By the seventeenth century Siam and its primary city Ayuthaya were well-known in the west and the east - particularly in France following the 1685 voyage to that country of Siamese envoys sent by king Narai to the court of Louis XIV. During that visit the French flocked to see the strange Asian ambassadors, and throughout Europe there was a growning public avid to read about travels to strange foreign lands. Where sixteenth century tales of Siam were often fantastically lascivious, seventeenth-century accounts tend to be more tempered, perhaps because they were written by traders, diplomats, and missionaries who had spent time in the kingdom than by armchair travellers who had never actually been there.
Though their accounts may have been based in real experience, most European writers could not find a common humanity with the Siamese. Rather, they imputed racial, cultural and moral qualities to the Siamese which can be interpreted as boundary markers erected to set the two groups of people apart. Thus their texts reveal more about the authors themselves than about the people they were describing.
Their countenance naturally squeez'd and bent like that of apes
Europeans described the Siamese first and foremost in racial terms. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) officer Joost Schouten appraised the Siamese as "reasonably well proportioned, brown and tawny" (Schouten, 144), while his company-mate Kaempfer depicted them as a "black race of mankind who are generally short siz'd and look almost like monkeys" (Kaempfer, 38). The French diplomat and missionary de la Loubère also made the comparison to primates in his detailed catalogue of physiognomy, noting:
...the colour of their Complexion mixt with red and brown, (which corresponds neither to the North of Asia, Europe, nor Africk,)...their short Nose rounded at the end...; the upper Bone of their Cheeks high and raised, their Eyes slit a little upwards, their Ears larger than ours...their Countenance naturally squeez'd and bent like that of Apes, and a great many other things which they have in common with these Animals, as well as a marvellous passion for Children. For nothing is equal to the Tenderness which the great Apes expressed to their Cubs, except the Love which the Siamese have for all Children, whether for their own, or those of another. (de la Loubère, 10)
Their nakedness had nothing which surprized me
The sparse clothing of the Siamese was remarkable to seventeenth century visitors, and the missionary Gervaise sardonically commented that "There is no more thankless trade in the kingdom of Siam than that of a tailor, for the majority of people have no need of him" (Gervaise, 91). "Except for the king himself all the natives of Siam of whatever station in life, men or women, consider their bare flesh to be sufficient clothing and they expose their bodies without concern" (Ibrahim, 56); "They hardly cloath themselves" (de la Loubère, 25) were common observations.
Particularly striking was the paucity of soldiers' attire: "their livery is their skin" (de Choisy, 145); "Each soldier was drowned in the chainmail of his nakedness, such that his whole body was visible" (Ibrahim, 61). In fact, the Siamese were not exactly naked: both sexes wore pieces of cloth - "painted petticoats," Schouten called them (Schouten, 144), sarongs we would say today - wrapped around their waists, and sometimes another about their shoulders.
De la Loubère, characteristically, has rational explanations for the skimpiness of Siamese apparel: "As the Cloaths imbibe whatever the Body transpires...the less one is cloath'd, the more easie it is to be neat, as the Siamese are"; "the simplicity of Manners, as well as the Heat, is the cause of the Nakedness of the Siamese" (de la Loubère, 28, 25).
De la Loubère contended that "so great a Nudity renders them not immodest. On the contrary, the Men and Women of this Country are the most scrupulous in the world of shewing the parts of their body, which Custom obliges them to conceal". He remarked that the French habit of bathing naked offended the Siamese, who made the farang (westerners) wear cloths when washing themselves, and then continued, rather strangely, "As these people have their Body of another Colour than ours, it seems that our Eyes do not think them Naked, at least their Nakedness had nothing which surprized me; whereas a Naked White Man, when I met one, always appear'd a new Object unto me" (de la Loubère, 26-7).
The diplomat and courtier Abbé de Choisy, who visited Siam and returned to France with Narai's Siamese embassy, concurred with de la Loubère that "The Siamese like modesty", and waspishly advised French women "not to omit to bring fans and big coifs to conceal themselves when they come to see [the Siamese diplomats in France], and only show themselves after many entreaties; those who behave in this way will have something to take back with them" (de Choisy, 187), for the ambassadors offered Siamese fruit and jams to women of rank and beauty. The witty Siamese first ambassador, Kosa Pan, however, turned de Choisy's advice on its head, quipping, when asked for his opinion of French women's attire and demeanour, that "'they would be better still if they dressed in the manner of my country.' Asked what that was, he replied 'They are half-naked'" (from Smithies 1989, 62).
