentlemen. As for us, poor colonists, we will not have the possibility to shoot down the sparrows which will come to wreak havoc in our fields without incurring the ruthless castigation of the law”. [9] He adds: “Republic of pals, we will have no other choice but to feed your game”. Indeed, the new law facilitated the hunt of big games, and restricted the hunt of small games favoured by colonists. It also restricted the access to certain lands. The creation of game reserves questioned their status: were they public or private game reserves? Eventually, they are reminiscent of the private hunting parks in the Medieval Ages, which had belonged to the aristocracy. [10]

Conservationist policies allowed aristocrats, non-aristocrats who obeyed the “true” hunter’s code, and wealthy tourists to hunt in the colony. They were the models of a sustainable economy of hunting tourism which benefited the prestige of the Indochinese colony. On the other end of the scale, natives and European colonists saw their hunting rights restricted. Since the French Revolution, hunting had been a right granted to every citizen. The first policies for the preservation of the fauna in Indochina made hunting a privilege, once more, in a post-revolutionary era. 

[1] Bibliotheque nationale de France, Big-Game Hunting in French Indo-China, Hanoi: G Taupin & Cie, 1939.

[2] Richard Grove, “Colonial conservation, ecological hegemony and popular resistance : toward a global synthesis”, in John MacKenzie, Imperialism and the Natural World, Manchester: Manchester Univeristy Press, p. 17. See also Clémentine Ducasse, Les grandes chasses coloniales en Indochine 1858 – 1939, Master’s dissertation, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Institut Pierre Renouvin, Centre d’Histoire de l’Asie contemporaine, 2021.

[3] Archives nationales d’outre-mer [hereafter ANOM], GGI 15 537.

[4] Eric T. Jennings, Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 91; Aline Demay, Tourisme et Colonisation en Indochine 1898-1939, Thesis, University of Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne, June 2011, p. 125.

[5] William Beinart & Lotte Hughes, Environment and Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 279.

[6] Kingsley Malarney Shaun, “Defining the True Hunter: Big Game Hunting, Moral Distinction, and Virtuosity in French Colonial Indochina”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 62, n° 3, 2020.

[7] Fernand Victor Millet, Les grands animaux sauvages de l’Annam, leurs mœurs, leur chasse et leur tir, Librairie Plon, 1930.; G. Tiran, Big Game in Indochina: Hunter’s Guide, Bureau du tourisme en Indochine continental palace hotel of messageries maritimes, Saigon, 1929. p. 21; and Marquis de Barthélemy in ANOM, 15 537.

[8] Tr. “épieux, lances, arbalètes ou arcs”. ANOM, GGI SE 1547. Chasse divers.

[9] Tr. “Mais pour faire de l’Indochine une chasse gardée au profit de quelques ventres dorés de la Métropole, que nous entretiendrons l’on créera des pavillons de chasse dans les régions éloignées pour ces Messieurs, et nous autres colons, nous n’aurons pas le droit de tirer les tourterelles qui viendront ravager nos semis sans risquer d’éprouver les rigueurs de la loi.” “République des copains, il va falloir que nous nourrissions ton gibier”. ANOM, AGEFOM 254-255. Dossier Campagne de la presse contre l’application du décret du 27 juin 1934 modifiant du 7 avril 1927 sur la chasse en Indochine, 1934. Article: Le paysan de Cochinchine, n°2, jeudi 18 octobre 1934.

[10] Sharon Farmer, “Aristocratic Power and the ‘Natural’ Landscape: The Garden Park at Hesdin, Ca. 1291-1302”, Speculum, vol. 88, n° 3, 2013, p. 645; L.M. Cantor, J. Hatherly, “The Medieval Parks of England”, Geography, vol. 64, n° 2, 1979, p. 71.

Image credit: On the right : BNF. Tiran G., La Grande chasse en Indochine, le guide du chasseur, Bureau du tourisme en Indochine, 1929. On the left : BNF. Tiran G., Big game in Indochina : Hunter’s guide, Bureau du tourisme en Indochine continental palace hotel of messageries maritimes, Saigon, 1929. Author’s own protograph.

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