New book brings to light an important chapter in Siamese history
The recently published A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World—from historians Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit—reassesses the history of Ayutthaya and shows how the city had been, until its destruction in 1767, the most vibrant centre of Thai cultural and economic development.
“There is a lot of misconception regarding the history of Ayutthaya,” explains co-author Chris Baker. “For Thai people, Sukhothai appears like a fortunate time… the ‘Dawn of Happiness’. By contrast, Ayutthaya is often associated with the decadence of the Siamese Kingdom, an interpretation which has a lot to do with a post-nationalist interpretation of Thai history.
“With a range of new documents, it is time to reinterpret and understand Ayutthaya history in a new light,” he goes on to say. “We looked not only at documents from Siam, and of foreign visitors to Siam, but also chronicles coming from China, the Malay archipelago, and from the Portuguese, in order to better understand the evolution of Ayutthaya.”
A History of Ayutthaya is indeed an important reference for anyone with a keen interest in the history of Siam. According to Baker, no book in English on Ayutthaya has been released for at least 30 years (and even longer for books in Thai). “We look to Ayutthaya as the start of Siam’s entry into the modern world,” explains Baker.
The book is one of the most comprehensive even written about this ancient capital city. It contains seven different chapters, covering Ayutthaya from its origins (and even before), up to its collapse following the city siege by Burmese troops, and onwards to its present day legacy. And the best part is that the book can be read like a novel, due to the fascinating development of the former capital.
The first chapters look at the emergence of Ayutthaya, born from the necessity of doing trading with China. “Ayutthaya’s prosperity rises from its location, upstream on the Chao Praya River,” Baker points out. “Being away from the sea, and from attacks by pirates, Ayutthaya appears as a safe place for trading, especially with China. In turn, Ayutthaya generated a commercial trade society.”
The rise of Ayutthaya coincided with the beginning of the 15th century. In the chapter, ‘An Age of Warfare’, the book describes how Ayutthaya send armies to fight against the neighbouring kingdoms of Angkor, Chiang Mai, and Tavoy. “Making war with their neighbours was not about territory, but about resources,” explains Baker. “We have many descriptions of the transfer to Ayutthaya of textiles, gold, the most beautiful women and, of course, elephants. We know that in 1497, Ayutthaya had 500 elephants; in 1551, the city had a population of 10,000 elephants. And the animals were a sign of opulence.”
Wars brought an immense wealth to Ayutthaya city, and the kings fostered a new commercial spirit. The energy that went into war was transformed into an energy to generate money, as described in the chapter entield ‘Peace and Commerce’. We learn in this chapter how the city built its wealth, and how monarchs of the time turned into formidable traders, with monopolies on various goods. The triumphant 17th century for Ayutthaya translated into establishing diplomatic relations with many countries around the world, such as France. In addition, many foreigners at that time settled in the town, including Persians—who played an important role not only in the economy but also in the arts.
The golden age of Ayutthaya reaches its peak in 1688. From that date until 1767—the year of the city’s ransacking—Ayutthaya became increasingly isolated and its economy declined significantly. “However, this is where we reassess Ayutthaya’s history,” Baker is quick to add. “We know that if economic conditions worsened, it was still a brilliant cultural society, expressed through literature, dramas, paintings, and the construction of temples. We see also the emergence of a society with socially responsible citizens.” The book looks also at the role played by both the monarchy and Buddhism.
In the end, Ayutthaya’s wealth made it a target for attacks. The Burmese started the siege of the city to seize its wealth. When they finally took over Ayutthaya they decided to burn the city up to the ground. The city never recovered from its destruction until the end of the 19th century. But its spirit was transferred to the new capitals, first in Thonburi, and then to modern day Bangkok. But that’s a whole other story.
By Luc Citrinot
A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit (Cambridge University Press) retails for B1,250 and is available in Bangkok exclusively at the bookshop of the Siam Society, 131 Asoke Rd.