A SIAMESE EMBASSY LOST IN AFRICA 1686: The Odyssey of Ok-Khun Chamnan, translated and edited by Michael Smithies. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2000, 115 pp., $15 (paper).

In the spring of 1686, a Portuguese vessel was shipwrecked off Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa. Though several on the ship drowned, the larger number made it to the shore where, wet and naked, they confronted a howling wilderness. No water, no food, no foliage — just rocks, rain, and eventually wild animals and unfriendly natives.

For all these trials, the survivors were completely unprepared, in particular the members of the Siamese Embassy, who were on their way to Lisbon. For over a month these court officials wandered, deserted by their Portuguese sailors, eating lizards, running from lions and leaving their weaker members behind.

In the end, they made their way to the Dutch trading station on the Cape of Good Hope and were rescued. Just how many of the original number were no longer there is not known, but survivor Ok-Khun Chamnan, one of the ambassadors, was among them. It is through his telling that this tale is known at all.

His auditor and eventual amanuensis was Guy Tachard, a Jesuit churchman who Michael Smithies says was “less economical of the truth, as the phrase goes, than inventive of it.” It was he who published the sensational account of the shipwreck and the miraculous escape from the lion-haunted wilderness.

The tale, he states in his account, “is given entirely, almost word for word as he related it to me.” Be that as it may, there is some evidence that this is not entirely true. Tachard was much involved in the complicated intrigues between the French and Siamese courts and had, it was said, already falsified some of his statements.

Problems with the veracity of Tachard’s account include the difficulty of how this information was conveyed, since Tachard, unlike some of the other Jesuits, knew no Siamese. Perhaps Chamnan had learned some Portuguese: He had been forced to stay in Portuguese-speaking Goa for almost a year, awaiting the return of that country’s flotilla.

Even if so, writes Smithies, the dates provided by Tachard do not match those in the Siamese accounts. Further, “several of Chamnan’s supposed philosophical reflections, be it on the value of life, on God . . . his lack of shoes and stockings and the absence or availability of bread and wine, are all European reactions rather than those of a Siamese, no matter how long he had stayed in Goa beforehand.” Tachard was, after all, “not famous for his exactitude.” Indeed, it has been said that perhaps the Jesuit made the whole thing up. But no, there are two Dutch records that confirm the major outlines of Tachard’s story.

The present reader of this curious history is thus in the very contemporary position of confronting an unreliable narrator. You want to believe in the upstanding Chamnan but are countered by suspicions of Tachard. This lends a definite richness to the chronicle since the reader cannot be lost in the marvelous when simultaneously having to confront the mundane.

There is also a mass of motivations to be considered. Chamnan knew that once back in Siam he would have to confront a suspicious court and exonerate his own abandoning of mission members. Tachard, on the other hand, knew that this marvelous tale could perhaps convince the heathen of the eventual benevolent intentions of God. Since he himself had ambitions at the Siamese court, he also had to know all versions of whatever occurred.

All of this makes an unusually thick slice of anecdotal history, one that Smithies further decorates with three contemporary descriptions of the Cape of Good Hope and the Dutch East Indies Station — those of the Abbe de Choisy, Simon de La Loubere, and Father Tachard himself.

Throughout, the salutary and the suspicious are treated with the historian’s impartial regard, which is no less than one expects from Smithies, a scholar who has so informed our knowledge of Siam’s relations with the outside world.

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