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Phuket History: Siam’s conflict with Portugal

Portugal and Siam had gener­ally got along well at first, but the Portuguese, especially after they united with the Spanish crown (1580-1640) grew increasingly arrogant and overbearing towards the Siamese kings Ekathotsarot and Songtham.

By Colin Mackay

Sunday 22 September 2019, 03:00PM

A Dutch and Portuguese fleet in a sea battle in the Malacca Straits south of Phuket.

A Dutch and Portuguese fleet in a sea battle in the Malacca Straits south of Phuket.

In 1613, for example, a Portuguese fleet on its way from Goa to Ayutthaya attacked and sacked Keddah without the Siamese king’s permis­sion. Then in 1617, with Holland and the united Catholic Iberian kingdom at war in Europe, a Portuguese ship in Ayutthaya attacked a Dutch frig­ate in the Chao Phraya River right in King Songtham’s backyard. This was too much for him and the offending Portuguese ship was surrounded by hundreds of Siamese war boats and captured. The Spanish captain Don Fernando de Silva was gruesomely ex­ecuted and his sailors cast into prison.

In retaliation, the Spanish authori­ties in Manila captured, sacked and burnt a Siamese junk carrying a cargo belonging to King Songtham on its way home from China. The Siamese king then “put an embargo upon all Portu­guese ships which were found in the ports of Lygoar and Tannasary [Ligor and Tenasserim]”– that is, in all the peninsular ports such as Phuket. All the Portuguese in Siam, including the Jesuit priest and the few Portuguese tin traders in Phuket, were arrested and imprisoned, “out of which they were not set at liberty till two years later”.

This Portuguese dispute with King Songtham lasted for 15 years until his death in 1628 and it allowed the Dutch and the Japanese to gain the upper hand over the Portuguese in the Sia­mese and peninsular trade.

The Dutch muscle the Portuguese out of Phuket and the Peninsula

The better-armed VOC [Dutch East In­dia Company] ships continued to harass and attack any Iberian shipping in the region at every opportunity they had. “The Dutch”, venomously noted one Portuguese writer in Malacca, “are only good cannoneers. For everything else they are only worthy of being burnt as reprobate heretics.”

As early as 1606 the Dutch allied with the sultan of Johore and jointly attacked the Portuguese stronghold of Malacca, but with its stout walls, the city’s fortress was adjudged to be “not a cat to be handled without gloves”. The Portuguese withstood the siege, as they had withstood the 14 previous sieges of the city by the Acehnese and Johorese Malays and other Muslims. The Dutch mounted two more unsuccessful attacks on Malacca, in 1608 and 1615.

In 1618 the VOC came under the leadership of its fourth governor gen­eral, the ambitious and cruel Jan Pieterszoon Cohen, and it became much more aggressive. Over the next 30 years the Dutch brutally evicted the Portuguese from most of their eastern bastions. In 1618 the VOC captured the Portuguese bases in the Moluccan Spice Islands.

In 1619 they attacked and captured Jakarta, which they forti­fied, renamed Batavia and made their main base in the East. Operating from there, VOC warships raided Portuguese shipping in the Malacca Straits and right up the peninsular west coast. One VOC report in 1620 tells of two Portuguese ships encountered leaving Phuket “heading for Trang” which were attacked just off the island by a VOC patrol ship. “One was wrecked and the other taken.”

In 1640 a huge Acehnese fleet of 236 boats and 20,000 men launched yet another attack on Portuguese Malacca which weakened the city’s defences. Then, just a few months later, in Janu­ary 1641, the VOC, in alliance with some 1,500 Johorese Malays, followed up and attacked the weakened city once again. The attack and siege went on for over a year. Inside the city the defenders starved, the inhabitants being forced to eat cats, dogs, snakes, rats and leather, and mothers were even forced to eat their dead babies. Malaria, typhoid and cholera also took a huge toll on both sides.

The Dutch siege general reported he had lost half his force, “a little under 1,000 men killed in action and dead through epidemics”. He estimated that over 7,000 of the roughly 10,000 people inside the besieged city had died. Even­tually the Dutch broke through the fort walls and the Portuguese defenders still fought them street by street, putting up a heroic defence and only surrendering after their commander was killed.

The Dutch general, awed at their gallantry, buried the dead Portuguese with full honours and, out of respect, let the defenders leave the city with their possessions and sail off to Goa. This general was later reprimanded for this compassion by VOC shareholders in Holland, who complained that, “The vanquished enemy was quite thought­lessly allowed full liberty against all customs of war … In this way they car­ried off more than 100,000 reals worth of gold and jewelry, besides the most val­uable slaves of both sexes … This foolish act robbed the Company of at least four to five tons of gold”.

After 130 years’ dominance around the peninsula’s coasts, the Portuguese had been overthrown. Malacca was al­most completely destroyed, as one Dutch official in Batavia complained. “From a well built city, cultivated land and more than 20,000 inhabitants, it has been reduced to a heap of ruins, a desert with few inhabitants.”

In Phuket, at the same time, in 1641, the Portuguese mestizo community and the Franciscans had just been building a new and bigger mission in Tharua to support their growing colony there, but just after its completion, a Dutch patrol ship and its marines chased out the Portuguese residents.

These Portuguese refugees, under Siamese law, were forced to leave their half-breed children and Catholicised wives behind. Most of them continued to live in Tharua near the mission, practicing a strange form of homegrown Catholicism. They and their mestizo Christian descendants became the choice local partners, mistresses and wives for later Christian sailors visiting the island. The male mestizo Portuguese of the island, we are told later, specialised in fishing and obtain­ing forest products from the interior regions and bringing them to Tharua to trade with foreigners.

Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com

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