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Siamese king sent diplomats to ‘King’ Maurits at The Hague

VOC manned country’s only foreign trading post

Tags: Dutch Exploration

Thailand: home of the free;

Thailand: the only country in southeast Asia that never was taken over by an European nation. For almost 160 years, kings - of the country then also known as Siam - maintained trade relations with the Dutch United East Indies Company ‘de Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie’ (VOC) and at one time called ‘Stadtholder’ Maurits ‘King’ of the United Seven Provinces. The relationship between the two countries was so friendly, that a Siamese delegation travelled aboard a Dutch merchantman to The Hague for a visit. Thais wanting to study their own history will find a rich depository of archives in Amsterdam but need to know 17th-century Dutch to access it.Dutch merchants were not the first to discover Siam which then included much of today’s Malaysia. As far back as 1518, Siamese kings considered the Portuguese their allies and sold them rice and spices, commodities these Iberians monopolized. When merchants from Holland and Zeeland entered Siamese waters, the king of Siam began to trade with them, and soon the alliance shifted to the Dutch. From 1608 to 1767, short interruptions notwithstanding, Dutch traders were the only foreigners with a trading post in Siam. The post was located in the capital Ayutthaya, a town on an island in the river Chao Phraya, further inland from present-day Bangkok. The VOC highly valued the post, even though it barely generated a profit for the company.

Building relations

Long before Dutch traders set their sights on Siam, the country had developed into one of the strongest of Southeast Asia, and included what is known today as Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Burma. Buddhism served as the glue for the Siamese empire. Until recently, the king was regarded as a divine and the earthly protector of this religion. However, the Nation, Religion and Royalty triangle at times failed to keep the king’s unruly vassals in their place.To acknowledge the king’s authority, vassals were expected to regularly present the monarch with a lotus flower made of gold and a second one of silver. For his part, the king of Siam periodically visited the Emperor of China whom he showered with expensive presents, including similar gold and silver lotus flowers. While the Chinese long exercised their influence in Siam, the monarchy was far from being a puppet state of the Chinese. Rather, the relationship was said to be comparable to that of mother and daughter.Siam’s harbours served as an Asian meeting point for Japanese, Persian and East Indian merchants. Siamese kings had a personal monopoly on all merchandise imported into the realm whether it was Persian and East Indian textile, Chinese porcelain and silk, or minerals from Japan. The kings also monopolized export, be it ivory, hides, rice, tin and exotic kinds of wood. This merchandise was sold from royal trading posts and warehouses and fell under the supervision of Siam’s first minister, the phrakhlang who dealt with the foreigners.Opportunities Foreigners who wanted to do business in Siam soon found out that the king’s favour could be bought with expensive gifts of gold, silver and precious stones, and weaponry, or with products the Siamese were unfamiliar with. The VOC entered the costs of such gifts onto their ledgers as legitimate business expenses, to be deducted from any profits made in Siam.When the Dutch ships first called on Ayutthaya, Siam was still recovering from a Burmese invasion of the 1590s. King Naresuan was trying to regain his military and economic leadership in the southeast Asia of the 1590s. International trade had all but ceased, prompting him to invite the Spanish at the Philippines to open a trading post in Siam. The king hoped for the support of European warships to keep unruly vassals under control since his own boats were hardly the type for warfare. For a nation with such a long coastline, the Siamese lacked a merchant fleet or a navy. Instead, Chinese and Portuguese merchantmen flew the Siamese flag. When the Dutch ships first arrived at Ayutthaya in 1604, Naresuan had become alarmed at the Portuguese expansion in the region and on the Malayan west coast where they had a trading post at Tenasserim. Even the overland route between Ayutthaya and Tenasserim was even being threatened by the Portuguese. Additionally, the Portuguese were omnipresent on the East Indian subcontinent, places Siam traded with. Yet, Naresuan felt powerless to defend his interests.

‘King’ Maurits

Merchantmen from Holland and Zeeland, the two Dutch provinces which were leading the way on the Far East trade routes, were up against a powerful competitor. Portuguese traders made things as difficult as possible for Dutch intruders. Native rulers were warned against Dutch ships and cooperated as little as possible with the Dutch for fear of retaliation by the Portuguese who themselves were ruled by the Spanish king. A boycott had denied Dutch traders Asian merchandise for their European customers. When Spain settled its difference with the English, the Dutch had become further isolated and threatened economically. Dutch ship owners and trading houses had responded to the political turn of events by searching their own route to the Indies, attempting to cut out the Iberian middlemen. Only with the establishment of the VOC in 1602 to coordinate the Indies trade, the Dutch had the opportunity to take on the competition who also were the enemy in the current Eighty Year War of Independence. In this respect, Siam proved to be a case in point where joint action by the Dutch made all the difference.

