Sunday, September 04, 2011

Siam in the 16th and 17th Centuries: Encountering the French missions

This opening paragraph comes from Relation du voyage de Mgr. de Béryte, vicaire apostolique du Royaume de la Cochinchine (Account of the Travels of The Mgr. [Bishop] of Beirut, Vicar Apostolic for the Kingdom of Cochinchina), compiled by Jacques de Bourges, published in 1666 and made available as a Google eBook.

Drawing on my schoolboy French, a translation might be:
I do not believe that there's a country in the world where one finds more religions and whose practice is more permitted than in Siam. Gentiles, Christians, and Muslims, who are all divided into different sects, are at complete liberty to follow such worship as seems best to them. The Portuguese, English, Dutch, Chinese, Laplanders, Peguans, along with people from Cambodia, Malacca, Cochinchina, Champa, and several other places on the Septentrion coast, all have established themselves in Siam. There are nearly two thousand Catholics, the majority Portuguese, who have come from various places in the East Indies, from which they were driven, and have taken refuge in Siam, where they have a separate district making up a suburb of the city...

Thailand's reputation for openness goes back a long way!  Yet, I was still surprised by the plurality of the situation described here more than 300 years ago. Quite a distinguished case of 'multiculturalism' (about which contemporary discussions might suggest that it's a recent phenomenon!) What is not clear from this picture, though, is whether there developed much in the way of cultural exchange and integration among the communities. The compartmentalising suggests each group went its own way and the various accounts I've read so far seem to confirm this and they often relate complaints about each other and contrary points of view, especially among the Europeans.

I'm interested particularly in the East-West encounter, which in this period was concentrated in Ayutthaya, the old capital of what was then termed 'Siam' (which appears to have had external origins, which I may try to explain vis-a-vis 'Thai' and 'Tai' in another post). It was missionary zeal that drove much of the first two centuries of expeditions and settlements - and the religious institutions seemed often to be better informed and coordinated than the state-sponsored trading companies. Today the deep-rooted influence of the West is often characterised in terms of the material trappings of globalisation, but arguably more persistent effects are evident in the education system, where many schools still have a Christian foundation and this is more my focus here as I try to explore its origins and development in these early accounts.

This means having to keep practising my French language skills as most of the written accounts relate to the experiences of the French.  Given this predominance of materials it's difficult to draw a non-partisan view.    Among the French records, Martin's accounts are probably the most valuable for the meticulous attention to detail (recording a constant stream of news in the manner of a ledger, even leaving blanks as placeholders for figures that were still to be determined).  However, his background and allegiances do colour his interpretation.   There were a few other travellers who passed by without having involvement, one of whom was the German naturalist and physician, Engelbert Kaempfer - I look forward to reading his A Description of the Kingdom of Siam 1690 (Itineraria Asiatica: Thailand). At least the task is made somewhat easier by electronic publishing; in sponsoring large scale digitisation of old texts, Google has been providing marvellous support for this historical research.

Among the few scholars who appear to have studied the materials from this period in depth is Michael Smithies, a historian. He has published extensively and I've already availed myself of a copy of his book, A Resounding Failure: Martin and the French in Siam, 1672-93, published by Silkworm Books. The back cover summarises its importance: “François Martin, from his unique viewpoint as director of the French trading outpost at Pondichery, provides a careful analysis of the motives of the persons involved in the French colonizing venture.” And there were many players in this theatre!

Prof. Smithies original studies were in French and his teaching of French (and Indonesian) in Papua New Guinea earned him the honour of being received into the French Order of Academic Palms (I don't know the UK equivalent, but it's a notable decoration). In an interview for Bulletin No. 17 Amopa 79, 2005-6, he relates his career development. In particular, he joined the British Council in 1960 and was immediately sent “as a matter of urgency” to Thailand as Director of English studies. He recounts that he had to monitor the work of dozens of teachers, and assist in teaching at different universities in Bangkok.   At that time my mother (then Fuengsin Sarayutpitag), recently graduated from Chulalongkorn University, was teaching English as a foreign language at the newly established Thonburi Technical College. She knew a "Mr. Smithies" and I expect it was the same man. It would be nice if this could be confirmed.

Whilst Smithies was familiarising himself with Thai culture (it was about 10 years later that he started to devote himself to scholarly research in this field), my mother was undertaking the complementary activity of delving into Western culture. And this is the general perspective that I'm trying to keep in mind as I look at this confluence, in which my mother was inextricably involved for the rest of her life.

