CONVERSATIONS WITH A MANDARIN
The Barcalon seated in his regal surroundings welcomed William Strangh and his assistants to his chambers. Strangh was taken by surprise. He had not expected that he had to sit upon the floor and look up at the Barcalon seated upon a dragon-carved bench covered with animal skins. Nor did he expect his host to be clad in a sarong, without shirt and only a brocaded vest covering his upper torso. And, of course, proper Englishman that he was, he didn’t like the tea that was offered to him. He preferred tea served in a cup rather than shallow bowl. Nevertheless it was business he had to attend to and he would let protocol stand to one side.
It was an awkward few minutes. No one spoke. Finally, wondering if the Barcalon spoke English, Strangh said. “You speakie English?”
After a moment’s hesitation, the Barcalon spoke up, saying, “Speakie little little. You come welcome my house.” He excused himself, explaining his English was not good, and through broken words asked if Strangh and his friends minded if an advisor joined them. “Him speakie good English,” the Barcalon added.
Strangh said he didn’t mind and, in fact, he welcomed another person, another voice. The Barcalon nodded the acknowledgement and explained that the advisor would be along “quick, quick.” In the meantime, while awaiting the advisor’s arrival, they attempted, in fractured English, to communicate in a child-like conversation that amused the Barcalon immensely. Pointing to Strangh’s nose, the Barcalon proudly said, “nose,” and then to his ear, he said “ear,” and then laughed heartily, rubbing his protruding belly at the same time. It was absurd and Strangh was rapidly losing his patience. But presently a servant announced that someone had arrived. At last, an interpreter, Strangh thought. No more stupid language lessons. He and his assistants turned their attention toward the door and, when they did, Strangh’s mouth dropped wide open in disbelief. Entering the room, dressed in his Siamese robe, was Phaulkon. Strangh was aghast. The Barcalon stood up, which he hadn’t done for Strangh and his men, and, to Strangh’s chagrin, he introduced Phaulkon not by his name but by his tide, Luang Wijawendra, Superintendent of Foreign Trade. When Phaulkon was comfortably settled, he announced that he would translate for the Barcalon.
Strangh could not control his dissatisfaction. “How do l know what you are saying is correct?” he questioned.
“I guess you don’t,” Phaulkon said.
Nevertheless, Strangh stood his ground. He complained vehemently, through Phaulkon to the Barcalon, about Phaulkon, about his abuses and about his improper trade practices. Phaulkon had to admire him for his tenacity. Phaulkon translated into Tai, word for word, exactly as Strangh spoke his lines. The Barcalon feigned to listen but he couldn’t stop yawning. It was embarrassing for everyone there, everyone except the Barcalon. He was finding it amusing and didn’t realize how bored he looked to the others. Phaulkon finally said they were wasting enough of the Barcalon’s time and, if there was anything more Strangh wanted to say, he could register his complaints at his office.
Suddenly Strangh spoke out. “Tell the Barcalon that I must see the king,” he demanded. Phaulkon told the Barcalon what he had said.
“Yes, yes, the king,” the Barcalon replied. “You come bye-bye ‘gain, see king.” He then thanked Phaulkon and everyone for coming and dismissed the meeting. He threw himself on the couch and was preparing to sleep when the door closed.
Although Phaulkon won the round, Strangh did not admit defeat. He insisted upon talking to the king in person, with or without the Barcalon’s help. He went so far as to travel to Louvo in an attempt to reach the king at his summer palace but he could not even get past the gate. It was a futile attempt and finally in total despair he had to give up. He placed blame on the system. “This would not happen in England,” he declared.
Strangh came to the realization that he was wasting his time. The humiliation was more than he could bear and, as he put it, he wanted to be free from “these pagans.” He said to everyone he had to move on to better things. He turned his attention to his cargo-valuable English fabrics, once very much sought after in Asia. He was compelled to sell the cloth before he could return to England, as he was counting on the proceeds to finance his voyage home. But he could not find buyers. The merchants had heard of his demands upon the king and of his troubles with Phaulkon, and they refrained from doing business with him regardless of whatever bargain he offered. He became even more frustrated.
Phaulkon confessed to Thamnon one afternoon when they were strolling in his teacher’s garden that he did not mean to be abusive or unreasonable. He just didn’t like the East India Company making demands on Siam, telling the kingdom with whom it could and could not trade. He especially disliked Strangh showing disrespect to the crown. Phaulkon said someone had to teach the Englishman the Eastern meaning of respect. “It’s not only Strangh,” Phaulkon said, “but I fear it’s others too, the very people who helped me reach the position I now have. I am grateful for what they have done but I do not like it when they take advantage of my position.”
“Your problem is nothing new,” Thamnon said. “It’s the case of the student becoming better than his teacher; the son who outshines his father who had taught him. Life is this way.”
“You may be right,” Phaulkon replied, “but it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“You feel remorse and that is good,” Thamnon said, “but perhaps that is not enough.” He suggested that Phaulkon make amends with Strangh. His advice did not please Phaulkon. Phaulkon laughed to himself-the student who knows better than his teacher. Thamnon was a master of didactic reasoning but he did not understand the ways of Europeans. Some things Phaulkon had to conclude himself.
