THE FRENCH ARE COMING,
THE FRENCH ARE COMING
When word reached Ayutthaya of the arrival of the French Embassy down river at Pak Nam, King Narai entrusted Phaulkon with the responsibility of welcoming the Embassy and instructed him to make the necessary preparations for their journey upriver to Ayutthaya. He wanted it to be the most grand welcoming that the Kingdom had ever known.
Phaulkon sent a fleet of elegant Royal Barges to carry the French Embassy upriver to Ayutthaya. The vessels were magnificent and dazzled the French with their tall bows carved in the shapes of mythical animals and winged birds. At Pak Nam the ambassador presented a royal letter from King Louis XIV to the welcoming committee. The Siamese officials accepted the letter with great pomp and ceremony, accompanied by the flourishing of a thousand trumpets and the roar of a thousand drums. A special royal barge was summoned and the letter was placed aboard under a golden canopy. The French officials were dismayed and somewhat taken back. Attention now focused on the letter rather than on them.
The procession upriver began. Along the entire length of the river, on both banks, temples with the multi-tiered roofs and Nagas reaching for the sky glistened in the background; houses were gaily decorated and festooned with colorful banners; trees were adorned with tiny tinsels that caught the rays of the sun, like a billion stars. Brightly plumaged birds fluttered about the branches and playful monkeys swung from branch to branch. The French were awed by the grandness of it all.
The procession grew in size and magnificence as more barges joined the procession along the route. The air was filled with thousands of flutes and the roll of drumbeats. The closer they approached to the capital, the more magnificently dressed were the nobles and envoys sent by the king to greet them at every landing. Flowers, fruit and gifts were brought on board at each stop until there was no more room aboard. The opulence and wealth and the display of abundance was overwhelming. To the eyes of the visitors aboard the flotilla of barges coming upriver Siam was the grandest country in the world.
Accommodation for the dignitaries had been erected at riverside landings every fifteen kilometers, the distance the barge-rowers could cover in one day. Some 20,000 people worked to beautify each of the stations. There were three stations and three stops.
The last landing, a kilometer before Ayutthaya, was at Wat Prote Saht. It was the most elaborate of all the stations. Beautiful Persian and Chinese carpets covered the floors and walkways while silks and brocades hung upon the walls, and everywhere there were wonderful painted silk screens and paper lanterns from Japan. The beds where the guests were to sleep resembled large low tables with intricately carved legs and were covered with luxurious silk cushions. Here, at Wat Prote Saht, Constantine Phaulkon, Luang Wijawendra, Superintendent of Foreign Trade, greeted the arriving guests. He was dressed in fine silk and robes glazed with precious stones that caught the afternoon sunlight and dazzled the eyes of the on-lookers. Upon seeing Phaulkon dressed in his finery. Abbe de Choisy was impressed, exuberantly so, and broke from the others and rushed forth and embraced him shamelessly, like a lover meeting an old friend. He began, admiringly, feeling Phaulkon’s fine garments and his voice gushed with exhilarations. Phaulkon was a bit embarrassed and, sensing this, Abbe de Choisy became even more attentive and once again embraced him with both arms, kissing him again and again on each cheek.
Phaulkon smiled with relief when the letter was brought ashore. Ambassador Chaumont, remembering what happened at Pak Nam, instructed Abbe de Choisy to stand next to him with the letter on the tray so when the officials paid respect to the letter it would be as though they were paying respect to him. Afterwards, the letter was placed in the ambassador’s own apartment, in a golden vase covered with rich brocaded cloth.
Phaulkon dined and entertained the embassy officials lavishly at a vast hall set up for the occasion. A thousand servants, moving about on hands and knees, careful not to rise above any guest, served the food. Their meal was a grand feast as only a king can offer. Golden utensils carried food and drink. Phaulkon provided them the best of European dishes, together with French and Italian wines. Abbe de Choisy, in his flamboyant manner, applauded the meal and excellent wine, but he complained, “All that rice and no bread.”