In 1604, Dutch traders at anchor in the Siamese harbour of Pattani (on the east coast of the Malayan peninsula) learned of an impending journey to China by the king of Siam. The traders proposed to accompany the king, hoping to make contacts with the Chinese emperor and the sources of silk supply. To add strength to the proposal, the fleet’s commander introduced himself as the highest representative of Maurits, King of the Netherlands. When the visit to China was postponed a number of times, the Siamese king tried to use the Dutch naval presence to his advantage. However, the captains were not eager to get drawn into local conflicts and convinced king Naresuan that they were ill-equipped and short-staffed for such expeditions. In reality, the VOC was interested in trade not warfare.

The first Dutch diplomats to Siam, Cornelis Specx and Lambert Jacobsz. Heyn and their two assistants, received a friendly welcome at Ayutthaya. From the moment of their arrival, the Dutch and the Siamese developed plans for a diplomatic mission to the United Provinces. But Naresuan’s military expedition against Burma was a priority and when the king died, the VOC’s directors in Amsterdam called their diplomats back to their Asian base for fear of running up too large an expense in Siam.Mission to The Hague Naresuan’s successor Ekathotsarot followed through on plans for the visit to The Hague. To avoid trouble with the Portuguese at Goa (India), the king also sent a mission there. The Portuguese expressed their concerns about the Dutch presence in Siam but chose to approach the issue with caution. What the Portuguese feared happened soon anyway, in 1609 the Dutch opened a trading post at Decima, Japan, and thus became the ‘middle man’ for certain commodities traded between Siam, Japan and the Moluccas.

Meanwhile, a delegation of five Siamese, including two ambassadors, travelled to the United Provinces aboard the ship of fleet commander Matelief. A Dutchman who had lived six years in Siam served as translator to the Siamese who called on ‘king’ Maurits to present their credentials and gifts. The Asian guests visited Amsterdam, Hoorn and Enkhuizen where they witnessed the thriving VOC warehouses and shipyards. The visitors were keenly interested in Dutch ship building, a situation exploited by traders at Ayutthaya who for years gave drawings of shipyards and ships as presents to the Siamese. The delegation was also shown a telescope, then a recent invention. In subsequent years, king Ekathotsarot ordered telescopes, binoculars and glasses from the Dutch.

After a stay of two years, the Siamese returned home aboard the ship which took Pieter Both, the first governor-general, to the East Indies.

During his tenure, Both perfected the merchant triangle between Japan, Siam and the Moluccas. Since the posts in Japan and Siam were protected by the local rulers, the VOC saw no need to station soldiers, which cut costs substantially. The VOC lost much of its influence with the Siamese king when it started to use Ayutthaya as a halfway station, which meant that ships unloaded and loaded quickly to set sail again. Governor Both also failed to maintain a relationship with Siam by letter. His successor Jan P. Coen made matters worse by reasoning that Siam’s merchandise also could be purchased elsewhere and that all three posts - Pattani and Ayutthaya, and a new one in Cambodia - could be closed and relocated to Batavia.


Coen’s decision came as a shock to both the King of Siam and to VOC’s local director Cornelis Van Nijenrode. The latter then wrote his ‘Vertoog van de Gelegenheid des koningrijks Siam,’ in which he gave an elaborate eye-witness account of life in Siam in general and at the palace in particular. Van Nijenrode’s defense of Dutch presence in Siam resulted in Coen’s new, revised decision to keep at least an assistant at the Siamese court. The issue also had a spin-off for today’s historians: Van Nijenrode’s book is one of several valuable studies on Siam.Seven years later, Ayutthaya gained new significance when Siam, because of a palace revolt and changing internal politics, was shunned by other Asian powers, while Japan became an isolationist country. No longer were Japanese merchants allowed to leave the island nation. Trade between Siam and Japan came to a halt, causing problems in both countries. The development gave new opportunities to the VOC which became Japan’s sole window to the world and gained the VOC a monopoly on trade to and from Japan.The situation in Siam was different. The new king needed help to restore his authority among his vassals of which one had signed a trade treaty with the Portuguese for the supply of tin. This move cut into VOC interests and prompted Batavia to demand (and receive) concessions from Siam in return for military aid. Even though Dutch involvement in the armed conflict turned out to be minimal, the VOC was allowed to build a new trading post at Ayutthaya and receive exclusive rights to some commodities from Siam. In 1636, Siam decided to renew its relations with the Portuguese. Apparently, the king felt uncomfortable having only the VOC as friends.

While Dutch merchants at the Siamese trading post of Ayutthaya built a flourishing trade on the Philippines and Japan, they also were witness to intrigue and rebellion at the Siamese court. Reports of these developments eventually reached, de Heeren XVII, the directors of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) at Amsterdam. Cornelis van Nijenrode and Jeremias van Vliet, each wrote a book on their impressions of Siam, but many of VOC’s Governors-General reported on happenings in this southeast Asian country.The 1656 succession of King Prasat Thong was one such event that even attracted attention at Amsterdam. Thong had died and had been succeeded by his eldest son but ‘... it took less then twenty-four hours before Thong’s second son removed him and the brother of the succumbed was made king...’ Two months later, this second son, named Narai, killed his uncle and usurped power. Governor-General Maetsuyker observes that under Narai ‘...the country remained stable. ‘Narai’, he continues, ‘always implied to be favourably disposed toward the company, and we hoped that now he is on the throne he would persevere in his disposition but he seems to be flighty and inclined towards warfare...’[top]VOC officials also report that Narai promoted foreign trade in his realm. In 1657 the king sent his royal yacht, built by Dutch carpenters, laden with Siamese textile to Manilla, the Philippines. Export to India and Japan also increased. Of this trade, VOC journals report that many Siamese ships failed to return because they had sunk. An entry dated 1658, reports that a royal ship on the way to Canton ‘... arrived with pumps (working) and much water in its hold, causing much merchandise to be wet and spoiled (...) through these bad situations it is to be hoped, that his Majesty’s desire to further equip (ships) will diminish.’ Two years later, the king had two small ships built for service on India. Although the ships were thought to be seaworthy, when elephants were brought aboard the ships began to leak so much that the animals were taken out again. The ships needed considerable repairs.

VOC journals leave readers with the impression that the Dutch merchants shed no tears when king Narai ran into problems with his ships. Siamese success on the trade routes would have meant competition to the VOC, which already had to deal with Chinese rivalry and their fast sailboats. The Chinese badly undercut the Dutch monopoly and eventually successfully petitioned king Narai to lift a Dutch monopoly on deer skins. The king also encouraged Portuguese traders to stop in Siam and shipped merchandise with them. When checking the contents of a Portuguese ship, the Dutch discovered - then in breach of the treaty with Siam - a royal shipment aboard. The king’s anger now was aroused and he ordered Ayutthaya closed. When the news reached Batavia, the VOC decided to phase out its trading post in Siam, but first to take action. By September 1663, three VOC ships blocked the river on which Ayutthaya is located, and tried to secure the release of company men and merchandise. This VOC action led to a drastic change in Siam’s trade policy.When king Narai returned from a military campaign against his Laotian vassal, he discovered serious problems at home. He realized that he needed the Dutch more than they needed him and at once took steps to placate VOC’s officials. The king’s minister of trade, a Muslim, was fired and publicly humiliated when he was hauled before the king with a rope around his neck. Narai then made the hapless official eat pork and had him covered in pork grease, further insulting the man’s religious beliefs. Having exonerated himself by piling blame onto his minister, the king then offered to restore all rights and privileges as part of a new trade deal with the VOC. The partial monopoly on deer skins was restored, exclusivity to tin from Ligor was guaranteed and access to Siam by the Chinese somewhat restricted. VOC officials were under no illusion that these terms would be honoured to by the flighty and ever shifting monarch. Future events supported their apprehension on this score. When the VOC requested Narai to further restrict Chinese merchants, he denied that by saying that his forbears had enjoyed the protection of the Chinese and that they were rated Siamese citizens as long as they were in his country!

Narai pulled another surprise on the VOC. Soon after the treaty of 1664 was signed, Narai stated that he had agreed to the terms under duress. Several other initiatives were taken by the king, one which involved building forts at Bangkok, while another was even more drastic: Narai proposed peace to his arch enemy, the king of Pegu (now Burma). From the turn of events, it is very clear that the blockade had left a deep impression on the Siamese and that the objectives of the VOC - for the moment - far exceeded expectations.

By the 1670s, new competitors appeared on the horizon. After an absence of four decades, the English opened a trade office and French Jesuit missionaries settled in Siam. Narai who needed a diplomatic coup to impress his court officials, decided to send a mission to the French king Louis XIV. All foreign ties were under the jurisdiction of the king’s trade minister, now Constantinos Phaulkon, a Greek who had joined Siam’s court in 1679. Phaulkon fitted right in with Narai and extended rights to English and French ‘interlopers’ at the expense of the VOC whose position in Siam again was being manipulated. Governor-General Camphuys in 1685 wrote his masters at Amsterdam, that the king now lets himself be called emperor, ‘apparently set up by the Greek, mentioned earlier, who seems to have a great deal of influence...’ However, Phaulkon overplayed his hand when he tacitly allowed the French still greater freedom. When the French attempted to convert king Narai to Catholicism, Siamese nobility began to rebel against the Greek-born official. When in 1688 the king died, a revolution ensued during which Phaulkon, who was blamed for a lot of problems, was executed. Army commander Phetracha wiped out Narai’s family and declared himself king.

