On this date in 1688, the astonishing Constantine Gerachi — the Greek cabin-boy turned virtual prince of Siam — plummeted to earth.
The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, Gerachi ran away to sea in 1660 and soon caught on with the English East India Company ships who plied the Mediterranean and all the Seven Seas. Though little-educated, Gerachi proved himself frightfully clever and picked up his crewmates’ English. In time he also mastered French, Portuguese, Malay, and of course Siamese.
The word gerachi is Greek for falcon, and no name was ever more aptly conferred. From the humblest beginnings, Constantine Phaulkon soared higher than all.
By the late 1670s, Constantine had segued from hauling East Indies cargo to trading it, and this brought him to the attention of the Siamese king Narai. For Siam, the growing influence of European traders, diplomats, and arms was the prevailing issue of the late 17th century; Narai engaged fully with those interlopers and most especially with the French, who provided architects, mathematicians,* missionaries, and military engineers to the Siamese kingdom and received lucrative commercial concessions in return.
The king appreciated our polyglot adventurer’s many talents and attracted him to the Siamese court, where the pro-French Constantine quickly rose to become Narai’s indispensable chief counselor — basically the equivalent of the Siamese Prime Minister, the power in the kingdom.
But Gerachi’s close association with Narai, and with a French relationship that Siamese grandees increasingly feared might convert insensibly into domination, finally felled the Falcon.
In 1688, the ailing king tried to arrange for the succession of his daughter. Instead, he triggered a revolt by his foster brother Phetracha, backed by a “broad coalition of anti-foreigners, including Buddhist monks, the nobility and low-ranking officers.”**
This Chief of the Royal Elephant Corps seized power, murdering a number of royal relatives (and possibly hastening along the dying Narai himself). Monsieur Constantine of such discreditable familiarity to the French naturally went in his own turn, unsuccessfully trying to rally the realm’s French garrisons to defense of the mutual benefits of the ancien regime.
Nor was this merely a palace coup: Petracha’s takeover became the Siamese Revolution of 1688, “one of the most famous events of our times, whether it is considered from the point of view of politics or religion” in the judgment of a European contemporary. Thais who had resented the growing prominence of the farang now expelled most Europeans, or worse: though not a Japan-like closure (Siam maintained active intercourse with its neighbors), the country would remain essentially dark to Europeans until the 19th century.
Historical Fiction Series by Axel Aylwen
* The relationship gave to European mathematics the “Siamese method”.
** Thanet Aphornsuvan, “The West and Siam’s quest for modernity: Siamese responses to nineteenth century American missionaries”, East Asia Research, vol. 17, no. 3. (Nov. 2009)