Royal Protocol and Cultural Synthesis in the Preparations for the Chevalier de Chaumont's Embassy to Siam in 1685
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Ever since 1664, when Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's minister "of everything," chartered the French East India Company with royal backing, the Bourbon Crown had sought to establish France as a major power in the Far East in direct challenge to Dutch hegemony. Over the next two decades, various initiatives, for the most part unsuccessful, were undertaken in the western Indian Ocean at Madagascar, Ceylon, and coastal India that culminated with the ill-fated expedition of the so-called "Persian Squadron." Timed to coincide with a French declaration of war against the United Provinces that was planned for 1672, the squadron had sailed eastward two years before with orders to establish a French presence in Asian waters at Dutch expense by force of arms once news arrived that hostilities had opened in Europe. The naval campaign had foundered from the start, and after four years of fumbling and fruitless effort the fleet had been destroyed by the Dutch and its surviving personnel returned to France aboard enemy vessels, thus defeating French plans to gain a foothold in the Far East for the time being.
By 1680, however, French hopes for an Asian maritime empire had begun to revive as the Bourbon Crown shifted its attention from the western Indian Ocean to the geographically strategic kingdom of Siam, whose monarch, King Phra Narai (r. 1656-1688), was not only eager to make his realm known and recognized abroad, but also avid to secure a viable European ally against Dutch encroachment on his domains. For these reasons, he had already taken tentative steps toward opening diplomatic contacts with the Sun King through the agency of the priests attached to the Missions-Étrangères, active in Siam since 1662, with additional aid from representatives of the East India Company. These combined efforts had resulted in a Siamese embassy dispatched to France in 1680, following the conclusion of the Dutch War, when, allegedly inspired by reports of Louis XIV's recent victories over their common adversary, Phra Narai had appointed ambassadors to conclude an alliance with his fellow monarch. In the meantime, the missionary fathers had given further encouragement to French overseas policy through their over-confident assurances that the Siamese king was ready to embrace Catholic Christianity, having mistaken his goodwill toward their mission in Siam as a sign of his desire to accept their faith.
The anticipated embassy never reached France. It perished in a storm off the coast of Madagascar in late 1681, and in the absence of any further word of its whereabouts, French interest submerged along with the stricken vessel. But three years later, when two Siamese mandarins (or nobles) disembarked almost unexpectedly at Calais to investigate the fate of their missing countrymen and to request that French envoys be sent to Phra Narai to negotiate a treaty of trade and alliance, the vision of securing a foothold in maritime Asia revived once more at the Bourbon court. The perceived benefits of a Franco-Siamese alliance were both commercial and strategic. A strong French presence in Southeast Asia, backed by naval force, might interrupt Dutch coastal trade to the advantage of French merchants and perhaps even displace the Dutch from their lucrative commerce with Japan. In addition, it was alleged, a Siamese alliance could also provide the Bourbon Crown with a ready-made auxiliary fleet, well armed, well supplied, and well manned by Franco-Siamese troops and crews, with which to attack Dutch outposts and shipping from the Cape of Good Hope to the Spice Islands. Such arguments held obvious appeal for the makers of French overseas policy.
Newly encouraged by the prospect of success in Siam, where they had met only with failure in India, Louis XIV and his government planned to send an embassy to Southeast Asia in late January 1685, though it did not actually depart until early March. Two major challenges immediately confronted this decision. The first and more obvious was the preparation of the ships, stores, and personnel for a long-distance diplomatic mission – the reason for the delayed departure – of which the French had little substantial experience outside the European or Mediterranean contexts. These preparations included everything from the kind of provisions to be stored aboard the vessels selected for the voyage to the choice of an ambassador extraordinary to entrust with such a delicate and potentially important mission for France's Asian interests. The second challenge was French ignorance of the Siamese court and diplomatic practice, which could impede if not cripple the negotiations should the embassy fail to accommodate itself to Asian custom.
Hitherto, the only substantial narratives of royal Siamese protocol available in France had been written in 1673 by the head of the Missions-Étrangères in Siam who, at a formal audience, had presented letters of thanks from Louis XIV and Pope Clement IX to Phra Narai for his generous treatment of the French priests living in his realm. A series of dispatches described in detail the elaborate etiquette observed at the Siamese court, including the compulsory act of the krap (or prostration with the triple salutation of the wai) before the king "from which even ambassadors are not exempt." Yet it appears that these accounts passed largely unnoticed at the French court if for no other reason than the Bourbon Crown was preoccupied at the time with the current Dutch war, while relations between the two kingdoms were still very tentative. Interest increased in 1680, however, when news reached France that Phra Narai had sent his ill-fated embassy. There also arrived additional instructions from the French priests and agents of the East India Company in Siam about the finer points of Asian etiquette in order to receive the ambassadors with appropriate courtesy. This information was rendered moot by the wreckage of the anticipated embassy.
Three years later, however, the various accounts of Siamese protocol sent to France between 1673 and 1682 acquired new relevance and were evidently read with care at Versailles as efforts were made to entertain the two mandarins newly arrived and as preparations began in late 1684 for a return French embassy to Phra Narai. It is also likely that the royal authorities sought further advice from Father Bénigne Vachet of the Missions-Étrangères who had accompanied the two envoys to France at the Siamese monarch's request both as their interpreter and as his special messenger. Despite genuine efforts to accommodate some of the mechanics of Asian diplomacy, though, it is clear from subsequent mishaps during the mandarins' year-long sojourn in France that the Bourbon court lacked sufficient background to comprehend the deep cultural implications of Siamese protocol for the unparalleled position of Asian despotism or its subtle reflection of social divisions. Without the benefit of direct experience and having access only to second-hand accounts, French interest in royal Siamese ceremonial at this date was still largely intellectual, not empathetic, and much had to be learned. As a result, cultural misunderstandings developed almost immediately between the visiting envoys and their European hosts.
Perhaps the major contributor to their mutual culture shock was the simple fact that the mandarins lacked ambassadorial status, because Phra Narai would not send a new embassy to France until the fate of the missing original had been discovered. As a result of this technicality, the intricacies of royal Siamese protocol were never addressed at Versailles; without official credentials the two envoys were not entitled to the kind of consideration ambassadors of foreign monarchs generally merited. Furthermore, because the two Asians were as ignorant of the language and customs of France as the French were ignorant of almost everything Siamese, it was very difficult for either party to bridge the cultural gap between them. Yet it was essential for the success of Louis XIV's return embassy planned for spring 1685 that the French surmount these difficulties and conform as nearly as possible to Siamese protocol. Otherwise, their reviving hopes to establish a strong presence in Asia were bound to fail.
What one sees in the preparations for the proposed expedition, therefore, is the beginning of a French "learning curve" as the Bourbon king and his advisers consulted existing sources of information very closely while reflecting on their past mistakes with a view to avoiding any future missteps that could frustrate the revival of French planning for the Far East. What they seem to have grasped was that foreign relations between Asia and Europe at this time involved "contacts on various levels between many features of two cultures, two political and social systems," especially at the court level, where protocol served a particularly vital function. Whether in France or Siam, state ceremonial in royal hands was an effective instrument of power that exhibited on a broad and highly ritualized stage the prince's authority and prestige, which both conserved and secured his rule. Because royal protocol contributed "to the grandeur of monarchy and heightened the royal function," state spectacles and ceremonies that fell outside daily life and normal routine – such as the reception of the Siamese ambassadors to France or, for that matter, the reception of a French ambassador at Siam – were "intrinsically bound to the exercise of power; [for] the monarch had to dazzle the people." In a manner that was fundamental to the successful exercise of royal authority, ceremonial not only distanced the king from his subjects and elevated his authority, but it also heightened his prestige and completed the process of mystification of the monarchy.
An integral part of the function of ceremony was religion. To be sure, in 1684-1685 royal policy as formulated at Versailles still focused on challenging Dutch hegemony in maritime Asia and on establishing French commerce and naval power on a firm foundation. But from the Bourbon Crown's perspective, the conclusion of a secure alliance with Siam, which was key to French success, hinged upon the conversion of Phra Narai to Catholicism above everything else. The priests of the Missions-Étrangères had assured ever since 1667 that the Siamese monarch was on the verge of undergoing that conversion. All that he needed to take the decisive step, they urged, was a personal appeal from Louis XIV. Phra Narai's extraordinary generosity toward their mission in his realm seemed to indicate a receptiveness to Catholicism that could be nurtured for the greater glory of the Christian God and their own royal patron. To that end, the priests had lobbied over several years for Louis "to send an ambassador to this court . . . [to] convince this monarch to embrace our religion as being of supreme authority." They evidently counted upon the efficacy of the Sun King's personal influence with the Siamese monarch in the belief that there existed an intimacy of understanding among princes based upon common concerns, experiences, and perceptions of their place in the world, which transcended cultural differences. This shared experience extended as well to their sacred role as guardians of their respective faiths. Accordingly, therefore, a personal entreaty from the French monarch to his Asian counterpart to convert could have enormous effect, and it gave the missionaries hope for a royal conversion despite several admonitions from those closely attached to the court of Phra Narai that he never would embrace the Christian religion. Missionaries ignored warnings that any effort in that direction might impede negotiations while also inciting to more direct action those mandarins who already opposed the introduction of the foreign faith to Siam.
Inspired, it was claimed, by visions of the "glory that would accrue to [him], and the merit before God, for having undertaken so noble a task," the Sun King appointed the pious chevalier Alexandre de Chaumont as his ambassador extraordinary to Siam in December 1684. A naval captain and majeur des vaissaux du Roi in the Levant, Chaumont had the necessary rank and maritime experience to be given overall command of the expedition both at sea and on land. He also had some previous familiarity with "oriental" diplomacy, having participated at the signing of a peace treaty with the king of Tunis in 1672, in partial reward for which he had earned his captaincy. More vital still, though, were the chevalier's religious credentials. Not only did he come from an old Huguenot family that had converted to Catholicism and hence could appreciate the delicacy of the diplomatic task before him, but his own sincerity was regarded as above reproach. Moreover, his zeal to spread the Catholic faith was so remarkable that another member of the embassy later observed, with reference to the various French priests who also sailed with him, that the ambassador – who prayed regularly for three quarters of every day on the outward voyage – was "more a missionary than the others." A final attribute in Chaumont's favor was his apparent fluency in Portuguese, which Phra Narai also spoke and understood. Portuguese had become the lingua franca of trade and diplomacy across maritime Asia since the early sixteenth century and the foundation of Portugal's Far Eastern empire.
