Narai was king of Siam from 1656 to 1688. His seat of government was on the island city of Ayuthaya, but he liked to spend part of the year at his other palace in the city of Lopburi, which somehow became transmuted to “Luovo” in the writings of the many Europeans who visited Siam during his reign. If you’re near Lopburi, spend a day or two there; the remains of the palace have been made into a fine museum. There’s a lovely Khmer ruin there which recalls Angkor Wat on a tiny scale, and a lot of monkeys that chatter and run about. One day every year people make merit by providing fancy meals for these monkeys; it’s a chaotic scene, and one you'd rather miss. ...but I digress.
During Narai’s reign, the European presence in Siam reached a zenith in response to both foreign and domestic pressures. European powers, as well as Persian, were concerned both to foster trade and to achieve the religious conversion of the king. The Siamese likewise had pecuniary interests, but seem also to have been guided by their monarch, who was known for his interest in things foreign (his right-hand man, Constantine Phaulkon, was a farang, or foreigner) and for his desire to accord and be accorded reciprocal diplomatic honours by his peers, other sovereigns.
To this end Narai actively sought ties with Louis XIV. He sent an embassy to the Sun King in 1680, but it was lost at sea. In 1683, having received no word of the maritime disaster, Narai sent envoys to France to check on the fate of his first mission. The second voyage was more successful in that the Siamese reached their goal, but in other respects seems to have been a singular failure, according to historian Michael Smithies' excellent summary of the events of the time. “The two envoys, who were generally agreed to have been uncouth as well as physically unattractive, were not in the least interested in anything they saw, refused to go out, refused to meet people”. In spite of this singular lack of diplomacy, the French king responded to the Siamese monarch's overtures by sending a return embassy with them on their voyage back to Siam. Smithies speculated that Louis XIV bothered with such a relatively insignificant kingdom as Siam because of false stories of its wealth and power and because of its openness to foreigners and foreign religions. Soon also Phaulkon began to gain ascendancy, pursuing his own pecuniary interests while feeding French hopes of a royal conversion.
The French contingent on this return voyage was relatively small, and included the first ambassador Chaumont, the courtier (and sometime transvestite) Abbé de Choisy, the priest Tachard, and the Chevalier de Forbin, all of whom wrote accounts of their voyage. Thus this period in Siamese history is relatively well documented
De Choisy gave human face to some of the characters he met. He reported, for example, that the “mandarins”, as he called the Siamese envoys, had become “quite different” as they neared their home: “They had not left their lair since Brest but a couple of times; now they are always on the bridge, they smile at the angels in the sky, and play little games...I think that in Siam we shall find them lively enough; may God grant that we shall not be the ones that are stupid”.
De Choisy had occasion to meet Narai several times, first at the formal audience where they were received and Louis XIV's letter was conveyed to the Siamese monarch, and later, less formally, at elephant and tiger hunts near Narai's residence at Lopburi. After one of these latter, de Choisy characterized Narai thus:
this King has much intelligence, and is very capable...He is the most inquisitive person on earth. I had not seen him so clearly before; he was very close to us, and stood from time to time. He is rather thin, with great lively black eyes full of intelligence. He speaks quickly, and mumbles; he has the physiognomy of an honest person.
The king, it would appear, was kind and diplomatic: several times when de Choisy was absent – sick or in retreat, for the Frenchman took Catholic religious orders while in Siam - he was told that the king asked after him. On the embassy's return to France, Narai gave each of its members gifts, “all the time with a broad smile which softens one's heart”. In fact most who met him seem to have been impressed by the king: Nicolas Gervaise, a missionary in Siam from 1683-7, spoke of Narai's “lively eyes full of that sparkle which denotes great wit” and found “about his whole person a certain air of dignity and grandeur, accompanied by such sweetness and goodness that it is impossible not to respect him greatly or to love him even more”. The Frenchman Tachard thought he had “more wit than your Oriental Princes commonly have” and “an engaging Air, a sweet and obliging carriage, especially to Strangers...and having a pregnant and piercing Wit, he is easily master of what he has a mind to learn”.
The French mission of 1685 was not always easy, however. The procedure for the first, formal reception was the subject of much negotiation, for Siamese and French customs differed, and Phaulkon shuttled daily between the two sides trying to finalize arrangements. It was agreed that the French would not have to prostrate themselves before the king as the Siamese and Phaulkon always did, but could bow as they would to their own sovereign. The letter they bore, however, was treated as if it were the person of the royal writer himself, and was conveyed to the palace on the king's own boat and carried above the heads of those present, relative height being an important indigenous indicator of power and status.
Narai attended the audience seated at a small window some feet above the rest of the company, and Chaumont had been promised a dias onto which he could step to present Louis XIV's letter. Finding this absent, he held the letter resolutely at shoulder height on a small tray, refusing to compromise his dignity by stretching his arm up to hand it to the king. In an incident reproduced in many drawings, Narai “was obliged to lean half out of the window to take the letter, which he did laughing”.
