1830’s – Visit by John Crawfurd

“Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-general of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China: Exhibiting a View of the Actual State of Those Kingdoms (1830)” by John Crawfurd

March 24 As soon as we had come to an anchor, we prepared a letter for the Prahklang, or minister who conducts the affairs of strangers. In this we briefly informed him of our arrival, the number of our party, and such other particulars of the same nature, as we were given to understand would be expected. This was transmitted, early yesterday morning, by one of the officers of the ship to Paknam, the first station in ascending the river. The officer returned this morning with a civil message from the Chief of Paknam, accompanied by a present of fruit, and he brought with him a pilot to conduct us over the bar.

March 25 At seven o’clock this morning we weighed anchor, and attempted to cross the bar; but when about half-way over, the ship struck in the soft mud, in which, as the tide fell, she sunk four feet. We had, at the same time, not above four feet water. As the evening tide made, she floated, and we crossed the bar without sustaining any injury. A strong and favourable breeze soon carried us to the mouth of the Menam, a distance of not less than ten miles from the outer edge of the bar, ploughing almost all the way through the thin ooze; and at seven o’clock at night we anchored off the village of Paknam, about two miles and a half from the mouth of the river, upon its left bank.

March 26 A Portuguese interpreter, dispatched from the Court, came on board this morning. He brought a message from the Chief of Paknam, the purport of which was, that he had received instructions from the Court to entertain us, and that a barge had been sent down to bring us to the Capital, but that before the ship proceeded it would be necessary to land our guns, according to invariable usage in such cases. We returned a civil answer, and sent the chief a small present, taking this occasion to remonstrate against the landing of our guns, as well as to signify to him that one boat was totally inadequate to the accommodation of so large a party as ours. In the forenoon his nephew came on board, to wait upon us. He stated that the orders of the governor on the subject of landing the cannon of foreign ships were peremptory, and could not be dispensed with, but that a reference would be made to the Court for instructions. On the subject of the barge, it was explained that the numbers of our party were not known, or more accommodation would have been furnished. This was not true, for we had stated the exact number of the party in the letter to the Prah-klang, and the circumstance of sending a single boat only, was evidently an early attempt to underrate the Mission and the authority by which it was sent. A temperate resistance therefore, however unpleasant, became necessary.

Our visitor had brought an invitation to our party to land in the evening, and partake of an entertainment which the chief had prepared for us. This, after some hesitation, was accepted, and at the landing-place we were met by the Governor’s nephew, who escorted us to the chiefs house. A crowd of men, women, and children, were collected out of curiosity, the greatest share of which seemed to be directed towards our Indian servants, whose neat, gay, and clean attire, formed a striking contrast to their own rude and slovenly semi-nudity. After passing a short way through mean lanes crowded with huts, we came upon the dwelling of his Excellency the Governor, formed of the same mean and perishable materials as the rest. We were ushered into a large apartment, raised a few feet from the ground, on a platform of split bamboos, which formed the floor. The thatch within was ill concealed by broken and soiled Chinese paper-hangings, and from the roof was suspended a motley collection of old Dutch chandeliers of miserable glass, and Siamese and Chinese lamps, covered with dust, with cobwebs, and with the smoke of oil, incense, and tobacco. The Governor civilly met us at the door, and shook hands with us very heartily in the European fashion. Chairs were placed for our accommodation. This chief was a man about forty-five years of age, of rugged features, but cheerful manners, and he seemed desirous to please. His nephew, who had ushered us in, and his secretary, sat upon a carpet before him. A messenger, who had just arrived from the Court, and who was deputed to conduct us thither, was also present. The name, or rather the title, of this person, with whom the Mission had afterwards a good deal of intercourse, was Luang kochai-asa-hak, formerly Nakhoda Ali. He was one of those Mohammedan adventurers whose ancestors had come several ages ago from the coast of Coromandel. He had visited Queda, Penang, and Calcutta, and spoke the Malayan language tolerably, for which reason it was that he was selected to attend us. In the centre of the apartment we found a table laid out in the European fashion, under the direction of the Portuguese interpreters, with plates, knives, forks, silver spoons, and some tolerable English glass-ware. It was loaded with viands, such as pork, fowls, ducks, egg, and rice, and with abundance of fruit, particularly mangoes, oranges, and lichis, all of which were in season.

