Letter from the Phrakhlang on behalf of King Phetracha of Siam (r. 1688-1703) to the Supreme Government, 12 February 1689 and the answer from Batavia, 4 Mei 1689

Landscape in Siam (Thailand) with boats, 1687

Introduced Hendrik E. Niemeijer (Diponegoro University, Semarang)

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When the Siamese King Narai (r. 1656-1688) died during the night of 11 July 1688, it had become clear at the court of Ayutthaya, the capital city of the Kingdom of Siam, that one of the king’s highest officials, Phra Phetracha, had seized power. The “Palace Revolution of 1688” is one of the most well-known events in early modern Siamese history, marking as it did a fundamental shift in the Siamese court’s foreign policy. The French, as well as the English, were either expelled from Siamese territory or ended up in grievous circumstances in jail.

The immediate loser was the Greek adviser to the former king, Constantine Phaulkon, who was promptly executed. Born in Kephalonia (Greece) in 1647 Phaulkon had worked for the English East India Company (EIC, 1600-1874) before settling in Ayutthaya in 1678. Following his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1682, he had become closely associated with the French. During the last year of Narai’s reign, the French monarch, Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) had dispatched two diplomatic missions to Ayutthaya, the first in 1685 led by the Chevalier de Chaumont and accompanied by the famous Jesuit missionary, Père Guy Tachard

(1651-1712), and one in 1687 led by the experienced French diplomat, Simon de la Loubère (1642-1729) and the French East India Company (Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes Orientales, 1664-1794) director Claude Céberet du Boullay (1647-1702). The French king, meanwhile, received three Siamese diplomatic missions at his court at Versailles in 1684 and 1685. This extraordinary, but short-lived, Siamese-French diplomatic engagement, aroused the suspicions of France’s principal European competitors, in particular the Dutch and the English. According to the VOC’s representative in Ayutthaya, Joannes Keyts, both Phaulkon and the French missionaries were playing on King Narai’s desire for international recognition, particularly from leading European, Indian and Persian powers. Gifts of luxury goods presented during these diplomatic missions, such as clocks, sculptures, glasswear, books, and hundreds of glass mirrors, which graced his palace, were a way of advertising Narai’s new-found prestige. But the court élite grew weary of the king’s expensive diplomacy and Phaulkon was arrested in the palace coup and put to death.

Several leading international historians of early modern Siam, including Dhiravat na Pombejra, Bhawan Ruangsilp, Dirk van der Cruysse and Remco Raben, have debated whether the usurping Phetracha’s reign ushered in a new isolationist era in Siam’s foreign policy with regard to the West. Another obvious question is what Siam might have had to gain from a renewed treaty with the VOC. A more difficult question is how the 1688 Siamese “Revolution” might have influenced the relationship between Siam and the other Southeast Asian powers around the Sunda Shelf and Java Sea.

In September 1688, just a few months after Narai’s death, Joannes Keyts was able to renew the quarter century old 1664 VOC-Siam contract. [1] This is remarkable, as the news of Narai’s death only reached Batavia via a Chinese vessel from Melaka on 9 December. [2] Only on 2 January, with the arrival in Batavia’s road of the ship, De Vrijheyd, did more detailed news from Siam finally reach the Supreme Government. This news was inserted in the Daily Journals of Batavia Castle. [3] Just a month later, on 12 February, the official Siamese diplomatic letter was received and the accompanying Siamese diplomats treated to the requisite official carriage tour through Batavia to celebrate the original 1664 “Treaty of Renovation”. [4]

The renovation of this outdated contract meant the resumption of “business as usual” between the VOC and the Siamese court. The usurping king realized that the contract did not cover all business arrangements. So offers were made in his official letter to provide help in matters omitted in the original contract. The VOC was permitted to import textiles from India and act as a local supplier, thus maintaining its privileged position as the premier exporter of deer skins and tin. Just how far VOC-Siamese business dealings during King Phetracha’s reign remained mutually profitable is moot as Siam seems to have maintained strong business ties with textile producers in India to avoid dependence on VOC and other monopolist trading companies. It also kept a critical eye on the quality and prices of Dutch imported goods.

This crucial 12 February letter has been identified and summarized by Bhawan Ruangsilp, who terms it the first letter from Phetracha and the new Phrakhlang or Minister of the Royal Treasury and Foreign Affairs, Kosa Pan, formerly King Narai’s first Ambassador to France in 1686-7. [5] This proves that there was substantial continuity in foreign policy at Petracha’s court. Certainly, existing experts on European politics continued to be consulted. The Siamese foreign policy experts probably had a good knowledge of the continuous crises in Europe and were also able to follow these at a distance. Ayutthaya, like other Southeast Asian kingdoms, had become an integral part of the emerging global order of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Franco-Dutch War of 1672-1679, a conflict waged to ensure the incorporation of the southern Netherlands in Louis XIV’s burgeoning European empire, directly influenced European positions in Asia. Siamese politicians may have known about Dutch military weakness and may have betted on an alliance with what they considered the strongest European power (although the secret Anglo-French alliance negotiated by Charles II’s ministers was terminated in 1674). The French could demonstrate their full power to the Siamese diplomats in Versailles in the mid-1680s, this displaying the Sun King’s model of Absolutist royal rule to their astonished Asian guests.

