Ships from the West

lifestyle January 20, 2012 00:00

By Subhatra Bhumiprabhas

6,696 Viewed

The Portuguese in Siam five centuries ago were far tamer than their cousins trampling through Malaya


The Portuguese – the first Europeans to hunt for treasure in Southeast Asia – got off to a poor start, spending two years in the early 1500s violently establishing a foothold in the Malay state of Malacca. Lesson learned, they were more diplomatic in Pegu, Sumatra and Siam.
Just how peaceful their history was in old Thailand will be examined in a conference in Ayutthaya next week on the 500th anniversary of Siamese relations with the West. 
Over two days, dozens of scholars will describe what happened half a millennium ago when the hulking, bearded strangers (think of the frightening farang “guardian” statues at Wat Po) first appeared on these shores. 
“Malacca was where East met West, and the Portuguese came to take over the maritime trade,” historian Charnvit Kasetsiri told reporters during a recent preliminary tour in Malacca, once known as “the Emporium of the East”.
The Maritime Museum makes it clear that the Malays still fume about Portugal’s invasion. With a replica of the Portuguese ship Flor de la Mar bearing witness, the version of history as told by the loser has it that the wealth of sultans was piled onto that boat and carried off to Europe, along with dozens of skilled female weavers, calligraphers and dancers. 
Much more tragically, they didn’t get far – the Flor de la Mar sank in a storm off Sumatra.
Also among its haul were letters and gifts that King Ramathibodi II of Ayutthaya was sending to King Manuel I of Portugal.
First contact with Siam occurred before the conquest of Malacca. The viceroy of Portuguese India, Alfonso de Albuquerque, sent his envoy Duarte Fernandes to Siam to make acquaintance. The relationship has continued uninterrupted ever since.
In 1516 Ramathibodi II granted riverside land for a Portuguese settlement and permission to erect a wooden cross, thus guaranteeing their right to worship God as they chose. In return, the Siamese received lucrative market access to Malacca, its erstwhile trading rival.
Apart from the lost lives and letters, it all sounds pleasant enough, and this was mainly to the credit of the Portuguese lançados – “freebooters” – who were the subject of historian Suthachai Yimprasert’s PhD thesis.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries were merely informal at this stage, and continued with the help of these traders, mercenaries and missionaries, he says.
“Diplomatic ties weren’t formally established until the reign of King Rama II of Rattanakosin,” says Suthachai. Lisbon didn’t even consider the freebooters who lived just outside Ayutthaya’s walls its citizens, since they’d offended the feudal system of their homeland and were thus “pariahs”.
“They were forcibly sent far away to serve in the Portuguese fleets seeking to establish a Portuguese empire in Asia. Many of these freebooters left Malacca to seek their fortune in Ayutthaya, Arakan and Java.”
The foreigners were experts at navigation and making armaments, Suthachai says, so they soon found employment with Southeast Asian governments. In Ayutthaya they built a village, married local women (“Western women didn’t travel in those days”, Charnvit explains) and settled down for good.
The Portuguese settlement – the baan farang – had a population of about 300 and no fewer than three Catholic churches. By the time of King Narai, it had 3,000 inhabitants, many of them the offspring of mixed marriages. 
The settlement existed for 251 years, dying only with the Burmese destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767. archaeological excavations continue at the site, which bears the remnants of churches and graveyards.
The Portuguese have their own historical accounts about the Siamese days, preserved in the library of Ajuda Palace in Lisbon, says Yuwadee Vatcharangkul, who went there to do research for her documentary film “500 Years of Siam-Portugal Relations”.
“There’s a letter written by a Portuguese priest to Constantine Phaulkon, who served as the prime minister of Siam during the reign of King Narai,” Yuwadee says. “The letter is dated 1688. The priest told Phaulkon that his group had arrived at a village in Yangzhou in China, and had to walk barefoot to their next destination.” 
She’ll put this story in context and share other tales as a panellist at the Ayutthaya conference next week, which will also see four movies screened.