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The Xenophile Historian

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A Concise History of Southeast Asia


1500 to 1800

This chapter covers the following topics:

The Portuguese Quest for Spices and Souls
Magellan's Expedition
The Spanish Philippines
The Second Burmese Empire
Cambodian Escapade
The Dutch East India Company
Arakan: The Mrohaung Era
The Phaulkon Affair
The Fall of Lan Xang
The End of Champa
Two Divisions of Vietnam
Eighteenth Century Burma & Siam
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The Portuguese Quest for Spices and Souls

It took Portugal eighty years to find the location of the "Spice Islands," but persistence paid off in the end. The second Portuguese viceroy of the Indian Ocean, Alfonso de Albuquerque, learned that Malacca was both a stronghold of Islam and the key to the spice trade, so in 1509 he sent four ships to check out the port. If he wanted an incident with the Malays he got one; while the Portuguese were touring the city the sultan ordered his guards to attack them, killing sixty men and destroying one ship before the rest got away. One officer who distinguished himself in this battle was Ferdinand Magellan, who suffered a wound while holding off the assailants until his comrades had time to get back to the ships.

Two years later Albuquerque personally led a fleet of nineteen ships to Malacca, carrying more than a thousand men. The Malaccan force outnumbered the Portuguese by a factor of 15 to 1, but the superior technology of Portuguese ships and cannon prevailed. Albuquerque also correctly guessed that the bridge in the center of Malacca was an important strategic point; once he captured it, the two halves of the city could not defend themselves effectively. Six weeks after the Portuguese came to Malacca, the whole city was theirs. To prevent any trouble with the powerful mainland states to the north (remember Siam's claim to all of Malaya), Albuquerque immediately sent embassies to Ayutthaya and Pegu, and diplomatic relations with both kingdoms got off to a good start. Afterwards Portugal sent expeditions to the Moluccas (1512), China (1513), and Japan (1543), securing trade with all of those places.

For much of the time that the Portuguese ruled Malacca, the city was on the defensive against its Malay neighbors. First of all there was the ex-sultan of the city, who established himself on a small island near Singapore and attempted unsuccessfully to regain his lost throne. A more serious threat was Acheh, which defeated all Portuguese attempts to set up a colony on Sumatra. After that Acheh made four major attacks on Malacca itself, nearly capturing the city the last time (1574-75). There was also trouble with the other Moslem states: Johore (south Malaya), Brunei (Borneo), Bantam (west Java), Mataram (central Java), Demak (east Java), and Makassar (southern Sulawesi), to name a few. All of these states had pirates in the local waters, making travel through the Java Sea unsafe for Europeans. To add to the danger, the sultan of Demak sent missionaries to Borneo, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas, converting the natives to Islam with increasing speed. Even in the Spice Islands, two sultans (those of Ternate and Tidore) converted to Islam, and though they were willing to trade with Europeans, they remained true to their new faith. The Portuguese first attempted to counter this threat by seeking allies among non-Moslems. They thought they found one when the Hindu raja of Sunda Kalapa let them build a fort in his city-state, on the northwest corner of Java, but when the Portuguese returned in 1527 they found that Sunda Kalapa had been conquered by Bantam and renamed Jakarta.

Eventually the Portuguese paid toll to the sultan of Brunei so that they could sail around north Borneo and through the Sulu Sea to reach the Spice Islands without being molested. Catholic missionaries like St. Francis Xavier tried to stop the spread of Islam by converting the non-Moslem Indonesians to Christianity, but time was not on their side; usually they came to an island only to find that the natives had converted to Islam shortly before their arrival. The missionaries were only successful on islands like Amboina and Timor, where Islam had not yet established itself; if Islam got to a community first, Catholic missions had no hope of success.

The real reason why the Portuguese colony survived was because its Moslem rivals could never get along with each other. By supporting the moderate sultanates in their quarrels with the religious extremists (Acheh and Demak), Malacca was able to keep all of Indonesia from attacking it at once. But Portugal's early victories had given it more empire than it could handle. Portugal itself, with a population of 1.5 million, never seemed to have enough manpower to manage everything it had claimed in Africa, Asia and Brazil; often other Europeans like Italians, English and Dutch had to be hired to fill all the crew positions on Portuguese ships. The money made on Far Eastern ventures was spent immediately, either on payments of the king's debts or on policing the Indian Ocean. "Look at the Portuguese," wrote Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to the Mogul Empire in India, in 1613. "In spite of their fine settlements they are beggared by the maintenance of military forces; and even their garrisons are only mediocre." When other European nations went out to sea, Portugal could not compete, and soon its empire sank into obscurity.

The Portuguese Empire, both colonies and outposts.

The Portuguese Empire, around 1550. The brown dots are outposts, rather than colonies. The empire controlled more land later on, in the interior of South America and Africa, but it enjoyed its best years in the sixteenth century.

Portugal suffered a blow from which it never recovered in 1578, when its king was killed in an invasion of Morocco; Spain's King Philip II promptly claimed the Portuguese crown for himself. Spain ruled Portugal until 1640, but it did nothing to promote the Portuguese half of its enormous empire. In fact, Spain's temporary rule was harmful to the Portuguese colonies, since Spain's enemies, England and the Netherlands, now became Portugal's enemies as well. English and Dutch privateers found the Portuguese colonies to be vulnerable targets.

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Magellan's Expedition

Portugal had won the race to the Spice Islands, but because the trip was so long, many paid more attention to the dangers than to the rewards. This is how Christopher Columbus got the idea that if he sailed west from Europe instead of east, he would find a "fast track" to the Orient. Another who felt that way was the previously mentioned Ferdinand Magellan, which is understandable because he was a veteran of Portugal's trailblazing. Because of his nationality, he first proposed his expedition to King Manuel I of Portugal, but Portugal was fully committed to the eastbound trade route it had already, so the king wasn't interested. King Charles V of Spain, however, was more receptive; his grandparents had sponsored the expeditions of Columbus, and Spain was starting to earn tremendous profits from the lands Columbus discovered, so when Magellan's expedition went forth in 1519, he was employed by Spain.

It took a year and a half for Magellan to travel from Spain to Southeast Asia. First he had to get past the western hemisphere's continents, and he did it by sailing down the South American coast to the strait that now bears his name. Morale was high as his three tiny ships entered the Pacific, but the trip took much longer than anyone expected; both the winds and the sea were calm, and no land larger than a coral atoll was sighted along the way. At last, after three months of perfect weather and perfect misery they came to Guam, where they took on supplies and continued west. In March 1521 they sighted Samar, the easternmost island of the Philippines, and Magellan felt like he had been raised from the dead, so he named the archipelago "San Lazaro" (St. Lazarus), after the resurrected friend of Jesus. No European had seen these islands before, but Magellan knew he was close to the Moluccas, because his personal Moluccan slave, Enrique, understood some of the language of the natives.(1)

If Magellan had recruited some native pilots to work with Enrique, he probably would have found the Moluccas quickly. But Magellan could not resist the urge to convert some natives to Christianity, and establish a Spanish base in the Philippines. It looked like he would succeed on the central island of Cebu, where he baptized the local chief, Humabon, and two thousand of his followers. The price of Humabon's conversion was aid in fighting an enemy chief, Lapu-Lapu of Mactan island, one mile away. Magellan was so confident of victory that he only took sixty men to Mactan. Humabon brought 600 warriors to help, but Magellan told him to stay on the sidelines. His crew could do the job by themselves.

Lapu-Lapu heard they were coming and assembled 1,500 warriors of his own to meet them. The resulting battle was one-sided; the Spaniards never even got to Mactan's shore, and only eight of the sixty men survived. Magellan was not among the survivors. Today the Filipinos venerate Magellan for discovering their islands, and Lapu-Lapu because he was the first Filipino to resist colonialism.

Mactan shrine painting

The battle of Mactan.