At the same time, François-Timoléon de Choisy, titular abbot of Saint-Seine in Burgundy, was named coadjutor to Siam in the event of Chaumont's untimely death on the outward voyage, with specific instructions to remain in the kingdom to baptize Phra Narai should he agree to convert. One of the more extraordinary personalities of late seventeenth-century France, Choisy presented a stark contrast to Chaumont in both background and character. Born the son of Gaston d'Orléans' chancellor and destined for the church at an early age, the adult Choisy became a "boudoire abbé," more remarkable for his libertinage, transvestitism, love of luxury, gambling, high living, and attachment to court circles than for any evident piety. When he learned of the preparations for the embassy planned for Siam in 1684, however, he sought and successfully secured the position of co-ambassador through personal connections, among them the influential Cardinal de Bouillon, a childhood friend who interceded on his behalf with the marquis de Seignelay, the late Colbert's son and successor as minister of the marine.
Part of the abbé's eagerness for the appointment, he later insinuated, was to atone for the wayward life he had led hitherto; the experience of a near-fatal illness in 1683 had induced him to reflect on his former profligacy. But part of his enthusiasm derived at least as much from a strong desire to evade his creditors to whom he was deeply in debt. As an ecclesiastic, a courtier, and a willing servant of the Bourbon Crown, Choisy possessed the basic attributes needed for the diplomatic mission to Siam, though he was not to be accorded his full status until Phra Narai agreed to convert. Thereupon, the abbé was to remain at the Siamese court as Louis XIV's envoy. All that Choisy lacked was familiarity with the Portuguese tongue, which he devoted much of his time to learning during the outward voyage to Asia. Soon he became so proficient that he began to keep his daily journal in that language.
Chaumont's official instructions, dated 21 January 1685, were explicit about the purpose of his embassy. Louis XIV's principal goals were to ensure that the priests of the Missions-Étrangères were well established with the freedom to preach and to proselytize throughout Siam. More importantly, however, Chaumont was to assist their efforts to convert Phra Narai to Christianity as they claimed he was inclined to do already; that monarch's acceptance of Catholicism "must be the most solid foundation of a close union . . . and perpetual alliance between France and Siam." "It is toward this vital result, so beneficial to the [Catholic] Religion," continued the instructions, "that the . . . chevalier de Chaumont must labor during his mission." Also for that reason, he was to apply strict moral discipline among the officers, crew, and various personnel under his orders throughout the expedition to Siam as befit an embassy sent partly for religious purposes. At the same time, however, Chaumont was to survey Siam's commercial potential and negotiate the most favorable trading privileges possible for the French East India Company. The Bourbon Crown was particularly interested in the extent of Siamese trade with China and Japan, kingdoms largely closed to European commerce, as well as the trading season, the nature and quantity of merchandise available, and the opportunities for profit.
Yet the ambassador's first priority upon arrival in the Asian kingdom was to consult with the resident French missionaries about local conditions and, in particular, how to conduct himself during his official audiences with Phra Narai. At those events, the ambassador had absolute orders to salute the Siamese monarch "in the French fashion" as opposed to the ritual of prostration, which was an essential feature of royal protocol everywhere in Asia. While the Bourbon Crown clearly understood the need to conform to Siamese court ceremonial where possible and hence instructed Chaumont to consult with resident "experts" on the details, its objection to the Asian custom of prostration was not the result of simple French hauteur or contempt for a non-Western, non-Christian culture. The objection arose instead from a growing awareness, however inchoate at this early date, of Siamese court protocol, the significance that lay behind it, and the chevalier's duty as ambassador to uphold the reputation of Louis XIV. What the Bourbon Crown clearly recognized, though refused to concede, was that the ritual presentation of royal greetings from a foreign prince to Phra Narai – which required the act of prostration by the envoy – was a gesture of homage or tribute by an inferior to his overlord.
From the Siamese point of view, the advice later offered in this connection by agents of the East India Company "that both kings should be accorded equal status" was unacceptable. In royal French ceremonial and conventional diplomatic practice in Europe, despite continual disputes over precedence, the concept of more or less equal sovereign states was taking root and the notion of a balance of power was developing slowly. In contrast, foreign affairs in Siam were conducted through tributary relationships as defined by ancient traditions of dominant powers and client kingdoms in a pattern that prevailed throughout Asia. Separately, the two traditions worked smoothly within their own spheres where expectations were the same and habits of procedure were accepted. When they came into direct contact with each other, as happened increasingly in the seventeenth century because of expanding European interests in the Far East, problems arose on both sides in trying to span the cultural gulf that divided them. Hence the attention paid by Louis XIV and his ministers to written reports of Siamese protocol in advance of Chaumont's embassy to Phra Narai; it was precisely in matters of diplomatic form that Asians and Europeans found their way toward an understanding of each other, however much they might disagree over details.
For these reasons, the preparations made for Chaumont's embassy between December 1684 and its departure on 3 March 1685 reveal a synthesis that reflected both growing sensitivity to Siamese custom and steadfast adherence to European diplomatic forms. To begin with, although the expedition was effectively a joint venture of the Bourbon Crown and the East India Company, which bore much of the expense involved, it was to sail aboard two frigates of the royal navy, the Oiseau of forty-four guns and the smaller Maligne of twenty-four guns. Living conditions aboard the company's merchantmen might have been more spacious than aboard the two naval vessels, especially during a lengthy voyage to Asia. As the king's ambassador, however, the chevalier de Chaumont ought to sail aboard the king's ships, which would have the added advantage of impressing the Siamese monarch with French sea power in comparison with the Dutch. That was a matter of no small importance to King Phra Narai.
For similar reasons, Chaumont was to be accompanied by a numerous suite of gentlemen retainers, domestic staff, soldiers, and other personnel as befitted his ambassadorial dignity in a manner that also conformed to Asian expectations. Thus, in addition to twelve naval officers, all aristocrats, whom the chevalier was to select from a list of eligible names provided by the Crown, the embassy was to consist of thirty members of Chaumont's household – including three cooks, three valets, three trumpeters, assorted lackeys and porters, and a painter "who fell seasick at the mere sight of the ocean" – a royal secretary named Chambige to chronicle events, an equerry, and two interpreters. Most of these men were to wear the chevalier's livery which, the abbé de Choisy later boasted, "the Siamese considered to be most handsome." Also aboard were the two mandarins, four priests of the Missions-Étrangères, Père Vachet with two of his nephews, six Jesuits and their servant bound ultimately for China, and an agent or two of the East India Company. In addition to these personnel were an engineer named La Marre who was to draw up plans of the various towns, fortifications, and coastlines that the ships would pass en route to Siam, six artisans skilled in such techniques as gun-foundry and hydraulics (for whose services Phra Narai had made a special request), ten valets to serve the two mandarins and the French officers, two sergeants, twelve soldiers (whose comfort and good health were to be cared for especially, since "they are unaccustomed to ocean travel"), and four pilots. Two of the latter, François Vauclin and Pierre Mulolin, were selected for their knowledge of Asian waters. Finally, two surgeons, two sailing masters, a master-gunner, six cabin boys, two carpenters, and two armorers completed the official roster, excluding the Oiseau's crew of 114 seamen and the Maligne's complement of another thirty.
Altogether, Chaumont's embassy to Siam consisted of over 265 individuals, though many more had volunteered to join the expedition. As space was limited severely on the two frigates and there was the added problem of lading sufficient provisions for such a long voyage, there was no room for a larger entourage. The East India Company’s trade goods and, more importantly, the rich cargo of gifts for Phra Narai and specific members of his court cramped living conditions still further. The French had learned from various sources that the exchange of gifts was an essential feature of Asian, as distinct from European, diplomatic protocol. Among the carefully selected items, described as "the most singular of the [French] kingdom," were two large silver mirrors, two silver and crystal chandeliers weighing 138 pounds apiece, two sedan chairs, a selection of luxury fabrics in various colors and textures (including brocades, cloth of gold, and velvet), several Savonnerie carpets, five clocks (two of which were pendulum), pieces of furniture, crystal ware, articles of clothing, an elegant court sword, twelve muskets, eight pairs of ornate pistols, two miniatures of Louis XIV painted on enamel and garnished with diamonds, a chest full of medallions also bearing the French monarch's profile, and finally, an equestrian portrait of the Sun King. All of these articles were packed carefully to ensure their safety during the long voyage to Siam, while the whole inventory was shipped from Paris to the port of Brest free from payment of any tolls or other duties.
In addition to provisions, trade goods, and royal gifts, space also had to be found aboard both ships for the private baggage of the embassy's personnel. It is indicative of Siam's importance to the Bourbon Crown that the chevalier de Chaumont and those above a certain rank who accompanied him received an allowance (of 400 livres on average) by the king to purchase items needed for the voyage, though measures were taken at the same time to ensure that the funds were spent only as intended and not simply pocketed by the receiver. Chaumont's expenditures alone bordered on the extravagant, yet the royal authorities not only reimbursed him for the money he had spent already on clothing, furniture, and other personal effects "for the sake of the embassy and in accordance with his honor as ambassador," but gave him a further 3,000 livres to subsidize any final purchases he considered necessary. This sum did not include an additional 5,000 écus that he was later furnished for expenses incurred during the voyage to Siam and which were to be used at his discretion. Some of those funds were probably also earmarked for the acquisition of various items of interest that the ambassador was to purchase for Louis XIV's cabinet of curiosities while in the Asian kingdom. Such collections were a common feature of early modern European courts from Paris to St. Petersburg and included objects of all kinds from the gorgeous to the grotesque.
The inventory of Chaumont's personal baggage is also interesting not just because of its extent and the fact that few such lists survive but also because of what it reveals about French efforts to accommodate Siamese cultural expectations and yet adhere to European custom. The chevalier's wardrobe included eighty-two shirts (mostly lace), seven pairs of brocade or velvet breeches, over twelve dozen pairs of silk stockings, twenty-two cravats with an equal number of cravat knots, twenty manchettes (wrist ruffs), twenty-nine hats (ten of beaver and nineteen of felt with gold or silver trim), five hat plumes, thirteen elegant suits of brocade, taffeta, or cloth of silver and gold (six of which were "simple" casual or summer garb for hot weather), eight embroidered waistcoats, four dozen pairs of gloves, seventeen pairs of shoes (including three pairs of court pumps), five wigs, two dressing gowns, two dress swords with four sword belts of gold and silver, and four shoulder knots.
In short, Chaumont's wardrobe included more articles of personal clothing than an envoy of his status generally required. But the large number of items cannot be attributed solely to the chevalier's needs during the long voyage, the risks of damage by salt water, stains, and simple wear and tear to un-washable luxury fabrics, or even the difficulty of replacing articles of dress at European outposts such as the Cape of Good Hope or Batavia on the island of Java, though to be sure no self-respecting French aristocrat would ever have donned the drab and baggy garb of a Dutch burgomaster. Rather, the abbé de Choisy revealed the reason for Chaumont's apparent excess by an off-hand remark in the journal that he kept of the expedition: although a wardrobe of four or five fine suits would have been considered superlative, even excessive at London or Madrid, in Siam "it was necessary to change one's attire every day" in accordance with local custom. Various letters and dispatches over the years had also reported the Siamese habit of regular bathing, but alas, for contemporary Frenchmen there were limits to cultural accommodation.
The inventory of Chaumont's furniture and other personal effects is equally interesting and includes a variety of toilet articles (towels, mirrors, three pounds of powder, etc.), a writing desk, 160 pounds of pewter dishware for the ambassador's table (pewter being cheaper and more durable than silver plate), two crystal dinner services, two fine Venetian tablecloths with two dozen matching napkins, eighteen gilt chairs and two armchairs, all upholstered in brocade with gold fringe, a bed with eight sets of sheets, and finally, a sedan chair covered in gold brocade. Quite apart from the obvious fact that the articles of furniture, toiletries, and tableware corresponded to European taste, custom, and comfort, most of these items were to be stored aboard ship and unpacked only upon arrival in Siam where, the Bourbon Crown was assured, Phra Narai had pledged to lodge the French plenipotentiary and his suite in houses built specially for them in the European fashion and furnished with Western-style conveniences. The Siamese monarch had also promised to receive Chaumont magnificently and, furthermore, to set aside the usual "Ceremonies and Customs that were observed in the reception of other Ambassadors." It was doubtless on the basis of this assurance that the Bourbon Crown had proceeded with confidence to instruct the chevalier to pay his respects to Phra Narai only "in the French fashion" and, additionally, to ask specifically for cushions on which to sit cross-legged during his audiences with the king. That compromise would avoid the ritual of prostration, thereby preserving Chaumont's dignity as Louis XIV's ambassador while still respecting Siamese protocol in amended form. Cultural accommodation was thus reciprocal and a means to smooth the path toward successful diplomatic relations between France and Siam.
Only two tasks remained to conclude the preparations for the embassy's departure from the port of Brest, which Louis XIV and his foreign minister, the marquis de Seignelay, urged forward with all due dispatch so as not to miss the proper sailing season in Asian waters where, they knew, navigation was dictated by the alternating rhythm of the annual monsoon winds. The first order of business was to load aboard ship the remaining baggage of Chaumont, the two mandarins, and the other members of the diplomatic entourage, for which special passports were issued at Versailles to ensure that everything arrived – like the gifts bound for Phra Narai – without hindrance and free from all toll charges along the way. No private person, whether belonging to the embassy or to the ships' crews, was permitted, however, to take merchandise for sale in Siam. This measure was taken to safeguard the monopoly of the East India Company, which alone had permission to ship a large cargo of trade goods. To enforce this order, the naval intendant at Brest, sieur Desclouzeaux, had instructions to check all items laded aboard the Oiseau and the Maligne.
The second task remaining was to finish victualling the two ships for the long voyage to Siam. The arrangements made specifically with respect to the quality and cost of provisions, as well as to table assignments, reflected a hierarchical order that would have been readily discernible to the two mandarins returning with the French ambassador to their own land, where such distinctions were also familiar features of court culture. To start with, a list of the embassy's personnel was prepared in descending order by rank and importance. The first six names (doubtless including Chaumont, Choisy, the Siamese envoys, and Père Vachet) were to have a separate table furnished for them under the supervision of an "intelligent and trustworthy" commissary who was to oversee the details and serve at mealtimes. All expenses were to be born by the Bourbon Crown in the Asian fashion, at an estimated cost of 266 livres per day during the eight-month voyage to Siam. In addition, the intendant at Brest was to embark special foodstuffs for this distinguished group of six, including livestock – though with limited space aboard ship, not enough animals could be stabled to ensure fresh meat daily – assorted delicacies, and "very good champagne," to the abbé de Choisy's great delight. So well did the sieur Desclouzeaux fulfill his responsibility that these provisions had not been exhausted by the time the flotilla reached the Cape of Good Hope, where it took on fresh supplies and water.
A separate, second table was also arranged for the sieur de Vaudricourt, captain of the Oiseau, and his chief officers, also at royal expense. As for the names of the lesser members of the embassy on the master list, they were divided between two more tables of fifteen persons each, and although their fare was sufficient, it was plain. They were to receive the average ration of a naval officer in royal service at a cost to the Crown of just ten livres per day per table, except for the valets who were to be fed like common seamen. Either by prior arrangement with their superiors in Paris or out of respect for their religious vows, the Jesuits on board were to receive just two rations per day, though the quality of these rations and the table at which they were to sit are nowhere indicated in the records. In addition to the stores already shipped, a further sum of money equal to the purchase of six-months' worth of supplies was put aboard the Oiseau for the acquisition en route of any supplementary foodstuffs for the crewmen, the supercargo, or those who might fall ill during the voyage. It is interesting and perhaps significant that neither Louis XIV nor his ministers considered the heavy expenses of outfitting the embassy and its two frigates in any way extraordinary and that the costs were to be paid out of ordinary funds through the treasury of the navy.