A curtain, which was suspended across one end of the apartment, attracted our notice. We were told, to our surprise, that behind it lay in state the body of the late chief of Paknam. This person was brother to the present chief, and the father of the young person who had visited us in the forenoon. This last, indeed, had then informed us that his father had died five months ago; that his body was lying embalmed at Paknam, and that his funeral would take place on the 24th day of the present moon; but we had certainly no idea that we were to be favoured with the presence of the deceased during the repast to which we had been invited. Mr. Finlayson and Mr. Rutherfurd, when they landed the following morning, their curiosity being strongly excited on the subject of the body which was lying in state, ventured to make some inquiry concerning it. Their questions were by no means taken amiss by the son, to whom they were addressed, but considered rather complimentary; and he invited them without ceremony to view the body. It was lying in a coffin, which was covered with tinsel and white cloth, and the lid of which when removed exhibited the corpse wrapped up in a great many folds of cloth, like an Egyptian mummy, apparently quite dry, and covered with such a profusion of aromatics, that there was nothing offensive about it.

The chief alone sat down at table with us, but without partaking of our fare. He was assiduous in pressing us to the good things which were placed before us. My interpreter explained to me, that he requested us to “eat heartily and not be abashed”—a customary form of compliment, it appears, among the Siamese, in addressing a guest. No questions respecting the objects of the Mission were put to us during the entertainment, and I considered the visit as a matter of mere form and etiquette, but in this I was much deceived; for the repast was no sooner over, than question followed question with great vivacity. We were first bluntly asked what was the object of the Mission. We answered in general terms that the English and Siamese nations were neighbours, and that on our part we were desirous that a friendly and frequent intercourse should subsist between us, and that we were deputed to request such an intercourse. This did not satisfy the chief; he urged us over and over to state what particular request or demands we had to make of the Court upon the present occasion. We declined giving him the satisfaction he required; observing, that in proper time and place we should explain ourselves fully. We were next requested to state the quality and amount of the presents brought for the King, and a secretary placed himself behind the chief to take notes of what was said on this subject— one apparently of the first interest. We evaded giving any answer, except in very general terms, but were cross-questioned with dexterity and perseverance. I had noticed that among the presents there were some fire-arms. The chief begged to know their number. I said a few hundreds. He begged me to conjecture some approximation to the actual number. I added, probably three or four hundred. The answer was, “be good enough to say either the one or the other.” I endeavoured to divert the chief’s attention from the detail of muslins, broadcloths, crystal, looking-glasses, and such matters, by calling his attention to an English horse, which was one of the presents. He immediately requested to know his height, his age, his colour, the length of his tail, and finally, what fortunate or unfortunate marks he had about him. We put an end to all this importunity, by informing the Governor, that as soon as we returned to the ship, we would direct a clerk to make out a list of the presents for his satisfaction. This conversation afforded an early, but a good specimen of the indelicacy and rapacity which we afterwards found so characteristic of the Siamese Court and its officers, upon every question of a similar nature.

