THE AFFAIRS OF THE KING
Once Phaulkon had recovered from his near-fatal fever, and was settled in his new home with Marie, he dove diligently into his work at the office in the Royal Palace. He had open access to King Narai and they met almost every afternoon. Sometimes the king’s ministers and advisers were present, but more often than not the king and Phaulkon were alone. When they were alone, Phaulkon could express freely both his thoughts and opinions. They talked about many things, about politics, about governments, about war. On matters of a social or public nature, the king used Phaulkon as a sounding board. He was interested in the mundane, the commonplace. He wanted to know what it was like to walk among the docks at the godowns by the river. He wanted to know how it felt, what his people ate, what they did in their free time, and how they felt about royal decrees and public notices. He wanted to hear in detail about Phaulkon’s life with Marie. Phaulkon felt that the king wanted to know intimate things about them, but he never asked. King Narai was discreet but he was also thirsty for knowledge. He thrived on inconsequential bits of information that Phaulkon fed him. Phaulkon became his link to the world beyond the palace walls.
Phaulkon also conferred openly with the king about Siam’s foreign affairs and the kingdom’s involvement with European powers. Foremost in the talks was the Dutch threat. Phaulkon expressed the idea of a French alliance with Siam to counter further Dutch encroachments. King Narai pondered over the idea. He couldn’t dismiss how the Dutch had blockaded the Menam River at Pak Nam and forced the Siamese to sign an unfavorable trading agreement. On the other hand he had no quarrel with the French. French missionaries arrived in 1660 and built schools and hospitals. In 1673 two French bishops brought from Louis XIV a letter to the Siamese king thanking him for his kindness to French missionaries.
Phaulkon reminded the king about the letter which stated that the King of France has a good friend in the King of Siam. Phaulkon suggested that copies of the letter be made, including translations, and that they be nailed on walls in the public squares for everyone to see, especially the Dutch, as a warning that King Narai had the support of France, the most powerful nation in Europe.
The notices were well received and gave thought to King Narai to go a step farther. He entertained the idea of extending Siam’s friendship to King Louis by sending an envoy to France bearing gifts and offerings. “But more than just an envoy,” Phaulkon said when the king told him of his plan. “Send ambassadors and courtiers; make it an official embassy.”
The king responded quickly and ordered, without delay, an embassy to depart for France within two months. A great deal of plans and decisions had to be made in that short time. Finally the ambassadors were chosen, and King Narai decided to send his younger half-brother, of whom he was very fond, Prince Lek. The only obstacle standing in their way was the lack of a ship to carry the embassy half way around the world to France. The French could not provide a ship as they were at war with the Dutch, and the Dutch held command of the eastern seas. The embassy would have to wait. It was disappointing to both King Narai and Phaulkon.
The lack of a vessel wasn’t the only drawback to planning and organizing the mission which King Narai had assigned to the Barcalon and Phaulkon. While the planning was in the process, the Barcalon grazed his leg while inspecting a British merchant ship at the dock in Ayutthaya. It wasn’t a deep wound, only minor, but the Barcalon neglected to take care of it. Infection set in and his condition became critical. Hearing about it, the king sent his physician and Phaulkon scoured the ships at anchor in the river for doctors. A doctor from a British man-of-war down river in Pak Nam came as fast as his oarsmen could row their longboat upriver. He hastily attended to the Barcalon, but he was too late. There was nothing he or anyone could do. When he came out of the treatment room he had sad news to tell those waiting. The infection had spread and there was no hope for the Barcalon. Two days later he died. The kingdom went into mourning and the chief monk at the temple set the date for a Royal cremation. His body was clothed in fine silk, and he was laid to rest upon a pyre of scented wood aboard a beautifully carved royal barge with a gold trimmed serpent’s head at the bow. The pyre was ignited and the barge set adrift on the Menam. It was an unusual cremation, not at all traditionally Siamese, but one that the Barcalon requested. Phaulkon was deeply moved by his passing away. He was indebted to the Barcalon for all that he had done and for what he had helped him became. He watched with tears as the barge floated slowly down the river, consuming in flames the one man, aside from Thamnon, whom he always felt he could count on.
With the cremation over, the king summoned Phaulkon to the palace. Phaulkon surmised before he entered the king’s chambers what the king wanted. He was right. The Barcalon’s position had to be filled. King Narai offered Phaulkon that position, as the Barcalon of Siam. Phaulkon knew that for him to accept would be fatal. His survival depended upon his playing low key. Suspecting that the king might choose him, he planned his strategy. He knew he could not refuse the king. No one refuses the king. He thus told the king he was not worthy of the position and suggested that it be offered to General Phetracha. King Narai did not like the idea. He knew it was a job that Phetracha could not handle. “He is a soldier not a businessman,” King Narai said. ”And furthermore he dislikes foreigners. A trait that’s not acceptable. Barcalon must get along with foreigners. That’s what trade is all about is it not?”
