Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin-China

by John Crawfurd

A lively description of mainland Southeast Asia in the 1820s.

Journal Embassy Crawfurd 2Vols Cover

Type: on-demand books

Publisher: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley, London. 2 vols.

Edition: digitized by Google | ADB pdf edition

Published: 1830

Author: John Crawfurd

Pages: 946

Language : English

Was it because his diplomatic mission on behalf of the British Governor-General of Bengal came up as a failure? In any case, the author's description of Siam and Cochinchina in the early 19th century has been quite overlooked even though this account is ripe with insightful notations. Among them:

  • Takmao, the "Black Water", and Koh Tam-bung [nowadays Hon Khoai (also called Ile Independence or Paulo Obi, Pulo Ubi, a small archipelago located about 14 km south from Ca Mau province, modern Vietnam]: "As we approached the land of Kamboja, and the same appearance prevailed until we passed Pulo Ubi, the water was as disturbed and muddy aa at the mouth of the Ganges, in the westerly monsoon. This, as I afterwards understood, was occasioned by theriver of Camao, called by the Kambojans, from the abundance of mud which it carries along with it, Takmao, or the " black stream.'' At three in the afternoon, we landed on Pulo Ubi, then spent two or three hours in rambling over the hills. (...) The name Pulo Ubi is Malay, and not improbably derived from the large species of dioscorea, or yam, to which I have above alluded; the term meaning, in Malay, literally, the Island of Yams. From very early ages, an intercourse hal existed between the Kambojans and the Malays; and considerable numbers of the latter are not only at present settled at Kamboja, but Malayan rovers still continue to infest its coast by their depredations.The island, in the language of Kamboja, is called Ko Tam-bung ; in Cochin Chinese, Kon-gui and in Siamese, Ko-Man; all of which terms, I understand, have the same signification as the Malayan name."(p 91-92, I)
  • About Phú Quốc [the largest island in modern Vietnam]: "The island which we had now visited is called by the Cochin Chinese, Phu-kok, and by the Siamese Koh-dud, or the " far island ;" the last name having reference to its relative distance, compared to other islands, from the coast of Kamboja. In the Kambojan language it is called Koh-trol, or "shuttle island," which is evidently the Quadrole of the old maps. It is the largest island on the east coast of the Gulf of Siam, being by our reckoning not less than thirty-four miles in length. (...) The inhabitants of Phu-kok were described to us as amounting to from four to five thousand, -all of the true Cochin Chinese race, with the exception of a few occasional Chinese sojoumers. They grow no species of corn, and their husbandry is confined to a few coarse fruits, and esculent green vegetables, and farinaceous roots. Of the last, the best and most abundant was the Convolvulus Batata. They import their rice from Kang-kao, which lies opposite, and is an abundant grain country."

  • Annamite Ambitions: "In the letter of the Governor-general, His Majestywas styled Emperor of Anam, a common term for Tonquin and Cochin China; and as it was well known that he had conquered a great part of Kamboja, and, as was asserted of Lao, Sovereign of these countries, also was added to his titles. This was much objected to, and the Mandarins informed me that it was no honour to the King of Cochin China to be styled "a king of slaves," for as such, it seems. the inhabitants of the conquered provinces are deemed by the governing race, that is, by the Anam nation, which includes both Cochin Chinese and Tonquinese." (p 326, vol I)

