Kosa Pan – A Siamese Diplomat in France

Among the first Siamese visitors to Europe was an embassy of three ambassadors sent by pro-foreign King Narai (r. 1656-88) to the court of Louis XIV. Among them was the diplomat Kosa Pan who was also a minister and the great grandfather of the first King of the present ruling dynasty of Thailand, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke. Formally, Pan was called by the noble title Chao Phraya Kosathibodi (เจ้าพระยาโกษาธิบดี; “Lord Minister of World Affairs”). In addition, his former title was Ok Phra Wisut Sunthon (“Count of Pure Amity”) which was the title for a skilled diplomat.

Kosa Pan

Thai ambassador to France Kosa Pan, 1686 French print, (wikimedia.org)

Thai ambassador to France Kosa Pan, 1686 French print, (wikimedia.org)

Arriving in Brest in June 1686, the ambassadors’ task was to study the language and customs of the French. During their three-week sojourn at the Brittany port, the diplomats took copious notes. Hence, the first ambassador Kosa Pan collected data with relish. He documented every detail he encountered, from the dimensions of navy vessels, flags, lances and crossbeams to those of his bedroom mirror. The main purpose of the Siamese to travel overseas was to record detailed information from the foreign encounter which in turn could be used to the greater good of Siam.

Siamese Embassy To Louis XIV, in 1686, Nicolas Larmessin, personal photograph at the Musee Cognacq, Ile de Re, France

Siamese Embassy To Louis XIV, in 1686, Nicolas Larmessin, personal photograph at the Musee Cognacq, Ile de Re, France (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Therefore, the emphasis of Pan’s account was on monitoring objective truths rather than on conveying subjective impressions. Hence, he also took notes on his visit to Paris and Versailles which are broadly complementary. However, he also mentioned the filthiness of the streets and of French people in general. Thus he pointed out a difference to the Siamese.

Kosa Pan presents King Narai's letter to King Louis. From Smithies, Siam and the Vatican in the Seventeenth Century. Original credited to National Archives of Thailand, wikimedia.org

Kosa Pan presents King Narai’s letter to King Louis. From Smithies, Siam and the Vatican in the Seventeenth Century. Original credited to National Archives of Thailand, wikimedia.org

The ambassador’s observations on the poor standards of 17th century French hygiene further forged a national stereotype which has persisted for centuries and which is still present in contemporary Thai popular imagination. This is for instance exemplified by the common epithet given by Thai football commentators to the French national team, as the ‘thim nam-horm’. This is because the French come from a country renowned for its production of perfume which is called ‘nam-horm’ in Thai. In the past, to the Siamese it seemed that the French were always in need for perfume because they were unwilling to take regular baths 😉

The Siamese ambassador Pan, 1686 French print. Reproduction in Three military accounts of the 1688 revolution in Siam, wikimedia.org

The Siamese ambassador Pan, 1686 French print. Reproduction in Three military accounts of the 1688 revolution in Siam, wikimedia.org

What is more, in his accounts the Siamese diplomat inverts the modern stereotype of French femininity as the embodiment of farang elegance and beauty. In fact, according to Pan, French women are very unattractive and ugly both in behaviour and in appearance. He seems to be appalled by their large noses, pale skin and wanton behaviour. Similarly, Western travellers to Siam also described local women with equal distaste. In terms of cultural studies this can be interpreted as the foreign visitor shoring up a firm sense of his own identity by an acknowledgement of the difference of the ‘Other’.

Kosa Pan with Louis XIV, 1687 French almanach. Reproduction, wikimedia.org

Kosa Pan with Louis XIV, 1687 French almanach. Reproduction, wikimedia.org

Nonetheless, Pan’s embassy was generally met with a rapturous reception and caused a great sensation in the courts and society of Europe. In particular, the French were so enthralled with the amazing textiles worn by the Thai diplomats that they began to imitate the rich silk brocades calling them “Siamoise”. By the way, there is also a Jim Thompson print named in honour of the ambassador, showing a procession of Siamese nobles elegantly dressed in brocades and silk.

Kosa Pan fabric (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

Kosa Pan fabric (photo credit: jimthompsonfabrics.com)

However, after returning to Siam, Pan became a strong advocate of Phetracha who was the ruler overthrowing King Narai and eliminating the French influence. This was the time of the Siamese revolution (1688) which led to Siam severing all ties with the West until they were renewed in the 19th century.

French depiction of King Narai, 18th century print. Reproduction in Les Missions Etrangeres Perrin, wikimedia.org

French depiction of King Narai, 18th century print. Reproduction in Les Missions Etrangeres Perrin, wikimedia.org

Under Phetracha’s rule, former diplomat Pan became Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. However, about a decade later in 1700 Pan was disgraced. It is said that King Phetracha cut off Pan’s nose so that the former diplomat committed suicide.

Summing up, we may say that Kosa Pan was a kind of pioneer being one of the first Siamese to visit Europe. Additionally, he was also the direct ancestor of King Rama I who founded the Chakri Dynasty.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)




Nielloware Art in Thailand

Nielloware art and jewellery have been very popular in Thailand. In my opinion, it is one of the most elaborate and beautiful Thai art handicrafts. However, the niello technique does not seen to have originated in Thailand. It is said that this artistic craftwork was introduced by the Portuguese or the Persians to Thailand since both countries had an early presence in Siam. Thus, nielloware became a speciality in the southern Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Nielloware Art in Thailand

Nakhon National Museum Thailand Nielloware Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com )

Nakhon National Museum, Thailand- Nielloware Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com )

The tradition of presenting nielloware objects as State gifts goes back to the reign of King Narai of Ayutthaya (1656-1688), since niello objects are considered as luxury articles. In Thai, niello objects are referred to as ‘khruang thom’. This term is derived from the Pali word ‘thompa’ and the Sanskrit term ‘sathompa’. Hence, ‘thom’ means ‘to fill sth. up’ or ‘to contain’. Thus, ‘khruang thom’  refers to the art of applying the niello liquid which is called ‘ya thom’.

In fact, the process of creating niello objects is very complicated and elaborate. Hence, it requires great skill from the craftsman: the object to be decorated, commonly of silver or gold is incised with a traditional Thai pattern. The areas which are to be the background are carved in deep relief and filled with niello which is a black mixture of metallic alloys of lead, copper and silver.

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

Afterwards the niello is fused with the metal of the object by heating. The object is then smoothed by hand with a file and polished. Additional details can also be incised during the filing and polishing process. In the finished article, the silver or gold base of the object stands out and contrasts with the matte black background.

It is also important to note that in particular Siam sterling nielloware often depicts scenes from the Ramakien which is the Thai epic tale of Rama.

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

Nakhon National Museum Niello Bowl (photo credit: jeffersonscher.com)

The following video demonstrates the process of making niello objects and relates the history of this handicraft. The video is only available in Thai, however even if you don’t understand the language, you can understand how niello is made and how painstaking the process is.

In a nutshell, we may say that the art of nielloware in Thailand is very elaborate and a supreme handicraft. It is truly impressive how delicate the pattern on niello objects is. Hence, they are indeed luxury articles unique in the world 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Treasures from The National Museum Bangkok, Selected by The National Museum Volunteers Group, 4th reprint 2006)