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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)




The Concept of ‘Siwalai’ in Late 19th Century Siam

You’ve probably come across the term ‘siwalai‘ (ศิวาลัย) in some way or other. Just think of the ‘siwalai‘ dress that we’ve dealt with in the context of traditional Thai dresses or the Siwalai garden (Suan Siwalai, สวนศิวาลัย) which is situated in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. The Siamese notion of ‘siwalai was first introduced in the reign of King Mongkut (r.1851-1868) and can be regarded as a modified version of the English word ‘civilized’.

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and is situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: Andreas Hörstemeier, wikimedia.org)

The Notion of Siwalai

Thus, the meaning of this term ranged from etiquette to material progress in the sense of new bureaucracy, infrastructure, electricity, judicial system as well as dress codes, grooming and appearance. However, it is interesting to note that the Siamese quest for ‘civilization’ was primarily a transcultural process in which Western practices and ideas had been adapted, transferred and incorporated into the Siamese setting.

King Chulalongkorn and Family, dressed in Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

King Chulalongkorn and family, dressed in Victorian fashion, around the 1890s, photograph of a painting made more than 100 years ago (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

In other words, this led to the phenomenon that Western and Siamese aspects were mixed and combined together. For instance, this is shown in clothing: ladies of the court had assumed the hybridized fashion of combining Victorian lacy, high-collared blouses with traditional jongkraben pantaloons (wrapped trousers). Queen Saowapha (also written ‘Saovabha’) who was the chief consort of Chulalongkorn also wore this kind of mixed fashion.

Queen Saowapha, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Queen Saowapha in 1902, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

For this reason, ‘siwalai’ might be regarded as a technique that could provide Siam with equally civilized standards to the West. Nonetheless, additionally to its display of civilized standards to the West, it also served as a local legitimization for the symbolic powers of the Siamese elite. That is to say that there was a gap between a ‘siwalai’ Westernized public domain and a private domain which remained Thai and local. However, generally we may say that the quest for civilization served as a project for self-confirmation as well as of constructing occidentalized images of Siamese prestige. Thus, we may also claim that Siamese siwalai never had the intention to imitate all features of Western civilization.

It is more the case that distinctively Western features were adapted in order to create something new that was nevertheless completely Siamese. Hence, things and aspects labelled as civilized were considered as prestigious and authoritative. Referring back to the example of fashion, the following clip shows how Western fashion was adapted to fit in a new Siamese style considered as ‘civilized’. What is more, it is also interesting to note that today the Siamese Fashionista group tries to encourage young Thais to dress traditionally again.

Finally, we may claim that siwalai was in fact a kind of elite mimetic resistance to the West and not an attempt of farangization and westernization respectively. What do you think about this topic?

Yours, Sirinya

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