Letter from the Phrakhlang on behalf of the King of Siam Narai (r. 1656-1688) to the Supreme Government in Batavia, 27 January 1683 and a reply from Batavia 11 May 1683

View of Judea, the Capital of Siam, attributed to Johannes Vinckboons, c. 1662 - c. 1663

Introduced Bhawan Ruangsilp (Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok) and Hendrik E. Niemeijer (Diponegoro University, Semarang)

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Political relations between Siam and the Dutch Republic started as early as in the 1600s when the first VOC representatives visited the royal court of Ayutthaya and established the first Dutch trading post in the kingdom. At the same time the first Siamese embassy was sent to The Hague and Europe.[1]  

The Dutch involvement in Siam was initially motivated by its significance in the Company’s scheme of East Asian trade. Initially, the VOC hoped to make use of the commercial links between Siam and China based on Auythaya’s tributary relations with the Manchu court. It soon found out, however, that Thai products, especially animal skins and sappan wood, could be used to barter for Japanese silver and red copper which the VOC needed to purchase Chinese silk and Indian textiles. From the start, the Company tried to obtain exclusive rights to buy and export these Thai goods by presenting itself to the Siamse court as a worthy trading partner, diplomatic counterpart and political ally. The Dutch business pattern, which included acquiring exclusive monopoly rights, led to frequent commercial conflicts between the Company and the court. In the context of modern historiography. This might be called a ‘clash between two monopolistic powers’.[2]

Siam’s fixation on state control of foreign trade expressed itself in the creation of an extensive bureaucratic apparatus, the Phrakhlang Sinkha, “Ministry of External Relations and Maritime Trading Affairs”. This was responsible for foreign trade, foreign affairs, and the regulation of foreign trading communities.[3]  Its minister, Okya Phrakhlang, often spelled as Oya Berquelangh in Dutch records, was responsible for exchanging state letters and gifts with Batavia on the king’s and his own behalf. During the seventeenth century, this took place on an almost annual basis involving an intense correspondence between the two sides dominated by trade issues in which both the VOC Governor-General and the Phrakhlang sought to maximise their respective commercial advantage. 

The reign of King Narai (r. 1656-1688) was characterized by an avid interest in the outside world. This was expressed in many forms: the trinity of trade, war and diplomacy were crucial here but so too were more personal aspects such as King Narai’s keen interest in foreign knowledge and material culture. The monarch’s personality and the influence of other foreigners at court, especially the Moors, Chinese and French, posed a threat to the hitherto privileged position of the Dutch.

During Narai’s reign, disagreements between the two powers became ever more evident, as the VOC tried to exert their diplomatic and political influence throughout Asia and impose restraint upon Siam’s seaborne trade. This mounting commercial competition over control of the East Asian trade eventually resulted in a Dutch naval blockade of the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. This also involved the selective capture of junks sailing to Siam from China and Japan. The blockade was eventually settled by the conclusion of the 1664 Trade Treaty between the Siamese court and the VOC ambassador, Pieter de Bitter.[4]  This first Dutch-Siamese Treaty defined the VOC’s commercial privileges and introduced new concepts of immunity and extraterritoriality for Company subjects in Siam.[5]  These, however, ran counter to Siamese perceptions that all the lands and people in Siam were subject to the king’s authority. The privileges of the Dutch were, in reality, far from absolute, and they repeatedly complained about Siamese breaches of their exclusive trading rights. This frequently resulted in shortages of trade goods to meet the quotas they claimed to be entitled to under the 1664 Treaty.

The VOC’s naval capacity and control of sea routes in many parts of Asia made the Siamese court dependent on VOC co-operation. At the same time, the company had to contain the maritime ambitions of Siam. As we have seen, the Dutch had successfully used their naval superiority to force commercial concessions from King Narai. Both they and the other Europeans in Narai’s Siam had enforced control over Asian waters which challenged existing indigenous Asian notions of mare liberum or freedom of the seas and navigation. Besides concessions to allow passage to certain areas, Siam often needed the Company’s ships to connect it to the outside world. 

The contents of the 27 January 1683 letter show that the Dutch lost no opportunity to tell to the Siamese about the extensive areas of the Indonesian Archipelago under their influence or direct control, such as Mataram, Cirebon, Jepara, Jambi, Palembang and Banten. The Siamese court also recognized that the Company and no other foreign merchants had the privilege of trading in certain commodities like textiles, opium and spices in these areas. The only exception was Jambi which the Phrakhlang diplomatically argued should be recognised as a Siamese vassal by virtue of its voluntary submission to Ayutthaya. The case of Jambi was complicated, however, for it pledged allegiance to both the VOC and the king of Siam. 

Two further incidents addressed in this letter highlight the conflicted nature of Dutch policy towards Siam, suspended as it was between the Company’s discriminatory measures designed to curb Siam’s maritime activities and its support for the court’s overseas enterprise. First, the VOC complained about the damage to its textile trade in Cirebon caused by one of Narai’s emissaries selling large quantities of fabrics while actually on a mission to procure Javanese horses. Having long been acquainted with the use of horses for transportation, warfare and ceremonial purposes, the Siamese court had started purchasing these mount from Java during King Narai’s reign. Buying horses from Java became an issue that made the Siamese court dependent on the VOC because it needed the Dutch to grant their ships access to Javanese ports where they could procure the horses and transport them to Siam.[6]

Secondly, the VOC trading post in Ceylon (present- day Sri Lanka) had provided material and financial assistance to the crew of King Narai’s royal junk which had been wrecked on the Ceylonese coast on a trading voyage to Persia. Following this accident, the Dutch complained that the Siamese cargoes bound for Persia were injurious to the Company’s business. As with the case of the purchase of Javanese horses, they asked the Siamese to rely on their service for all destinations east of Burma such as Surat, Persia, Bengal, Masulipatnam, and Mokka. 

