In the early summer of 1686, the Siamese Embassy arrived in France at the port of Brest. This was not the first Siamese embassy to set sail for France, but it was the first to actually find its way to its destination — all the others had foundered, the ambassadors drowned or else savaged by aboriginals. This one, however, led by the high-ranking diplomat Kosa Pan, sailed safely into the harbor and was met with full ceremony. Shortly after arrival, the Siamese were ashore, looking at everything. And taking notes.
The multitude of scribes with a mania for writing everything was a peculiarity all the French sources noted. A local churchman said that “they always have their writing-tablets in their hands and if you ask them four questions, they ask you six.” They measured their rooms, they counted the trees in the garden, they devoted a whole page to a description of the ambassador’s bed with its four mattresses and bedcover of crimson silk edged with gold.
The baffled hosts could not have known that this was the way things were done back in Ayutthaya, then capital of Siam (now known as Thailand). The Persian ambassador to Siam noted that scribes were everywhere “to record every detail of the king’s conversation, no matter how trivial the talk.” The close and accurate reporting of this first successful embassy to France was therefore important, leading up to a complete description of Paris, once it was reached, and the full glory of King Louis XIV.
This rage for information had a political side as well. Back in Ayutthaya, everyone knew who had done what and what rewards or punishments could be the more equitably applied. This was benign enough under the rule of Narai (1663-1703), the king whom Kosa Pan served, but his usurper Phra Phetratcha (1688-1703), no friend of the French, set about chastising many officials. In 1700, some 48 ambassadorial officers were fed their own flesh for 12 days, before being impaled and disemboweled. Kosa Pan lost his nose, had to watch his wives and children arrested and tortured, and finally — it was rumored — killed himself. This, said the Foreign Missions’ account, “was the sad end of the famous ambassador to the French.”
But here, 14 years earlier, we find Kosa Pan happily counting bushes, trying to get terminology right, wondering if “a-rato-cho” was the correct epigraphy for artichokes. And we follow these innocent activities for two weeks, until just before the great march to Paris. After that, the account stops; the manuscript was only a part of a whole that was, perhaps, copied into the royal archives and taken back to Siam where all records were lost forever when the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in 1767.
How did this manuscript survive? The embassy, not surprisingly, ran out of paper and had to content itself with odds and ends. Though the transcribed annuals were lost, these odds and ends — which were used to record the first two weeks of the embassy’s activities — survived.
In the early 1980s, someone at the Missions Etrangeres dislodged volume 1081, long a title of interest to no one. The book fell from the shelf and landed upside down. When it was picked up it was noted that only half of it was given to its nominal subject; the rest of the pages were covered in 17th-century Siamese characters. All that was left of Kosa Pan’s journal had been discovered. By the end of 1990, the notes had been translated into modern Thai and this is the first English translation.
It is not often that the refreshing breeze of lost history so caresses the grateful reader. There is a description of a provincial Brest feast complete with five kinds of fruit including the delicious “se-ri-sa” (cerise-cherry), which soon became a favorite. There are many descriptions of the kinds of firearms found. There is the recounting of a wonderful bed with curtain and canopy “all in banana-leaf green.” And over it all — the sage and simple style of Kosa Pan, a proper diplomat, looking forward to getting on the road and finally seeing the glories of Versailles and the court of the Roi Soleil, never dreaming of the awful end in wait for him.
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