PHAULKON OF SIAM

 

 

 Phaulkon at Ayudhya: Kowtowing before King Narai, he gestures to signal the French ambassador to lift his hand so that the king may reach the letter from Louis the XIV that he is carrying without having to bend.

 

Of the many tales of Western adventurers in the East, none is more fascinating to the armchair traveler or more frustrating to the modern researcher than the one that relates the exploits of Constantine Phaulkon.  Raffles of Singapore, Lawrence of Arabia, Gordon of China and Khartoum: all have achieved fame for their adventures in countries not their own.  And yet the incredible career of Phaulkon – perhaps the boldest and most daring soldier-of-fortune of all – is, despite recent works of fiction and non-fiction, known outside Thailand mainly to scholars and academicians.

Many aspects of the life of the Greek who rose from being cabin boy of an English merchant ship to become practically master of Siam in the 1680s are only now becoming clear.  Yet scholars still disagree widely over Phaulkon’s character, his beliefs, his goals and his life.

To the British East India Company, any Englishman who traded in the Orient independently of the Company was an “interloper.”  To the Company, Phaulkon was “a naughty man” and “a wicked fellow” who encouraged these “interlopers.”  To the Christian merchants in India, he was “one of the biggest imposters even seen in the East.”  To his contemporary, the missionary, Father de Beze, who became his biographer, Phaulkon was likable, but a “climber” nevertheless.  Yet a climber – as de Beze went on to write the Pope – who was “zealous for the promotion of Christian religion and of French interests, a stout friend of our Order and of Your Reverence in particular.”

Phaulkon received gifts from Pope Innocent XI, as well as an autographed letter of thanks from England’s James II.  Louis XIV made his “loving friend” Phaulkon a Count of France and a Knight of the Order of St. Michael and St. Peter.  And to the Jesuits, whose own aspirations undoubtedly aided his fall, Phaulkon had “high and noble aspirations.”

In 1690, only two years after Phaulkon’s death, the seventeenth-century German traveler, Engelbert Kaempfer, arrived in Siam.  He noted that Phaulkon was “a man of a great understanding, of an agreeable aspect, and an eloquent tongue notwithstanding that he was brought up to no learning, and had passed his younger years mostly at sea among different nations, particularly the English, whose language he had leant.”

Constantine Phaulkon entered history at the Siamese city of Ayudhya which had been founded in 1350 as capital of the first true Siamese ruler of all Siam.  Then known as Iudia (or Judia).  It was a truly cosmopolitan city.  To Ayudhya came traders, merchants, diplomats and adventurers from Japan, China, India, France, England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands – there to buy and sell precious porcelains and silks, tea and hides, birds’ nests and scented woods.  In 1511, when the first European visited Siam, Ayudhya was a center for the exchange of goods between Persia and India on the one hand, and China and Japan on the other.

In Phaulkon’s time, English travelers called Ayudhya “as great a city as London.”  In 1688 a French envoy described the Siamese capital thus: “The City of Siam is not only an island, but is placed in the middle of several islands, which renders the situation thereof very singular.  The island wherein it is situated is at present all enclosed with its walls…The City is spacious, considering the circuit of its walls which enclose the whole isle, but scarce the sixth part thereof is inhabited, and that to the southeast only.  The rest is desert, where temples only stand.  “Tis true that the suburbs, which are possessed by strangers, do considerably increase the number of people.  The streets thereof are large and straight, and in some places planted with trees, and paved with bricks laid edge-wise.  The houses are low, and built with wood…Most of the streets are watered with straight canals, which have made Siam to be compared to Venice….”

From this magnificent capital the Thais ruled a kingdom that extended southward all the way down the Malay Peninsula to Tenasserim, on the Andaman Sea, and Songkhla and that at one time included the seaport of Malacca.  Of the two trade routes that ran out of Ayudhya, one was overland to Tenasserim and the other to Mergui, on the east coast of the bay of Bengal – at least a ten-day journey.

