CASTILIANS DISCOVER SIAM:
Journal of the
Siam Society 2007, vol. 95: 1-23
pre-contact cognitive framework
challenges to old myths
pressures to change the framework
different reaction from Castile
new forms for expansionist aspirations
Iberians were the first people in Europe to interact
directly with Siam.
Centuries elapsed between the time the first information about Siam was received in the Iberian
Peninsula and the period when its rulers perceived this Asian
territory in a more or less coherent framework. This work studies the changes
in perceptions of the Kingdom
of Siam as it evolved
from the earliest mythical references, in a long process that was neither
uniform nor reliant merely on the receipt of data. Focusing on these early
perceptions, this study notes the Iberians’ different reactions to this new
knowledge, the roles of individuals, and how the parallel processes of their
own budding national identities affected the outcome.
The Castilians and Portuguese shared similar conceptions
about the “Far East” in the Middle Ages.
During the Renaissance they were in a privileged position to obtain deeper
knowledge about the territories in that region, the rulers and forms of
government. Due to the great navigations, they established direct contact.
After the Portuguese settled in Malacca in 1511 and the Castilians in the Philippines in
1565, those contacts became frequent. Hence the medieval cognitive framework
used to interpret data related to Siam was replaced by the Iberians
earlier than by other Europeans. But
this external process coincided with an internal evolution of the Iberians’ own
identities, both as individuals and as members of a society.
Natural curiosity to learn about new lands and peoples,
coupled with advances in science, navigation and travel, made many question
traditional Christian beliefs about the world created by God for the first
time. After the Renaissance, this questioning gave birth to a new set of
feelings and a psyche that  would lead people to make an increasing
identification with the reigning monarchies, rather than with the closed
communities where they spent their lives.
The Iberian Peninsula also underwent a
process whereby the landed estates of dukes or counts were increasingly
absorbed by monarchs. Furthermore, by the turn of the fifteenth to the
sixteenth centuries, some dynasties merged their territories, and Castile, the Basque country, Navarre or Aragon
developed a common identity, increasingly hegemonized by Castile, which could appropriately be termed Spain
by the end of the sixteenth century.
The first Iberian contacts with Siam thus evolved along with the
emergence of two new Iberian consciousnesses. The knowledge available about
those regions far from Europe coincided with
new inquiries rising from a different society in a mixture of external and
internal inputs that changed greatly in every territory. The contrasting
approaches between Portuguese and Castilians are a clear example of this, since
while undergoing a similar evolution from the medieval era into early modern
societies, differences abounded. The participants and the particular
expectations counted as much as the general context or the direct references,
changing along the way both the idea of the “other” and the concept of the
“self”. The formation of a new framework
for understanding Siam
relied both on imagination and on reality, both in Europe and in Asia, and involved a much greater number of actors than
This article traces the steady divergence between Castilians
and their Portuguese neighbours in their images of Siam. It starts with their similar
ideas of the region where Siam
lay, and continues with the impact of the data gathered by the great
navigations and with the new framework formed by the Portuguese after
conquering Malacca. It then deals with the contributions of individuals to
narrowing the differences in perception between Portugal and Castile, and
questions how differing perceptions led to differing strategies by Portugal
(trade) and Castile (expansion) by the end of the sixteenth century.
pre-contact cognitive framework
In the Middle Ages the Iberians formed ideas about Siam from the two basic facts then available -
its remoteness and its location somewhere in Asia.
This continent and the “Far East” were known in Europe since the time of the Roman Empire. Later they were accommodated to early
Christian beliefs. The region was widely believed by biblical experts and monks
of the time to be the site of the Garden of Eden, a remote area somewhat
difficult to reach, enjoying an eternal springtime and an idyllic setting
traversed by a river. Such far-flung regions (other than Palestine) evoked stories where fears and
dreams were combined and where their vaguely ascertained existences were the
only limits to imagination: the  farther away the place, the more exotic the
tales that could be heard. Vastness, perils and hazards could abound, but also
wealth, abundance, great prizes and presumably immense rewards, as reflected in
the literature about “admirable things” or “wonders” (known as mirabilia).
The first direct European references to Siam were made
by Marco Polo in the setting of this pre-modern cognitive framework of images.
Although he had travelled through Southeast Asian waters and the Indian Ocean,
Polo had no direct contact with Siam,
but seemingly heard about it from other travellers. In The Book of Travels (or Il
Millione), Polo mentioned
“Locac”, a rich kingdom of idolaters with its own language, many elephants,
brazil-wood (similar to sappan-wood), few foreign visitors and widespread use
of cowries and gold as currency. Furthermore, he provided wrong data on the
location, mistaking Java for Champa, and his description could easily have been
referring to Cambodia.
The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta referred to a territory with elephants named Mul-Java which was probably the same
place, although, in the opinion of Henry Yule (1966: 155-157), he was probably
referring to Cambodia.
Polo’s narrative was, in fact, merely one of many books about remote places.
Its popularity during the late medieval period ranked, for instance, behind one
of the mirabilia narratives, The Travels by Sir John Mandeville
(c.1336), and led to serious mistakes by those that tried to use his book to
draw a map of the world.
