From 1870 to 1982, French officials in Indochina systematically removed métis children—those born of a Southeast Asian mother and a white, African, or Indian father—from their mothers. In many cases, and for a wide range of reasons—death, divorce, the end of a romance, a return to France, or because he had raped the mother of a future mixed-race child—the father had left the child in the mother’s care. Citing an 1889 French law regulating the moral abandonment of children, and claiming that raising children in the Southeast Asian cultural milieu was tantamount to abandonment, colonial officials removed children from their mothers, seeking permanent, “protective” custody of these “abandoned” métis children. After taking custody of the abandoned métis children, colonial officials placed them in state-run orphanages or educational institutions where, in the words of one French administrator, they would be “transformed into little Frenchmen.”
I will spend three months at the IIAS revising and researching at the Dutch Royal Institute of Studies (KITLV) and the French colonial archives for my book manuscript ‘Abandoned’ Children into ‘Little Frenchmen’: The Removal of Mixed-Race Children in Colonial and Post-Colonial Indochina 1870-1982. This book is an in-depth investigation of the colony’s child-removal program: the motivations behind it, reception of it, and resistance to it. The colonial government perceived abandoned métis children, Eurasians in particular, as a threat on multiple fronts – to colonial security, white French dominance, and the colonial gender order. “Abandoned” Children into “Little Frenchmen” contends that, along with colonial fears about security and white prestige, French government officials were anxious over what they perceived as the problem of a dwindling white population in both Indochina. The French government looked to métis children to bolster the colonial French population and promote an idealized colonial racial landscape. Métis children of partial European heritage who could “pass” for white thus played a key role in French plans to reproduce the French race, nation, and, after World War II, empire. After World War II, officials intended to use métis of African and Indian as well as French fathers to provide the necessary French imperial presence in the Indochina Federation and, later, post-colonial France.
The story of the removal of métis children in colonial Indochina is part of a larger historical trend of colonial governments eroding indigenous maternal rights, breaking up families, and re-racializing children. Indeed, striking parallels exist between the history of métis children in colonial Indochina and those of Australia’s “Stolen Generation” and the Indian and First Nation boarding schools in the United States and Canada.
“Abandoned” Children into “Little Frenchmen” is both an ethnography of the removed métis children and their mothers and an operational typology of the removals. I created an ethnographic database with information on more than 4,300 métis children. With the personal information collected on children and their mothers, I have constructed an ethnography of this marginalized population. As an operational typology, I use the ethnographic information to contrast the colonial government’s and protection societies’ public rhetoric about abandoned mixed-race children with the personal stories of removals. The archival records, not intended for public perusal and often labeled “confidential” or “secret,” reveal a significant disconnect between, on one hand, the colonial government’s public narrative about “saving” children from mothers who were supposedly morally corrupt and, on the other hand, the emotionally and culturally violent reality of separating mothers, many of whom were competent and caring, from their children. By making an argument heavily rooted in empirical data—a response to common critiques about colonial studies being overly theoretical—I have developed a sense of the magnitude of French anxieties about the Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian mothers of “half-French” children and, more generally, about reproducing whiteness and preserving the colonial racial and gender order.