Emergence and development of capitalism in Cochinchina (1859-1930)

✍️ HO Hai Quang

Emergence and development of capitalism in Cochinchina (1859-1930)

Economists and historians who have studied the economy of Vietnam during the colonial period are unanimous in declaring that the capitalist production sector was created thanks to capital coming from France and that this was provided by large metropolitan corporations.

On what theoretical basis is this thesis based? To what extent is it verifiable concerning the rubber plantations which formed the bulk of the capitalist production sector in Cochinchina during the colonial era? A critical examination of the historical facts will answer these questions.

The theoretical basement of the imported capital thesis

Marxists support this thesis because it is directly based on Imperialism, the Supreme Stage of Capitalism (1917), a book in which Lenin develops the idea that the expansion of capitalism in the world, through colonial conquests, is explained by the conjunction of two factors: on the one hand, the formation of an enormous surplus of capital in the most advanced capitalist countries (overaccumulation of capital) and on the other hand, the possibility of increasing profits by exporting this capital abroad to underdeveloped countries where the conditions are met for the rate of profits to be particularly high.

Non-Marxist authors also defend this same theory because, as Jacques Marseille remarks in Empire colonial et capitalisme français (1984), "In the field of colonial imperialism, the reference to Marxist theory seems to be essential, because even if it is not always present in works, it is almost always implicit. One would even be tempted to write that there is no other theory of imperialism… Historians who refute the Marxist theory resort to the same explanatory frameworks”.

But does this theory really explain the birth of capitalism in Cochinchina?

Main objective of the colonization of Vietnam

The main objective that France pursued by colonizing Vietnam was not to open up a space for its companies where they could invest their capital in search of profit, but to gain access to Yunnan (China) which was imagined as a commercial and mining El Dorado.

It was because they thought they could reach this region by following the course of the Mekong that the colonizers began by seizing the six southern provinces of Vietnam. These were grouped together to form French Cochinchina, a base from which Mekong reconnaissance expeditions could be organized.

These expeditions having shown that this river was not navigable over its entire length, France extended its domination towards the north by colonizing Annam (1884) and Tonkin (1885) essentially in the hope of being able to penetrate into Yunnan by going up the Red River.

Le Vietnam (Cochinchine, Annam, Tonkin) sous domination française

Vietnam (Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin) under French domination, Graphic designer : @ Ho Quang Xuan

The failure of the first French companies

During the first fifty years of colonization, all the industries created in Cochinchina thanks to capital coming from France failed. In fact, the first profitable companies whose production was capable of supplying a vast market were created not by large French companies but by small settlers. These did not arrive in Cochinchina as industrialists or traders but as civil servants, missionaries, doctors, policemen, soldiers… The colonial state played a determining role in the creation of their businesses.

The State and the Primitive accumulation of capital

After having formed an immense domain by expropriating the land indigenous populations, the State granted vast concessions of land free to small settlers. It also procured for them, through the colony's budget, part of the capital necessary for the development of their properties. This budget was financed from the taxes which existed under the Vietnamese monarchy and by new resources coming from taxes on salt and on the consumption of opium...

Part of the revenue generated by this taxation was used to generously remunerate civil servants as well as all those who, in one way or another, lived off the Colony's budget. The capital amassed in Cochinchina and the land concessions enabled small settlers to create, between 1900 and 1913, the first rubber plantations on the outskirts of Saigon.

After the First World War, the demand for rubber, which continued to increase with the uninterrupted development of the automobile industry, attracted a wave of capital to Cochinchina from France: these therefore did not create the capitalist production sector in Cochinchina but made it possible to extend it.

Forced wage labor

The plantations created before the First World War operated with free salaried workers. These were not very numerous because the plantations were not huge. And since they were located near urban centers, their owners could find workers without difficulty.

Completely different was the situation of the rubber plantations created after the First World War. The land concessions granted to the rubber companies covered several thousand hectares and were located in the middle of the jungle, in malarious regions where only a few non-settled proto-Indochinese tribes lived. To create plantations and make them work, the rubber companies recruited thousands of workers from among the poor peasantry of Annam and Tonkin.

Vietnam (Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin) under French domination

E. Delamarre, L'émigration et l'immigration ouvrière en Indo-chine, 1931.

@ Source: E. Delamarre, L'émigration et l'immigration ouvrière en Indochine, 1931.