Phaulkon built himself a magnificent residence in Lopburi, 40 miles north of Ayudhya, then known as Louvo (or Lavo).  Lopburi was already an ancient city, which had been occupied by the Mons in the seventh and eighth centuries, and by the Khmers during the tenth through the thirteenth century.  After 1665 Lopburi became the alternate capital of Siam and King Narai, Phaulkon’s patron, lived there during the rainy season each year.

 

Phaulkon was born in 1647, the son of a small innkeeper at Argonsolian, on Cephalonia, the largest of the Ionian isles just south of Greece.  His family name in modern Greek was Gerakis (or Jerakis), which means “falcon” in English.  he names was re-Hellenized, possibly by his shipmates, to Phaulkon.

In 1660, when he was 13, Phaulkon left Cephalonia in an English ship, possibly to escape the harsh rule of his domineering father.  His travels took him to England, where he rapidly attained fluency in English, and where he began his Mediterranean voyages on ships of the East India Company.  Around 1679 Phaulkon left ship in India to join George White, an Englishman who sometimes traded with, and sometimes against, the East India Company.  Phaulkon spent at least on year as a junior clerk at the Englishman’s factory or trading house at Bantam in Java, where he learned still another language – Malay.

During an English celebration of the King’s birthday at Bantam, fire threatened to explode a powder magazine.  Everyone except Phaulkon panicked.  By dragging the powder casks from the vicinity of the flames, Phaulkon saved the factory.  For this feat he was awarded one thousand crowns – money he was, as we shall see – to put to good use.

In 1672-1674 Phaulkon may have served in Prince Rupert’s Anglo-French fleet set against the Dutch.  In 1678 he traveled with Richard Burnaby as assistant gunner on a ship sailing from Bantam to Siam.  Burnaby was being dispatched by the Bantam Council to look into the various misfortunes at the English factory in Siam, which was meeting keen competition by the Dutch.

Impressed with the skills and personality of the young Greek, Burnaby arranged for Phaulkon to remain as his personal servant in Siam.  There Phaulkon met George White’s younger brother, Samuel.  (An amazing adventurer in his own right, Samuel is the hero of Maurice Collis’ book, Siamese White.)  In 1679 Phaulkon was employed by Burnaby and his partner, George White, in several trading ventures.  White had by this time sailed to Siam himself and become a pilot on the Menam River.  His younger brother, Samuel, had also arrived and was the captain of a Siamese trading ship.

The most (apocryphal) legends that describe the beginning of Phaulkon’s amazing rise to power center on his involvement in the last of three shipwrecks during this period at sea.  The nineteenth-century writer, John Anderson, has described a dream Phaulkon had after escaping a shipwreck around 1679.  In this dream Phaulkon saw a person “full of majesty looking down on him, and with a smiling countenance uttering the words, ‘Return, return (to Siam) from whence you came’…On the following day, while walking by the seaside, he saw a man approaching him, all dripping wet, and with a sad countenance.  This proved to be another castaway like himself – an ambassador to the King of Siam, who had been wrecked on his way back from Persia.”

Owing to his engaging personality, his ability to speak Siamese, and, possibly, his efforts to aid the Ambassador’s return, Phaulkon was introduced to the Lord of the Treasury (Phra-klang, romanized into Barcalong).  Favorably impressing the Barcalong as well, Phaulkon was soon made Superintendent of Foreign Trade.  From there on, his “force of personality” and the forces of fate took Phaulkon to the pinnacles of power in Siam.

Another, undoubtedly more accurate, version of this story had Phaulkon trying to smuggle weapons and other contrabands to Siamese rebels in Southern Thailand, to facilitate which he presented the Barcalong with a gift of about one thousand crowns.  Shortly thereafter, his clandestine voyage forgotten, Phaulkon was appointed adviser to the Barcalong.  (Although this title is translated as “Minister of the Treasury,” the Barcalong actually collected foreign trade revenue and received foreign petitions and embassies.)

Did Burnaby and the English merchants give Phaulkon the money in hopes of installing him in the Siamese service, to bolster their trading advantages at the expense of the Dutch?  Or did Phaulkon, knowing the value of gifts in Siam, cleverly spend the last of his savings to risk all for a political end?

