He was born on July 25, 1839 at Saint-Étienne, Loire, and entered the French Navy, and after voyaging in Brazilian waters and the Pacific, he obtained a post on the staff of Admiral Léonard Victor Charner, who from February 1860 to November 1861 was campaigning in Cochinchina.
After some time spent in France, Garnier returned to the East, and in 1862, he was appointed inspector of native affairs in Cochinchina, and entrusted with the administration of Cholon, a suburb of Saigon.
Exploration of the Mekong and Yangtze rivers
It was at his suggestion that the marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat determined to send a mission to explore the valley of the Mekong River, but as Garnier was not considered old enough to be put in command, the chief authority was entrusted to Captain Ernest Doudard de Lagrée. In the course of the expedition - to quote the words of Sir Roderick Murchison addressed to the youthful traveller when, in 1870, he was presented with the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London - "from Kratie in Cambodia to Shanghai 5392 miles were traversed, and of these, 3625 miles, chiefly of country unknown to European geography, were surveyed with care, and the positions fixed by astronomical observations, nearly the whole of the observations being taken by Garnier himself".
Volunteering to lead a detachment to Dali, the capital of Sultan Suleiman, the sovereign of the Muslim rebels in Yunnan, Garnier successfully carried out the more-than-adventurous enterprise. When shortly afterwards Lagrée died, Garnier naturally assumed the command of the expedition, and he conducted it in safety to the Yangtze River, and thus to the Chinese coast. On his return to France, he was received with enthusiasm. The preparation of his narrative was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, and during the siege of Paris, Garnier served as principal staff officer to the admiral in command of the eighth sector. His experiences during the siege were published anonymously in the feuilleton of Le Temps, and appeared separately as Le Siège de Paris, journal d'un officier de marine (1871).
Returning to Cochinchina, he found the political circumstances of the country unfavourable to further exploration, so accordingly, he went to China, and in 1873 followed the upper course of the Yangtze River to the waterfalls.
Intervention in Tonkin
Garnier met his death in controversial circumstances. In late 1873 he was sent by Admiral Dupré, the governor of Cochinchina, to Tonkin, to resolve a dispute between the Vietnamese authorities and the French entrepreneur Jean Dupuis. Persuaded that the time was ripe for a French conquest of Tonkin, Garnier captured Hanoi, the capital of Tonkin, 20 November 1873. In the next few weeks a small French force under Garnier's command captured most of the citadels of the Red River Delta. The Vietnamese authorities, despairing of meeting the French with their own forces, appealed to the notorious Chinese soldier of fortune Liu Yongfu to come to their aid with his Black Flag Army.
Defeat and death
On 21 December 1873 Liu Yongfu and around 600 Black Flags (French: pavillons noirs, drapeaux noirs), marching beneath an enormous black banner, approached the west gate of Hanoi. A large Vietnamese army followed in their wake. Garnier began shelling the Black Flags with a field piece mounted above the gate, and when they began to fall back led a party of 18 French marine infantrymen out of the city to chase them away. The attack failed. Garnier, leading three men uphill in a bayonet attack on a party of Black Flags, was stabbed and hacked to death by several Black Flag soldiers after stumbling in a watercourse. The youthful enseigne de vaisseau Adrien-Paul Balny d’Avricourt led an equally small column out of the citadel to support Garnier, but was also killed at the head of his men. Three French soldiers were also killed in these sorties, and the others fled back to the citadel after their officers fell.