It is apparent that the VOC was attempting to fight off competition from Asian traders, including Siam. This can be seen from the instructions drawn up in 1685 by the outgoing Trade Director, Aarnout Faa, reveal how much control the VOC believed it had over Siamese shipping in areas outside those parts of the archipelago which it claimed were under its direct or indirect control: thus the Opperhoofd (trade director) instructed his successor to grant a pass to the Siamese King to enter Northern Luzon, Cambodia, Cochin China, Tonkin, Canton, Japan, Pahang, Riau, Johor, Malacca, Coromandel, Bengal, Surat, and Persia. The King’s ships to West Java had to call at Batavia and were not allowed to take in textiles to sell there. Significantly, the Company barred him passage from Coxinga’s Formosa, as well as from Indragiri, Jambi, and Palembang, with which the Dutch claimed they were the sole trading partner by virtue of their treaties with these places.[7]

Against such Dutch discrimination veiled in ostensible offers for help, the Phrakhlang argued for Siam’s rights to enter these regions in its own right, insisting on the inability of the Dutch to select appropriate goods for the Siamese market due to cultural differences. In return, the Siamese court also tried to discourage the Dutch, claiming concerns for their safety from the malice of the locals, from trading in its southern territories: Thalang, Bangkhli, and Takuathung. Earlier in the 1640s, the VOC had tried to monopolize the tin production in the Malay Peninsula by signing treaties with the heads of these tin-producing places including Phuket and Bangkhli. The tin trade in this region had a violent history and the Dutch were forced to respond to strong challenges from all parties from the local elite, the Malays, the Moors, the Chinese and, later in King Narai’s reign, both the English and the French, all of whom were bent on resisting Dutch monopolistic practices.[8] 

The 27 January 1683 letter gives a good insight into the complex relationship between the VOC and the Siamese court both during King Narai’s reign and those of his successors. Despite the fact that both sides were sporadically engaged in commercial conflicts, the VOC remained the most regular European trade partner and diplomatic counterpart for Siam. Although the Dutch sought to limit Siam’s maritime trade for their own benefit, they still played a vital role in contributing to the expansion of King Narai’s world.


[1] For more details of the founding phase of the Siamese-Dutch relationships and the overview of the VOC presence in Ayutthaya, see Han ten Brummelhuis, Merchant, Courtier and Diplomat: A History of the Contacts between The Netherlands and Thailand (Lochem-Gent: De Tijdstroom, 1987).

[2] Dhiravat na Pombejra, ‘Crown Trade and Court Politics in Ayutthaya during the Reign of King Narai, 1656-1688’, in: Kathirithamby-Wells, J. and Villiers, John (eds.), The Southeast Asian Port and Polity: Rise and Demise (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1990), pp. 127-42, here p. 133.

[3] For the history, structure and personnel of the Phrakhlang Sinkha, see Kennon Breazeale, ‘Thai Maritime Trade and the Ministry Responsible’, in idem (ed.), From Japan to Arabia: Ayutthaya’s Maritime Relations with Asia (Bangkok: The Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project, 1999), pp. 1-54.

[4] For details and debates of the incident of the Dutch naval blockade and the following signing of the 1664 Treaty, see Dhiravat na Pombejra, ‘The Dutch-Siamese Conflict of 1663-1664: A Reassessment’, in: Blussé, Leonard (ed.), Around and About Formosa: Essays in Honor of Professor Ts’ao Yung-ho (Taipei: Ts’ao Yung-ho Foundation for Culture and Education, 2003), pp. 291-306.

[5] The original Dutch text of the 1664 Treaty is in Corpus Diplomaticum Neerlando-Indicum, 6 vols., ed. J. E. Heeres and F. W. Stapel (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1907-1955), II , 280-5. (Hereafter: Corpus Diplomaticum.) The English translation of 1886 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Siam has been published in George Vinal Smith, The Dutch in Seventeenth-Century Thailand (Illinois: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies Special Report 16, 1977), pp. 138-41.

[6] Dhiravat na Pombejra, ‘Javanese Horses for the Court of Ayutthaya’, in: Greg Bankoff, et al, Breeds of Empire: the ‘Invention’ of the Horse in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa 1500-1950 (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2007), pp. 65-81, here 72-74.

[7] VOC 1407, Memorie van Faa zaliger aan Keijts [Memorandum left by the late Faa to Keijts], 15 Jan. 1685, fo. 3215r-v. Actually, Zheng Jing, the grandson and successor of Zheng Chenggong, had already been defeated in 1683.

[8] Dhiravat na Pombejra, ‘Towards a History of Seventeenth-Century Phuket’, in Sunait Chutintaranond and Chris Baker (eds.), Recalling the Local Pasts: Autonomous History in Southeast Asia (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002), pp. 89-126.

Bhawan Ruangsilp and Hendrik E. Niemeijer, “Letter from the Phrakhlang on behalf of the King of Siam Narai (r. 1656-1688) to the Supreme Government in Batavia, 27 January 1683 and a reply from Batavia 11 May 1683”. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 18. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2016.