Magellan's death gave Humabon second thoughts about the alliance. He invited 24 officers to a banquet, plied them with palm wine and women, and then attacked them, killing all but two or three. Now only 100 of the original 270 crewmen were left to the expedition. This was not enough to man all three ships, so they burned the one in worst shape, the Concepcion, and divided her crew and provisions between the other two, the Trinidad and the Victoria. It only takes a week to sail from the Philippines to the Moluccas, but the crew had no idea where to go, so they wandered aimlessly around Borneo and the Sulu Sea for three months. Finally they reached the Spice Islands. Because the Portuguese were based on Ternate, they went to the rival island of Tidore, and loaded a cargo of cloves; overloaded, in fact, for the Trinidad sprung a leak and could go no farther.

Fortunately for the crew, no Portuguese ships were in the Moluccas while they were there; getting captured by the Portuguese would have ended the expedition for sure. Still, Juan Sebastian del Cano, the expedition's new commander, did not want to press their luck and decided to reduce the risk by having the ships go home by different paths. He would leave immediately with the Victoria and continue to go west, while the Trinidad, after it was repaired, would head east across the Pacific, going back the way it came. Once the Trinidad was moving again, it reached the Marianas and turned north, but failed to catch the west wind needed for an eastbound course. The Trinidad's captain claimed he sailed as far as latitude 42o N., which I'm skeptical of, because such a course would have put him near northern Japan. Then the ship limped back to the Moluccas, and this time the Portuguese caught it. Meanwhile the Victoria did better; eighteen of its crew members, including del Cano, made it back to Spain, 10 months and 11,000 miles later. Add to that the 17 men captured and later released by the Portuguese, and you have 35 survivors for the whole expedition.

When it came to spices, the Philippines only had cinnamon, so at first Spain was more interested in Indonesia. But in the 1520s it was unclear which country could have either place. Back in 1494 Pope Alexander VI tried to prevent future wars between Spain and Portugal by issuing the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the whole non-Christian world between those two nations. You probably think the pope had no business getting involved in foreign policy, but this was before the Reformation, and the typical medieval pope thought that because he was Godís agent on earth, he outranked every king, so he could draw the frontiers between nations wherever he liked. Anyway, the dividing line was drawn from north to south, and declared to be "370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands." On a map this works out to a longitude of 46º West, give or take a few miles; the most exact figure I could find was 46º 37' West. According to the 1494 treaty, everything west of that line belonged to Spain, and everything east of the line belonged to Portugal.

Treaty of Tordesillas.

Two lines drawn by the pope, the first line in 1493, and the one agreed to in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.

That was good enough while the Iberian nations were restricted to Europe, Africa and the Americas, but when they got to the Pacific, it became necessary to draw a similar property line there. It seemed logical to simply continue the first line over the North Pole to the opposite side of the world, where it becomes longitude 134º East or 133º 23' East, depending on who you are reading. The problem was that nobody knew where the so-called "antimeridian" of the Tordesillas line actually ran. While it was easy for a navigator to determine the latitude of his location, by measuring how high the sun or certain stars were in the sky, in those days there was no accurate way to determine longitude. When a navigator was in unfamiliar territory, all he could do was guess how far he traveled each day, and use that to figure how far east or west he was, a process called "dead reckoning."

As you might expect, it was dreadfully easy to make a wrong guess, and the explorers of the Pacific drew many maps full of errors, with the same islands getting discovered more than once. That was the case here. The size of the world was known for sure, now that a ship had sailed around it, but Spanish cartographers used the news from Magellanís expedition to overestimate the size of Asia, and underestimate the size of the recently discovered Pacific. Thus, they drew maps that put the antimeridian far west of its correct position, usually running through the Malay peninsula. The line in the middle of the map below shows this, and the dotted line shows where Magellan placed the Southeast Asian mainland. This suggested that both the Philippines and the Spice Islands were east of the line, in the Spanish half of the world. One Spanish navigator, MartŪn FernŠndez de Enciso, showed the crucial line intersecting with the mouth of the Ganges River. If this was true, it would have meant everything east of India, including all of Southeast Asia, belonged to Spain. Actually the Philippines and the Spice Islands are on the Portuguese side of the line; the antimeridian really runs through Japan and New Guinea.

Southeast Asia and the antimeridian.

Two views on where the antimeridian of the Tordesillas line ran, and the correct location. The dotted line shows where Magellan put the Southeast Asian mainland. Source: Stalemate at Bajadoz.

On this evidence Spain sent two naval expeditions to conquer the Moluccas. The first expedition, commanded by del Cano, involved seven ships retracing Magellan's route (1525). Unfortunately for them, del Cano died at sea, and only the flagship, the Santa Maria del Victoria, completed the trip, making stops at Guam and Mindanao on the way. Still, the survivors received a warm welcome from the sultan of Tidore. He had given spices to Magellan's crew five years earlier, and the Portuguese had punished him for that act of generosity, so now he wanted revenge not only on the Portuguese, but also on their local ally, the sultan of Ternate. The Spaniards helped when the Portuguese returned and besieged Tidore, but the crew of a single ship can only do so much. At that point, in 1528, Spain launched its second expedition; this time three ships sailed directly across the Pacific from Panama. Just one of those ships arrived at its destination; still, the coming of reinforcements encouraged the Spaniards greatly. However, the ship ran out of luck when it tried to go back by the same route with a cargo of spices; like the Trinidad, it could not find winds blowing the right way.

By now, Charles V realized that Portugal had the better claim to Southeast Asia's islands, not only legally but also logistically; the Spanish route from Europe to Indonesia was 5,500 miles longer than the Portuguese one around Africa. Because of this difference, Portugal was losing one ship out of every ten that it sent to Southeast Asia, while Spain was losing two out of three. With the 1529 Treaty of Sarragosa, Portugal offered 350,000 ducats ($52.5 million in 2014 dollars) and free passage home for any Spaniards left in Indonesia, if Spain would give up its claim; Charles wisely accepted. However, the Spaniards eventually got a foothold in the Spice Islands, when the natives of Ternate became so angry at Portuguese clumsiness and cruelty that they expelled their masters in 1574. The Spaniards immediately moved in and set up their own outpost on the island, which lasted until the Dutch took it in 1663. As for the Portuguese, they found the sultan of Tidore willing to have them, now that they were not on Ternate anymore, so they built a fort on Tidore; meaning the Spaniards and the Portuguese had switched places.

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The Spanish Philippines

Spain never forgot the Philippines, which were full of potential converts to Catholicism, no small matter when the Protestant Reformation was taking away millions of parishioners back home. And unlike Indonesia, Spain had discovered these islands, so a Spanish claim would be more valid here. A colony set up on Mindanao in 1542 only lasted long enough to give the islands their present name, after Spain's future King Philip II. More successful was the expedition that arrived in 1565, led by a Mexican bureaucrat named Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. One of his four ships got separated from the squadron as they crossed the Pacific; still the other three were enough for his plans. At Cebu he gained the submission of the natives by bombarding their village with cannon. Once he had established an outpost, Legazpi needed a line of communication with the rest of the Spanish empire, so he ordered his right-hand man, Andrés de Urdaneta, to take one of the ships into the north Pacific, and try to find a way back to New Spain (Mexico). Officially Urdaneta was the highest-ranked clergyman on the expedition, but he also was an expert navigator. By heading north until the ship's latitude was in the upper thirties, he found the winds that had evaded previous ships. This took him directly to the California coast, which he then followed southward until he reached Acapulco, Mexico. The return trip had taken four months.

We now believe Urdaneta had planned this course before the expedition got started, and he had shared it with the captains of all four ships. But today he does not get credit for making the first successful west-to-east crossing of the Pacific, because one of those captains had accomplished it already. This was Alonso de Arellano, captain of the San Lucas, the ship that had strayed off. The San Lucas had wandered around in Philippine waters for a while, and when it failed to find the other ships, Arellano returned to Mexico on a course very similar to Urdaneta's. In fact, Arellano's course was better; by making a more northerly swing into the north temperate latitudes, he caught a stronger wind and got home quicker.

Back in the Philippines, Legazpi had nearly as much trouble getting along with the Cebuanos as Magellan did. When he became convinced that Cebu was not a secure place for a permanent capital, he packed his bags and moved the colony, first to the western island of Panay, which had more food and friendlier natives. Soon after that, though, he learned that Manila was in an even better location, so in 1571 he moved there, ousted the local sultan, Suleiman, and took control of Manila's splendid harbor. Legazpi and the governors after him were subsequently placed under the authority of the viceroy of New Spain, effectively making the Philippines a colony of a colony.

