Why were two of the earliest pieces of Orwell’s journalism, written in Paris during the late 1920s when he was still E.-A. Blair, published by a newspaper in Saigon?
E.-A. Blair published four personal essays in a left-wing weekly Parisian newspaper, Le Progrès Civique: Journal de Perfectionnement Social, during 1928-1929. Three of the articles explored poverty in Britain. The fourth, analysing how the British Empire exploited the Burmese people, was the last piece of journalism he published in Paris.
Although mentioned in later issues of Le Progrès Civique, by Pierre Vignes and Maurice Nibart (on 30 March and 7 September 1929), it seemed that these articles had never resurfaced until the publication of The Complete Works of George Orwell in 1998.
However, it has become apparent that two of these essays were also published, in La Tribune Indochinoise: Organe Officiel du Parti Constitutionnaliste Indochinois, during 1929.
The first of these, ‘Une enquête du “Progrès Civique” en Angleterre: La grande misère de l’ouvrier britannique — 1. Le chômage’ (‘An Inquiry into ‘Civic Progress” in England: The Plight of the British Workers: Unemployment’) originally appeared on the 29th December, 1928. It was published again, five weeks later, in La Tribune Indochinoise on the 4th Feb 1929.
This was followed by ‘Comment on exploite un peuple: L’Empire britannique en Birmanie’ (‘How a Nation Is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma’) which was re-printed during the same year, in two instalments, on the 11th and 13th September.
Correspondence from Les Progrès Civique regarding these articles and payment has survived but does not provide any insights into the possible syndication of the essays. The copy-editor, Raoul Nicole (1899-1950), who translated these articles into French (sadly, the original English versions have not survived) reveals Blair was to be paid 225 francs for each one.
How Blair’s articles were specifically sourced for this French-language newspaper in Saigon is not immediately obvious. However, considering the intensity with which radical political ideas were exchanged by the diverse milieu of journalists, editors and politicians active during the postwar period in Paris and Saigon, it is possible to infer contextually how this eventuated.
Situating the internal wrangling at La Tribune Indochinoise, within the wider political context and history of anti-colonial activism, reveals much of the story.
La Tribune Indochinoise
La Tribune Indochinoise: Organe Officiel du Parti Constitutionnaliste Indochinois, founded in 1926 by Bùi Quang Chiêu (1873-1945), appeared thrice weekly until 1942.
Chiêu, born into a family of Confucian scholars in Southern Vietnam, studied in France and Algeria (1893-1897) before returning to Indochina as an agronomist working in the colonial bureaucracy. In 1907, he was assigned by the French Governor-General to manage a silkworm and silk weaving facility. He became instrumental in the technical and economic success of this industry which led to greater personal business opportunities, including lucrative hat factories and rice mills.
Chiêu, a naturalised French citizen, a large landowner, elitist and self-professed bourgeois became increasingly wealthy, well-connected and committed to constitutional – rather than revolutionary political change – in order to improve the status and lives of the Vietnamese people, or at least those of his own class and background, including French-educated businessmen, landowners and civil servants.
Censorship rules were relaxed during World War I by the French colonial administration, led by Albert Sarraut, in an effort to garner popular support for the war effort. The local newspapers that emerged were granted financial support by the French authorities but kept under close control. Sarraut’s strategy (collaborate with those willing to cooperate with the colonial regime while developing increased capacity to monitor those who wished to overthrow French rule) placed Chiêu in a prime position to work within the pre-existing order of things.
In 1919, along with Dương Văn Giáo (1892-1945) and Nguyễn Phan Long (1889-1960), Chiêu founded the Indochinese Constitutionalist Party. This new political party had the goals of modernising the country and establishing freedoms through the legal framework of a constitution.
Chiêu established an official press organ for the party, La Tribune Indigène. He had the necessary French political support to nurture his electoral ambition and was able to successfully fund his newspaper enterprise with the support of a network of wealthy southern Vietnamese families.
Aided by a son studying to be a doctor* and Duong Van Giao, Chiêu traveled back and forth between Vietnam and the French capital during the 1920s. He had a surprising amount of latitude to be critical of government policies and grew in popularity as a result of his patriotic advocacy for the Indigenous people.
Giáo, a lawyer married to a French woman, had lived in Paris for more than a decade and was well-connected to progressive politicians and emigrant Vietnamese anti-colonialists. He was legal counsel to militant nationalists (“dragons”) including Phan Văn Trường and Nguyễn Thế Truyền.
In February 1925, Giáo successfully defended his doctoral thesis in law, “Indochina during the War of 1914-1918”. He argued that a radical transformation of the colonial status of indigenous people was deserved as a reward for the loyalty Indochinese troops had demonstrated during the war. Autonomy would not result in the breaking of political ties with the mainland in the form of independence. He insisted that being nationalist did not mean being anti-French but anti-imperialist.
During this period, Giáo became the main voice of the Constitutionalist movement in France. Significantly, he established a metropolitan branch of the Constitutionalist Party connected to the French Radical Socialist Party. Giáo published a European edition of La Tribune Indochinoise (1926–1927) in Paris edited by François Martin.
In 1925, La Tribune Indigène had closed while Chiêu was on sabbatical in Paris. The following year he founded La Tribune Indochinoise: Organe Officiel du Parti Constitutionnaliste Indochinois which supported Franco-Vietnamese reconciliation.
Chiêu continued to elicit support from the French authorities. In 1925, he wrote to Alexandre Varenne, the newly-appointed and first socialist Governor-General of French Indochina (1925-1928), explaining that he still believed in “the civilising mission of France”.
Varenne was popular at first with the Vietnamese. He granted clemency to a revolutionary patriot who had just been sentenced to death, relaxed press censorship and promised reforms in the areas of education, civil rights and local administration. He implied that at some future date the French would grant Vietnam independence. These announcements were deeply unpopular among French residents and he was forced to back down on a number of his pledges.
At a meeting held by the Saigon branch of the Human Rights League in September 1926, Bùi Quang Chiêu and Nguyễn Phan Long presented Varenne with a “List of Vietnamese Wishes”. Chiêu echoed these sentiments in his newspaper, advocating for more educational provision, freedom of expression and movement but was increasingly challenged by a younger generation of radicals within and without of the Constitutional Party (some of whom he employed to write for La Tribune Indochinoise) for his moderate views. He played a subtly understandable political game, considering the growing possibility of being arrested, by regularly seeking reassurances from the authorities that his criticisms were acceptable and toning down his editorials when advised.
No tangible changes came from Varenne’s administration and the early toleration he had demonstrated ended in early 1927 with an unprecedented series of repressive measures. Newspapers were closed and journalists arrested, especially from the northern and central parts of the country.
Ironically, Chiêu was also increasingly treated with suspicion by the French authorities at the same time he was being rejected by more radical, anti-colonial voices. He struggled to maintain credibility.
Although his political influence had declined beyond repair by the late-1920s, it was not until the 1930s that Chiêu was widely viewed as unacceptably pro-French and a collaborator with the colonial system that he had once criticised. In 1938, he retired from political life having fallen from favour.
*One of his daughters, the long-lived Henriette Bùi Quang Chiêu (1906–2012), graduated from a Parisian medical school in 1934 and became the first female doctor in Vietnam.
The Influence of Radical Paris
“To any-student who wishes to go to France to study, the colonial administration imposes police formalities that for the most part amount to refusing the permission of travel under the surprising pretext that ‘the trip to France is a trip to anti-France’.” Bùi Quang Chiêu (SOURCE)
“The most dangerous enemies of the government are the young men of the educated classes. If these classes were more numerous and were really educated, they could perhaps raise the revolutionary banner.” E.-A. Blair, “How a Nation Is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma”
Bùi Quang Chiêu was a very moderate, establishment figure when compared with some of his compatriots. During the 1920s, a growing number of politically well-educated Vietnamese newspaper editors and journalists, already under suspicion for their close connections with anti-colonial activists, returned to Saigon from Paris to openly contest colonial rule. Unsurprisingly, the French Surêté kept those to considered dangerous nationalists under close surveillance.
