Thailand Untamed: E.W. Hutchinson's 1688 Revolution in Siam

by Kenneth Champeon, May 25, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

In modern times, the Thais have enjoyed more peace, prosperity, and personal freedom than any other Southeast Asian people. Why? One could point to Thailand's many enlightened monarchs, its natural abundance, its famously easy-going people, its tolerant religion. But what chiefly distinguishes Thailand from its neighbors is that it was never colonized. As a result, the Thais have little reason to resent or distrust the West, and have largely benefited from the selective adoption of Western ideas and technology. Nor are the Thais plagued by the inferiority complexes characterizing so many colonized peoples, or by the seemingly endless battles stemming from misguided colonial cartography. Thailand has even largely managed to evade deep involvement in this century's World Wars. Though certainly no stranger to both internal and external conflicts, Thailand has no trauma to compare to Cambodia's purges, the saturation bombing of Laos, or the partition of South Asia.

Why was Thailand so lucky? Most Thais would assert that not luck, but military might and diplomatic skill are responsible. Obviously the true causes are many, and obscure; but anyone interested in uncovering them can begin with E.W. Hutchinson's engrossing 1688 Revolution in Siam, a translation and annotation of the memoir of Father de Beze, documenting the first of many repulsions of European rule.

While the history's outcome is one of national victory, the events leading up to it form a personal tragedy almost Shakespearean in its pathos, discord, and carnage. The two main players, the deposed King Narai (1656-1688) and his right-hand man, the Greek Constance Phaulkon, are dead by the book's close, as are the King's brothers. Constance's widow, meanwhile, undergoes martyr-like deprivations to save her life.

If the discord is Shakespearean, the means whereby certain players in the power struggle are dispatched is medieval. One of "the customary forms of execution", to be devoured by a tiger, is the sentence of a minor queen. "Princes of the Blood Royal," de Beze writes, "are crushed between two boards of sandalwood." A "fairly common penalty" for insubordinates is "to make deep slashes on their heads from the crown downwards towards the neck with a sword which penetrates almost to the skull."

The instigator of this bloodbath is Pitracha, whose craving for the throne respects no moral bounds and diminishes his pretended motives: to save Siam from France and Christianity. To achieve his end, Pitracha stirs up false rumors of the Narai's death, bruits spurious and self-serving astrological predictions, and ruthlessly manipulates the Talapoins (the French word for Buddhist monks) into allegiance to his goals.

The focus of his hatred is the newly-devout Christian Phaulkon, who seeks the conversion of Narai and a dubious alliance between Siam and the preeminent Christian kingdom of France under Louis XIV. Under Narai, the French did succeed in stationing soldiers in Bangkok and Mergui, the justification being that Siam was thereby protected against the English and the Dutch. Pitracha demurred, fearing that France was just as desirous of empire. Once he ascended to the throne he had the soldiers driven out, thus ending a decisive episode in Thai history. Not until the reign of King Mongkut in the 19th century would Siam again face any significant threat of colonization.

Thus, in this instance, Thais are justified in attributing their sovereignty to military might, and though the machinations of Pitracha were treacherous, they were nonetheless skillful. Even the disgraced Narai, for all his accommodation of the French, deserves some credit for having refused to be converted to Catholicism, even as he lay on his death-bed surrounded by importuning missionaries, de Beze among them.

Being a Jesuit priest singularly devoted to the "promotion of Christian religion and of French interests", de Beze commonly strays from objectivity. He lionizes Phaulkon, demonizes Pitracha, and canonizes Narai; and he does not look kindly upon the Talapoins. Christians are not viewed as foreign invaders threatening the sovereignty of Siam, but as exalted victims of persecution; while to be dominated by the enlightened Louis XIV is presented as something akin to a state of grace.

However biased by his religion is de Beze's account, it is clearly the work of an erudite, painstaking, and compassionate man, with a thoroughgoing understanding of human nature. Histories penned by the wrong hands can be potent soporifics, but the convoluted constructions of de Beze's 17th century style are peppered with beautiful, economical, and revelatory asides. "Man's nature," he writes, "is prone to give ear to evil reports more readily than to those which are good." Of Phaulkon's early struggles on the open sea, the priest sagely remarks, "What avails the caution of man against an element he has not tamed?"

De Beze could just as well have been writing this of Siam as of the sea, for Siam would never be "tamed" by colonizers, nor its Buddhism by missionaries. Though a turning point of sorts, the revolution of 1688 is merely one in a millennia-old series of successful, often ferocious Thai struggles for self-determination. Indeed, the Thai tribe is said to have originated in Mongolia, moving south chiefly to avoid being hassled by formidable would-be conquerors, the Tartars and the Chinese among them. The tribe's triumphs may derive ultimately from its indomitable urge for freedom, encapsulated in the official name of its modern nation: muang thai, 'land of the free.'

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