  • Volatile diplomacy: "With respect to Cochin China, I have but few
    observations to make. The repeated professions of the foreign minister, as well as of the Governor of Kamboja, tendering offers of protection and assistance to such British merchants as might frequent the country, induced me, not long after I took charge of Singapore [Crawfurd became Resident of Singapore in 1823], to furnish the supercargo of a British merchant-ship proceeding to Hue and Saigun, with letters of introduction. The Governor of Kamboja received the letter, addressed to him, with great civility and replied to it, and a friendly correspondence ensued. The reception of my letter to the foreign minister was very different. The bearer of it was declared to have violated the laws of the Empire in bringing a letter from a stranger, and, in fact, to have committed such an offence as, with a native of the country, would have entitled him to capital punishment." (pp 470-1)
  • Siamese Kingdom and "ethnic minorities": "I was informed that some attempt had been made by the Court to compile a rude map of the kingdom from native surveys. The following meagre list comprehends the names of all the foreign nations or countries with which the Siamese are acquainted, according to their own pronunciation, viz. Mon, Pegue; Pama, Burma ; Lao, Laos ; Khomen, Kamboja ; Cham, Champa; Yuan, Anam, that is, Cochin China and Tonquin ; Tang-kia, Tonquin ; Chek or Chin, China; Ya-pun, Japan ; Khek, Malay; Chowa, Java; Mung-nge, Celebes; Hua-prek, African, that is to say, "pepper heads," Piam, Hindostan ; Thet, Telingana, or the Coast of Coromandel ; Langka, Ceylon ; Farang, Europe ; Frangsit, French; Wilande, Dutch; Angkrit, English ; Markan, Anglo-American." (p 36, vol II) The author gives the following demographics, warning that those were "very imperfect data": Siamese 1,260,000 | Laos 840,000 | Peguans 25,000 | Kambojans 25,000 | Malays 195,000 | Chinese 440,000 | Natives of Western India 8,500 | Portnguese 2,000 | Total 2,790,500.
  • Pali ('Bali') as a common linguistic foundation: "The term
    Bali is applied in Siam either to the written character or to the language itself, but most frequently to the latter. It is a little remarkable that the character or alphabet of the Bali is very generally denominated by the Siamese. Kamkiom, or the writing of Kamboja. Some allege that it is so called because the Siamese are said to have acquired their first knowledge of it, and of the Buddhist religion through Kamboja; but others, with more probability, affirm that it has this name because it is the only character known to the Kambojans, both their religious and popular writings being composed in it. According to the information furnished to met the Bali language, as it obtains in Ceylon, in Ava, Pegue, Lao, Siam, and Kamboja, is exactly the same ; while time and distance have occasioned a considerable diversity in the mode of writing the character. The Bali writings of Siam and Kamboja are identically the same. Those of Pegue, Ava, and Lao, differ a little from each other, and a good deal from the two former."
    (p 46, vol II)
  • Temples and worshipping in Bangkok: "During the visit which I have just described, all the temples, but particularly the larger ones were, on account of the holidays, crowded with visitors, and this incident afforded us a striking picture of the manners and habits of the people. The votaries were of all ages and sexes, and the women were not less numerous than the men. The bulk were Siamese, but there were also Cochin Chinese, Cambojans, people of Lao and Pegue, and a great number of Chinese. Instead of the gravity and decorum which might have been looked for in a temple, the demeanour of the visitors was noisy, clamorous, and playful. They were at one moment prostrate before the idols, and at another engaged in some frolic, or singing an idle song. One man, for example, coolly lighted his segar at an incense-rod which a devotee had just placed as an offering before one of the idols, and another deliberately sat down before an image and played a merry air on a flageolet, while many were engaged at the same shrine in performning their devotions. The women mixed in the crowd, unveiled, as indeed they always are, and were neither shy nor timid ; on the contrary, there was considerable familiarity between the sexes. (...) "Here, the great religious merit consists in building' a temple; whereas there is little or none in repairing or keeping it up. This accounts, in a great measure, both for the great number of temples which exist, and the want o( durability in their materials." (pp 176-7, vol I)
  • Women condition: "The [Siamese] women, however, are not profligate,
    and at Bangkok they value themselves upon their chastity when compared with the Burman, Peguan, and Cochin Chinese women who furnish the greater number of public prostitutes, a class sufficiently numerous. (...) Before marriage, the young Cochin Chinese women are allowed the most perfect liberty, or rather licence. A breach of the laws of chastity, on their part, is considered no offence; nor, it is said, even an obstacle to a matrimonial connexion. When an unmarried woman is discovered to be pregnant, the lover is inquired for, generally acknowledges himself, and marries her ; getting her at a price under the common rate. (...) The observation in Cochin China is, indeed, frequently made, that the labour of the women supports the men ; who, on their side, compelled to toil for the King, have no leisure to attend to their own affairs, and probably very little capacity. Under such circumstances, it is hardly to be supposed that Cochin Chinese husbands are likely to be much loved or respected. The women are therefore alleged to prefer strangers to them, and especially the Chinese."