The employment contracts that bound these workers to their employers were not contracts that could be terminated at any time but were indentured agreements: the workers had to work for 3 to 5 years and could not resign. This wage labor was therefore not a "free" wage labor but a "forced" wage labor, similar to that which the planters of Reunion, Guyana, Martinique and Guadeloupe had used to recruit Indian, Chinese and Malagasy workers... after the abolition of slavery (1848).

How to explain the use of this form of wage labor? To bring in labor from Annam and Tonkin, planters had to contact specialized companies and advance them large sums to cover the costs of recruiting and transporting workers to Cochinchina. For the planters, these operations were profitable only if they were certain of being able to keep the workers there for a sufficient time to allow them at least to balance their accounts. Only long-term employment contracts which could not be cancelled could give them this guarantee.

For reasons of public tranquility, the state also had an interest in ensuring that the indentured labourers remained under the control of the planters. This is why exceptional legislation was created to punish those who fled (fines and even imprisonment in the event of a repeat offence).

@ Débarquement à Saigon d'engagés destinés aux plantations d'hévéa de Cochinchine (ANOM/FM/7AFFECO/Carton 25).

@ Disembarkation in Saigon of indentured labourers destined for the rubber plantations of Cochinchina (ANOM/FM/7AFFECO/Carton 25).

The reproduction of forced wage labor

In the free wage labor, the reproduction of the social relationships and the renewal of the workers are ensured by the wage. The amount of the wage must allow the workers to subsist and also to maintain those who will replace them at work: their children.

It is different in forced wage labor. Men formed the bulk of the labor force on the plantations, and since women were very few in number, children were rare. Under these conditions, the wage was fixed to allow the workers to reproduce only their labor-power during their stay on the plantation. Its amount being less than the true cost of reproduction of labor power, the hired workers were therefore overexploited.

Moreover, since trade unions were prohibited and employment contracts were long-term and could not be cancelled, planters exploited their workers without restraint. Mortality was very high and there were many indentured labourers who asked to be repatriated at the end of their contract. To replace them, the rubber companies recruited new workers in the villages of the north of the country: the plantations of Cochinchina therefore functioned as pumps that pull in and throw out workers.

This system of workforce rotation allowed the rubber companies to have the financing of the renewal of the labor-power borne by the villages that issued workers. Indeed, it was the families of these villages who produced and raised the children until they were recruited to go and work in Cochinchina. Indee, it was in the families of these villages that the children were born and grew up until the moment when it was possible to recruit them to go and work in Cochinchina.

Ultimately under forced wage labor two mechanisms of exploitation were at work: that of the plantation workers and that of the domestic economy which was linked to the plantations through the labor market.


If it is true that the capital provided by large French companies participated in the development of capitalism in Cochinchina, it is false to affirm that they are its origin. In reality, this mode of production was created during the decade preceding the First World War thanks to the Colonial state. It is no exaggeration to say that the Colonial state was the midwife of capitalism in Cochinchina. It is also important to emphasize that this capitalism did not have its classical form. Indeed, the workers employed in the rubber plantations were not free employees but indentured labourers. It is this form of wage labor that allowed the rubber companies to over-exploit them. Forced wage labor was the soil in which trade unionism and communism developed in Vietnam.

About the author

HO Hai Quang holds a PhD in economics. He was a lecturer at the University of Reims, then at the University of Reunion Island.
Main books :

  • Contribution à l'Histoire économique de l'île de La Réunion (1642-1848), L'Harmattan, 1998
  • Histoire économique de l'Ile de La Réunion (1849-1881), L'Harmattan, 2004
  • La Réunion, histoire économique (1882-1960), L'Harmattan, 2008
  • 38 chefs d'entreprises de La Réunion témoignent, Azalées édi-tions, 200, réédition Éditions Poisson Rouge.oi, 2011
  • Esclavagisme et engagisme à Maurice et à La Réunion Éditions Poisson Rouge.oi, 2016
  • Le Capital en toute simplicité, éditions du Borrego (2019)
  • L’économie de La Réunion, du sous-développement au capitalisme dépendant (1961-2020), Éditions Poisson Rouge.oi, 2021
  • Itinéraires d'un immigré de Cochinchine (autobiographie), Édi-tions Poisson Rouge.oi, 2022
Débarquement à Saigon d'engagés destinés aux plantations d'hévéa de Cochinchine (ANOM/FM/7AFFECO/Carton 25)
February 2023
HO Hai Quang
Docteur d’État en sciences économiques