With everything at last in readiness, the chevalier de Chaumont boarded the Oiseau on 1 March, and the embassy sailed for Siam two days later. The voyage lasted half a year without incident. According to the abbé de Choisy, the priests aboard ship spent their days partly at religious devotions and partly at lessons in astronomy, navigation, and music as well as their studies in Portuguese. In time, they became so proficient in the language that they used it only in conversation with each other, while Choisy even undertook to render a Portuguese history of Ethiopia into French using "modern" methods of translation – that is, not word for word, but finding French equivalents for Portuguese idioms. The abbé, among others, also began to learn Siamese at Chaumont's particular request, because "it would be highly advantageous to be able to negotiate with the King of Siam face to face in his own language, without need for an interpreter." The ambassador clearly grasped that this sort of accommodation to Asian culture was also a means of furthering French interests. Otherwise, in their spare time, the members of the embassy amused themselves as they chose during the voyage by playing chess, singing, dancing to violin music, or meditating. "We live with a charming freedom," wrote Choisy in his daily journal. Life for the crewmen was, by contrast, more structured as they tended to their routine duties, while the twelve soldiers attached to the embassy drilled regularly.
The two frigates finally reached their destination on 23 September 1685, where the ambassador carried out his responsibilities to the letter of his instructions. In fact, no sooner had the French ships anchored off the bar of Siam than he had an interview with the bishop of Metellopolis, who headed the Missions-Étrangères in the Asian kingdom, in order to learn about local conditions and any relevant events that had occurred during the previous eighteen months. Chaumont subsequently also requested of King Phra Narai through the three mandarins sent to welcome him at the anchorage that, as he "had been informed of the manner wherewith [the Siamese] are wont to receive Ambassadors, and it being very different from that of France," someone should be sent to instruct him on the finer points of ceremonial in preparation for his audience with the monarch. Also in obedience to his instructions, however, Chaumont made it clear that he refused to perform the ritual of prostration and, furthermore, "would bate nothing of the mode of receiving Ambassadors in France, which at length [was] granted" him in accordance with the assurances that Phra Narai had sent to Louis XIV a year before.
Although the chevalier's determination to uphold both the dignity of his royal master and his personal honor as the representative of the Bourbon Crown sparked several disagreements over royal Siamese protocol, the French embassy was well received by Phra Narai, who signed a draft treaty the following December that granted extensive trade concessions to the French East India Company and guaranteed protection for Siamese converts to Catholicism. Chaumont did not succeed, however, in the primary object of his mission, which was to convert the Siamese king himself. He discovered to his dismay instead that everything the French court had been led to believe about Phra Narai's personal disposition toward Christianity had been "exaggerated beyond all reality" and that the monarch had no intention of embracing the faith. Thus, the embassy was largely a failure. Nevertheless, direct contact had been opened between the two courts at the official level, and when the chevalier sailed for home on 22 December 1685, he left behind twelve or fifteen gentlemen of his suite while he took with him the members of Phra Narai's third embassy to Versailles whose purpose was to conclude a firm treaty of alliance with Louis XIV.
This time, the French Crown was well prepared to receive the Asian envoys and their suite. In addition to reviewing carefully the original reports sent between 1673 and 1682, Louis and his protocol officers had learned much from their errors of 1684 and shaped their arrangements accordingly. They now had access as well to a surfeit of information on Siamese court ritual in the comprehensive relations written by and personal interviews with individual members of the returning French legation. These accounts were exploited to plan every aspect of the forthcoming reception in accordance with Asian, not European, expectations. Thus, when the Siamese embassy began its stately journey to Paris and subsequently Versailles, an extravagant protocol – modeled after the descriptions of Chaumont, Choisy, and other members of their entourage – was observed in a manner that surpassed in splendor the ceremonial customarily used in France on such state occasions. During their voyage to Europe, the three mandarins who composed Phra Narai's new embassy had also been so well versed in French protocol by the time they reached Brest that they, too, easily conformed to habits that were otherwise completely alien or even opposed to Siamese practices. In fact, it was to ease their transition from an Asian to a European cultural setting, and thereby preempt any embarrassing missteps that the chevalier de Chaumont had been directed explicitly by his original instructions to tutor any Siamese envoys appointed to return with him in French custom, ceremonial, and protocol.
Although this exchange of envoys starting in 1684 and continuing until 1687 laid the foundations for Franco-Siamese diplomatic relations, all hope of forming an alliance was destroyed by the steady growth over many decades of strong xenophobic sentiment at Phra Narai's court toward foreigners in general, not just Frenchmen or Europeans. Ever since the beginning of the seventeenth century, Siamese monarchs had relied increasingly on a variety of foreign nationals to staff their governments and reinforce their armies. Excluded from power and important positions at court, the native-born nobility grew ever more resentful of these outsiders until, with the arrival of the French, their hostility reached a breaking point. As a result, in January 1688 the kingdom erupted in violence that toppled Phra Narai's dynasty from the throne and expelled the Europeans. By the time news of the disaster had reached Europe, Louis XIV was engaged in a new war with his continental enemies and in no position to respond. French contact with Siam thus ended abruptly for the next 150 years. It is ironic that while cultural accommodation at both courts had been the making of their diplomatic relations with each other, cultural accommodation was also their undoing.
For a detailed study of early French efforts in the Indian Ocean centered on the "Persian Squadron," see Glenn J. Ames, Colbert, Mercantilism, and the French Quest for Asian Trade (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996).
