I knew there would be controversy when I wrote For the Love of Siam, the Story of King Narai and Constantine Phaulkon but I never thought it would be so intense. The debate centers on the question of whether or not the Kingdom of Siam, under the reign of King Narai, came close to converting Siam to Christianity.
Royal barges in King Narai’s day
The story of King Narai and Constantine Phaulkon had long been my interest but I never entertained the idea of writing a book about King Narai. I was, however, asked to write a six-hour television script on the king and Constantine, his Greek foreign minister. The idea for the TV series was hatched by Skip Heinecke who, at the time, was the Sales Director for Marriot Riverside Resort in Bangkok. Skip for many years had a been a movie promoter in Hollywood and he knew the movie business inside and out. When he came to Thailand to work for the hotel he heard tales about a shipwrecked Greek sailor who rose to become Siam’s Foreign Minister during the reign of King Narai during the 17th century. When Skip dug deeper into the subject he came to the conclusion that the story would make a great movie, perhaps even more powerful than “The King & I.” He searched around and found several books had been written about King Narai and Constantine, but he was unable to negotiate movie or TV rights with the publishers. Then he asked if I’d be interested in writing the script. Skip was familiar with my books (Return to Adventure and Who Needs a Road) and historical pieces I wrote for the Bangkok Post like Joseph Conrad sailing up the Chao Phraya, the sacking of Ayutthaya and other adventures.
Although in ruin, the original gate to ancient Ayutthaya still stands
I accepted the challenge and, with the help of my wife Michelle, a staff reporter for Bangkok Post for ten years, we went to libraries and bookstores and gathered copies of every book we could find on King Narai and Siam history. We had to delve deep, even into original sources if we wanted to portray to readers what it was like aboard those ships that came up the river to trade; we had to learn about the customs of the Siamese 400 years ago, their habits and their dress. It was arduous and painstaking research; we found much of information we needed in the form letters, diaries and journals of those foreigners who had visited and traded in the city back then––Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, French, British and Japanese. For five months we isolated ourselves in an apartment in Bangkok and began our research and writing. What we uncovered in our research was astounding. Physically we were in Bangkok but emotionally we were in Ayutthaya in the 17th century when it was the capital of Siam, the greatest city in the world at the time. Skip was right. Here was a story greater than the “King & I” and “Anna and the King of Siam” too. We learned about the attempts of European powers to take over Siam, and it was through clever manipulating by King Narai and his Greek foreign Minister that they were able to use religion to play off one power against the other. We found ourselves in Japan, witnessing Japanese Christians being exiled to Siam, and the next instant we were in the court of King Louis XIV of France welcoming the Siamese embassy. We came to know King Narai of Siam, King Louis XIV of France, Pope Innocent XI of Rome, a Japanese maiden and a shipwrecked Greek sailor, all who became entangled in history, in a story so real and so true, it left us with the puzzling question, why hadn’t it ever been told before?
I now had the chance to write adventure like it had never been written before–shipwrecks and wild elephant roundups, swashbuckling sword fights, gun smuggling and Muslim uprisings. And I could tell about the new sea trade routes that opened and how Europe was lured by fine silks and porcelain, elephant tusks of pure ivory, jade and rubies, gunpowder, sandalwood, and for their tables, unknown before, the spices of cloves and pepper, nutmeg and mace and more. I could tell how a bag of peppercorns was worth more than its weight in gold. What history, with European nations finding themselves at war against one another, fighting to gain control not only of these sea routes but also of the kingdoms of the east from which these treasures came. True, these nations came to trade, but under their own terms, with guns and swords and crosses, to conquer, to spread their religions, grabbing what they could, driven by their insatiable greed. They came, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British, and they battled one another for control, eventfully conquering one Southeast Asian nation after another-–except for one, Siam. Here stood a kingdom, defiant, of great wealth, the trading center between East and West, with its capital at Ayutthaya like a glittering jewel, lying far up a river as London is to the Thames and Paris to the Seine. What nations, both European and Asian, could resist not wanting to possess it? The quest of European powers grew even more intense and they now turned in an attempt to widen the door to Siam. Their pretense was trade and religion but the disguise was to conquer. How did the Siamese, the early Thais, manage to remain free? And was this splendid, bejeweled city of Ayutthaya really everything history claimed it to be? I had a lot of convincing to do. I had to center the story around King Narai and Constantine Gerakis, the shipwrecked Greek sailor who won the favor of the king and rose to become Foreign Minister of Siam. I also had to focus on the misconception that King Narai was being swayed by Constantine and the Catholic Church to convert Siam to Catholicism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Constantine was vehemently against the church but, as both he and King Narai concluded, the church could become a powerhouse in their favour, to be used to play one European nation against the other and ward off their attempt to colonize. And here too was a love story, a true love story, perhaps greater than any that has come out of Asia.
The Royal Barge Procession is carried on today and dates back to King Narai
Our TV script was accepted but the timing was wrong. Thailand fell into an economic crunch and there were no investors interested in an old tale of Thailand. For ten years I continued to work on the script that lay on my desk, and it was only recently that I decided to turn the story of King Narai and Constantine into a book. We named it For the Love of Siam, the Story of King Narai and Constantine Phaulkon. As I said, it’s a story that had to be to be told.