Cambodian Escapade

   by Charles Kimball

The kingdoms on the Southeast Asian mainland were too strong for the West to conquer outright before 1800, but individual Europeans found ways to make mischief, on a scale much larger than their numbers would suggest. The Portuguese pirates who served in the navy of Arakan (more about them in a few pages) are an example of this type of activity. One of them, Philip de Brito, accepted an offer to become king of the Mons after Pegu was destroyed in 1599. He might have enjoyed Mon support indefinitely, but once his position looked secure he tried to convert his subjects en masse to Christianity, stripped the gold and jewelry from pagodas and melted down temple bells to cast cannon. That behavior alienated the Mons, and they welcomed the Burmese when they reconquered Lower Burma in 1613; Anaukpetlun killed de Brito and deported the rest of the 400-man Portuguese garrison.

At the same time other Iberian adventurers were trying their luck in Cambodia. A few missionaries had gone there as early as the 1550s, but Buddhist opposition had always forced them to leave again. This changed in the 1580s, when an ongoing struggle between Siam and Cambodia turned against the Cambodians. As the Siamese king, Naresuen, advanced on Lovek (Cambodia's capital for much of the 16th century), the feeble Cambodian king, Satha, became desperate. Using Diogo Veloso, a Portuguese soldier of fortune, as his envoy, Satha pleaded for aid, first from the Portuguese at Malacca, then from the Spaniards at Manila. A Spanish force was sent from Manila in 1594 but it arrived too late; the Spaniards found that Cambodia had fallen to the Siamese, Veloso was a prisoner in Siam, and King Satha was a refugee in Laos. The Spanish leader, Blaz Ruiz, was captured and placed on a prison ship headed for Siam. Unwilling to give up so easily, Ruiz managed to hijack the ship and take it back to Manila. Meanwhile the equally resourceful Veloso gained favor with Naresuen and got himself placed in command of a ship carrying the Siamese ambassador to Manila.

The adventure became even more bizarre once Veloso and Ruiz were united in Manila. Forgetting that he was now officially a diplomat of Siam, Veloso claimed that he represented Cambodia's ex-king and signed a highly irregular treaty. This document allowed Spanish troops, merchants, and missionaries to travel freely in Cambodia, and promised that the king and queen would become Christians in return for military aid. Then Veloso and Ruiz led a raid on Siamese-occupied Phnom Penh. Deciding at first to return to Manila after this affair, they later changed their minds, jumped ship in a Vietnamese port, and marched overland from Vietnam to Laos, where they discovered that Satha and his eldest son had died. The adventurers returned to Cambodia in 1597 with Satha's second son in tow; fearing another Spanish invasion, the terrified Cambodians allowed them to crown the prince as King Barom Reachea II.

The puppet monarchy was short-lived, though. In 1599 a fight between the Spaniards and some Cham and Malay mercenaries grew into a massacre that killed almost every Spaniard in Phnom Penh. The pro-Spanish king became yet another of Southeast Asia's many victims of regicide. Four years later a fresh royal weakling made overtures to Manila, but Naresuen replaced him with a pro-Siamese monarch immediately. The Spanish game in Cambodia was over, and with it ended Spain's only attempt to expand her empire onto the Asian mainland.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball