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    When the cannons roared: The Paknam Incident

    When the cannons roared
    By Manote Tripathi
    The Nation on Sunday
    Published on July 25, 2010

    The Thai Navy sponsors a book about the day it took on French warships - and helped save the Kingdom

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    The Royal Thai Navy may have lost its skirmish with French gunboats 117 years ago this month, and thus lost Laos for the crown, but there was enough gallantry in the "Franco-Siamese Crisis" that the Navy has no compunction in issuing a new book on the affair.
    Along with the Prachul Fort Society, the Navy has published historian Kririksh Nana's "Franco-Siamese Crisis 1893", unveiling the book on the very site of the brief battle, Prachul Fort at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River.

    The episode ended with the King's foreign cash depleted, all of his silver carted by caravan to a waiting French ship.

    France coveted Siam's northern territory on the far side of the mekong River, what is now Laos. Unable to pry it loose, France dispatched gunboats to Bangkok, which the Siamese navy attempted to block on July 13, 1893, with some gritty action at Prachul Fort.

    The exchange of fire - sometimes referred to as the Paknam Incident - garnered international attention, European newspapers weighing in on the "shameful" battle between the "French wolf" and the "Siamese lamb". The lamb was generally hailed for its bravery, and cartoonists in Paris as well as London had a field day.

    Kririksh pinpoints the moment of invasion as 6.05pm, when the French gunboats Inconstante and Comete entered the Chao Phraya along with a guiding vessel.

    The Siamese side fired two warning shots from the fort, and then two more shots prompted the French to draw their swords. A Siamese torpedo sank the lead foreign ship. The French unleashed their cannons and also inflicted damage and loss of life.

    Then the gunboats moved on upstream. The Siamese navy proposed to ram them with the Maha Chakri Royal Barge, but King Chulalongkorn countermanded the idea.

    At 9pm the French reached the capital and anchored in front of their embassy near the Oriental Hotel.

    Ambassador Pavie gave Siam a six-point ultimatum, demanding that its troops be withdrawn from the north side of the mekong within a month - effectively ceding Laos and part of Cambodia to France - and that France be paid three million francs in "war compensation".

    The King stalled for as long as possible, but the French were evidently confident enough of the outcome that the gunboats departed on July 26, and ultimately an armistice was signed on October 3, relinquishing the mekong territories and approving the compensation.

    France continued to occupy the eastern provinces of Chanthaburi and Trat for another 14 years to keep Siamese troops out of Laos, but in the meantime the benefit of Siam's concessions became clear: By giving up some territory, it had salvaged its sovereignty.

    King Chulalongkorn, who died 100 years ago this October, embarked on a nine-month tour of Europe in 1897, forging friendships with aristocrats from Britain to Russia and further securing Siam against colonisation.

    This dramatic episode in our history is well captured in the 100 illustrations from various European periodicals that Kririksh has assembled for the book, some of them costing more than Bt80,000.

    Kririksh is hardly a dispassionate raconteur: In 1893 his grandmother was in the crowd that gathered in front of the French Embassy hurling abuse at the foreign invaders!

    He nevertheless believes that the French were loath to fight the Siamese, that the gunboats were here to force our hand. They expected little trouble at a time when the Siamese military mounted its British-made cannons on the backs of elephants.

    Battle did, however, ensue, and Amorn Wanitwiwat, a political-science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, is proud of the navy's response.

    "Eight Siamese soldiers were killed and three French naval officers died, and one French boat was blown up," he said during a panel discussion at the book launch.

    "Job well done for the Thai Navy!"

    Amorn pointed out that the Siamese ranks included Italian, British and Danish mercenaries, "so other Western nations saw that what the French were doing was absolutely not right".

    Few Bangkok citizens knew about the crisis, even after the French warships arrived. Residents living around the embassy and monks in the nearby temples gathered in concern.