  • Social prejudices: "With respect to the persons competent or incompetent to give evidence before a court of justice, the Siamese betray the usual caprice of barbarians. The best witnesses are openly declared to be priests and men in office. Of incompetent witnesses we have a list of not less than eight and twenty, containing a very curious medley, as follows : Contemners of religion, persons in debt, the slaves· of a party to a suit, intimate friends, idiots, those who do not hold in abhorrence the cardinal sins, among which are enumera~ besides theft and murder, drinking spirits, breaking prescribed fasts, and reposing on the mat or couch of a priest or parent; gamblers, vagrants, executioners, quackdoctors, play-actors, hermaphrodites, strolling musicians, prostitutes, blacksmiths, persons labouring under incurable diaorders ; persons under seven, or above seventy ; backbiters, insane persons, persons of violent passions, shoe-makers, beggars, braziers, mid. wives, and sorcerers." (p 130, vol I)
  • A Portuguese adviser to the King of Cambodia: "June 10 -- I had, in the course of this forenoon, a visit from a person of singular modesty and intelligence, Pascal Ribeiro de Alvergarias, the descendant of a Portuguese Christian of Kamboja. This gentleman holds a high Siamese title, and a post of oonsiderable importance. Considering his means and situation, his acquirements were remarkable ; for he not only spoke and wrote the Siamese, Kambojan, and Portuguese languages with facility, but also spoke and wrote Latin with considerable propriety. (...) He informed us, that he was the descendant of a person of the same name who settled in Kamboja in the year 1685. His lady's genealogy, however, interested us more than his own. She was the lineal descendant of an Englishman of the name of Charles Lister, a merchant, who settled in Kamboja in the year 1701, and who had acquired some reputation at the Court, by making pretence to a knowledge in medicine. Charles Lister had come immediately from Madras, and brought with him his sister. This lady espoused a Portuguese of Kamboja, by whom she had a son, who took her own name. Her grandson of this name also, in the revolutions of the kingdom of Kamboja, found his way to Siam; and here, like his great uncle, practising the healing art, rose to the station of Maha-pet, or first physician, to the King. The son of this individual, Cajitanus Lister, is at present the physician, and at the same time the minister and confidential adviser of the present King of Kamboja." (1)(p 275-6, vol I)
  • Siamese Buddhism: "The Buddhist religion, according to the Siamesepriests, was introduced into Ceylon two hundred and thirty -six years after the death of Gautama, or in the two hundred and thirty-sixth year of the sacred era, by Prah-Putha-kosa. From CeyIon, which the Siamese call by the Sanscrit name Langka, Buddhism, according to the same authority, was in the first place introduced into Kamboja, then into Lao, and finally into Siam. The conversion of the Siamese took place in the year 1181 of the sacred era of Siam, corresponding to 699 of the Christian era, under a chief, or king, whose name tradition states to have been Krek, and who, in honour of the event, instituted the popular era three years thereafter, or in the year 642 of our time." (pp 91-2, vol II)
  • The origin of the modern Thai dynasty: "The Burman King, in 1771, prepared an expedition for the reconquest of Siam, which totally failed, in consequence of a mutiny among part of the troops which had been raised in the conquered provinces of Martaban and Tavoy. The reign of Phia-tak may be stated to have commenced in the year 1769. The character of activity, moderation, and good sense wbicb distinguished the early part of it, was changed in his last years for caprice, superstition, and tyranny, which led to a general belief that he was labouring under insanity. This brought on a formidable rebellion against his authority in the year 1782, headed by the great officer of state named the Chakri, who was at the time in command of an army in the kingdom of Kamboja. This chief marched to the new capital, Bangkok, dethroned the King, put him to death, and seized upon the Government. The first prince of the present dynasty sat on the throne until the year 1809, when dying, he was succeeded by his eldest son, the late King, on the 11th of September of the same year." (pp 148-9, vol II)
  • Cardamom and "Gamboge": "The same parts of the country which produce pepper, with the adjacent districts of Kamboja, afford another product common to them withthe coast of Malabar, viz. cardamums. These in the market are of two qualities, varying in price from fifty to three hundred ticals the picul. The hest are occasionally sold in China as high as five hundred dollars, the picul. According to the accounts rendered to us, the cardamums of Siam and Kamboja are of two species, the productions of two distinct plants, in accordance with which they are known by two different names in the Siamese and Kambojan languages, those of the first quality being called Kra-wan, and those of the second Ri-u. The forests producing them are royal preserves, and strictly guarded." (...) "That portion of Kamboja which now belongs to Siam, and some parts of the Siamese territory bordering upon it, afford the well-known medicine and pigment, gamboge, and indeed, I believe, are the only parts of the world that do so. The districts yielding gamboge correspond generally with those affording pepper and cardamums; that is to say, the countries on the east coast of the Gulf of Siam, from the latitude of ten to twelve degrees. The gum is obtained from a species 'of Garcinia, ·to which it gives name, by making incisions in the bark of the forest trees. In the Siamese and Kambojan languages, this production is called Rong, from whence is evid'ently derived the Portuguese name Rom. The derivation of our own, and of the Latin name, is sufficiently obvious." (p 180 and 182, vol II)
  • "Dismembering" of Cambodia: "Of the kingdom of Kamboja, Siam possesses alarge province, named Batabang ; the greater portion of that country being subject or tributary to Cochin China. The revolution by which the kingdom of Kamboja was dismembered, may be finally dated from the year 1809, wben a civil war broke out in the country, one party calling in the Siamese to its assistance, and the other the Cochin Chinese. The latter made themselves masters of Penompeng, the modem capital, and the person of the King; who continues in the nominal govemrnent of a large portion of the country, but under the control of a Cochin Chinese Mandarin, with a Cochin Chinese garrison." (p 217, vol II)