Bibliothèque Nationale, Fonds Français [hereafter BN FF] 5623, fol. 36v; Sainctot, "Arrivée de trois Mandarins de Siam en 1684,” BN FF 14118, fols. 127, 129v-30; Kosa Pan to the marquis de Seignelay, Sept. 1686, BN FF nouvelles acquisitions, 9380, v. 195; and Père Claude de Bèze, S. J., 1688: Revolution in Siam, trans. and ed. E. W. Hutchinson (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1968), 34.
For a detailed discussion of missionary views of Phra Narai's susceptibility to conversion and their efforts to encourage diplomatic relations between France and Siam, see also Ronald S. Love, "Monarchs, Merchants and Missionaries in Early Modern Asia: The Missions-Étrangères in Siam, 1662-1684," The International History Review 21:1 (1999): 1-27.
"Ce qui s'est passé en la présentation des Lettres que Sa Saintété, et sa Mté. très chrestienne ont escrit au Roy de Siam portées le 18 Octobre 1673," BN FF nouvelles acquisitions 7491, fols. 247-350; Adrien Launay, ed., Histoire de la Mission de Siam 1662-1811: Documents historiques, 2 vols. (Paris: P. Téqui, 1920) 1:43-5; Mgr. Pallu, bishop of Héliopolis, to Louis XIV, 8 Nov. 1673; and idem to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, 8 Nov. 1673, in François Pallu, Lettres de Mgr. Pallu, ed. Adrien Launay, 2 vols. (Angoulême: L. Coquemard, 1904-6) 2:257-8, 258-9.
The wai is an action of respect made by bowing the head to meet the thumbs of both hands, palms pressed together and fingers held upward. Originally, the position of the wai showed that one's hands were free of weapons; the gesture is also an expression of inequality, since the social inferior – who always initiates the act – places himself at the mercy of his superior while his lowered eyes and head reduce his ability to defend himself.
Père Gayme to the directors of the seminary of the Missions-Étrangères in Paris, 18 Nov. 1680 and 18 Jan. 1681, in Launay, ed., Histoire de la Mission, 1:109, 112; André Deslandes-Bourreau to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, BN FF nouvelles acquisitions 9380, fol. 84; François Pallu, bishop of Héliopolis, to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, 15 Nov. 1682, in Launay, ed., Histoire de la Mission, 1:105, 116; and Pallu, 2:307-8.
Sainctot, "Arrivée de trois mandarins . . . 1684," BN FF 14118, fols. 127-127v, 129; Mgr. Laneau to the directors of the seminary of the Missions-Étrangères, c. 4 and 7 Jan. 1684, in Launay, ed., Histoire de la Mission, 1:125-6; and "Ordres du roi de Siam pour MM. Vachet et Pascot pour les envoyés," 14 Jan. 1684, in Launay, ed., Histoire de la Mission, 1:129. Vachet's knowledge of Siamese conditions was certainly tapped during the outward voyage when he spent much of his time describing the most important members of Phra Narai's court to the members of the French embassy until "everyone saw through his eyes." Abbé François-Timoléon de Choisy, Journal du voyage de Siam fait en 1685 & 1686, ed. Maurice Garçon (Paris: Éditions Duchartre & Van Buggenhoudt, 1930), 19.
Richard A. Jackson, Vive le Roi! A History of the French Coronation from Charles V to Charles X (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 213; and Ralph E. Giesey, Cérémonial et puissance souveraine: France, XVe-XVIIe siècles (Paris: Armand Colin, 1987), 69.
Ibid. See also Sarah Hanley, The Lit de Justice of the Kings of France: Constitutional Ideology in Legend, Ritual, and Discourse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) on the role of a king in Europe as the living image of the state.
Sainctot, "Arrivée des trois mandarins...1684," BN FF 14118, fol. 134; Père Bénigne Vachet, "Mémoire pour être présenté à MM. les ministres d'État de France, sur toutes les choses qui regardent les envoyés du Roi de Siam, 1685," in Launay, ed., Histoire de la Mission, 1:154-5; BN FF 5623, fol. 37; and Love, "Monarchs, Merchants, and Missionaries," 11-2.
"Ordre du Roi portant que le Chevalier de Chaumont commandera le sieur de Vaudricourt dans la route de Siam, et part tout ailleurs, 21 janvier 1685," Archives Nationales [hereafter AN] B²52, fol. 50v.; and Choisy, Voyage, 1.
Chaumont's efforts to ensure moral discipline as instructed were apparently successful in view of the abbé de Choisy's quip that "there are no Tartufes here," a reference to Molière's famous comedy about religious hypocrisy, written in 1667: Choisy, Journal du voyage, 20.
Originally, the embassy was to sail only aboard the Oiseau to Siam, but owing to the amount of cargo (including baggage, provisions, and merchandise belonging to the East India Company) stowed aboard by early February 1685, there was real concern that the ship was overburdened and could founder during the voyage. Consequently, the sieur Desclouzeaux, naval intendant at Brest, was instructed to take every precaution to ensure against such a misfortune and if necessary to commission a sister ship to accompany the Oiseau and carry some of the embassy's extraneous baggage. The Maligne was the ship Desclouzeaux selected: Marquis de Seignelay to sieur Desclouzeaux, 7 Feb. 1685, AN B²55, fols. 52v-53.
