GUNSHIPS ON THE MENAM
The French fleet arrived in force at the mouth of River Menam, after nearly seven months, on 27 September 1687. There were two men-of-war and four support vessels, with their crews and officers and soldiers. The expedition was under the command of General Des Farges, Marshal of France. After a day of not hearing from Father Tachard and growing impatient, General Des Farges moved their anchorage to Pak Nam.
Upon notice of the fleet’s arrival, Bishop Laneau hurried to Pak Nam and boarded General Des Farges’ command vessel to make his report to the French embassy. It was not favorable for Phaulkon, the Foreign Minister of Siam. The bishop stated that Phaulkon had been most difficult and did not carry out the instructions from Chaumont to teach the King of Siam the Catholic faith. He lied further saying that de Forbin, after defeating the rebellious Makassars, had to leave Siam for the Coromandel Coast as Phaulkon had become too overbearing toward him. He also told General Des Farges that de Forbin and the other officers were upset with Phaulkon for disobeying the rules of the clergy by reading the Bible and making his own interpretations. The French Embassy, gathered in the captain’s cabin, listened closely to what Bishop Laneau had to report and were not pleased with what they heard.
The Siamese ambassadors, their staff and servants disembarked immediately and waited in Pak Nam for King Narai to send for them. The French were not permitted ashore. For two days they waited and still the Siamese did not come to welcome them. Father Tachard finally returned and made his report to General Des Farges. “The Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Siam, Monsieur Constantine Phaulkon, awaits the French envoys to pay homage to the Siamese Monarch,” Father Tachard said.
“And what does ‘pay homage’ mean to these foreign heathens?” General Des Farges asked. “That we bow down and crawl on the floor?” The officers who stood by found their commander’s comment amusing and all laughed.
“Good sir,” Father Tachard, who did not think it was humorous, began, “it means that French troops in Siam have to pledge allegiance to the Foreign Minister and the king.”
“And by Foreign Minister do you mean this Greek sailor?” La Loubere interrupted in his haughty manner, the veins on his forehead turning crimson red. “Impossible!” he ranted. “Perhaps to the king but never to that maniac who calls himself Foreign Minister.”
General Des Farges agreed, and with both envoys, La Loubere and du Boullay concurring, the general sent Father Tachard back to Phaulkon with their message.
Upon his return to Ayutthaya, Tachard went straight to see Phaulkon and informed him of what had transpired, that the French envoy agreed to pay homage to the king but not to him.
“That’s acceptable,” Phaulkon said. “I didn’t expect them to agree. But what I don’t understand is the change in heart of Bishop Laneau. He was not this way in the beginning. He knew himself that any conversion had to take time. Now why this change?”
“Pressure from France,” Father Tachard said. “Remember, he came here as a missionary and later he was consecrated as the titular Bishop of Metellopolis and appointed the first Vicar Apostolic of Siam. He expected to be treated with respect, although he never demanded it, and then came Chaumont. Chaumont didn’t listen to him and treated him as an interpreter and nothing more. It seems that now Bishop Laneau wants a voice. He wants to be heard and, unfortunately, my dear friend Phaulkon, it is at your expense. Now, draft up your treaty and let me take it back to them.”
Phaulkon drafted the treaty and showed it to King Narai who accepted and signed it. But the French, upon receiving it, refused at first to accept it. It stated that French troops in Siam would fall under the auspices of the king, that they must obey all orders given by him, that plans and specifications for the construction of fortresses must be approved by him, the king, and that all rewards, promotions and punishments cannot be granted or afflicted upon any officer or soldier without prior approval by the Foreign Minister-and here was the rub, Constantine Phaulkon was the Foreign Minister.
Phaulkon called for the document to be secret, hoping this would appease the French, and for Father Tachard to be its witness.
“This is wholly unacceptable! This madman wants absolute power over the entire French establishment!” shouted an angry La Loubere, and turning to Father Tachard, he said sarcastically, “And what do you say, ‘witness’ Tachard?”
Before Tachard could answer, the French delegates and officers began arguing among themselves over the terms. They finally concluded that they had three choices. They could return to France without accomplishing anything; they could land troops and take over the country; or they could accept Phaulkon’s treaty.
Not one of them wanted to return to France empty-handed and disgraced. Regarding the armed takeover, the decision rested upon General Des Farges. When faced with the difficult option, he answered that although his troops were prepared to die for the glory of France, the long voyage had been hard and tortuous for them. He had lost more than a hundred soldiers and had to bury them at sea, an event that was demoralizing for the rest of his troops. Now they were weary and many were ill with tropical fever. They were in no condition to fight and hold the fort at Bangkok. They needed time to rest and regain their health and strength. The delegation had no choice but to accept Phaulkon’s treaty. Father Tachard sent news back to Phaulkon and King Narai that the French had accepted the terms of the treaty.
The French soon forgot their woes when they began their voyage upriver to the fortress at Bangkok, escorted by hundreds upon hundreds of finely carved royal barges and longboats, with banners flying and drums rolling, and paddled by hundreds of men in splendid dress. It was a welcome that would dazzle and impress any arriving foreign delegation.
The first stop was the fortress at Bangkok down river from Ayutthaya. Father Tachard, leading the French delegation, stepped ashore and formally introduced everyone to Phaulkon, his military officers and court ministers, all dressed in the attire of the Royal Court. Phaulkon regretted that King Narai was ill but as soon as he recovered sufficiently he would greet the French delegation with honor and the respect due them. Before they could proceed further, Phaulkon had the French proclaim an oath of allegiance to the king. There followed more parades and processions, bands and musicians, and cannon salutes. Phaulkon and Prince Sorasak, the prince behaving well, led the procession. Each was mounted on a beautifully decorated elephant, with tusks so long they touched the ground as they wobbled along. Portuguese and Siamese soldiers in full uniform lined the streets and saluted the French envoy as it passed. Phaulkon and Sorasak stopped at selected stations along the route to post French soldiers with their officers. Phaulkon made public announcements that the French troops were there in the service of both kings, King Narai and King Louis XIV, and they were to be treated with honor and respect.
At the end of the day the envoys were taken to their quarters which Phaulkon himself had designed according to European standards but with touches of Siamese elegance and beauty. The envoys were impressed.