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"I visited the port of Saigon in the course of my travels, on my way from Hong Kong to the Malay Kingdom of Pahang."

1. Introduction

Australian scientist, educator, and priest Julian Edmund Tenison Woods spent the years from 1883 to 1886 in scientific research in south-east Asia and east Asia. While he does not date his visit to Saigon, internal evidence places it in the latter part of 1885. When he returned to Australia, already a sick man, he engaged in a flurry of writing scientific and related publications. This included his work Geographical Notes on Malaysia and Asia, published in 1887. (2) His writing continued even on his sickbed, until he could write no longer, and he died on 7 October 1889, only 56 years old. It is his Geographical Notes which contain a little more than eight pages on his visit to Saigon. My purpose is to present that brief writing to modern readers, and to provide a commentary and context about the man and his visit.

Woods has been the subject of numerous biographies, both in book length and as articles. A few of these have referenced his scientific work (3), or his travels. (4) More general biographies may include a section about his scientific work. (5) Others focus on his role as a religious founder, (6) or as a pioneer educator, (7) or his spirituality. (8)

Woods was an Englishman, born in London in 1832. As a teenager, he showed keen interest in religious life, and successively joined two religious orders: the Passionists and the Marists. Ill-health brought both these endeavours to an end. While with the Marists, he taught English at the naval college in Toulon. A child's interest in natural history, developed during a stay in Jersey, seems to have grown while in France into a systematic interest in natural science and geology. (9) Woods travelled to Australia (first to Tasmania and then to South Australia) arriving in 1855. After brief studies at Sevenhill Jesuit College near Clare, he was ordained a diocesan priest on 4 January 1857, and assigned to the large parish of Penola, in south-eastern South Australia. He had already begun his scientific work while at Sevenhill, where he was fortunate that among his teachers was Jesuit Fr John Hinteroecker, who had for some years taught natural history at Linz, and was already a published scholar. (10) Woods continued in Penola, publishing reports of his observations. (11) In 1862, he published his first book Geological Observations in South Australia. (12) Shortly after, he began using the hyphenated form of his name, Tenison-Woods, to distinguish himself from other scientists named Woods who were also publishing in Australia at this time. Tenison was his mother's maiden name.

From 1857, Woods had a fascinating career as an adventurous priest, a pioneer educator, and a religious founder. The most noted of these foundations was the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, with the young Australian educator Mary MacKillop. The Catholic Church's recent canonisation (declaration of sainthood) of Mary MacKillop has highlighted this aspect of Woods' varied life. But he always sought to give an hour each day to science, and published regularly. In the course of his life, he wrote more than 200 scientific papers on subjects as diverse as geology and palaeontology, marine biology, botany, and exploration. (13)

From time to time he accepted paid assignments from colonial governments to report on the geology of areas of Australia. Then in 1883, a new opportunity came his way. Sir Frederick Weld, Governor of the Straits Settlements, had been a friend of Woods when Governor of Tasmania. Weld invited Woods to take part in a geological study of the Malay Peninsula. Woods took up this opportunity, sailing to Singapore by way of Java, and observing some of the great eruptions of Krakatoa. Once this work was complete, he accepted a further commission to study coal deposits in southeast Asia. Travelling on Royal Navy research vessels, he managed to visit many places, even going beyond south-east Asia and making two visits to Japan in 1885 and 1886. It was on one of these voyages, from Hong Kong to Singapore (on his way from Japan to Pahang) that he visited Saigon. I am sure that readers will find his description illuminating. From his scientific work, Woods was a trained observer, and his commentary, written in English for Australian readers, is not a mere echo of French perspectives.

In the lengthy quotations which follow, I have included some interpolations in square brackets, and some footnotes, which may assist the reader. These include the Vietnamese forms of place and personal names (14), and Chinese characters for words from that language.

2. Arrival

"The entrance to Saigon [Sai-G6n] is by the Cocoa-nut Bay and then up one of the many branches of the river Me-Kong [Me-K6ng], which flows through the delta of Cochin China. The time of my visit was unfortunate, for the Tonquinese war was going on, and cholera was causing great ravages amongst the people. The establishment of the French Messageries (15) is at an angle of the river just at the entrance of the town of Saigon. All along the sides of the river crowds of sampans and canoes remind one of Hong Kong, though not nearly so numerous. There is a certain floating population here as in all China. There are families living continually on the water, eating, cooking and sleeping in a space incredibly small, while the infants are cradled in a swinging cot like an aerial plant, with no trouble in rocking. At night there is the usual sparkling of light and tinkling of sounds from the flotilla with its living freight."