The most significant of those seeking de-colonisation was Nguyễn Ái Quốc, better known as Hồ Chí Minh (1890-1969), who commenced his political activism while living in France during 1919-1923. Nguyễn joined the Groupe des Patriotes Annamites (Group of Vietnamese Patriots) and his first significant political action was to present an eight-point petition, the “Demands of the Annamite People,” to the Versailles Peace Conference.
On the 18 June 1919, this list of demands, signed “For the Group of Vietnamese Patriots by Nguyen Ai Quốc”, was published in L’Humanité, one of the few newspapers that provided space for anti-colonial voices at this time:
(1) general amnesty for all native political prisoners;
(2) reform of Indochinese justice by granting the natives the same judicial guarantees as were enjoyed by Europeans;
(3) freedom of press and opinion;
(4) freedom of association;
(5) freedom of emigration and foreign travel;
(6) freedom of instruction and the creation in all provinces of technical and professional schools for indigenous people;
(7) replacement of rule by decree by rule of law;
(8) election of a permanent Vietnamese delegation to the French Parliament, to keep it informed of the wishes of indigenous people.
The First World War was to be a crucible for the growth of political awareness among colonised peoples. Although Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Declaration, a statement of principles for peace to after the horror of war, called for self-determination for all peoples, the American president’s focus was Eurocentric. The blatant inequality in French Indochina, embedded through a systemic racial hierarchy, was not easily overthrown. Little came from this petition other than enhancing Nguyễn’s profile with French socialists, communists and anarchists who provided practical support in helping him publish his writing and an ongoing political education.
Nguyễn attended and addressed the foundational congress of the Parti Communiste Français / PCF (French Communist Party) in Tours on the 30 December 1920. Eugène Adam, the Esperantist married to Owell’s Aunt Nellie, was also a founding member. Nguyễn was able to speak conversationally in Esperanto.
It was with the support of one of his early French communist mentors, Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Nguyễn gained a reader’s ticket for the Bibliothèque Nationale. French police records of his library borrowing reveal great eclecticism: classics of French literature – Hugo, Zola, Anatole France, Michelet and Rolland – along with French translations of Tolstoy and in English, Shakespeare and Dickens. He subscribed to L’Humanité, Le Libertaire, Le Populaire and Le Journal du Peuple – as well as numerous non-political magazines. Another influential friend was Marcel Cachin, the communist politician and long-time editor of L’Humanité.
Nguyễn was kept under close (although surprisingly ineffective) surveillance by the French authorities and this documentation has proven a rich vein of historical knowledge about the future Vietnamese president’s activities and associates, especially while residing at 6 Villa des Gobelins, in the 13th arrondisment, as one of the “Five Dragons”. These veteran anti-colonial activists included Phan Châu Trinh; Phan Văn Trường; Nguyễn An Ninh; and, Nguyễn Thế Truyền who is thought to have first introduced him to socialist thought.
The police files reveal that on the 19th January 1920, Nguyễn met at this residence with Nguyên Phan Long, a close political associate and friend of Bui Quang Chiêu, who was a journalist publishing articles in La Tribune Indigène. Subsequently, Chiêu occasionally associated with Nguyễn during the 1920s but they had vastly different political beliefs.
Oddly, Chiêu had first met the future President of Vietnam aboard the Amiral Latouche-Treville in 1911. Nguyễn, known as Van Ba at this time, was working as a chef’s assistant. Coincidentally, Chiêu, who was traveling first class with his own son, knew Van Ba’s father, Nguyễn Sinh Sac.
Le Progrès Civique
Who Eric Blair associated with during the eighteen months he spent in Paris (June 1928-December 1929) is largely unknown. More significantly, feverish political activism resulted in increased state surveillance and the dossiers compiled on individuals in Paris, especially those suspected of being communists, provide invaluable primary source materials for historians researching the period.