Colonel Thomazi, the historian of French Indochina, gave the following detailed description of Garnier's last moments:
At midday on 21 December he was in conference with the ambassadors when an interpreter ran up, announcing that bands of Black Flags were attacking the town by the western gate. He immediately hurried to the spot, but some of his men had got there before him, and their fire had sufficed to force the bandits to retreat behind the bamboo hedges. A 40-millimetre gun arrived at this moment. Garnier rallied a dozen men, three of whom dragged this small cannon, and left the town at a run to pursue the enemy. As the gun could not move quickly enough across the fields, he left it behind with its gunners. He then divided the nine men who remained with him into three groups. The first two groups moved off to the left and the right, to rejoin one another further on, while he marched in the middle, followed only by two men. One and a half kilometres from the town he found himself in front of a dyke, and slipped and fell while trying to cross it. Some Black Flags hidden behind the dyke ran out, while others opened fire. At this moment the two men who were accompanying Garnier were 100 metres behind him. One of them was killed by a bullet and the other wounded. Garnier cried, 'To me, brave boys, and we'll give them a thrashing!' He then fired the six rounds from his revolver in an attempt to rescue himself, but the bandits surrounded him, pierced him with thrusts of sabres and lances, cut off his head, odiously mutilated his corpse, and ran away. The two other groups, rushing up to the sound of the shooting, were only able to recover his bloodied corpse and bring it back to Hanoi.
Garnier's death effectively ended the first French adventure in Tonkin. The French government disavowed Garnier's adventure and hastened to conclude a peace settlement with the Vietnamese, abandoning most of its claims in Tonkin.
Garnier's chief fame rests on the fact that he originated the idea of exploring the Mekong, and carried out the larger portion of the work. During the French colonial period he was also honoured for his feats of arms in Tonkin, which paved the way for the eventual French conquest of Tonkin in the 1880s.
Garnier and Rivière were honoured during the French colonial period as the two pre-eminent French martyrs of the conquest of Tonkin. In 1884, during the Sino-French War, two gunboats of the Tonkin Flotilla were named after the two men.
During the siege of Tuyen Quang (November 1884–March 1885), Liu Yung-fu's Black Flags, who formed part of the besieging Chinese army, taunted the men of the French garrison by chanting the names of their two most famous victims: 'Garnier! Rivière! Garnier! Rivière!'
- A war ship was named after him during WWII but was scuttled after a fight with the Japanese, near the Cambodian town of Kratie.
- In 1973 a new ship the Francis Garnier (L9031) was built. It still is in service and was ordered to assist the humanitarian efforts following the 2010 Haiti earthquake as part of Opération Séisme Haiti 2010. She left Martinique carrying 60 Army personnel, land vehicles and excavators; and various relief shipments.
- Thomazi, Conquête, 126–8
- Thomazi, Conquête, 126–7
- De Lonlay, 114
- Soenthrith, Saing (December 23, 2005). "Kratie Set To Raise WWII Ship From the Deep". The Cambodia Daily. Retrieved October 18, 2013.
- Haïti: un navire français en route (in French), Le Figaro (15 January 2010), Retrieved on 16 January 2010.
- Baker, Daniel ed. Explorers and Discoverers of the World. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993
- Lonlay, D. de, Le siège de Tuyen-Quan (Paris, 1886)
- Milton Osborne, River Road to China: The Search for the Source of the Mekong, 1866-73 (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999) ISBN 0-87113-752-6
- Milton Osborne, "Francis Garnier (1839-1873), Explorer of the Mekong River", Explorers of South-east Asia, Six Lives, ed. Victor T. King, (Kuala Lumpur: OUP, 1995)
- Milton Osborne, River Road to China: The Mekong River Expedition, 1866-1873 (London and New York, 1975)
- The narrative of the principal expedition appeared in 1873, as Voyage d'exploration en Indo-Chine effectué pendant les années 1866, 1867 et 1868, publié sous la direction de M. Francis Garnier, avec le concours de M. Delaporte et de MM. Joubert et Thorel (2 vols.) Only 800 copies were printed, and the original work is now rare.
- Transl. Walter E. J. Tips:
- An account of the Yang-tsze-Kiang from Garnier's pen is given in the Bulletin de la Soc. de Geog. (1874).
- His Chronique royale du Cambodje, was reprinted from the Journal Asiatique in 1872.
- Ocean Highways (1874) for a memoir by Colonel Henry Yule
- Hugh Clifford, "Further India", in the Story of Exploration series (1904).
- John Keay, Mad About The Mekong ISBN 0-00-711115-0
- Thomazi, A., La conquête de l'Indochine (Paris, 1934)