Serious punishments are meted out to those who sing scabrous songs
The missionary Gervaise admired the Siamese for their simplicity of life: "There is no people more temperate and more sober than the Siamese. They drink no wine and I am constantly amazed at how they can exist on so little" (Gervaise, 54). De la Loubère also saw "an easiness of living" and simplicity which had a positive function, "as good manners are more easily preserved in a moderate easiness, than in a Poverty attended with too much labour" (de la Loubère, 73). However, a Persian scribe who penned an account of an embassy from Suleiman to Siam took a dimmer view, adjudging the Siamese way of life "not at all affluent" and without "any luxuries or leisure", and the natives "all naked and penniless", without "elevated ceremonies", "refined manners", or "sumptuous banquets" (Ibrahim, 156).
The commoner's lot, however, contrasted markedly with that of the royal court, and many visitors were amazed by the splendour of the royal court, the gorgeousness of the monarch's jewelry and dress, and the opulence of the meals they were served on gold dishes. The carping Persians, though, thought the king's lifestyle admirable only when he emulated their dress or food (Ibrahim, 99).
Many authors remarked on the high level of Siamese personal hygiene - not surprising, given European standards of the time. The habit of bathing several times a day was striking to farang, and de Choisy adopted the habit, considering a daily bath "necessary for one's health" in the hot climate (de Choisy, 169). Though Kaempfer in 1690 thought the residence of Kosa Pan, former ambassador to France "dirty and nasty", "full of Dust and Cobwebs" (Kaempfer, 26), de Choisy during his stay visited some less illustrious houses and found them "very uncouth externally, very clean within" (de Choisy, 169).
The French courtier also revealed a royal Siamese concern about the sanitariness of farang, reporting that prior to receiving them, the king had "asked Mr Constance if the French were clean, if they looked after their teeth, if they washed their mouths and their bodies." De Choisy found it "amusing" that "these swarthy people, almost entirely naked" were "the cleanest people on earth in their eating, in their dress, in everything, including their discourse. Serious punishments are meted out to those who sing scabrous songs" (de Chisy, 157-158).
Whores, sluts, trollops and the like
"The women there are naturally very chaste," reported de Forbin (in Smithies, ed. 1995: 83), and de la Loubère noted that "It is not the Custom of this Country to permit unto Maids the Conversation of young men. The Mothers chastise them, when they surprize them so: but the Girls forbear not to get out, when they can; and it is not impossible toward the evening" (de la Loubère, 51). The ease of marriage and divorce surprised many; Ibrahim considered it a consequence of women's lack of dowry "other than their nakedness", which forced men to be "content with a pretty face" and to disregard "family honour" (Ibrahim, 131). De la Loubère, however, thought that ease of union and disunion resulted in much affection between spouses, and noted that Siamese men "love their Wives and Children exceedingly, and it appears that they are greatly beloved by them" (de la Loubère, 50).
Ibrahim exaggerated the ease of marriage, recording that they were "regularly arranged with the closest blood relations. A father will marry his daughter, his sister or his niece" (Ibrahim, 130), particularly if the man in question was a king; in fact, this convention was more likely confined only to royalty, and through the nineteenth century royal half-brothers and sisters regularly married.
It is interesting that the king Narai's elevation of his daughter Yothathep to a high rank after her mother the queen had died led to much speculation in the farang community that she had become his wife. The ever-cautious de la Loubère "could not find out the truth, but this is the common report; and I think it probable, in that her House is erected as unto a Queen". As for polygamy, he suggested that "they think it would be best to have but one wife; and it is only the Rich that affect to have more, and that more out of Pomp and Grandeur, than out of Debauchery" (de la Loubère, 52).
Though de la Loubère would have it that "the Siamese are naturally too proud to give themselves to Foreigners, or at least to invite them" (de la Loubère, 53), it is clear that sexual contact between local people and visitors did happen. The Jesuit missionary de Bèze reported that "many Europeans...are not ashamed to follow the native example and make it a point of honour to set up a harem, filling it with their comeliest slave girls" (de Bèze, 27). Of the numerous foreign communities established around Ayuthaya, only the Japanese had brought wives with them, so many foreigners settled with local women, forming hyphenated settlements of Thai-Persian, Thai-Portuguese, and so on (Smith, 14 n. 10).