A further hindrance to a clear perception
was the number of differences amongst handwritten copies of Polo’s work. This
can be illustrated by taking a look at three of them: the book copied by the
Italian editor Giambattista Ramusio, considered closest to the lost original;
the one in Latin read by Christopher Columbus and published in Antwerp in 1485;
and the first translation into Spanish from the Italian original, copied by the
Dominican friar Rodrigo
Fernández de Santaella and published in 1503. On riches, Ramusio and Fernandez de Santaella
were in agreement. Ramusio’s copy asserted that gold could be found “in
incredible quantity” (Yule &
Cordier, 1903-1920: Book Three, chapter VII), while that of Fernández noted
that it could be “found in great quantity” (Gil 1987: 259). However, the book
printed in Antwerp
indicated that the kingdom was “big and marvellously rich” (grande y rica a
maravilla, Gil 1987: 137). To explain Siam’s
apparent isolation, the Antwerp
edition and Santaella’s translation agree in pointing to its bellicosity and
remoteness: “the region is far from being peaceful” and it was “out of the way”
(Gil, 1987: 137, 250). But Ramusio instead stresses savagery and fear of
foreigners: “this is a very wild region, visited by few people; nor does the
king desire that any strangers should frequent the country, and so find out
about his treasure and other resources” (Yule & Cordier, 1903-1920:
Book Three, chapter VII). 
In addition, the tendency for the
text to reflect the traditional image increased with the number of
intermediaries. The original Lucac was corrupted into terms such as Lucach or
Beach. Later versions of Il Millione
added illustrations of alleged scenes of Polo’s journey, including imaginary
figures resembling those described by Mandeville. The inventions by copiers and
illustrators helped readers to imagine the world described by Polo, resulting
in what Donald F. Lach also noted in his landmark study Asia in the Making of Europe: “the facts about Asia were often as
wondrous as the fables told about it” (1994a: 110).
Polo’s information did not help much in providing a more
elaborate idea of the territory. New information was filtered through religious
beliefs, and data that could challenge the old perception was discounted. The
main advance in knowledge about Siam under the mirabilia cognitive framework was the association with the two
major neighboring territories of India and Cathay, the first being better known
and the second quickly catching up (Lach 1994a: 20-71; 1994b: 109-110, 191 and
Larner 2001: 242-245). When the Iberians, who considered themselves at the
centre of an ethnocentric world, were brought into contact with people
culturally and racially different to them, they projected onto the unknown
Asian territories described by Marco Polo the same mixture of fear, excitement
and uncertainty they had about their own future. Medieval society in Europe did not demand great accuracy and Il Millione was merely a step forward
from earlier representations.
challenges to old myths
The Renaissance heightened the
Europeans' desire to further advance their knowledge of Asia.
The need to identify new territories, either by knowing exactly where they lay
or by learning about their treasures, became more pressing. Meantime, technical
advances allowed Europeans not only to travel to the region of Siam in Arab and
Chinese ships as had been done before, but also to travel, settle and trade
using their own vessels. The ideas about Siam generated by Christopher
Columbus and Antonio de Pigafetta, the Italian narrator of the first
circumnavigation of the world (1519-1521, led at first by Ferdinand Magellan
and after his death by Juan Sebastian Elcano) were filled with new
When reading about Siam in Marco Polo’s Il Millione, Columbus wrote in the
margins of the book the words “brazils”,
“lemons” and “elephants”, as the references by which he could begin to
distinguish this kingdom from other territories (Gil 1987: 137). Furthermore,
Columbus wrote in his diaries during his fourth trip to America about a
province that neighboured Cathay with animals named using Polo’s terminology,
and also announced a forthcoming voyage in search of “the gold mines of the
province of Ciampa [Champa]” (Larner, 2001: 230-31).  Pigafetta wrote: “On
the riverbanks in this kingdom of Siam (as we were told) live large birds which
do not eat any dead animal carried there unless there come first another bird
which eats the heart, and afterward they eat the rest” (1994: 144).
This nonsense shows that crossing the
oceans was not enough to rid Siam
and its region of the medieval cognitive framework. Columbus mistakenly added the reference to
lemons since the version he read merely referred to brazil-wood as big “as
lemons” (Gil 1987: 137). The province that apparently neighboured Cathay in Columbus’ Diaries
was in fact the territory of southern Cuba,
and when he mentioned his future trip in search of gold mines, he was in
reality on the Mosquito Coast, in present-day Nicaragua,
and certainly far from present-day central Vietnam where Champa lay (Larner,
2001: 225, 230-231, 242-243). Columbus wanted to
believe he was near the Cathay described by
Polo and strove to prove that he had reached the Asian coasts as planned.
Reading Polo’s Travels, therefore,
was part of the exercise aimed at reorganizing his perceptions, his evaluations
and his opinions in order to, in Larner’s words, “discover what he had discovered”
(Larner, 2001: 230; also Gil, 1987: X). As Juan Gil convincingly shows, citing a 1497 letter
from the Bristol merchant John Day informing Columbus that he had found him a
copy of Polo’s book (Gil 1991a: 108-109), the Genoese apparently did not read Il Millione for pleasure – in fact he
confessed to not reading much – and had in fact studied it only after he
returned from America, most probably after his third trip, in order to refute
during his next journey the critics’ claims that he had not reached Asia.
fable referred to by Antonio de Pigafetta is merely one of the many
inaccuracies to be found in his account of the world’s circumnavigation. He
drew on myths when referring to places not contacted directly by his expedition
even though he only saw other human beings and came across islands,
territories, landscapes and animals which could be compared to those already
seen in Europe. There were many other sources
of confusion, as seen in the glossary of words spoken by the peoples
encountered along the way. His chances to get a deeper knowledge of the
territories he encountered were slim, since he had to rely on Henrique,
Magellan’s Sumatran slave, who in fact was really the first person to complete
the circumnavigation of the globe.
had difficulties in understanding and being understood by the Sumatran slave,
but he had no choice other than to rely on him. So despite the  language
problems, and despite his framework of understanding and, most importantly, the
mirabilia-prone attitude of the
public to which the book was aimed, Pigafetta probably offered the best
information on Siam
process of supplanting the mythological view had started centuries ago with the
homo viator, the itinerant men
of different origins who wandered across Europe
during the Middle Ages and who now began to sail toward unknown territories
(Soler, 2003: 70). The members of these navigations carried with them the
“scientific curiosity” of the Renaissance (Rubies; 2003: 418), but also clung
emotionally to their previous convictions. The failure to confirm the existence
of Paradise or any other previous myth led to new hypotheses about its
location, whether inland or on uncharted islands; old fables were re-created,
partly due to the scant information gained from merely seeing a landscape or
hearing words for the first time. Thus until new data surfaced such as from
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s expedition in 1513, the first to traverse the Pacific
Ocean from America, these later homo
viator (such as Columbus before his death) continued the former myths of
exotic places and immense riches.
dilemmas of such men when weighing contradictory information reflected the
circumstances of the emerging societies of those times. Castile, during these
first decades after its unification with Aragon in the early sixteenth century,
was populated with men and women brought up on stories of monsters and
non-human beings populating far-away territories. They expected (and desired)
that the new information received thanks to the great navigations would confirm
these stories. Instead, the new input triggered consequences which would
forcibly challenge the old visions. When looking at maps, for instance, the
significance of locating Paradise and being reminded that God had created the
world had diminished, while the desire to pinpoint oneself and one’s
environment as accurately as possible on those charts increased – giving way,
for instance, to the emergence of the concept of nation.
users of the new maps, however, still had to grapple with the scarcity of data.
In his representation drawn in 1541, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator
showed two territories (Locach and Beach) on a northern peninsula of the
much-fabled territory that was said to cover the southern hemisphere Terra Australis – where he included
Polo’s references to the lack of visitors. He replicated Polo’s mistakes about
distances and directions, as well as various copiers’ corruption of names
(Larner, 2001: 243-244), revealing both a lack of discrimination in using his
data and his own desire to show that the myth of the Terra Australis was true. Even though this map dated from two
decades after the first circumnavigation of the globe, his depiction was copied
for decades, for example in Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum dating from 1570.
Lach notes that “In the eyes of Europe, the image of Asia
was constantly changing in detail while remaining surprisingly constant in
general  outline” (Lach 1994a: 822). In truth, however, a new perception was
emerging. Changes in detail occurred throughout history, but these important
navigations generated data which presented the biggest challenge yet. New data
on distant territories was still insufficient to substantiate a complete
reinterpretation, and instead triggered a reconsolidation of the old framework
of understanding about Siam.
Two complementary psychological reactions can explain this: premature cognitive closure (the conscious avoidance of discrepant information),
typical of Columbus’
attitude, and perceptual satisfaction (forming
a theory on scant information merely to reach a quick conclusion), as shown in
Mercator’s maps. In order for there to be a new framework of understanding,
people had to accept the disappointment over the old fables being disproved,
and the data needed to be more complete. Until then, imagination still
overwhelmed concrete information.
pressures to change the framework
After their seizure of Malacca in
1511, the Portuguese showed that it was feasible to speed up the emergence of a
new perception. The background to their encounters was no different from that
of the Castilians or the rest of Christendom, although they could count on new
narratives from travellers along the Indian Ocean.
But, more importantly, they had set foot in the region intending to remain and
therefore needed to conduct business-like relations with any neighbouring
authority, preferably non-Muslim.
The Portuguese could benefit from new
books depicting similar itineraries to that of Marco Polo, such as those of
Niccolò Conti, the Venetian merchant who spoke Arabic, spent two decades in
Asia and travelled from Southern Asia to Europe a century after Marco Polo.
Another example some years later was Ludovico di Varthema, whose ‘Itinerario’ (published in 1510) was the
first narrative of a European traveller to present-day Southeast
Asia. But those accounts were not significant advances on Marco
Polo since they added little new relevant data. Conti’s insights are, as Rubiès
points out, “very similar to those offered by Marco Polo” (Rubiés 2000: 97),
while some of Varthema’s descriptions are simply inventions. In fact, it is
even uncertain whether Conti and Varthema visited Siam; both probably called at
Mergui (Tenasserim) on the bay of Bengal, then under Siamese suzerainty, but
there is no definite evidence to confirm
this (Trakulhun, 2004: 67; Lach 1994a: 165, 494).
Their 1511 occupation of Malacca
compelled the Portuguese to shape a perception of Siam free from mirabilia. The architect of their Asian empire and
commander-in-chief of the expedition, Afonso de Albuquerque, soon learnt that Siam
was an important non-Muslim power in the area with a long history of
confrontation with Muslim Malacca. Therefore, Siam was not only a possible ally
 but also an ideal territory to provide his people with needed supplies, as
Maria da Conceiçao Flores asserts (1995: 24). As a result, Albuquerque
sent an envoy to its capital, Ayutthaya, among
other embassies to neighbouring ports on the Coromandel Coast, Sumatra, Java and Pegu. Duarte Fernandes, the envoy,
informed the Siamese authorities of the Portuguese intention to settle there
and seek political alliances (Flores, 1995: 25). Other expeditions followed,
and one of Fernandes’ men wrote a report on the dress, customs, products and
depths of the Siamese harbours after a two year stay (Flores, 1998: 138;
Pintado, 1993: 275; Villiers, 1998: 125).
The Portuguese decided to engage with
other city-states in Asia. In order to
continue commercial and diplomatic expeditions, the first treaty between Siam and a European country was signed in 1518,
when King Ramathibodi II allowed the Portuguese to establish a permanent
residence in Ayutthaya, as well as in various
ports around the Malay Peninsula such as
Mergui, Patani and Ligor (present-day Nakhon Si Thammarat). The Portuguese
disappointment about the limited profits from the merchandise sold in Ayutthaya was compensated
by the supply of their basic staple, rice, as well as crucial information and
partners in their advance towards the Chinese Empire (Costa & Rodrigues,
1992: 95,174; Münch Miranda & Serafim, 1998: 198-199).
