Three Military Accounts Of The 1688 ‘Revolution’ In Siam
Lieutenant General Desfarges, De La Touche,and
J. V. des Verquains.Translated and edited by
2002 192 pp. 20 b & w illustrations, chronology, bibliography, index. 19 x 13.3 cm., softbound.
ISBN-10: 974-524-005-2 $19.00
Book review by Kennon Breazeale
(The Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 93, 2005)
The subject of these two collections of papers, compiled and edited by Michael Smithies, is very familiar to historians of Thailand. The diplomatic exchanges between the courts of King Narai and King Louis XIV in the 1680s are documented in numerous books published more than 300 years ago by the French ambassadors themselves, members of their entourages and missionaries. These accounts have appeared in recent decades in new editions, and some have been translated into English. The volume of material relating to this brief interlude in Thai history is so large that this subject warrants a place of its own in the 400-year bibliography of Ayutthaya as a capital city.
After all these publications, could we expect anything new? Michael Smithies surprises us in these two volumes by providing 15 short texts, which he has translated from French to English. The books by the French ambassadors and their entourages describe the higher-level politics of the time. By contrast, most of the texts in the present volumes were written by the lesser players in Franco-Thai relations. Three of the texts are by French missionaries, one is by a French merchant and one is by a Thai minister of foreign affairs—an extremely rare contemporary example of a Thai viewpoint. The rest are by French officers, including one by General Desfarges, who commanded the French troops stationed in Siam during 1687-8 and who died on his homeward voyage. Most of these texts will probably be known only at second hand by historians of Thailand, since copies are so difficult to obtain, and some appear here for the first time in print. Copies of the still-unpublished French originals have been donated to the archives of the Siam Society, to make them available to anyone who wishes to consult them.
The editor’s introductions to Franco-Thai diplomatic relations in the 1680s are short and succinct. The individual writers take up the story in terms of the political events in early 1688, after the second and last French ambassador had departed, leaving behind the French garrison. What was its purpose? Judging from these short texts, the officers themselves did not have a clear idea of their role, other than providing support to King Narai. The military authors have not left us campaign journals. They do not tell us about the departure of the French troops from France, the voyage to Siam or the initial installation of the French garrison. The military force was relatively small: 636 officers and soldiers sailed from France, nearly a quarter died on the voyage and only 492 reached Paknam in October 1687.
The officers provide mostly views from inside the French garrison, which was stationed in the two forts facing each other across the river at Thonburi and Bangkok. Another contingent was at Mergui, the most important Thai port on the Andaman Sea, and these texts include the only first-hand account of the Mergui contingent. Some French forces were deployed on two Thai frigates that patrolled the Gulf and apparently also the waters along the west coast of the Malay peninsula: we have no accounts by witnesses on board, but at least details of the ship movements are documented. Some French officers and men received temporary postings in Ayutthaya and Lopburi; their voices, too, are silent, but glimpses of their roles emerge from the texts by fellow officers.
This material describes at first hand what the writers heard and witnessed during the troubled period of King Narai’s illness and death, and the accession of one of his ministers, Phet Racha, as king. In chronological terms, the texts can be divided into two basic parts. During March-May 1688 the question of the succession became an issue and was finally resolved by the minister’s seizure of power. The next month, the French garrison at Mergui withdrew and went to India, but at Bangkok no large ship was available to carry the entire French garrison. From June to November 1688, the French remained entrenched in their Bangkok fort, resigned to withdraw from the country even before King Narai died in the second week of July, a virtual prisoner in his own palace.
These short works provide insiders’ impressions of the armed confrontation between the French and Phet Racha. According to one author, Phet Racha’s main concern in June 1688 was to get the French soldiers to leave with as little conflict as possible and to provide them with an opening to do so. These accounts document the delays that intervened, Desfarges’ violation of the withdrawal agreement and the resulting imprisonment of most of the French missionaries and the hapless soldiers who were stranded in Ayutthaya when three ships carrying the main garrison sailed for India in early November 1688. The missionaries were not fully released until two and a half years later, and some of the soldiers were in prison even longer. If the withdrawal had proceeded smoothly without complications, European opinions about Siam in ensuing years would have been far less negative. Each document has to be judged partly from the motivations of the writer, since the French were divided among themselves by jealousies, rivalries and the objectives of serving in Thai territory. Anyone reading the account by Desfarges, for example, should be forewarned (as the editor carefully does) of the tactical and diplomatic blunders the commander made and should understand that his account of events is artfully crafted to justify his actions in the eyes of his superiors in France. The editor provides a thoughtful introduction to each document and writer, explains the attitudes of one Frenchman towards another and helps us to understand why major players in the political drama may be depicted by two different authors in contradictory ways.
In essays by military officers about fellow officers and other Frenchmen, one can expect a continuous stream of unfamiliar references. The editor provides a wealth of editorial notes to identify the names of people, places and events mentioned by the writers. Helpful maps, fortress designs and portraits of individuals are also included.
Are we in the presence of chroniclers of French adventurers and their squabbles among themselves, with the Thai countryside merely as a backdrop? Or do these accounts contribute to our understanding of Thai actions and politics? Certainly the writers’ depictions of Phet Racha and his political tactics during the first half of 1688, which brought him to the throne, deserve careful attention by scholars concerned with Thai politics. The division of the Thai elite into opposing factions is nowhere else documented in this type of detail. Some descriptions will be helpful to military historians, such as the Thai river defences during the confrontation and the construction work on the French-designed fort at Bangkok.
These volumes are welcome additions to the impressive contributions already made by Michael Smithies to our knowledge of this period of Thai history, and I hope that there is more to come.
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