Sunday, October 26, 2014

Narai: Expansion and Tragedy

French depiction of King Narai
During the 17th century, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (Ayudhya) saw an expansion of its foreign relations. At the start of the 1600’s, Ayudhya had just reclaimed its position as a major power in mainland Southeast Asia under its legendary King Naresuan. Then, about fifty years later, the Kingdom would embark in expanding its reaches and knowledge of the world. Under King Narai, Ayudhya would enter a period of connecting with other Asian and European countries.

King Narai was the King of Ayudhya from 1656 to 1658. He was the son of King Prasatthong who ruled from 1629 to 1656. Narai was a cultured man. Even when he was just a Prince, he shared with his father, the King, the passion for western technologies. Narai, in particular, was interested in optics. He wanted to collect telescopes, spectacles, mirrors. He also collected clocks and globes. In addition he became a lover of oriental and western items like textile, ceramics, and also, European hats. In 1656, King Prasatthong had passed away. Two king followed in his wake. Both unexpectedly ruled very briefly and passed away. They were then succeeded by Narai as King.

During this period, Ayudhya was a major power alongside its neighbor in the west, Burma. In the east, Ayudhya had placed its dominance over the once powerful Khmer Kingdoms. In the south, near the Malay Peninsula, Ayudhya continued to apply its influence of dominance in the area. In 1660, Narai was requested by the small state of Chiang Mai for assistance. However, it was cancelled by Chiang Mai and Narai, instead of proceeding to Chiang Mai, took the town of Lampang. It was then followed by the invasion of Chiang Mai itself in 1662 and a start of a two year occupation. Also, Ayudhya began to see new players in the regions. The Europeans had started to enter the region. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, followed by the English and the French.

In early 1660’s, Narai faced challenge from the Dutch. The Dutch had become a major player in Southeast Asia. It became a great economic entity in the region, controlling Malacca and Indonesia. At the same time, Siam also developed trade with China. The Dutch saw immense potential and profit from the trade. The Siamese and King Narai, however, objecting any plans of the Dutch under the Dutch East India Company to establish factors or warehouses and in Ayudhya soil. Narai also opposed any concessions being given to the Dutch in the trade of particular items, such as animal hides. In 1664, the Dutch conducted aggressive actions. It seized Ayudhyan ships in the Gulf of Thailand and threatened to put in the strangle hold in Ayudhya by blockading the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. The act forced Narai to give the Dutch the control over its trade routes with China.

The event frightened Narai. It made him move his residence from Ayudhya to a more secluded area of Lopburi. There he constructed a new palace for himself.

Moreover, it made Narai to look for allies against the Dutch or any other acts of aggression in the future. He sought close relations with the competitors of the Dutch, the French and the English (with its English East India Company). He wanted to foster closed ties with them by providing concessions. He allowed the British set up a factory in Bantam and the French in Songkhla. Also he allowed the entry of Catholic missionaries in 1664. Among this missionaries was a certain Father Thomas that became involve in designing forts in Ayudhya, Nonthaburi, and Thoburi. This forts were constructed to provide additional protection for the capital Ayudhya and the Chao Phraya River.

Other than the Europeans, during the 1660’s Narai sent missions to other Asian countries. In 1664, he sent a mission to the Sultanate of Golconda in India. And in 1669, he sent a diplomatic envoy to the Safavid Empire.

But the most significant affair during Narai’s reign was between France and Ayudhya. In 1684, Narai sent Okphra Wisut Sunthon or Kosa Pan to lead a mission to France. There, Kosa Pan met with King Louis XIV in the opulent Palace of Versailles. It was then followed by another mission led once again by Kosa Pan in 1686. During these missions, Narai sent diplomatic gifts to King Louis, including cannons and chocolatiers (Narai knew Louis XIV loved chocolates). The French also replied with missions to Ayudhya. In 1685, a French mission arrived and concluded with a treaty with Ayudhya. Under the treaty, the French would have control of Songkhla and had the monopoly over the tin industry in the island pf Phuket. Also, the treaty provided tax exemptions for French merchants in Ayudhya. Another mission arrived in 1686, this time, the French had sent an ambassador to stay in Ayudhya – Chevalier de Chaumont.

The close relation with neighboring and European countries allow Ayudhya to be a center of trade and commerce. Ships from all across Asia and Europe flock to trade with the Siamese Kingdom. Also various individuals from different ethnicity went and stayed in Ayudhya. Japanese, Malaysians, Persians, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, etc. went to Ayudhya for its lucrative trade and beautiful environment. Nevertheless, by the 1680’s, it became apparent that the Ayudhya’s relation with France was the closest.

The man behind the relation between France and Ayudhya was ironically, an English East India Company agent with a Greek origin. His name was Constantine Phaulkon. Phaulkon working with the British East India Company and arrived in Ayudhya via English ship, the Phoenix, in 1675. He was known as Falcon of Siam, deriving from Phaulkon’s emblem that bears a falcon, which came from the sound of his last name sounding similar to the bird. Phaulkon was a brilliant man, knew many languages, from French, Portuguese, English, and Siamese. In 1679, he became the interpreter of King Narai. Ever since, his rise became well-known to the French and despised to the Siamese. During the 1680’s Phaulkon worked with Narai to forge relations with the French. He was responsible for the embassies being sent to the France and also partly responsible for the concessions that the French received under the treaty of 1685. The French thanked Phaulkon for his work and becoming a friend of France by bestowing him to become a part of the Knight Order of St. Michael and Peter. Meanwhile, Narai trusted Phaulkon and appointed him minister of finance and foreign affairs in 1685.

The openness of King Narai, however, concerned and infuriated many officials and merchants in Ayudhya. Many Buddhist monks and officials were concerned over the arrival of Catholic missionaries. They feared that King Narai would be converted to Christianity any moment. This, however, came to a no avail. Narai was interested only in fostering good relations and not conversion to the same faith as the foreigners. He did not converted to Catholicism even after a letter from Pope Clement IX, urging him to be baptized, and even by Phaulkon himself.

The Ayudhyan officials most especially hated Phaulkon for his dangerous influence of King Narai’s decision. Phaulkon earned a terrible reputation with the officials after a diplomatic disaster during the late years of King Narai’s reign. Some friends of Phaulkon, named Samuel White, launched piratical attacks on ships of the English East India Company from the Ayudhyan control port of Mergui. The Company, in anger, declared war against Ayudhya and vice versa in August of 1687. The English became further furious when the officials in Mergui massacred about 60 English citizens. Phaulkon attempted to prevent English attacks on Mergui by persuading the King to allow 500 French troops from the third French embassy to Ayudhya to garrison Mergui and Bangkok. The presence of the French troops inspired hatred of many officials towards the French and Phaulkon.

In 1688, the end for Narai was nearing. The King contracted dropsy and became physically weak. Following his deteriorating condition, his foster brother and military commander named Phetracha, launched a coup, and made himself King. Narai became virtually a prisoner in his Palace in Lopburi. Narai passed away on July 1688. It marked the end of a dangerous relation with France and the execution of Phaulkon.

The reign of Narai was both filled with amazing achievements as well as disasters. His expansion of foreign relation with other countries strengthen Ayudhya as a trading center. It also allowed Ayudhya to remain independent during his reign. But his openness to foreigners also brought catastrophes. With his overwhelming trust to Phaulkon, it almost cost Ayudhya its existence with troops landing in Ayudhya and the English East India Company threatening the Kingdom. In the end, his trust to the French and Phaulkon led his life to end like a tragedy. Although respected, he passed away virtually a prisoner in his palace.

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