POETS NOT SCIENTISTS
King Narai agreed to a last-minute audience with the departing French embassy. But first, he summoned Phaulkon to his chambers to show the gift he was sending with the returning embassy to King Louis. It was a beautiful golden Buddha, and so heavy Phaulkon could hardly lift it. The king asked that Phaulkon present the Buddha to the French ambassador and to do it with utmost respect. Phaulkon explained to the king that it might be contrary to King Louis’ faith to accept such an image. King Narai objected and, pointing across the room to a golden image of the Virgin Mary standing upon an engraved table that was especially crafted for it, he said he did not find it offensive to receive such a gift from King Louis. ”After all,” he said, “the Catholics and Buddhists are much alike as they both collect idols and images.”
When Phaulkon told La Loubere about the gift, La Loubere announced he could not accept such a pagan idol. But when Phaulkon informed him it was made of solid gold, La Loubere, after giving it careful consideration, said that perhaps he could accept it. What he didn’t tell Phaulkon, but confessed later to de Boullay, was that he could melt the statue down and make use of it in another way for King Louis.
Before their departure, the French Embassy signed a treaty in Louvo that granted the French favorable rights. The French henceforth were exempt from the payment of import or export duties and there was no restriction as to the number of French ships that might come to trade in Siam. It was King Narai’s final gesture to show that he wanted Siam to remain on good relations with France.
At the farewell reception, the king, although he was still quite ill, received Ambassador La Loubere, Bishop Laneau, Father Tachard and a few minor officials with honor. Phaulkon had accompanied them to the king’s chambers. The king apologized for not being able to entertain them properly as he would have liked, and he expressed his regrets about the embassy’s sudden departure. He asked La Loubere to convey to King Louis XIV the assurance of his sincere friendship as well as his good wishes for his continued success and glory. Then, as a complete surprise to everyone, King Narai asked La Loubere to assure King Louis that he was gradually learning the teachings of the Christian faith from Phaulkon and in due time he desired to come to understand the teachings if it was the will and purpose of both their gods. He then presented to La Loubere a fine sword with a hilt of beaten gold and a tortoise shell scabbard with a hammered filigree gold chain to serve as a shoulder belt. Except for the bishop, he gave more gifts to everyone there and the meeting was over.
While King Narai was attempting to cement a working relationship with France, with the desire to preserve peace between the two countries, his nobles on the other hand were becoming more and more agitated by the apparent foreign influence in the kingdom. The forts were garrisoned mostly by French troops, Europeans lived in splendid houses in lavish style, Catholic missionaries were preaching to the Siamese people and were building new churches everywhere, and the most eminent advisor to the king was not a Siamese but a Greek. Growing discontent was spreading and it was distasteful to the Siamese people that European presence was so obvious. Their call began to rouse up the people and awaken them to the facts of what was happening in their kingdom. It was all part of a well-planned plot, the creation of an anti-foreign feeling, initiated by General Phetracha. He didn’t approve of foreign intervention. He always felt that Siam could do it alone, contrary to King Narai’s foreign policy. His outcries at first were surreptitious but he soon forgot he was the boyhood friend of the king. Sadly, King Narai was becoming gravely ill and found it increasingly more difficult to defend himself let alone defend Phaulkon. Now whispers began to circulate around the kingdom-who would be King Narai’s successor?
De Boullay was preparing to depart from the fort at Bangkok for Mergui with two hundred French troops. Included was King Louis’ elite detachment of Bombardiers. Upon hearing about the Bombardiers, Phaulkon pressured General Des Farges for de Boullay to leave the Bombardiers behind as the king had requested them for his own security. Reluctantly de Boullay left them behind and sailed for Mergui. With his and La Loubere’s departure so ended the mission of the second French embassy to Ayutthaya. They left without having achieved their main objective. Both de La Loubere and de Boullay were not pleased.
When the second French embassy arrived in Batavia on their way home to France, they had a shock that would prove to be hard for them to live down. They discovered that King Louis had not waited for their return before sending another expedition to Siam. They met the new expedition, led by Captain d’Estrille, unexpectedly at anchor in Batavia. After an exchange of formalities with cannon salutes and raising and dipping their colors, La Loubere and his envoy went aboard Captain d’ Estrille’s flagship for formal introductions and a lavish shipboard dinner. Father Tachard was surprised when he found one of the men arriving with the expedition was his cousin.
They were both astonished and pleased to see each other but knew they had little time to share.
The two embassies feasted with delight upon French cuisine and wine from the vineyards of France. When the meal ended, they got down to business. La Loubere was at first excited when he saw the French fleet at anchor in the harbor but the excitement waned rapidly when he learned the reason for their mission. He knew at that moment he had lost favor with King Louis and that his mission had been deemed a failure.
Indeed, the truth was hard to bear and it came without sugar coating. Captain d’Estrille came directly to the point: King Louis of France had grown impatient with King Narai. The captain didn’t make accusations but he hinted that France’s second mission to Siam had found little success. King Louis, he explained, was put into an awkward and difficult position as he had made promises to the Pope that Siam would become a Christian country in a very short time. That time had long passed. King Louis now feared losing favor with the Pope.
Captain d’Estrille let it be known that he had explicit instructions from King Louis as to how he was to proceed and that these instructions must be followed to the letter. Captain d’Estrille had aboard his fleet a reinforcement of several hundred troops with a special force of fifty men who were well trained and carefully selected for their courage and integrity. The sole purpose of this force was to safeguard the King of Siam during his conversion.
“But de Boullay has already provided the king with the Bombardier guards,” La Loubere said. Captain d’Estrille continued as if he hadn’t heard him.
