The Remarkable History of the Portuguese in Thailand

These days the community of Westerners resident in Thailand is dominated by British, Americans, Germans, French or Scandinavians. But in fact the western community with by far the longest history in Thailand is the Portuguese who first arrived in 1511 some one hundred years before any other European nation. This is the story of this remarkable enduring relationship.

Empire Building

Through the fifteenth century the Portuguese led an extraordinary global exploration which opened Europe up to Asia. Their motivation was trade and particularly finding a sea route to the fabled spice islands where riches could be made.

The Portuguese exploration started in 1415 with the capture of Cueta on the North African coast. From there the Portuguese slowly moved further and further south down the west coast of Africa driven by trade opportunities and the belief that perhaps there may be a sea route through to Asia.

This belief was finally proved correct in 1497 when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. By May 1498 Vasco da Gama had landed on the coast of India. The Portuguese expanded their growing empire into the Indian Ocean and pushed east towards south east Asia.

A 1529 Portuguese map of the world by Diego Ribero

A Tailor Arrives in Siam

In 1511 Afonso de Albuquerque captured Malacca which was a key hub for trade in the region. In doing so he released some Portuguese who had been held prisoner there, one of these being a tailor called Duarte Fernandes. Fernandes had learnt to speak Malay and so was chosen by Albuquerque to lead a diplomatic mission to Siam since Malacca was a tributary state of Siam’s.

Afonso de Albuquerque, the naval commander who created an empire for Portugal in Asia

And so it was that in 1511 a Portuguese tailor arrived in Ayutthaya, somewhat modestly upon a Chinese junk, as the first ever envoy from Europe. He was received in audience by King Ramathibodi II to whom he presented a golden sword in a diamond studded sheath as well as a polite letter justifying the Portuguese conquest of Malacca. It appears that this strange foreigner pleased the King who was happy to accept the capture of Malacca by the Portuguese. Fernandes returned to Malacca together with a Siamese envoy with extravagant presents for the King of Portugal.

Further missions to Siam followed and in 1518 Duarte de Coelho signed a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, the very first treaty between Siam and a European nation (This was 337 years before the famous Bowring Treaty with Britain).

Guns and Mercenaries

During these early contacts between Siamese and Portuguese each side had weighed up the other and considered their motivations. The Siamese understood the Portuguese were motivated by trade whilst the Portuguese realised that what the Siamese sought most was access to guns and the advanced military technology that they possessed.

Although Arab traders has previously bought guns and cannons to Siam, the Portuguese offered not only the latest improvements in this technology but also personnel to teach their use and construction (Later the Portuguese would establish a gun foundry at Ayutthaya). Even before the treaty of friendship was signed, King Ramathibodi II hired some 100 Portuguese soldiers to march north to Lampang to teach a lesson to the King of Chiangmai who had annexed Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet. Over the coming decades Portuguese mercenaries became an important part of the Siamese army and the King’s personal body guard.

These Japanese matchlock firearms dating from 1543 were copied from Portuguese designs and show the type of weapons available to the Siamese at Ayutthaya

By 1548 when the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya for the first time, they were surprised to come under fire from Portuguese musketeers. However, the defenders were in turn to be surprised when the Burmese were able to return fire from their own contingent of Portuguese mercenaries. The Portuguese had not been selective in their regional trade and in fact they supplied far more arms to the Burmese than they ever supplied to the Siamese. Nevertheless in this first attack it was reported that the Portuguese gunners were crucial in saving Siam’s poorly prepared capital.

Portuguese mercenaries carrying muskets supporting Burmese forces as portrayed in a mural inside Ananda Okkyaung, Bagan, Myanmar

After the Burmese had retreated King Chakraphat took advice from the Portuguese and Ayutthaya’s old earthen and wooden city walls were rebuilt in brick, including the construction of fortified gun towers projected at an angle outwards from the walls. This would enable the defenders to fire with devastating effect into the flanks of a besieging army pressed up against the city walls. When the Burmese returned with greater force in 1568 these defences proved their worth for eight months, the invaders only entering the city in the end due to treachery from within.

