How (Not) To Win Friends and Influence People

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 13, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Perhaps no other era in Thai history is recounted with such relish as the debacle of French-Siamese relations in the 17th century. For historians of an anti-imperialist bent, it provides ample opportunity for sneers and chuckles, as the Europeans that had so skilfully devoured half the world got Siam caught in its gullet, and was forced to cough. There is a note of triumph in the title A Resounding Failure, Michael Smithies' brief history of the period as gleaned from the memoirs of Francois Martin, the French director of the trading outpost Pondichery, which remained a colony until the astonishingly late date of 1954.

It would be hard to say whether incompetence or arrogance was more to blame for the French failure. Martin himself was fairly competent, but he did suffer from the plague of racial hauteur. The failure of Christian missionaries to convert practically anybody in Siam was, according to Martin, "attributed to the stupidity of the Siamese, a brutal people to whom one could not explain the mysteries of the Christian religion." Well, the missionaries explained well enough, but the Siamese were not so stupid. They already had a fairly mysterious religion of their own, and they suspected that conversion and conquest were complementary. France's Compagnie des Indes Orientales operated in the region "on the condition of propagating the Christian faith": propaganda fidei. And the missionaries' methods sometimes bordered on madness. A Jesuit named Tachard trashed a Hindu temple, not because it had become a den of thieves, but because it contained pagan idols. Tachard was okay with thievery: he smuggled diamonds and traded despite official Jesuit disapproval. Mysteries indeed.

Not content with calling the Siamese stupid, Martin calls them "a grovelling people, cowardly and perfidious, only to be subdued by harsh treatment, the rack, and revolting tortures" -- much like those of the Spanish Inquisition, I imagine. Sticks and stones. Besides, what should one expect of a people valued by the French only insofar as they are "subdued"? And speaking of grovelling, consider Martin's tear-stained paean to Louis XIV: "That great monarch, zealous for the conversion of infidels and heretics, seized every occasion for the salvation of these idolaters and lost sheep; every corner of the known world is filled with proofs of this great zeal." Drying his eyes, Martin proceeds to admit that the great zeal had practically no effect on the sheep King Narai, who preferred to wander in the happy pastures of Buddhism. Had the French been a little less zealous, and had they tried to be sheep rather than wolves in shepherds' clothing, they might have made a better impression on the deferential Siamese.

"I do not believe," wrote the Missionary de Bourges in the 1660s, "there is a country in the world where there are more religions and where their practice is more permitted than in Siam." This was a relief to the Missionaries, whose steely absolutism had been rejected elsewhere in Asia. But rather than marvel at this earthly city of God, the Missionaries used it as a headquarters for their evangelizing efforts. Tolerance, it seems, did not rub off.

But even Siamese tolerance could be tested. The famous coup d'etat of 1688 was inspired in part by fears within the sangha or Buddhist clergy that the continued presence of the French would lead to the official establishment of Christianity. The fears were probably excessive, as Narai showed little inclination to become a convert. He enjoyed discussing Christianity and he acknowledged its many virtues, but he knew that to abandon Buddhism would have been tantamount to abdicating the throne. The usurper Petracha, however, saw Narai's hospitality as appeasement and sent Narai to his death.

Once tolerance had elapsed, the Siamese became in Martin's words as "cruel and barbarous" as they had been [insert synonyms for cowardly]. (We will have to wait for Martin to say something nice about the Siam that made him such a pretty penny.) The 1687 massacre at Mergui, directed against the English, found the victims "entirely disfigured with blows which had been inflicted after their death." Martin does not explain why cutting a corpse is more cruel than, say, shooting a living man out of a cannon (an English punishment under the Raj.) And, dead by 1706, he would be spared the embarrassing blood orgy of the French Revolution.

Not that the Siamese lacked cruelty, mind you. The customary method of executing a Siamese royal was to put him in a bag and beat him to death with sandalwood clubs -- the rationale being that no royal blood should come into contact with the ground. When Petracha's chief minister Kosa Pan fell out of favor, Petracha "cut off the end of his nose with a sword." And during the 1688 coup, the enemies of the Siamese were, as Martin clumsily explains, "tied to the tails of their horses with people following with rattan sticks to force them to run at the same pace as the animals." Has torture ever been so festive as this?

Though content to call the Siamese barbarians on the basis of such evidence, Martin hesitates to call them savages. Splitting hairs, you say. Well, here he is trying to make his distinction have a difference: "Not enough consideration is given in France to the nations in the Indies for their ability and good sense....they are as intelligent in what concerns their treaties, their interests and their political governancing [sic], and they have nothing to learn from European nations." According to Smithies, Martin is implying that the Orientals are just as duplicitous as Europeans, and thus just as successful in diplomacy and politics. Sincerity, it seems, is the province only of bona fide savages, who are like the animals in their blessed inability to deceive.

Martin relates an incident showing the Siamese skill in diplomacy, which has served so many times to save the country from from foreign domination and domestic discord. When a certain mandarin threatens to make his province independent of Siam, Kosa Pan and his nose "had the adroitness after his arrival in the province to win over the chief conspirators; the revolt weakened because of this, and the rest were soon dissipated....and thus tranquillity returned to the land." The conspirators were punished in the usual revolting ways, but not a shot, as they say, was fired.

The writers of the time used the terms Siam (the kingdom) and Ayutthaya (its capital city) more or less interchangeably. They also developed some odd spellings of Ayutthaya, including Odia and Iudea. The latter happens to be the Roman spelling of Judea, the land that Zionists believe to be theirs by virtue of a vague, millennia-old deed known as the Old Testament. It would be interesting to know whether Ayutthaya is in fact a cognate of Judea. If so, are the Siamese one of the lost tribes of Israel? Or did the Europeans simply impose their Christian atlas on a pagan world? One also may wonder why the Europeans called the island of Phuket by the name of Junk Ceylon.

In the film The Princess Bride, a Sicilian with a mouth full of spit informs the leading man that the first of the "classic blunders" is "never get involved in a land war in Asia." The moral of A Resounding Failure is even stronger, and it is probably closer to Kipling's warning against trying to "hustle the East." The Orientalist Percival Lowell compared Asia to a tree that had grown inside a glass case: restricted from growing outward, the tree grew infinitely complex and beautiful within its allotted space -- rather like a bonsai. The French could only deride this bonsai for not being a cedar, thus proving that stupidity is every bit as universal as deception.

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Review of Michael Smithies' A Resounding Failure: Martin and the French in Siam 1672-1693, Silkworm Books, 1998.

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