We do not know.  In any case, Phaulkon was soon on his way up.  There are many tales of how Phaulkon ingratiated himself with the King of Siam, Narai.  The story depicted in a painting at the Royal Museum at Bangkok is the one most commonly accepted.  It is based on the partially-translated Thai records known as the “Annals of Ayudhya.”  The King’s advisers were unable to determine the weight of a cannon.  Phaulkon had the cannon loaded into a boat, and then marked the waterline.  The cannon was then removed and Phaulkon had measured rice poured into the boat (baskets of bricks in yet another version) until the waterline dropped to what it was when the cannon were aboard.

Another story tells of the Siamese admiration for Phaulkon’s ability, with the aid of an English carpenter, to raise a large pillar needed to complete the pyramid in which the body of the queen was to be cremated.  Still another tale tells that Phaulkon managed to get a large ship out of a dock.

Acts such as these may have been appreciated by the King and, for a time, by the peasants, but one can almost feel the growing resentment and suspicion of Phaulkon by the Siamese Mandarinate which was to prove his undoing.

 

King Narai, who became Phaulkon’s patron, was a remarkable individual.  The French ambassador, Chevalier de Chaumont, described him admiringly, if also with condescension: “His air is lively, his disposition regal; he is brave, a great politician, government himself, magnificent, liberal, loving the fine arts; in a word, he is a prince who, by the power of his genius, has thrown off many foolish customs anciently kept up in his kingdom, and has borrowed from foreign nations, and especially from those of Europe, all that he considers most worthy to contribute to his own glory and to the happiness of his people.”

To Phaulkon’s secretary, the Jesuit Father Tachard, “The King is below average height, but very straight and well set up.  His demeanor is attractive, and his manners full of gentleness and kindness.  He is lively and active, and an enemy of sloth.  He is always either in the forest hunting elephants, or in his palace, attending to State affairs.  He is not fond of war, but when forced to take up the sword, no Eastern monarch has a stronger passion for glory.”

The King moved in an atmosphere of ritualistic secrecy and holy dread.  The only class that had access to him was the ruling Mandarin class.  Of this atmosphere Phaulkon remarked, “It is not the custom among the Siamese to ask such questions, it not being permitted for them to inform themselves regarding the health of the King their master, whose correct name most do not know, and when they do know it dare not pronounce it….”

Even a mandarin preceded every conversation with the King thus: “High and Mighty Lord of me they slave, I desire to take thy Royal Word, and put it on my brain, and on the top of me they slave…”

To assure that the King was at all times elevated above his subjects, no houses outside the palace could be built more than one story high.  Even the floor levels with the palace were such that there was no chance for a subject to rise above the King.

Whenever the King traveled outside the palace, the subjects, upon hearing the fifes and drums of his entourage, retired behind a hedge of canes to ensure that no one inside should look upon him, closed all doors and windows, and dared not utter a word until he passed.  Even to point to an article used by the King could result in the loss of the offending finger.

The method in which the King might converse with those below him or with foreigners lacking high positions was for him “accidentally” to meet such individuals while riding on his elephant.  An interpreter would then inform a mandarin of the message, and this in turn would be ceremoniously given to the King.  As in other Asian countries, even the most absolute king needed a ruse to sidestep custom.  It was into this world of exotic ceremony and absolute power that the Greek adventurer would not only enter but would also to a great extent irrevocably alter.

Phaulkon’s rise was based not only on a remarkable personality, but on his (often justified) confidence that whatever he set his mind to, he could carry out.  He soon proved his worth as a trader to the Siamese crown.  In 1680 he completed a mission to Persia for both the Barcalong and the King.  But it was against the power of the Dutch and Muslim traders, so amply and – to King Narai – so ominously, displayed in Indonesia, that Phaulkon would have to prove his mettle.  For even more than the protracted conflicts with the Burmese in Chiengmai in Northern Thailand, it was the Dutch military blockade of the mouth of the Menam River in 1644 and their resultant economic strength in Siam that most alarmed the King of Siam.

