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A SKETCH OF SIAMESE HISTORY.
BEFORE inducting the reader to more particular acquaintance with his Excellency Chow Phya Sri-Sury Wongse Samuha-P'hra Kralahome, I have thought that "an abstract and brief chronicle" of the times of the strange people over whom he is not less than second in dignity and power, would not be out of place.
In the opinion of Pickering, the Siamese are undoubtedly Malay; but a majority of the intelligent Europeans who have lived long among them regard the native population as mainly Mongolian. They are generally of medium stature, the face broad, the forehead low, the eyes black, the cheekbones prominent, the chin retreating, the mouth large, the lips thick, and the beard scanty. In common with most of the Asiatic races, they are apt to be indolent, improvident, greedy, intemperate, servile, cruel, vain, inquisitive, superstitious, and cowardly; but individual variations from the more repulsive types are happily not rare. In public they are scrupulously polite and decorous according to their own notions of good manners, respectful to the aged, affectionate to their kindred, and bountiful to their priests, of whom more than twenty thousand are supported by voluntary contributions in Bangkok alone. Marriage is contracted at sixteen for males, and fourteen for females, and polygamy is the common practice, without limit to the number of wives except such as may be imposed by the humble estate or poverty of the husband; the women are generally treated with consideration.
The bodies of the dead are burned; and the badges of mourning are white robes for those of the family or kinfolk who are younger than the deceased, black for those who are older, and shaven heads for all who are in inferior degrees connected with the dead, either as descendants, dependents, servants, or slaves. When a king dies the entire population, with the exception of very young children, must display this tonsorial uniform.
Every ancient or famous city of Siam has a story of its founding, woven for it from tradition or fable; and each of these legends is distinguished from the others by peculiar features. The religion, customs, arts, and literature of a people naturally impart to their annals a spirit all their own. Especially is this the case in the Orient, where the most original and suggestive thought is half disguised in the garb of metaphor, and where, in spite of vivid fancies and fiery passions, the people affect taciturnity or reticence, and delight in the metaphysical and the mystic. Hence the early annals of the Siamese, or Sajamese, abound in fables of heroes, demigods, giants, and genii, and afford but few facts of practical value. Swayed by religious influences, they joined, in the spirit of the Hebrews, the name of God to the titles of their rulers and princes, whom they almost deified after death. But the skeleton sketch of the history of Siam that follows is of comparatively modern date, and may be accepted as in the main authentic.
In the year 712 of the Siamese, and 1350 of the Christian era, Phya-Othong founded, near the river Meinam, about sixty miles from the Gulf of Siam, the city of Ayudia or Ayuthia ("the Abode of the Gods"); at the same time he assumed the title of P'hra Rama Thibodi.
This capital and stronghold was continually exposed to storms of civil war and foreign invasion; and its turreted battlements and ponderous gates, with the wide deep moat spanned by drawbridges, where now is a forest of great trees, were but the necessary fences behind which court and garrison took shelter from the tempestuous barbarism in the midst of which they lived. But before any portion of the city, except that facing the river, could boast of a fortified enclosure, hostile enterprises were directed against it. Birman pirates, ascending the Meinam in formidable flotillas, harassed it. Thrice they ravaged the country around; but on the last of these occasions great numbers of them were captured and put to cruel death by P'hra Rama Suen, successor to Thibodi, who pursued the routed remnant to the very citadel of Chiengmai, then a tributary of the Birman Empire. Having made successful war upon this province, and impressed thousands of Laotian captives, he next turned his arms against Cambodia, took the capital by storm, slew every male capable of bearing arms, and carried off enormous treasures in plate gold, with which, on his return to his kingdom, he erected a remarkable pagoda, called to this day "The Mountain of Gold."
P'hra Rama Suen was succeeded by his son Phya Ram, who reigned fourteen years, and was assassinated by his uncle, Inthra Racha, the governor or feudal lord of the city, who had snatched the reins of government and sent three of his sons to rule over the northern provinces. At the death of Inthra Racha, in 780, two of these princes set out simultaneously, with the design of seizing and occupying the vacant throne. Mounted on elephants, they met in the dusk of evening on a bridge leading to the Royal Palace; and each instantly divining his brother's purpose, they. dismounted, and with their naked swords fell upon each other with such fury that both were slain on the spot.
