Eighteen days after departing Melaka, HMS Hopewell arrived at Ayutthaya. The last three days were painfully slow, waiting for the incoming tides to carry the trading square rigger upriver, mooring to kedging posts while the tides ebbed. At the lower Menam there was hardly enough wind to carry the ship upriver, and tacking in close quarters required the effort of the entire crew. Hopewell arrived at the southern gate of the city in the darkness, with an exhausted crew, and dropped anchor mid-stream. It was a mystifying world of strange sounds Richard Burnaby heard as he stood at the rail staring into the night. There was little he could see-the glow of lamps of other ships at anchor, the flickering of fires on shore, and an occasional flare of light that rose up from the city. A signal of some sort, Burnaby surmised. From out of the dark came strange sounds. The tongues of voices from other ships he couldn’t understand. They were shouts of ships’ crews working their anchors, and the call of boatmen paddling their scows and sampans to-and-fro the shore. He could only peer into the darkness, wondering what lay ahead for him in this strange land. It was an enormous responsibility that the East India Company entrusted to him, and he accepted it gladly, but now, as he stood at the railing listening to the unfamiliar sounds, for the first time he began to question his decision. Was he tough enough to challenge the East? Would he not have been better off accepting a post with the trading company with less responsibility? But, with a deep breath he sighed, and realized there was little he could do about it now. He would do his best for the East India Company, and for England. He wished he had that Greek gunner with him.
He slept little that night, awakened now and then by the sound of chain rattling in the hawse as the ship swung on its anchor with the shifting tide. He was wide awake at the first light of dawn, summoned by a frail light that filtered through his open porthole. He arose, and in the darkness below deck, he felt his way along the corridor to the ladder that led topside. He stepped on deck, nodded to the marine on watch, took out his pipe and found a place to sit on a forward hatch. The river was still at this hour with a mist rising up from the water. The shimmers of red sky in the east gave hint that dawn was approaching. He looked out upon the scene as one might upon a giant mosaic, and he had yet to comprehend where all the pieces might fit. As night turned to day, forms began to slowly take shape. Far down river, ships in line pulled at their anchors, a continuum of ships that faded away into a blur in the mist. There seemed to be no end to the vessels at anchor, stretching for what appeared to be several miles. Ships from more nations than he could count-Chinese junks with their high sterns, Makassar schooners from the Dutch East Indies, Arab dhows from the African coast, square riggers from the West, lighters and barges, skiffs and prows-they all came to engage in the business of trade.
Baffled by the magnitude of what lay down river, Burnaby turned to face the other direction, toward the town, and a sight even more startling befell him. Like a picture in a book of children’s fairytales, Ayutthaya loomed up before him, the kingdom of the East he had heard so much about but which few Westerners had ever visited. Was he feasting upon an allusion? Were his eyes deceiving him? Perhaps, after all, the Greek gunner was right. This was a city even mightier than Genoa and Venice. Only a cable or two from where Hopewell was anchored, edging its way to the river was a massive brick wall, crumbling in places, under repair in others. Even at this early morning hour, work on the wall had begun. An army of laborers, bent under the weight of heavy wicker baskets of bricks, carried their loads to hoists that lifted the bricks up the wall to where masons worked cementing them into place. Elephants in the dozens rolled heavy logs along the embankment, logs that formed the foundation for the scaffolding.
Above and behind the wall, in towering masses of masonry, rose the magnificent kingdom of the East called Ayutthaya, As he sat there, mesmerized by the dazzling beauty of the scene before him, the sun slowly began to appear from over the tops of trees in the distance, and as it did it cast a red glow upon an assortment of domes and spires, of temples and stupas, and of palaces with many tiered, upturned roofs, all festooned with Nagas at the eaves, each pointing skyward. Freckled patches of gold on the temples sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight. The sight was overpowering.