Orwell’s Security Service personnel file, released by MI5 in 2007, reveals that Blair, the “ex-Indian policeman journalist” was under surveillance in early 1929. His file indicates that the authorities knew of his contributions to Henri Dumay’s, Les Progrès Civique:
Blair, (redacted) states, wrote three articles in the “Progrès Civique” of 29.12.28., 5th and 12th January, 1929, entitled “La Grande Misere de L’Ouvrier Britannique”. The first article dealt with unemployment in England, which, according to Blair, is due to the war; the second with how the unemployed tramp spends his day; the third with London’s beggars. He spends his time reading various newspapers, among which is “L’humanite”, but he has not so far been seen to mix with Communists in Paris and until he does (redacted) considers that the French will not interfere with him.
Why was Orwell under surveillance? In Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), the un-named narrator suggests a reason:
“… the Paris police are very hard on Communists, especially if they are foreigners, and I was already under suspicion. Some months before, a detective had seen me come out of the office of a Communist weekly paper, and I had had a great deal of trouble with the police.”
The most likely candidates (both weeklies), Monde or Le Progrès Civique, were the only two French publications that printed Blair’s articles. Neither, although left-wing and sympathetic, were Communist newspapers. L’Humanité was a daily Communist newspaper and it is conceivable that Blair sought work as a journalist by visiting their office.
Henri Dumay (1867-1935)
“The inexorable grip of the capitalists on the press, even the left-wing press, was revealed in the disillusioning career of Henri Dumay”. Theodore Zeldin
Born in Lyon, Henri Dumay (1867-1935) had studied journalism in the United States before being appointed as a professor at the University of St. Louis, aged 25. He became an editorial assistant to Joseph Pulitzer (at the New York World ) who dispatched him to Paris in 1899 to cover the Dreyfus trial (where he witnessed the attempted assassination of Dreyfus’s defense counsel, Fernand Labori).
Forging an extremely successful career in Paris, Dumay established himself at a number of papers before the outbreak of war, most notably, Le Petit Parisien. In 1906, he created the long-running Sunday Supplement, Nos Loisirs. It was an “illustrated magazine of women and the home” which published short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1906-1911. By 1923, it had a record circulation of 300,000 copies.
Dumay founded Le Progrès Civique in 1919 – with Henri Bellamy (1879-1954) as the editor-in-chief – in direct response to the electoral success of the Bloc National. He allied with high-calibre left-wing intellectuals, politicians and unionists such as Ferdinand Buisson; the influential historian Alphonse Aulard; Pierre Renaudel; Émile Glay; and, Louis Roussel. who were members of the Human Rights League and the Radical-Socialist Party.
Sold every Saturday for twenty years, his paper was a feature of the interwar press landscape until folding in 1939. The target audience – educated employees, university students, teachers and civil servants – reputedly appreciated its scathing articles and caustic drawings focused on “social improvement”.
Buoyed by his success with Nos Loisirs and Le Progrès Civique, Dumay managed to raise, by public subscription, sufficient funds to found a daily newspaper, Le Quotidien, on the 8th February 8, 1923.
Broadly leftist, with a talented editorial team led by Georges Boris and Pierre Bertrand, his new enterprise rapidly expanded to boast an impressive daily print run of 380,000 copies. In 1924, it was credited with the electoral success of the left and the resignation of the conservative President of the Republic, Alexandre Millerand.
Dumay was very good at raising subscriptions from politically engaged Parisians who believed in his newspaper enterprises. However, in 1927, it emerged that Dumay had tricked the twenty-five thousand readers who had invested 200 or 500 francs each to become shareholders in Le Quotiden. The shares Dumay and his associates held had ten votes each, while those of ordinary shareholders were worth but one. What appeared to be a democratic, co-operative enterprise, was in fact, a facade.
Dumay, conscious of declining circulation, secretly sold half his shares to a right-wing politician, the cognac distiller Jean Hennessy (1874-1944). L’Oeuvre, its principal rival newspaper, was owned by Hennessy. Unbelievably, by stealth, Le Quotiden had ended-up an organ of the right.