The political and social disorganization that prevailed at this period was aggravated by the vulnerable condition of the monarchy, then recently transferred to a new line. Princes of the blood royal were for a long time engaged, brother against brother, in fierce family feuds. Ayuthia suffered gravely from these unnatural contentions, but even more from the universal license and riot that reigned among the nobility and the proud proprietors of the soil. In the distracted and enfeebled state of all authority, royal and magisterial, the fields around remained for many years unfilled; and the only evidence the land presented of the abode of man was here and there the bristling den of some feudal chief, a mere outlaw and dacoit, who rarely sallied from it but to carry torch and pillage wherever there was aught to sack or burn.
In 834 the undisputed sovereignty of the kingdom fell to another P'hra Rama Thibodi, who reigned thirty years, and is famous in Siamese annals for the casting of a great image of Buddha, fifty cubits high, of gold very moderately alloyed with copper. On an isolated hill, in a sacred enclosure, he erected for this image a stately temple of the purest white marble, approached by a graceful flight of steps. From the ruins of its eastern front, which are still visible, it appears to have had six columns at either end and thirteen on each side; the eastern pediment is adorned with sculptures, as are also the ten metopes.
P'hra Rama Thibodi was succeeded by his son, P'hra Racha Kuman, whose reign was short, and chiefly memorable for a tremendous conflagration that devastated Ayuthia. It raged three days, and destroyed more than a hundred thousand houses.
This monarch left at his death but one son, P'hra Yot-Fa, a lad of twelve, whose mother, the Queen Sisudah-Chand, was appointed regent during his minority.
The devil of ambition has rarely possessed the heart of an Eastern queen more absolutely than it did that of this infamous woman, — infamous even in heathen annals. She is said to have graced her exalted station alike by the beauty of her person and the charm of her manner; but in pursuit of the most arbitrary and audacious purposes she moved with the recklessness their nature demanded, and with equal impatience trampled on friend and rival. Blind superstition was the only weak point in her character; but though her deference to the imaginary instructions or warnings of the stars was slavish, it does not seem to have deterred her from any false or cruel course; indeed, a cunning astrologer of her court, by scaring her with visionary perils, contrived to obtain a monstrous ascendency over her mind, only to plunge her into crime more deeply than by her own weight of wickedness she might have sunk. She ordered the secret assassination of every member of the royal household (not excepting her mother and sisters), who, however mildly, opposed her will. Besotted with fear, that fruitful mother of crime, she ended by putting to death the young king, her son, and publicly calling her paramour (the court astrologer, in whose thoughts, she believed, were hidden all the secrets of divination) to the throne of the P'hra-batts.
This double crime filled the measure of her impunity. The nobility revolted. The strength of their faction lay, not within the palace, which was filled with the queen's parasites, but with the feudal proprietors of the soil, who,, exasperated by the abominations of the court, only waited for a chance to crush it. One day, as the queen and her paramour were proceeding in a barge on their customary visit to her private pagoda and garden, — a paradise of all the floral wonders of the tropics, — a nobleman, who had followed them, hailed the royal gondola, as if for instructions, and, being permitted to approach, suddenly sprang upon the guilty pair, drew his sword, and dispatched them both, careless of their loud cries for help. Almost simultaneously with the performance of this tragic exploit, the nobles offered the crown to an uncle of the murdered heir, who had fled from the court and taken refuge in a monastery. Having accepted it and assumed the title of Maha-Chakrapât Racha-therat, he invaded Pegu with a hundred thousand men-at-arms, five thousand war elephants, and seven thousand horse. With this mighty host he marched against Hongzawadi, the capital of Pegu, laying waste the country as he went with fire and sword. The king of Pegu came out to meet him, accompanied by his romantic and intrepid queen, Maha Chandra, and supported by the few devoted followers that on so short a notice he could bring together. In consideration of this great disparity of forces, the two kings agreed, in the chivalric spirit of the time, to decide the fortune of the day by single combat. Hardly had they encountered, when the elephant on which the king of Pegu was mounted took fright and fled the field; but his queen promptly took his place, and fighting rashly, fell, speared through the right breast. She was borne off amid the clash of cymbals and flourish of trumpets that hailed the victor.
