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Sunday, June 1, 2008

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Old Royal Siam revisited


TRAVELER IN SIAM IN THE YEAR 1655: Extracts from the Journal of Gijsbert Heeck, translated and introduced by Barend Jan Terwiel. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2008, 124 pp., with b/w pictures and drawings, full-color maps and illustrations, 2008, 595 Bahts (paper)

In 1903, the 1655 manuscript of Gijsbert Heeck (or Heecq) was discovered in a Utrecht collection. Thus an important part of the past was, some 350 years later, restored.

Heeck (1619-1669) was a medical specialist working for the Dutch East India Company. It was his third trip to Asia and during it he looked about him with the keen eye that one expects from a medical specialist.

He went to the capital of Ayutthaya, as had many other Dutchmen, but only he noted the rate of water flow in the canals, the method of paving the roads, and the kinds of goods sold along the way. He also noticed a single young elephant in a large elephant house, found that it was being quarantined with a contagious disease, and even describes for us the ceremonies performed for its recovery.

Heeck observed the relations of local Dutch men with indigenous women. These, even those of higher rank, customarily "stood with their breasts completely bare." They were attractive and some of them were compliant. The medical specialist quotes St. Paul to the effect that it is better to marry thus than to burn in the hereafter for having lived with whores, but he also found that the resultant offspring were usually abandoned by their fathers.

He noticed court etiquette: "The least sign of disobedience caused the guilty to be thrown alive in front of elephants to be torn to pieces, or beaten almost to a mash." Even a glance at the ruler's face could result in immediate decapitation. For lesser offenses, a favorite punishment was to have the dishes and drinking bowls of the accused smeared with buffalo dung, forcing them to eat and drink from these until they were either killed or acquitted.

These practices are compared with those of the Japanese, about which Heeck is also knowledgeable. There, in Kochi, the accused were hung alive upside down on beachside crosses, to be left there until the incoming tide had drowned them. At this Japanese practice the diarist is indignant (complaisant though he seems about the Thai) because the victims were Christians.

He is, in fact, as biased as most in 1655. He remarks on "how these foolish heathens lie stunned in blindness and total darkness" and "how grateful we should be to our God who so graciously chose to enlighten us . . . ." He makes fun of the wai, that traditional Thai gesture of greeting and mutual respect. "This looked very devout, but we could not keep from laughing at this silliness."

Irritating as this parading of piety can be, we must remember that Heeck was very much a man of his time and that his renaissance-like observation and curiosity was just as much a part of him as were his medieval pietisms.

The long lost journal is here very elegantly presented with many rare maps and illustrations, the entire original Dutch text being transcribed as well. The translator, Barend Jan Terwiel, a specialist in Thai history, has just published an important book on Thailand's political history from the fall of Ayutthaya until recent times.



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