Over time, the close interaction with
local powers increased mutual cooperation. The Portuguese crown’s interests
were strongly intertwined with the expansion overseas and it tried to alter the
patterns of trade in Malacca to its own advantage. Because the Portuguese
presence was dependent on the local rulers, they had to avoid confrontation
(Teixeira, 1983: 21; Damrong, 1955: 1-2; Reid, 2000: 166). The contacts between Portuguese and Siamese
were between equals sharing common interests. The Portuguese officials secured
their supply of rice, satisfied their need for allies in their struggle against
their “Moorish” trade competitors –
sources refer to the already existing Malay, Indian and Persian Muslim traders
– and consolidated their chances of establishing a trade network in southern China.
The Siamese hoped that cooperation would provide them with Portuguese
mercenaries to redress the military superiority of their Burmese enemies. King
Ramathibodi II (1491-1529) was thinking of new commercial flows to Ayutthaya and other ports on the Malay Peninsula, such as
Patani or Malacca, with Siam
acting as an entrepôt between Fujian and the
Muslim traders on the Indian Ocean. The
Burmese King Tabinshwehti (1531-50) also tapped the Portuguese for military
help, while Chinese and Arab traders had already started to introduce firearms
(Andaya, 1992: 416). Ayutthaya
required skilled technicians, new military strategies and fortifications able
to withstand the new artillery. Against
this background of joint ventures, the myths, legends and mirabilia began to fade. The time and space for imagination had
But this stage of cooperation had an
unexpected consequence. The Portuguese “men on the spot” who fought in the
Siamese armies and later settled in Ayutthaya
were now crucial parties in the mutual contacts and crucial agents for
conveying a new image of Siam.
The mercenaries helped Siam achieve a new balance of power with Burma (although
the modernization of ancestral wars needed bigger investments of capital in new
technology), and several of those who settled in the capital as personal
bodyguards of the monarch gained direct peacetime access to the Siamese
decision-makers (Flores, 1998: 160; Subrahmanyam, 1993: 256-261). Because of
their expertise and proximity to the court, active and retired soldiers became
intermediaries for other Portuguese on such business matters as entry permits
for ships and for relaying petitions. From the second half of the sixteenth
century, Portuguese residents shaped Lisbon’s
perception of Siam.
They introduced important nuances to that perception, both because of their
wealth of data, and because they endeavoured to further their own interests,
whether these coincided with the official Portuguese agenda or not.
This signalled a new stage in mutual
contacts and perceptions. Before this, accounts told by the Portuguese returning
from the great navigations were in no position to challenge Portuguese official
interests. The narratives written in the 1510s, such as Tome Pires’s Suma Oriental (1990), with references to
Malacca, Java, Sumatra and the Spice Islands, or Duarte Barbosa’s Relaçao (1946), were kept in the Casa da India in Lisbon and remained secret, although the
latter text was read by selected persons. Over time, however, the state’s grip
on information relaxed, partly because of the diminishing need for secrecy (which
facilitated the circulation of Pires’s work), but also because the flood of
information provided by the residents in Siam made it much more difficult
for officials to maintain secrecy. In Décadas
(1552-1615), João do Barros relied extensively for his treatment of Siam on
Domingo de Seixas, who had spent over two decades in the country, while for his
Peregrinaçãm (1614, written decades
earlier), Mendez Pinto based his account on Galeote Pereira, who fought against
Pegu on the Siamese side in the 1540s (Spence 1998: 28).
The changes in Portuguese society
after 1550 also helped to raise the value of the residents’ expertise. The
significance of Asia declined as Brazil
gained prominence in Portugal’s
attentions, while there was a growing feeling that Portugal's high moments of glory
had already passed. Similarly, the joint reign of the Catholic Monarchs,
Isabelle and Ferdinand, only a few decades earlier, was already being
remembered as a glorious era, never to return. The expatriates residing in Asia
wanted the court in Lisbon
to look again towards the East and send more resources to the region where they
lived. They tried to achieve this by boasting about their own past deeds,
intimating the possibility of future glories, and restating the mirabilia framework.
Firstly, residents needed to glorify
their achievements. An example was the increasing importance of shipwreck
narratives, such as in the epic poem Os
Lusíadas, about a journey along the Indian Ocean replete with excitement
and enemies, whose author, Portugal's most honoured poet, Luís
Vaz de Camões, narrowly survived a shipwreck which left him on the banks of the Mekong River. Next, the residents
needed to make Siam
seem more attractive and accessible. In his Décadas,
Barros pointed to the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity; Mendez Pinto in Peregrinaçam portrayed the kingdom as much more powerful and
extensive than it really was (Villiers, 1998: 120; Smithies, 1997: 72; Lach,
1994a: 494-499); and others recycled the old legends of the riches of the east.
Finally, residents needed to make Siam more interesting, often by
repeating the old mirabilia. Accounts of the first contacts referred to
cannibalistic customs, unlikely to take place in a Buddhist country (Pintado,
1993: I: 357). Barros also repeated such legends about Siam as the
founding of the country as a consequence of the union of a dog and a woman. In
fact, medieval ideas had retreated, but perceptions never die.
The Portuguese, certainly, possessed direct
information earlier and so refurbished their image of Asia
more quickly than their neighbouring Castilians, but the mirabilia framework remained latent and was able to make a
comeback. Those who had emigrated and were living in Asia
were united in enhancing their adventures and the importance of the areas to
which they had emigrated. At the same time society was more interested in
learning about glories than about failures, and there was still much territory
to discover. Therefore, there was still room to keep alive and even reinforce
the legends and myths, despite official interest being contrary to them.