Maha-Chakrapât Racha-therat was a great prince. His wisdom, valor, and heroic exploits supplied the native bards with inspiring themes. By his magnanimity he .extinguished the envy of the neighboring princes and transformed rivals into friends. Jealous rulers became his willing vassals, not from fear of his power, but in admiration for his virtues. Malacca, Tenasserim, Ligor, Thavai, Martaban, Maulmain, Songkhla, Chantaboon, Phitsa nulok, Look-Kho-Thai, Phi-chi, Savan Khalok, Phechit, Cambodia, and Nakhon Savan were all dependencies of Siam under his reign.
In the year 1568 of the Christian era the Siamese territory was invaded and laid under tribute by a Birman king named Mandanahgri, who must have been a warrior of Napoleonic genius, for he extended his dominion as far as the confines of China. It is remarkable that the flower of his army was composed of several thousand Portuguese, tried troops in good discipline, commanded by the noted Don Diego Suanes. These, like the famous Scotch Legion of Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years' War, were mercenaries, and doubtless contributed importantly to the success of the Birman arms. Theirs is by no means the only case of Portuguese soldiers serving for hire in the armies of the East. Their commander, Suanes, seems to have been a brave and accomplished officer, and to have been intrusted with undivided control of the Birmese forces.
Mandanahgri held the queen of Siam and her two sons as hostages for the payment of the tribute he had levied; but the princes were permitted to return to Siam after a few years of captivity in Birmah, and in 1583 their captor died. His successor struggled with an uncle for possession of the throne, and the king of Siam, seizing the opportunity, declared himself independent; wherefore a more formidable army was shortly sent against him, under command of the eldest son of the king of Birmah. But one of the young princes who had been led into captivity by Mandanahgri now sat on the throne of Siam. In his youth he had been styled "the Black Prince," a title of distinction which seems to have fitted his characteristics not less appropriately than it did those of the English Edward. Undismayed by the strength and fury of the enemy, he attacked and routed them in a pitched battle, killing their leader with his own hands, invaded Pep, and besieged its capital; but was finally compelled to retire with considerable loss. The Black Prince was succeeded by "the White King," who reigned peacefully for many years.
The next monarch especially worthy of notice is P'hra Narai, who sent ambassadors to Goa, the most important of the Portuguese trading-stations in the East Indies, chiefly to invite the Portuguese of Malacca to establish themselves in Siam for mutual advantages of trade. The welcome emissaries were sumptuously entertained, and a Dominican friar accompanied them on their return, with costly presents for the king. This friar found P'hra Narai much more liberal in his ideas than later ambassadors, even to this day, have found any other ruler of Siam. He agreed not only to permit all Portuguese merchants to establish themselves anywhere in his dominions, but to exempt their goods and wares from duty. The Dominican monks were likewise invited to build churches and preach Christianity in Siam.
Soon after this extraordinary display of liberal statesmanship P'hra Narai narrowly escaped death by a strange conspiracy. Four or five hundred Japanese adventurers were secretly introduced into the country by an ambitious feudal proprietor, who had conceived the mad design of dethroning the monarch and reigning in his stead; but the king, warned of the planned attack upon the palace, seized the native conspirator and put him to death. The Japanese, on the contrary, were enrolled as a kind of praetorian guard, or janissaries; in this character, however, their pride and power became so formidable that the king grew uneasy and disbanded them.
P'hra Narai, from all accounts, was a man to be respected and esteemed. The events and the dramatis personć of his reign form a story so romantic, so exceptional even in Eastern annals, that, but for the undoubted authenticity of this chapter of Siamese history, it would be incredible. It was during his reign that the whimsical attempt was made by Louis XIV. to conquer Siam and proselyte her king. An extraordinary spectacle! One of the most licentious monarchs of France, who to the last breathed an atmosphere poisoned with scepticism, and more than Buddhism itself subversive of the true principles of Christianity, is suddenly inspired with an apparently devout longing to be the instrument of converting to the true faith the princes of the East. To this end he employs that wily, powerful, and indefatigable body of daring priests, the Jesuits, who were then in the very ardor of their missionary schemes.
