Ayutthaya, Metropolis of the East

I was in Bangkok last week but I didn’t make the day trip to the former Thai capital of Ayutthaya as planned. Set in an island in the confluence of the Lopburi, Prasak and Chao Praya rivers, Ayutthaya was the capital to the Thai kingdom from the 14th to 18th centuries. It received many foreign visitors, from as far away as Europe and came to be known as the Venice of the East.

Ancient cultural melting pot [Link no longer active]
Bangkok Post, 05 April 2008

Foreigners thrived in Old Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam, is not only important as a World Heritage listed by Unesco but is also a testament of old Siam’s rich cultural diversity.

“Ayutthaya was full of cultural blends among people of many nations and races,” Anek Sihamat, director of the Third Regional Office of Fine Arts, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, said.

According to the director, Ayutthaya was mentioned in Dutch, French and Chinese documents as an inland port city where foreigners could trade with Ayutthaya’s kings via the Phra Khlang department.

Its important exports included forest and wild animal products, deer skins in particular. Outstanding foreign traders included the Dutch United East India Company, or VOC for Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch. It brought into Ayutthaya goods, especially pottery, from Japan, China and Europe, and exported Siamese goods from Ayutthaya to Japan, Europe and Batavia.

All foreign settlements, except for some Chinese ones, were situated outside the city walls to the south. The Japanese and Dutch communities were located not far from each other. Opposite the Japanese area stood the Portuguese settlement, which consisted of three churches.

In the north were the Chinese, Makassarese, French and Vietnamese settlements, while the Laotian community was situated in the northeast and the Muslim settlement near the Takhian canal.

However, a number of Chinese were allowed to live inside the city walls near the Makham Riang canal. The Chinese mostly earned their living from selling pork, running liquor factories and making furniture and housewares, the director added.

According to Charnvit Kasetsiri and Michael Wright’s Discovering Ayutthaya, Simon de La Loubere, a French envoy to the Kingdom in the reign of King Narai, recorded, relying on oral accounts, that there were as many as 40 ethnic groups under the Ayutthayan king’s sovereignty.

Dhiravat na Pombejra, leading historian and former history lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Arts, said the nihon-machi (Japanese village) dates to the late 16th to early 17th centuries. Surrounded by canals on three sides, it ran one kilometre along the river and extended 500 metres inland.

The first Japanese who came to settle in Siam were either Roman Catholics fleeing persecution, or so-called ronin, samurai who had lost their masters during the civil wars that ended in victory for the Tokugawa family at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600).

Like other foreign settlements in and around Ayutthaya, the Japanese settlement was a separate village governed by its own leader (or nai). Many Japanese became mercenaries in the service of the kings of Siam.

The most famous of the Japanese mercenary leaders in Ayutthaya was Yamada Nagamasa, who received the rank and title of Okya Senaphimuk from the Siamese king. He and his followers played a crucial role in the fierce succession conflicts that took place from 1628 to 1629 and led to the usurpation of the throne by Okya Kalahom, or King Prasat Thong, who reigned from 1629 to 1656.

In his Diary of the Picnic Incident, Jeremias van Vliet, then director of VOC’s Siam factory, wrote about “pressure from these bald-headed villains”, referring to the Japanese samurai.

According to van Vliet’s Description of the Kingdom of Siam 1638, King Prasat Thong, who once cracked down on the Japanese community in Ayutthaya, called those who had fled away back again after a short time in fear of their revenge. And when their number rose to between 70 and 80, the king gave them a fine tract of land to live on and bestowed titles of honour on the three most prominent Japanese, appointed these men as chiefs over the others, and placed them under one of his mandarins.

In late 1636, there were still about 70 to 80 samurai, whom the king employed as mercenaries, living in Ayutthaya’s Japanese quarter, which adjoined the VOC compound. Most of the samurai had Siamese wives, with whom they had children. And since there were also some Japanese merchants residing in Ayutthaya, the total population of the Japanese quarter may have been about 400 to 550 (see van Vliet’s Siam by Chris Baker, Dhiravat na Pombejra, Alfons van der Kraan and David K. Wyatt).

Dhiravat added that the Japanese intermarried with locals, and soon the community was predominantly mestizo. A famous Luso-Japanese mestizo was Maria Pina de Guimar, who married Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon in the 1680s.

Opposite the Japanese village stood the Portuguese settlement, overlooking the Chao Phraya River on the west and having canals on the other three sides. Covering an area of over half a square kilometre, the settlement had three churches of three Catholic orders: The Franciscans in the north of the settlement, the Dominicans in the centre and the Jesuits to the south.