The next morning before the guests departed for the palace, Phaulkon and the embassy officials met in a private conference. Chaumont praised Phaulkon, telling him his fame had reached all parts of Europe, that he was famous for his integrity and zeal for the advancement of Christianity. Phaulkon said nothing. Seeing that Phaulkon was not impressed, Chaumont came straight to the point. “I must tell you,” he said bluntly, “that the object of this Embassy is to convert King Narai to Catholicism and, for this cause, your assistance and cooperation in persuading the king to accept the Catholic faith is expected.” Phaulkon stared at him in disbelief. He could not believe what he was hearing. Chaumont was not requesting him to cooperate but he was ordering him to cooperate. Chaumont continued with lavish praise. “You look worried, Monsieur Phaulkon, but you need not worry. The royal letter we bring clearly states what King Louis requires from Siam.” To Phaulkon it sounded more like a demand than a desire.
Chaumont continued: “If we succeed, if you succeed, after the conversion of King Narai, you can return with us to Paris, and I shall recommend to His Majesty, King Louis of Prance, to bestow upon you the Knighthood of the Order of St. Michel.”
Those officials who were there and heard the ambassador’s offer to Phaulkon sighed in one loud voice-the Knighthood of the Order of St. Michel. There could be no higher honor.
If Phaulkon was ever an actor, it was now that he had to give his finest performance. He was, of course, disturbed to hear what Chaumont had just said but, being the diplomat that he was, he knew how to play his part well. He had to be careful not to say anything to offend or discourage the French Embassy. A wrong word from him and French-Siamese relations could end right then and there. He would like to have told the truth, that King Narai was interested in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, as he was in Muslim and Hindu doctrines, but he never considered conversion into another faith from his own Buddhism. But Phaulkon was very much aware of the importance of French presence on Siamese soil. “Your Most Excellency,” he began, “this is a great and most noble honor being offered to me and I promise to do everything in my power to help you succeed in your mission.”
Chaumont was very pleased and thanked him, but when he showed Phaulkon the contents of the text of his speech he was planning to make to the king, Phaulkon cringed. The speech was not about trade and friendship between two nations; it was mostly about King Narai accepting the Catholic faith for both him and his kingdom. This wouldn’t do. He had to act quickly. “The king is inclined to Catholicism,” he began slowly, annunciating each word, “but he is surrounded by powerful and influential court officials and ministers who are devout Buddhists, and are, in fact, hostile to the Christian faith. In spite of King Narai’s sincere support to the cause of Christianity, but due to the existing atmosphere in the country, I suggest we proceed cautiously and slowly. It could be dangerous and even life threatening to the king if we do not.”
Chaumont looked at Phaulkon with scorn, like a parent looks upon a disobedient child. Phaulkon found himself facing an angry and peremptory refusal by the ambassador to listen to reason. As a last resort, Phaulkon turned to Bishop Laneau who was standing in the background. In 1673 Father Laneau was consecrated titular Bishop of Metellopolis and appointed the first Vicar Apostolic of Siam. He was a quiet, unpretentious Jesuit teacher who had arrived in Siam with the first missionaries and after more than twenty years he knew the customs and traditions of the Siamese people better than most foreigners. When Phaulkon asked him for his advice, he expressed his opinion that the time was not yet ripe for King Narai’s conversion. He further stated that he was astonished to hear that such an important subject as the king’s conversion had been considered as so simple a matter to the French Embassy.
“I will hear none of this.” Ambassador Chaumont stuttered. “I am here as the appointed ambassador of the King of France and I am to do as I have been instructed.”
Phaulkon realized what the consequences would be if he let the French have their way. He quickly proposed to Chaumont that he be the king’s interpreter, since he was close to the king. Bishop Laneau would interpret from his French into English, and he, Phaulkon, would translate English into royal Siamese for the king. “Thus you can be assured that your message will go forth as you intend it to,” Phaulkon said. Chaumont agreed but he was still not satisfied.
“I have heard about this Eastern protocol,” he said, “and as the representative of King Louis of France, it is beneath my dignity to crawl before any man, king or not.”
Phaulkon was in a dilemma, but he assured Chaumont that he would have protocol modified so he did not have to kneel and prostrate himself before the king, and that he would be allowed to pay his respects to King Narai the European way. He explained he would instruct him what to do when the time arrived. What he didn’t tell him was that he had no idea how he would accomplish this. In Siam it was the absolute and unequivocal honored rule that everyone get down on their knees, with their foreheads touching the ground, when presented to the king.