The VOC official Kaempfer noted the presence at Ayuthaya in 1690 of "a village inhabited by a Portuguese race begot on black Women" (Kaempfer, 51), and Gijsbert Heeck, a VOC surgeon who visited Ayuthaya in 1655, reported that most of the forty staff at the Company factory there had local lovers. He mentioned one woman who had been the "wife" of three different Dutchmen and "very helpful to the Company's servants in their trade in Siam" by interpreting for them and interceding on their behalf with local traders and officials. In return, the Company offered her "special protection" (cited in ten Brummelhuis, 59; 25).
Not all women seem to have been so well favoured, however. Heeck's rendering of the situation suggests that Siamese women were more usually vilified by their Dutch lovers: "they rarely refer to them other than as whores, sluts, trollops and the like, up to and including the director, for hardly anybody was free of this failing, either the boatmen or their superiors" (quoted in ten Brummelhuis, 59).
Of homosexual relations even less was said, though Joost Schouten, a VOC company official who visited Siam several times and was given titles and honours by the Siamese king, was in 1644 accused by his company of "an offence referred to at the time by the circumlocutions stomme zonde (unspeakable sin) and sodomie" (ten Brummelhuis, 28). He "freely confessed and admitted to having started the practice while he was living in Siam"; in punishment he was strangled to death, his body burned, and his property confiscated (Villiers, no page number).
The men are lazy and slow
The orientalist stereotypes of indolent, thieving, and lying "natives" are much in evidence in these seventeenth century texts. De Choisy considered the Siamese "very docile...not...so much from their natural virtue as their idle, lazy, and timid nature" (de Choisy 236). De la Loubère judged Siamese intellectual faculties more adequate than their work habits: They "do conceive easily and clearly, their Repartees are witty and quick, their Objections rational." He found them "tolerable good Workmen: so that one would think a little Study would render them very accomplisht", but regretted that "their invincible Laziness suddenly destroys these hopes" (de la Loubère, 60). De Choisy wrote that "The populace is very faithful and does not steal" (de Choisy, 237), but his was a minority view. Schouten thought the Siamese "naturally light, fearful, incredulous, dissimuled, deceitful, and very lying" (Schouten, 144), and even the usually impartial de la Loubère remarked that "Vanity and Lyes" were "Characters essential to the Eastern people" (de la Loubère, 11).
Sitting uneasily alongside these images of lazy and indolent Siamese are references to the public visibility of women and the hard work they did. "The men are lazy and slow", opined Schouten, "insomuch that the women, with their slaves, are forced (contrary to the customs of other Nations) to labour the earth, & do most of their husbands work, besides taking care of their families" (Schouten, 144-5).
Several attributed women's activity to both male laziness and the fact that men had corvée obligations to fulfill.
Whilst the Men acquit themselves of the six months work, which they every one owe yearly to the Prince, it belongs to their Wife, their Mother, or their Children to maintain them...He works not at all, when he works not for his king: he walks not abroad; he hunts not: he does nothing almost but continue sitting or lying, eating, playing, smoking and sleeping...The women plough the Land, they sell and buy in the Cities. (de la Loubère, 50)
The Persian scribe concurred:
The ordinary people [read: men] are forced to work like slaves for the king's administration...For that reason it is common for women to engage in buying and selling in the markets and even to undertake physical labour, and they do not wear veils or cover themselves with modesty. Thus you can see women paddling to surrounding villages where they successfully earn their daily bread with no assistance from the men. (Ibrahim, 139)
Since I had the complaisance to approve your religion, why do you not approve mine?
Another topic of great interest to Europeans was the religious beliefs of the "Idolators and Heathens" (Schouten, 140). Most early visitors to Ayuthaya were struck by the many Buddhist temples
which dotted the city and which, in Kaempfer's opinion, "do not equal our church
es in bigness, but far exceed them in outward beauty
, by reason of the many bended roofs, gilt
frontispieces, advanced steps, columns, pillars, and other ornaments" (Kaempfer, 47). They were also amazed at the large numbers of monks
, or talapoins in the curious parlance
of the time; even today substantial numbers of males join the monkhood at least for a short period of time.