Up to now the Spaniards had not found enough gold or spices in the Philippines to make conquering them worth the effort. Instead, it was Manila that saved Legazpi's venture, for it not only had the harbor, but was also conveniently close to China, and we saw that Chinese merchants were coming to Manila already. Because China did not have much silver, while Spain was mining plenty of silver in Mexico and Bolivia, the Spaniards realized they would make their Pacific fortune from commerce, not from plundering the natives.

Spain controlled the economy of the Philippines very strictly. The only commerce allowed between the Philippines and other Spanish colonies went on a round trip voyage every year, from Acapulco to Manila and back again. Most of the time they had just one galleon making the trip--two at the most--so we call this the Manila galleon trade. Colonial officials did not develop the local economy; instead they made a living by loading the Manila galleon with silks, porcelain, and other imports from China, paid for with Mexican silver. Since demand for space on the Manila galleon always exceeded supply, the amount of cargo each merchant could send was strictly regulated. For the westbound trip, as much space as possible was needed for silver, so merchants could only send cargo at all if they went with it as passengers, thereby running the risk of not getting a ticket for the return trip later. The system was terribly inefficient, and loss of a galleon brought a year of destitution, but the Manila galleon trade continued its lonely rhythm for the next two and a half centuries.(2)

Some thirty to forty Chinese junks came to Manila around March of each year. The cargoes they brought included hardware, nails, pots & pans, gunpowder, saltpeter, furniture, jewels, and all kinds of foods. The merchandise that did not go into the Manila galleon for its eastbound voyage was eagerly bought by the residents of Manila. Some of the Chinese sailors and passengers remained behind when their ships went home, and they formed a Chinese community that grew rapidly; by 1600 there were about eight thousand Chinese in Manila, living alongside a few hundred Spaniards. Most of them became barbers, tailors, shoemakers, masons, painters, weavers, blacksmiths and other skilled workers, forming the middle class of Philippine society. To avoid paying the taxes levied on aliens and non-Christians, they took Filipina wives and/or were baptized. They sometimes joined the Church in disturbingly large groups; on one occasion, four hundred of them were baptized in one day. In 1603 a Chinese riot caused the Spaniards and Filipinos to panic; before it was over, 23,000 Chinese were massacred. The remaining Chinese fled the city, causing an economic slump that lasted until Spain reluctantly invited them back. Similar incidents happened later in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spaniards could not do without Chinese services, but the size and character of the Chinese community kept them in a state of constant apprehension.

Spain was in the Philippines to stay, but other European nations tried to gain a foothold there. Portugal disputed and threatened the Spanish colony until 1580, when King Philip II also became king of Portugal. In 1579 Sir Francis Drake came and attacked Spanish shipping. In the early 17th century the Dutch raided the islands, capturing not only Spanish ships but also Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese traders visiting the archipelago. The Dutch didn't lose interest in the Philippines until the more lucrative Spice Islands came under their control.

After Legazpi came the missionaries, who went all over the archipelago until they had converted 85% of the population, making the Philippines the first predominantly Christian nation in Asia. They made little headway in the south, however, since Islam was already established there. The "Moros" (a name derived from the Spanish word for Moors or North Africans) declared a jihad, or holy war, raiding Christian coastal communities and stubbornly defending their territory against every outside authority. The Moros have been a persistent problem since that time, struggling for independence against every government ruling the Philippines, including the present-day one.(3)

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The Second Burmese Empire

The fall of Ava caused power in Burma to pass from the Shan-dominated north and east to the city of Toungoo. Before this time Toungoo had been an independent city-state halfway between Ava and Pegu, settled by Burmese refugees fleeing the Shan raids. It managed to survive because it allied itself with either Ava or Pegu, switching sides from time to time to prevent its conquest by one of the two larger states. After Ava fell the Toungoo king, Tabinshweti (1531-50), saw an opportunity to reunite Burma under his rule. He started by pushing south to the Irrawaddy delta in 1535; Pegu was surrounded, but not taken until 1539, thanks to a Portuguese ship that aided the defenders. To prevent lengthy sieges in the future, Tabinshweti hired some Portuguese mercenaries of his own, using them to conquer the rest of the Mon kingdom (Martaban, Tavoy, Moulmein, and the Tenasserim coast) in 1541. Then came a decisive victory against the Shans. After crowning himself king of Burma at Pagan, Tabinshweti returned to Pegu, crowned himself king of the Mons, and announced that Pegu would become his permanent capital. Then he invaded Arakan, only to call off the attack when he got news of a raid on Tavoy from Siam.

This marked the beginning of one of history's long-time rivalries; it is comparable to the more famous rivalries between England and France, or between Rome and Carthage. Between 1539 and 1855, there were no less than twenty-four wars fought between Burma and Siam. Tabinshweti's response to the Siamese raid was a fullscale invasion of Siam in 1547-48; it went as planned until he reached the walls of Ayutthaya, where his 180 Portuguese gunners met their match in the 50 Portuguese gunners hired by Siam. The thwarted Burmese returned without spoil, harassed by the incessant attacks of the Siamese. Two defeats in a row were too much for Tabinshweti; he lost control of both himself and his kingdom, and was assassinated.

Five princes claimed Tabinshweti's throne at Pegu, but one of them, the late king's brother-in-law Bayinnaung, quickly eliminated the others. His thirty-one-year reign (1550-81) was the most energetic period in Burmese history. Once the south was secure, he marched north and east, conquering Ava, the Shan states, and Chiangmai (1554-8). The success of those campaigns encouraged him to immediately follow them up with a matching campaign in the northwest, where he conquered the Indian state of Manipur in 1560.

Between campaigns Bayinnaung found time to be an ardent patron of Buddhism. Perhaps he did it in atonement for all the lives lost in his wars. Wherever he went he built pagodas, made and distributed copies of the scriptures, and fed monks. He outlawed animal sacrifice, a common practice among Moslems and the animist Shans. Often he sent offerings to the Sri Lankan temple where the Tooth of the Buddha was kept, one time sending brooms made from his own and the chief queen's hair. In 1560 he got an awful shock when the Portuguese raided Sri Lanka, to punish a local ruler for persecuting St. Francis Xavier's Catholic converts. Among the treasures brought back to Goa was a tooth, presumably Buddha's. Bayinnaung sent envoys with an offer of 300,000 ducats for it. But the Inquisition declared the tooth to be a dangerous idol and had it destroyed. Not long after that two more holy teeth appeared in Sri Lanka, the backers of each insisting it was really the original. One of them is enshrined in the Temple of the Tooth today; the other was sent to Bayinnaung as a gift, along with a Sinhalese bride.

Burma might have enjoyed a long period of peace had this phenomenal king known when to stop marching. But Chiangmai opened the way to both Laos and Siam, and Bayinnaung had ambitions even greater than his talents. Believe it or not, his excuse for going to war against Siam was a white elephant. In modern English, "white elephant" is a slang term, meaning something that is unwanted and not very useful, but here we're talking about the real animal. The Siamese king, Maha Chakrap'at, had four white elephants, and when Bayinnaung asked for one of them, Maha Chakrap'at refused. Buddhists believed that white elephants are only born in countries where the ruler has exceptional virtues, and when Maha Chakrap'at turned down Bayinnaung's request, it was taken to mean that the Siamese king did not think Bayinnaung was a very good king. That insult cost Maha Chakrap'at his throne. The Burmese king mobilized his entire army, because he knew that Siam was stronger than his other opponents, and captured Ayutthaya easily in 1564. Bayinnaung took away all four white elephants, of course, and to make sure everyone knew he was the man, he gave himself two new titles he had just earned: "Victor of the Ten Directions," and "Lord of the White Elephant, the Red Elephant, the Mottled Elephant, and All Other Elephants." However, Maha Chakrap'at hadn't given up yet, and revolted as soon as the Burmese troops went home.

