The Phaulkon Affair

   by Charles Kimball

Because Burma and Siam were exhausted from the wars they fought in the 16th century, the 17th century was relatively peaceful. But those kingdoms were not secure from Western meddling, and a bizarre incident proved that to the Siamese. In 1678 the English East India Company sent one of its agents, a Greek named Constantine Phaulkon, to the court of Ayutthaya. His commercial and linguistic gifts quickly gained the attention of King Narai (1657-88), and soon he was serving as both the king's interpreter in diplomatic negotiations and as the chief official in charge of Siam's foreign trade. When his English co-workers accused him of corruption, Phaulkon quit the English East India Company and offered his services to England's archenemy, France.

The French were delighted, since all their attempts to gain colonies in the Far East had failed to this point. The diplomatic Siamese were also glad, since they thought French influence would be an effective counterweight to growing English and Dutch power in the region. In 1684 embassies were exchanged between Ayutthaya and Versailles. A large number of missionaries came with the French ambassador to Siam, and when Narai allowed them to preach without restrictions the French thought (wrongly) that the king was about to convert to Catholicism.

Three years later two English frigates arrived on the Tenasserim coast at Mergui, demanding 65,000 pounds in damages from Siam for giving shelter to pirates that attacked English shipping. At Phaulkon's urging, the Siamese opened fire on the ships and massacred every Englishman they could find. Now it looked like an Anglo-Siamese war would begin. The next time French priests arrived, they came with 600 French soldiers who occupied the ports of Bangkok and Mergui. That aroused Siamese fears. The king's terminal illness persuaded the anti-Western faction of his court to act before it was too late. In a palace coup they seized and beheaded Phaulkon; the small French garrisons could not hold out for long against native opposition and were evacuated. The new Siamese policy called for minimal contact with the West. It would be 150 years before Siam's doors were opened to the outside world again.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball