Ayutthaya (part 1)

Petchaburi, June 2, 1767.

Dear Alphonse!

Forgive my tardiness in writing you, my dear friend, but I have had to procrastinate this letter even a little more given the many urgent issues that required my immediate attention.

As you know, the country is currently mired in anarchy and, given our peremptory situation, I urgently needed to deal with shelter and safety issues, which have not been easy for me to procure due to the current situation, and that are at odds with the serenity and time that sitting down and writing a good friend requires. Our businesses urgently demanded me also, convalescing after so many months of uncertainty and avatars. And then there was the crown, with her usual urgency demanding reports from my person which, I have no doubt, are already on their way to the courts of Madrid and Paris. However, dear Alphonse, you will know how to forgive me, as what are a few more weeks out after a year of forced silence and arising concerns in the most cruel of all the uncertainties?

Map_Ayut1724Valentijn1-943x687I arrived to Petchaburi just ten days ago, and it relieved me in an indescribably way to see that the city is still intact. Believe me, not many populations can boast of it nowadays in this country, and can not feel other than happiness when I walk around a town with its pristine streets and people busily walking without fear and misery painted on their faces. In a couple of days, and if all goes well, I will embark on a Portuguese vessel bound for Malacca. At least, after two years of peace since the Great War, our Portuguese cousins are not wary of Spaniards anymore, and I give God thanks, as they are almost the only ones still sailing through the Gulf, besides the Dutchman. Still I do not know if I will sail to Manila afterwards, Alphonse, and I’ll let you know, I will probably decide there once at Malacca, when I felt, finally, completely safe, and had more time to think and reflect.

Bad business we made since the moment we decided to stay into that condemned city, I explain everything on detail in the letters and documents I attached to this one, although we saved what we could, and the success of the first shipment we made to the capital partially covered the following losses. It is possible to keep doing business here, Thai people will need weapons and supplies for a while, count on me for any help you might need, but do not expect me to stay in this country,

Although it seems that the south is somewhat calmer, it is very discouraging to stay in Siam. After the fall of the capital bands of thieves and criminals are terrifying the countryside. The entire royal family has been taken hostage, including ephemeral king Ekkathat, definitely the last king of Ayutthaya, and must be now traveling all the way to the court of bellicose Hsinbyushin. The resulting power vacuum has been increased while the Burmese do not appear to persist in their once unstoppable conquest: a Chinese army has invaded their territory up to the north, and they have had to withdraw the bulk of its forces to face this new challenge, having left in the fortresses they have captured so minimal number of garrisons they can barely control the newly occupied territory. The Krung Tai always fragile state has utterly collapsed, and countless mun nai lords, generals and monks impose their own law everywhere. Among all the generals stands Phraya Taksin, Taak Governor, who, I have heard, declared Thonburi as the new capital of the remains of the country. I know you know this city, Alphonse, as it is the place your compatriots were expelled from by the Thai barely a century ago, when our two nations, far from being twinned, were not engaged in anything other than fighting all around the globe.

It’s horrible to see, oh dear friend, the dusty roads of Siam full of sad women, humiliated men, helpless hold men and ragged and dirty children walking nowhere with their meager belongings! Wherever they went the Burmese left a trail of burned villages, terrified families, raped women and forcibly enlisted or missing men. They barely left any animals or crops behind, everything was eaten by the invading armies, and the little that could be left has been plundered again by thousands of empty stomachs in their sad and slow forced march southwards. From time to time, in small groves in the sides of the road, or among rice paddies, piles of corpses of dead peasants full of flies can be seen, swollen by the oppressive heat that reigns in this country, revealing at distance their presence with their characteristic sweet and pungent stench. All those unfortunates who, unlike the unlucky inhabitants of Ayutthaya, have not been conducted en masse to the neighboring country, are now wandering aimlessly through the fields. Where to go, if every city is now an island where everyone arbitrarily imposes his own authority? My heart shudders to think that, very soon, the rainy season will hit all these miserable homeless, and to learn from my own experience, that many looters and bandits, often deserters and renegades with nothing to lose and fled from the many armies that have already ravaged this land, are lurking like hungry wolves to these poor people among the palm trees of the dense jungle that perennially flanks fields and country roads here. I hope the peaceful serenity I’ve always seen in these folks, which they seem to receive from their worshiping to Buddha, will help them to overcome this difficult time.

Reflecting on Thai people´s admirable serenity I can not do anything but looking even more fascinated to Narissara. She is the young wife of Hong Xian, my dear Alphonse. She is with me now, I have her in front of me, I can see her through the window, on the roof of the modest house where we are staying at the moment. She looks quiet and relaxed. She was an orphan, now also a widow, has nothing left in the world and yet, there she is, staring beyond the walls of the railing of the house where we stay, her sight fixed wistfully on a sea she had never seen before.

Let me tell you first what has happened to us since my last letter: I already described you how we departed from Ratchaburi on late October, nearly two years ago, at top speed given the alarming news regarding a second Burmese army hastily advancing from the west, from the disputed Tenasserim coast. By then, it was difficult to know where the invaders were really heading to, but general Maha Nawrahta, a kind of evil King Frederik but in Burmese fashion, soon managed to thwart the many defenses and march north, straight to the capital, on our heels, while the other Burmese army, which had crossed the northern border in August, went down slowly but inexorably over the south, dealing with the rains, the mountains and the strong resistance they encountered in Bang Rachan, this having occupied almost smoothly Sukhothai, nothing more and nothing less than the country’s former capital.

We arrived at the bustling and exuberant city of Ayutthaya in early December. From there it is where I wrote my second letter to you, when the route was still open towards south. I know I have described it to you already, but it’s a shame to think that neither I nor anyone else will ever enjoy again that wonderful and prosperous city that once travelers as the Dutchman Jan Van Vliet or your fellow Abbe de Choisy compared in its magnificence with Paris: it was entirely surrounded by the Chao Phraya and Nam Pasak rivers, that come together precisely in that very same place, and it was on an immense oval island, walled and filled with canals and broad, straight avenues, on which sides simple but cozy Thai houses used to rise, always fresh, often made of teak wood, rectilinear forms, tall floors raised on pilings, and elegant gabled ceilings with long overhanging eaves. Above the dark brown jumble of houses the roofs from towering temples and palaces stood, even steeper, on vivid reds and oranges, adorned with a multitude of colorful designs, and crowned with long spires and sharp horns-like gold ornaments also lavishly embellished on their corners and eaves. The high walls of those buildings, always light-colored, were often surrounded by slender columns, and were impressing with their pediments decorated with colorful drawings, reliefs, cobblestones and ornaments and delicious figures bathed in gold. To all that golden and vertical majesty, of pointy and stylized forms, were also added the beaked and golden shrines, creating all together a forest of golden spires reflecting the sunlight above the white walls and the wooden ceilings of the huts, and whose light could always be seen from miles away.

Walking through the streets you could see hundreds of thousands of people almost at any time, fibrous and rather prettily brown skin people, not very hairy, with straight black hair, wide cheeks, clear fronts, rounded face and slanting eyes of brown or black color. They were busy with the many business they managed in that town, liked to wear simple, fresh and colorful garments, and decorate their homes with flowers and plants. Everywhere you were you could smell the most exotic products that can be found in this part of the world, and every neighbor owned a boat, as they always lived near the water, feeling, in fact, spiritually very close to this element. They coexisted with Cambodian, Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutchmen and French, many of which lodged in the outskirts, in the southern neighborhoods, and had built their own homes, businesses, shops and temples. Men were affable, children were laughing and women, Alphonse, were cheerful and graceful beings, with harmonious lines and a sweet and delicate but intense sensuality they gave to you with their captivating and warm smiles with an astonishing ease. Narissara is a clear example of this, with her fleshy, small mouth, her white teeth and her feline almond-eyes. I can see now her in profile, wearing her pha nung, her tight-fitting long dress, exposing her arms, her right shoulder and her porcelain doll´s neck. Since everything happened she wears a brown and plain dress, and her long straight hair is loose and sloppy floats on the hair, looking like a beautiful statue, more human, however, that any woman I have ever met before when she fixes in me her oval and intriguing tigress eyes.

