HOW MUCH DOES THAT CANNON WEIGH?
Early one morning the king called for a meeting in the Assembly Hall for his ministers and court officials. Phaulkon, having recovered from his ordeal from the hunt, was ordered to be there too. He surmised King Narai wanted to discuss the envoy to France. He was certain this was what was on the king’s mind. Phaulkon was in a jovial mood when he left his house, but once he stepped into the hall all that changed. General Phetracha was in one of his rages and he was pouring his wrath upon Phaulkon. Phaulkon quietly took up a position on the floor to one side of the king. Phetracha continued his harangue as though Phaulkon was not there. The general complained vehemently to the king and to the assembly that Phaulkon was dividing the kingdom among his friends, that Richard Burnaby and George White had their sights on Ayutthaya, while George’s brother Samuel was taking over Mergui.
The king listened solemnly, neither looking up nor down, and when all was said he then spoke up. He said in a stern voice, “Tell me, who held the important positions in Mergui before the English were appointed? Tell me. Who was it?
“The Muslims,” one official answered.
“You are right, so right,” the king replied. “And did any of you complain when the Muslims were running Mergui? Not one of you did. So what is your complaint now, that an Englishman is running it, an Englishman who brings us trade and profit through his connections?”
They all went silent.
The king then reminded everyone to remember that General Phetracha refused the position of the Barcalon because he admitted he did not know how to deal with foreigners in matters of trade. “Why do you think I cater to the French, or listen to their missionaries talk about their religion? Why do you think I use Phaulkon to play the French against the English? Who here has more experience than Phaulkon?” No one answered. He continued. “If you can find anyone better suited, present him to me and I shall appoint him.” He let his words settle in, and then, after a long pause, he said, “Let me prove my point. Perhaps even your king might be wrong.” He requested that everyone there come to the assembly hall the next morning.
What possibly could the king have in mind? That’s what each and everyone in the hall thought? The next morning would tell.
When all his officials were gathered the next morning, the king announced he would show them how clever Phaulkon, his chief administrator, really was. He knew that he was taking a gamble but he had confidence in Phaulkon. He told Phaulkon to wait in an outer chamber and then informed the assembly that he would like to know the weight of the heavy Phra Phirua cannon out in the courtyard. He asked that they go out and weigh the cannon and let him know how heavy it was. It was early morning and they had until mid-afternoon to come up with the answer. The officials left the hall, mumbling among themselves, and gathered around the cannon. They consulted one another as to how they might weigh the heavy gun. It had taken two strong elephants and twenty men to put it into place. After much discussion they had an iron chain brought in, but then they realized it would be of no use. There was not a scale in the entire kingdom large enough to weigh the cannon.
Frustrated, they returned to the audience hall, prostrated themselves before His Majesty and confessed that they were unable to carry out his command. The king smiled and ordered Phaulkon to come in to the Assembly Hall. The king explained, while everyone listened, that he would like him to weigh the Phra Phirun cannon in the courtyard.
“I will do as you ask, Your Majesty,” Phaulkon said and went out into the courtyard, with the entire court close at his heels. The hall was emptied and the king sat in silence, alone, and waited.
Phaulkon looked at the cannon, walked around it several times, studying it carefully. Bystanders had now gathered in the courtyard. When Phaulkon sat down for a moment, staring at the big gun, the court officials beamed with satisfaction. The King’s Favorite could not determine the weight either.
Phaulkon suddenly jumped to his feet and began giving orders to the sailors whose duty it was to guard the gun. He informed them that only a short while before, on his way to the hall, he had seen workers repairing the city wall. They had constructed a huge crane enabling them to lift heavy boulders to the top of the wall. Phaulkon wanted one of the cranes to be brought to the cannon site immediately. Working swiftly and without delay, in an hour’s time, they had a crane sited over the cannon. In the meantime, Phaulkon was not idle. He ordered workers to bring half a dozen bullock carts loaded with large stones to the site. Next he told the sailors that he wanted a barge tied up alongside the dock. The ministers mumbled to one another, still uncertain where he would find a scale large enough to weigh the cannon. Phaulkon paid no attention to them, nor to anyone else, and concentrated on the sailors who were now working as he ordered.
Once the crane was in place and the barge moored securely alongside the dock, Phaulkon gave the orders to hoist up the cannon with its series of blocks and tackles and then lower it into the barge. Everyone stood aghast. He was going to sink the cannon. But that did not happen. Slowly the crane operator lowered the cannon into the barge. Deeper and deeper the vessel sank into the river. The water had almost reached to the top of the gunnels when the cannon was fully loaded and the barge sank no farther.
That accomplished, what was next? A mob of impatient onlookers had gathered and lined the entire waterfront. They anxiously awaited for the white man’s next move. They gibed and joked among themselves but not one in the vast gathering there that afternoon ventured to guess what this crazy foreigner intended to do next. Phaulkon took his time, keeping everyone in suspense.
With the barge loaded with the cannon, Phaulkon had the sailors mark the water line along the hull at which the loaded barge lay in the water. He then gave orders to remove the cannon and place it back on the dock. What had he proved, everyone thought, other than the barge could carry the weight of the heavy cannon. They were baffled next when workers arrived with the bullock carts loaded with stones. Phaulkon then had the sailors load the stones into the barge, not stopping until the barge sank to the line they had marked. Satisfied, Phaulkon ordered that the stones be removed, and that each one be weighed. The total weight was tallied up and the weight of the cannon was thus determined. Phaulkon returned to the hall, prostrated himself before the king and informed His Majesty the weight of the cannon.
The king was most pleased with the results, for even he had wondered if Phaulkon could accomplish the task given him. He then praised Phaulkon highly in the presence of everyone gathered in the hall. Turning to the court officials, he remarked that they could now see for themselves that the man he chose to be the kingdom’s trade minister was well qualified for that position and that was why he had given him the highest post in the kingdom.
The king further explained to his court that there was no need for envy, that Phaulkon was serving him and the kingdom faithfully and if anyone could prove to be better qualified than Phaulkon, then he would gladly give to that person Phaulkon’s position. He announced in the presence of Phaulkon that even though he had grown attached to Phaulkon, he would rather have a Siamese in Phaulkon’s position as it would please everybody but it had not happened.
That night after Phaulkon weighed the cannon, and was very pleased with the results, he had another great surprise waiting for him. When he returned home he found Marie had arranged a small dinner party and had invited a dozen of their close friends. She was especially jovial and no one quite knew what the special affair was all about. When the candles were lighted and the wine poured, Marie made the happy announcement. “I am with child,” she said. As the months passed and time went by, the king continued to believe and accept whatever His Favorite had to say and advise. And thus, Phaulkon became, next to the king, the most powerful man in the kingdom. He was now at the zenith of his power. He was accepted by the king’s ministers and the court, and while they accepted him at the same time they feared him. Along with their fear came a mistrust. Phaulkon was aware of this, but he firmly believed in himself Where others had failed he would succeed. He wanted desperately to prove to the court and to the Siamese people that they need not worry about him. All he had to do was to figure out a way to do this. Easily said, but not so easily done.