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EAST ASIAN LIBRARY RESOURCES GROUP OF AUSTRALIA

Newsletter No. 64 (August 2014)


The First Thai Ambassadors in Louis XIV's France


[This sequel to “France’s First Embassy to the Thais”, EALRGA Newsletter, no.61, January 2013, is abridged from my talk “Elephant Diplomacy: Early Thai-French Relations” presented to the Asia-Pacific Special Interest Group of ALIA, National Library, Canberra, 6 November 2013]

Andrew Gosling

 


 

France’s Louis XIV (1638-1715) and Narai the Great of Siam (now called Thailand), who ruled from 1656 to1688, were allies united against the Dutch, then the dominant European power in Southeast Asia.

At the beginning of the 20th century an old volume at the Foreign Missions Archives in Paris was accidentally knocked to the floor by someone consulting the title next to it. At the back of its French text a 68 page Siamese manuscript was discovered. It was an amazing find, part of a diary by the first ambassador to France from Siam. The National Library has acquired a modern English translation, Diary of Kosa Pan, Thai Ambassador to France June-July 1686.

In December 1685 Narai sent his foster-brother Kosa Pan on a mission to strengthen links with France. Kosa Pan, spent eight months visiting much of western and northern France, as well as Paris and the royal court at Versailles. His travelling companions included a second ambassador, who was a veteran diplomat and former envoy to China, as well as a third ambassador, who had visited the court of the Great Mogul in India. Narai wanted to compare France with these two mighty Asian empires.

The surviving fragment of Kosa Pan’s much longer diary covers his first fortnight in France, after arriving at the port of Brest in Brittany. He was fascinated by all he saw. He greatly impressed the French with his wit and charm, and was careful to adopt French manners. At a banquet he was served unfamiliar foods whose French names he recorded phonetically, for example salmon, artichokes, cherries and strawberries. He seems to have enjoyed them, just as the first French Ambassador to Siam loved tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango and papaya. From Kosa Pan’s brief diary it is clear that the diplomats were treated as celebrities by the French men and women who flocked to meet them. There is still a Rue de Siam (Siam Street) in the city of Brest.

Louis XIV received the ambassadors in his newly completed Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. A French text of the speeches has survived. The Discourses at Versailles of the First Siamese Ambassadors to France 1686-1687 is held in a modern edition in French and English. It includes the chief ambassador’s farewell address to the king on 14 January 1687. In his speech he commented on his rich experiences in France, “Our memory will be taxed to retain so many things. That is why we have gathered with avidity in faithful registers all that we could observe…These memoirs will be preserved for posterity and placed in safety among the most rare and most precious monuments of State.”

The envoys’ precision in recording every detail of their travels is confirmed by the Mercure Galant, the leading French gazette, which published several special volumes devoted to the Siamese visitors. It reported that they “shut themselves up every evening after supper with several secretaries. They read to each other what they have written about what they have seen, some being able to recall some things which the others had forgotten, and thus day by day they compile an exact journal.” The Library houses the Mercure Galant on microfilm.

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Andrew Gosling talking on early Thai- French relations to the Asia-Pacific Special Interest Group, National Library, Canberra, 6 November 2013.

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King Louis XIV of France receiving the Siamese Ambassadors at Versailles, in Tachard, Guy,1651-1712. Voyage de Siam, des Pères Jésuites, Envoyez par le Roy aux Indes & à la Chine. Paris : Arnould Seneuze et Daniel Horthemels, 1686. Jesuit Collection. Rare Books Collection.

In 1767 Burmese troops sacked and burned the Siamese capital, Ayutthaya, destroying whatever “faithful registers” had lasted until then.  If preserved they would have provided one of the most remarkable descriptions of France ever compiled. At that time the Siamese wrote on paper made from the bark of the khoi tree. Strong and durable, it survives well in the tropical climate. One of the treasures in the Library’s Thai collection is an illuminated Buddhist manuscript, Phra Malai, written on khoi paper. You can read about it in my book, Asian Treasures.