The great Menam flowed along the southern wall of the city, and here flat bottom scows and barges were run high up on the bank of the river, unloading their cargoes carried ashore from ships at anchor. Burnaby watched a longboat manned by a dozen rowers emerge from the frenzy and make a straight course for his ship. He watched it come through the mist, closer and closer, until it was alongside. Mooring lines were cast and the rowers shipped their oars smartly into an upright position. By their action Burnaby knew instantly the crew had been western trained. And indeed they were, for on a raised platform amidships stood a white man, his arms akimbo, his legs apart. He was garbed in tropical white, the mark of Europeans, and tucked under his arm was a tropical pith helmet. He shouted instructions to his small crew, and they responded with speed and certainty.
”Ahoy,” he called out to the marine sentry at the top of the ladder when his vessel was securely moored. The voice was English. “Ahoy,” he called again. The marine acknowledged and informed the man he could come aboard. Burnaby came aft to greet him. He knew at once who he was.
“Mr. White I assume,” he said, and stretched out his hand. He was right.
“George White, at your service,” the man replied.
George White it was, middle aged, tall and wide shouldered, and burned brown by years of tropical sun. He was tough and weathered, that was certain. He shook Burnaby’s hand. The grip was firm. Burnaby could study him better now once he was aboard. His hair was graying at the temples and he sported a huge handlebar moustache that cascaded over his upper lip. A crimson scar on his left cheek told that he was no slacker. His voice commanded respect and authority. Without asking Burnaby, he barked out orders to his Hindu sepoys who had followed him aboard, for them to go below deck and fetch Burnaby’s gear. “They can go by canal boat to your quarters,” he addressed Burnaby, “but we can walk, and you can see some of our city.” He called it “our” city. How unusual for a foreigner, Burnaby thought, but before he could say a further word, they were aboard the longboat headed towards shore.
Two turbaned Sikh footmen, each with a truncheon in hand, sabers at their sides, awaited them when they stepped ashore. They were stern men, unsmiling. No words were passed, and none was needed; they knew their duties. White explained they were in the employ of the East India Company, and had been assigned to be Burnaby’s security. The Sikhs led the way, waving their sticks, clearing a path for the two white men to follow.
They passed through the huge gate constructed of heavy timbers, crossed with beams, and studded with bolts and entered another world. Within the confines of the wall there were more waterways, a labyrinth of canals, which White called klongs. Upon these klongs were more vessels congested together: sampans, barges, scows, even bundles of bamboo that served as crude rafts used for transporting people and goods. There was hardly room through the center of the klongs for watercraft to move, but somehow they managed, aided by shouts and warnings. Some boats were rowed, oddly enough by a man or woman standing upright, deftly crossing the handle of one oar over the other. Some were paddled, and still others sculled by single oars aft. They came upon more boats, long and slender, beautifully carved and gilded in gold, their crews in wonderful bright uniforms, standing by. “They are at the beckon of the king,” White said.
White knew the city well. ”Ayutthaya is divided into quarters and each quarter by wide boulevards,” he explained like a teacher talking to his student. “The king’s quarters, of course, are the finest, but taboo for the likes of us.” White pointed them out as they passed. Through a wide gate flanked by guards clutching long javelins in each hand they could see beyond the opening great squares and tree-shaded walks, with the grand houses farther back where the nobility lived. Everywhere were sparkling pagodas with pointed roofs.
They came upon a huge, splendid temple, which White said was the Royal Wat. “We should take a quick look inside,” he said and led Burnaby up the steps to the entrance. While the Sikhs waited outside, they entered and once inside Burnaby could do little else but stand in awe before a statue of a magnificent golden Buddha. He judged the statue to be more than thirty-five feet high. It was molded in gold-pure gold, White said-and surrounded by many lesser golden idols inlaid with precious stones. “Everything in the bloody temple is of gold,” White announced. “See, the vases, the candlesticks, everything. The gold, where do they get all the gold? I’ll tell yah’. It’s given to the king, presented to him, as tribute from the rulers of Cambodia, Laos, Annan and other neighboring countries. When you’ve got might in the East you’ve got wealth. Simple as that. Wait till you see the king’s war elephants, thousands of the critters, and then you’ll understand.”