The French had arrived with high hopes for a royal conversion, and Chaumont mentioned this as the “Chief Subject of his Embassie” on their first meeting with Phaulkon, who “seemed astonished at it, and told the Ambassador...that there was no appearance of effecting it as the King was extremely addicted to the Religion of his Ancestors” (Tachard). The French quickly realized that conversion was, as de Choisy put it, “not going to occur immediately. The King supports our religion, he likes the Missionaries, he has churches built; but he is still very far from being baptized”. In fact, Narai showed a degree of religious tolerance not shared by his French counterpart: it is a curious fact of history that the very day Chaumont was speaking to Narai at this first audience seeking the King's conversion, his own King was revoking the Edict of Nantes which had allowed Protestants to live untroubled in his kingdom.
Interestingly, a Persian embassy also visited the kingdom during this time, sent by the Shah Sulaiman the Safavid (reigned 1666-1694) in response to a friendly letter from Narai. Phaulkon had taken part in an earlier Siamese embassy to Persia, but by the time this mission reached the kingdom, he was out of favour with the local Islamic community, having brought down some influential Muslim officials by exposing their corrupt practices. In the Persian account Phaulkon was usually referred to contemptuously as “the ill-begotten Frank minister”; Narai, however, earned some praise. Contending that the king “secretly wished” to emulate the Iranians in food and dress, the scribe whose records remain described him as:
interested in raising himself, of acquiring distinction and improving his way of living, his household and his possessions. He was eager to learn about other kings of the inhabited world, their behavior, customs, and principles. He made a great effort to enlighten himself and sent everywhere for pictures depicting the mode of living and the courts of foreign kings.
The scenario is striking: a Siamese Buddhist king, interested in everything, neither espousing nor persecuting other religions, ruling over a diverse and cosmopolitan kingdom, being courted by xenophobic Christian and Muslim powers concerned to champion their own religion and customs over all others. Neither Christian nor Muslim thought it possible that Narai would receive any truth other than their own - de Choisy thought Muslim hopes for conversion “rather amusing” - and one can't help but wonder how their arrogant posturing struck the tolerant, intelligent, and well-informed Siamese monarch.
The French envoys returned home in 1686, accompanied by a Siamese return mission led by Kosa Pan. The choice of personnel was more fortuitous this time: de Choisy deemed them "very good people, accommodating, without airs, and with plenty of wit...quite different from those awful mandarins who did not drink, did not eat, and did not speak”. Also on this journey was Father Tachard, ostensibly searching for mathematicians to bring back to Siam at Narai's request, but actually engaged in secret negotiations between Phaulkon and the French.
The Siamese were received with much pomp and excitement in Paris, and several engravings of their audience with Louis XIV, as well as the text of their “harangues” at court, have survived. Their itinerary was grueling, with daily travels through the countryside, innumerable sights to see each day, and crowds of onlookers lining the streets in hope of catching a glimpse of them. There was a constant press of people in attendance at their meals, not partaking of the repast, but simply watching, evidently a most fashionable pastime. It was not that the Siamese had exotic eating habits, but simply that meals were one of the few public occasions when provincial gentry could see foreign visitors up close. Sometimes the throng of spectators was so dense that the ambassadors ordered the doors closed to further entrants, and sometimes they requested privacy at meals. In general, however, they seem to have borne up to the scrutiny gracefully. Although according to Thai legend the Siamese ambassadors fathered children with French women during their sojourn, their busy schedules make this unlikely.
The Siamese left France in 1687, accompanied by a large French contingent of five ships and over a thousand people. Tachard was present, and once back in Siam pursued his secret negotiations, frustrating the attempts of the official envoys, du Boullay and de la Loubère, to fulfill their assignment of achieving greater French ascendancy in Siam. De la Loubère, at least, consoled himself by writing a magisterial account of the country which still reads well today. But France's ambitions in Siam did not rise or fall on the work of her official or unofficial representatives. For local élites had long been resentful of farang influence, particularly Phaulkon's, and, when Narai fell gravely ill in 1688, his foster brother Petracha seized the opportunity to imprison the king in his room, have Phaulkon arrested, tortured, and killed, and the king's younger half-brothers and potential heirs assassinated. When Narai died soon after, Petracha had himself crowned, marrying Narai's daughter, Yothathep, to confer legitimacy on his reign. His descendants remained on the throne until Ayuthaya was destroyed by a Burmese offensive in 1767.
Michael Smithies has written extensively and intelligently on this period in Siamese history. His translation of the Abbé de Choisy’s text, Journal of a Voyage to Siam 1685-1686, has been a main source, and unattributed other quotes are taken from de Choisy's book. Smithies' translation features a very informative introduction, and his article “The Travels in France of the Siamese Ambassadors 1686-7" in Journal of the Siam Society, as well as his translation of The Discourses at Versailles of the First Siamese Ambassadors to France 1686-7, Together With the List of their Presents to the Court are excellent sources for the embassies between France and Siam.
I quote also from Nicolas Gervaise’s The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam (original 1688); Guy Tachard’s A Relation of the Voyage to Siam (also 1688); and the scribe ibn Muhammad Ibrahim’s account of the Persian embassy, The Ship of Sulaiman (probably written in 1687). I mention in passing Simon de la Loubère's intelligent The Kingdom of Siam (original 1693). See Ayuthaya and Constantine Phaulkon for more.