Not all the publications about the ambassadors in France are quite what they seem. The Library holds The Siamese Embassy to the Sun King: the Personal Memorials of Kosa Pan, by Michael Smithies, published in 1990. This claims to be an English translation from a missing French version of an original Thai work, which is now also lost. It quotes the ambassador telling King Narai that Louis XIV’s realm is “far less civilized than your Majesty’s, being without elephants, rice or eaglewood.” He also complains about the French that “it cannot be said that the operation [of washing] is frequently enacted by our hosts.” It has since been revealed that as Smithies himself hints in the introduction, his book is a work of historical fiction.

Another intriguing publication was acquired as part of the Rudolf Kern Collection in 1959. Rudolf Kern (1875-1958) was a senior Dutch colonial official and scholar in what is now Indonesia. His book collection contains many of the Library’s oldest and rarest works on Southeast Asia. It contains a 24 page booklet, Report of the Ambassadors from Siam to their King. This describes itself as a Dutch translation of a Thai text, containing a dialogue between the diplomats and King Narai. The work discusses the political and religious situation in France and other parts of Europe at that time, from the Ottoman Empire to England. It was published in Dutch-controlled Batavia [now Jakarta] in 1688.

Two original letters by the ambassadors were discovered in Paris and translated in 1921 by the great French scholar, George Coedès.  His outstanding book collection on Southeast Asia was later acquired by the National Library of Australia. The royal chronicles in Thai are also held. As Coedès cautions, these chronicles were only written down long after the event and they dwell on the supernatural. For example they claim that to the amazement of Louis and his court Kosa Pan demonstrated magic by asking five hundred French troops to fire at him without a single bullet touching his body. This is a far cry from his surviving diary which is entirely factual and down to earth.

Siam’s three ambassadors sailed home with a further French embassy, led by Simon de la Loubère. His masterly New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam, held by the Library in its first English edition, dated 1693, is one of the few positive results from this second French mission. Kosa Pan was shocked to discover that the French had secret instructions to seize Bangkok and another port if they were not surrendered voluntarily. The French plan backfired. Phetracha, head of the Siamese elephant corps, staged a coup, and became king when the ailing Narai died in mid-1688. The French were besieged in Bangkok, then forced to retreat.

1688 was a bad year for French diplomacy. Narai was succeeded by the anti-French Phetracha. In England Louis XIV’s ally and fellow Catholic James II was overthrown by France’s enemy, the Dutch Protestant, William of Orange, who became William III. Phetracha also renewed Siam’s relations with the Dutch.

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Kosa Pan (centre) and his two fellow Siamese ambassadors to France, in Choisy, abbé de, 1644-1724. Journal du Voyage de Siam : Fait en 1685 & 1686. Paris : Editions Duchartre & Van Buggenhoudt, 1930. Coedès Collection. Asian Collections.

Despite his disapproval of French behaviour in Siam, Kosa Pan seems to have retained great affection for France.  The German traveller, Engelbert Kaempfer, who met him in the Siamese capital in 1690, described him as being “of a quick understanding and lively action, for which reason he was a few years ago sent ambassador to France, of which country, government, fortresses and the like he would often entertain us.” The Library holds the 1727 English translation of Kaempfer’s History of Japan…Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam. Kaempfer adds that the former ambassador’s house was “hung with pictures of the royal family of France and European maps."

Although he served as minister for foreign affairs and trade under Phetracha, Kosa Pan fell out of favour with the new king. Facing torture and execution, he is thought to have taken his own life in 1700. It was a sad end for this distinguished diplomat and for the relationship between France and Siam which he had helped to foster.

The National Library, with Australia’s largest Thai collection, continues to acquire works about the early Franco-Siamese relationship. They include Thai and Western language reprints, translations and new titles. If you want to know more about Thai holdings contact Sophie Viravong, who is in charge of the Thai Unit, or look up the collection on the Library’s website [http://www.nla.gov.au/asian/thai].

ANDREW GOSLING, the Library’s former Chief Librarian, Asian Collections, is the author of NLA Publishing’s Asian Treasures:  Gems of the Written Word (2011).

 
   
     

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