"There is nothing to be seen in coming up the river, except the low banks at either side, until one comes in sight of Saigon. This is only indicated by the two tall square towers of the cathedral and a forest of masts and steam-funnels above the wide brown dead level plains. We did not pass many boats except a few fishermen in vessels rigged like the feluccas of the Mediterranean. A few low attap or palm-leaf houses may have been indications of villages."

3. The People

In the Malay Peninsula, Woods had sufficient time to form an impression of the Malay people. He liked them, and felt that he could trust his life to them. But in Saigon, his visit was brief and his observations external.

"The people looked like Malays, and, except that they are slighter in stature and have smaller features, reminded me of the Javanese. They are not like Chinese, and they do not wear the queue....The general aspect of the people is prepossessing, with a more amiable manner than the Chinese, combined with much modesty and decorum."

4. The Town and the Botanic Gardens

In the nineteenth century, botanic gardens and herbariums were not merely places for scenic walks. They were scientific in purpose, concerned with the developing sciences of botany and horticulture, and they also were also economic in purpose, concerned with the identification and acclimatisation of plants which could be used for economic purposes. While such gardens existed around the world, there was a particular concentration in south and south-east Asia. In his researches in the Malay Peninsula, Woods worked with another priest-scientist, Fr Benedetto Scortechini, who made a large collection of plants. Scortechini's collection was lodged in the Calcutta Herbarium, after his untimely death there. (16)

'The wharf of the Messageries is prettily shrouded at the termination with clusters of mango, tamarind and cassia trees. There is about half-a-mile from this through swampy plains into the town, but one can enter it in a shorter way by crossing the elbow of the river in a boat. The town itself is thoroughly French, and, but for the motley suits of the inhabitants and the luxuriant trees which fringe the pathways, one could well imagine oneself on the outskirts of Marseilles, or some French town on the Mediterranean. The streets are wide and regular, with unceasing groves of tamarind trees. The cafes are numerous, with a homely array of benches and tables extending into the streets, round which there are always crowds of soldiers and officers gathered. Whatever business is done is almost confined to the Chinese, who have most of the large shops and stores in their hands. Apart from the military, there cannot be much European population, but there are a few shops of magasins of the usual French type. However, a walk through the town of Saigon does not take very long, and whatever there is to be seen is soon disposed of."

"About two miles out of town are the Botanic Gardens, which, though only in their beginning, are as good as anything that can be seen in the East; but one cannot walk far without coming upon some of the unreclaimed portions, and this for the present mars the effect. The zoological collection is very good, with two of the largest tigers I have seen anywhere. In a country where the plumage of the birds is in perfect harmony with the luxuriant foliage and the flowers, a large aviary well kept and tastefully arranged is a beautiful sight worthy of the famed splendour of the East." In his walks, Woods also noted a number of memorials, one to Bishop DAdran, and others to French officers killed in the local wars.

5. The Cathedral, and Religious Mission

"At a short distance from the gardens, in a rather dreary-looking plain and surrounded by large military barracks, is the cathedral. (17) It is a stately and imposing-looking building, even though it is stuccoed and coloured with yellow limewash."

"One cannot help being struck with the facts that this cathedral represents. The stately pile dedicated to St Francis Xavier, (18) the patron of missions, stands on a spot where a few years ago the brave missionary had to hide amongst a few fishermen's huts, and baptized his converts at the imminent peril of his life and theirs. There have not been wanting in Saigon many illustrious apostles, who laid down their lives in testimony of the truths they preached. And now the seed has produced its fruit, and the religion of martyrs is the dominant one at Saigon. Unhappily there has been a conquest by the French flag as well as by the cross. The case may have been one where the force of circumstances produces events which not one could control; still all friends of the true interests of Christianity must wish that the territorial conquest and the work of the missionary had been kept entirely apart."

In the Malay Peninsula, Woods had been impressed by the zeal and asceticism of the French clergy whom he met there. In a letter to a friend in Australia he wrote: "The French missionary clergy are the most disinterested and self-denying men living in the very poorest attap houses on a mere pittance..." (19) But Woods was also a realistic observer of the colonial scene, and neither his own role as a missionary priest nor his friendship with French missionaries blinded him to the problems which arose when missionary endeavour became entangled with colonial expansion.

