A Failure of Fanaticism

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 23, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

"Vanity is a powerful historical agent."
- Dirk Van der Cruysse

Every now and again, my Thai girlfriend and I undertake a feisty debate. The topic: whether Western influence on Thailand has been positive or negative. She argues negative; I play devil's advocate; a Maginot Line is drawn.

I should point out that my girlfriend is Westernized: she speaks (and dreams) English, works at an international school, attended Christian schools, drinks red wine, and fornicates (lovely word) with a foreigner. What social and economic advancement she has enjoyed is due to a combination of her pluck and Western meritocracy: Thais often find her uppity.

Nevertheless she believes that Westerners are "greedy", "arrogant"; that they "take advantage" of the lesser breeds; and that on the whole Thailand would be better off had they stayed in the West where they belong.

What else is arrogance to do? I rise to the bait. Point out that there are just as many Thais in the West as there are Westerners in Thailand. That if it weren't for the West, she might be a slave dying of malnutrition or one of the countless diseases that Western medicine has eradicated. That she might be drinking rice wine instead of red wine. That she might be married to a - this is her word - "vain" Thai man.

There is of course something unfair about this. All of the above is repugnant to her only because she is Westernized. And she can easily reply that though the West has brought penicillin, Pinot Noir, and principles of equality, it also brought the internal (infernal?) combustion engine, high-grade weaponry, and, quite possibly, AIDS. Furthermore, Thailand could have modernized on its own, without help from the West. Indeed, to a laudable extent, it did.

The argument, like so many hypothetical arguments, quickly goes nowhere. So I become God and say that the world is deterministic and that therefore Western ascendancy was inevitable and has nothing to do with morality. Big fish eat little fish. Universe machine, I cog. Then, contradicting myself, I decide to pour myself another drink.

This insouciance is not entirely genuine. The collision between Thailand and the West is a source of endless fascination to me, and I am only escaping into determinism because I wish to be free of a kind of tribal guilt. For the world is still reeling from European colonization, and whatever one may think about its effects, it was probably the single greatest shock to human history since the expansion of Rome.

Fortunately there are historians, whose job it is to restore order, calm. The better historians also entertain, and this is true of Dirk Van der Cruysse, author of a new book called Siam and the West: 1500-1700. The book describes the various disastrous attempts by somber Europeans to set up permanent shop in the land whose people smile like Cheshire cats. Cruysse has retold this marvelous tale on the assumption that "timelessness in writing and a dislike of taking oneself seriously are literary criteria." He tells; he laughs; and we laugh with him.

Like the Thais, Cruysse is a relativist. He believes that what is right and true for me need not be right and true for you, and that no one should be allowed to impose his belief on others. This relativism is fairly common in the West today, but 500 years ago it might have been called heresy and Cruysse would have been broken on the rack.

A great many of the colonizers were Christian missionaries of exceptional impudence and ignorance, prone to using "religious blackmail", and they were baffled and repelled by the religious tolerance for which Thailand is justly famous. The missionaries, at least, deserve my girlfriend's charge of arrogance, despite their dismal and even laughable failure to import Christianity into her country. "Not a soul" had been converted, grumbled one fervent man of God. And the few souls they did convert often reverted, once the threat of eternal damnation slipped their minds.

Let us dwell (as Cruysse might say) on the missionaries' folly. First of all, they refused to accept that one could worship multiple gods or admire multiple religions. They made almost no effort to understand Buddhism. Had they done so, they might have realized that Buddhism and Christianity are essentially the same, each tainted by a host of superstitions like the virgin birth. Instead the missionaries were content to call the Buddhists "ministers of Satan."

The missionaries failed to convince the Siamese that Christianity is a pacific religion, because the Christian nations of Europe were almost constantly at war with each other. (So were the Buddhist nations of Asia, but that is another matter.) Cruysse also notes the priests' strange attachment to the blood of martyrs and the weapons used to kill them. (The Siamese for their part were fond of horrible methods of torture, like forcing victims to swallow molten lead.)

The missionaries did not notice that the idols of the cursed idolaters were statues of the Buddha. They called Buddhist monks "talapoins", a word apparently derived from the Siamese word for "palm tree." And they also disregarded the importance of Siamese religion to the prestige and power of the Thai monarch, called dharmachakravartin, "or 'monarch who causes the turning of the [Buddhist] Wheel of Law.'" "It was just as unthinkable," writes Cruysse, "for [Thai King] Phra Narai to become a Christian as for the pope to convert to Islam."

The reaction of the Siamese to these absolutist interlopers was typically blase, although Phra Narai displayed an abundant and precedent-setting curiosity about things European, science especially. Cruysse quotes Sir John Bowring, the unfortunately named author of the The Kingdom and People of Siam: "I found no indisposition among the Siamese to discuss religious questions; and the general result of the discussions was - 'Your religion is excellent for you, and ours is excellent for us. All countries do not produce the same fruits and flowers, and we find various religions suited to various nations.'"