Representations could differ not only among different nations but also among
different interests within their societies, and the private interests of
individuals could even predominate over those of the state, as happened later
in the case of Castile.
In the mid-sixteenth century, the gap between the views of Castile and Portugal
was very wide. While the Portuguese and Siamese had trading relations in which
they cooperated or opposed each other and relations improved or soured for any
number of reasons, Castile
still remained unknown to the Siamese and vice versa. Obvious reasons can be
found to explain this. The Castilians were continually at war in Europe and
still had immense territories to conquer and occupy in America; Charles V had
recognized Portuguese hegemony in Asia by selling his rights in the Maluku, so
thereafter the Portuguese blocked Castilian inroads into a region they
considered theirs. But while the royal courts
 looked in opposite directions and preferred not to compete
directly, individuals helped to reduce that perception gap and lend a different
outlook based on their personal interests by transferring information from one
kingdom to another. Two Portuguese cartographers, three adventurers from the
Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula, and a Portuguese bishop had a crucial
role in doing what the governments did not dare to do, that is, helping Spain revise its image of Siam by establishing contacts
between the two places. In doing so, they shaped a perception that was
different to that of Lisbon.
did its utmost to prevent its information from being made public; King Manuel I
ordered all information about routes and populations to be safeguarded in the Casa da India, while those responsible
for violating the secrecy or leaking data could be condemned to death. However,
the cartographers Diogo Ribeiro and Pero Reinel contravened the order for
complete secrecy about geographical discoveries. They were hired by the
Castilian king, Charles V, and in 1529 drew the first world map that indicated
with relative accuracy the position of territories in America and Asia and the extent of the Pacific Ocean. Once the Treaty of Saragossa, also dated
in 1529, had separated the world into Portuguese and Castilian areas of
influence – continuing the line established in 1474 for the Atlantic
Ocean in the Treaty of Tordesillas – Charles V, whose Casa de Contratación was as secretive as
its Portuguese equivalent (Del Pino, 1998: 55n), was interested in claiming the
newly found territories. Betraying the interests of their monarch, Ribeiro and
Reinel’s map was inclined “to exaggerate the breadth of the Bay of Bengal and
of the Archipelago in longitude, so that the Moluccas
might fall within the Spanish hemisphere” (Thomaz, 1995: 89, plate VII). And
since they drew a “Regno de Ansiam” in its correct location, Castile obtained a first glimpse of
the kingdom as a recognisable entity. Even though no Castilian had travelled
there, the coasts were left blank and this map coexisted with contradictory
references (such as those of Mercator), this was an important step forward.
adventurers from northern Spain
using Portuguese logistics were also crucial in drawing the Asian territories
closer to Spain.
The first was the Galician, Pero Díaz (sometimes Pedro, or Díez), who stayed
several weeks in Patani in 1544 before travelling onwards to China, Japan and Maluku. His journey
illustrates very well the arduous complexity of these travels and the
difficulty of categorizing those first contacts through present-day eyes. Pero
Díaz can be considered the first to make direct recorded contact between Spain and Siam,
but that depends on whether Díaz was a Spaniard and whether Patani was Siam.
had different allegiances. This city-state was a strategic meeting point for
Malay and Chinese vessels that had benefited from the fall of Muslim Malacca,
and it had relations with Ayutthaya based
principally on commercial interests like many other towns on the Malay Peninsula. Patani can be considered  part of Siam when Díaz arrived, as periodic tribute
offerings to Ayutthaya
of the bunga mas (the traditional
‘golden flowers’) point to its notional subjection. But Patani can also be
considered independent from Siam,
as is shown by the fact that three years after Díaz’s visit, in 1547, the
Sultan enforced Muslim law (Cheman, 1990: 34-35; Bougas, 1994: 12-14).
Díaz can be categorized as a Spaniard, although there are reasons for doubt. He
came from Monterrey, a town in Orense province barely a few kilometres from
the present Portuguese border. Galicians share with the Portuguese a very
similar culture and a common language, and the fact that Díaz arrived on Asian
shores using Portuguese routes and ships leads one to speculate that he was
closer in outlook to Portugal
than to Castile.
The same was true of another Galician adventurer, Diogo Soares, who became the
military commander and confidant of King Tabinshwehti (1531-1551) of Burma's Toungoo
dynasty, and was later stoned to death by an angry crowd (Reid, 2000: 171,
180). But while we can wonder about the personal loyalty of Díaz towards either
of the two Iberian monarchs, the issue seems to have been irrelevant to them.
Díaz surely went to Patani using Portuguese logistics and made contact with
some of the 300 resident Portuguese merchants who were able to benefit from the
excellent relations between the sultan and Malacca. Díaz’s primary interests
must have revolved around who held power in Patani and how he could continue
his travels (Cabezas, 1995: 101; Gil, 1991b: 23). The information about Siam that Díaz was able to transmit to
Castilians was based mostly on personal interests, such as the best connections
and routes towards Asia and the business
opportunities available in Patani.
García de Escalante Alvarado, born in Laredo,
Santander, the official factor on the Villalobos expedition, can be considered the first to
report information on Siam
His expedition had departed from Spain
two years earlier, crossed the Pacific Ocean, met Pero Díaz in Ternate (De la
Vega, 1975: 76), and was later detained by the Portuguese along with the other
expedition members in the neighbouring island of Tidore.
In the report after his return, dated Lisbon, August 1548, and copied by a
fellow citizen from Laredo, Manuel
Velasco Torre (Martínez Shaw: 1999: 11), García de Escalante
makes reference to Diego Freitas, who he met in Maluku after meeting Díaz.