Still, Phaulkon attempted to heed his teacher’s suggestion. When he learned of Strangh’s difficulties unloading his cargo, he sent a message to him and gave him advice as to what to do, hoping Strangh would realize that he was not an enemy. He called for Strangh to come to his office. When Strangh did, he informed him he could store his cargo of British fabrics-that no merchant wanted to buy-in his own warehouse, at no cost to him. “You can do this until ships with cargoes of copper arrive from Japan. You can then exchange doth for copper. Your cloth has a market in Japan.” Strangh looked at him with amusement. Phaulkon continued. “Meanwhile, while waiting for the ships with copper to arrive, you can purchase goods on the open market, carry them to India and sell them there, thus not wasting your time.”
“You cannot be serious,” Strangh said. “What do you take me for? I must remind you, I am not a common merchant. I am here on behalf of my government, as an agent, not a clerk.”
Phaulkon had momentarily forgotten that Strangh was an arrogant snob. The Englishman wanted to do things his way or not at all. Then what astounded Phaulkon most was what Strangh had to say next.
“You have your warehouse filled with copper,” he said; “then if you are such a clever businessman, why don’t you trade with me now, doth for copper?”
“That I cannot do,” Phaulkon said. “I have promised the interlopers I would trade the copper with them.”
Strangh lost his temper. “Interlopers, interlopers,” he stormed. “I object to Siam trading with interlopers over the East India Company.”
Phaulkon quickly reminded him that interlopers are Englishmen too, engaged in free trade. Both interlopers and East India Company represent England. Phaulkon calmly explained the reason he gave interlopers preference. “They have respect for the authority in Siam,” he said. ‘Tm sure that you, or anyone else for that matter, would feel the same way, if you were in my position.”
Strangh was not a man to reason with, which Phaulkon had concluded long before this. In a final fit of anger Strangh announced that he was going to have the English factories in Siam dosed down. He expected Phaulkon to reconsider but, this time, the Greek did not. “The decision is yours,” Phaulkon said in rebuttal.
The East India Company ship Delight arrived in Ayutthaya en route to China. Aboard were two agents for the company, Peter Crouch and John Thomas. When they heard the stories about Strangh’s mistreatment and his decision to have the factories dosed, they were very sympathetic with him. Aboard Delight was a shipment of nails bound for China. Nails were a priceless commodity in the East, and when King Narai got wind of the shipment, he wanted some of the cargo for his construction sites. Phaulkon requested Crouch and Thomas to supply the Siamese Government with a portion of the nails. Because of their bitterness towards Phaulkon, they refused and used the excuse that their cargo was prepaid by merchants in China. Phaulkon sent a messenger the next day to remind them that the request for the nails came from the King of Siam himself, and they were in Siamese waters. The Englishmen still refused. For defying the King’s orders, Phaulkon had no alternative but to have them arrested and put in prison until they supplied the nails. Incarcerated, they still refused. After no food for several days, they gave in. Their treatment was a shock to the English community but, distasteful as it might have been, Phaulkon knew that such action was necessary. He had to prove that the king did not show favoritism.
William Strangh sailed away aboard Delight with his cargo to China, hoping the Chinese merchants would be impressed with the goods. Before he departed the Kingdom of Siam he sent a letter of protest to England, and delivered a copy, presented by him in person, to the Barcalon. The letter accused Phaulkon of being responsible for the fire at the warehouse, for his abusive conduct and threatening behavior to foreigners, for his imprisoning of innocent people, and that he, Phaulkon, was liable to answer to the King of England for all the damages and ill feelings he had caused.
Strangh was shocked when he handed the letter to the Barcalon and he began reading it. “I am surprised,” Strangh said, “that you can read English.”
The Barcalon got up from his dragon-carved bench, the one draped with animal skins, and did what he seldom did. He walked Strangh to the door.
“Yes, of course,” he replied in precise English, pointing first to Strangh’s nose and then to his ear. “Remember what I said, this was my nose and that was my ear.” He twitched Strangh’s ear. “You make an excellent teacher.” Then, as Strangh, completely speechless, was stepping out the door, the Barcalon added, “You must hurry. You don’t want to be late and miss your ship. That would be a tragedy, causing you to remain longer in the kingdom than you wish. Oh, I forgot. You can always teach. You are such a good teacher.” He then twitched his own ear and bid Strangh bye-bye.
Burnaby arrived from Mergui as soon as he heard rumors that Phaulkon was out of control. The King’s Favorite, some said, was losing his mind, putting Englishmen in prison. He went promptly to see Phaulkon and told him that his hatred for the East India Company was getting out of hand. Phaulkon corrected him, saying his hatred was not against the East India Company but against those who showed disrespect for the King. It didn’t matter, he exclaimed, who the culprit might be- Strangh, interlopers, Chinese, Portuguese, Arabs, all would be reprimanded the same way. “If I let them get away with it,” he said, “the Siamese would think I am partial. My position does not allow me to be partial.”
When Strangh finally returned to England, months later, he had the Head Office of the East India Company write to all English in Siam advising them to leave the country. None of them left. They chose to remain and work with Phaulkon.