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Kissing up to kings

The merchants of the Dutch East India Company left Ayutthaya in 1765, but their records are a unique insight into a century and a half of difficult trade with the kingdom

Kissing up to kings

An engraving of Ayutthaya and the Dutch Lodge made in 1707.

Ayutthaya as seen by foreign visitors in the 17th century was a splendid and fascinating kingdom, but Dutch merchants at the time told of its darker sides in their diaries, according to Dutch East India Company archives announced by Unesco as a "Memory of the World".

Dutch merchants arrived in Ayutthaya as employees of the Dutch East India Company, or Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), during the reign of King Ekathotsaros (1605-1611). The king allowed the company to establish their first trading post in his capital in 1608. For the next century and a half, VOC merchants lived in the kingdom, leaving a record of their relations with the company's trade partner - the court of Ayutthaya - that is strewn with bitterness and troubles.

Though the VOC was introduced to the court of Ayutthaya as a representative of the royal court in The Hague, its employees were often treated differently. The Dutch community chafed under Siamese law that saw their enclave barricaded and merchants even arrested, says historian Bhawan Ruangsilp who's spent four years reading the 3,000 or so pages in the VOC archives that tell the Dutch side of the story.

"Their lives were used by the Siamese court as leverage in the negotiations with the VOC," she says.

The pages on Ayutthaya, written in formal 17th-century Dutch, are made up of official VOC reports, reports on special situations and personal diaries composed by the company men.

Previous accounts of Ayutthaya's history have viewed the Dutch as outsiders, disregarding their documents as important records of the time, but Bhawan argued that VOC men couldn't be seen as "outsiders" because they witnessed life in the kingdom through several generations.

Bhawan shared her knowledge recently at a history symposium held by the History Department of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Arts.

She received her doctorate in history from Leiden University this year, with a dissertation titled "Dutch East India Company Merchants at the Court of Ayutthaya: Dutch Perceptions of the Thai Kingdom, circa 1604-1765". It's been published in the series "TANAP Monographs on the History of Asian-European Interaction".

 "It [her research in the book] isn't a history of Ayutthaya. It's a history of trade relations between Holland and Thailand," says Bhawan, who's among the very few Thai scholars who can read the VOC archives in their original Dutch.

In that reading, Bhawan discovered that for the Dutch faced with the complexities of Siam's politics, establishing relations was no easy matter. They later realised that there was no "absolute power" in the royal court of Autthaya. This meant that VOC employees had to ingratiate themselves with members of the court to find out who could benefit them.

"We can't regard VOC employees as mere merchants. They must be seen as diplomats and officials of the royal court," the historian says.

The king gave permission for the foreign community to settle and govern themselves by their own rules but under the Siamese laws.

The last VOC ships left Ayutthaya in November 1765, and the company never returned.

Their perceptions were of the wealth of the royal court, and the greed of the its officials - including the ruling monarchs, Bhawan says.

Some of the negative attitudes of the Dutch toward Siamese officialdom can be seen in an account of Jeramias Van Vliet, head of the VOC trading station in Ayutthaya during the early years of King Prasatthong's reign [1629-1656]:

"Yet, every one of them wanted to be served, honoured and feared as if he were a worldly god. They [the court's officials] usually practise great authority over those who are in their houses and over their slaves… they do not allow themselves to be addressed otherwise than with bent body, folded hands, and with ceremonious praisings…"

The Dutch quickly realised that the language of ritual was important in the court of Ayutthya, says Bhawan.

In a detailed report, Van Vliet's predecessor, Joost Schouten, recorded how the Dutch emissary to Ayutthaya in September 1628 - the last year of King Songtham's reign - had removed his shoes and with his retinue walked barefoot to the inner court, where they fell on their knees and kowtowed to the king three times in line with local custom.

VOC Ambassador Jan Joosten de Roij, who arrived in Ayutthaya in September 1633, reported the Siamese court's request that official correspondence from the Prince of Orange should in future be written on gold sheet like the one the court was preparing to send to Holland.

The Dutch were told that in Siam a gift without gold was considered "un-royal".

But as well as understanding the ritual, the VOC men needed to come to terms with the different demands of the successive Siamese kings they had to deal with, Bhawan says.

They did much, for example, to fulfil the desires of King Narai, who sought knowledge from overseas to go along with exotic foreign products like Indian textiles that trade with the Dutch could provide.

The Dutch, says Bhawan, were motivated in this exchange by the hope that the Autthaya kings would intervene in their disputes with the court officials.

But Van Vliet, adds the historian, had his own hopes dashed when his relations with King Prasartthong soured, observing that the king had only ears but no eyes.

Bhawan's book reveals that in 1692, Thomas van Son sent an incisive report to Dutch Batavia, now north Jakarta, telling of the manipulation of King Phetracha [1688-1703] by his court officials. The Dutchman wrote that the Khunnang (court officials) were trying to prevent direct contact between foreigners and the king, so they could retain control over foreign trade in Siam.

Van Son also remarked that Phetracha's royal coffers were empty because the king had spent so much buying the support of so many on his accession to the throne.

VOC employees suffered during the reign of King Borommakot [1733-1758], who sent troops to barricade the Dutch lodge. In his letter to Batavia, Theodorus van den Heuvel warned his company to handle this ruler, who took offence easily, carefully.

In Dutch eyes, it seems, Siamese kings were greedy and arbitrary in their rule. Another VOC man wrote about the greed of 80 of the king's children, who smuggled tin in Nakhon Si Thammarat where the VOC owned the concession.

Bhawan concludes that the Dutch understood Siam's royal courts far better than anyone has previously realised. Seeing through the illusion of absolute power, they realised that the monarchy was an institution that had to face many challenges: politics within and beyond its borders, and conflicts of interest among court members.

"Maybe it was because the royal courts never changed, or perhaps that the Dutch recorders never altered their perspective," she says.

Subhatra Bhumiprabhas

The Nation

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