Freitas’s elder brother was a Portuguese captain who had been in Siam and was
thus an apparently reliable source on the kingdom. He reports how Freitas
exultantly referred to the inhabitants of “the city of Siam,” as “ready to
work, white and with beards, dressed with silks and cloths, almost like us”, as
well as the travel restrictions placed on the Siamese, apparently for fear of
losing population (Escalante, 1999: 126; Martínez Shaw, 1999: 28). He also
mentioned the trade in gold and silver, and the disputes between merchants from
and Ryukyu. It was another fact illustrating the numerous leaks of information
among Iberians. 
Basque sailor (and later Augustinian) Andrés de Urdaneta was another person
from the Iberian Atlantic coast whose information was crucial for the
Castilians, since he solved the biggest logistic problem involved in setting
foot in Asia: how to return via America. As a member of the Villalobos
expedition, Urdaneta was detained in Maluku, lived there for eight years and
later returned to the Iberian Peninsula
passing through Malacca along Portuguese routes. Urdaneta apparently gained
vital information that led him later in the 1560s to discover the tornaviaje, or return route across the Pacific Ocean. Thus, by discovering the route from Manila to Cape Mendocino and Acapulco
in Mexico, the Castilians
could establish an autonomous position in Asia
without Portuguese aid, authorisation or interference. However, it should be
noted that this step forward in identifying the region where Siam lay was
achieved again thanks to information gained while Urdaneta was in Portuguese
hands and obviously without official Spanish sanction.
João Ribeiro Gaio, the bishop of
Malacca between 1576 and 1601, also shaped the perception of Siam for the Castilians. Out of his
conviction of the importance of returning Portugal
to its golden age of maritime hegemony by joining forces with the Castilians in
the recently-formed Iberian Union (1580), the bishop considered the seizure of
the sultanate of Aceh in Sumatra as the
primary task. Ribeiro Gaio proposed attacking Aceh with a Portuguese expedition
sent from Goa, to be coordinated with a Castilian fleet and around 2,000
soldiers who would seize Patani and Siam, whose capital, he averred, could be
conquered with a mere one thousand soldiers because the population was not
bellicose (Boxer, 1969: 127; Subrahmanyam, 1983: 125). This proposal deserves
special attention. He wrote detailed reports about the political, economic and
military life of Aceh in his book Roteiro
das cousas do Achem (Alves & Manguin, 1997), and explained how Siam
would provide an agricultural base, as well as being a rich centre of trade.
The bishop not only asserted that Siam was easy to conquer, as many others had,
but also showed a knowledge of strategy, as Jorge dos Santos Alves asserts
(1998: 325-327). By starting with minor targets, and expecting to benefit from
the “divide and rule” tactics so successful in other territories, the bishop
planned taking measured steps, depending on the scale of difficulty, and
leaving the conquest of Canton (Guangzhou) to the future. Ribeiro Gaio’s
perception of the Southeast Asian mainland is especially interesting, since he
considered this region the main place in which to foster Iberian cooperation
examples of individuals, whose roles and behaviour did not differ much from the
Portuguese “men on the spot” referred to earlier, show how crucial their
contributions were. They felt free from total allegiance to distant monarchs,
refused to depend completely on any one power, and had allegiances in the two
continents in which they struggled. Working at the margins of the growing
national  interests represented by bureaucracies, they were at the
crossroads of feudal loyalties and modern identities, where personal origins
were less important than cooperation to achieve common targets. The highest
ranking among them, Bishop Ribeiro Gaio, acted as an individual. While his
ecclesiastical function allowed him to rise above political rivalries, the
bishop was aware that cooperation between Portugal and Castile was essential to
achieve their goals, especially when expectations of the Iberian Union (1580-1640) still ran
high, and the Castilians were more easy manipulated due to their recent
to the extreme fragility of the Castilian presence in Asia, the contribution by
individuals had greater weight in Castile’s
perception of Siam.
On the one hand, this greater reliance on personal roles and on information
provided on a personal basis made Castile more dependent on those
contributions. The difficulties of finding crew members for the expeditions, as
illustrated by Juan Gil
(1989: 198n), clearly shows the crown’s need for individual contributions to
its Asian plans. It even affected crucial journeys, such as the one led by
Legazpi that would initiate the Spanish presence in the Philippines.
Urdaneta, who had ordained as an Augustinian since his return to Mexico, refused to go to the Philippines,
but Philip II gave him sealed instructions with orders that they be opened only
after eight days at sea, when his margin for refusal had diminished (Gil 1989:
86-87). On the other hand, the Castilian monarch was more receptive to
individual agency. After 1580, Philip II reacted more attentively to demands
from the settlers, even those in the area under Portuguese jurisdiction, in
recognition of the settlers’ greater expertise. From this period, the Iberian
crown started to delegate its monopoly on trade in the region by giving
“letters of travel” (providos das viagens) or appointing “captains of
travels” (capitães das viagens), which soon evolved into a kind of
“private trade”, as Marques Guedes points out (1994: 87). But this did not stop
the official diplomatic activity to avoid alliances inimical to the crown’s
interests. Philip II sent two letters (in 1589 and 1591) ordering the viceroy
in Goa, Duarte de Menezes (1584-88), to offer Nandabayin, the Toungoo king of
Pegu, the fleet he had requested to fight against Siam in 1591, with the aim of
averting Nandabayin’s possible alliance with Aceh (Marques Guedes, 1994: 89).