Upon arrival we noticed the alarming news that circulated around the streets: it was said that more than forty thousand enemies were converging on the capital in a pincer movement. Thanks to that, it is true, there was no problem for the Chinese of the deceased Hong Xian, who was quite good related to the court, to buy our weapons shipment, nor we lacked of people to build another caravan back South, loaded as usual with deer skins, rice, salt, fish and rum, wiling so much to abandon that threatened city, and with our good Bernard commanding it, we delivered the money left over from the sales as well as several letters for you. Laurent and I stayed, as I explained, because at first it did not seem very probable that anyone could ever conquer the big capital, and because we believed, following the advice of Monsieur Maréchal, that It’s good fishing in troubled waters, and that we could keep making good business providing Thai of those weapons they very much needed by then. Bernard, in fact, left with detailed instructions of making ready for a next shipment that, unfortunately, and as you already know, never took place.

Just two weeks after our arrival, and right after Bernard was sent south, a flood of peasants and fugitive soldiers announced the imminent arrival of Maha Nawrahta commanding half of the Burmese army. The leader had just destroyed an entire Siamese army, and arrived even before his colleague, General Thihapate, who, slowly but surely, continued descending the Nam Pasak river with the other half of the army and three hundred warships. Anxiety then seeped into the hearts of the citizens: Many people left or took refuge inside the city walls, weapons, gunpowder and provisions were collected, and hundreds of boats were supplied for war. Foreigners left their neighborhoods outside the walls, either to take refuge inside, staying with friends or relatives, or escaping the city. Tension and alarm could be seen on everyone’s face, and temples were fuller than ever with their monks, those humble and imperturbable little men of shaved head dressed in orange robes, reciting day and night their endless and perennial litanies.

In those hectic days of Christmas 1765 was when I first met Narissara. Her husband, the great potentate Hong Xian, a corpulent and flabby man, shrewd, mellifluous, of small eyes and greedy and inscrutable face, unanimously recognized as one of the richest merchants of the whole city, was pleased to host a dinner in his sumptuous house to honor all his Portuguese neighbors and partners. We were also invited to that dinner, both because of our lucrative partnership in the recent and lucrative weapons sales, and also for accepting into our caravan two Lusitanian missionaries, fathers Martinho and Aloisio, who traveled with us from the south to join their parish in the kingdom’s capital. It was not just that Chinese, the most numerous, powerful and influential community among all the Ayutthaya outsiders, often were court´s intermediaries; or that Portuguese, the first to establish relations with Siam from times of Duarte Fernandes´trip back in 1511, were another of the most reputable foreign communities. It happens that Hong Xian himself was related to the latters by his wife, because Narissara, to my eternal surprise, was the stepdaughter of a Portuguese merchant of illustrious memory. Adopted and raised by her stepfather when her mother died, a Thai woman from a very good family, and in a move in which surely nothing was left to chance, she was married to her prosperous Chinese husband, and how would my amazement be, imagine Alphonse, when I noticed that fascinating creature, to my misfortune, was the wife of the illustrious Hong Xian and, to my delight, that without her having a pinch of Portuguese blood we could, however, maintaining long and good conversations using the language of our peninsular neighbors.

Soon, however, the Burmese arrived from the south. They had set their eyes on that city since crossing the borders, and upon arrival their command proceeded to surround and isolate the villa without delay or loss of time.

In mid-January, and before the two occupying armies had completely and effectively joined, the garrison tried a sortie. This was in fact the perfect opportunity to have thwarted their opponent, to destroy one of the two attacking armies leaving the remaining in such inferiority it would have undoubtedly been forced to retreat back into the wooded mountains of the north. But, despite outnumbering the attackers, and having taken them by surprise, the sortie troops moved so clumsily they were first locked and immobilized, then surprisingly beaten and harassed until the point of losing their entire forefront before the remaining of the frightened mass of combatants could take refuge into the city walls. I myself watched that sad battle as badly as I could perched on the walls, among the cries and groans of pain coming from many of the female spectators who were looking around me, and I could clearly see how the variegated and experienced Burmese troops ruthlessly annihilated hundreds of Siamese soldiers while those retreated along the river side.

