Ayutthaya:Capital of a Kingdom, Part 9
King Narai and the Falcon of Siam
The first Counselor to king Narai, at the Royal court of Ayutthaya, pressed his personal seal onto the blob of hot wax and waited for the wax to cool. The image impressed on the wax was that of a falcon on the wing a bird of prey.
That first Counselor was Constantine Phaulkon and he had soared from very humble beginnings to a position of great influence, power and wealth. However, like Icarus, did the first Counselor's falcon fly too close to the sun And what of the man this Constantine Phaulkon, First Counselor to King Narai of Siam.
Born in 1647 Phaulkon, as a youth, left the beautiful island of Cephalonia in his native Greece and went in search of life, adventure and fortune. He found work as a cabin boy with the British East India Company and work out of London until around 1669. After touring around the Mediterranean several times and gaining experience, the East India Company eventually brought Phaulkon to Indonesia and, in 1678, to the shores of Siam. He was now 31 years of age a charismatic, ambitious, seafaring adventurer with knowledge of languages and international trade. Phaulkon saw great possibilities in Siam and initially found work in the government trading service at Songkla. With a natural aptitude for language, he began to study the difficult language of Siam and, as he learned, he also climbed the ladder of power as he mixed his knowledge of European trading needs with the exotic products Siam had to offer. Since King Narai and his Nobles controlled all trade, Constantine Phaulkon came quickly to the notice of the Monarch. Phaulkon was promoted to head of Foreign Trade with a royally approved title and name of "Laung Vichayen". The poor boy from the Greek Island of Cephalonia had risen to be on speaking terms with His Majesty, King Narai of Siam.
Phaulkon had been brought up in the Catholic faith (although some reports indicate Greek Orthodox) but, sensing the winds of change during his seafaring days with the British East India Company, had quickly changed to Protestant teachings. Now resident in Siam, he reconverted to the church of Rome under the influence of a french Jesuit priest and additionally, married a deeply Catholic girl of Japanese/Portuguese extraction. Was it, perhaps, because of this reconversion that the French Jesuits supported Phaulkon to be Chao Phraya (Chief/First) Vichayen to King Narai Whatever the reason, Phaulkon had now reached the highest heights and, in favor of the French, had distanced himself from his British exemployers.
King Narai the Great was an outreaching monarch extremely interested in European nations and foreign trade (see last month's issue) and had welcomed European merchants, religious scholars and people of learning to his Kingdom. This was the Golden Age of Siam with the ornate temples and chedis of Ayutthaya glittering in the sun. Unfortunately, the Dutch were proving a bit heavy-handed so, in an attempt to counterbalance Dutch influence, King Narai sent official ambassadors to France and the Court of King Louis XIV. They were well received and, in turn, His Most Catholic Majesty, King Louis XIV, of France sent a series of three official embassies to King Narai and the Court of Ayutthaya. First Counselor, Constantine Phaulkon, arranged everything and when the first French delegation arrived, in 1685, acted as interpreter and official "go between". The delegation was warmly received and included not only French diplomatic Nobles but also more French Jesuit priests and some military personnel.
(It should be noted that in the year 1685 Europe was in religious and political ferment the Netherlands and Britain had declared for Protestantism Catholic King Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes [giving freedom of worship] and thousands of Protestant Huguenots had fled France to escape persecution).
It was with this backdrop of European affairs that Phaulkon worked to serve King Narai and increase his own power and influence. In doing so, it is certain that he created many jealousies from other foreign merchants and also Siamese Nobility who could not understand why their monarch was so influenced by this "foreigner". King Louis XIV, perhaps not realizing that King Narai had invited French influence purely as a counterweight to Dutch demands, had thoughts that the Siamese King was ready for conversion to Christianity. Such thoughts were encouraged by the Jesuit Order and facilitated by First Counselor Constantine Phaulkon.
After the deliberations of official embassies, King Narai was pleased to accept and alliance with France (to keep the Dutch in place) and the French were delighted to offer their support in exchange for trade, military and missionary privileges. As part of these concessions, it was decided that a French military force of 650 soldiers, under General Desfarges, would be based at Songkla. When General Desfarges indicated that his troops would be available for the defense of Siam and, indeed, would be honored to provide a personal bodyguard to King Narai, French soldiers were then garrisoned at Bangkok as well as Songkla. Assisting in "oiling the wheels" of all negotiations was Constantine Phaulkon. Indeed, Phaulkon knew that if French forces were based at Bangkok they could be a means to lever French influence on the Siamese government. It remained for Phaulkon to persuade King Narai to accept French military offers but he felt he could convince the Siamese Monarch.
However, it was all becoming too much for the Royal Court of Ayutthaya if not for King Narai who always held Phaulkon in high regard. In 1687, a high ranking Court Official, Phra Phetraja, who was also Keeper of the King's Elephants, was so incensed that he formed an "anti Phaulkon" group. Phra Phetraja couldn't understand why "this foreigner" mesmerized his King and other Nobles plus the hierarchy of the Buddhist faith supported him. It appeared there were foreigners everywhere merchants, traders, soldiers and those dreadful Jesuit priests preaching to the simple, Buddhist people of the land. It had to be stopped
The following year, 1688 , King Narai died. He had been suffering from dropsy and ailing for some time. Before the King's death, Phaulkon had tried to persuade King Narai to declare his adopted son, Mom Pi, as his successor. Had this happened, Phaulkon may well have been able to rule the Kingdom as Regent However, Siamese Nobles persuaded King Narai, that Phra Phetraja should be the appointed successor. And so, upon the King's death, Phra Phetraja became the new monarch. He moved immediately against Phaulkon, the Jesuits and the French military. Most were imprisoned but Phaulkon was humiliated, tortured and, finally, executed on 5th July 1688.
Thus ended the life of the boy from Cephalonia. Constantine Phaulkon had risen from nothing to become First Counselor to King Narai at the Court of Ayutthaya. At his height of power, Phaulkon's life style was magnificent two palaces, a personal, bodyguard of twenty European mercenaries, an extravagant dinner table, wine to and annual value of over 14,000 crowns and everyone, except the French, having to crawl before him. Phaulkon gave loyal service to King Narai but he failed to see that what was good for himself was not necessarily good for the King or the Siamese people. Perhaps he genuinely thought King Narai would be better as a Catholic Christian but that was an arrogant and patronizing thought. King Narai was a devout Buddhist, unshakable in his belief, which reflected the same beliefs of his Siamese subjects. So it is to this day, Siam now Thailand is devoutly Buddhist. The ruins of Constantine Phaulk on's palace, at Lopburi, may be visited and are a reminder that Thailand has never been colonized either by a foreign power or a foreign individual.