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BackHeritage » Saigon » The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Madame de la Souchère, Saigon's Rubber Baroness - Part 1

There can be few more fascinating figures in the history of colonial Saigon than Madame Janie-Marie Marguerite Bertin Rivière de la Souchère (1881-1963), the widow who defied the social conventions of her time to become an immensely rich yet caring rubbe­­r plantation owner – only to lose everything in the Great Depression. Here is Part 1 of her story.

In 1901, following a conventional upbringing in Pays de Caux (Haute Normandie), Janie-Marie Marguerite Bertin married a young merchant marine officer named Charles Rivière de la Souchère. Five years her senior, Charles was keen to pursue a career overseas, and in 1904 the 23-year-old Madame de la Souchère followed him to Cochinchina, where he had been offered employment with the Service du pilotage on the Saigon river. By November 1905, Charles was a fully qualified pilot based at the Messageries maritimes. The couple immersed themselves in the Saigon social scene, becoming regulars at the popular Cercle des Officiers.

The Cercle des Officiers pictured in 1882 with the Cathedral under construction in the background.

However, Janie-Marie quickly became bored with the suffocating routine of colonial life in the city and in 1909 she persuaded her husband to purchase 300 hectares of land at Long Thành, 55km northeast of Saigon. In the following year, supported by a small army of workers, she personally set to work carving a rubber plantation out of the virgin forest.

These early efforts were not without problems – at the outset, wild tigers decimated her workforce and in 1913 a massive fire destroyed her entire crop of 50,000 rubber saplings. Undaunted, Janie-Marie simply started over. By 1914 she had turned the “Plantations du Tan-Loc” into a going concern.

Tragedy struck in 1916, when Charles died suddenly after a short illness. Despite her heartbreak, Janie-Marie became more determined than ever to make the plantation a success. She first appears later that year in the official records in place of her husband as the proprietor and director of the Société des plantations des Hévéas de la Souchère. By 1917 she had also succeeded Charles to become the first female member of the Syndicat des planteurs de Caoutchouc (Rubber Planters’ Syndicate) and of the Chambre d’Agriculture de la Cochinchine.

Portrait of Madame Rivière de la Souchère.

Over the next decade, Janie-Marie’s business prospered and by the early 1920s the “domaine de la Souchère” embraced more than 3,000 hectares of land in Long Thành and Xuân Lộc. With a European manager and a local workforce of more than 800, the plantation was “divided by wide avenues” and contained more than 170,000 rubber trees, 25,000 coconut trees and 10,000 coffee plants.

A proficient Vietnamese speaker, Madame de la Souchère was said to have enjoyed the respect and loyalty of all her workers, whom she treated like an extended family. She built a health centre, a nursery, a primary school, a pagoda and a church on the plantation for their use, and also had a villa constructed in Cap Saint-Jacques (Vũng Tàu) where sick workers could be sent for rest and recuperation. She set up a savings scheme for her employees and is said to have taken such a personal interest in their welfare that “the name of the Souchère was revered by hundreds of Annamite families.” She even gave 12,000 piastres to the local provincial chief to build a maternity clinic and dispensary on the plantation which could be used by the wider community. In the 1920s, she adopted several local orphans who eventually went to live with her in France.

In 1922 she became Vice President of the Rubber Planters Association and in that same year she was awarded the Chevalier de la legion d'honneur for her contribution to the economy and her philanthropic work towards the community in Long Thành and Xuân Lộc.

Madame de la Souchère also found time to campaign actively for women’s rights, lobbying the Colonial Council in 1923 for “French women and indigenous women who could write” to be permitted to vote in elections.

A noted beauty who loved to dress in men's tropical whites, Madame de la Souchère has often been cited as the model for the character of Éliane Devries, proprietor of the 6,000 hectare Lang-Sai plantation, who was played by Cathérine Deneuve in Régis Wargnier’s 1992 film Indochine

Madame de la Souchère picture on her plantation.

In 1926, after years of living in basic accommodation, Madame de la Souchère decided to build herself a comfortable villa on the plantation. Then in 1927, perhaps wanting to spend more time in the city, she also commissioned the construction of a grand mansion at 169 rue Mac-Mahon (now 169 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa) in Saigon. However, she was given little time to enjoy these properties – in 1930, the economic crisis hit Indochina, and as the price of rubber crashed, Madame de la Souchère became mired in debt.

Madame de la Souchère’s former mansion at 169 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2.

Tim Doling is the author of the forthcoming book of walking tours entitled Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts 4-hour Heritage Tours of Historic Saigon and Cholon. For more information about Saigon history and Tim's tours visit his website, www.historicvietnam.com.

 

[Photos via BelleIndochine]

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