"The King of Cochin China"(above) and "The Deputy Governor of Kamboja" circa 1822, according to the author (author's illustrations). The header seems to be 天下文明日, printed from left to right. According to Pascal Medeville (with our thanks for the tip), it might be the first verse (en-tete) of a quatrain by Yang Shiqi 杨士奇, a minor poet from the Ming period, meaning "The sun of civilization beneath the sky", or "The light of civilization under the sky".

(1) Crawfurd probably met Ribeiro de Alvergarias through the Scottish merchant Robert Hunter (1792-1848), who developed the commercial exchanges between Siam and Singapore. Hunter was married to a Siamese-Christian "fashionable grand lady", Lady Sap (ทรัพย์, Tan Puying, known as Angelina Sap, 1805–1884), who herself had a Portuguese ancestor from Macao, Constance Phaulcon of Louvo. Their son, Robert Hunter, Jr (born in 1827) married in 1849 Rosa Ribeiro de Alvergarias Noi, described in the social register as "the Catholic daughter of Phya Viset Sougkram", the latter being...the same Pascal Ribeiro de Alvergarias. About Robert Hunter and Lady Sap, see R. Adey Moore, "An English Merchant in Siam", JSS 11(2), 1915, pp 21-39.

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Full title: Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin-China, exhibiting a view of the actual State of these Kingdoms.

Tags: Siam, Cochinchina, pre-colonial Cambodia, Southeast Asia, women, women travelers, Khmer culture, Khmer Kings , Portuguese explorers, Phu Quoc, Vietnam, linguistics, Pali, Java, Malay, Buddhism, Thai, Thailand, cardamom, spices, Battambang, geography, botanic, demographics, Portuguese in Southeast Asia

About the Author

John Crawfurd2

John Crawfurd

A Scottish surgeon, colonial administrator, diplomat, and author who served as the second and last Resident of Singapore, Dr John Crawfurd (13 Aug 1783, Islay, Scotland – 11 May 1868, London, UK) visited Siam and Cochinchina in 1821-1822, during a diplomatic mission commandited by the Governor-General of Bengal, Lord Hastings.

Crawfurd, who had served in India and Java before the travel, sailed from Calcutta on 21 Nov 1821, went through Penang and Quedah, and was received -- quite reluctantly -- by King Rama II before sailing to Hué with Captain Dangerfield, a military escort led by Lt Rutherford, and his wife, Horatia Ann Perry-Crawfurd. When he reached Saigon, however, the King of Cochinchina Minh Mang refused to grant him an audience. However, he was able to meet with the Chief of Lao tribes Choa Anu, a first diplomatic contact for United Kingdom while the French were already active in the area.

In Bangkok, the objet of his mission was

to renew commercial intercourse and to remove the obstacles to free trade which existed in these two countries. However, as British possessions in the East were expanding at the time, and as the troubles between the British East India Company and Burma were beginning to sharpen, Crawfurd’s first endeavor in Siam, as instructed by his government, was to “remove every unfavourable impression which may exist as to views, or principles, of the Honourable Company and the British nation….” Crawfurd was further instructed specifically to “refrain from demanding or hinting at any of those adventitious aids or privileges…such as… exemption from municipal jurisdiction and customary imports….The choice of Crawfurd was based upon his acquaintance with the peoples of the Eastern Archipelago. [...] The negotiations between Crawfurd and Siam’s representative, Phra Klang,5 began on April 16, English language being unknown to the Siamese, the negotiations had to be conducted in four languages, and in a roundabout way, i.e., from  Siamese to Malayan, from Malayan to Portuguese, and then from Portuguese to English. Upon Crawfurd’s request for a substitution of one simple form of duty for the existing various imposts upon commerce, Phra Klang desired in return a specific engagement that not less than four British ships should come yearly to Bangkok. Crawfurd could not make such a commitment. Phra Klang’s reservation was made obviously with a view to a compensation for the loss in revenue that the new system of one duty would incur should it be established. Two years earlier, a commercial treaty had been made with the Portuguese whereby the Siamese government agreed to reduce the rate of import dues and consented to having a Portuguese consul reside at Bangkok. But since then, not a single Portuguese ship had come. The Siamese government was dismayed that it should have made a treaty about nothing. Despite specific instructions to the contrary, Crawfurd raised the question of an appointment of a resident British agent and hinted at the needs for a special arrangement for the security of the persons and properties of British subjects. These were flatly denied by Phra Klang, who pointed out the unfavorable precedent set by the Portuguese. He distinctly stated that his government would make no alteration in the established laws of the country in favor of “strangers.” [see Owart Suthiwartnarueput, From Extraterritoriality to Equality: Thailand Foreign Relations 1855 - 1939, Bangkok, International Studies Center, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2021, 368 p., ISBN 978-616-341-099-3.]

In 1830, he related this mission in his Journal of an Embassy to the Courts of Siam and Cochin-China, exhibiting a view of the actual State of these Kingdoms (London, 2 vols). He is also the author of an History of the Indian Archipelago, and of Origins of the Gipsies.