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Siam and French missionaries, a tumultuous history

History taught missioners to stay away from politics and be closer to people in remote villages, their culture and language

Siam and French missionaries, a tumultuous history

An artistic expression of handing over to a court officer a letter of France's King Louis XIV meant for King Narai of Siam in 1687.(Photo: Eglises d'Asie)

Published: April 20, 2020 03:56 AM GMT

Updated: April 20, 2020 04:02 AM GMT

Between a warm welcome and open hostility, French missionaries had to overcome a series of misunderstandings to establish themselves in Siam, present-day Thailand. It was so despite their playing a significant role in the continuity of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The first French missionaries landed in the Kingdom of Siam in 1662. After a long and arduous journey of more than two years, they arrived in the royal city of Ayutthaya, 100 kilometers from present-day Bangkok.


Siam, with its policy of religious tolerance, they believed, could be a strategic base for the persecuted missions of Cochinchina, Tonkin and China.

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The French did not "disembark" because they had traveled by cart to avoid the Portuguese, their rivals, on the seas. The Portuguese enjoyed the legitimacy of the Padroado, an agreement by which the Vatican granted the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to send missionaries abroad. The Portuguese wished to protect Siam as part of their turf. The first French missionaries, therefore, undertook the long and painful journey, crossing through the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), Iraq, Iran and India, to reach Ayutthaya. Some, like Bishop Ignace Cotolendi, vicar of Nanking and founding member of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP), died on the road.

Upon their arrival, they were welcomed by a dozen Portuguese and Spanish religious, whom they found busy serving a community of 2,000 people, settled in "Campo Portugués" on the banks of the river. The principles of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith did not allow missionaries to engage in politics or commerce. The French were shocked to see the religious, many among them Jesuits, being active in the court of Siam and doing business.

Bishop Lambert de la Motte, apostolic vicar of Cochinchine and director of the mission, sent many letters to the pope denouncing the "debauched" behaviour of the Portuguese religious. There were abuses, attests Françoise Buzelin, a specialist of the period and author of a biography of Bishop Lambert, "and even the mistreatment of the local population."

"The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, under the authority of Pope Gregory XV, was born out of the failure of the Padroado: the religious sent and financed by the courts of Spain and Portugal found it difficult to separate religious interests from the economic and political interests of their countries. As for the French, their watchword was "to forget that they were French, to put the interests of religion first."

After the first difficult years, when he was forced to take refuge with the Dutch to escape an assassination attempt, Bishop Lambert obtained from the Siamese king Phra Narai a property in the camp of the Annamites (Vietnamese). He opened the first hospital in the city and a seminary, the General College of Saint Joseph, with the financial support of the court of Siam.

Two years after his arrival, he was joined by Bishop Pallu, vicar of Tonkin, and by Bishop Louis Laneau, who quickly learned Siamese and became the first vicar of Siam. The main goal of the mission was to form an autonomous local clergy. A few priests were trained, mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, and a few Japanese.

Convert the king of Siam?

French missionaries can count on the apparent support of King Narai, a curious man from the West. While their confreres in Tonkin have to act clandestinely, sometimes posing as merchants, the missionaries of Siam enjoy the freedom of worship. They are even allowed to preach provided they do so in a foreign language, not in Thai or Pali, the language of the Buddhist monks, which still severely limits their field of action. They even have land and funds to build churches. At the suggestion of Bishop Laneau, the king of Siam sent two emissaries to the court of Louis XIV.

It was the start of a strategy that would prove fruitful for Thailand throughout the colonial period. King Narai sought to surround himself with foreigners to fight against foreign armies and avoid colonization, both military and cultural. His prime minister at the time, Constantin Phaulkon — a polyglot Greek, Francophile and close to the French king Louis XIV — played an important role in the acceptance of the Christian faith in Siam.

The Siamese sovereign reserves a warmer welcome for the French missionaries as he seeks to counterbalance the growing Dutch influence in the region. Added to this is the Buddhist philosophy of religious tolerance, which was "incomprehensible to people of the 17th century," says Buzelin. It gives rise to the first of a long series of misunderstandings between the French and Siamese. Some missionaries, especially the Jesuits close to the French court, who correspond ardently with Phaulkon, believe that the Siamese king could be converted to Catholicism.

These somewhat hazardous speculations lead to the catastrophic diplomatic mission of 1687, whose explicit goal is the conversion of King Narai. It is led by Abbot Tachard, a Jesuit who carries with him a letter from Louis XIV to the king of Siam. He also brings 14 Jesuit priest-mathematicians and equipment to observe the stars, a passion of King Narai. The mission was a resounding failure, with the king stating that "no king of Siam has ever adopted a religion different from that of his subjects."