In the aftermath of the revolution, all Europeans were banned from Siam, except the VOC and the Dutch who had remained neutral in the conflict. King Phetracha (1688-1703) expanded trade with the VOC and allowed it to build a second trading post at Ligor, a coastal tin mining town. However, Phetracha’s son, Phrachao Sya - (he himself was on the throne, 1703-1709) - now was the fly in the VOC ointment. When minister of trade, he made life difficult for the Dutch. By 1705, the VOC decided to temporarily close the trading posts since both were losing money.

The VOC did not abandon Siam. The next king, Phrachao Sya’s oldest son Thai Sra, who ruled from 1709 to 1733, ratified existing treaties with the VOC although it became more and more obvious that the company could not maintain forever their monopoly on Siam merchandise. The VOC needed a gross profit margin of 100 per cent to cover its costs to operate in such a far-flung region of the world. Competition from individual Chinese merchants, who had no extensive overhead, undercut the company badly. Private trade by VOC personnel - clerks were paid poorly - eroded the company’s position further. Apparently, the VOC also experienced collection problems at the Siamese royal court. By 1722 Siam’s indebtedness to the company had reached alarming proportions. Company journals report that the 200,000 guilders debt originated from orders for ‘... a substantial quantity of silk and quality merchandise besides European silverware, linen, hats, and glasses (...) upon royal requisition and for his account shipped.’ But if the company could not earn a profit in Siam why did they not close their trading posts* The answer is not just one of trade considerations and Asian politics but also has a reason of European political: the VOC feared that others, notably the English but also the French would rush in to fill the void. Both of whom regularly locked horns with the Dutch Republic in the eighteenth century.

Especially during king Borommakot’s rule, VOC’s problems in Siam were approaching the moment of truth: the new king refused to pay his bills or ratify the old treaties. Even an ultimatum by VOC’s Governor-General was ignored. That led to the company’s decision to again temporarily close the posts in 1741. In 1747 VOC’s local director Nicolaas Bang who had stayed behind in Ayutthaya, received orders to again purchase Siamese merchandise for the market in Japan. The post in Ligor functioned again from 1752 to 1756 but was closed when the trade in tin collapsed and the VOC decided to focus on the East Indies where they had conquered more territory and where the spice trade flourished.

In the end it was not the Siamese royal court that forced the VOC to abandon the country. The political situation in the region had changed with Siam being challenged by its Burmese enemies. In 1760, the Burmese attacked Siam’s capital but failed to take it. The VOC’s trading post was plundered however, and Bang drowned trying to escape the invaders. Bang’s son Michel paid a ransom to regain his freedom from the Burmese. Initially, Batavia wanted to defend its post in Ayutthaya against a repeat attack which loomed five years later. Determined to beat the Siamese, the Burmese army stayed put. By August 1766, Bangkok fell to the Burmese which prompted VOC’s new director Werndlij to leave a Siamese assistant in charge of the Ayutthaya post and evacuate the company’s personnel. The following February, Siam’s capital fell to the Burmese who took both cities without a fight. Ayutthaya was burned to the ground and VOC’s trading post was plundered and destroyed. The company cut its losses by capturing a Siam-bound ship, laden with merchandise.

Even the prodding by Siam’s new ruler Taksin could not persuade the VOC to re-establish a trading post near Bangkok. Siam faded from VOC’s ledgers and journals and when the company itself faded away in 1798 - the government assumed responsibility and became thus a colonial power - few people remembered Dutch adventures in Siam. Today, fewer know anything about seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch merchants leaving their marks in Siam (now Thailand), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Indian subcontinent, Malakka (Malaysia), Formosa (Taiwan), Japan and occasionally China and Korea. Not surprisingly, VOC archives are a rich source of information on all of these distant places if one comprehends old-style Dutch.

The Thai have not totally forgotten that these foreign merchants mingled with them for 159 years. A no-frills monument in Ayutthaya marks the site where Dutch merchants lived and worked. It keeps the memory alive of those who were buried in Siamese soil. For their part, the Dutch remembered their ties with Siam this year, with the exhibition ‘De Koning van Siam’ at Hoorn’s Westfries Museum. While these efforts in themselves are praiseworthy, the Netherlands really ought to consider opening its VOC records to the world by providing an English translation of them, and thus share this history.

The editors are grateful to the ‘Stichting Vrienden van het Westfries Museum’ for providing us a copy of its background brochure - written by John R. Brozius - to the exhibition ‘De Koning van Siam’.