The fortified walls of Ayutthaya built with Portuguese know how were never breached by Burmese forces

Portuguese Village

Following the signing of the treaty of friendship the Portuguese began building up a permanent presence in Ayutthaya. In 1540 King Chairacha rewarded 120 Portuguese mercenaries by granting them a plot of land on the river just south of the capital. This developed into the “Portuguese Village” which was the center for the Portuguese community for over 200 years. At its peak it was home to some 2000 households.

A French map of Ayutthaya from 1686 showing the “Quartier des Portugais” to the south of the city

The Catholic faith was an important part of life for these settlers in a remote non-Christian land. The Treaty of Friendship and Commerce signed with the Siamese allowed the Portuguese to practice and preach their religion. In 1555 (or 1567 according to some sources) the first Dominican Friars arrived to carry out the mission of converting Siam to the Christian faith. They were somewhat unsuccessful and in fact tended to keep their preaching within the Portuguese community. Over time the community built three different churches, reflecting the divisions between Domincans, Jesuits and Franciscans.

Venice of the East

One of the few detailed accounts we have of sixteenth century Ayutthaya is that of Fernão Mendes Pinto who spent 21 years in Asia, not without adventure. He claims to have been taken prisoner 13 times and sold 17 times! For ten years from the mid-1540’s he lived in Ayutthaya which he described many years later in his magnum opus Peregrinação (Pilgrim), unfortunately a work also noted for great exaggerations. It is from this work that we have the famous description of Ayutthaya (Later applied also to Bangkok) as “The Venice of the East”. In this Pinto was probably not just referring to the extent of canals and waterways but also to the amount of trade being conducted in Ayutthaya, this being what Venice was also famous for in the sixteenth century.

Pinto’s “Peregrinação” in which he describes “The Venice of the East”

Pinto also provides a description of the goods being traded at this time, a trade which would have pre-occupied most of the residents of the Portuguese Village. He mentions the vast number of huge trees in the highlands which could be used to build thousands of ships. He talks of mining “in great quantity” of gold, silver, iron lead, tin, rubies and sapphires. Also ivory , benzoin (gum resin), alum, honey and sugar all contributed to filling “more than one hundred junks” each year (Here he is is probably describing the annual trade with China). In summary Pinto describes Siam as “one of the finest kingdoms in the world”.

Portuguese Influences

Unlike other Europeans who were to arrive later, the early Portuguese arrivals had no moral strictures against marriage with local women. In fact Afonso de Albuquerque encouraged such inter-marriage throughout the empire he was building in Asia, perhaps realising that this was the only way by which a small nation such as Portugal could establish itself permanently in trade centers across the globe. Because of this policy the Portuguese community in Siam became increasingly racially and culturally mixed. This close integration with Siam society explains the enduring nature of the Siamese-Portuguese community, who stayed in Siam despite major social dislocation in both 1569 and later in 1767.

The Portuguese had a significant impact on Siamese food. The Siamese desserts thong yip, thong yot and foi thong were introduced to King Narai by Maria Guyomar de Pina who was of mixed Portuguese-Japanese-Bengali descent. They are still often prepared for Thai celebrations. The Portuguese also brought across from Brazil sweet potato, tomatoes, lettuce, custard apples, papaya and pineapple. And most importantly it was the Portuguese who introduced the Siamese to chillis – Thai cooking never looked back.

Fruits and vegetables that the Portuguese bought from Brazil transformed Thai cooking

The Portuguese language became the lingua franca between Siam and other European nations. When the Dutch, British and French arrived in Ayutthaya in the seventeenth century their negotiations were frequently conducted via Portuguese and hence subject to being translated twice in each direction. Even in 1833 the first treaty between Siam and the United States of America was translated into Portuguese as a common language that both sides could understand.

The End of Portuguese Village

In 1765 two huge Burmese armies crossed in to Siam, attacking from both north and south. Subduing Siamese towns on their way they converged on Ayutthaya in early 1766. They lay siege to the city, building a ring of wooden forts around it, one of which was built within the Portuguese Village. It is likely the inhabitants had taken refuge within the city walls by that time, or else fled completely. The city eventually fell in April 1767, again it seems due to treachery from within.

This time the destruction of Ayutthaya was total. The Burmese removed all the riches of the city back to their own capital, together with weaponry and huge numbers of people. King Ekkathat reportedly starved to death in the surrounding forests a fate which probably befell many of the city’s citizens.

