The Company's Reward

A Merchant's Tour in Siam - Part 1
By William W. Greer
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Ayudhya, the Venice of the East, was a crossroads. The ghosts that haunt the ruins of this abandoned Siamese capital converged from every corner of the world. They created a cosmopolitan stew, dominated by a glorious dynasty of Thai kings, flavored with a mixture of ethnic locals, and spiced with Japanese, Chinamen, Moors, Bengalis, and a blend of Europeans.

By the 17th century, the stew boiled in a cauldron of conflict and change. Royal factions vied for power in a brutal game. Neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia, Laos and Malaya alternately sent tribute and sowed rebellion. From the west, the rival kings of Burma intermittantly invaded the outlying provinces, occassionally even breaching the walls of the capital itself. The western powers transported their own feuds of religious dogma and commercial conquest to the Siamese shores. And here they clashed with the great empires coming from the Far East.

The exotic Indies enticed many young men seeking to escape a divided and repressive Europe. One Dutchman entered a Siam of opportunity, temptation, and danger…

Justus Schouten hung his head in shame. "Repent your sin," urged the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, "save your everlasting soul." The jailer stood ready to apply red-hot irons if the promise of salvation alone did not induce a confession. One way or another, the prisoner would admit his crime before he was led to the execution ground at dawn.

The scandal had rocked the European community in Batavia on the island of Java, headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Asia. Schouten had been a loyal servant of the company for decades, having first sailed from Holland in the 1620s. The Dutch had been in revolt against their Spanish rulers. The company, barely 20 years old, was trying to wrest control of the Asia trade from Spain and her Portuguese ally. Young men of caliber could make their fortune if they survived the perils of the sea, war, and disease, and Schouten had lived up to every expectation. How could this man, who had risen to chief merchant, who had directed one of the company's most important factories, who had represented the Dutch ruler to Asian kingdoms, have possibly committed the vile act of which he stood accused?

His friends had rallied to his defense. But the prosecutor had described his actions in all their sordid detail, and the evidence had been overwhelming. None of the appeals from his influential supporters could persuade the Governor General to commute the sentence. The stake at which he would be strangled and burned stood ready.

"I am guilty," the condemned man whispered. "It began in Siam."

The First Tour, 1624-1629

Schouten leaned on the rail as the city came into view. His ship had crossed the bar at the mouth of the Menam River a few days before and begun the 100-mile voyage up to the Siamese capital of Ayudhya. Now he could see the city jutting out where the river made a wide bend. Across the base of the stream's loop, the Siamese had cut a wide canal, creating a man-made island for the king's capital. On the southeast corner where the canal started, the port bustled with activity. The rest of the island looked less inhabited, mainly a pattern of tall temples and pagodas filling the land between small channels cut into the interior. The riverbanks leading up to the island were lined with suburbs of small bamboo houses on stilts. The river had overflowed with the summer monsoon, covering the ground in a shallow flood.

After an hiatus of two years, the Dutch were reopening their factory in Siam. They had originally begun trading in Ayudhya in 1604, hoping to buy Chinese silks and other products for transshipment to Europe. With the capture of Formosa in 1622, that island had become the Company's source for Chinese goods, and the Governor General had decided the reduced Siamese trade could be conducted without an expensive factory. But now a new Governor General had taken over in Batavia and wanted to pursue opportunities in Japan. Siam would supply deerhides, rayskins, and assorted woods for which the Japanese would pay silver bullion. A permanent factory was again needed to ensure adequate supplies.

The posting in Siam offered a great apprenticeship for a young man on the make. Schouten was an ambitious youth, fresh off the streets of Rotterdam. He had hung around the city's wharves to hear the sailors describe wild adventures in the Eastern seas. As he had watched the porters unload barrels of spices, the pungent aromas promised riches unimaginable in the Lowland countries of a divided Europe. Finally he could resist the temptations no longer and had introduced himself to the merchants of the struggling East India Company. They had tested his resolve with tales of hard work and hardship and had tried his courage with the names of their comrades who were buried far from home. His will was strong and he had enlisted as a junior assistant, entering the mercantile world on the bottom rung.

Now Schouten would be one of several assistants learning the ropes in the Ayudhya factory: the local language and customs, the mechanics of commerce, the art of diplomacy. With luck and diligence, he would move up the ranks, eventually becoming a Merchant here or moving on to more responsibility in a larger office. The Director, Pieter van der Elst, had already begun intensive instruction.

The ship's mate came up beside Schouten. "She's a barbarous country, but my blood quickens just thinking about her silky delights. Orientals of every size and description - the natives plus Malays, Chinese, Peguans, Moors - each with its own quarter surrounding the king's island. And everything for sale," he added with a lecherous grin.

"And the Portuguese." Schouten pointed at a ship riding at anchor, flying the Cross of Christ.

"Yes," the mate continued, "but they don't cause much trouble now. We're much more in the king's favor. The merchants keep to their business and the sailors chase the same pleasures as the rest of us. But beware the Jesuits, the evil buggers care nothing about our trade but they will slit your throat for your heresy."

The mate gestured at the right bank. "The Japanners. They are the power to be reckoned with. Some say their leader pulls the king's strings."

Schouten watched the community with interest. The Japanese had first migrated about the turn of the century, when the daimyos had begun oppressing the Christian converts and driving them out of their homeland. Several thousand had settled in Siam, where their new religion would be tolerated. He had heard wild tales of their headman Yamada, who had organized the king's bodyguard. Rumors said he had even kidnapped the king during the last succession and extorted various privileges and treasure.

"But forget these worldly concerns. The little ladies will delight you," promised the mate, "scurrying around with nothing but a cloth around the waist. So modest and eager to please. You can set up house with one of the Peguan women, or if you want to sample the lot, go to meet the Okya Meen. He has hundreds available. But watch your soul with him, he will offer anything."

A few weeks later, the Dutch yacht Zeelandt cruised up the river, hoping to anchor off Ayudhya by nightfall. This trip was the pilot's first to Siam since the factory had reopened, and he was looking forward to carousing with his old friends who had been transferred from Batavia to staff the office here. The pilot could see the shadows of two galleons in the dusk, but the light was too low to make out the flags. He knew the Portuguese still sailed these waters, but they would not dare commit any acts of piracy within the heart of the Siamese king's domain.

As the yacht drew level with the first of the ships, the galleon pulled into the current and headed up behind the Dutch boat. The other ship moved into the middle of the river ahead, preparing to block the way. The pilot heard a voice ring out in Spanish. "Heave to. We're coming aboard."

The pilot realized the trap too late. He feinted a run at the west bank to squeeze past the forward galleon and make the port. But all the seamen knew the Zeelandt did not have the speed to avoid being cut off. When the pilot swung around, hoping the following ship had gotten too close and he could slip past downstream in the current, the galleon barred the way. The Spaniards hurled grappling hooks over the Zeelandt's side and leaped onto the deck. They quickly overpowered the Dutch sailors and steered the yacht to an anchorage under their guard.

"The king is furious," reported van der Elst. The Director had just come from the home of the Phrakhlang, the king's foreign minister who was the Dutch window into the Court. "First he is outraged that a Spanish captain would seize any ship in his waters. Now this one, de Silva's his name, is producing excuses to avoid appearing at the Court."

The factory had been in an uproar for days. To Schouten, this turn of events was baptism by fire. No sooner had he settled into the routine of the counting house than all attention focused on this infamous act of piracy. A flurry of diplomatic activity at the Court had followed, along with the very real possibility that a shooting war would break out at any moment.

"The signals are that the Spaniards are preparing to depart," continued van der Elst. "That may push the king over the brink."

The next day, the king's patience indeed proved to be exhausted. A convoy of warboats, manned with hundreds of Siamese and Japanese troops, swarmed down on the Spanish ships. The battle raged fiercely, with much Spanish blood staining the waters. When the smoke cleared, 150 Spaniards lay dead, along with 25 of the king's men. The Siamese threw the remaining Spaniards, numbering close to 200, into prison and confiscated their ships. They also recaptured the Zeelandt and her crew from the Spaniards and were now unloading her cargo into the king's own warehouses.

By dusk, the victors had brought the Dutch wounded to the factory, along with nine corpses from the Zeelandt's crew. The violence and fragility of life in the East had reared its head. The Director addressed a somber gathering that evening. "The Phrakhlang has informed me that Captain de Silva is among the dead. God rest his soul, he may be fortunate he will not face the king's wrath. Let us pray for all the dead."

When the prayer was concluded, van der Elst turned to business. "On the positive side, our enemy has suffered a serious blow. De Silva was commanding the major fleet trading to the Japans this year, and the Spaniards will never recoup this loss. On the other hand, we also are at risk. The Siamese have our ship and our goods, and we will no doubt begin a tortuous round of negotiations to recover them." He turned to his second in command. "Organize the assistants to prepare a complete inventory of the Zeelandt's lading. I will write the Governor General; we will need all the help we can get."

The excitement subsided quickly, and the factory settled into a dull routine. The assistants spent their days in the warehouses or on the wharves, tracking the goods as they were delivered by the king's factors and parceling them out to company or freetraders' ships as they arrived in port. The mechanics were drudgery, but Schouten had a good head for figures and he enjoyed watching the Siamese economy in action. The terms of exchange fluctuated annually. The rice harvest was plentiful in 1625, and the factory purchased record levels at bargain prices, for shipment to Batavia where the insurgencies on Java had created a life-threatening shortage. But the next two years, drought ruined the crop, and the king refused to sell rice at any price. The Moors flooded the market with Indian cotton, but with the Spanish and Portuguese effectively barred after the Zeelandt incident, the Dutch controlled the Japan trade. With Siamese deerhides needed for the armor of the Shogun's soldiers and the tabi socks of the entire populace, the factory could earn a handsome profit trading east.

Even more fascinating than the trade itself was the flow of gratuities that greased the wheels of commerce. The Phrakhlang, managing Dutch access to the court, received several hundred guilders over the course of a year. His assistant held his hand out next, and a series of junior assistants and scribes queued up behind. Most important was the translator appointed for the factory, who could provide a wealth of intelligence or disrupt all exchange, depending on his sympathies and his satisfaction with the lining of his own pocket. The king of course got his share. Like all his subjects, the Dutch contributed for the annual ceremonies and subscribed whenever the Court raised money for the construction of new temples or other public works.

Schouten also proved himself an astute observer of local customs. Siamese society was rigidly controlled, and foreigners were expected to comply with all the proper formalities. Each person knew his rank and must perform the appropriate obeisance when meeting his superiors. The king of course ranked above all. Even the most senior ministers crawled prostrate on their knees when entering his presence. Commoners descended from their houses and bowed their heads to the ground whenever he passed by. Marriage, attire, hospitality, all were governed by a strict etiquette.

The negotiations over the Zeelandt brought another diversion. The king had returned the ship, but its cargo remained locked in his warehouse. Van der Elst grew exasperated with the Phrakhlang's antics for avoiding the issue. He had the Governor General send craftsmen for the king's shipyard in hopes of placating him, but still no progress. "The king is evidently angry that he has not received a royal letter from the Netherlands," van der Elst speculated with his council. A Siamese embassy had traveled to Holland in 1621 to present the king's message and gifts to the Dutch monarch, the Prince of Orange. The Court had been waiting several years for a return mission. Finally, the Governor General sent Jan van Hasel to negotiate for the Zeelandt's cargo. Although the Court remained irritated that the Dutch ruler had still not paid his respects, van Hasel, showing the proper subservience and generously sprinkling gifts around the Court, had secured compensation for 60% of the cargo.

Despite Schouten's growing knowledge and the recognition of his capabilities which were slowly pushing him up the ranks, the routine dragged on over the years. During the dry season, excursions into the countryside could break the monotony. On a day Schouten found particularly memorable, the Phrakhlang invited the factory staff to view an elephant taming exhibition. The king's entourage journeyed to the outskirts of the city where a square field had been surrounded by elevated terraces to serve as viewing platforms. Inside the terraces, a palisade of stout timbers, each just far enough from its neighbor to allow a man to squeeze through, enclosed the ground. The Dutch occupied the sheds which had been erected for them atop one mound and watched the ceremony unfold.

As the various members of the court began to take their places, a dozen ministers clothed in scarlet frocks and peaked caps seated themselves cross-legged in front of the platform designated for the king. When his advance footmen heralded the king's arrival, these officials swung around and prostrated themselves on knees and elbows, their rears facing the enclosure and their eyes glued to the ground. "An odd way of viewing the spectacle," Schouten commented to the Okphra Rai Montri, the Translator.

"No, this will preserve the king's stature," he replied. "With these ministers exhibiting this great obeisance all day, directly in the king's view, the rest of us can relax from the strict protocol which governs our respect for his imperial majesty."

An elephant trumpeting in the distance interrupted the conversation. Beyond one end of the enclosure, a couple of dozen of the beasts were raising a great cloud of dust as several handlers drove them forward. A mammoth gate swung shut as the last barreled into the arena. The translator pointed out two enormous tuskers. "Our females have decoyed those two males. Now begins their lessons."

The handlers began urging the tame females forward and out through a gate at the far end of the ground. The two bulls found themselves alone, stampeding around the palisade in search of escape. The handlers now darted back into the enclosure, baiting and tormenting the animals. One agile young man flashed up the left side of the larger bull and delivered a hard blow just below his chin. The enraged bull let out a mighty bellow and charged after the fleeing Siamese. As the bull bore down to trample him beneath the huge feet, the nimble handler jumped between two timbers and the elephant crashed into the palisade. The stunned animal had barely regained his feet when another handler stabbed his thigh and he was off on another futile chase.

Before long, the elephants tired. The gate at the far end of the arena opened again, and the bulls, seeing their chance for escape, charged through. But they found themselves trapped in a smaller corral. The handlers quickly looped a rope around each foot and secured the other end to a tame cow. The bulls were now at their mercy, but their vexations were not complete. The cows led each to an even narrower stall, where the handlers slipped planks under his belly and hoisted him up so that his feet barely reached the ground. "He will remain that way until he becomes the king's servant," explained the Translator, "several days or possibly even weeks. Then he will go to the king's stable, where he will be given a home that befits his noble personality. He will have several grooms to tend his needs and mistresses whenever he seeks their company."

During the monsoon, no such diversions released the men's energies. The rains were a time when all felt the claustrophobic confines of the factory buildings. Gambling over cockfights, for which the natives showed a tremendous enthusiasm, helped pass the idle hours, sweetened with the Arak distilled by the Siamese. The combination of money and liquor heightened tensions as everyone became a bit stir crazy. Although the Dutchmen visited their Portuguese neighbors to discuss affairs and commiserate over common grievances, accusations of conspiracies and murder between the communities occasionally erupted into vicious brawls.

Several of the men took wives, and their growing families distracted them. Schouten preferred the wares of the Okya Meen. The Siamese were a moral people with a culture founded on precepts of the Bhudda, but acceptable behavior ranged far beyond the limits imposed in European society. A rich man might take several wives, though more as a show of pomp and grandeur than out of lust. Either husband or wife could divorce on request. But the Okya Meen pushed farthest beyond the standards the Dutchmen had brought from their homeland.

Wives and children were for sale. If a husband caught his wife or daughter committing indiscretions, he could bargain with the Okya Meen. Under the king's concession, this gentleman would purchase their services for his prosperous traffic in carnal pleasures. As the monsoon wore on, many of the factory staff entertained themselves with the companionship of the ladies. Schouten found that his own interests ran to the exotic. Ayudhya was a cosmopolitan city, and the beauties came from all corners of the world. Those attracted to pubescent qualities would find that twelve was an acceptable age for Siamese girls to enter the trade. Schouten delved deep into the Okya Meen's bag of tricks and kept his particular tastes to himself.

The Siamese Year of the Rabbit, 1628, brought a respite from the tedium of factory life. Adrian de Marees had arrived before year-end to assume the Directorship. Schouten was appointed second-in-command, a position which allowed him to sit on the factory Council with the Director, Surgeon, Bookkeeper, and Supervisor of Stores. From this vantage, he gained new insights into the kingdom's politics.

Early in the year, rumors began circulating that the king's health was deteriorating. De Marees reported that a succession struggle seemed to be brewing. "Ong Lai, the Sri Worawong, head of the Royal Household, is restricting all access to the king. I've not gotten a clear reading on him, but he is evidently a distant cousin of the king and a completely ruthless individual."

"One legend says he's the illegitimate son of King Ekathotsarot," the Surgeon added, referring to the ruler who reigned 20 years earlier. "In any case, he has been jailed several times, most recently for cavorting with a wife of the King's brother. It's amazing he still has his head on his shoulders. Apparently he fought valiantly against the Cambodians and retained the king's favor."

"The Kalahom, minister in charge of the Military, appears to be mobilizing the faction against him," continued de Marees. "We've no way of knowing which way the wind will ultimately blow, so my advice is that we stay out of the intrigue and distribute generous gratuities to both sides."

"Which way is Yamada leaning?" inquired Schouten.

"Who knows? The Japanese may hold the trump, but he is too clever to reveal his hand."

Tensions in the court continued to build, but two events in mid-year kept the Dutch community in high favor. In May, two galleons, the San Ildefonso and the Nuestra Senora de Pena, entered the river flying the Spanish flag. Within hours, they rained cannonfire on the Siamese and Japanese junks and sank three. Captain Juan de Alcaraso sent a clear message that Spain would wreak vengeance for her soldiers killed in the Zeelandt incident, then hoisted sail and escaped during the night. De Marees expressed his outrage to the court, but secretly the Dutch congratulated themselves that the attack would further inflame the king against their Portuguese competitors.

In July, the long-awaited letter from the Prince of Orange arrived. The king's displeasure with what he perceived as a snub by a European monarch had cost the factory dearly in the terms of trade. But his annoyance evaporated instantly, to the point that he bestowed a tremendous honor on the Dutch by receiving the letter ahead of the customary 14 day waiting period.

The Prince's ambassador had died en route, so de Marees and Schouten obtained the privilege of presenting the letter. Schouten was thrilled at this inside look at the splendor and ceremony of an official audience with the king. A tremendous convoy of warboats conveyed the letter upriver to the capital, with the message perched in the place of honor amidships of a state barge, shaded by a quadrant of royal umbrellas. After several days for translation and negotiation over protocol, the Dutchmen escorted the letter to the king's palace accompanied by a great procession. The king's white elephants paraded within the first courtyard. At the inner gate, they removed their shoes and advanced another 300 steps crouching on their knees. The king's ministers arranged themselves by rank and a guard of a few hundred soldiers encircled the hall.

With a fanfare of trumpets, the king appeared at an elevated window straddled by 3 posts, each with several umbrellas to symbolize his exalted position. At his appearance, everyone present joined their palms at the forehead and touched their heads to the ground three times. The ceremony began with a reading of the Prince's gifts. De Marees then handed the royal letter to the king in a golden bowl. The interpreter asked the formal questions about the Dutch monarch's health and the well-being of his country. De Marees replied briefly, as the Phrakhlang had advised that the king would be insulted by a lengthy response. After offering betel to the Dutchmen, the king retired with another fanfare and salute from the prostrate audience.

A member of the Court delivered presents from the king that evening. The factory always strived to follow Siamese customs, and it rejoiced at the success of the ceremony. "This little victory will serve us well in the trial ahead," speculated the Director, anticipating the tumult that would result from the coming rivalry to capture the throne.

Only one thing marred the festivities. The ship carrying the royal letter had brought a second message. A new Governor General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, had reached Batavia in 1627. He was reviewing policy with an eye toward consolidating settlements and relying more on freetraders. The Ayudhya factory was high on the list of potential closures.

Late in the year, a chasm splintered the Court. The king anointed his son Chetta as the crown prince, bypassing his brother who under Siamese tradition was the heir apparent. Ong Lai, who had been massing loyal troops around the capital, intimidated most of the ministers into acquiescing to the king's wishes, although the Kalahom and the Phrakhlang argued vehemently that the ancient laws of the kingdom could not be violated in such a manner.

The nightmare broke just before Christmas. The factory awoke one morning to see severed heads peering down from the city walls. Schouten recognized the face of the Phrakhlang with whom they had dealt so closely. They soon learned that Ong Lai had summoned all the senior ministers to announce the king's death, and to trap all those who had not vigorously endorsed the king's son. His men marched their principal opponents to a gate of the palace and sliced them in two. The son Chetta ascended the throne, and Ong Lai manipulated the 15-year old into naming him Kalahom, with control of the military. He convinced the child-king to replace himself as Head of the Royal Household with his brother.

Along with all the officials of the government, the leaders of each foreign community were called to the palace to drink the Water of Allegiance to the new monarch. Schouten observed the faces as the Brahmin priests consecrated the water and administered the oath. Those who had followed Ong Lai wore haughty looks, but most kept their eyes averted to hide the terror that lurked in them. He breathed with relief as the final Dutchman cleanly drained his last drop. A Siamese several back in line was not so lucky. When he coughed up a swallow, the guards hauled him to the gate and disemboweled him.

As the reign of terror continued, the Dutch stayed close to the factory, trying through their translator to gather intelligence. "The dead king's brother, Prince Sri Sin, has escaped into a monastery. As long as he wears the yellow robes, he is untouchable," he informed Schouten.

"And Yamada, which way are the Japanese turning?"

"He has the ear of Ong Lai, but who knows how he will use it? Yesterday, he embraced two officials as the executioner was about to strike and persuaded the Kalahom to pardon them. But he must be giving something in return."

Soon thereafter, Schouten learned how big the favor was. Yamada beguiled Sri Sin into leaving the monastery, pretending his Samurai would help him claim the throne. He even convinced the prince to shed his yellow robes to show his followers that he was a man of heart and action. With the monk's habit gone, his body was no longer inviolate, and the soldiers seized him. He had been cast into a pit to starve to death.

After a few weeks, the new regime had consolidated sufficient power for the Court to resume its normal functions. De Marees and Schouten cultivated the new Phrakhlang, a crony of Ong Lai. "Now is the time to make ourselves indispensable," Schouten advised the Director. "The young king needs all the backing he can find, and with the letter from the Prince of Orange so recent, he is looking on us as favorably as ever. And as the key to his international trade, he knows we fill the coffers of the Royal Treasury."

The strategy worked. After the new year, they attended another royal audience. In return for their long and loyal service to his land, the king honored the two Dutchmen with the insignias of royal office, a silver betel box for the Director and a gold saber for his second. Schouten wrote home proudly that his sword ranked him as an Okkun of the realm, a knight in the Christian manner. And in the evening, he decided he was safe resuming his visits to the Okya Meen, although he exercised his usual discretion to hide his craving.

The orders for closure had arrived. The Governor General did not believe the factory could achieve adequate profits, particularly with trouble brewing in Japan that threatened access to her markets. Schouten busied himself wrapping up affairs to shut the office.

He was disappointed that the authorities in Batavia did not appreciate how all the hard work was paying off. The accounts were in the black as far as he was concerned, and the factory expenses were not out of line. Just when the Court was officially acknowledging their contribution to the prosperity of the kingdom, the rug was being pulled out.

Nonetheless, he had to regard his own tenure in Siam as a tremendous success. He had arrived as a greenhorn, with hardly any skills though plenty of ambition. The Directors had rewarded his intelligence and energy with ever-broadening responsibilities. He had adapted well to the strange culture, so different from the repressive mores of European society, reveling in the splendor and barbarity of oriental life. Personally, he felt the company had recognized his own accomplishments, even if their fruit at Ayudhya had not ripened to expectations.

He looked forward to the next step in his advancement up the company ladder. Japan seemed like a good possibility. A posting there would offer an enormous challenge, a critical Dutch outpost potentially isolated on the island of Hirado by a Shogun who was determined to halt foreign interference in his domain. And in addition to business, it would present its own unique slice of Asian pleasures. The madams of the willow world were known for catering to any peccadillo.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 30 Mar 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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