As the Iberian presence in Asia expanded and the need for further backing from
the crown diminished in both the Portuguese and, especially, Castilian camps,
individual actions acquired a greater relevance.
different reaction from Castile
the Legazpi expedition from New Spain (modern-day Mexico) arrived in the
Philippine islands in 1565 with the intention of settling, the imperatives were
similar to those faced by Portugal, especially the need to obtain reliable
information and to elaborate a new cognitive framework that could help in
understanding the area. After 1571 the Castilians established themselves in
Manila, a port better suited for defence and for
trade than any Portuguese port in Asia, unlike Cebu,
where they first disembarked. To pursue this goal, they had to act as any other
city-state in the area, seeking allies and looking out for enemies, and hence
the Castilians became reliant on reliable information about the neighbouring
territories. And like the Portuguese, the aims of the settlers and officials in
again split between diplomatic niceties and personal ambitions to obtain sudden
glory and riches.
By the year 1586, a new and more data-based cognitive framework on Siam had emerged among those in Manila, as numerous references in documentation show. The first official reference to Siam was dated 1578, when Governor Francisco de Sande (1576-80) located the kingdom between territories inhabited by pagans and by idolaters, “from there [Siam] to the north”
In Borney I obtained precise information concerning the entire archipelago and the mainland, as I found there people from China, Cuahi, Camboja, Sian, Patane, Pahan, Jabas, Samatra, Achen, Manancabo, Batuchina, Maluco, Vincanao, Limboton, and other islands thereabout. Concerning these I inform you only that as far as Sian there dwell Moros; and thence toward the north are idolaters. (Sande to Philip II, Manila, 29/VII/1578. B&R, IV, 1973: 131).
By 1586, Siam was often mentioned as a focus of commercial interests and colonial expansionism.
intentions were already clear. The Royal Audiency (Audiencia Real), the
highest judicial body created in Manila three years earlier, met in 1586 for
the first time to decide how to proceed in the islands and which petitions
should be addressed to the king and which to the pope. The memorandum addressed
to Phillip II included Siam
as one of the enemy kingdoms that encircled the Philippines,
together with Patani, Java, Burney (Brunei)
and the Moluccas, while the biggest threats were posed by Japan and China,
of which Siam
was perceived to be a vassal (B&R, VI, 1973: 178). The following year,
after the visit by a Japanese emissary, Governor Vera relayed to Philip II the
possibility of receiving Japanese soldiers from a friendly Daimyō,
or feudal lord, in order to send an expedition either to China or to “Bruney,
Siam or Maluco” (26/VI/1587. AGI, Secc. Filipinas 34, quoted in Ollé, 2000:
91). The Jesuit Alonso Sánchez, who was appointed to send information to King
Philip II “about everything in relation to this land [the Philippines] and
about China, Japan, Siam, Patan [sic] and other Kingdoms”, reported on Siam
after having consulted other monks and lay persons who had already visited the
kingdom (AGI, Secc, Filipinas, 18,
Manila, 20-VI-1586). Sanchez’s
report did not devote much space to ethnology, but instead promoted 
further expansion of the crown’s presence in the region: in his perception, as Manel Ollé gently
asserts, East Asia was reduced “to mere object
of desire – either missionary or colonial” (2000: 56).
the same time, there were efforts to establish mutual trade. The first
expedition from Manila to Ayutthaya appears to have taken place in 1586. In that year,
Governor Santiago de Vera reported to King Philip II that Siam was one of the neighbouring kingdoms, along
with Bruney and Mindanao, to which he had sent
persons to make peaceful contacts. He continued: “… it has come to my knowledge
that [the King of Siam] wanted to send ships to these Islands
and have contacts and our friendship. I have sent a ship with some presents and
offering him [what has been offered to] the others on behalf of Your Majesty
and our desire to open the route.” (AGI, Secc. Filipinas 6. Letter to H.M., Manila, 26/VI/1586). In
the same document, Siam is
again referred to as a potentially problematic territory, while the possibility
of profits is also mentioned: “This Kingdom
of Çian is very big and
of countless people and merchandise of which Your Majesty will be informed. The
people are little bellicose, less than others of those Kingdoms.” Lastly, the
Augustinian friar Juan
González de Mendoza mentioned Siam
in The Famous History of the
Mighty Kingdom of China, a book also published in 1586, translated into
many languages and probably the most important influence on the image of China at the time.
González de Mendoza portrayed Siam
as “the mother of all idolatries,” with an expansionist religion, noting also
that its population was mostly “cowardly” (and thus dominated by Burma), though Siam did have important trade
References about Siam in 1586, then, are scattered
in the documentation but already significant. There is no further reference to
what happened to that “embassy” sent by Governor De Vera and it appears to have
been a trade mission with enhanced rank in order to ease protocol, similar to
another embassy sent in 1598 when the first trade treaty between the two
countries was signed. These mentions give a first glimpse of the new perception
among recently arrived Castilians. They saw Siam as an in-between realm,
neither big nor small and neither a (permanent) Muslim enemy nor a submissive
ally: all options were open. It was ranked below Japan
and partly subservient. Its suzerainty over Patani and the possibility of
making deals made it more important than Aceh, Maluku or Brunei, while
former wars against the Burmese or Cambodians went unnoticed. On the whole, Siam
appears as a lesser threat among potential enemies and a key player to deal
with. This image was clearly influenced by the perceptions recorded by
individuals, as can be traced some years later, at the same time that letters
from King Philip II were sent through Portuguese channels to the Burmese king
Nandabayin offering an army against Siam, as mentioned above. In the
end of the 1580s, two adventurers working for the King of Cambodia, Diogo
Velloso and  Blas Ruiz de Hernán Gonzalez, managed to convince Manila to
send an expedition to mainland Southeast Asia claiming officially that their
purposes were to defend the Khmer king from Siamese attacks and to stimulate
Christianity in the area through royal protection, although it is obvious that
they aimed at physical expansion.
