As we’ve all been inundated with coronavirus coverage, much of it being rather depressing, I’ve decided to start writing about random aspects of Thai politics and history not related to the ongoing pandemic. Here’s my piece last week on how the Thai prime minister’s residence is supposedly haunted.
In 1789 the Bastille, an imposing representation of the authority of the Bourbon dynasty, was stormed, marking a turning point in the French Revolution. An angry crowd had hunted for weapons at the capital’s arsenal, dragging out twenty cannons. Only two, however, were still functional, and they were duly used to bombard the fortress.
It turned out that the two silver cannons had peculiar origins. They were from Thailand, then known as Siam, brought to France a century ago during the reign of King Louis XIV. How did the Siamese cannons end up there, to be used in the storming of the Bastille? What follows is a fascinating story of diplomatic and cultural exchange.
It begins with the ascension of King Narai in Siam. Coming to power in 1656, he reigned over what was then one of the world’s most prosperous cities: Ayutthaya. The king was known to be, at least for the era, remarkably open and tolerant, interested in foreign affairs and cultures. Diplomatic missions were sent abroad to China and Persia. A new palace he built in Lopburi was heavily influenced by European architecture. Jesuits were allowed to settle in the kingdom and to preach Christianity. Most shockingly, King Narai even appointed a Greek named Constantine Phaulkon as the Ayutthayan equivalent of interior minister. (One of the stranger figures in Siamese history, he deserves an article all to himself.)
The foreign interaction that came to define King Narai’s reign, however, was not with the Chinese or the Greeks; it was with the French. Sensing the openness of the Siamese monarch, and seeking to expand French influence in the region at the expense of the Dutch, ambassadors bearing letters from King Louis XIV and Pope Clement IX arrived at Ayutthaya’s court in 1673. “We beg you, Very Great and Powerful King, to send us ambassadors,” a letter read. “May our friendship be strong and everlasting.”
How else was a king to respond, except to reciprocate the favor? Despite the warnings of court astrologers, who warned of disaster if the Siamese were to board on a European ship, the French navy ferried three Siamese ambassadors towards France. The astrologers turned out to be right; the ambassadors disappeared after they were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa.
But King Narai was undeterred, and encouraged by Phaulkon, dispatched another embassy in 1684. It was during this trip, perhaps, that an overzealous French official, earlier egged on by Phaulkon, convinced the Sun King that perhaps King Narai could be converted to Catholicism. At best it was an extremely unlikely prospect, but this convinced the French to intensify relations even further. And thus the French dispatched a return embassy to Ayutthaya in 1685.
The French did not convince King Narai to drop Buddhism. They did, however, come close to dooming their diplomatic effort. Of the traditions of the Siamese court, one included the practice of kraab: to kowtow to the king. Unprepared to do so, the French ambassador Chevalier de Chaumont said he would remain standing, and would hand the letter from King Louis XIV directly to King Narai.
The Siamese officials, naturally, were horrified and suggested a compromise: Chaumont could remain standing, but he should hold the letter in a golden pan that he would then raise to where the king was standing. Yet when the time came, Chaumont refused to raise the pan, forcing King Narai to bend down to pick up the letter. Luckily, according to contemporaries, the king brushed it off with good humor.
Ayutthaya sent another embassy to France the next year, led by the official Kosa Pan. Beginning from the port town of Brest, the Siamese ambassadors were taken on a rather merry procession to Versailles. The “exotic clothes” of the Siamese diplomats caused much comment, and the French noted a “special machine” that was being used to carry the letter from King Narai. (The machine is a butsabok, a “movable castle” used to house sacred objects.)
The audience of the Siamese ambassadors with King Louis XIV proved to be a strange moment of cultural interaction between the two monarchies. For their part, Kosa Pan and his colleagues kowtowed to the French king, again provoking much chatter amongst the French upper class.
The Sun King, on the other hand, had become determined not to be outdone by the glory of any foreign court. Chaumont was grilled on the pageantry of the Siamese monarchy, so that the French would be able to match it. As the historian RS Love explained: “The object was to present the French monarch not as a European prince constrained by fundamental laws and the privileges of corporate bodies, but as an omnipotent Asian despot, equal to Phra Narai in power, wealth, remoteness from his subjects and even personal divinity, to give the Siamese ambassadors an exalted idea of Louis’s greatness and magnificence according to Eastern expectations”.
Thus, unlike usual tradition for foreign diplomats, the Siamese were received in the Hall of Mirrors, to the banging of drums and sounding of trumpets intended to replicate the music the French had heard in Ayutthaya. It was likely effective; an ambassador later wrote that “we do not imagine anything more pleasant on the earth than to remember all the qualities of the great King.”
It would be during this embassy that the silver Siamese cannons were given to King Louis XIV as gifts from King Narai; little, of course, did they know that these cannons would come to play a role in the collapse of his dynasty. But philosophically, the embassy may also have played a role in the eventual demise of the Bourbons. According to Meredith Martin, critics would later charge that it was beginning with the Siamese reception that the Sun King raised his court to an “Asiatic luxury” he could not sustain.
But neither did the Siamese dynasty last. The next year, in 1687, another embassy was sent from France, now best known for its ferrying of Simon de la Loubere, a diplomat who now wrote an extensive chronicle of what he saw in Ayutthaya. A final mission was sent by King Narai to the Vatican in 1688.
That same year, the old guard of Siamese mandarins, concerned by increasing foreign influence in the kingdom, decided the time had come to act. As King Narai lay seriously ill and dying, the commander Phetracha arrested Constantine Phaulkon and proclaimed himself king upon King Narai’s death. The new regime would launch a siege of the French fortress in Bangkok and eventually expelled all Frenchmen from Siam, thus ending this curious episode of Siamese-French relations.
If you found this topic interesting, more can be found in the following sources:
- Meredith Martin: Mirror Reflections: Louis XIV, Phra Narai, and the Material Culture of Kingship
- David R. M. Irving: Lully in Siam: music and diplomacy inFrench–Siamese cultural exchanges, 1680–1690
- Michael Smithies: The Travels in France of the Siamese Ambassadors 1686-7