Whenever I cut the deck of postcards and revealed Siamese White the title of this book intrigued me. Was the subject a breed of cat? A butterfly or an artists’ pigment? Maybe it was the story of a beautiful courtesan, the product of a mixed race liaison? All were plausible, but all quite wrong. Siamese White was a man – an Englishman from Bath. During the reign of James II he was appointed as a mandarin by the King of Siam and Maurice Collis’s book is his story.
Siam adopted its modern name, Thailand, in 1939. Many in Thailand argue that the modernizing reforms of the Thai government allowed the country to avoid the colonial wars which devastated its neighbours in the third quarter of the 20th century. However, the diplomatic skills of Siamese monarchs in the 19th and early 20th centuries also had an important role in allowing Siam, and later Thailand, to escape European colonisation.
Formal British relations with Thailand began in 1612, when the East India Company ship The Globe arrived in Siam carrying a present and a letter from King James I for the Siamese monarch. The present must have been a good one; in return, the fledgling English East-Indian Company was given a piece of ground upon which to construct a warehouse.
Samuel White sailed for Madras in 1675 in the services of the East India Company. By that time the Company had developed into an enormously powerful corporation which controlled the British government’s interests in Asia. White was a merchant adventurer of the most roguish kind and moved on to Mergui, an important Siamese trade centre. The principal scenes of Siamese White are set there, where Collis spent some years as a member of the Indian Civil Service. White administered the port on behalf of the Siamese state and, typical of British administrators of the time, it seems clear that he used his position to considerable personal gain
Collis based the book on two original sources. One of these was the Davenport Papers, a collection of documents written by Francis Davenport, also of the East India Company. Davenport’s criticism of White went well beyond accusations of misuse of power. He was taken prisoner by White and accused him of piracy and – perhaps even more heinous in the eyes of the East India Company – of damaging the Company’s reputation in Asia.
White continued to argue his innocence until he died in 1689. Touchingly, his case was taken up by his brother George, on behalf of White’s daughters. George was nothing if not thorough. His pamphlet refuting Davenport’s accusations was the second of Collis’s sources. It could not have had a more comprehensive title, “Reflections on a Scandalous Paper Entitled the Answer to the East India Company to the two Printed Papers of Samuel White Together with the true Character of Francis Davenport the said Company Historiographer”.
Shame on you Mr Davenport!