Among these men were the chevaliers de Sibois and de Forbian, both of whom were lieutenants in the royal navy; MM. de Chammareau and de Francine, ensigns; the chevaliers du Fay and de Freteville, gardes-marine; M. de Vaudricourt, captain of the Oiseau and, according to Chaumont, "a Gentleman admirably well qualified for his Place"; M. de Coriton, first lieutenant aboard the Oiseau; M. de Joyeuse, captain of the Maligne and his two lieutenants, MM. du Tartre and Saint Villiers; M. de Beauregard, a naval cadet and son of a commissaire de la marine; MM. de Soubré, de Brandebourg, and d'Abouville; and the sieurs d'Arbonville, de Compiègne, de Joncous, de Bonneville, de Palu, and de la Forest, all gardes-marines. The latter six were described by the abbé de Choisy as men "of good will" for whom an expedition of two year’s duration over 12,000 leagues "will make good officers” (Journal du voyage, 2). See also Alexandre de Chaumont, A Relation of the Late Embassy of Monsr. de Chaumont, Knt. to the Court of the King of Siam (London: Henry Mortlock, 1687), 136.
Choisy, Journal du voyage, 150. The twelve suits of livery prepared for Chaumont's household staff were the same, except for those to be worn by the trumpeters, which were garnished with gold and silver lace. ("Mémoires des hordes et meubles appartenans au sieur chevalier de Chaumont ambassadeur pour le Roy au Royaume de Siam," 23 Jan. 1685, AN B²52, fol. 54.
The complement of Jesuits included Pères Fontenay, Gerbillon, le Comte, Bouvet, Pardie, Viselou, and Tachard, all of whom Chaumont described as "Men of virtue and learning, whom the King [Louis XIV] had chosen to send to China, to make mathematical observations (p. 69)." See also Choisy, Journal du voyage, 18.
Sieur de Montmor, intendant de la marine at Le Havre, to the marquis de Seignelay, 17 Jan. 1685, AN B³48, fol. 47. To assist the pilots, Montmor provided the copy of a memoir extracted from the journal of a merchant captain named Garnier, who described and offered observations about navigation in the "Great Indies." Upon arrival at Batavia, however, Chaumont secured a fourth pilot from the Dutch governor-general for the final portion of the voyage to Siam via the Banca Strait (Chaumont, 14). According to Choisy, this man, though able, had fallen into disfavor with the Dutch authorities for having traded in contraband goods worth 6,000 écus in violation of Dutch East India Company regulations designed to ensure its commercial monopoly (Choisy, Journal du voyage, 112).
"Extrait de la letter escrite par le s. Deslandes Bourreau, Chef de comptoir establi à Siam par ordre de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales le 8 novembre 1683 au s. Collinet son beau frère," BN FF 15476, fol. 95.
[Marquis de Seignelay] to sieur Desclouzeaux, 12 Feb. 1685, ibid., fol. 83v; and "Lettre du Roy pour luy dire de ne point laisser embarquer aucunnes marchandises pour les particuliers qui vont à Siam. à Versailles le 23 février 1685," ibid., fols. 92v-93.
[Marquis de Seignelay] to sieur Desclouzeaux, 20 Jan. and 7 Feb. 1685, ibid., fols. 35-35v, 53; marquis de Seignelay to Captain de Vaudricourt, 14 Feb. 1685, ibid., fols. 63v-64; and marquis de Seignelay to sieur de Pille, 10 Jan. 1685, ibid., fol. 52v.
Choisy, Journal du voyage, 3, 9, 16, 36. Undoubtedly, some of the lessons in navigation were given by Père Vachet; although the pilots of the Oiseau and the Maligne considered the sea charts that they were provided with from the royal library to be very good, wrote Choisy, "they fell to their knees before the charts of M. Vachet," suggesting that his were far more accurate. (Ibid., 16.)
Ibid., 46. In fact, Choisy had purchased eighteen Portuguese books for the voyage with the specific view of learning the language. Among these volumes was an account of Fernand Mendés Pinto's travels in Asia during the early sixteenth century, but to Choisy's chagrin, his edition was a Spanish translation of the original (Ibid., 11).
"Extrait du Traité fait avec Siam entre monsieur le chevalier de Chaumont ambassadeur extraordinaire de S[a] M[ajesté] T[rès] C[hrestien] et monsieur Constance Phaulkon depute par le roi de Siam, etc., fait à Louvo le 10 décembre 1685," BN FF 17857, fols. 565-565v; see also BN FF nouvelles acquisitions 9352, fol. 115.
Comte Claude de Forbin, Mémoires du comte de Forbin, in Nouvelle collection des mémoires relatifs à l'histoire de France, eds. F. Michaud and L. Poujoulat (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1854), 33:469; and Choisy, Mémoires, 149.
For modern, though largely descriptive narratives of Chaumont's experience in Siam in 1685, see David K. Wyatt, Thailand, A Short History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); W. A. R. Wood, A History of Siam from the Earliest Times to the year A.D. 1781 (Bangkok: T. F. Unwin, 1926); Rong Syamananda, A Short History of Thailand (Bangkok: Kurusapha Ladprao Press, 1988); M. L. Manich Jumsai, The Story of King Narai and His Ambassador to France in 1686, Kosaparn (Bangkok: Chalermnit, 1987); Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe, vol. 3, bk. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); and Dirk Van der Cruysse, Louis XIV et Siam (Paris: Fayard, 1991).
See, for example, the "Mémoire de M. de Chaumont de ce qu'il faut faire pour rendre les mêmes honeurs aux ambassadeurs de Siam, que le roy de Siam en l'a fait à son égard," 1686, BN FF nouvelles acquisitions. 9380, fol. 197. This memorandum was clearly written at the Bourbon Crown's request.