Bayinnaung returned in 1569, captured Ayutthaya a second time, and placed a pro-Burmese prince on the Siamese throne. This time Siam stayed loyal for the rest of his reign, but troubles sprang up elsewhere. Cambodia attacked, seeing an opportunity to even old scores with the Thais; six Cambodian raids (1570-87) were defeated, forcing Bayinnaung to rebuild Ayutthaya's defenses, even though he knew that might be asking for trouble in the long run. In the northeast, Laos became a constant source of trouble because it never accepted the loss of Chiangmai. Bayinnaung invaded Laos twice, taking both Laotian capitals (Luang Prabang and Vientiane), but never capturing the king; every time the Burmese withdrew Setthathirat returned to make more trouble. At the time of his death in 1581, Bayinnaung was preparing to conquer Arakan, which up to that date had escaped his attention. The campaign was canceled, and Arakanese independence lasted for two more centuries.

The Toungoo Empire.

Burma in 1580, at the height of Bayinnaung's power. Unfortunately the map has a few misspelled names (e.g, Angkor, Chiangmai, Phitsanulok), but I have not found a better map anywhere else. From Wikimedia Commons.

Bayinnaung left his son and successor, Nanda Bayin (1581-99), with more problems than he could handle. In 1584 his uncle revolted at Ava, and Nanda Bayin called upon Pra Naret, the new prince of Siam, for help. Pra Naret brought an army to Pegu, only to discover in the nick of time that Nanda Bayin plotted to kill him. Thereupon he rescued some prisoners previously brought there by Bayinnaung and returned home. Nanda Bayin took this as an insult and invaded Siam three times (1585, 1586, and 1592) to bring Pra Naret to heel; each time Pra Naret crushed the invading forces. Siam's independence was assured after this. In 1590 his father died and he was crowned king of Siam, changing his name to Naresuan. In 1593 he turned the tables on Burma by invading and taking Tavoy and Martaban. Two years later the Burmese governor of Chiangmai had to request Siamese aid to stop an invasion from Laos, and Naresuan gave it on condition that the governor switch his allegiance to Siam.

Burma fell apart completely while Naresuan was restoring Siam. Two brothers of Nanda Bayin revolted, called in help from Arakan, and together they burned Pegu to the ground (1599). Nanda Bayin was taken to Toungoo and executed, and Pegu never completely recovered afterwards. Naresuan was also involved in the attack, but he arrived too late to share in the looting of Pegu; in fact, his "allies" inflicted a nasty defeat that forced him to flee back to Siam.

Nanda Bayin's nephew, Anaukpetlun, recovered Lower Burma (1605-13) and Chiangmai (1615) from his enemies, bringing a measure of stability back to Burma. The Toungoo dynasty moved its capital to Ava, where it lasted until 1752, but its kings were weak, and holding the country together was all they could do.

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Cambodian Escapade

The kingdoms on the Southeast Asian mainland were too strong for the West to conquer outright before 1800, but individual Europeans found ways to make mischief, on a scale much larger than their numbers would suggest. The Portuguese pirates who served in the navy of Arakan (more about them later in this chapter) are an example of this type of activity. One of them, Philip de Brito, accepted an offer to become king of the Mons after Pegu was destroyed in 1599. He might have enjoyed Mon support indefinitely, but once his position looked secure he tried to convert his subjects en masse to Christianity, stripped the gold and jewelry from pagodas, and melted down temple bells to cast cannon. That behavior alienated the Mons, and they welcomed the Burmese when they reconquered Lower Burma in 1613; Anaukpetlun killed de Brito and deported the rest of the 400-man Portuguese garrison.

At the same time other Iberian adventurers were trying their luck in Cambodia. A few missionaries had gone there as early as the 1550s, but Buddhist opposition had always forced them to leave again. This changed in the 1580s, when an ongoing struggle between Siam and Cambodia turned against the Cambodians. As the Siamese king, Naresuan, advanced on Lovek (Cambodia's capital for much of the 16th century), the feeble Cambodian king, Satha, became desperate. Using Diogo Veloso, a Portuguese soldier of fortune, as his envoy, Satha pleaded for aid, first from the Portuguese at Malacca, then from the Spaniards at Manila. A Spanish force was sent from Manila in 1594 but it arrived too late; the Spaniards found that Cambodia had fallen to the Siamese, Veloso was a prisoner in Siam, and King Satha was a refugee in Laos. The Spanish leader, Blaz Ruiz, was captured and placed on a prison ship headed for Siam. Unwilling to give up so easily, Ruiz managed to hijack the ship and take it back to Manila. Meanwhile the equally resourceful Veloso gained favor with Naresuan and got himself placed in command of a ship carrying the Siamese ambassador to Manila.

The adventure became even more bizarre once Veloso and Ruiz were united in Manila. Forgetting that he was now officially a diplomat of Siam, Veloso claimed that he represented Cambodia's ex-king and signed a highly irregular treaty. This document allowed Spanish troops, merchants, and missionaries to travel freely in Cambodia, and promised that the king and queen would become Christians in return for military aid. Then Veloso and Ruiz led a raid on Siamese-occupied Phnom Penh. Deciding at first to return to Manila after this affair, they later changed their minds, jumped ship in a Vietnamese port, and marched overland from Vietnam to Laos, where they discovered that Satha and his eldest son had died. The adventurers returned to Cambodia in 1597 with Satha's second son in tow; fearing another Spanish invasion, the terrified Cambodians allowed them to crown the prince as King Barom Reachea II.

The puppet monarchy was short-lived, though. In 1599 a fight between the Spaniards and some Cham and Malay mercenaries grew into a massacre that killed almost every Spaniard in Phnom Penh. The pro-Spanish king became yet another of Southeast Asia's many victims of regicide. Four years later a fresh royal weakling made overtures to Manila, but Naresuan replaced him with a pro-Siamese monarch immediately. The Spanish game in Cambodia was over, and with it ended Spain's only attempt to expand her empire onto the Asian mainland.

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The Dutch East India Company

After the Netherlands declared independence from Spain in the late 16th century, the Dutch made a dramatic entrance into international trade and politics. Their goal was to destroy the two Iberian trading networks and replace them with one of their own. Portugal's Far Eastern colonies were the most inviting targets, so the Dutch sent traders to compete with the Portuguese in the Spice Islands. Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese expeditions, which were paid for by the crown, the Dutch floated companies, whose merchants got together to raise enough money for their voyages--an early example of how an ordinary citizen could make a difference in the world.

The first expedition, however, was almost a total disaster. Cornelis Houtman had been a spy in Portugal, and was picked to lead the expedition because he knew more about the spice trade than any other Dutchman. As you might expect, spies make poor leaders. Houtman set sail in 1595 with two ships, the Amsterdam and the Mauritius, and more than a hundred men, but by the time they reached the Indian Ocean, seventy-one had died of scurvy, dysentery and malaria, and the rest were constantly fighting among themselves, since they had no other way to relieve months of boredom. When they got to the port of Bantam in Java, they found that the Portuguese had been coming there for some time, so even here the spices were overpriced. In addition, Houtman made a bad impression on the local rulers, who probably did not want to deal with this new group of Europeans anyway. Before long, he was bombarding the town and sending his men ashore to do some pillaging; they only took a break long enough to decide whether they should stab their prisoners, shoot them with arrows, or blow them out of cannon (Alas, we don't know which sentence they carried out!).

Houtman had a chance to start with a clean slate at his next stop, the island of Madura, where the natives had not heard what happened at Bantam. Instead, a misunderstanding led to another fight. Here the local prince came to him with a flotilla of boats, to stage a parade in honor of the visitors(4), and the Dutch got the idea that they were being attacked. Houtman agreed with his crew and opened fire, killing everyone in the welcoming party, including the prince. After the battle, Houtman managed to get a small cargo of spices, but far less than his ships could hold, since naturally few natives wanted to do business with him. At this point the ships were so unseaworthy that the sailors burned the Amsterdam and went home with only the Mauritius. The trip back was uneventful, because most of the crew was dead. They made a rest stop at Bali, and two men liked the local girls so much that they chose to spend the rest of their lives here; for them, if nobody else, the story had a happy ending.

