VietNam would like to introduce a series of articles on ancient documents proving Vietnam’s sovereignty over the archipelagos of Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly).
Part 1: The earliest records
The map of An Nam by French priest Jean-Louis Taberd.
Vietnam has the oldest historic documents about the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the world, starting from the early 17th century.
Hoang Sa was called by westerners as “Paracels” in the 19th century. Documents by Western researchers, missionaries and merchants all described Paracels as a series of islands, rocks and coral reefs along the central coast of Vietnam.
Until the 18th century and a long time after that, Vietnamese geographers and the western navigators did not distinguish Paracel as the two archipelagos of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa as today.
For Vietnamese people, the name Hoang Sa, Bai Cat Vang, Dai Truong Sa or Van Ly Truong Sa referred to the islands stretching from the north to south East Sea. By early 20th century, the above names were still used. In royal document No. 10 in 1933 of King Bao Dai and the Ordinance No. 143 by President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1965, Hoang Sa (Paracels) was still used as the name for the both archipelagos of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa.
Doctor of history Nguyen Nha and his European colleagues have discovered a very interesting detail: The Chinese in ancient and medieval ages were not interested in the sea. For them, the territory was called "江山" or "mountains and rivers", understood in the modern language as the mainland.
For the Vietnamese, territory had a broader sense, as “dat nuoc” (water and land) in Vietnamese. In the minds of the Vietnamese people, "dat nuoc" is a country including the mainland and islands.
However, the French were the first who distinguished the two archipelagos by two different names. The French’s historic documents show that Paracels or Hoang Sa is in the north and Spratley is in the south.
By the 1970s, the names of the two archipelagos were used uniformly and popularly.
In general, though the names are different, but in the ancient documents of Vietnam like “Dai Nam Thong Nhat Toan Do" (大南ー統全)(The Map of United Dai Nam), which was compiled in the Nguyen Dynasty in 1838 and “Bac Ky Hoi Do” (maps of the northern Vietnam), Hoang Sa and Truong Sa were drawn as a series of islands from north to south.
Hoang Sa – Truong Sa in feudal history
The map published in 1749 by western navigators (Carte des Costes de Cochinchine Tunquin) , with Hoang Sa as Vietnam's territory.
To date, the oldest document that provides the most detailed description of Hoang Sa is the book “Phu Bien Tap Luc” (Miscellaneous Chronicles of the Pacified Frontier, 1776) by well-known Vietnamese historian Le Quy Don. This is a six-volume Chinese-language geography. It is a detailed description of the Nguyen dynasty's territories in Thuan Hoa and Quang Nam Provinces, and covers the outlying areas such as Hoang Sa.
Page 78 b and 79 a read as follows: “An Vinh Commune, Binh Son District, Quang Ngai Prefecture has a mountain  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 are the Dai Truong Sa Islands, where there are plenty of sea products and other goods. It takes the Hoang Sa Flotilla, founded to collect those products and goods; three full days to reach the islands, which are near Bac Hai.”
“… Bình 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 are as big as fingertips; their shells can be carved to make identification badges or calcined 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 sea soft-shell 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 freshwater crab extract and scrape all the dirt off. It will be better if cooked with shrimps and pork."
He also wrote: “Foreign boats often take refuge in these islands to avoid storms. The Nguyen rulers have established Hoang Sa Flotilla with 70 sailors selected from An Vinh commune on a rotation 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 boats for three 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 Dau (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 the command of Hoang Sa Flotilla. The collected items are mostly sea products and rarely include jewelries.”
To be continued…
* The article uses research materials by Dr. Han Nguyen Nguyen Nha, founder and advisor of the Cultural Education Fund in HCM City.