After the discussion respecting the presents, the chief reminded us of the compliment which his Siamese Majesty had paid the Mission, in so promptly dispatching an accommodation-boat to convey us to Bangkok; and he entreated us to make no difficulty about accepting this gracious mark of royal attention, while he besought us also to comply with the established usage in landing the guns of the ship. We repeated what we had said before, of the total inadequacy of a single boat to accommodate our large party, which consisted of seventy-four persons. With respect to landing the cannon, we stated that a Portuguese man-of-war had, two years before, been permitted to visit the capital, and that a Mission from the British Government had a right to be treated with equal favour. Much pains were taken to convince us, that it would be proper to comply with the wishes of the Court, but we persevered in our objections. With this discussion our visit ended. It was a striking contrast to European usage, that the whole of this demi-official conversation passed in the presence and hearing of a great crowd of the lower orders, who occupied the entire area of the court, opposite to the place where we sat. The people indeed pressed up to the very door of the saloon. The chiefs by no means checked their curiosity, and on their part they listened to what passed with respectful attention.

What we saw in our visit to Paknam, was not calculated to impress us with a very exalted opinion of the progress of the Siamese nation in the arts which conduce to the comforts or reasonable enjoyments of life. The cottage of an English peasant, not on the brink of a workhouse, possesses more real comfort than did the mansion of the Governor of Paknam, who, as we were told, exercised an arbitrary authority over 50,000 people.

March 28 As soon as I had returned to the ship after my visit to Paknam, I addressed a letter to the Prah-klang, recapitulating what I had urged to the chief of that place, on the subject of our conveyance to the capital and the landing of our guns. Yesterday no answer was received, but this morning Ko-chai-asa-hak, who, in the interval, had been at Bangkok, came on board, to inform us that the Court had given us permission to ascend the river with our cannon, or, in case we preferred going in boats supplied by the Court, that a sufficient number would be sent down in a few days. We adopted the plan of going up in the ship, as the most independent, speedy, and commodious; and at ten o’clock we began to ascend the river against the tide, but with a strong breeze in our favour. The river at its mouth and up to Paknam is about a mile wide, but shortly after diminishes to one-half of this width, – a breadth which, with few exceptions, it preserves all the way to Bangkok. Opposite to Paknam there is a sand-bank, bare at low-water, and a few miles beyond it the ruins of a small brick fort, built by the Dutch, about a century and a half ago, when they carried on a trade with Siam. This last, by the encroachment of the river, is now within the stream, and covered at high-water. These two, and they are easily avoided, constitute the only dangers of the Menam, from its mouth to the capital. After passing them, a ship may range from side to side of the river, with from seven to ten fathoms water, approaching so near to the banks that her yards may literally overhang them. At one o’clock we reached a couple of forts, or redoubts, of masonry, – one on each side of the river, – which is here considerably contracted. The neighbourhood is occupied by a colony of the people of Pegue and Lao, refugees from the territory disputed between the Burmans and Siamese. A flag was hoisted from both forts, and we were serenaded by a Peguan band of music as we passed. A well-dressed chief, in the Burman or Pegue costume, came on board here, bringing us two boat loads of fruits and other refreshment.

Close to the river, and at least for twelve miles up, the land appears to be unfit for culture, owing to the saltness of the water, which occasionally overflows it. All this tract is occupied by rhizophoras, and by the cocos-nypa, the leaf of which is so abundantly used by the inhabitants of tropical India as thatch. Beyond this again, and all the way to the capital, the banks of the river are more elevated, and the country as far as we could observe it, presented every where a rich extent of cultivation, consisting of rice-fields, interspersed with numerous villages, surrounded by orchards of palm and fruit-trees. The rice stubble was on the ground, for the crop had been reaped two months before,’ and among it were grazing numerous herds of buffaloes, the only description of cattle which were to be seen. This appearance of fertility and industry formed a pleasing contrast to the waste of rocks, mountains, and impenetrable and unprofitable forests, to which we had been accustomed for the last three months.

At four o’clock we came to an anchor for a couple of hours, waiting for the flood-tide, and took this opportunity to land. The fields afforded a great number of birds of different descriptions, and we were successful in ‘adding several specimens to our colleetion. The natives, wherever we met them, received us with kindness, and betrayed no symptoms of distrust or timidity. As soon as the flood-tide had made, we weighed, and at twelve o’clock at night reached the town of Bangkok.