The one positive accomplishment of Houtman's voyage was that it proved the Portuguese couldn't keep competitors out of the Indies. No less than 22 Dutch ships left Europe in 1598, with intentions of improving on what Houtman had done. With that many vessels, you can try more than one route, and they took both the Portuguese route around Africa, and the Spanish route through the Straits of Magellan. Those that went by way of the straits fared no better than the Spanish ships, proving, in case anyone still wasn't convinced, that the westbound passage took too great a toll in ships and lives to be competitive with the passage via the Cape of Good Hope.

The five ships in the first squadron to cross the Atlantic lost more than half their men to scurvy, starvation and fevers, before they reached the straits, and then they had to wait four months before entering, due to the wind constantly blowing the wrong way. One ship had such a rough time in the straits that it waited for the second squadron, and then gave up and returned to the Netherlands. Of the four that got through, one ship was captured by the Spaniards near Valparaiso, Chile, one was sunk by a storm, and the captain of one, the Liefde, decided that he wouldn't be able to sell his cargo of woolen clothing in the tropics, so he headed north instead; his ship became the first Dutch ship to visit Japan. The fifth ship made it to the Moluccas, only to be captured by the Portuguese. The second squadron, four ships and 248 men commanded by Olivier van Noort, tried to repeat Sir Francis Drake's expedition by raiding Spanish ships as they went along, but instead suffered almost as badly as the first squadron. Along the coasts of Brazil and Patagonia, they were attacked more than once by the local Indians. One ship was lost to a storm before it reached the straits, and one reached the Spice Islands but ran aground upon arrival. The other two made it to the Philippines, and engaged two Spanish ships in Manila Bay; because the Spaniards outnumbered the Dutch, one Dutch ship was captured. The last ship returned to the Netherlands by way of Indonesia and the Cape of Good Hope; van Noort and 45 of his men completed the journey. In terms of profits, van Noort's expedition barely broke even; it went down in history as the fourth expedition (and the first Dutch one) to circumnavigate the world, after the voyages of Magellan, Drake, and Thomas Cavendish.

It was a squadron going by way of Africa that found the best way to sail from Europe to the Far East. Eight ships, commanded by Jacob van Neck, cast off in May 1598, and made great time, reaching the Cape of Good Hope three months later. Right after they cleared the Cape, a severe storm separated van Neck and three of his ships from the others. Stopping at Madagascar for resupply, van Neck then made a beeline for Java. By taking a direct course, instead of following the Indian Ocean's northern rim, van Neck avoided Portuguese forts, and caught a strong tailwind; he arrived at Bantam in November, six months after the expedition started. From Bantam he continued to the Spice Islands, where he could buy cloves and pepper for the wholesale price, and proceeded to load the three ships. One month later he was back at Bantam, where he got to meet the missing five ships as they straggled into port. They celebrated their reunion with a great New Year's party, and van Neck filled a fourth ship with spices. Then he sent the remaining four ships to load up in the Spice Islands, while he took the four fully loaded ships home. They returned to Amsterdam in July 1599 and the city was overjoyed; not only did the ships make it back, but those who paid for the expedition received a very nice return of 400 percent on their investment.

Now that the Dutch knew how to do it, there was no shortage of entrepreneurs willing to go to Indonesia; 65 ships headed east in 1601. However, they also realized that if they wanted to take over the spice trade, a corporation with monopoly rights stood a better chance of succeeding than individual merchants. Therefore, in 1602 the Dutch companies that had participated in previous Indonesian ventures united to form the Vereenigde Ost-Indische Compagnie (Chartered East India Company), better known as the Dutch East India Company or simply the V.O.C. To finance the venture, £540,000 worth of V.O.C. shares were issued on the Amsterdam stock market. By the standards of the day, this was an awesome sum -- one year earlier, London floated the English East India Company for one eighth of that amount -- but it was all sold within a month.

The V.O.C. was the first multinational corporation in history, and a complete success; by 1613 the Portuguese had been driven out of the spice trade. In 1619 the V.O.C. man on the spot, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, seized the port of Jakarta, renamed it Batavia (the old Roman name for the Netherlands), and made it the Company headquarters. The sultan of Bantam had let him have Jakarta/Batavia on condition that he keep it an unfortified trading post, but because of its new importance, it grew quickly, so Coen built walls for it anyway. Working back westward, the Dutch took Taiwan (1624) and evicted the Portuguese from Malacca (1641) and Sri Lanka (1638-1658); in Japan they became the only foreigners allowed to trade there (1641). They also besieged Manila, but here the Spanish garrison was strong enough to keep the Dutch from taking the city. When the fighting ended Spain remained in control of the Philippines and the Portuguese held onto Macao, Goa, and eastern Timor, but now all commerce in the Far East was under V.O.C. control. The Dutch were pleased to fit the remaining Iberian outposts into their trading system; the Dutch had good reasons to hate Spain, but they could forgive any enemy who became a customer of theirs.

The V.O.C. brought the Netherlands an annual profit averaging $750 million in 2014 dollars. To the shareholders this worked out to an dividend of 18% during the Company's best years. But only a fourth of its trade went between Asia and Europe. Not committing all their resources to one money-making scheme, the shrewd Dutch merchants used most of their ships in an intra-Asian trade network. Most of this trade involved shipping rice from rice-producing areas to rice-deficient areas. Other commodities were crops introduced to Java from elsewhere, like potatoes, yams, peanuts, corn, sugar and coffee. The coffee yielded fantastic profits until prices tumbled in 1727.

Meanwhile, the V.O.C. faced challenges from native rulers, since it was Dutch policy to leave them in charge as long as they were willing to do business. In 1661 they lost Taiwan to a Chinese pirate named Zheng Chenggong, known to Westerners as Coxinga. The biggest threat came from Sultan Agung of Mataram (1613-45), who dreamed of conquering all of Indonesia and restoring the old Majapahit empire. Agung spent the first fifteen years of his reign defeating rivals in the small coastal states. Now the master of Madura and most of Java, Agung attacked the Dutch by using a variant of the Trojan Horse trick; he sent a fleet of merchant ships to Batavia with cargo holds full of armed men, and the ruse very nearly succeeded. The next year (1629) he sent a huge army to take Batavia by land, but the Dutch destroyed his supply ships, leaving the Javanese too weak from hunger to attack the city when they arrived.

It took most of the seventeenth century for the V.O.C. to gain a total monopoly over the spice trade. The biggest leak came from the Sultanate of Makassar, on nearby Sulawesi; here the sultan gave shelter to Portuguese, Spanish, English and native ships that came to buy spices. Cornelis Speelman, an admiral nicknamed the "Sword of the Company," put an end to this by conquering the Sultanate of Tidore in 1667, and Makassar in 1669 (the latter required two expeditions and a lengthy siege). From 1681 until his death in 1684, Speelman was also the Company governor-general; during that time he conquered Ternate and reduced Mataram and Bantam to vassalage. By 1705 all of Java was either directly ruled by the V.O.C. or under friendly sultans; the Moluccas were also under direct company control, but on most islands the Dutch limited their influence to small enclaves. Except when Speelman was in charge, the V.O.C. disliked military action, and preferred to keep patrols to the minimum needed for security, since capital ships tend to tie up capital.

Competition from the English East India Company required special treatment. While the Dutch were fighting for their independence from Spain they needed England's military support, so the V.O.C.'s directors in Amsterdam were willing to let the English grab a fraction of the spices. However, the V.O.C. men in Indonesia did not see the need for restraint, and hostilities broke out as soon as they felt they could get away with it. The worst incident came in 1623, when one of Jan Coen's subordinates massacred eight English workers at their factory on Amboina. Eventually the English and Dutch East India Companies came to an unwritten agreement; England would stay out of Indonesia in return for a free hand in India. In 1685 the English built a trading post at Bencoolen, on Sumatra's southwest coast, and because it failed to tap into the west Sumatran pepper trade, the Dutch left it alone.