Dhiravat said that the Portuguese settled in Siam in the first half of the 16th century, not long after first arriving to trade with Siam from 1510 to 1511. The Portuguese not only traded there but also became much in demand as mercenaries, thanks to their knowledge of firearms and modern warfare.

Apparently, the land of the Portuguese settlement was granted to the Portuguese as a reward for their help for King Chairacha, who reigned from 1534 to 1547, in the battle of Chiang Kran. During that campaign, according to Portuguese traveller Fernao Mendes Pinto, 120 Portuguese fought for the Siamese king.

In the mid-16th century, there were around 130 Portuguese in Ayutthaya. However, the population of the Portuguese settlement must have grown as more mestizo children were born. By the late 17th century Nicolas Gervaise, a French priest, reported that there were 700 to 800 households in the Portuguese camp, and Father Tachard was told by Constantine Phaulkon that there were in 1685 a little over 4,000 people in the Portuguese settlement. In Thai history, the Portuguese are famous not only for their ships, guns and soldiers but also for their introduction into Siamese cuisine egg-based desserts such as foi thong by Maria Guimar.

The ruins of the Dominican church of St Peter and St Paul, also called Sao Domingos, were excavated by the Fine Arts Department in the mid-1980s with funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. Many skeletons, coins, rosaries, crucifixes and Dutch clay pipes were found during the excavations. There used to be three churches in all in the Portuguese village, but the Dominican church is the only one that has been excavated.

The skeletons uncovered were mostly those of mestizos from intermarriages. The Portuguese stayed long in Siam, from the early 16th century until the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. Some Portuguese were even taken to Burma as hostages by the Burmese invaders. The rest followed King Taksin the Great to settle down in Thon Buri, Dhiravat added.

Historian Bulong Srikanok of the Fine Arts Department said that the Portuguese language was used as the official language for trade and diplomacy by the Siamese from the reign of King Ramathibodi II (1491 to 1529) until Siam signed the Burney Treaty with Britain in 1826. That treaty was in three languages – Portuguese, Chinese and English.

According to her, all high-level officials in Ayutthaya could use the Portuguese language fluently.

Father Tachard, who came with the French mission, reported that Siamese nobles were able to converse in Portuguese. During their voyage to Siam, the French Jesuits spent eight months learning Portuguese so that they could communicate directly with the Siamese nobles.

As Portugal was believed to have adopted a policy to convert the Siamese through intermarriages, there were many mestizos born to Portuguese fathers and Mon, Siamese or Chinese mothers in Ayutthaya. After the fall of Ayutthaya, many of their descendants settled in an area of Thon Buri called Kudijeen and worked as Thai-Portuguese translators for the state until the Bangkok period. These translators were called Lam Kudijeen, Bulong added.

By the river on a private-owned dockyard in Tambon Klong Suan Phlu, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya district, once stood the Dutch settlement.

As part of the celebrations marking 400 years of Dutch-Thai relations (1604 to 2004), the Fine Arts Department began an archaeological excavation in the area in October 2003, and found traces of the main building, ceramic shards (Chinese, Vietnamese, Siamese), glassware, Dutch pipes, Chinese coins, cowrie shells and many other items.

Dhiravat said that this site was the Dutch United East India Company’s trading agency from around 1635 to 1765. The land was given to the Dutch in 1634 by King Prasat Thong as a reward for having helped Ayutthaya fight Pattani.

The Dutch first came to Ayutthaya in 1604, hoping for passage to China on a Siamese ship. Although disappointed in this matter, the Dutch stayed on in Ayutthaya, opening a factorij (trading company) in 1608.

Importing silver, Indian textiles and other goods, the Dutch United East India Company, or VOC, exported from Siam forest produce, such as deer skins, sapan wood (a dyewood), eagle wood (an aromatic wood), ivory, wax and benzoin, along with rice, tin and ray skins.

According to a journal kept by Dutch doctor Gijsbert Heecq (or Heeck), in 1655 the Dutch lodge or factorij comprised several buildings, storehouses or godowns, a garden and a graveyard. The head of the Dutch settlement at any given time was of course the head merchant, or opperhoofd, of the VOC trading office in Ayutthaya.