Today little remains of the once prosperous Portuguese Village. The brick foundations of the Dominican Church of San Petro can still be seen by visitors to the site. Behind the church lies the graveyard which has been excavated by archaeologists to reveal some of the skeletons of those who lived and died there.

Remains of Portuguese settlers lying in the former cemetery of the Portuguese Village, Ayutthaya

Resettlement at Kudi Jeen

Under the leadership of King Taksin the Siamese regrouped to the south in Thon Buri. Portuguese mercenaries were still supporting his army to push back the Burmese and as early as 1769 King Taksin granted land just south of his own palace for the Portuguese. This community became known as the Kudi Jeen village or “Chinese monk’s house village”. Some sources say the name came from adjacent Chinese temples, others say from the Chinese styling of their own church in the nineteenth century.

Santa Cruz Church at the centre of Kudi-Jeen community

Kudi Jeen lives on today as a distinctive community around the Santa Cruz church (Rebuilt in 1913 in Renaissance Revival style). In the narrow laneways live some 80 families descended from Portuguese-Siamese marriages and still practicing their Catholic faith. A few of these families still prepare traditional foods unique to this community. In recent years the Baan Kudichin Museum has been opened in one of the old wooden houses to showcase the history of this unique community.




Kalawar

The Holy Rosary Church

At the time that Santa Cruz church was built the only priests in the country were French. Some within the Portuguese community refused to accept the authority of a French priest and so left to set up their own church, taking with them two revered images, Our Lady of the Rosary and The Corpse of Christ. Moving across the river and south about 2km they built their own church, known in Thai as “Kalawar” from the word Calvary describing The Corpse of Christ. Ironically, despite building their own church the community still had to invite a French priest to come and conduct mass for many years as there were no others in Siam.

The current gothic style Church of the Holy Rosary dates back to 1897. The community still parade their highly revered images around the church each year, on Good Friday for the Corpse of Christ and on October 1st for the Lady of the Rosary.

The Portuguese and Khmer Village

A third Portuguese community dates back to 1785 when King Phra Puttha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I) granted land to some 500 Portuguese and Khmer soldiers as a reward for assisting in his military campaigns against Cambodia. This community became known as the “Khmer Village” and its landmark today is the Conception Church built in 1838.

The narrow laneways of Khmer Village around Conception Church


If you’re interested in the history of these beautiful churches along the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, Siam Rat wrote a previous article on this topic here.

Bangkok’s First Embassy

When King Rama I bestowed land for the Khmer Village he also promised land for a trading outpost. This promise was acted upon by his successor King Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II) who in 1820 granted the Portuguese a plot of land south of the Holy Rosary church. The Portuguese used this land to build their diplomatic mission in 1860, the very first in Bangkok.

The Ambassador’s residence was rebuilt in 1875 by the architect Joachim-Grassi who at that time designed some of Bangkok’s finest buildings (Including the bell tower of Conception Church). The Ambassador’s Residence is still visible from the river today, for those who aren’t looking in the opposite direction at the modern edifice of Icon Siam. Occasionally the residence is also open to the public giving a rare opportunity to see this beautifully maintained period building.

The magnificent Portuguese Ambassador’s Residence in Bangkok, Thailand’s oldest diplomatic mission
(Photo from Embaixada de Portugal em Banguecoque, Facebook)

Where to Go

References

  1. Siam & The West 1500 – 1700, Dirk Van der Cruysse. Silkworm Books. 1991.
  2. Ayutthaya Venice of the East, Derick Garneir. River Books. 2004.
  3. A History of Ayutthaya, Baker and Phonpaichit. Cambridge Books. 2017.
  4. Thailand A Short History, David K.Wyatt. Silkworm Books. 1991.
  5. The Portrayal of the Battle of Ayutthaya in Myanmar Literature, Soe Thuzar Myint. Chulalongkorn University Press. 2011.
  6. https://asia.nikkei.com/Life-Arts/Life/Bangkok-enclave-celebrates-its-Portuguese-past2
  7. https://www.tour-bangkok-legacies.com/baan-kudichin-museum.html
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Guyomar_de_Pinha

Header Image – Grotto of The Virgin Mary located by Conception Church, Bangkok

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