Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Overland Route; Crossing the Kra; Narai's views on religion

Claude Céberet du Boullay was born in Paris in 1647, and as a young man went as secretary to de Baas, Governor of the French islands in the Caribbean. He married there a relative of Madame de Maintenon, the secret wife of Louis XIV, and had one son. He returned to France from Martinique in the 1680s, and began his involvement in the affairs of the French Indies Company, of which he was made Director in 1685. He was sent with Simon de La Loubère in 1687, as Envoy Extraordinary of Louis XIV to the King of Siam. La Loubère was charged with the political and religious affairs, and Céberet with commercial affairs. The mission was not a success, thanks to the machinations of Father Tachard, who claimed he was the true ambassador, and who dealt directly with Phaulkon. If little substance was agreed on the political front, and none on the religious, Céberet, who was accompanied by his son, aged about fifteen, managed to secure reasonable terms for the French Indies Company, and with these in his pocket left as soon as he could, taking the overland route to Mergui, then Siamese territory. He was made Intendant of the Company port of Port-Louis in 1689, a post he held until 1696, when he was made Naval Intendant at Dunkirk, where he died in 1702.

Céberet’s detailed journal of the embassy was only published in 1992 thanks to Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h (Etude hisorique et critique du “Journal du Voyage de Siam de Claude Céberet” Envoyé Extraordinaire du Roi en 1687 et 1688, Paris, L’Harmattan.) (Michael Smithies.)

The 17th December [1687] in the morning I embarked [at Bangkok] in the company of the Reverend Father d’Espagnac, one of the Jesuits, who was to accompany me to Mergui. Opra Vissiti Sompton [Kosa Pan] also embarked with me to accompany me to Mergui where he had to go with Mr. de Brissy, the king’s engineer, to make a plan of the island which had been granted to the Company.


I travelled all day with several attendant barges from the governors of the places I passed. Half-way from Bangkok, at Tachin, I found the governor of a big own called Rapry [Rajburi] followed by several barges; after greeting me, he went at the head of his escort, and the governor of Bangkok came to take leave of me to return.

It is to be noted that in each town or village there is a mandarin who administers justice to the people, and carries out all the court’s orders, and that when there is a fortress or a garrison in these towns or villages, the mandarin does not command the troops but another military person does, and they are everywhere foreigners.

Four or five leagues from Bangkok, I found 25 sailors whom I had summoned from Mergui, who were part of the crew of the *Président to add to the king’s crew, in particular those of the *Dromadaire which could not have returned to France without this aid, having lost many of its crew *en route.

A little distance from there, the river becomes narrow, so that it is no more than a small canal, with very little water; this is made up for by buffaloes which are placed at regular points to drag the barge over the mud until one finds sufficient water; this last for some two or three leagues, after which we continued our route to Tachin, where we arrived at five in the afternoon, after having crossed several streams which were linked with each other by canals traced in a straight line.

Tachin is a big village eight leagues from Bangkok, depending on the governor of Rapry, and situated on the banks of a pleasant stream up which ships of about 100 tons can go. There was a Chinese ship of this tonnage and several Malay ships there. I was received in a house built specially for me and furnished in the usual manner. There was no enclosure, only a small brick fort, with some curtain walls, about ten feet high, and neither moat nor terrace. There were only some battlements with cast-iron falconets which were fired when I arrived. There is very good water in this place.

The 18th I left Tachin to go to Meklong [Samut Songkram]. Half-way there was a part where, as on the previous day, the barges were drawn by buffaloes, but it was longer and more tiresome. I arrived in the evening at Meklong, ten leagues away from Tachin.

This town is bigger than Tachin, and is situated on the banks of a stream also called the Meklong, a league from the sea. The water is good here. The town has no walls, but is defended by a small square fort with four very small brick bastions. There is no moat, but it was flooded by the sea; the curtains were merely big posts placed in the ground with transoms from place to place.
I left the barges here and the following day, the 19th, went into a galley proper; other galleys and ships called *mirou had been prepared to take my men and baggage. The governor of Rapry came to take me to the mouth of the stream, the Meklong, where he took his leave with his escort and went to rejoin me at the Pipely [Petchburi] River, four leagues away. The sea forms a fairly broad bay about for leagues wide and the Meklong River goes into it, flowing south to north. When in was in the middle fo the bay, I saw the tops of the mast of the king’s ships opposite the mouth of the rivr of Siam [the Chao Phraya] six or seven leagues distance from this bay, and the vessels were to the east of us.

Having arrived at the Pipely River, I found the governor, a Turk from Bursa [near Istanbul], who was governor of Bangkok when the Chevalier de Chaumont came. He was at the head of his escort in a barge. He towed three galleys as far as Pipely which is eight leagues upstream. The entry to the river is entirely deserted, but after two leagues, one comes to very fine countryside stretching into plains on both sides, well cultivated and sown with rice there was also some pasture full of animals.

The governor of Pipely, who had gone ahead, received me on land, to the sound of some cannons at the river’s edge outside the town gates, and led me to the dwelling prepared for me, constructed and furnished like the others I had stayed in. from Meklong to Pipely is twelve leagues.