Ostensibly for the purpose of propagating the Gospel, but with more reality aspiring to extend their subtile influence over all mankind, this society, with means the most slender and in the face of obstacles the most disheartening, have, with indomitable courage and supernatural patience, accomplished labors unparalleled in the achievements of mind. Now, in the wilds of Western America, taming and. teaching races of whose existence the world of refinement had never heard; now climbing the icy steeps and tracking the wastes and wildernesses of Siberia, or with the evangel of John in one hand and the art of Luke in the other, bringing life to the bodies and souls of perishing multitudes under a scorching equatorial sun, — there is not a spot of earth in which European civilization has taken root where traces of Jesuit forethought and careful, patient husbandry may not be found. So in Siam, we discover a monarch of consummate acumen, more European than Asiatic in his ideas, sedulously cultivating the friendship of these foreign workers of wonders; and finally we find a Greek adventurer officiating as prime minister to this same king, and conducting his affairs with that ability and success which must have commanded intellectual admiration, even if they had not been inspired and promoted by motives of integrity toward the monarch who had so implicitly confided in his wisdom and fidelity.
Constantine Phaulkon was the son of respectable parents, natives of the island of Cephalonia, where he was born in 1630. The geography, if not the very name, of the kingdom whose affairs he was destined to direct was quite unknown to his compatriots of the Ionian Isles, — even when as a mariner, wrecked on the coast of Malabar, he became a fellow-passenger with a party of Siamese officials, his companions in disaster, who were returning to their country from an embassy. The facile Greek quickly learned to talk with his new-found friends in their own tongue, and by his accomplishments and adroitness made a place for himself in their admiration and influence, so that he was received with flattering consideration at the Court of P'hra Narai, and very soon invited to take service under government. By his sagacity, tact, and diligence in the management of all affairs intrusted to him, he rapidly rose in favor with his patron, who finally elevated him to the highest post of honor in the state: he was made premier.
The star of the Cephalonian waif and adventurer had now mounted to the zenith, and was safe to shine for many years with unabated brilliancy; to this day he is remembered by the expressive term Vicha-yen, "the cool wisdom." The French priests, elated at his success, spared no promises or arts to retain him secretly in their interest. Under circumstances so extraordinary and auspicious, the plans of the Jesuits for the conversion of all Eastern Asia were put in execution. From the Vatican bishops were appointed, and sent out to Cochin China, Cambodia, Siam, and Pegu, while the people of those several kingdoms were yet profoundly ignorant of the amiable intentions of the Pope. Francis Pallu, M. De la Motte Lambert, and Ignatius Cotolendy were the respective exponents of this pious idea, under the imposing titles of Bishops of Heliopolis, Borytus, Byzantium, and Metellopolis, — all Frenchmen, for Louis XIV. insisted that the glory of the enterprise should be ascribed exclusively to France and to himself.
But all their efforts to convert the king were of no avail. The Jesuits, however, opened schools, and have ever since labored assiduously and with success to introduce the ideas and the arts of Europe into those countries.
After some years P'hra Narai sent an embassy to the Court of Louis, who was so sensible of the flattery that he immediately reciprocated with an embassy of his own, with more priests, headed by the Chevalier De Chaumont and the Pčre Tachard. The French fleet of five ships cast anchor in the Meinam on the 27th of September, 1687, and the Chevalier and his reverend colleague, attended by Jesuits, were promptly and graciously received by the king, who, however, expressed his "fears" that the chief object of their mission might not prove so easy of attainment as they had been led to believe. As for Phaulkon, he had adroitly deceived the Jesuits from the first, and made all parties instruments to promote his own shrewd and secret plans.
De Chaumont, disheartened by his failure, sailed back to France, where he arrived in 1688, in the height of the agitation attending the English Revolution of that year.
Phaulkon, finding that he could no longer conceal from the Jesuits the king's repugnance to their plans for his conversion, placed himself under their direction and control; for though he had not as yet conceived the idea of seizing upon the crown, it was plain that he aspired to honors higher than the premiership. Then rumors of disaffection among the nobles were diligently propagated by the French priests, who, although not sufficiently powerful to dethrone the king, were nevertheless dangerous inciters of rebellion among the common people.