Hard facts detailing how Phaulkon became King Narai’s favorite are scanty, but it is known that King Narai was becoming increasingly anxious to find a Western ally to use as a countervailing force against the Dutch.  He may have hoped that the “Young Greek” could aid him in his search.  It is also known that both Phaulkon and Kong Narai preferred English support to any other.  But this British support was not forthcoming.  Burnaby’s colleague, Potts, intensely disliked Phaulkon, and Potts eventually defeated Burnaby in their complex quarrels over control of the Company.

Phaulkon’s precarious loyalty to the English wavered still more after a young French commercial agent, who arrived in Ayudhya early in 1682, began a campaign to enlist Phaulkon in the service of France.  In December of that year a fire destroyed a large portion of the English factory at Ayudhya.  Potts let it be known that he thought Phaulkon responsible for the conflagration.  A year later, the English finally closed down the entire factory.  Into this vacuum the French now moved.

The French willingness to enter the scene was based less on a strategy of expansion than on the assumption that anyone so anathema to the English as Phaulkon was or could be made into a loyal friend of France.

The French vehicle for intervention in Siam was the Societe des Missions Estrangers.  Founded in Paris in 1659, with the blessing of Louis XIV, it was intended to do missionary work in the East independently of the Jesuits.  The Society’s Bishop Lambert de la Motte had intended to proselyte in Annam, Indochina.  Finding the tolerant religious climate of Ayudhya congenial, he settled instead in the Siamese capital.

In January 1664 Bishop de la Motte was joined by Pallu, Bishop of Heliopolis.  The two hierarchs secured permission to build a church and seminary.  Soon their priests were dispensed all over the various portions of Siam, and the two bishops’ accounts that reached the Court of Versailles described in glowing terms the possibilities of converting all of Siam to Christianity.

When Monsignor Pallu returned from Europe to Siam in 1673, he carried with him a personal letter from the Roi Soleil to King Narai.  The Siamese monarch’s reception of the message emboldened bishop Pallu and Lambert to suggest that a Siamese diplomatic mission be sent to the French court.  The King agreed.  A Siamese embassy was therefore prepared, consisting of three ambassadors with a retinue of 30.  A letter from King Narai to Louis XIV was composed and inscribed on a sheet of gold.  The presents for the French King and his family included young elephants and rhinoceros.

On Christmas Day, 1680, the embassy set sail for Bantam in Java, where the ambassadors and their gifts were transferred to an ocean-going ship, the 1,000-tonner, Soleil d’Orient.  The ship reached Mauritius, then was caught in a gale off the east coast of Madagascar.  All aboard were lost, including the young elephants.

In 1682 Phaulkon took two fateful steps that were to alter his own fate as well as that of Siam.  First, he made himself the indispensable interpreter between the King and the Bishop of Heliopolis.  Shortly thereafter, fate offered him his opportunity, and he seized it with both hands.  The old Barcelong died, and the new one, incompetent and uncertain of himself, began to rely more and more on Phaulkon.

Also in that year, in Ayudhya, Phaulkon had married a girl believed to have been Japanese or of Japanese-Portuguese extraction.  As a convert to Catholicism, she was heavily influenced by the Portuguese, in whose quarter of Ayudhya she had been reared.  While her husband lived, she was treated as the wife of a mandarin, and along with the other wives of nobility, was part of the royal audience of King Narai’s daughter.

Phaulkon, now in charge of the Barcalong’s office in fact, if not in form, soon persuaded the King to prepare another embassy to Versailles.  This second embassy, dispatched in January, 1684, was more fortunate that the first.  At Versailles Louis XIV assured the Siamese ambassadors that he would “do for the King of Siam, my brother, always with much pleasure, all that he will desire of me.”  If the “Most Christian King” was delighted to receive a Siamese delegation, he must have been equally pleased to learn that Phaulkon himself had embraced Roman Catholicism.  The envoys stressed the conversion of Phaulkon, while minimizing King Narai’s steadfast resistance to conversion.