This expansionist approach from Manila
contrasts with the friendly relations conducted by Portugal
at the beginning of the sixteenth century, showing that the same process, such
as establishing direct intercourse with East Asia,
ended with opposite results.
new forms for expansionist aspirations
settlements of the Portuguese in East Asia in
1511, and of their fellow Iberians in 1565, were radically different, in spite
of similarities. For a start, the political context changed over time. At the
beginning of the sixteenth century, Siam
was a powerful centre in the region; after 1545 the kingdom underwent continuous
conflicts with her neighbours to the north (Lan Na), to the west (the Burmese
even occupied Ayutthaya
in 1569), and to the east, especially when the Khmers tried to profit from its
weakness. The Iberian settlements were also different. Portugal merely
had some scattered fortified positions along the coasts and needed to work hand
in glove with local rulers to maintain its presence and continue trade. The
Castilians were aware they had found an excellent territory with a good harbour
and with no threat of local rulers attacking from the rear, to the point that
they considered Manila the ultimate stronghold
in case Portugal lost Macao or Malacca (Ollé,
avoided the mistake of sending expeditions of conquest, but Manila did so twice. Why? Castilians should
have benefited from all the data-gathering and from the consequent revised
perception of Siam,
but those two expeditions suggest that accumulated knowledge counted for
little. By contrast, in the 1570s, proposals for the conquest of China were
discarded. Ollé suggests there had been a “change of paradigm” in the
perception of the Central Empire by the 1580s, brought about not only by
“direct observation of isolated data but its systematization and articulation
through the study of the Chinese language” (2000: 60).
the Iberian Peninsula about the need to justify wars might have stopped the two
expansionist expeditions, but it seems to have done no more than raise some
doubts: the Bishop of Manila, Domingo Salazar, and many others who opted for
pacific incursions into China, favoured a similar approach when dealing with
mainland Southeast Asia (Ollé 2000: 115-120; Ollé 2004: 23), but the
expeditions to further Castilian expansion nevertheless sailed forth.
To explain the
different outcomes of the Portuguese and Castilian presence, four points should
be taken into consideration. First, the mirabilia
framework proved very resilient, in spite of the many inputs that forced a
reconsideration of classic illusions about Asia. The expected treasures had not yet been
found, but this only stimulated the search more intensively. Strong economic
interests spurred the search, since the royal treasury financed private
endeavours (Gil, 1989: 132). Second, the experience of the Castilians in America, where
resistance to conquest proved weak, fuelled expansive aims. In the Castilian
imagination, filled with images of conquest in America, the Siamese were
comparable to the American Indians as people ready to peacefully accept a new
ruler. Third, a crucial role was played
by individual Castilians residing and travelling in the region, where their
lack of allegiance to any one crown allowed them to pursue their own interests.
The further they were from their bases, the more spontaneously the Westerners
united for a determined purpose, forming groups based on very different
considerations to national ones. Their national origins were less important
than their ambitions to gain glory or gold in distant lands from whatever
source. Their allegiances were transient and they helped Castile to
develop a kind of frontier spirit. The relative decline of Portuguese energy
and the shift in its interests to Brazil
in the second half of the sixteenth century made Castile the more promising sponsor
for ambitious individuals who dreamt about riches.
the preferred place for adventurers hoping to attract support from governments
was the Southeast Asian mainland, where individuals could enjoy a role more
important than warranted. The multi-ethnic character of many ruling elites in Southeast Asia facilitated the welcome accorded to
numerous private traders, treasure hunters and adventurers in general,
regardless of their national origins – Castilian, Portuguese, Basque,
Florentine, Flemish or even Armenian, among others. At
the same time, mainland Southeast Asia was where the European presence was at
its weakest: east of Cape Comorin in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese state had
a greatly diminished capacity to act, and the same can be said of Spain west of the Philippines. The region was
therefore the most appropriate setting for any kind of unofficial cooperation
between the administrations of Goa and Manila
(Flores, 1998: 138; Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim, 1972: 110; Subrahmanyam, 1990:
148-50). Unlike Portugal (or the Aragonese kingdom in Spain which forbade
travel to Asia), Spain was lured by
adventurers in Southeast Asia who aimed to enrich themselves or gain
fame or secure conversions, especially once the American colonies became a
springboard to Asia. The Spanish authorities expressed concern about the many
missionaries who travelled outside official control to mainland Southeast Asia
and often upset formal relations. In fact, the expansionist drive faltered
precisely when the missionaries recognized their lack of success in preaching
to the Asian natives and decided to switch their focus to the Philippine
context and perceptions of Asia had changed,
certainly, but also the self-perceptions of those Portuguese, Castilians and
Spaniards who had contact with or received information about new territories
and new populations in a world that, finally, was getting to be known with some
accuracy. The frontispiece of the famous “theatre of the world” designed by
Abraham Ortelius around 1570, helps to understand those differences in
representations of Siam.
In the upper part, it depicts Europe enthroned
as a woman with symbols of Christianity. Below her are three other female
characters: Asia, Africa as caryatids sustaining the theatre as columns, and America at the
bottom of the scene, already recognized as a new continent, holding up a human
head. This representation denotes the change in European perceptions. Europeans
considered themselves superior to the rest, and all other continents were
subservient. Each of the other continents had its specific characteristics. Africa was almost naked, and aroused no interest. Savage
America was in need of being Christianized in order to achieve a degree of
civilization that would put an end to people killing and eating each other. Asia, richly clad, was the place of luxuries.
Portuguese and Castilians seemed to focus on different aspects of this image.
The Portuguese had gained a new perception of these Asian luxuries and the riches
they could obtain from their trade. The Castilians were taken by Asia’s
subordinate position under the figure of Europe,
and tempted to expansion. Times had changed, and representations with them,
although more as a result of creating new categories of representations rather
than forgetting previous frameworks of understanding. These two Iberian peoples
evolved and learnt about Siam
as they became aware of their own developing and different identities.
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