An official document giving the title of Royal and Military Order of Saint Ferdinand to Gabriel Aubaret was signed by the Spanish queen Isabella II in 1864. As mentioned in the hand-written text, Aubaret received the order for his extraordinary military achievement at the Cochinchina Campaign, on May 8, 1859. The Cochinchina Campain was fought between the French Empire and Kingdom of Spain on one side and the Nguyen dynasty on the other, between 1858–1862.
Gabriel Aubaret: A Life of Adventure and High-Level Diplomacy
Louis Gabriel Galdéric Aubaret was one of the most consequential figures in the shaping of the diplomatic and economic affairs of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire during the second half of the 19th Century, having held various important military and political appointments in the region over a period of forty years. On another track, he is also famous as perhaps the person most responsible for ensuring that Vietnam came under French rule.
Aubaret was born in 1825 in Montpellier to a respected family of lawyers. Uninterested in the law and restless in a provincial city, he longed to see the world. In 1841, he joined the École Navale (Brest), joining the Navy in 1844. He served on a variety of vessels, visiting places thoughout the Mediterranean and the West Indies.
As a lieutenant, he served with distinction during the Crimean War (1853-56), commanding his own vessel on several occasions, notably at the Siege Sebastopol (1854-5). Around this time, he gained a fascination for the Ottoman Empire and its many cultures; he quickly picked up Turkish and Arabic. He forged friendships with several influential Turkish officers and politicians, connections which would become useful later in his career.
In 1856-7, Aubaret was appointed the chief science officer (and second-in-command) of a prestigious expedition to explore the headwaters of the Nile, backed by the Khedive of Egypt. The expedition, led by the eccentric Comte d’Escayrac, was very well funded and included international scientists and explorers of distinction. However, the main body of the expedition never got past Cairo, as Aubaret lost patience with Escayrac’s dictatorial and erratic behaviour.
After the failure of the mission in Egypt, Aubaret returned to France where he had a highly public relationship with Rachel Félix (1821-58), better known as ‘Mademoiselle Rachel’, a world famous French actress, which ended shortly before her untimely death.
In 1860, Aubaret, as captain of his own vessel, sailed to China as part of the French involvement in the Second Opium War, and was present at the taking of Peking. There he impressed his superiors with his amazingly quick masterly of Chinese and his excellent diplomatic skills. This led to his appointment as senior French envoy to the Vietnamese court at Hué, and as the Consul General at Bangkok. In these roles Aubaret was instrumental in securing France’s annexation of the southern third of Vietnam as the French colony of Cochinchina, in 1862. Aubaret also wrote the first French-Vietnamese dictionary, Vocabulaire Français-Annamite et Annamite-Français (Bangkok, 1861).
Aubaret was a major figure at the Siamese court of King Mongkut, during the period immortalized in The King and I. Aubaret succeeded in making France the dominant foreign player in Indochina, and the Quay d’Orsay considered him to be one of the most tactful and successful drivers of Napoleon III’s expansive foreign policy.
In 1867, Aubaret returned from Bangkok, eager for a posting to the Balkans/Ottoman Empire, which despite his love of East Asian cultures, remained his true passion. Shortly after his return home, he ended his long run as a bachelor, marrying Thérèse Granier, with whom he would have had a happy union.
In February 1868, Aubaret was appointed as the French Consul General at Scutari (Shkodër), Ottoman Albania. That such a highly respected ‘star’ diplomat was given this post was a sign of how important Albania and Montenegro figured in French foreign policy. Moreover, the post was so challenging, that only an envoy of uncommon ability and enthusiasm for the Balkans could handle the endeavour. After serving for two incredibly dramatic years in Albania, Aubaret was hastily recalled to France for military service, due to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1).
After the dust had settled from the war, Aubaret re-entered the diplomatic service, in 1872 being appointed as the Consul General to Smyrna (Izmir), the second most important posting in Turkey proper. While honourific, Aubaret found the Izmir boring, as he largely handled matters of shipping trade, with little of the political melodrama that he relished.
In 1873, Aubaret was transferred to become Consul General in Ruse, Bulgaria, a major port city on the Danube. Bulgaria was then a directly-ruled part of the Ottoman Empire, and its Slavic people were seething with revolutionary sentiment. Ruse, full of Russian and Austrian spies, was hotbed of intrigue and melodrama. Just as Aubaret loved the tension and challenge of his posting in Shkodër, he deeply enjoyed his time in Ruse, where his mandate was to counteract Austrian and Russian schemes and to forge alliances with the Bulgarians whom Aubaret knew would shortly be the masters of their own country. Aubaret served in Bulgarian until the start of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, when Russia invaded the country, successfully securing its independence (while severely diminishing France’s interests).
Aubaret’s next assignment was to serve as the Commissioner of the Serbian-Ottoman Boundary Survey, largely conducted along the Serbo-Bosnian border. Following that, in 1880, Aubaret was appointed as a French Minister Plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire, with special responsibility for affairs in the Bulgarian borderlands.
During this period, the government of the Ottoman Empire was essentially bankrupt. Its inefficient tax system, and involvement in almost constant warfare had led the Sublime Porte to take on untenable levels of foreign debt (mostly owed to France and Britain). To solve the crisis, the Western powers proposed that a special body be created to manage the empire’s debt, and to repay Western creditors by giving the body monopoly control over several of the empire’s reliable revenue sources. While such a plan would see the empire lose much of its economic sovereignty, it would have the benefit of stabilising its debt, and permitting the country to return to the bond market, while making its industries more efficient.
In 1881, Sultan Abdul Hamid II ordained the creation of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (Turkish: Düyun-u Umumiye), which became the most powerful economic entity in the Ottoman Empire, even more so than the Imperial Treasury. While the Administration’s council was to feature representatives from many Western powers, it was to be a French-dominated institution, closely related to the Paris-based Imperial Ottoman Bank.
Aubaret had earned his spurs serving with great skill in a variety of posts throughout the empire. He spoke fluent Turkish and had cultivated many powerful friends in the country’s hierarchy and amongst Constantinople’s expatriate community, where he was almost universally respected and liked. He was chosen to serve as the first President of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, and he held the office (which he occasionally relinquished for a time to allow other members to serve) through most of the period up until 1892. During his presidency, Aubaret handled the politically sensitive tasks of manging large parts of the Ottoman economy with great energy and competence.
Additionally, from 1885 to 1889, Aubaret was the chief operating officer of a special enterprise that was responsible for completing the final missing link of the railway line that carried the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople, the world’s most famous and luxurious rail service.
In 1892, at the age of 67, Aubaret retired from his place at the height of Constantinople society and moved back with his family to Poitiers. There he died in 1894, having lived the experiences of many lifetimes. Aubaret’s widow, Thérèse, wrote her husband’s biography, which was published in Poitiers in 1898.