In the face of these less than complete reports, it was now the “Sun King’s” turn to become enthus4ed.  He dispatched the religious fanatic, the Chevalier de Chaumont, as ambassador to Siam with several missionaries who, it was hoped, would succeed in converting the King of Siam to Catholicism.  The life of one of these missionaries, the Abbe de Choisy, is to be found in several treatises on sexual aberrations, for the abbe as a notorious female impersonator.

It was, then, a somewhat incongruous French embassy that, after a 204-day journey, arrived in Siam in October of 1685.  Still, it received a magnificent reception from King Narai who, like Phaulkon, believed it to signify the beginning of an alliance against the Dutch.  A magnificent royal barge with 60 elaborately-dressed oarsmen received Louis XIV’s letter and rowed it to Ayudhya, where it was placed on a gold palanquin for delivery to King Narai, the folk on the bearers’ path prostrating themselves as before their royal master.

For a time, the French embassy seemed to augur an alliance that would result in Siam’s emergence as the dominant power in Southeast Asia.  Although King Narai ordered Phaulkon, by now his interpreter, to inform de Chaumont that “no (Siamese) king had ever been known to adopt a new faith which had no following amongst his subjects,” rumors that Islamic ambassadors from Persia were competing for King Narai’s soul spurred the French to greater efforts.

In fact the Greek adventurer, now Siamese peer with the title of Luang Wichayen, was actively arranging with the Jesuit Pere Tachard to persuade Louis XIV to send Jesuits dressed as laymen to Siam.  Once in the Kingdom, they would be appointed governors of all the important towns, fortresses and provinces.  Through them Siam’s conversion to Christianity would begin.  After Phaulkon had enumerated the many concessions he was offering the French, he maneuvered de Chaumont into publicly announcing the Siamese-French alliance.

In June 1686 the French ambassador, Tachard, and Kosa Pan, the representative of the Court of Ayudhya, were received regally in the Gallery of Mirrors at Versailles.  But despite his fine reception, Kosa Pan refused to allow the French the use of the port of Mergui as a depot for shipbuilding and repairs.  The Siamese dignitary would also have opposed the French dispatch of troops to Bangkok – had he known of Pere Tachard’s secret plan.

In September 1687 six French warships with 636 soldiers and 300 technicians under Marshal Desfarge’s command arrived at Ayudhya.  Also aboard were two French plenipotentiaries, as well as Kosa Pan and Pere Tachard and some Jesuits.  Pere Tachard’s task was to ensure that a French governor and a garrison should be posted at Mergui and that Bangkok should be occupied – by force if need be.

It is during this crucial period in Franco-Siamese relations that his critics accuse Phaulkon the statesman of reverting to his old role of adventurer.  But events were moving fast, and Phaulkon improvised brilliantly.  First, Phaulkon placated King Narai by having Desfarges and his troops take an oath of allegiance to the King.  Then he consented to the execution of the French plan.  French troops occupied Bangkok and other troops were dispatched to Mergui.  A Franco-Siamese treaty was then signed which gave the French privileges that included the cession of all islands within the ten-mile radius of Mergui. But there was still no formal alliance, nor a conversion of King Narai.  And as the second French mission returned home, the opportunity for either event taking place in Siam was rapidly passing.

Phaulkon’s intrigues to secure the French ascendancy, and the prosperity of his English friends, soon incurred the wrath of the English based in Madras.  The governor of Madras during this period was Elihu Yale, who laws later to perpetuate his name in American Academe, by selling a cargo of books and East Indian goods in Boston on behalf of a school in New Haven, Connecticut.  The sale brought the school £562 and 12 shillings.  Suitably grateful, the trustees named the school Yale University.

That is by the way: Yale was an implacable enemy of Phaulkon and Phaulkon’s protégé, the Englishman, Samuel White, who with his partner, Burnaby, was now operating out of Mergui port.  White was carrying on a private war against rival traders in the Bay of Bengal, and his pinprick attacks eventually prodded the English in Madras to act.  In June 1687 two English warships sailed into Mergui.  The aroused Siamese attacked the English factory on shore, killing 50 of them.  Burnaby was among those killed, but White himself escaped to England.  From Madras, Governor Yale sent a frigate to help the warships seize Mergui port.  The frigate docked to find the French in possession, and had to surrender to them.  Yale seethed in impotent anger, but soon resigned himself to waiting for Phaulkon, by this time deeply immersed in intrigue, to weave himself enough rope.