Failed attempt

After this unsuccessful attempt, part of the aristocracy and the people took a dim view of the growing influence of Westerners on an aging and ill king. Rumors swell: Constantine Phaulkon would want power for himself, he would hold the heir of King Narai, the young Phra Pui, under his thumb.

Some even say that Phaulkon has converted Phra Pui in secret and are waving the scarecrow of a Christian monarch of Siam. While the king is dying, one of his military advisers foments a coup and seizes power. Phaulkon and his followers are executed. King Narai learns the news on his deathbed, helplessly, and dies a week later as a prisoner in his own palace. The French are expelled from the kingdom and all diplomatic relations stop until 1856.

Bishop Laneau and all the missionaries and seminarians of the MEP were the first to bear the brunt of these political upheavals. They were thrown into cages and held hostage for 21 months to ensure the proper application of the treaty of withdrawal of French troops. Converts were asked to abandon the Christian religion and dispersed, and all Christian preaching was henceforth forbidden. When the mission regains a little of its autonomy around 1690, everything is about to start again. There are still about 120 Siamese Christians. The six French missionaries who remain in Siam decide to restart, swearing to stay away from politics from now on.

Friendship of King Mongkut

In the decades to come, the mission lives in extreme poverty. The priests are isolated, but they are the only French presence in the Kingdom of Siam, thus playing an essential role in the continuity of relations between France and Siam. It was not until the middle of the 18th century that the Kingdom of Siam was once again open to Western culture and the Christian faith. The warm and political personality of the young apostolic vicar of Eastern Siam (Thailand and Laos), Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, who became a friend of King Mongkut, had a great deal to do with the warming of these relations.

Bishop Pallegoix was a young parish priest from a Burgundian wine-growing family when Paris Foreign Missions sent him to Siam in 1828 at the age of 23. He met the future King Mongkut in 1834 when the king was a monk at the Bowonniwet Temple in Bangkok and agreed to give him Latin lessons. In exchange, the prince taught him Siamese and Pali, and a very strong friendship ensued which would not cease when Mongkut acceded to the throne in 1851.

Returning for a brief mission in France in 1853, Pallegoix pushed Napoleon III to resume diplomatic relations with Siam, which had been interrupted since Louis XIV. The emperor sent an emissary in 1856.

The missionaries, who had revived the tradition of literate men, able to speak at least Siamese and several Chinese dialects, were once again welcomed with open arms; some of them taught at court. Bishop Pallegoix also published a Thai-French-English dictionary and a Description of the Thai Kingdom (in Thai: เรื่องเล่ากรุงสยาม). Both these reference books were published at the imperial printing house in Paris in 1854.

The death of Bishop Pallegoix in June 1862 witnesses an unusual gesture from the king of Siam for a foreigner. The king descends from the palace with his family to greet the passage of the bishop's body. And, "when it passed in front of him, the king took off his hat, bowing at the same time as the royal flag was lowered halfway up the mast" (Simona Somsri Bunarunraksa, Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, Chemins de la Mémoire publishing house). Fifteen cannon shots are fired: it is the most visible and solemn Christian ceremony in the history of Siam.

The following period opens the golden age of foreign missions. In 1901, the French law on associations pushes many congregations, forbidden to practice in France, to go into exile. Thousands of religious men and women left for Asia to found schools, hospitals and orphanages. In Bangkok, Father Emile Auguste Colombet of the Paris Foreign Missions founded the Collège de l'Assomption (Assumption College), which was later taken over by the Brothers of the Order of Saint Gabriel. It aimed to educate the middle-poor classes, but with the financial support of King Chulalongkorn, it became one of the most famous establishments in the kingdom, educating the Thai elite up to the present day.

New era of persecutions

The 1930s, followed by the Second World War and the establishment of the ultranationalist government of Phibun Songkram, ushered in an era of persecution of Christians. The French fathers, reputed to be close to the monarchy, were evacuated to Vietnam, local priests were imprisoned, and Christians were asked to abandon their faith. It demanded that every good Thai must be a Buddhist. Those who did not accept were banned from working or beaten. Father Nicolas Kimbangrung, a native of Nakhon Pathom, died in his prison of tuberculosis in 1944 and was beatified on March 5, 2000. He is today the main local figure of Thai Christianity.

Since then, the French missionaries never regained their place as privileged interlocutors of the kings of Siam and kept more than ever away from political circles. However, their experience in remote areas, interaction with people not frequented by expatriates from the big cities, their mastery of languages, and therefore of local thoughts, always opened the doors of the embassies to them, where one is eager to hear their testimonies.

"One MEP priest is like 10 anthropologists," said a member of the diplomatic corps posted in Thailand. At the mission's headquarters, we always come across young volunteers and priests based in the border areas or in neighboring countries, who come for a few days to rest and socialize, as well as many others, Catholic or not, who wish to discuss, inform themselves and exchange on the reality of Thailand.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.


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