After that blunder, and with the imminent and unstoppable arrival of the rest of the attacking army and the enemy fleet as a sure fact, the prospect of a hard siege finally became real and inevitable. In court, generals hoped to hold smoothly a prolonged siege until the annual flooding of the central plain of the country put their attackers in such a serious predicament they could easily be swept by the armies of relief that, in the meanwhile, they relied they had been able to raise on their backs. On the streets, however, the recent extramural defeat and the imminent siege were felt as a heavy blow among the population, and many of those who had not yet fled, especially those foreigners who had been waiting for happier events, disappeared taking advantage of the fact that the siege had not been entirely closed yet.

We, from our side, were ready to do the same, because there was nothing we could won staying in a city under siege, and therefore began to prepare our departure when I do not know how yet we were claimed by court regarding our projected new shipping of weapons. What happened after that we already told you in that last letter we succeed in delivering to Bernard just before communications to the south were completely cut: after several meetings and negotiations, and after receiving a juicy advance, it was agreed that our group, accompanied by several Portuguese and various Thai potentates, mocking the still weak Burmese encirclement and, using a route known by the Portuguese, traveled to Aranyaprathet, east of the country, in order to receive from Rayong those weapons that would serve the Siamese to raise this new army they were projecting to raise on the east. Me myself, because it was a complicated negotiation always mediated by the omnipresent and omnipotent Hong Xian, I used our frequent visits to his home to befriend Narissara. God knows I always behave correctly, do not hesitate friend, do not blame me for wanting to spend more time with her, but by then I could already see that she was not happy and neither he seemed too concerned about his own wife. In fact, as we saw later, Alphonse, the only thing that man really worried about was about saving his bulging bag and loose skin.

We escaped from the doomed city on January 30th 1566, and since then there have been no human way to send you any missive up today, I swear by God name, and that is why the only news you had were those confusing reports our good Bernard, surely sweating blood, was able to compile from those incomplete and very often contradictory news that intermittently reached him from us. Sorry, but could not be otherwise! I’ll tell you more in detail about our wanderings friend, for there were many, but suffices to say that the Khmer peasants took the opportunity to raise in arms, plunging the east of Siam in a new battlefield that ruined both our mission and Thai´s hopes to raise a new army of relief, and which forced us to walk and step back, up and down mountains, hide, run from city to city, and even suffer our own siege. Luckily, in early 1767, we managed to escape from that disaster and, without the company of the Siamese, and risking our lives again, we took the most of our foreign neutrality to head back to Ayutthaya: We wanted to stick together with the Portuguese in order to rescue Monsieur Maréchal and, if there was a chance, see whether we could trade something with one of the two opposite factions.

Meanwhile, an entire year had already passed, and the city we were supposed to help was facing a desperate situation: once their armies from north and south gathered, and after a series of bloody and unproductive assaults to the walls, the invaders finally decided to surrender the position by hunger. When the expected summer flooding inundated the plain, as usual, it became a swamp, and the Burmese had to abandon their siege works and huddle miserably on the few mounds and spits of land that were not covered by the waters. Siamese then unleashed a kind of naval warfare in which, apparently, they took some advantage, but that ultimately proved to be as brave as useless. When the waters receded, and no doubt for despair of king´s flamboyant generals, nor their battered opponents raised the siege, not a great army came to their aid from the east. Moreover, the Burmese rose batteries higher than the walls, and began engaging at will any place on the urban layout. So desperate was the situation that the royal family unsuccessfully tried to negotiate an honorable peace and, not getting it, tried a desperate and shameful escape attempt that did not came to fruition and neither helped precisely to raise the morale of the besieged garrison.

(lee el relato en español aquí)

2 responses to “Ayutthaya (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Ayutthaya | marcosmarconius·

  2. Pingback: Ayutthaya (part 2) | marcosmarconius·

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