At this juncture, with the East India Company in a veritable state of war with Siam, the two French religiou8s groups at Ayudhya irreconcilably at odds, and the Siamese mandarinate increasingly incensed at Phaulkon’s temerity, King Narai fell ill with dropsy.  And the adventurous Phaulkon swooped to seize the opportunity.

Now Phaulkon, still under 40, was the undisputed master of Siam.  Kaempfer wrote that Phaulkon “was put at the head of the Finance of the Kingdom, and had also the direction of the King’s household; almost all public affairs of the most important concern were determined by his advice, and whoever had anything to solicit, was obliged to apply to him.”

Even the King’s daughter was unable to prevent Phaulkon from impressing two thousand men from her territories for a war with Cambodia.  Phaulkon also showed power and ruthlessness in dealing with a rebellion of Muslim Macassars.  After escaping death while leading royalist forces, he commanded the torture of his captured enemies.  

It was now Phaulkon whom cringing petitioners approached on all fours.  It was Phaulkon who directed and controlled state trading and it was Phaulkon, rather than the Barcalong, who received French embassies on behalf of the King.  And, ominously, it was Phaulkon who incurred the rising resentment of the court mandarins, as well as the English, and the Dutch.

Already, one of these mandarins, Luang Sorasak, incensed at the young Greek’s attempts to lure Buddhist monks out of their monasteries into his employ, had physically assaulted Phaulkon.  Lacking the King’s backing, Phaulkon could do little to punish the mandarin.  Indeed, the King remarked to de Chaumont that if he should die, Phaulkon might find it prudent to retire to France.

The mandarins also watched Phaulkon’s relentless usurpation of power – at first with incredulity, then with suspicion and, finally, with loathing.  They were well aware of the attempts made to convert their King to Catholicism.  They could sense Phaulkon’s intrigues with the Jesuits to establish Christianity in Siam.  And they knew, as they watched the arrival of French troops, technicians, and even warships, that if the trend continued, still more of their ancient prerogatives would have to go.  In May 1688 their hatred crystallized into conspiracy, under the leadership of Phra Phetraja, the general in charge of the royal elephants.

The rumors started to circulate that Phaulkon, the King’s son-in-law, and the French were engaged in a plot to seize the throne the moment King Narai died.  Phra Phetraja’s own son, while with two of the King’s concubines within the palace, swore that he had heard the conspirators plotting.  His father acted immediately.

Phaulkon was lured to the Palace under the pretense that the King needed him.  Stilling his own suspicions, he went.  At the Palace gate the trap was sprung.  Phaulkon’s bodyguards were disarmed.  Phaulkon himself was thrown into prison, where he endured two weeks of torture.  What occupied his thoughts as he was carried off on a common chair to his unknown fate we will never know.  Kaempfer’s account tells us that “soon after his Silver Chair, wherein he was usually carried, came back empty, a bad omen to his friends and domestics, who cold not but prepare themselves to partake in the master’s misfortune….Two days after, (Phra Phetraja) ordered, against the King’s will, the King’s son-in-law’s head to be struck off, throwing it at Phaulkon’s feet, then loaded with irons, with this reproach, ‘See, there is your king’.”

The hopeless Phaulkon was then carried out of town to the woods outside of Lopburi.  There, by the banks of a natural lake known as Tale Chupsorn, his head was severed with a broad sword.  His body, only poorly covered by dirt, was left to be devoured by scavenging dogs.

Father de Beze describes Phaulkon’s execution in early June 1688: “At ten o’clock an official called for him and carried him across the city on an elephant to the place assigned by Phetraja.  He told us that M. Constance, on arriving there, fell upon his knees and remained in prayer for some time.  He then protested his innocence, and handed over to the official his cross of St. Michael, which was to be preserved in token of the affection shown to him by the King of France, and was to be delivered to his son, as soon as the latter should be in a position to have it.”

