Thailand #1104 (1985)

The Battle of Thalang

Thailand #1104 (1985)
Thailand #1104 (1985)

March 13 each year is celebrated on Phuket island in southern Thailand as Thalang Victory Day, commemorating the 1785 defeat of the local inhabitants over a superior Burmese invasion force. The island had been attacked shortly after the governor of Muang Thalang — a district of the province then known as Junkceylon — had died. His wife, Than Phuying Chan (ท่านผู้หญิงจัน), and her sister, Khun Mook (คุณมุก), gathered together 500 women, divided them into groups, dressed them up as men, and gave them fake weapons. The women then paraded around the town, day and night. The ruse worked and the Burmese invaders, thinking that Thalang had too many soldiers and too many weapons, abandoned their invasion plans and withdrew. On March 13, 1785, Chan ordered the city’s cannons to open fire on the Burmese troops. Today, Chan and Mook are revered as The Two Heroines of Phuket because of their opposition to the Burmese invasions. In their own lifetimes, Rama I bestowed on them the titles Thao Thep Kasattri (ท้าวเทพกระษัตรี) and Thao Sri Sunthon (ท้าวศรีสุนทร).

Phuket (ภูเก็ต) is one of the southern provinces (changwat) of Thailand. It consists of the island of Phuket, the country’s largest island, and another 32 smaller islands off its coast in the Andaman Sea. It lies off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Phuket Island is connected by the Sarasin Bridge to Phang Nga Province to the north. The next nearest province is Krabi, to the east across Phang Nga Bay. The province has an area of 222 square miles (576 square kilometers), somewhat less than that of Singapore, and is the second-smallest province of Thailand. The island’s length, from north to south, is 30 miles (48 km) and its width is 13 miles (21 km). Phuket is mostly mountainous with a mountain range in the west of the island from the north to the south. It formerly derived its wealth from tin and rubber, and enjoys a rich and colorful history. The island was on one of the major trading routes between India and China, and was frequently mentioned in foreign ship logs of Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English traders. The region now derives much of its income from tourism.

Phuket’s population was 249,446 in 2000, rising to 525,709 in the 2010 decennial census, the highest growth rate of all provinces nationwide at 7.4 percent annually. It is estimated that 600,000 people reside on Phuket currently, among them migrants, international expats, Thais registered in other provinces, and locals. The registered population, however, includes only Thais who are registered in a tabien baan or house registration book, which most are not, and the end of 2012 was 360,905 persons.

The relatively recent name “Phuket” (of which the digraph ph represents an aspirated p) is derived from the Malay word bukit (بوكيت) which means “hill”. One Thai chronicle states, however, that the name originates from two Thai words, “phu” (mountain) of “ket” (jewel). The island was formerly known to Siamese authorities as Thalang (ถลาง), derived from old Malay telong (تلوڠ) meaning “cape”. The northern district of the province, which was the location of the old capital, still uses this name. In Western sources and navigation charts, it was known as Jung Ceylon or Junkceylon (a corruption of the Malay Tanjung Salang, i.e., “Cape Salang”),

The Portuguese explorer Fernão Mendes Pinto was one of the first European explorers to mention Phuket in any detail, having arrived in Siam in 1545. He referred to the island as ‘Junk Ceylon’, a name the Portuguese used for Phuket Island in their maps. Junk Ceylon is mentioned seven times in Mendes Pinto’s accounts, which said that it was a destination port where trading vessels made regular stops for supplies and provisions. During the mid-sixteenth century, the island was in decline due to pirates and often rough and unpredictable seas, which deterred merchant vessels from visiting Junk Ceylon. Pinto mentioned several other notable port cities in his accounts, including Patani and Ligor,which is modern day Nakhon Si Thamarat.

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, English and, after the 1680s, the French, competed for the opportunity to trade with the island which was a rich source of tin. In September 1680, a ship of the French East India Company visited Phuket and left with a full cargo of tin. A year or two later, the Siamese King Narai, seeking to reduce Dutch and English influence, named a French medical missionary, Brother René Charbonneau, as governor of Thalang. A member of the Siam mission of the Société des Missions Etrangères. Charbonneau remained as governor until 1685.