The town is one of the biggest in Siam, and formerly the kings stayed here. It is surrounded by a brick wall with some bastions, some of which are in good condition. The houses in the town are not handsome, being only made of bamboo. Only the pagodas are beautiful, and there is a large number of them, principally that near the landing-stage which is well built and much gilded. In the evening, the governor came to request me to delay my departure by a day for all the transport and the people he had ordered had not yet arrived, and he risked being chastised if I wished to leave before everything was ready. I did what I could to leave, being urged on by the time of the year, but seeing the governor so pained, and realizing I would lack many things, I promised to stay the whole of the following day.

The 20th some 40 carts each drawn by two buffaloes were brought before my dwelling; the carts are so narrow in the rear that none of the bales nor chests wider than a foot and a half can go in. At midday all my big pieces of baggage were loaded, and the rest, which filled 30 carts, I sent off in the evening. I only kept with me what I could not do without.
The 21st at daybreak I set off to go and sleep at Chaam. The governor came to take me at my dwelling, led me to my palanquin and excused himself for not firing cannons on my departure, but he was afraid the elephants might take fright at the sound of gunfire; he then got on his elephant at the head of 100 soldiers with two white taffeta standards. I followed on my palanquin. At my side was my son on horseback. I was followed by my elephant on which was a gilded seat covered with a kind of dome serving as an umbrella, upheld by four columns, the whole well gilded and decorated with carpets and cushions with gold brocade. The harness of the elephant was covered with scarlet cloth four fingers broad, decorated with silver nails of the same design and size as the studs on the bridles of horses in Europe. My elephant was followed by ten others, on each of which was a chair and a round covering like those on the barges of the *opra [nobles], some were of red lacquer and others black and gilded overall. The ten elephants were mounted by people in my part and followed by 18 others with whole bamboo covers for my servants and liverymen. After these elephants came five palanquins in the manner of the country, covered with bamboo, and each carried by four men, with four more to relieve them. After came the necessary baggage for me and my party, the chapel, the kitchen and the pantry carried by 30 men walking in file. This parade was completed by some 50 soldiers and the ambassador [Kosa Pan] on his elephant and his chair of *opra. My *maître d’hôtel, on horseback, drew up behind.

We went through very fine country side for two leagues, after which we found a house called Ponta de Serta, in Siamese Boakao, where I got down to eat. The governor excused himself from accompanying me further, saying he had received an order from the court to go there at once. I found in this place about 100 carts, 30 with my baggage, the rest carrying victuals and necessaries for the whole caravan, with more than 30 mandarins to give orders for everything. After eating, I set off again. The governor accompanied me for about a league or two and then took leave of me, and returned to the town.

We arrived at Chaam after sunset, seven leagues from Ponta de Serta. This place has no enclosure and only consists of houses made of bamboo. I was lodged in a house built specially for me, as usual. Just before arriving at Chaam there is a very steep and quite high rock, though it is quite narrow in circumference, placed in the middle of the plain one finds after Ponta de Serta. In the middle of this mountain is a pagoda hollowed out into the rock which is reached by a stone staircase and the *talapoins have created dwellings in the living rock. There are many white brick pyramids on this mountain; they serve as temple decorations. There is good water in this place. The Reverend Fr. d’Espagnac and Mr. Deslandes arrived at our dwelling very late at night. Their arrival relieved me of the concern that an accident might have befallen them on account of the tigers and wild elephants which are very numerous hereabouts.

The 22nd in the morning I set out again with the usual escort, apart from the soldiers from Pipely who returned, and those of Chaam who took their place. We went through a deserted land where we saw nothing apart occasionally from some cattle wandering around without keepers. We arrived in the evening at Praam [Pranburi], eleven and a half leagues from Chaam. This town is quite big. The houses and pagodas are all of bamboo. Its shape is an elongated square enclosed by upright stakes stuck in the ground, with four square towers at the four corners, built of bricks, twelve feet square or thereabouts, with some crenellations, without any moat or terrace, but inside the palisades bamboos were planted very close to each other, which form a stout and sound living hedge that was pleasant to see. I was lodged in a special dwelling as usual. There is a stream which flows around the enclosure of this town, two leagues from the sea, and ships can enter it. It was salty when I passed it because it was then the season of high tides and at t he time there was no water to drink. I crossed this stream on a pontoon made of two barges on which planks had been laid transversally, which allowed the carts to pass, but the elephants were put in the water; they disappeared from time to time, walking on the river bottom, occasionally taking air with their trunks like a pipe raised above the water. The Siamese say that elephants can swim, but I could not see if they were swimming or walking on the bottom of the river.

The following day, the 23rd, I left Praam to go to Qouy [Kuiburi], nine leagues away. This town is more or less the same as Praam. There is a small stream in a deep valley around the town, which is built on an eminence. This stream goes into the sea a league and a half or thereabouts from here, and ships can come up to within three-quarters of a league of Qouy.
I went to sleep at Bahiron [?], six and a half leagues away. There is no other dwelling than that built on purpose to house me. It was in a wood, at the foot of a fairly steep mountain. There were thereabouts so many tigers that it was necessary to mount guard throughout the night, to light fires and fire muskets from time to time around the house, to frighten these animals which come in the night to surprise men and beasts. The ambassador told me that the Siamese who had been placed on guard during the night had to abandon post because the tigers came to attack them in bands. This made us take our precautions. At eleven at night I heard a confused sound of people’s voices crying out in alarm. I had not yet retired and at first I thought it was tigers coming to visit us, but on going out I saw that fire that taken hold of the room of some of my men, who were then aroused. These dwellings are only made of bamboo, covered with straw, so I thought the whole place would go up in a moment. However, we got away with just being frightened. One of my liverymen who was asleep in the bed nearest the fire was burnt in a couple of places for not having got out smartly enough. There was a small barrel of powder underneath the mattress which had caught fire, without however any accident occurring.
The 24th I left at dawn to cross the mountain from which one can see both seas, that of Siam, on the east coast, and that of the Gulf of Bengal on the west. I went to dine at Nompaye [?], five leagues away, and in the evening slept at Sera [?] where there was no other house than that in which I stayed. From Nompaye to Sera is two leagues.

The 25th I went to dine at Meunam [?] which is a small village in the mountains, for leagues from Sera. There was at this spot a stream before arriving in the village, which was close to its source where a small spring comes out of the rocks and the water of which is good and clear. We had not found any water since leaving Qouy. The water the ambassador had brought in the carts was drunk by the Siamese on the first day, so that without the precaution I had taken of carrying some in barrels, I would have suffered greatly on the journey in almost insupportable heat.

The governor of Meunam came to greet me, about two leagues before his village. He did me the honors, then he marched on foot before my elephant to the dwelling prepared for me, where, after arriving, he served me with many meats, fish and fruits in the manner of the country. I was surprised to see all the inhabitants of this place extremely thin and feeble; on asking the ambassador for the reason, he told me that the air of the place was so unhealthy that no European or Siamese could live there, and that only the people who were born there would stay there, and they did not live to an old age and were in poor health. I noticed that what he said was true, for many of my men fell ill the same day, and had much difficulty in overcoming their weakness.

[The journey continued down the mountain, taking barges passing through waterfalls, before arriving at Tenasserim on 30th and at Mergui on 1st January 1688, where the party embarked on the *Président for Pondichéry.]

Lucien Lanier, “Voyage de Bangkok à Mergui par terre en 1687. Fragment du journal inédit de l’ambassadeur Céberet,” Revue de Géographie, Volume XIII, juillet-décembre 1883, pp. 415-27.


Crossing the Kra: This account compliments the account above by Céberet, but going in the opposite direction, and in somewhat less grand circumstances.

Rhinoceros horn was one of the exotic products of the forest of Siam much prized by foreign traders. The killing of a rhinoceros was a slow and cruel business. (Ayutthaya Venice of the East by Derick Garnier.)

These missionaries have placed on record their impressions of the route from Tenasserim to Ayuthia. They left the former town on the last day of May in boats for Zingale (Jelinga), and their account of the river is that they found it very rapid and dangerous by means of its depth and the number of small rocks in its bed. They took six days to go to Jelinga, and they describe the river as flowing through a dense forest, so infested with tigers and elephants that they could not leave their boats, which they had to anchor at night for safety in the middle of the stream. By day they were delighted with the number of pea-fowl and jungle-fowl that were to be seen, and were amused with the troops of monkeys that disported themselves among the trees overhanging the river. Arrived at Jelinga, they took bullock-carts for Phiphri, but when they had reached Couli (Kui), they discarded them, as they found there a boat that was going to Siam. By the time they left Jelinga the rains had begun, and they consequently found the roads very bad in some places, and traveling in the carts very fatiguing; buy they say that, notwithstanding, the route between these two places was agreeable enough when the rain for the time being ceased, as the way lay through forests in which they were constantly meeting with many species of birds quite new to them, and with deer and wild pigs. Tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses so abounded that it was dangerous to wander aside from the road. From Kiu they went directly by sea to Ayuthia, which they reached in four days. They, however, do not state how long they took to go from Jelinga to Kiu.

King Narai's views on religion:

The King was a thoughtful man, and, like not a few educated Buddhists, was also something of a philosopher, and wisely tolerant in such a purely speculative subject as religion. This attitude, on the part of the King, was a condition of mind which the French ecclesiastics had never anticipated to meet in the person of a monarch whom they regarded as a heathen, and their unpreparedness for it unfortunately led them to the error of mistaking it for a symptom of his conversion, whereas it was nothing more than a desire on his part to oblige and please the strangers on a subject regarded by them as of the highest importance, but which he viewed from a different stand-point. Indeed, when the French ambassador pressed him to accept Christianity, he expressed his astonishment that his esteemed friend the King of France should take so strong an interest in an affair which to him seemed to belong to God, and “which the Divine Being appears to have left entirely to our own discretion.”1 His religious temperament and philosophical mind were, therefore, attracted to these strangers, who came to teach his people a religion so akin to Buddhism in many of its leading features, and a code of morality inculcating such maxims as this : “Cease from all sin; Get virtue; Cleanse your heart.”

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