Letter from the Chaophraya Phrakhlang on behalf of King Thai Sa (r. 1709-1733) to the Supreme Government in Batavia, before March 1719, and the answer from Batavia, 18 August 1719

Elephants in an enclosure or “park” at Ayutthaya

Introduced Dhiravat na Pombejra (Former Associate Professor Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok)

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This letter from the Chaophraya Phrakhlang of King Thai Sa to the Governor-General and his Council in Batavia is a notable example of how much Dutch-Siamese diplomacy at that time was concerned with business, or more precisely the ordering of goods from the Dutch by the Ayutthaya court.

The goods discussed in this letter, namely textiles, guns, horses and hats, were not new items in the long history of the Siamese court’s never-ending demands for luxuries and rarities, as well as foreign apparel for use by the kings and their retinue. The court of King Narai, for instance, was always asking the European traders for luxuries and rarities, even scientific instruments such as telescopes, and items such as spectacles and clocks. [1]

From his letter it is evident that the Phrakhlang minister knew very well the extent of the VOC’s wide political and commercial reach. His letter asks for cloves and mace from the Spice Islands, perfumed sandalwood from Timor, various types of Indian textiles and Dutch silverware as well as plumed hats.

The small cannon to be used on elephant back are particularly intriguing. Even though elephants are generally afraid of the sound of gunfire and had lost much of their importance in Asian warfare as combat animals by the seventeenth century, some of the Siamese king’s war elephants were trained to tolerate the thunderous noise of guns, hence the request for these small cannon. Indeed, the king’s elephants were still being trained not to panic at the sound of cannon fire as late as 1761, in preparation for an imminent Burmese attack. [2]

In the history of Siam, the immediate context of this letter concerns the role of the Chinese in the Ayutthayan court and the rice trade with southern China. The revival of Chinese maritime trade with Southeast Asia had followed the 1684 revocation of the maritime ban imposed by the Qing, and although the haijin was used again soon afterwards, it did not stop the activities of the junk trade network for long, particularly that of Fujian. In the case of Siam, the conjuncture of flood and famine in south and eastern China which affected Guangdong, Xhejiang and (especially) Fujian, and the availability of a Siamese rice surplus led to a thriving rice trade between Ayutthaya and the ports of Fujian and Guangzhou. [3]

Another byproduct of strengthened Sino-Siamese trading relations, and the Chinese impact on Southeast Asia during this period, was the appointment of a Chinese from Amoy (Xiamen) as the Phrakhlang minister at King Thai Sa’s court. Chinese became influential figures in the royal court, especially in the Siamese crown’s trading apparatus. It was most probably the Chinese Phrakhlang who dictated this very letter to the Hoge Regering.

The Hoge Regering’s reply to His Majesty the King of Siam is notable for its polite platitudes and fine phrases expressing continued friendship. The letter from Batavia to the Phrakhlang, on the other hand, is more directly concerned with trade and business. On the matter of the King of Siam’s horse buyers being unable to purchase more suitable specimens, for example, the Governor-General and Council maintained that they had done all they could to help these Siamese officials, providing transportation and granting a generous loan. The Dutch consistently assisted the Siamese court from the reign of King Narai (1656-1688) till that of King Borommakot (1733-1758) in its quest to obtain Javanese horses for use in court life at Ayutthaya. [4] Batavia was quite blunt in hinting that the king’s horse buyers were using various excuses to cover their own failure to buy horses which satisfied the court’s specifications.


[1] Dhiravat na Pombejra, Siamese Court Life in the Seventeenth Century as Depicted in European Sources. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2001, Chapter 8 (pp. 146-167).

[2] Archives des Missions Étrangères, Paris. Vol. 885, p. 627, Mgr. Brigot aux Directeurs du Séminaire, 9 Jan. 1761.

[3] Sarasin Viraphol, Tribute and Profit. Sino-Siamese Trade 1652-1853. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2014 (first publ. 1977), Chapter 5 esp. pp. 73-77.

[4] See Dhiravat na Pombejra, “Javanese horses for the court of Ayutthaya” in Greg Bankoff and Sandra S. Swart (eds.), Breeds of Empire. The ‘Invention’ of the Horse in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa 1500-1950. Copenhagen: NIAS, 2007, pp. 65-81.

Dhiravat na Pombejra, “Letter from the Chaophraya Phrakhlang on behalf of King Thai Sa (r. 1709-1733) to the Supreme Government in Batavia, before March 1719, and the answer from Batavia, 17 August 1719.”In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 24. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2016.