Gervaise, interestingly enough, noted that "Siamese ladies are too fond of their freedom to confine themselves to a cloister like our nuns, there to spend their whole lives." Referring to the still common custom of the elderly taking a few vows and living in temples, he argued that Siamese women "only give...those years which are no longer fitted for the world" (Gervaise, 163).
Speculation about the religion itself, its origin, soteriology, and cosmology gave rise to some wild theorization. Kaempfer waxed eloquent in his argument that Buddhism was a corruption of an ancient Egyptian form of worship (Kaempfer, 66ff) and contended that since they represent their "Saint", as he referred to the historical Buddha, with "curled Hairs, like a Negro, there is room to conclude, that he was no native of India, but was born under the hot Climate of Africa" (Kaempfer, 68). Both de Choisy (175) and Schouten (141) erroneously assumed that the historical Buddha was a deity, but de la Loubère, with typical acumen, found "no Idea of a Divinity" in their doctrines (130).
Farang marveled at the religious tolerance of the Siamese, considering it more ridiculous than praiseworthy. Gervaise appeared amazed at Siamese Buddhists' "singular opinions on the subject of religion", particularly "their failure to understand why God...should have wished to reveal Himself to some nations rather than others", leading them to "erroneously believe that He must be the author of all religions...and that it is His providence which has wisely created a diversity of religions, just as He has also created a diversity of languages" (Gervaise, 173).
De Forbin reported to Louis XIV's confessor, de la Chaize, that "Their complaisance allows them to approve all kinds of religion. According to them, paradise is a great palace where the sovereign master dwells...all religions are as many gates which lead into it." Judging them "too uncouth...to easily absorb the truth of our mysteries", he advised the father not to expect any conversions (cited in Smithies, 83-84).
The talapoins never disagree about religion with anyone. When one speaks to them about the Christian religion or any other, they approve of all that they are told; but when one tries to condemn their religion, they reply coldly, 'Since I had the complaisance to approve your religion, why do you not approve mine?' (cited in Smithies, 83-84)
Siamese tolerance was generally considered contemptible and foolish by Europeans, but has interesting echoes in a sentiment of de la Loubère:
I cannot forbear making a remark very necessary, truly to understand the Relations of Foreign Countries. 'Tis that the words, good, excellent, magnificent, great, bad, ugly, simple and small; equivocal in themselves, must always be understood with reference to the Phantasie of the Author of the Relation, if otherwise he does not explain what he writes. (de la Loubère, 36).
de Bèze, Father (1968, originally published ca. 1688) 1688 Revolution in Siam: The Memoir of Father de Bèze. E. W. Hutchinson, trans. and intro. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
de Choisy, Abbé (1993, originally published 1687) Journal of a Voyage to Siam 1685-1686. M. Smithies, trans. and intro. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
de la Loubère, Simon (1969, originally published 1693) The Kingdom of Siam. A. P. Gen, trans.; D. K. Wyatt, intro. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
Gervaise, Nicolas (1989, originally published 1688) The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam. J. Villiers, trans. Bangkok: White Lotus.
Ibrahim, ibn Muhammad (1972, originally published ca. 1687) The Ship of Sulaiman. J. O'Kane, trans. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kaempfer, Engelbert (1987, originally published 1727) A Description of the Kingdom of Siam 1690. J. Scheuchzer, trans. (Itineraria Asiatica Thailand No. IV) Bangkok: White Orchid Press.
Schouten, Joost (1986, originally published 1671) "A Description of the Government, Might, Religion, Customes, Traffick, and other remarkable Affairs in the Kingdom of Siam: Written in the Year 1636" in The Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam. J. Villiers, ed. Bangkok: Siam Society.
Smith, George Vinal (1980) "Princes, Nobles, and Traders: Ethnicity and Economic Activity in Seventeenth-Century Thailand" Contributions to Asian Studies 15: 6-14.
Smithies, Michael (ed.) (1995) Descriptions of Old Siam. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
Smithies, Michael (1989) "The Travels in France of the Siamese Ambassadors 1686-7" Journal of the Siam Society 77: 59-70.
ten Brummelhuis, Han (1987) Merchant, Courtier and Diplomat: A History of the Contacts Between the Netherlands and Thailand. Lochem: Uitgeversmaatschappij de Tijdstroom.
Villiers, John (1986) "Introduction" in The Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam, no page numbers. Bangkok: Siam Society.
This is adapted from my PhD thesis. See also related chunks under Siam, Ayuthaya, Narai, and Constantine Phaulkon.