It was a combination of bad business practices, corruption among company employees, and a profitless war that brought down the Company in the late 18th century. The first mistake was in 1740, when the Dutch let fright take command of reason. The rapidly growing Chinese community in Batavia gave rise to fears that the Chinese and Javanese would join together in an anti-Dutch revolt; if Batavia was lost, the V.O.C. would be finished. The fact that many of the Chinese immigrants were unemployed seemed particularly ominous. Why not send them to the Dutch colonies in Sri Lanka and South Africa, where skilled labor was in short supply? That seemed like a satisfactory solution; the Chinese would have jobs, the Dutch would feel safer, and everybody would be happy. Unfortunately nobody asked the Chinese what they thought about it before they were rounded up for deportation. Rumors said that the Dutch actually intended to throw their captives overboard once the ships were out to sea. Fearing a Chinese riot, the Dutch and Indonesians ran amok first, killing the Chinese they found and putting the rest to flight. The result was the same as when the Spaniards tried to get rid of their Chinese community in Manila. Without the Chinese, business stagnated, and eventually the feared immigrants had to be invited back to Batavia.

The Company's fate was sealed in 1780 when the Netherlands declared its support for the American Revolution. From the Dutch viewpoint it was a disaster; England sank more Dutch ships than could be replaced, and in the treaty ending the war (Paris, 1783), the Dutch were forced to give up all monopoly trading claims. Indonesian ports were open to foreign shipping, and the V.O.C. found it could no longer compete with the other traders. During the final years, Dutchmen remarked that the V.O.C. acronym had a new meaning: Vergaan Onder Corruptie, or "Perished By Corruption." The Company declared bankruptcy in 1791; in 1799 its holdings were taken over by the Dutch government. It was the end of an era in Dutch-Indonesian relations, but the company's influence lingered on; for a long time afterwards Indonesians referred to any European authority over them as the kompeni.

In Malaya the English leased Penang Island from a friendly sultan (1786) and seized the port of Malacca (1795, recognized by the Dutch in 1824). These were the first steps toward's Britain's conquest of the Malay peninsula.

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Arakan: The Mrohaung Era

In the 14th century Arakan was a pawn that frequently changed hands in the struggles between Ava and Pegu. Things began to look up, however, when King Narameikhla (1404-34), aided by the sultan of Bengal, recovered his throne from a pro-Burmese usurper. At the end of his reign he built a splendid new capital, Mrohaung (modern Mrauk U), and Arakan's golden age began.

The next important king was Minbin (1531-53), who fortified Mrohaung with massive earthworks and a deep moat, just in time to ward off an attack by the Burmese king Tabinshweti. During his reign a number of Portuguese sailors, called Feringhi by the Arakanese, became pirates and started terrorizing the Bay of Bengal. Minbin persuaded them to join his navy as mercenaries, and together they became an important regional power. The Feringhi raiders plundered far and wide, especially in the Ganges delta, and brought back thousands of slaves to their market in the port of Dianga every year. In 1625 they even captured Dacca, the Bengali capital; by this time the raids of the Feringhi armada had been so thorough that there was not a house left inhabited between Dacca and Chittagong.

Under Min Razagri (1593-1612) there was a temporary falling out between the Feringhi and their employers. Both had taken part in the burning of Pegu in 1599, and the Feringhi captured the port of Syriam, in the Irrawaddy delta. Min Razagri apparently expected the Portuguese to hand over Syriam to him, but instead they kept it for themselves, defeating the Arakanese flotilla sent to dislodge them. Min Razagri now decided that his mercenaries had grown too powerful; in 1607 he made an all-out attack on Dianga, killing six hundred of its inhabitants without mercy. Those who escaped declared war on Arakan, making raids up to the very walls of Mrohaung, but the capital's defenses saved it again; even a Portuguese fleet of 14 ships, sent by the Viceroy of Goa, could not prevail. After 1620 Arakan and Portugal renewed their previous alliance, when India's Mogul Empire became a threat to both.

During this time Dutch merchants started visiting Arakan, buying up all the slaves and rice the Arakanese were willing to sell. On several occasions a V.O.C. warehouse was set up in Mrohaung, but politics kept it from running smoothly. The king of Arakan wanted a military alliance with the Dutch, to keep his enemies away and to provide an alternative to the unpredictable Feringhi. The Dutch refused, since warfare would be bad for business, and often they would close shop when the king became too overbearing. They never gave up on Arakan, though, and always reopened the warehouse a few years later.

Relations with the Mogul Empire went from bad to worse as the 17th century progressed. The first Mogul attack retook Dacca, but the invading fleet was smashed before it could get out of the Ganges delta (1629). In 1660 a Mogul prince, Shah Shuja, fled to Mrohaung when he failed to keep his brother, Aurangzeb, from usurping the Mogul throne. Shah Shuja asked for ships to convey his family and retinue to Mecca, but none were supplied. Then the Arakanese king, Sandathudamma, asked for one of Shah Shuja's daughters in marriage and was indignantly refused. Fearing he would be handed over to the Moguls, Shah Shuja tried to escape; on the second attempt he was killed in a riot and his treasures were confiscated.

When Aurangzeb heard the news, he demanded the surrender of Shah Shuja's children; Sandathudamma refused and war broke out. At first the war went well for Arakan, with the Feringhi making two devastating raids on the Bengal coast. But at a crucial moment they quarreled with the Arakanese, and when the Moguls offered employment most of the Feringhi switched sides. The result was an overwhelming Mogul victory at the battle of Dianga (1666), where the Arakanese fleet was destroyed and Chittagong (held by Arakan since 1459) was taken back.

The piratical habits of the Arakanese survived long after their fleet and Portuguese teachers were gone. Between 1682 and 1785, 25 kings rose and fell in Mrohaung. Political chaos now became the national hobby, and Arakan was no longer a threat to anybody.

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The Phaulkon Affair

Because Burma and Siam were exhausted from the wars they fought in the 16th century, the 17th century was relatively peaceful. But those kingdoms were not secure from Western meddling, and a bizarre incident proved that to the Siamese. In 1678 the English East India Company sent one of its agents, a Greek named Constantine Phaulkon, to the court of Ayutthaya. His commercial and linguistic gifts quickly gained the attention of King Narai (1657-88), and soon he was serving as both the king's interpreter in diplomatic negotiations and as the chief official in charge of Siam's foreign trade. When his English co-workers accused him of corruption, Phaulkon quit the English East India Company and offered his services to England's archenemy, France. The French were delighted, since all their attempts to gain colonies in the Far East had failed to this point. The diplomatic Siamese were also glad, since they thought French influence would be an effective counterweight to growing English and Dutch power in the region. In 1684 embassies were exchanged between Ayutthaya and Versailles. A large number of missionaries came with the French ambassador to Siam, and when Narai allowed them to preach without restrictions the French thought (wrongly) that the king was about to convert to Catholicism.

Three years later two English frigates arrived on the Tenasserim coast at Mergui, demanding 65,000 pounds in damages from Siam for giving shelter to pirates that attacked English shipping. At Phaulkon's urging, the Siamese opened fire on the ships and massacred every Englishman they could find. Now it looked like an Anglo-Siamese war would begin. The next time French priests arrived, they came with 600 French soldiers who occupied the ports of Bangkok and Mergui. That aroused Siamese fears. The king's terminal illness persuaded the anti-Western faction of his court to act before it was too late. In a palace coup they seized and beheaded Phaulkon; the small French garrisons could not hold out for long against native opposition and were evacuated. The new Siamese policy called for minimal contact with the West. It would be 150 years before Siam's doors were opened to the outside world again.

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The Fall of Lan Xang

The 17th century was a good time for Laos, which had an excellent king named Souligna-Vongsa for most of the period (1637-94). When he died one of his nephews gained the throne with the help of the Vietnamese army, and Lan Xang effectively became a Vietnamese satellite. Other members of the royal family refused to submit to Vietnam, and in 1707 they declared themselves independent, establishing two kingdoms named after their capitals, Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The south seceded in 1713, calling itself the kingdom of Champassak. Lan Xang disappeared, and after years of playing a diplomatic game to keep their freedom, all three Laotian states were conquered by Siam (1778). The kings were allowed to keep their thrones but were reduced to figureheads, with real power given to a Siamese commissioner.

