Letter from the Chaophraya Phrakhlang on behalf of King Borommakot Maha Dharmaracha II (1733-1758) to the Supreme Government in Batavia, (received) 29 March 1740, and the answer from Batavia, 28 August 1740

Papaver somniferum L. opium poppy, afim, Kasa Kasa

Introduced Hendrik E. Niemeijer, Senior Lecturer in Maritime and World History (Diponegoro University, Semarang)

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The VOC opperhoofd in Ayutthaya, Theodorus Jacobus van der Heuvel (in office 1735-1740) has gone down in history as the man who in March 1737 was invited by King Borommakot to join him on a journey to Phra Phuttabat (in Saraburi Province), for the annual pilgrimage to the Buddha’s Footprint (buddhapada in Pali). In this way the king was demonstrating the superiority of Siamese culture and religion. The opperhoofd received an invitation again the next year, but declined.

The period 1730-1740 is marked by a clearly downward trend in Siamese-Dutch relations, in both political and economic areas. However, historians have not yet made a clear analysis of the complaints from either side. In particular the negative experiences of the Siamese with the constant striving of the Dutch to impose monopolies on products such as tin and ivory have not yet been properly studied. The diplomatic correspondence is the most important source for these complaints. This correspondence from 1740 shows the culmination of years of political bickering.

The General Missives that the Supreme Government in Batavia sent to the Republic several times a year give us the Dutch view in a nutshell. The letters from the kings and Phrakhlang were according to custom send together with these general letters. Hence the directors of the VOC could themselves take account of the opinions at the court of Siam, and they could also observe that the trading post in Siam year after year no longer provided a profit but only losses. And that profit was ultimately what it was all about.

Both the directors in the Netherlands and the members of the Supreme Government in Batavia viewed the economic and political importance of a trading post in Siam from a broader, strategic perspective. In 1732 the Supreme Government wrote to the Netherlands that the staff in Siam saw little benefit in disbanding the trading post there. The English Company had surrendered the trade to Siam to private interests. But these, as well as the Moorish merchants from Surat, were exposed to all kinds of demands that did not apply to the Company. So the English paid more for the ivory. And if the office in Ayutthaya was closed, then possibly the tin monopoly at Ligor would also be lost.[1]

Meanwhile, in precisely these years the tea trade with China was becoming more important. Even though sandalwood was still quite useful as ballast in VOC ships, tea was a much more lucrative product. In the early 18th century Chinese junks carried tea to Batavia. In 1727 the Gentlemen XVII decided to send two ships direct to Canton, which was becoming an increasingly popular destination for European trading companies. In the following five years the VOC sent eleven ships to Canton, and already in 1730-32 it bought 1.4 million pounds of tea in China annually, and had achieved a dominant position in the tea market. From 1734 the VOC’s tea trade was included in the Asiatic network.[2]

In the context of this rising tea trade, Ayutthaya was no longer the ‘place to be’. For all the European trading companies the trade with Siam became less important because of the rise of the China tea trade. The explosive rise in the cultivation of coffee in the mountainous interior of the Javanese port of Cirebon (called the Priangan) became important for the VOC from 1707. In 1725 Java was already producing more than 4 million pounds of coffee for the European market. But there is yet another reason that Siam became less popular, namely a prohibition on the trade in opium.

In the last quarter of the 17th century the north-east coast of Java became a popular region for selling illegal opium in particular. In the greater part of Java there was no taboo on opium. It was, for example, consumed during rituals at the court of Mataram. Although Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa of Banten (West Java) did issue decrees against opium, the trade in opium in the rest of Java grew at an explosive rate in the first decades of the 18th century. For both the English and the Dutch the (illegal) sale of opium became even more important than the sale of Indian textiles.

The kings of Siam kept the door for the opium trade strictly closed. There were severe penalties for the import of opium, as the Company’s servants also came to know. The second translator Pieter Broucheborde was arrested and executed in 1714 for smuggling opium. The Siamese port authorities also checked the Company’s lighters in the river for this, and they intended to investigate all the Company servants. However, at the special request of opperhoofd Dirk Blom King Thai Saa abandoned these measures. Because of this incident trade with the VOC was at a standstill for two months. [3]

In the light of this historical context, the rise of the world trade in coffee, tea and opium, Siam became less important for the intra-Asiatic and the Asiatic-European trade. One could argue that in the long run this was a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Thailand. The focus of the European powers on India, China and Java, and the reduced importance of Siam, in combination with the self-confident action of the kings of Siam, contributed to the fact that Siam did not fall prey to colonialism in the 18th century.



Brummelhuis, Han ten, Merchant, Courtier and Diplomat. A History of the Contacts between the Netherlands and Thailand. Lochem-Gent: de Tijdstroom, 1987.

Jacobs, Els M., Koopman in Azië. De handel van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie tijdens de 18de eeuw. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2000.



[1] Generale Missieven IX: 1729-1737, pp. 299-300 (14 February, 1732).

[2] Els M. Jacobs, Koopman in Azië. De handel van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie tijdens de 18de eeuw. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2000, pp. 137-142.

[3] Generale Missieven VII, 1713-1725, p. 67.

Hendrik E. Niemeijer, “Letter from the Chaophraya Phrakhlang on behalf of King Borommakot Maha Dharmaracha II (1733-1758) to the Supreme Government in Batavia, (received) 29 March 1740, and the answer from Batavia, 28 August 1740”. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document xx. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2016.