In many histories, members of the elite are usually portrayed as the people who brought change to society. In the case of Vietnam, for instance, intellectuals like Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh are depicted as figures who changed the way that they thought, through their contact with Western ideas, and then sought to change others in the early twentieth century.


That view of the past is undoubtedly true to some degree, but common people changed in their own ways as well. It is difficult for us today to figure out how they changed and what they thought, because unlike intellectuals, they did not record information about their ideas and experiences.

These common people are what some scholars refer to as “subalterns,” that is, “voiceless” people outside of the power structures of a given society. As I said, it is difficult to determine what such people thought, but there is a sub-field of history, “subaltern studies,” which attempts to get a sense of their views.


I was looking through the Australian National Archives and found the passenger list from a French ship, the Ville De Strasbourg, that arrived in Freemantle, Australia in 1927. This ship had sailed from Port Said in Egypt, and had passed by Colombo, Sri Lanka.

In Colombo, 22 Indochinese (i.e., Vietnamese) men boarded the ship.

They were apparently journeying to Sydney where they were to work on a ship known as the SS Dupleix.


There were many other passengers on this ship: Greeks, Yugoslavs, Palestinians, Indians, Cypriots, Egyptians, Italians, Albanians, Poles, Bulgarians, Estonians, Swedes, Frenchmen, and at least one American.

Did the Vietnamese interact with any of these people? If so, what were those interactions like? And what were they doing in Colombo? And what was their experience like on the SS Dupleix? Did all of them return home eventually? If so, how did they talk about their international/cosmopolitan experience at sea? Did their stories have any kind of influence on anyone?

Societies change in multiple and complex ways. Members of the elite influence societies, but subalterns have their own experiences that transform their lives as well. It’s the combination of these transformations that create complex societies that change through time.

In the early twentieth century, Vietnamese sailors must have contributed to these changes, even though they never documented their experiences and we therefore have no direct way of determining this. Nonetheless, this is what the passenger list of the Ville De Strasbourg suggests.