Let us shed a tear (Cruysse's style is irresistible) for all those who have been persecuted because someone failed to accept these noble and rational sentiments. Cruysse reminds us that while Louis XIV was planning an invasion of Siam, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had extended the right of worship to Protestants. While Phra Narai was opening his arms to Christians, King Lou revoked error's rights.

One of the funniest episodes described by Cruysse is a Siamese embassy to France. The French hosts believe that the Siamese will be so dazzled by the wonders of a Christian nation that conversion will soon follow. The Siamese are deferential but mostly they are cold, listless, bored. The French are horrified. But such indifference by savages only proves their savagery; it has nothing to do with French vanity. At one point a Siamese tells a European lady that she would be more fetching if she dressed in the Siamese fashion, i.e. scantily.

To this day, Thais believe that Europeans are malodorous and unclean, much as the Native Americans claimed that they could smell a white man a mile away. Modern Thais think it barbarous to lie in bed without having a shower first; and, of course, one must always remove one's shoes before entering a house. The French recorded the difference in hygiene with some surprise. The Siamese "bathe often" and "wash every day after meals." The Abbe de Choisy, ever ready with due credit, went further: the Siamese "are the cleanest people on earth in their eating, in their dress, in everything, including their discourse."

The British comedian Eddie Izzard once proposed that European empires were made possible by the "cunning use of flags": if my country has a flag and yours doesn't, then my country owns your country if I fly my flag over it. The idea is no less plausible for being funny: flags denote nation-states, and the nation-state system arrived with the West. In the late 17th century Siam had no flag, so European flags often flew over the kingdom. But cunning Siam soon had its own - "the white elephant on a crimson background."

Cruysse adds to the debate over why Thailand escaped colonization. Numerous times he mentions that Europeans were disappointed by Thailand's offerings. "The only Siamese product likely to interest France," for example, "was pepper." Many Europeans had heard tales of Oriental luxuriance and grandeur, but found relative privation and a capital city "hardly so big as our towns in France of the fourth and fifth rate." Siam's value lay chiefly in its proximity to China and Chinese tea.

The Siamese were apparently quite happy to receive European guns as payment for goods and services, and they used them to great effect against the Burmese and the Lanna kingdom. This practice of the West arming the lesser breeds so that they can kill each other more efficiently is still very popular, though no less shortsighted, self-destructive, and sad.

Cruysse takes great delight in showcasing the abnormalities of the pious Europeans, as well as their abnormal names, e.g. "Dirk Gerritszoon Pomp (also known as Dirk China)". A certain Joost Schouten claims to have picked up his love of sodomy from the Siamese, while one (benign?) Benigne Vachet observes that the Siamese "temples are crammed with very pretty boys." But the award for boldness must surely go to Choisy, a central figure in early Western-Siamese encounters. He "had given himself over without hesitation to the ambiguous game and joys of transvestism. He wallowed in a flood of head combs, patches, earrings, diamonds, ribbons, lace, skirts, and extravagant dresses, called himself 'Madame de Sancy' and went so dressed to seek alms for the poor in the quarter of Saint-Medard. In the same outfit and with various excuses, he drew into his bed very young girls...."

Choisy dropped his skirts, so to speak, before his Siamese journey, but he never abandoned his sense of fun.

History teaches us that convictions, like boulders, erode. In the time of Henry the Navigator, there was "a curious prejudice firmly entrenched in men's minds that white men who travelled below the equator would immediately be turned into blacks." It is now widely acknowledged that Muslims gave coffee to a drowsy world, but let us wonder at the belief of Jacques de Bourges that coffee is similar to wine, "having the properties of fortifying the stomach and facilitating digestion." One of Phra Narai's honorifics was "he who controls the world's rainfall" -- whereas now rainfall seems beyond prediction, much less control.

History also shows how quickly and utterly time obscures our most ardent endeavors. Futility follows our every footstep. It is somehow comforting to learn that the French missionaries, en route by sea to convert Siam, "miserably threw up 'half their souls'" due to seasickness, only to fail in their goal. Or that Phra Narai sent four baby elephants to France as a gift, but all died before reaching the Atlantic. Or that an entire Siamese embassy was lost at sea.

But spare a thought for the labor of Cruysse and historians everywhere, including the benighted but diligent missionaries. For, as Cruysse points out, without them we would be forced to rely on the flighty and far inferior Siamese court annals for our knowledge of this tumultuous time, during which East and West met briefly, only to part on far from cordial terms.

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Review of Dirk Van der Cruysse's Siam and the West: 1500-1700, Silkworm Books, 2002.

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