There were other scandals financial scandals taking place while Orwell lived in Paris. Dumay had partnered with Marthe Hanau who defrauded the banks by creating non-existent companies. This led to extensive litigation for Dumay (although he was absolved of any guilt in 1929).
Orwell, in How The Poor Die (1946), an essay about his own experiences of Cochin Hospital in Paris, Orwell mentions “the celebrated swindler”, Madame Hanaud. He remembered that she was ill while on remand and been taken to the same hospital which was so bad that “after a few days of it she managed to elude her guards, took a taxi and drove back to the prison, explaining that she was more comfortable there”.
One wonders, considering his mature, skeptical analysis of the newspaper industry during the late 1930s and 1940s, how much Orwell understood about the controversies involving Dumay?
Networks of Influence
Tracing these complex left-wing political and press networks in Paris is revealing, at least in a rudimentary way, a discernible outline of how E.-A. Blair’s articles found there way to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
In particular, mapping the concentric circles, emanating from Le Progrès Civique, provides an emerging historical context in which Blair’s articles were sourced for La Tribune Indochinoise. It appears that an extensive network of socialist politicians, journalists and editors – including Bùi Quang Chiêu, Dương Văn Giáo, Henri Dumay, Pierre Bertrand, Alexandre Varenne and Marc Rucart – were also members of the Human Rights League and the Radical-Socialist Party.
Prior to working for Dumay, Bertrand founded La Politique with Varenne, who was published in both Le Progrès Civique and La Tribune Indochinoise (and was journalist at L’Humanité) before becoming the first socialist Governor-General of French Indochina (1925-1928). It is noteworthy that Chiêu and Nguyễn Phan Long presented Varenne with a “List of Vietnamese Wishes” at a meeting of the Human Rights League in Saigon.
Not only was Dương Văn Giáo’s publishing a European edition of La Tribune Indochinoise (1926–1927) based in Paris, he had established a local metropolitan branch of the Constitutionalist Party connected to the Radical-Socialist Party.
These men all shared the fundamental political belief in the “civilising mission” of the French colonial Empire.
“It is true to say that in general, any really educated Burmese was educated in England, and belongs as a result to the small class of the well-to-do.” E.-A. Blair, “How a Nation Is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma”
Why was this early journalism by Orwell specifically published in La Tribune Indochinoise though?
On the date that E.-A. Blair’s first essay appeared in Le Progrès Civique, Bùi Quang Chiêu and his nephew, Dương Văn Giáo were en route to Calcutta.
Jawaharlal Nehru (1869-1964), the future Prime Minister of India and the current Secretary General of the Congress, had met Giáo at a recent anti-imperialist congress held in Brussels and formally invited these leaders of the Constitutionalist Party to attend the Indian Congress.
On New Year’s Day 1929, they attended the final session of the conference. The major conflict amongst the delegates was between those prepared to accept “Dominion Status” and those who wanted nothing less than complete independence.
Chiêu was deeply impressed with the tolerance of democratic expression he had witnessed, noting that the British police only monitored the conference to ensure public order was maintained. Blair’s essay is a very good analysis of how the British empire operated.
Chiêu wrote a detailed travelogue of the trip in La Tribune Indochinoise (in a series of articles published in the months between the publication of Blair’s first and last essays). His comparison of the two colonial powers was unfavourable to the French. This visit had provided him with an opportunity to reflect on the the fact that the apparently liberal, democratising reforms advocated by Sarraut and Varenne had never implemented.
In spite of it all, Chiêu never waivered for too long in his belief that the Vietnamese people could have dominion within a French colonial framework. He had deliberately employed political terminology, appropriated from British policy in India- such as “dominion” and “self-government” – from the earliest days of the Constitutional Party. He was one of that ‘small class of the well-to-do’ who had benefitted from his French education and could not imagine another political framework.
