Morgan Sportès

pour la plus grande gloire de dieu (en anglais, courrier de l’Unesco)

We are Siamese if you please In his novel Persian Letters (1721), the French philosopher Montesquieu gave a satirical portrait of the society of his time, supposedly seen through the eyes of two visitors from the East. Did he know that some fifty years before, three ambassadors from Siam (today Thailand) had caused a sensation at the court of Louis XIV ? - Morgan Sportès

Historical engraving : Garden in Versailles PAThe three ambassadors sent by King Phra Narai to the court of Louis XIV at the end of the seventeenth century aroused widespread curiosity. They inspired novels and farces. Their likenesses were reproduced by the thousand in gazettes and almanachs, especially their flat noses and their pointed white ceremonial hats. Crowds of people swarmed around the landing-stage to greet them when they arrived. When they broke their journey to Paris at Nantes, Blois, Chambord and Vincennes, beautiful aristocratic ladies gave them a warm welcome, plying them with teasingly playful questions.

People were surprised that they washed every day and even several times a day. They wanted to know how the visitors managed to satisfy the twenty-odd wives each one was supposed to have.Siamese women are always half naked The chief ambassador, Oc Khun Wisutra Sunthon (more commonly known as Kosapan) knew perfectly well how to behave in such circumstances and gave these ladies as good as he got, always with the greatest courtesy.

A paparazzo of that time, one Jean Donneau de Vizé, a hack who wrote for a weekly rag called the Mercure Galant, scrupulously noted it all down, especially the ambassador’s rejoinders, which delighted the court. This Siamese gentleman was considered to be full of "honesty", "cool good sense" and "gallantry".

One day Madame de Seignelay, the very pretty wife of the Minister of the Navy, visited the chateau of Berny, where the ambassador was staying for a month, and insisted on being told whether he considered French or Siamese women were more beautiful. Kosapan courteously replied that French women were more beautiful, that Madame de Seignelay was the most beautiful French woman he had ever seen, and that she would undoubtedly be the most beautiful woman in the world if only she would dress like a Siamese woman. It was only after much pressing that the interpreter, a well-travelled missionary who was blushing with confusion, was made to reveal exactly what Kosapan meant, namely that, "Siamese women are always half-naked." There was loud laughter, especially at Madame de Seignelay’s expense. The story went all over Paris.

Kosapan was so intelligent and perceptive that he could "enter into each nation’s idiosyncrasies, however different the nations may be."

He needed to have all his wits about him to keep track of the intrigues that went on in the wings of the great "theatre" of Versailles as he was shunted from dinners to high masses, from operas to light theatre. There was also plenty of walking - to the Orangerie at Versailles, for example. "A very big house indeed for simply sheltering trees," Kosapan noted.The dark regions of idolatry Kosapan soon formed an idea of the strange religious passions that were swirling through Louis XIV’s kingdom, shaken by the anti-Protestant persecutions that followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

In the land of the Sun King there was "one" truth, i.e. Catholic. Idolaters and heretics had to submit ... or go into exile. Fortified by these religious certainties, many courtiers and great noblemen asked Kosapan when he intended to renounce the "dark regions of idolatry" and discover the "true faith". To which Kosapan would answer diplomatically, "What is said of an unknown religion must seem ridiculous to people who know nothing about it and who believe in another, because it is natural to believe that the religion one has adopted or into which one is born is the best of all."

Sometimes he was more sharply questioned and put in a tight spot, whereupon he would make even more concessions. His reply to the Bishop of Tournay was, "Please obtain from the true God that I may know Him and that it may please Him to save me from the darkness I am in so that one day I may profess the true faith."

This remark delighted the French prelate, who thought that grace had already begun to descend on this idolater full of goodwill. The bishop would probably have been less inclined to indulge in wishful thinking if he had read the works of another bishop, Louis Laneau, who had spent twenty years in Siam. Laneau warned young missionaries who went to Siam to beware of the "irony" of the Siamese who only admit to us "that they are in darkness" in order to get us to understand that "we are in darkness ourselves."Morgan Sportès is a French writer who has published a dozen books, including two novels about Thailand, Siam (1982) and Pour la plus grande gloire de Dieu (1993), both published by Seuil (Paris). He has also written an historical essay on Louis XIV’s attempt to seize control of Siam.The UNESCO Courier : XLVII, 7/8