… or, King Narai’s falcon
Constantine Phaulkon (1647-88) was a Greek adventurer, born to Orthodox parents in Venetian-ruled northern Cephalonia.
He left Greece to work for the English East India Company and became an Anglican. He arrived in Siam in 1675, became fluent in Thai, and began to work at the court of King Narai of Ayutthaya as a translator and finally as the king’s chief adviser.
Ayutthaya was the dominant power in Thailand from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth. Recent post. Its capital, Ayutthaya, was the “largest city in the world”. It would be interesting to make a list of all the cities that have had that claim made for them through the centuries.
In 1682, Phaulkon became a Catholic and married a Catholic woman of mixed Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali descent named Maria Guyomar de Pinha. They lived a life of affluence as he rose as de facto minister of finance and of foreign affairs to Narai. There were two sons – with Greek, Portuguese, Bengali and Japanese blood, João and Jorge – the first of whom died before their father.
Following troubles with the over-aggressive English and Dutch, Phaulkon engineered circa 1680 a Franco-Siamese rapprochement. Several embassies were exchanged between France and Siam. This was not the beginning of Franco-Thai relations, but from about 1680 to 1688 the contact was close.
In 1687 Siam fought a war with the East India Company and the French, seeking to press home their advantages, sent an expeditionary force.
Ayutthaya had been open to other traders and tolerant of missionaries. Chinese, Annamese, Indians, Japanese, Persians, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French came and went. Some set up villages outside the walls of the capital. There had been limited contact with the British, starting in 1612, when an East India Company ship arrived, carrying a letter from King James I for the Siamese king.
Louis’ ambassadors compared Ayutthaya in size and wealth with Paris. The Abbé de Choisy, who was part of the embassy of Chevalier de Chaumont in 1685: “The king has absolute power. He is truly the god of the Siamese: no-one dares to utter his name.” (Wikipedia)
French engineers constructed fortifications for the Thais and built a new palace for Narai at Lopburi. French missionaries engaged in education and medicine and brought the first printing press into Siam. Louis XIV’s personal interest was aroused by reports from missionaries suggesting that Narai might be converted to Christianity.
Phaulkon’s closeness to the king earned him the envy of some Thai members of the court. The Abbé de Choisy:
“He was one of those in the world who have the most wit, liberality, magnificence, intrepidity, and was full of great projects, but perhaps he only wanted to have French troops in order to try and make himself king after the death of his master, which he saw as imminent. He was proud, cruel, pitiless, and with inordinate ambition. He supported the Christian religion because it could support him; but I would never have trusted him in things in which his own advancement was not involved.” (Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Louis XIV via Wikipedia)
When King Narai became terminally ill, a rumour spread that Phaulkon wanted to use the designated heir, Phra Pui, as a puppet and become ruler himself. French motives also came under suspicion. All this provided an excuse for Pra Phetracha, the foster brother of Narai, to stage a coup d’état.
Without the king’s knowledge, Phaulkon, his followers and Phra Pui were arrested and executed on June 5 1688 in Lopburi.
King Narai learned what had happened, but was too weak to take any action. He died several weeks later, a prisoner in his own palace. Phetracha proclaimed himself the new king of Siam. The French were expelled (Siege of Bangkok). Phetracha began a xenophobic regime which expelled almost all foreigners from the kingdom.
Phaulkon (which means falcon) was in effect, or became, a double agent, if that is not too modern a phrase. The revolution interrupted relations between France and Siam until the nineteenth century, although French Jesuits were allowed to resume preaching. After 1826, the Thais had to deal with the new territorial acquisitiveness of the British and then of the French.
In 1893 and 1941, they fought wars with France. But they are another story.
A narrative of Constantine’s life was written in France circa 1691 by a Père de Beze, one of a group of Jesuit fathers who arrived in Siam in September 1687 at the request of Phaulkon. The manuscript found its way into the hands of GE Morrison, “Morrison of Peking”, The Times correspondent there from 1897 to 1912. In 1917 Baron Iwasaki, the former President of Mitsubishi, bought Morrison’s library. It became the kernel of the great Japanese Asian library, the Tōyō Bunko.
An English scholar, EW Hutchinson, saw the manuscript in Tokyo in 1936 and made some use of it in Adventurers in Siam in the Seventeenth Century, London, The Royal Asiatic Society, 1940. He believes that it was addressed to Père de la Chaise, the Confessor to Louis XIV, and was never intended for publication.
The manuscript was published in Tokyo in 1947 as Mémoire sur la vie de Constance Phaulkon, par Père de Bèze, Presses Salesiennes, in an edition prepared by Jean Drans, Acting French Director at the Maison Franco-Japonaise and Father Henri Bernard, S.J., Professor at the École des Hautes Études de Tientsin.
In 1957 Hutchinson decided to translate the whole memoir “slowly” into English.
