Constantine (or Constance) Phaulkon (or Phaulcon) was born on the island of Cephalonia in present-day Greece in about 1647. He came to Asia in the 1660s as an adventurer and merchant mariner, and died in Asia after he had achieved a very high position at the Siamese court.
Phaulkon arrived in Siam in 1678 in the employ of the East India Company and in 1679 entered the service of one of the top officials (mandarins in the European parlance of the time), the Phra Klang, or Barcalon, as the mangled European version of the title went. When this man died in 1683, Phaulkon took over his position, though not his title; in the same year he converted to Catholicism and married a half-Japanese half-Bengali Catholic, Marie Guimard, renouncing his Siamese mistress and mother of his child. (Many Japanese Christians fled persecution in Japan and ended up settling in Ayuthaya, a more tolerant and cosmopolitan centre.)
In his capacity at court Phaulkon had daily audiences with the king Narai, enjoyed great power and influence, and poised himself skillfully between the Siamese king and his numerous foreign visitors. Given his prominent roles as interpreter and negotiator for Narai, it is unsurprising that Phaulkon looms large in the memoirs of many late seventeenth-century European visitors to Siam.
Phaulkon is but one of a long line of farang who have refigured themselves in the kingdom and obtained positions of more wealth and power than their humble origins would have suggested possible. He was able to do so in part because of his linguistic and cultural facilities: he became fluent in the local parlance, the difficult and ornate language used to address the king, and the manners and customs of the court before seeking a position there. Or so relates de Bèze, whose recounting of Phaulkon's biography seems to have come directly from the mouth of its subject himself to be accepted unquestioningly by the French Jesuit father. As de Bèze tells it, “Constans, by means of his talent and address, won the King's heart at their first meeting”, having prepared himself by “learning to speak the language of the country with the fluency of a native”, even “the Court language”.
During the 1680s the Siamese actively sought ties with the French court of Louis XIV, a move which is sometimes credited to Phaulkon. This interpretation accords nicely with a European tendency to exaggerate farang influence and deny Siamese agency. However, the first ambassadors to France were selected in 1677 and the embassy departed Siam in 1680, when Phaulkon was still quite new to the country, so it is more likely that Narai was acting independently and in his own interest, seeking to counter longstanding Dutch prominence in his kingdom.
The first French embassy reached Siam in 1685. As translator between the two parties, Phaulkon seems to have been rather wily. He studiously downplayed French aspirations to achieve a royal conversion when he translated the French ambassador Chaumont’s first formal address to the king. The chevalier de Forbin, who was present at the time, wrote later that Phaulkon,
who was ever the interpreter, cleverly played the role of a person with two different characters, saying to the King of Siam what flattered him, and replying to Mr de Chaumont what was appropriate, without there being, either on the king's or the ambassador's part, anything concluded but what it pleased Constance to give the other to understand.
According to de Forbin, the French clergyman who was present “understood Siamese perfectly” and thus knew what Phaulkon was omitting, but was powerless to say anything and risk royal wrath by discrediting the favourite. And Phaulkon had pecuniary interests in closer Franco-Siamese relations as well: instrumental in having a commercial treaty signed with France, he quickly became a major shareholder in the French Indies Company.
Phaulkon retained his pivotal position until power was seized by a usurper, Petracha, in 1688. Phaulkon was then tortured and killed, and Siam entered a xenophobic period which did not truly wane until Mongkut gained the throne almost 200 years later, in 1851.
I have quoted from Michael Smithies’ translation of the Abbé de Choisy’s text, Journal of a Voyage to Siam 1685-1686, as well as Father de Bèze’s account, translated as 1688 Revolution in Siam: The Memoir of Father de Bèze. The quotations from de Forbin can be found in Michael Smithies’ edited volume, Descriptions of Old Siam. See Narai and Ayuthaya for more.