    The French naval officers had no idea that the monks travelled in small boats on their alms rounds, so they were alarmed to see them approach their ships. The strangely dressed, hairless men carrying lidded containers could well have been saboteurs, they surmised.

    French imperial brashness was no surprise to Siam's elite class - it had already consumed most of Cambodia and the future Vietnam, and Siam was coveted as a buffer state against British Burma.

    "Both superpowers were trying to take over China, the centre of Asia," Amorn pointed out. "They thought if they could colonise China, taking over the rest of Asia would be easy."

    Siam didn't "lose" the 1893 skirmish, Kririksh and Amorn agree. The French got what they wanted - all of Indochina - but Siam maintained its independence.

    Still, that "compensation" payment to the French of three million francs sticks in the craw.

    King Rama V turned to the foreign reserves kept in the basement of the Grand Palace, Kririksh said, but there was only 2.4 million francs, so the royal relatives were tapped for the rest.

    "A parade of chariots transported the heavy silver from the Royal Palace to another French gunboat, the Lutin, moored in front of the French Embassy," Kririksh writes in his book. "Crowds stood by, crying in agony."

    The French newspaper Le Monde Illustre reported on November 18, 1893, that the payment comprised 801,282 silver coins, collectively weighing 23 tons.

    King Chulalongkorn was saddened by the events of 1893 and the loss of the mekong territories, Kririksh and Amorn affirm. But his clever parry - giving up a portion to save the whole - safeguarded the freedom that Thailand celebrates to this day.

    Buy the book

    Copies of "Franco-Siamese Crisis 1893" cost Bt999 at the Sunshine Shop on the fourth floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, and from the Prachul Fort Society. Call (089) 200 8766 or (02) 475 6260.

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    Re: When the cannons roared: The Paknam Incident

    Kririksh pinpoints the moment of invasion as 6.05pm, when the French gunboats Inconstante and Comete entered the Chao Phraya along with a guiding vessel.
    The "guiding vessel" was a local Siamese ship used as a pilot because the entrance to the river was treacherous.

    A Siamese torpedo sank the lead foreign ship.
    Again, this was the local Siamese pilot ship and it wasn't sunk but ran aground.

    Amorn Wanitwiwat, a political-science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, is proud of the navy's response: "Eight Siamese soldiers were killed and three French naval officers died, and one French boat was blown up. Job well done for the Thai Navy!"
    Again I add that the so-called "French boat" was hired by the gunboats as a pilot ship. It was Siamese. It didn't blow up but ran aground after being damaged. The two French gunboats successfully made their way upriver to Bangkok. It should also be pointed out that many of the officers in the Thai Navy were actually Europeans!

    I am sorry, but it doesn't help anyone if university lecturers try to rewrite history.

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    Re: When the cannons roared: The Paknam Incident

    Quote Originally Posted by Richard Barrow View Post
    I am sorry, but it doesn't help anyone if university lecturers try to rewrite history.
    What a pity, from the announcement sounded like an interesting book on this incident. But since you can already refute the book from the small part mentioned in that review, it probably not worth the 999 Baht. It is just sad that most Thai authors fall the nationalistic trap - and I worry that it is much worse in Thai language books...

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    Re: When the cannons roared: The Paknam Incident

    I want to take a look at the book to see for myself. But doubtful I will buy for 999 baht.

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    Re: When the cannons roared: The Paknam Incident

    Quote Originally Posted by ahoerstemeier View Post
    It is just sad that most Thai authors fall the nationalistic trap - and I worry that it is much worse in Thai language books...
    No, it's not. You do get those spinning a particular line, of course, but that's true anywhere. There are many outstanding Thai historians and if you can read Thai, it opens up all kind of information, views and opinions. A good place to start perhaps is Art and Culture, a monthly publication, and other books published by Matichon. There's quite a variety of publishers out there though, depending on your interests.
    Last edited by KhaoNiaw; 26-07-10 at 07:10 PM.

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