The result was a scholarly book of which I bought a well-printed local edition in Bangkok in 1992: 1688 – Revolution in Siam, The Memoir of Father de Bèze, s.j., Translated into English with Introduction, Commentary, Appendices and Notes, Hong Kong University Press, 1968. Father de Bèze is considered more reliable than the highly-coloured tales strung together and published by Père Tachard (1686 and 1687), which in turn were used for the Histoire de Monsieur Constance of yet another Jesuit, the Père d’Orléans (1690).
Somerset Maugham, aware of the Père d’Orléans but not of the Père de Bèze, describes Phaulkon in The Gentleman in the Parlour, A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, published in 1930. He had made the journey with Gerald Haxton in 1922-23.
“I was within forty-eight hours by rail of Bangkok, but before going there I wanted to see Lopburi and Ayudha, which at one time were capitals of Siam. In these Eastern countries cities are founded, increase to greatness and are destroyed in a manner that cannot but fill the Western traveller, accustomed for many centuries now to a relative stability, with a certain misgiving. A king, forced by the hazards of war or maybe only to gratify a whim, will change his capital and founding a new city, build a palace and temples and richly ornament them; and in a few generations the seat of government, owing to another hazard or another whim, moving elsewhere, the city is abandoned and desolation usurps the place of so much transitory splendour. Here and there in the jungle, far from any habitation, you will find ruined temples, overgrown with trees, and among the dank verdure broken gods and elaborate bas-reliefs as the only sign that here was once a thriving city, and you will come across poverty-stricken villages that are all that remain of the capital of a rich and powerful kingdom. It is a sombre reminder of the mutability of human things.
“Lopburi is now but a narrow winding street of Chinese houses, built along one bank of the river; but all about are the ruins of a great city, mouldering temples and crumbling pagodas with here and there a fragment of florid carving, and in the temples are broken images of the Blessed One, and in their courtyards bits of heads and arms and legs. The plaster is grey as though it had been discoloured by London fogs and it peels off the bricks so that you think of old men with loathsome diseases. There is no elegance of line in these ruins and the decoration of doors and windows, robbed by time of their gold and tinsel, is mean and tawdry.
“But I had come to Lopburi chiefly to see what remained of the grand house of Constantine Faulkon, who was, I suppose, one of the most amazing of the adventurers who have made the East the scene of their exploits. The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, he ran away to sea in an English ship, and after many hazards arriving in Siam rose to be the chief minister of the King. The world of his day rang with the tale of his unlimited power, splendour and enormous wealth. There is an account of him in a little book by the Père d’Orléans of the Company of Jesus, but it is a work of edification and dilates unduly upon the tribulations of Constantine’s widow when after his death she sought to preserve her virtue from the rude onslaughts of a Siamese prince. In her laudable efforts she was supported by her saintly grandmother, who at the age of eighty-eight, having lost nothing of the ardour and vivacity of her faith, talked to her continually of the famous Martyrs of Japan, from whom she had the honour to be descended. ‘My daughter,’ she said to her, ‘what glory there is in being a martyr! You have here the advantage that martyrdom seems to be an heirloom in your family: if you have so much reason to expect it, what pains should you not take to deserve it!’
“It is satisfactory to learn that, sustained by these counsels and fortified by the incessant admonitions of the Jesuit fathers, the widow resisted all temptations to become the bejewelled inmate of an almost royal seraglio and ended her virtuous days as dish-washer in the house of a gentleman of no social consequence.
“One could have wished that the Père d’Orléans had been a little more circumstantial in his account of his hero’s career. The vicissitudes in the course of which he ascended from his lowly station to such a pinnacle surely deserved to be saved from oblivion. He represents him as a pious catholic and an upright minister devoted to the interests of his king; but his account of the revolution that overthrew both king and dynasty and delivered the Greek into the hands of the outraged patriots of Siam, reads as though a certain arrangement of the facts had seemed necessary so that neither le grand roi nor various persons in high places should incur reproach. A decent veil is thrown over the sufferings of the fallen favourite, but his death at the hands of the executioners is vastly edifying. Reading between the jejune lines you receive notwithstanding the impression of a powerful and brilliant character. Constantine Faulkon was unscrupulous, cruel, greedy, faithless, ambitious; but he was great. His story reads like one of Plutarch’s lives.
“But of the grand house which he built nothing remains but the high brick wall that surrounded it and three or four roofless buildings, crumbling walls and the shapes of doors and windows. They have still the vague dignity of the architecture of Louis XIV. It is an unhandsome ruin that reminds you of nothing but a group of jerry-built villas destroyed by fire.
“I went back to the river. It was narrow and turbid, deep between high banks, and on the other side were thick clumps of bamboo behind which the red sun was setting. The people were having their evening bath; fathers and mothers were bathing their children, and monks, having washed themselves, were rinsing out their yellow robes. It was a pleasant sight and grateful to the sensibility jarred by those sordid ruins and perplexed.”
History Today (not consulted):
Robert Bruce, Louis XIV’s Mission to Siam, March 1971
Robert Bruce, Constantine Phaulkon: The Greek Dictator of Siam, February 1982
Peter Murrell, Louis XIV and the King of Siam, May 2014.
A Siamese execution, 19th-century illustration from Le Petit Journal used on the jacket of my edition of Hutchinson’s translation: