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SIAM & THE WEST: 1500-1700, by Dirk Van der Cruysse, translated from the French by Michael Smithies. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002, 564 pp., $32.50 (paper).

Relations between Siam (now Thailand) and the rapacious West were distinguished by Siam’s never having been colonized. The European powers — Portugal, Holland, England — may have hungrily circled this rich and exotic kingdom but, despite all the efforts of Western state and church, colonization did not occur.

This was undoubtedly good for Siam, but it complicated the task of future historians. As Dirk van der Cruysse remarks in his excellent short history, “having never been colonized, Thailand had never felt the need to define its cultural identity and determine its history in relation to former colonizers.” This leads to an odd situation where, as a leading Thai historian has written, “European evidence of the seventeenth century, however flawed, is still more valid as a primary source than, say, the Siamese royal annals.” What is the historian’s loss, however, is in this case the reader’s gain. We see Siam and its court through foreign eyes that witness what seemed to have been fabulous exoticism.

Gold everywhere, jewels, the monarch carried aloft like an idol on a towering throne with two chained tigers at its foot. Tempering this extravagance was a king who burned on a vast bonfire 800 men guilty of not having gone to the front against the Burmese, and a society where a royal execution meant that “he was secured in a velvet sack and beaten to death with cudgels of sandalwood so that not a drop of royal blood fell to the ground.”

Elephants at court “all had their silk cushions on which they slept like puppies,” and when one particularly beloved white pachyderm passed away, the mourning monarch executed all the servants and slaves who had attended the beast so that he would have the best care in his later lives.

Siam had indeed a different concept of life. “The Western concept of history is linear and irreversible, and comes from the Greeks. Each single event is unique and irreplaceable and worthy of being recorded. Siamese traditions are shaped by Buddhism and Hinduism and thus by the belief in reincarnation. The concept of history is circular; events of the past are reproduced in the future and thus lose much their interest.”

It is thus that we, Western readers, learn most through the curious and often credulous eyes of European visitors. They could draw meaningful comparisons. One early envoy noted the ruler renovating the town of Lopburi, some distance from the capital of Ayutthaya, and observed that this provincial seat was “for the kingdom of Siam what Versailles is for France.” King Louis XIV of France did not like Paris because of its association with a frightening civil war that had occurred during his youth; likewise Phra Narai of Siam seemed more at ease far from his capital where one felt as though one were living between two palace revolutions, and where a highly elaborate ceremonial controlled his least movements. Louis XIV could hunt for deer in the forest of Versailles and Phra Narai could hunt for tigers and elephants in the jungles of Lopburi.

Phra Narai was to have his own Mazarin in the person of that notorious Greek adventurer — His Excellency, Mr. Constance, also known as Phaulkon, a man who gained the ear of the king and who made the French the most important of the European nations attempting a foothold in Siam. This story, though familiar, is nonetheless fascinating and is here given with all of its parts in view, and buttressed by French annals concerning these years. Yet, despite a brilliant beginning, despite the help and hindrance of Phaulkon, the French were “poorly led and poorly organized, unfamiliar with the local cultures and little inclined to understand them, they considered the flexibility of the Dutch and the English perhaps suitable for a race of heretics but incompatible with French grandeur.” Eventually the French also left, and Siam remained uncolonized.

In this highly interesting account, we weave our way through 200 years of history, overwhelmed by detail (rubies the size of a man’s thumb; the Princess Yohatthep having the mouths of her ladies-in-waiting sewn up if they chattered too much, or slit to the ears if they did not speak enough) and entertained by the rising and falling fortunes of these importunate foreigners.

So rich are the servings that one is grateful for the slight dryness of the author’s style, which serves to distance us a bit from all of the rank gorgeousness. Distinguished, too, is a quiet wit that just lies there on the page waiting to be picked up.

An important Dutch official in Batavia, one Joost Shouten, was accused of indulging in the “silent sin,” a sobriquet for sodomy, a habit picked up during his prior stay in Siam. The Calvinist court “showed themselves far from understanding the exotic habits of their colleague” and had him strangled, his body burned at the stake, his ashes scattered to the winds, and his goods confiscated to the profit of the company. To which anecdote our author adds “Let us shed a tear for Joost Shouten, guilty of having loved Siam to excess.”

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