“We are to reinforce our troops in Bangkok and Mergui, and then-” Captain d’Estrille hesitated while everyone at the captain’s table awaited his next words-“and, if the king and his court don’t comply, we are to take immediate steps to capture Siam in the event the Siamese people revolt against French occupation. We are to do everything possible to protect Monsieur Constantine from any uprising, if there is one, until troubles subside.” It sounded like he was reading from a textbook.
”And if the king dies, or is killed?” Father Tachard asked.
“If you mean assassinated,” Captain d’Estrille said, “then, in that event, we are to take Siam by force. We will place Monsieur Constantine at the head of state until France can find its own ruler who is capable of forcing the Siamese to accept the Catholic faith. We have the blessings of the Pope in Rome and further military assistance from the Vatican if the need be. Our goal is to place Siam under the power and domination of the King of France. , Monsieur Constantine, or Monsieur Phaulkon as you call him, will be allowed to keep his post until the new French ruler of Siam is appointed.” Not a word was spoken. Captain d’Estrille then said, “This is final.”
When Father Tachard heard this, he wrote a hurried note to Phaulkon and asked his cousin to secretly carry the message to him.
The message stunned Phaulkon, but he could not let it be known how he felt. He had to be steadfast and show perseverance in spite of the obstacles that were mounting against him. The situation grew worse, naturally, with the arrival of more French troops. Everyone, especially General Phetracha, felt threatened. Monks began making offerings at all the temples and they could be heard chanting, sending out their message, day and night. The people, who were once so loving to foreigners, began to show antagonism towards those who walked their streets and especially the French troops. There were no more warm greetings with cupped hands. People everywhere talked in whispers and hushed voices.
Missionaries too began to look at Phaulkon with suspicion and a jaundiced eye. Was he conspiring with the French? Was he planning to overthrow the king? The kingdom itself was in fear. People begin to arm themselves with knives and walking sticks that could be used as clubs. Phetracha and Sorasak didn’t hesitate to make it known that their king was gravely ill and they instructed the monks to chant outside the palace walls throughout the night. They created an eerie, foreboding atmosphere in the city, like a death knell that wouldn’t stop.
In a political maneuver, Phetracha sent for the king’s brother, Alphaitos, who had been kept in exile for years. Sorasak questioned his motive, and Phetracha told him if Alphaitos remained in hiding and the people found him, they could declare him king when King Narai died and then neither he nor Sorasak would have control over the matter. It was best Alphaitos be kept within their reach, for them to do with him what they pleased.
Phetracha next called for support from the people. He asked that they keep Siam for the Siamese instead of letting the country fall into the hands of Phaulkon the foreigner and his French troops. Phetracha began making public speeches and rallied the people to believe that Phaulkon had sold-out Siam to the French in exchange for the throne.
Everyone came to Phaulkon to warn him-Marie’s father, Fanique, Abu Omar, Thamnon, Christoph and all the interlopers. Fanique offered to take Marie and George into hiding and keep them in safekeeping until conditions improved. Phaulkon told him it was Marie’s decision to make but she insisted on staying at her husband’s side.
Abu Omar pledged his allegiance and support to Phaulkon. He assured him that he and his men would fight to their death. Phaulkon expressed his gratitude and instructed Abu to take his men and guard the storehouses, an assignment he accepted cheerfully. Phaulkon knew he could count on Omar, not for the love the Arab had for him but for the knowledge that if General Phetracha got into power there would be little hope for him as he too was a foreigner.
Thamnon advised Phaulkon it might be time for him to give up politics and think about his family and his own future. “You can return when things settle down,” he said.
“This is my home,” Phaulkon said. “I have no place to run.
I must make the people understand this. The Siamese are my people and Siam is where my family and I belong. Furthermore,
I cannot desert the king at a time like this. He needs me as he has never needed me before.” There was little more that Thamnon could say.
Christoph reported that the interlopers were ready for anything and awaited his orders. Phaulkon then instructed Christoph to go immediately to the fort in Bangkok and tell Des Farges to take his soldiers to Louvo without delay. He gave Christoph further orders to instruct Des Farges he was to follow his orders and not listen to any rumors that he might hear. He was, at all costs, to press on with his soldiers to Louvo.
While Diego and his men stayed at the house guarding Marie and little George, Phaulkon went to see the king with the intention, of preparing him for the trouble ahead. When he saw the king ill and weary, he decided not to alarm him and to hold back telling him that Phetracha was attempting to take the throne. As he was about to leave, the king opened his eyes and looked up. Seeing Phaulkon standing there, he said in his weakened voice, “You made a promise that we would discuss the matter of the soul.” Even at this most trying time, the king was responsive.
“I don’t have the Holy Book with me, but I do have a parchment on which I translated a chapter into Siamese for Your Majesty to read,” Phaulkon said. “It’s a beautiful poem.”
”A book of poems! I thought it was a Holy Book,” the king said.
“It is a Holy Book, but there are prayers written in it just like poems,” Phaulkon replied. “Let me read this to you. It’s called Psalm 23.” Slowly Phaulkon read the scripture. When he finished, he looked over at King Narai. His eyes were closed. Phaulkon quietly got up to leave, and as he did, the king spoke to him in a voice that was hardly audible.
“Please leave the poem with me, that I may read it again on my own,” he said. “It is a beautiful poem but you don’t know how to read poems. You must come back and I’ll teach you how to read poetry. I have much to teach you, Phaulkon.”
As Phaulkon went down the stairs on his way out of the palace he remembered Thamnon telling him that the Siamese language, much like Chinese, was a language of poets and not scientists. That’s what King Narai liked, he thought, poetry not war. Phaulkon arrived home and found Marie anxiously awaiting him. She asked if he had read the Bible to the king and she choked up with emotion as he told her he had. “My dear little angel,” he said, “you are more honorable than all the bishops in Siam.”