6. Cholon and its people

"Every one who visits Saigon goes to see Cholen [Cho Lorn], which is five or six kilometres distant. Boats go every half-hour, and the passage is a most picturesque one. There is also a railway of modest pretensions, which passes along the roadside, leaving to the left the pretty village of Choquan [Cho Quan], and in five kilometres one arrives at Cholen. The entrance is in front of the public offices of the paymaster, the prefecture, the telegraph office, barracks for the French garrison, and many pagodas, amongst which is the pagoda of the warrior gods. On the principal altar is an idol with a white beard having in his hands a bow and arrows. This is probably Kouang-Ti, the Chinese Mars." [Guan Yu, Wade-Giles Romanisation Kuan Ti [Quan vu].[phrase omitted]]

"The town of Cholen has a population of 10,500 Chinese, 32,000 Anamites, besides a floating population of 8,000, which gives a total of about 50,000 souls. It may be mentioned here that although Cholen is the head-quarters of the Chinese, they are pretty well scattered also throughout Cambodia. The first extensive arrival of Chinese took place about 1680, in the west of

Cochin China, and was from Canton. A part was established at Bien-hoa [Bien- hoa], and a part at Mitho [My-tho]. This immigration was followed by many others coming from Fokien [Fujian] and other Chinese provinces. The superiority of their civilization and their wonderful aptitude and talents for trade, their spirit of association, their community of religion and customs, and of writing with the Anamites gave to the Chinese a great footing in the country. After the war between the rebels of Tay-Son [Tay-Son] and King Gial-Ong [Gia-long], they quitted their first establishments and came to dwell in Cholen about 1778. Although in 1721 the chief of the Tay-Son rebels had massacred more than 10,000 Chinese, and pillaged their stores, yet they continued to progress. Notwithstanding nine months of frightful famine in 1802, notwithstanding the prohibition to export any produce from the country, the perseverance of the Chinese surmounted every obstacle, and in 1830 Cholen was already a market of great importance, which the Chinese had named Taingon [De ngan] [[phrase omitted] in Cantonese Tai Ngon, Mandarin Di An: embankment], and the Anamites Sai-gon. The only name now in use for the town is Cholen, Cho meaning market and Ion, great. The Chinese are principally aggregated together in hongs or corporations. The chiefs of these congregations are responsible for their members in Java."

"The Chinese generally marry Anamite women. They have very pretty children, and the mixed race forms a very intelligent class among the natives, which is named Minh-huong [Minh-huong]. These half-castes are generally well off."

"The town is divided into five quarters, each having a Chinese chief, a Minh-huong chief, and an Anamite chief.... The town has quite a European aspect: the streets are large; there is a canal with wide quays on each side. Amidst these quays are crocodile parks where these saurians are preserved and fattened for eating. The houses and shops are well built, and the whole place has an astonishing air of industry and prosperity, which reminded me of Penang or some of the best Chinese towns in Java."

"About a quarter of an hour's walk from Cholen, on the road to Mitho [My-tho], is the garden of Cay-mai [Cay-mai]. In a delicious situation on an artificial mound, the Cay-mai tree grows, whose sweet-smelling flowers were offered to the Emperor to flavour his tea. It was death to touch them in former times. [Ochna integerrima] From this point the view extends over the ricefields which line the commercial canal, over the Plain of Tombs, the mines of Ki-hoa [Ky-hoa], the fields and the woods of Go-Vap [Go-vap] as far as the mountains of Tai-Minh [Tay-ninh], a distance of nearly 100 miles."

7. Woods' Conclusion

"I conclude this short notice of Cochin China by saying that the people seem contented and happy, and the country progressing. The only persons who seemed woefully out of sorts were the French themselves. One soon becomes convinced that this colony has become painfully oppressive to the French nation. First of all, Cochin China is far from France; the climate is difficult to bear for any length of time; the French do not want to emigrate; the land is in the hands of natives, who are cultivators; the industrial uses of products are in the hands of Chinese, who have all the capital. The poor Frenchman shrugs his shoulders and says that this is not a country to organise or colonise. The mission of civilisation has hitherto unfortunately demanded much gunpowder and bayonet; and besides the military, the colony only gives support to about 400 unhappy French people, who one and all continually bewail their exile."

More than a century has passed since Woods wrote his notes of travel, and we can assume that he did not stay in Saigon and Cholon for a long time. He had taught in France, so would have been able to communicate with the French in Cochin China. But he did not know any local languages. Woods had great powers of observation, and surviving drawings of molluscs and other natural phenomena are a tribute to his precision. No doubt his best work was in his technical fields, rather than as a social observer. We cannot know how much of his writing comes from his own direct observation or research: at the conclusion of his report, Woods acknowledges the work of French writer Charles Lemire (20) as ''a most useful guide, and it is to its pages many of the foregoing statements are due".

Completing his work in Asia, Woods returned to Australia. He completed a geological survey in the Northern Territory, and then made his way to Sydney. Honours came his way, even as he struggled through sickness to complete his writing. In 1888 he won the Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales, for distinguished contribution to natural science. But his health was failing, and he died in October 1889.


(1) Julian Edmund Tenison-Woods: 1887. Geographical Notes on Malaysia and Asia, Sydney: F Cunninghame and Co., Sydney, pl71.

(2) Tenison-Woods, 1887. Geographical Notes on Malaysia and Asia, A digital copy has been made available by the National Library of Singapore: (accessed 22 February 2017)

(3) John Wilson: Julian Tenison Woods in South Australia: Priest and Scientist, (2012) Seaview Press; Wilson: "Julian Edmund Tenison Woods: Geologist in South Australia", South Australian Geographical Journal, (2011) vol 110 number 2, pp30-49; Elery Hamilton-Smith: "No ordinary man: Tenison Woods and the Naracoorte Caves", Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology (2006) 187-193; Anne Player: "Julian Tenison Woods: Priest and Scientist", Australasian Catholic Record (1989) 1, pp 279-294; Player: Julian Tenison Woods: Scientist 1832-1889", Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1989) vol 122, 109-118

(4) Roderick O'Brien: "Julian Tenison Woods in Asia: Mines and Missions", Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, (1994) no 22, pp49-61; O'Brien: "Julian Tenison Woods in Hong Kong", Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1984), vol 24, 288-294

(5) George O'Neill: Life of Reverend Julian Edmund Tenison Woods (1929), Pellegrini & Co, Sydney; Carmel Doherty: Song of the Seasons: Father J E Tenison Woods, (1996), Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Wollongong; Isabel Hepburn: No Ordinary Man: Life and Letters of Julian E Tenison Woods (1979), Sisters of St Joseph, Wanganui; Margaret Press: Julian Tenison Woods (1979) Catholic Theological Faculty, Sydney;

(6) Press: Julian Tenison Woods: Father Founder (1994) Collins Dove, Melbourne; Rosa MacGinley: 2014. "Julian Tenison Woods as a Religious Founder: Some contextual considerations", Australian e Journal of Theology, vol 21 no 2, p 126; Janice Tranter: "Fr Julian Tenison Woods: His role as founder of the Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar, NSW", (1994-1995) vol 16 pp 8-24

(7) Megan Parry: Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier, Thomas Arnold and Julian Edmund Tenison Woods and their Contribution to the Formation and Development of Catholic Schooling in Australasia, (2013), PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.

(8) Tranter: "Julian Tenison Woods and the Marists", , (1994-1995) vol 16, pp8-24; O'Brien: "Julian Tenison Woods and Virtue", (2013) 90 (4) Australasian Catholic Record, 433-438. O'Brien: "Making the Past Serve the Present: Reflections on the life of J E T Woods", Australasian Catholic Record,(]9S9) lxvi, 324-333; Mary Cresp and Janice Tranter: "Julian Tenison Woods: Itinerant Missioner", , (2017) vol 37(1), ppl-9.

(9) MacGinley: 2014. "Julian Tenison Woods as a Religious Founder: Some contextual considerations", Australian eJournal of Theology, vol 21 no 2, p 126

(10) anon. "St Ignatius Church, Norwood", The Register (Adelaide) Saturday 31 May 1924, page 4 accessed 16 November 2014.

(11) Wilson: 2011. "Julian Edmund Tenison Woods: Geologist in South Australia", South Australian Geographical Journal, vol 110 no 2, 30-49.

(12) Woods, Julian Edmund. 1862. Geological Observations in South Australia: principally in the district south-east of Adelaide. London, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

(13) Press: 2004. Julian Tenison Woods: Father Founder, St Paul's Publications, Strathfield, appendix.

(14) I am grateful to Fr Trinh Van Phat for his help.

(15) The shipping firm Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes.

(16) Patrick Tynan: Pioneer priest and botanist: the life story of Father Benedetto Scortechini (1845-1886), (1989) Church Archivists' Society, Toowoomba.

(17) Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception Vuong cung thdnh duang Chinh tda Due Me V6 nhiem Nguyen toi, constructed between 1863 and 1880.

(18) The Cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. St Francis Xavier church in Cholon was erected after Woods' visit.

(19) Player (ed): 1983. The Archer Letters. North Goulburn, Sisters of St Joseph

(20) Charles Lemire: 1884. Cochinchine francaise et royaume de Cambodge, avec les itineraires de Paris en Indo-Chine. Challamel aine, Paris.

Roderick O'Brien (*)

(*) Dr Roderick O'Brien is, as was Julian Tenison Woods, a priest of the Archdiocese of Adelaide. He has published on Woods (*) scientific travels, and on his spirituality.

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
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Author:O'Brien, Roderick
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Jan 1, 2017

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