Late Ayutthaya's Foreign Trade Policy: A Study in its Regional and International Context with an Emphasis on the Reign of King Borommakot, 1733-1758
During the closing period from 1688 to 1767, Ayutthaya was reigned by six successive kings of the Ban Phlu Luang dynasty. The Ban Phlu Luang dynasty has long been portrayed as a xenophobic dynasty and an advocate of isolationism. According to many, the dynasty has committed two serious crimes in Thai history, ending the "Golden Age" of King Narai (1688) and losing independence to the Burmese (1767). Most Thai history books usually describe the reign of the Ban Phlu Luang dynasty as a decaying period of trade and economy which was the result of the "seclusion" or "isolationism" policy. Such a description does not only give a static and oversimplistic picture but seems to lay all the blame on the policies implemented by this dynasty.
Only recently a number of research works have revealed more dynamic pictures and some rather contradictory information to the former perception. On the contrary, Ayutthaya during1688-1767 seemed to continue seeking contacts overseas, building its own trading network and employing foreigners in royal service and trading organizations. During the 1730s in particular the Chinese branch of trade seemed to be on a marked rise due to an increasing demand in tin, rice, sappanwood and ivory from the Thai kingdom (Siam). Even the European trading company like the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) seemed to share in the 1730s a reasonable large profit especially in tin trade with Siam.
King Borommakot ascended the throne in January 1733. He was the fourth king of the Ban Phlu Luang dynasty. Because of his devotion to Buddhism and his enthusiastic support in arts and letters, the king is much praised in Thai history. His policy to strengthen peace with neighbouring states, specifically with the main rival, the Burmese, is equally admired. According to Thai historians, the reign of King Borommakot is the "Golden Years" of the late Ayutthaya period.
However, as far as the trade and financial aspect is concerned, other contradictory stories seem to prevail. For instance, many restrictions and control measures were placed on both foreign and domestic trade such as the increase in tolls and taxation.The exclusive rights that used to be granted to a European trading company like the VOC was withdrawn. This was especially concerned the exclusive rights to purchase tin in Ligor. The rapid decline of the Chinese junk trade in Siam was clearly noticeable as observed by the Dutch and the French. The royal court was shown the difficulty in balancing the payment with the VOC particularly in cash. This resulted in an accumulating amount of arrears. The increasing illegal trade both domestically and regionally seemed to be beyond control. etc.
The internal affairs and political development during the reign of King Borommakot also projected no peaceful stories but troubles, riots and violence. The reign began and ended with conflicts and succession wars. The state administration was divided into small departments (krom) in order to balance the power among princes, princesses and noble families. However this division of power and administration was barely effective. The conflicts and rivalries among various factions in the royal court aggravated and practically turned into schemes and assassination plots which led eventually to the death of the throne successor. The regime itself was challenged by the mass riots at least twice; in 1734 by the Chinese residents of Ayutthaya and in 1746 by the peasantry in Lopburi (the messiah movement).
In retrospect from every side, the concept of the "Golden Years" during the reign of King Borommakot should therefore be critically reviewed. New researches and new interpretations deserve to be encouraged. One of the major problems of the previous studies (mainly conducted by "traditional" or "nationalistic" historians) is the tendency to base their interpretations rather literally upon the royal chronicles without, or to a minor extent, consultation with other available foreign sources.
The study will be primarily based on the researches for new information in the VOC Archives, the Hague, the Netherlands and will focus on four main aspects:
The terms of trade in Southeast Asia during the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries which had an impact on the policy-making of Ayutthaya.
The policy-making of Ayutthaya with respect to foreign trade policy since 1688 (after the so-called "Siamese Revolution" ) as response to new political developments and socio-economic changes both externally and internally.
The terms of trade and the dynamics of trade itself between Ayutthaya and its trading partners specifically the VOC, Japan, China and West Asia with the focus on the period between 1733 and 1758.
The socio-economic impact of the maritime trade and the trade policies implemented by Ayutthaya during the focus period at domestic and regional level.
Prof. Dr. B.J. Terwiel
Prof. Dr. J. Leonard Blussé