Siamese court advisors could certainly not have foreseen the major events in Europe which were just then unfolding: in September 1688, the very month when the new King Phetracha concluded a deal with Joannes Keyts, Louis XIV invaded the Rhineland-Palatinate and in November 1688, the Sun King’s ally, King James II of England, was dethroned, and the Dutch Stadholder William III placed on the English throne, ushering in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. At the end of the subsequent Nine-Years War (1688- 1697) France lost her seaborne hegemony to the newly revived English navy. As a consequence of these developments, the Dutch in Batavia had fewer concerns about a possible French naval expedition to the Sunda Straits. But more gallingly, they now had to treat their arch-rivals, the English, as a friendly nation, and this just a short five years since they had successfully helped the Sultan of Banten to expel the English from that strategic pepper port.

Another strategic consideration behind Phetracha’s letter concerned Siam’s place in relationship to the Malay kingdoms in the south. It was in the interest of the Siamese kings to make a display of their traditional influence in these southern Malay regions: Patani, Phatthalung, Kedah and Cambodia were at this time all vassal states of Ayutthaya. Contemporary diplomatic letters indeed refer to the Siamese sphere of influence in this wider Southeast Asian region, in particular the Malay kingdoms of Johor and Jambi. Phetracha wrote that he had sent two diplomats to the Johor-Riau Sultanate where Mahmud Shah II (r. 1685-1699) was ruling. The “city and the land of Johor”, Phetracha’s official letter to the Supreme Government declared, “is subject to the Reign of Siam since time immemorial”. Indeed, in his letter King Phetracha presents himself as the neutral mediator between the Governor of Melaka and the Sultan of Johor, who had written to Siam that he expected an attack from Melaka. This statement is similar to the one in King Narai’s letter received in Batavia on 27 January 1683. In this earlier letter, King Narai gives notice to Batavia that the ruler of Jambi, Duli Sultan Ingalaga (i.e. Sultan Abdul Muhyi, r. 1679-1687), had sent the requisite gold and silver flower offerings (bunga mas dan perak) to Siam as an official request to become a vassal of the King of Siam (and seeking at the same time the loan of a sizeable sum of money). King Narai had accepted this and informed Batavia that Jambi was now subject to Siam. [6]

The diplomatic contacts between Siam and the Malay kingdoms are perhaps the most intriguing part of the present letter. The world of Southeast Asia was one of “multiple centres of diplomacy”. [7] Unfortunately, most of the diplomatic letters of exchange between Malay, Javanese, Siamese and other kingdoms have not survived. That makes it impossible to estimate, let alone visualize using modern digital technology, the frequency and nature of these contacts. It may seem from the “Diplomatic Letters” project of the Sejarah Nusantara website that Batavia was always at the centre of diplomatic activity. But actually Batavia should best be seen as just one of the main diplomatic centres albeit a very important one.



• Van der Cruysse, Dirk, Louis XIV et le Siam. Paris: Fayard, 1991 (translated by Michael Smithies as Siam and The West 1500-1700. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002).

• Guy Tachard, A Relation to the Voyage to Siam Performed by Six Jesuits, sent by the French King, to the Indies and China, in the Year, 1685. Published as Itineraria Asiatica, Thailand Volume II, Bangkok: Orchid Press, 1999.

• Bhawan Ruangsilp, Dutch East India Company Merchants at the Court of Ayutthaya: Dutch Perceptions of the Thai Kingdom, c. 1604-1765. Leiden: Brill, 2007.


[1] This was signed on 14 November 1689, see Corpus Diplomaticum, Vol. 3 (1676-1691), pp. 473-479.

[2] ANRI, Daily Journals of Batavia Castle, file 2503, folio 563.

[3] ANRI, Daily Journals of Batavia Castle, fil. 2504, folios 2-8.

[4] ANRI, Daily Journals of Batavia Castle, file 2504, folios 125-153.

[5] Bhawan Ruangsilp, Dutch East India Company Merchants at the Court of Ayutthaya: Dutch Perceptions of the Thai Kingdom, c.1604-1765 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 156-157.

[6] See Harta Karun document 18 introduced by Bhawan Ruangsilp.

[7] This is my (H.E. Niemeijer’s) paraphrasing of Barnard’s concept of “multiple centres of authority”.

Hendrik E. Niemeijer, “Letter from the Phrakhlang on behalf of King Phetracha of Siam (r. 1688-1703) to the Supreme Government, 12 February 1689 and the answer from Batavia, 4 mei 1689. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 19. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2016.