Meanwhile the king of Johore, then a tributary of Siam, instigated by the Dutch, who, from the first, had watched with jealousy the machinations of the French, sent envoys to P'hra Narai, to advise the extermination or expulsion of the French, and to proffer the aid of his troops; but the proposition was rejected with indignation.
These events were immediately followed by another, known in Siamese history as the Revolt of the Macassars, which materially promoted the ripening of the revolution of which the French had sown the seeds. Celebes, a large, irregular island east of Borneo, includes a district known as Macassar, the ruler of which had been arbitrarily dethroned by the Dutch; and the sons of the injured monarch, taking refuge in Siam, secretly encouraged the growing enmity of the nobles against the French.
Meanwhile Phaulkon, by his address, and skilful management of public affairs, continued to exercise paramount influence over the mind of the king. He persuaded P'hra Narai to send another embassy to France, which arrived happily (the former having been shipwrecked off the Cape of Good Hope) at the Court of Louis XIV. in 1689. He also diligently and ably advanced the commercial strength of the country; merchants from all parts of the world were invited to settle in Siam, and factories of every nation were established along the banks of the Meinam. Both Ayudia and Lophaburee became busy and flourishing. He was careful to keep the people employed, and applied himself with vigor to improving the agriculture of the country. Rice, sugar, corn, and palm-oil constituting the most fruitful and regular source of revenue, he wisely regulated the traffic in those staples, and was studious to promote the security and happiness of the great body of the population engaged or concerned in their production. The laws he framed were so sound and stable, and at the same time so wisely conformable to the interests alike of king and subject, that to this day they constitute the fundamental law of the land.
Phaulkon designed and built the palaces at Lophaburee, consisting of two lofty edifices, square, with pillars on all sides; each pillar was made to represent a succession of shafts by the intervention of salient blocks, forming capitals to what they surmounted and pedestals to what they supported. The apartments within were gorgeously gilt and sumptuously furnished. There yet remains, in remarkable preservation, a vermilion chamber looking toward the east; though, otherwise, a forest of stately trees and several broken arches alone mark the spot where dwelt in regal splendor this foreign favorite of P'hra Narai.
He also erected the famous castle on the west of the town, on a piece of ground, near the north bank of the river, which formerly belonged to a Buddhist monastery.
Finally, to keep off the Birman invaders, he built a wall, surmounted along its whole extent by a parapet, and fortified with towers at regular intervals of forty fathoms, as well as by four larger ones at its extremities on the banks of the river, below the two bridges. Its gates appear to have been twelve or thirteen in number, and the extent of the southern portion is fixed at two thousand fathoms. Suburban villages still exist on both sides of the river, and, beyond these, the religious buildings, which have been restored, but which now display the fantastic rather than the grand style which distinguished the architecture of this consummate Grecian, whom the people name with wonder, — all marvellous works being by them attributed to gods, genii, devils, or the "Vicha-yen."
But the luxury in which the haughty statesman revelled, his towering ambition, and the wealth he lavished on his private abodes, joined to the lofty, condescending air he assumed toward the nobles, soon provoked their jealous murmurings against him and his too partial master; and when, at last, the king, falling ill, repaired to the premier's palace at Lophaburee, some of the more disaffected nobles, headed by a natural son of P'hra Narai and the two princes of Macassar, forced their way into the palace to slay the monarch. But the brave old man, at a glance divining their purpose, leaped from his couch and, seizing his sword, threw himself upon it, and died as his assassins entered.
In the picturesque drama of Siamese history no figure appears so truly noble and brilliant as this king, not merely renowned by the glory of his military exploits and the happy success of his more peaceful undertakings, but beloved for his affectionate concern for the welfare of his subjects, his liberality, his moderation, his modesty, his indifference to the formal honors due to his royal state, and (what is most rare in Asiatic character) his sincere aversion to flattery, his shyness even toward deserved and genuine praise.