One Laotian king, Chao Anou (Vientiane, 1805-28) attempted to shake off the Siamese yoke. The first thing he did after his coronation was to send gift-bearing ambassadors to Vietnam, Siam's new rival to the east. Next, he persuaded the Siamese to make his son governor of Champassak, giving him indirect control over two-thirds of Laos. But then he made a fatal error; thinking that the British, who had just defeated Burma, were about to invade Siam next, he led three armies against Bangkok in 1826. No British army was at Siam's door; the Siamese quickly defeated Anou, chased him to Vietnam, and pillaged Vientiane. After this Vientiane became a directly-ruled Siamese province.

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The End of Champa

In the previous chapter, we saw Vietnam reduce its southern rival, Champa, to a minor state southwest of Cam Ranh Bay. The Chams abandoned their impressive stone temples to the jungle, and while a fraction of them retained the Hindu faith of their ancestors, most converted to the Shiite branch of Islam. If they did this to win aid from a Moslem state like Malacca, it never came. Nor did the Vietnamese allow the Chams to rebuild their kingdom to be anything more than a protectorate of Vietnam. In 1720 the Vietnamese decided to do away with even the protectorate, so the Cham king and his people fled into Cambodia. The city where the largest group of refugees settled became known as Kompong Cham (Cham Landing) because of them. The last king of the Chams died in 1822. Some of today's Vietnamese believe that the problems their country suffered in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were divine retribution for what their ancestors did to Champa.

There are half a million Chams alive now; 300,000 live in Cambodia and most of the rest are in Vietnam and Thailand. They suffered terribly under the Pol Pot terror of the 1970s, because their distinctive clothing and practice of Islam made them obvious targets to the godless communists; half of the Cham population probably died at that time. In part because of this, today's Chams trace their family lineage through the mother, not the father.

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Two Divisions of Vietnam

After it crushed Champa, Vietnam was able to expand south without opposition. In 1697 they reached the Mekong River and occupied the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor; before long they renamed it Saigon. By 1757 the whole Mekong delta was in Vietnamese hands. Both Saigon and the delta had been part of Cambodia before this time, but the Khmer state was now too far in decline to defend its borders. With the annexation of Soc Trang (1840), one of the southernmost provinces, Vietnam reached its present-day frontiers. There were also attempts to put pro-Vietnamese monarchs in charge of Cambodia and Laos, though none of these succeeded for long.

The transformation of Vietnam from a small compact state into a realm 1,000 miles long caused severe growing pains. Two cultures developed: a heavily populated, conservative north, and a bolder, more aggressive south. During the next three centuries Vietnam was divided twice, and the two halves were at war much of the time.

The first and shorter division came about because none of the kings after Le Thanh Tong had his ability. Between 1497 and 1527 ten weak kings rose and fell from the throne, most of them usurpers. Finally the ambitious governor of Hanoi, Mac Dang Dung, ordered the reigning monarch to commit suicide, and claimed the throne for himself. However, the deposed Le family found two generals who remained loyal to them, Nguyen Kim and his son-in-law Trinh Kiem. Between 1533 and 1545 they regained control of the lands south of the Red River delta, but then Nguyen Kim was assassinated, and his sons were too young to finish what he started. This setback prolonged the civil war until 1592, when the Le, Nguyen, and Trinh families conquered Hanoi and most of the north. The Mac rulers fled to Cao Bang, on the Chinese frontier, and there they remained, always threatening to come back, until the Chinese stopped supporting them in 1677.

Theoretically the Le monarch was in charge of the whole country again, but he was really a figurehead; the Nguyens administered the south from Hue, and the Trinhs handled the day-to-day affairs of the north from Hanoi. Now there were four dynasties (Le, Mac, Nguyen and Trinh), each claiming to be the true rulers over all of Vietnam. The Nguyens and Trinhs forgot the friendship of their ancestors, and now they got along like scorpions in a bottle. Both families prepared for war, which broke out in 1620 when the Nguyens refused to submit any longer to Hanoi. For over half a century the Trinh rulers tried in vain to conquer the south. The failure of the last campaign in 1673 was followed by a truce that lasted nearly a century. During this time both the Nguyens and Trinhs paid lip service to the Le dynasty but maintained two separate governments in the two halves of the country.

In 1772 a new civil war began. This time it was started by three brothers named Nhac, Lu, and Hue'; history calls them the Tay Son brothers, after the name of their village. Originally bandits in the Robin Hood style, the Tay Sons declared war on all three ruling houses when they gathered enough peasant support to form an army of their own. In 1777 they massacred the Nguyen family, except for one member, Nguyen Anh, who escaped. While the Tay Sons were campaigning in the north, Nguyen Anh attempted to establish himself as king of Saigon, but he was driven out by the Tay Sons in 1783. In the north the Tay Sons also succeeded, overthrowing the Le and Trinh dynasties in 1786.

For a short time Vietnam was reunited under the Tay Son brothers, but Nguyen Anh was able to make a comeback. In the meantime he had gained the friendship of a powerful French bishop, Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, who saw great opportunities for missionaries in Vietnam if he could place a pro-Christian king on the throne. Pigneau went to Paris in 1787, taking along Nguyen Anh's seven-year-old son as proof of his good faith. Unfortunately the French government was broke--it was only two years before the French Revolution would begin--so no aid came from the court of Louis XVI. All Pigneau could do was collect funds from interested merchants, which he used to hire mercenaries on the way back to Vietnam. With their help Nguyen Anh captured Saigon and the Mekong delta in 1788. Most of the mercenaries got bored and quit afterwards, but Nguyen Anh now had the power base he needed. In a series of campaigns that lasted 14 years, Nguyen Anh defeated the Tay Sons and gained control of the entire country. When Hanoi and Hue fell to his armies in 1802, he moved his capital to Hue. To signify that he now ruled all of Vietnam, he changed his name to Gia Long, a name referring to the provinces containing Saigon (Gia Dinh) and Hanoi (Thanh Long). For his French benefactor, who died in 1799, Gia Long erected a fine tomb, and during the rest of his reign (1802-19) he kept French advisors at his court. There was full toleration of missionaries during his lifetime, but his successors were less friendly to Christians. That would eventually give the French an excuse to come back in force. The French were too busy with affairs at home to get involved in Vietnam until the mid-19th century, but they would return someday, now that the door had been opened for them.

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Eighteenth Century Burma & Siam

Siam still had a problem with royal succession in the 18th century; as the country grew richer, the problem got worse, because the rewards to be gained by winning the throne were greater than ever. The 300-year-old laws of King Trailok limited the number of eligible candidates, but there still was a crisis almost every time the throne became vacant. If an uparat died before the king did, only an overwhelmingly popular monarch like Naresuan could name a new heir and make the claim stick. Another factor was that control of the country's laborers and soldiers was divided evenly between three princes, giving them a powerful role as kingmakers. Many of the kings that ruled in the 17th and early 18th centuries did so by disguised or real usurpations; power mattered more than legitimacy here. The last competent Ayutthayan king, Song Tham (1733-58), tried to bring stability by dividing the country's manpower between thirteen princes instead of three, so that none could seize the throne by himself. Because of the troubles that came after his reign, Song Tham is called Borommakot by modern Thais, meaning "The King in the Urn (awaiting cremation)," because he was the last 18th century king to receive a proper funeral.(5)

There was also trouble in Siam's vassal state to the southeast, Cambodia. In 1710 Vietnam's Nguyen monarch invaded and placed a pro-Vietnamese prince on the Cambodian throne. Siam tried to remove him but couldn't, so an agreement was reached where Cambodia paid tribute to both Siam and Vietnam. For the next century and a half Cambodia alternated between pro-Siamese and pro-Vietnamese rulers with distressing frequency.

Burma could be ignored in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but things changed suddenly when an aggressive new dynasty came to power. In the 1740s all of Burma's ethnic minorities revolted. At the same time the raja of Manipur, the nearest Indian state, regularly sent raiders into the country. The rebellions culminated in 1752 when the Mons, aided by the French, captured Ava, bringing the Toungoo dynasty to an end.

