Siam and the West, Kingdom of

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Siam and the West, Kingdom of

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to trade regularly with, and to settle in, the kingdom of Siam. They sent an envoy to the court of Ayutthaya around 1511, the year of their conquest of Melaka. The Portuguese wanted to ensure that there would continue to be Siamese shipping to their new possession, Siam being a major supplier of rice to that port. By 1516 a treaty had been signed, according the Portuguese the right to trade in Siam, in return for Portuguese sale of European firearms to the Ayutthayan court. Hundreds of Portuguese became mercenaries of the kings of Siam, who in the sixteenth century fought several wars against neighboring states. A Portuguese settlement, which became largely mestizo, sprang up in the city of Ayutthaya. Relations and trade with Spanish Philippines began in 1598, but were at best sporadic.

For the king and court of Siam, the seventeenth century was a time of intense commercial and diplomatic activity. The Dutch and English came to Siam in the first half of the century, and inevitably came into conflict and competition with the Portuguese and Spaniards. First to arrive were the Dutch, in the form of the United East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC), which sent envoys to Ayutthaya in 1604. The first Siamese embassy to Europe left Ayutthaya in 1607, traveling to the Dutch Republic, where the envoys were received by the stadhouder Prince Maurice. Dutch trade in Siam consisted largely in the export of the dye wood sapan and animal skins to Japan, and also the buying up of other produce and tin in exchange for Indian textiles, silver, and cash. The Dutch had a trading office and small settlement in Ayutthaya, which survived until late 1765, when the Burmese had begun to besiege Ayutthaya and there was no more trade to be done.

The English East India Company (EIC) arrived in Ayutthaya via Patani in 1612. The EIC established a factory at Ayutthaya, hoping to establish a lucrative Japan-Siam trade, but were disappointed. The EIC withdrew in 1623, and reestablished its Siam factory in 1675. But it was still not successful in its trade, closing down the office in 1684 amid much acrimony in its relations with the Siamese court. Anglo-Siamese relations were complicated by the roles of the "interlopers," many of whom had previously been employed by the EIC and were now undercutting or even obstructing the company's own trade. Some of these interlopers were in the employ of the king of Siam.

Among the many foreigners who joined Siamese royal service was the Greek Constantine Phaulkon, who had been an employee of the English EIC, but once he had entered the Siamese king's service, rose to a very high rank, becoming the de facto controller of the kingdom's foreign affairs and overseas trade in the 1680s. A supporter of the French cause in Siam, he was the favorite of Ayutthaya's most outward-looking king, Narai (r. 1656–1688).

The first French people to establish sustained contacts with Siam were the missionaries of the Société des Missions Etrangères, who first arrived in 1662. The missionaries of this society were to stay on until the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, though they gained few native converts to Christianity. The French diplomatic initiatives in the 1670s and 1680s were based on a mistaken assumption that King Narai (along with the Siamese people) would convert to Roman Catholicism, and thus afford Louis XIV's government a secure political and commercial foothold in Asia. The French government sent garrisons to man fortresses at Bangkok and Mergui in 1687. In 1688 a palace revolution broke out against King Narai, ending with Phaulkon's execution and the withdrawal of the French officers, soldiers, and traders from Siam.


After the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 Europeans did not trade directly in Siam again until 1818. The Portuguese returned to Siam and set up a trading office on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. But the more significant arrivals during the first half of the nineteenth century were the British traders and diplomats and the American missionaries, the latter bringing in new medical knowledge, technology, and ideas.

The key geopolitical factor of this era was the establishment of the free port of Singapore by the British in 1819. The British, eager to increase trade with Bangkok, signed the Burney Treaty with Siam in 1826 but Siamese relations with the British and the Americans during the reign of King Rama III (r. 1824–1851) were notable for increasing Western impatience with Siam's refusal to give in to demands for free trade and extra-territorial rights.

The scholarly King Mongkut (Rama IV, r. 1851–1868) was deeply interested in the West, learning English from an American Protestant missionary and Latin from a French Roman Catholic missionary. It was during his reign that the Siamese court decided to begin a process of Westernization, to bring Siam up to the level of the modern Western world. The signing of the Bowring Treaty of 1855 with Great Britain was a key event in the history of Siam's relations with the West. It led to the end of the royal monopoly system in Siam (fixing import and export duty rates), and through the terms of the treaty extraterritorial rights protected the subjects of the British Empire. The treaty became the model on which all subsequent treaties with Western countries were based. Following the example of the British, the United States, France, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Portugal (among others) all concluded almost identical treaties with Siam. Siam became a major rice-exporting nation, and Western trade with the country increased. But serious problems also followed. First, the rights and activities of non-European subjects or protected persons of the imperial powers became an issue of contention between Siam and the Western countries, especially France. More importantly, the economic and territorial ambitions of Great Britain and France began to threaten the very independence of Siam.

Yet Siam, alone among the Southeast Asian countries, remained the only independent kingdom during the age of high imperialism. There were two major reasons for this. First, the Westernizing and modernizing reforms started by King Mongkut and carried forward with decisive vigor by his son Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910) transformed the country into a modern nation state, with institutions modeled on the West. Many Western experts and advisers were hired by the Siamese government to help reform of the country's legal, administrative, and military systems, and in the modernizing of transport and communications. Western nations and companies competed for contracts and an increased economic role in Siam. As a result of the reforms, the monarchical government in Siam became more absolute than ever because Western technology and Western-inspired administrative reforms enabled the center to exert more effective control over most outlying provinces.

Second, a stalemate was reached between Britain and France in this region. From 1896 the two great powers agreed to use Siam or, more precisely, the Mekong River, as a "buffer" zone between their territories in Southeast Asia. The Siamese, however, still had to cede territories under its suzerainty to both France and Great Britain, notably the left bank of the Mekong (1893), the provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang, and Sisophon in Cambodia (1907), and the Malay states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, and Perlis (1909). The severest crisis occurred in 1893 when the French brought gunboats up the Chao Phraya River right into Bangkok, having forced the Siamese defenses at the river mouth. King Chulalongkorn was forced to accept a treaty giving France Siam's Lao territories on the east bank of the Mekong, and to pay an indemnity of 3 million francs for perceived offenses against the French in Laos.

The heartland of the kingdom, however, remained secure. In the reign of Chulalongkorn's son King Vajiravudh (1910–1925), Westernizing reforms continued to be implemented. The English-educated Vajiravudh also sent a Siamese expeditionary force to join the Allies in the later stages of World War I, thus earning Siam a place at the negotiations table at the Versailles Peace Conference. Although the Siamese delegation in Versailles lobbied unsuccessfully for an end to extraterritoriality and full autonomy in taxation, a negotiating strategy was soon put in place for a revision of all the nineteenth century treaties concluded with the Western powers. With the help of American advisers, Siam by 1926 was able to put an end to the Western powers' treaty privileges, thus regaining its full legal sovereignty.

see also Dutch United East India Company; English East India Company.


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