The Far East continues to be a source of attraction for French missionaries, as evident in a trailer for a film 'Ad Vitam, La Grande Aventure des Missions Etrangères de Paris en Asie'. The excerpt includes a brief historical explanation by the archivist, Fr. Gerard Moussay, who describes the origins of M.E.P.: in the 16th and 17th Century the Vatican gave the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to nominate missionaries across the world, but with the kings becoming increasingly ineffective in carrying this out, bishops called Apostolic Vicars were appointed, the first two being Mgrs. François Pallu and Lambert de la Motte.

Regarding present day attitudes, Fr. Etcharren, Supérieur Général of MEP, emphasizes that being a missionary means carrying a message that's "not ours" and requires always humility.  He offers us another glimpse into how the early period is viewed in a short speech he gave on a recent visit to Thailand (see another video), in which they celebrate 350 years in Ayutthaya.  He recounts the arrival of the first missionaries in 1662:
Ce Lieu d'Ayutthaya a été dès le début d'abord un lieu de prière, de contemplation et de réflexion missionaire. Lorsque les missionnaires sont arrivés ici, ils ont commencés par faire une retraite et puis ensuite un synode de réflexion. Les valeurs qui ont émergé lors de ce synode d'Ayutthaya sont des valeurs missionaires qui sont toujours d'actualité.

In English (again I translate):
This place in Ayutthaya was from the outset firstly a place of prayer, contemplation and missionary reflection. When the missionaries arrived here, they began with a retreat followed by a synod of reflection. The values which have emerged from the synod of Ayutthaya are the missionary values which are still current [today].

This gives the impression that there has been continual activity, perhaps suggestive of serene and steady development, but it's not been like that historically because inevitably there has been a lot of political involvement.

From the accounts of de Bourges (cited above) and others, the Kingdom of Siam might have seemed an opportunity ripe for successful missionary endeavours.   The French were certainly encouraged to invest a lot in developing their presence in the region; Martin relates in 1675 about Mgr. Pallu, Bishop of Helipolis:

This great prelate, whose probity and sanctity Europe, Asia and America admire, had embarked in Siam on a vessel of a private French merchant to go to Tonkin, to devote the rest of his strength to the conversion of the infidels. (II,13, translated by Smithies)

There were many 'gains' in some parts, but efforts were in vain in Siam (and Martin merely echoes the uncharitable remarks, which sound like those of a bad loser):

I also learnt from letters from Siam that the French Missionaries made many conversions in Tonkin and Cochinchina.  Things were not the same in Siam, although this place was like an entrepot for the other missions and from where they were supplied with all essentials.  This was attributed to the stupidity of the Siamese, a brutal people to whom one could not explain the mysteries of the Christian religion." (II, 86, translated by Smithies)

Even so, efforts gathered pace as we also learn from Martin that under Louis XIV, the French were by the mid 1680s emboldened to issue various demands to the Siamese king, Phra Narai, including his conversion from Buddhism to Christianity.   The bishops attempted to win over the king through rational argumentation, but the king simply concluded that Christianity - alongside other religions - was basically good and he felt no need to change his own Buddhist affiliation.

Meanwhile, the French military presence continued to grow until it was all too much for some members of the Siamese court: in 1688 there was a revolution and the French were formally ejected under a treaty of 'honourable capitulation'. With a formal trade embargo then introduced and enforced for about 150 years, there was a lull in the nation's engagement with the West - we have to wait until King Rama IV before formal ties with these nations are resumed.  However, I expect that smaller scale developments continued and it may be interesting to find out more about them.


Richard Morris said...

Very interesting your delving into these French reports. I had never heard of the term 'septentrion' previously - means something with a northern leaning or position. I would be very interested to learn more of contemporary descriptions of Ayutthaya to learn more about the physical fabric of this city (purportedly the largest in the world in 1700). The computer generated visualisations of individual wat when visited today in Ayutthaya are certainly interesting, generally completing the picture of the original whole wat form by adding in the timber bits. However, I have not come across much information about the urban character of the Siamese capital. Was it river or street oriented? Did it have public open spaces? How densely was the population accommodated?

Paul Trafford said...

Hello Richard,

Thanks for your interest in Thai history and architecture! You ask some interesting questions, particularly whether life was oriented around water or land navigation. I'm not sure, but you may find helpful some of the description provided by Simon de La Loubère who was the 'extraordinary envoy' sent in a French Embassy to Siam, as it was known then, in 1687. He knew early on that the mission was going to founder and probably being anxious to take back something to impress King Louis XIV he poured his energies into a very detailed account of life there, especially Ayutthaya.

It was published in two volumes as 'Du Royaume de Siam' and both are available on Google Books in the original French.

Vol 1:

Vol II:

The books can be downloaded as PDF, but the online versions have been OCR’ed and are searchable.

There is also an English language translation, A new historical relation of the kingdom of Siam, provided by Cornell's library.