The employees of the VOC lived with local women (mainly Mons), and the Dutch settlement, like other foreign communities in Ayutthaya, came to have a strong mestizo element. Problems concerning mestizo children turned into legal problems in Ayutthaya, leading to the Tra Sam Duang (Three Seals) Law which banned Siamese Buddhist, Laotian and Mon women from marrying Westerners, Muslims and Malaccans. However, enforcement was ineffective. No women were punished for violating the law, Dhiravat said.

According to Dirk van der Cruysse’s Siam & The West 1500-1700, King Narai refused to consent to the departure of children born of Dutch fathers and Siamese mothers, holding that they were his subjects; he only allowed the departure of children under seven years of age.

Dhiravat added that the Dutch stayed longer than the French and other foreigners since they focused on trade. They even offered space on their ships to send Siamese monks to help ease the Buddhist crisis in Sri Lanka. This was recorded in some Dutch papers.

However, there was a scandal involving the Dutch in Ayutthaya. It was called the Picnic Incident.

According to van Vliet’s Report and Historical Account of the Events, on December 16, 1636, a group of Dutchmen sailed past the king’s palace and breached the palace’s safety rules. They continued to party at the sacred Wat Boeretiet (Vorachet). Some of them later scolded and hit a servant of the prince, and entered a house of sick Siamese and stole their food.

When King Prasat Thong learned about the incident, he was outraged and ordered all those Dutchmen arrested and stomped to death by elephants. Thereafter, trading activities between Ayutthaya and the VOC became restricted.

On the bank of the Chao Phraya River outside the city walls to the south stood the French settlement. It was bordered by Khlong Takhian on the west and Wat Phutthaisawan on the east.

Dhiravat said that the first Roman Catholic church on this site was built in the 1660s, on land given to the French Society of Foreign Missions (Societe des Missions Etrangeres) by King Narai (1656 to 1688).

According to him, the Paris-based Society’s vicars-apostolic Bishops Pierre Lambert de la Motte and Francois Pallu arrived in Siam in 1662 and 1664 respectively. They were warmly welcomed by King Narai, who wanted to learn about France, European politics, the court of King Louis XIV and the Christian religion. They therefore decided to stay on and found a mission in Siam with the aim of educating Asians so that they could be ordained and thus work.

The community of French priests was small, but their parishioners and students were Tonkin and Cochinchinese Vietnamese, Chinese, Mons and a few Siamese.

During the Burmese invasion of 1765 to 1767, this area (also called Ban or Bang Plahet) was used as a camp, and was destroyed by the invaders even before the fall of Ayutthaya itself. The church was rebuilt in the reign of King Mongkut in the mid-19th century. The present Victorian-style building dates from the reign of King Chulalongkorn, when St Joseph’s was rebuilt again on the initiative of the French vicar apostolic at that time, Bishop Jean-Louis Vey, and consecrated in 1891. There is still an important Roman Catholic school on the site.

According to Discovering Ayutthaya, there was an English settlement in Ayutthaya. In 1612, King Song Tham granted officers of the British East India Company a large building on the bank of the Chao Phraya River south of the Dutch settlement. Despite support from the king, the company eventually suffered great losses and finally had to withdraw since some British agents tended to trade on their own account.

In Ayutthaya, there were accounts of different groups of Muslims, namely, Moors, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chams, Makassarese, Malays, Javanese and people from Pattani in the South. They were under the Phra Khlang department that dealt with traders from the “Indic” world. The Muslims were collectively referred to as khaek.

Around Wat Phananchoeng, one of the oldest temples in Ayutthaya, there used to be a large Chinese settlement. It is where the Pak Sak and Chao Phraya rivers join. In the Ayutthaya period, Chinese junks usually anchored in front of this temple.

In the 17th century, many Chinese settled around this temple.

Like many other foreigners, they married Mon women in Ayutthaya, who were rather strong and independent, said Dhiravat.

Anek Sihamat, director of the Third Regional Office of Fine Arts, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, believed that many foreigners settled down in Ayutthaya due to the Ayutthayan kings’ open-door policy to promote trade.

Certain pieces of art in Ayutthaya reflect foreign influence, such as murals depicting the Chinese in Wat Rajaburana, some Buddha statues with Chinese inscriptions and some Western and Persian-style buildings dating to the reign of King Narai (1656 to 1688), he added.

Anuje Sirikit, a member of the National Museum Volunteers group, said during the recent NMV excursion to foreign settlements in Ayutthaya, “The more I learn about the foreign settlements in Ayutthaya, the more my heart is open to cultural diversity.”

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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