Friday, October 2, 2009

A NEW HISTORICAL RELATION OF THE KINGDOM OF SIAM

Simone de La Loubère (1642-1729) was born in Toulouse of a distinguished family and educated there, before going to Paris where he took part in salon and literary life. He became Secretary to the French Ambassador to Switzerland in 1676, and this led to his appointment by Louis XIV in 1687 as Envoy Extraordinary to King Narai of Siam, in tandem with Claude Céberet, a director of the French Indies Company, who was to cover the commercial aspects of the embassy.


Chaumont (envoy of the first embassy, previous to La Loubère's) presenting a letter from King Louis XIV to King Narai on 18th October 1685. Chaumont commissioned this painting himself. It shows how he held the letter just out of reach of King Narai, forcing him to lean down to take it. Phaulkon is on the floor gesturing to Chaumont to raise it higher. (Drawn by Jean-Baptiste Nolin).

The mission was more an expedition, accompanied by numerous troops, led by General Desfarges, who was to fortify and, if necessary, take by force Bangkok and the outpost of Mergui. The embassy was not a diplomatic success, largely on account of the machinations of the Jesuit Father Tachard, who maintained close links with Phaulkon, Narai’s chief minister, and Father de la Chaize, Louis XIV’s confessor. Because of Tachard, La Loubère was inevitably brought into conflict with Phaulkon, and his return journey with a paranoid Tachard in the next cabin accusing La Loubère of poking holes in the wall to read his papers was not pleasant. La Loubère consoled himself by passing money and books to the young musician in Tachard’s company, Andre Cardinal-Destouches, and writing notes for his magisterial survey of Siam, one of the best accounts ever written of the country, which first appeared in French in 1691 and in English two years later. (Michael Smithies).

The Occasion and Design of this Work.

At my return from the Voyage I made to Siam, in quality of his Most Christian Majesties Envoy Extraordinary, they whose right it is to command, requir'd me to render them an exact account of the things, which I had seen or learnt in that Country; which will be the whole matter of this work. Others have sufficiently informed the Public of the Circumstances of this long Voyage: But as to what concerns the Description of a Country, we cannot have too many relations, if we would perfectly know it: the last always illustrating the former. But that it may be known from what time I write, I shall declare only that we set Sail from Brest on the First of March, Anno 1687. That we cast Anchor in the Road of Siam the 27th of September, in the same Year. That we departed thence for our return the 3d of January, 1688. And that we landed at Brest the 27th of July following.

My design is therefore to treat first of the Country of Siam, its Extent, Fertility, and the qualities of its Soil and Climate: Secondly, I will explain the manners of the Siameses in general, and then their particular Customs according to their various Qualities. Their Government and Religion shall be comprehended in the last part; and I flatter my self that the farther the Reader shall advance in the perusal of this work, the more he will find it worthy of Curiosity; by reason that the Nature and Genius of the Siameses, which I have every where endeavoured to penetrate into, will be discovered more and more. In fine, not to stay on things, which would not please every one, or which would interrupt my Narrative too much, I will at the end insert several Memoirs which I brought from this Country, and which I cannot suppress without injuring the Curiosity of the Public. But notwithstanding this precaution, I do yet enlarge on certain matters beyond the relish of some, I intreat them to consider that general expressions do never afford just Idea's; and that this is to proceed no farther than the superficial Knowledge of things. 'Tis out of this desire of making the Siameses perfectly known, that I give several notices of the other Kingdoms of the Indies and of China: For though rigorously taken, all this may appear foreign to my Subject, yet to me it seems that the Comparison of the things of Neighbouring Countries with each other, does greatly illustrate them. I hope also that a pardon will be granted me for the Siamese names, which I relate and explain. These remarks will make other relations intelligible as well as mine, which without these Illustrations might sometimes cause a doubt concerning what I assert.

In a word, those with whom I am acquainted do know that I love the Truth; but it is not sufficient to give a sincere relation to make it appear true: 'Tis requisite to add clearness to sincerity, and to be thoroughly inform'd of that wherein we undertake to instruct others. I have therefore considered, interrogated, and penetrated, as far as it was possible; and to render my self more capable of doing it, I carefully read over, before my arrival at Siam, several Antient and Modern Relations of divers Countreys of the East. So that in my opinion this preparation has supplied the defect of a longer residence, and has me to remark and understand in the three Months I was at Siam, what I could not perhaps have understood or remark'd in three Years, without the assistance and perusal of those Discourses.

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