Turning from the corpse of the king, the baffled regicides dashed at the luxurious apartment where Phaulkon slumbered, as was his custom of an afternoon, unattended save by his fair young daughter Constantia. Breaking in, they tore the sleeping father from the arms of his agonized child, who with piteous implorings offered her life for his, bound him with cords, dragged him to the woods beyond his garden, and there, within sight of the lovely little Greek chapel he had erected for his private devotions, first tortured him like fiends, and then, dispatching him, flung his body into a pit. His daughter, following them, clung fast to her father, and, though her heart bled and her brain grew numb between the gashes and the groans, she still cheered him with her passionate endearments; and, holding before his eyes a cross of gold that always hung on her bosom, inspired him to die like a brave man and a Christian. After that the lovely heroine was dragged into slavery and concubinage by the infamous Chow Dua, one of the bloodiest of the gang.
Even pagan chroniclers do not fail to render homage to so brave a man, of whom they tell that "he bore all with a fortitude and defiance that astounded the monsters who slew him, and convinced them that he derived his supernatural courage and contempt of pain from the miraculous virtues of his daughter's golden cross?"
After the death of the able premier, the Birmese again overran the land, laying waste the fields, and besieging the city of Ayuthia for two years. Finding they could not reduce it by famine, they tried flames, and the burning is said to have lasted two whole months. One of the feudal lords of Siam, Phya Tâk, a Chinese adventurer, who had amassed wealth, and held the office of governor of the northern provinces under the late king, seeing the impending ruin of the country, assembled his personal followers and dependants, and with about a thousand hardy and resolute warriors retired to the mountain fastness of Naghon Najok, whence from time to time he swooped down to harass the encampments of the Birmese, who were almost invariably worsted in the skirmishes he provoked. He then moved upon Bangplasoi, and the people of that place came out with gifts of treasure and hailed him as their sovereign. Thence he sailed to Rajong, strengthened his small force with volunteers in great numbers, marched against Chantaboon, whose governor had disputed his authority, and executed that indiscreet official; levied another large army; built and equipped a hundred vessels of war; and set sail — a part of his army preceding him over. land — for Kankhoa, on the confines of Cochin China, which place he brought to terms in less than three hours. Thence he pushed on to Cambodia, and arriving there on the Siamese Sabato, or Sabbath, he issued a solemn proclamation to his army, assuring them that he would that evening worship in the temple of the famous emerald idol, P'hra Këau. Every man was ordered to arm as if for battle, but to wear the sacred robe, — white for the laity, yellow for the clergy; and all the priests who followed his fortunes were required to lead the way into the grand temple through the southern portico, over which stood a triple-headed tower. Then the conqueror, having prepared himself by fasting and purification, clad in his sacred robes and armed to the teeth, followed and made his words good.
Almost his first act was to send his ships to the adjacent provinces for supplies of rice and grain, which he dispensed so bountifully to the famishing people that they gratefully accepted his rule.
This king is described as an enthusiastic and indefatigable warrior, scorning palaces, and only happy in camp or at the head of his army. His people found in him a true friend, he was ever kind and generous to the poor, and to his soldiers he paid fivefold the rates of former reigns. But toward the nobles he was haughty, rude, exacting. It is supposed that his prime minister, fearing to oppose him openly, corrupted his chief concubine, and with her assistance drugged his food; so that he was rendered insane, and, imagining himself a god, insisted that sacrifices and offerings should be made to him, and began to levy upon the nobility for enormous sums, often putting them to the torture to extort treasure. Instigated by their infuriated lords, the people now rebelled against their lately idolized master, and attacked him in his palace, from which he fled by a secret passage to an adjoining monastery, in the disguise of a priest. But the premier, to whom he was presently betrayed, had him put to death, on the pretext that he might cause still greater scandal and disaster, but in reality to establish himself in undisputed possession of the throne, which he now usurped under the title of P'hra-Phuthi-Chow-Lhuang, and removed the palace from the west to the east bank of the Meinam. During his reign the Birmese made several attempts to invade the country, but were invariably repulsed with loss.
This brings us to the uneventful reign of P'hen-din-Klang; and by his death, in 1825, to the beginning of the story of his Majesty, Maha Mongkut, the late supreme king, and my employer, with whom, in these pages, we shall have much to do.