The Mon rule of Burma, however, was brief, for the Mons had defeated the Burmese king, not his people. In the same year a popular local leader, Alaungpaya, rose up and gained control of Upper Burma and the Shan states. By 1758 he had also conquered Manipur and the Mons, defeating their French allies. Siam grew alarmed and tried to start new rebellions, and Alaungpaya responded by invading Siam in 1759. First he took the ports of Moulmein, Tavoy, and Tenasserim; they have been part of Burma ever since. Ayutthaya was surrounded in the following year, but before the city could be taken, a Burmese cannon exploded, mortally wounding Alaungpaya. He died while his army retreated home.

Where Alaungpaya failed his son Hsinbyushin (1763-76) was dreadfully successful. After putting down a rebellion in Chiangmai, he invaded Siam with three armies: one followed the traditional invasion route, the Three Pagodas Pass; one came from Chiangmai, and one came from the Malay peninsula. The siege of Ayutthaya lasted fourteen months (February 1766-April 1767), and when the capital fell, the Burmese destroyed it completely. Ten thousand captives were led away, including the last king of the dynasty, who spent the remaining 29 years of his life as a monk in Burma. Everything flammable was put to the torch, and the Burmese did not let their piety stop them from hacking gold plate off images of the Buddha.(6) The ruined city was never rebuilt.

The Burmese army promptly withdrew after it was finished with Ayutthaya, thinking that Siam had been destroyed with its capital. However, Siam had one good leader left, a half-Chinese general named Taksin. He first gained renown when he fought the most successful holding action against the Burmese, delaying one of their armies for five months. He was put in charge of Ayutthaya's defenses, but could not launch an effective counterattack, which brought some unfair criticism from the Siamese king. Unable to make the king listen to reason, Taksin cut his way out of the doomed city with 500 followers and escaped. When he reached the Gulf of Thailand, Taksin began to raise a new army. No longer forced to fight from a fixed position, he went from victory to victory, gaining more recruits every time he won a battle. Siam was quickly liberated, and Taksin had himself crowned at a new capital, Thonburi, near the mouth of the Menam River.

The warrior king's troubles were, however, far from ended. First of all, four rivals (a prince, a monk, and two governors) claimed the throne for themselves; it took a three-year civil war (1767-70) to eliminate them. Second, Burma did not give up easily, and a follow-up invasion had to be driven back. Finally, Taksin was motivated to restore the glories of Ayutthayan Siam overnight, so he conquered Chiangmai (1776, this time for good) and Laos (1778); he also sent yet another expedition into Cambodia. Fifteen years of uninterrupted warfare took its toil; the king went insane, and declared himself a Bodhisattva (saint or living Buddha).

In 1781 the Siamese nobility decided that Taksin had to be replaced; he had become a threat to Buddhism and his country. They placed him in a monastery, and offered the crown to Chakri, Taksin's best general, who hurriedly called off the Cambodian campaign so he could accept it. But before the coronation could take place, something had to be done about Taksin. The hero of 1767 was (reluctantly) executed, which both cured the royal madness and removed the biggest challenge to Chakri's rule. Because Burma was still a threat, the capital was moved across the Menam River to Bangkok, on the east bank.(7) Chakri went down in history as King Rama I, and the dynasty he started still rules Thailand today.

This is the End of Chapter 2.


1. Since Magellan and Enrique had been in Southeast Asia before, they now get the credit for being the first men to go all the way around the world. After Magellan's death, Enrique, now a free man, chose to stay with Humabon's tribe on Cebu, rather than continue with the expedition. He wasn't born in the Philippines, but it looked a lot like home, so what the heck! Modern-day Filipinos consider Enrique to be one of them, calling him either Enrique of Malacca or Henry the Black.
Because it was off the beaten path for most ships, the Philippines was one of the last places in Southeast Asia to become civilized. However, Magellan was not the first civilizing influence. We now believe that Filipinos sailed across the South China Sea as early as 300 A.D. to trade the products of their homeland (pearls, resins for lacquer, shells, and hemp). The Chinese were the best customers for these raw materials, and in turn Chinese merchants started visiting Luzon and Cebu; the first trip they reported happened in 982. Manila was founded as a trading post to make the Chinese-Filipino trade easier, and Manila became the capital of a kingdom named Tondo, from at least 900 until the Spaniards took over. Finally, there was the influence of the Moslem traders, mentioned in the previous chapter.

2. To give another example of the inefficiency involved, the winds and currents of the Pacific Ocean tended to push eastbound ships northward, so that a galleon sailing to Mexico usually made landfall in northern California. From there they had to follow the barren California coast south for several more weeks. Because of that, and because the trade winds made it easy to sail straight on the westbound course, it typically took three months to sail from Acapulco to Manila, but six months to sail back; both the ships and crews were often physical wrecks by the time they reached Acapulco. Nevertheless, Spain waited until 1769 to settle California and give the Manila galleon rest stops on the final leg of its voyage.
During the voyage of 1587, the Manila Galleon stopped at Morro Bay, near present-day San Luis Obispo, California, when two Indians were spotted there. A landing party came ashore, found no Indians in sight, and planted a cross to claim that land for Spain. Suddenly the Indians returned and attacked the party, killing two before they were driven off by musket fire; then the Spaniards left, sailing on to Acapulco. The reason why this expedition was mentioned here is because the landing party included Filipino servants, and one of them was among those killed. In 1995 a plaque was placed at Morro Bay by the Filipino American National Historical Society, marking the spot where Filipinos first set foot on land that would someday become the continental United States.

3. Spain's toughest Moro opponent was the Sultanate of Sulu. Based on the chain of small islands between Mindanao and Borneo, the sultan also claimed rule over Palawan, western Mindanao, and north Borneo (now called Sabah). The Spaniards thought they had subjugated the whole southern Philippines by 1638, but the sultan regained his independence in 1646. Then in 1662, Spain lost its base on western Mindanao, Zamboanga City, to another local ruler, the sultan of Maguindanao. Though Spain retook Zamboanga in 1718, more trouble with the Moros would come in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

4. Boat parades are a Southeast Asian tradition. The court of Siam was known for the grandest boat parades of all, and even today in modern Bangkok, the royal barges are occasionally brought out to stage this spectacle.

5. It is worth pointing out here that Borommakot is also credited with saving Therevada Buddhism in its homeland, Sri Lanka. By his time Sri Lankan Buddhism had declined so badly, in numbers and quality of teaching, that the remaining monks turned to Siam for help. Borommakot sent missions to Sri Lanka that ordained monks and purified existing teachings and practices. The school they established, called Syamvamsa, still exists today. Nowadays the Thai people claim that their country has replaced Sri Lanka as the true headquarters of Buddhism.

6. However, the Burmese missed the biggest prize, a Buddha that wasn't just gold-plated, but made of solid gold. Ten feet wide and almost thirteen feet high, this statue weighs five and a half tons, so at today's ridiculously high gold prices, the bullion alone is worth more than $300 million. Nobody knows when it was made; today's Thais believe Ramkhamhaeng made it, because the statue was done in the Sukhothai art style, and on the Ramkhamhaeng stele (see Chapter 1), the thirteenth-century king mentioned a gold Buddha, presumably this one, in the middle of his capital. When the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya, the Thais covered the statue with stucco and moved it to an unimportant temple, so any Burmese who saw it figured it wasn't worth stealing. After the Burmese were driven out, the Thais forgot to remove the stucco; by the time King Rama I moved it to Bangkok (1801), nobody even remembered that it was a golden statue. Eventually, when the temple surrounding it fell apart, the big, ugly, plastered Buddha ended up under a simple tin roof. Finally in 1955, an attempt was made to move the Buddha to a new temple, and clumsy workers dropped it on the ground, knocking off some of the stucco and revealing the gold underneath. The rest of the covering was carefully removed, so today the Golden Buddha can be seen in its full pre-1767 glory, at the Wat Traimit Temple in Bangkok.

7. The real name of Bangkok is one of the longest place names ever invented, and certainly the longest for a capital city. Here it is spelled out: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. In English this means "The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Intra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn." Present-day Thais find this a tongue twister and will simply say Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, or Krung Thep -- the City of Angels. How Krung Thep got translated into Bangkok is a mystery to me.

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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