“You are right, Your Majesty, but that is not the issue,” Phaulkon explained. “General Phetracha would be only a figurehead, like those carved images on the bows of those foreign ships you see on the river. Everyone admires a good figurehead, and many are fine works of art. General Phetracha would be a figurehead, a sinecure with capable men under him doing the work.”
The idea appealed to the king, but when General Phetracha was offered the appointment he refused. News had leaked that the position was first offered to Phaulkon and he had turned it down. Phetracha became very upset to know he was the second choice, after Phaulkon. He refused under the pretense that he lacked the use of foreign languages. The king commented that perhaps it is time he learned some skills other than the use of the sword. “Siam is in need of businessmen as well as soldiers,” he said.
King Narai then asked Phaulkon whom he thought would make a good replacement for the Barcalon. Phaulkon explained that there are many capable men in the kingdom and he would attempt to seek the best candidate he could find. What he said was not what he felt. He knew it would be a most difficult task finding the right person. Nevertheless, he had no choice and he began his search.
Among the traders and interlopers there was an Arab trader by the name of Afzal who was of good standing and that everyone liked. The man did speak a half dozen languages and he was very rich, reducing his probability of corruption. And an Arab holding that position might appease the Moors who protested the king’s favoritism to Europeans. Phaulkon approached him and asked if he would consider taking the position as the new Barcalon. “Think it over,” Phaulkon said. “After a month, if the job suits you, you will be hired permanently. Take a few days to think it over.”
Phaulkon knew the Arab didn’t need a few days to think it over.
In fact, he knew he didn’t need any time at all to make up his mind. And Phaulkon was right. Afzal came back the following day and said he had thought it over. He would take the position. He began work the very next day. With the birthday celebration for king’s daughter coming shortly there was no time to lose.
After a week’s observation Phaulkon thought that Afzal had the ability to handle the work, and informed the King he had found the right man.
With Phaulkon’s recommendation, the king accepted Afzal as the next Barcalon. The Arab, however, after a few months did not prove to be as efficient as his predecessor, and Phaulkon found he was forced to take on many of his business matters himself, especially those involving foreigners. Nor could Afzal handle the affairs of arranging an envoy to France. It was too much for him. Nevertheless, with hostilities between the French and the Dutch easing off in Europe, a French ship was commandeered for the voyage. On December 22, 1680, ambassadors and courtiers, assistants and King Narai’s half-brother, Prince Lek, set sail from Ayutthaya aboard Le Soleil d’Orient. There were presents for the French king along with letters which disclosed the desire of King Narai of Siam to establish friendly relationships with King Louis IV of France. The first embassy of the Kingdom of Siam was finally on its way to France.
The king was pleased; Phaulkon was pleased; but General Phetracha was not pleased. When Phetracha heard about the choice of the Barcalon and the departure of the first embassy to France, he became angered and vindictive. He ran straight to the king with his grievances. He made it known to the king that he considered Phaulkon’s choice of the Barcalon only a ploy, a front and a clandestine method for Phaulkon to line his own pockets. The king heard him out but said nothing. He thought it best to let tempers subside. General Phetracha was not a man to reason with when he was angered. King Narai quickly changed the subject and began talking about elephants.
After some thought, General Phetracha was still not pleased with the way the king was handling matters. Finding no sympathy from His Majesty, which he didn’t expect anyway, Phetracha went to the temple to consult the monks. He had to air his grievances somewhere and the monks would certainly give him an ear. Phetracha was a religious man, biased in every respect, unbending, and he would not do a thing unless he consulted the monks. Now he wanted their advice. The head monk, holding the saffron robe that Phetracha presented to him, quietly listened. Phetracha asked what should be done about Phaulkon, a foreigner in their midst who was trying to usurp power from the king. The head monk nodded, for he was aware of what was happening in the kingdom, about the feud between Phetracha and Phaulkon and, with no other choice, he knew what he had to say without giving the matter further thought. He had to tell the general what he wanted to hear. He was about to give his opinion but stopped short when loud shouting came from the temple yard. A young monk ran into the room and announced that an old man had entered the temple grounds and was demanding justice. They could hear him now as he came closer. “Khun Phetracha is here,” he called out. “He is here; they told me he was here.”