According to Kaempfer, the gift to his son “could be of no great use to the poor child, who to this day with his mother goes begging from door to door, nobody daring to intercede for them.”

Shortly afterward, the King’s two brothers were themselves placed in red, velvet bags and beaten with sandalwood clubs, to avoid the shedding of royal blood.  King Narai himself died soon afterward, on July 11, 1688.  Few of Phaulkon’s French friends were in a position to attempt to intercede on his behalf.  The few who were, did not.  Fortified at Bangkok, a small, unimportant fortress and village site, against the wrath of the Siamese, the French troops could do nothing to aid Phaulkon.

In September Desfarges and his troops, whose behavior at Bangkok had done little to encourage friendship with the Siamese, were evacuated to Pondicherry, where the troops that had occupied Mergui had fled to also, after fighting their way out of the port.  Siamese xenophobia, which spread throughout the kingdom, especially at Ayudhya, cost the lives of many French civilians and soldiers.  Only a handful of Dutch traders and French Catholics now remained in the kingdom.

After Phaulkon’s death, Lady Phaulkon seems to have been kept as a captive and then left to fend for herself as best she could.  Known to Europeans as Lady Phaulkon, she was employed in the Siamese palace as late as 1724.  The Thais called her by a phonetic approximation of her real name, Thao Thong Keep Ma, or “Dame Golden Horseshow.”  She was made Controller of the Royal Confectionery, and until today certain Thai dishes – such as kanom foy tong and kanom tong yot, consisting of golden sweet shreds or drops of egg yolk boiled in sugar syrup and drained – greatly resemble Portuguese delicacies that Lady Phaulkon popularized in Siam over 280 years ago.

If events of his life are difficult to verify, the motivations of the man are even more shrouded in mystery.  Phaulkon can still be seen as a high-handed opportunist with loyalties to no one but himself, or he can be considered as a man with too many conflicting loyalties and too few real friends.  In an extract from the Memoires du Comte De Forbin, Amsterdam, 1729 edition, we are told that “Phaulkon’s capacity was above the average.  No plan was to great for him to guide it to a successful conclusion with wisdom and circumspection.  He would indeed have been fortunate if these qualities had not been marred by the most conspicuous defects, of which the chief were boundless ambition, insatiable and often sordid avarice, a jealousy which took offense at trifles and led him to be hard, cruel, and devoid of both pity and honesty.”

 

The once-magnificent capital of Ayudhya, which had flourished since its founding in1350, was completely destroyed by the Burmese in 1767; Lopburi, the “Versailles” of Siam, rapidly declined into a small market town known chiefly for its ruins of empires.

In 1782 Bangkok was made capital of the country, which it remains today.  It was not until the reign of King Mongkut (1851-1868), the fourth king of the Chakri dynasty, that a Siamese ruler again expressed interest in the world beyond the Siamese borders.  And only in 1896 did another foreigner, this time a Belgian adviser to King Chulalongkorn, obtain high rank of nobility approximating that which Phaulkon had attained.

Letters from missionaries and the records of travelers of the period and after enable the latter-day historian to trace, with some accuracy, the descendants of Phaulkon until 1767.  His son was believed to have entered the government service in Ayudhya, and a granddaughter of Phaulkon was said to have been among the captives sold by the Burmese when they retook Rangoon from the Mon mutineers in 1773.

With the destruction of Ayudhya, all reliable records of Phaulkon’s progeny were lost.  Only the ruins of Phaulkon’s mansion at Lopburi testify to the fantastic heights he reached.  Even today, the people of this quiet market-city can still direct the curious traveler to ban Wichaiyen, the ruins of the house of the Greek adventurer, whom Siamese once addressed as the “Lord of Victory.”  © Dean Barrett 2008 - 2014

 

Photos above: Ruins of Phaulkon's house.  Phaulkon was the first to use brick and mortar in Thailand for his palatial home in Lopburi.  One of the entrances to King Narai's palace at Lopburi.  Painting: Western ambassadors and missionaries depicted in lacquerware on the wall of the Lacquer Pavilion in Bangkok date back to the Narai era.  Various temple ruins of Ayudhya.

 

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