In the same year George Orwell published Animal Farm, his satirical allegory exploring the political corruption and brutality inherent to revolutions, Bùi Quang Chiêu (1873-1945) and Dương Văn Giáo (1892-1945) paid the highest price for their journalism and political beliefs.
On the 2nd September 1945, Ho Chi Minh became the President of Vietnam. Later that same month, Chiêu was arrested by the Việt Minh, accused of collaboration. He was executed along with four sons and one of his daughter. His nephew, Dương Văn Giáo, suffered the same fate and was executed for high treason.
The third figure who had formed the Indochinese Constitutionalist Party, Chiêu’s friend and ally Nguyễn Phan Long – had long ago condemned the systematic exploitation of Vietnam and the lying liberalism of French governments, regardless of whether they were conservative or socialist – survived the purge!
Chiêu, in particular, never ceased to maintain an unwaivering loyalty to the ideals of Franco-Annamite collaboration. It cost him his life!
Blair, E.A., ‘Une enquête du “Progrès Civique” en Angleterre: La grande misère de l’ouvrier britannique — 1. Le chômage’, Le Progrès Civique, No. 489, 29th December, 1928,
Blair, E.A., ‘Une enquête du “Progrès Civique” en Angleterre: La grande misère de l’ouvrier britannique — 1. Le chômage’, La Tribune Indochinoise: Organe Officiel du Parti Constitutionnaliste Indochinois, 4 Feb 1929
Blair, E.A., ‘Comment on exploite un peuple. — L’Empire britannique en Birmanie’, Le Progrès Civique, No. 507, 4th May, 1929
Blair, E.A., ‘Comment on exploite un peuple. — L’Empire britannique en Birmanie’, La Tribune Indochinoise: Organe Officiel du Parti Constitutionnaliste Indochinois, 11 Sept 1929
Blair, E.A., ‘Comment on exploite un peuple. — L’Empire britannique en Birmanie’, La Tribune Indochinoise: Organe Officiel du Parti Constitutionnaliste Indochinois, 13 Sept 1929
Keith, Charles P., “The Curious Case of Hoàng Thị Thế.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2013, pp. 71–119
Larcher-Goscha, Agathe, and Kareem James Abu-Zeid, “Bùi Quang Chiêu in Calcutta (1928): The Broken Mirror of Vietnamese and Indian Nationalism”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 2014, pp. 67–114
Lockhart, Bruce M.; Duiker, William J., Historical Dictionary of Vietnam – Third Edition, Oxford: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2006
Moore, Darcy, “Orwell and the Secret Intelligence Service”, George Orwell Studies (2022) Vol. 6, No. 2 pp. 9-16
National Archives, MI5 file on George ORWELL alias Eric Arthur BLAIR, KV 2/2699
Orwell, George, A Kind of Compulsion: 1903–1936, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 10, Secker & Warburg, 1998
Ouimette, Victor, “Unamuno and Le Quotidien”, Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, vol. 2, no. 1, 1977, pp. 72–82
Peycam, Philippe M.F., The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon, 1916-1930, New York 2015: Columbia University Press
Quinn-Judge, Sophie, Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919-1941, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003
Smith, R.B., “Bui Quang Chiêu and the Constitutionalist Party in French Cochinchina, 1917-30”, Modern Asian Studies 3, no. 2 (1969): 131–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/311857.
Thi Liên Trân, Claire, “Indochina”, 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War, Berlin: Freie Universität, DOI: 10.15463/ie1418.11594.
Zeldin Theodore, A History of French Passions 1848-1945: Intellect, Taste, and Anxiety, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 533-5
Stephen Buckley alerted me some months ago to an article by Orwell in the Saigon press from September 1929. I found two more as a result. Thank you, Stephen!
I am particularly indebted to Francois Dubasque! His deep insight into the Parisian political networks of influence c. 1919-1930 has proven absolutely invaluable since we first corresponded several years ago. Equally, Philippe Peycam’s work on the birth of political journalism in Saigon opened the door onto fascinating world. Thank you both!