In 1685, King Narai confirmed the French tin monopoly in Phuket to their ambassador, the Chevalier de Chaumont. Chaumont’s former maître d’hôtel, Sieur de Billy, was named governor of the island. However, the French were expelled from Siam after the 1688 Siamese revolution. On April 10, 1689, Desfarges led an expedition to re-capture the island to restore French control in Siam. His occupation of Phuket led to nothing, and Desfarges returned to Puducherry in January 1690.

By 1775, there was a British presence on the island in the form of Francis Light, an agent of the British East India Company and future founder of the colony on Penang Island further south in what would eventually become Malaysia. Light had his headquarters in Thalang, where he revived a failed French trading post. While in Salang he learned to speak and write several languages, including Malay and Thai. He became a friend of Governor Phaya Pimon and also, apparently, of Lady Chan and her daughters. Several letters exist between one of these daughters, Mae Prang, and Light revealing that she was quite taken with him and that he’d apparently lent her money at some point.

During his time on Phuket, Light wanted to establish a proper trading station and tried convincing the East India Company to establish a British colony there. In one report, he claimed that Pak Pra (the straight in the north separating Phuket from the mainland, now crossed by the Sarasin Bridge) and Tharua (on the east central coast) were “the best harbours and naval port in all India” but also stated that the large mudbank extending from Cape Yamoo to Mahphrao Island caused “ships [in Tharua harbor], though defended from all weathers would be exposed to enemy attack.” For defense, Francis Light proposed building forts at Yamoo and the islands of Koh Rang and Koh Mahprao. Further reports to the East India Company directors stated that Phuket had “plenty of wood and water” for a shipyard and “produced rice sufficient for its inhabitants” in two crops per year. Light also mentions the island’s tin deposits which could “earn enough revenue to pay the costs” of defense.

The East India Company sent a Colonel Kydd to Phuket in order to make a strategic study on the feasibility of British colonization. Kydd estimated the population at around 14,000 people prior to the 1785 Burmese invasion, but had the potential to increase under “the rational government of British rule.”

Talks were conducted with Taksin the Great (สมเด็จพระเจ้าตากสินมหาราช), the King of Thonburi (สมเด็จพระเจ้ากรุงธนบุรี) as early as 1774 in which the king said he was open to the idea of a British station in Siam. As this seemed to have stalled, Captain Light and another East India Company agent, James Scott, sought to make an alliance with the locals to take Phuket from Siam by stealth and force. Light, Scott, and the other foreign traders living on the island at the time believed that the people of Thalang would support this because they “did not like their Siamese oppressors and wanted to be taken over as a European settlement.”

Captain Thomas Forrest, writing in the 1770s, also wrote of the local distaste for the Siamese overlords:

The government takes 25% before the tin can be exported. This gives so much dissatisfaction that they [the people of Phuket] wish to throw off their dependence on Siam and it is said that if Pee Piemon [Governor Phaya Pimon] could get support he would readily do it. How far his having those associates in government might prevent such an attempt I cannot say, possibly their appointment is with that very intention by the despots of Siam.”

James Scott wrote to the East India Company council in 1773 that “if the English would take on them the sovereignty of the island of Jangsylan and send a force to resist any future attempts from Siam, he [Phaya Pimon[ will deliver them the peaceable possession of the island” on certain terms, an agreement which was signed by the governor of Thalang. Both Scott and Light believed that if the locals, aided by the British government, controlled the sea, the Siamese could not land troops in any great numbers.

By late 1779, this seditious plotting appears to have reached the ears of King Taksin’s regional military superintendent. Light’s land in Phuket was taken from him  and he moved south to Kedah in 1780. From there, he and Scott launched a plan that the expenses of a new colony at Phuket could be met by private subscription, mainly from businessmen in British India. In 1781, word arrived that the East India Company boards in both Madras and London had approved the takeover of Phuket and that the island could finally be taken by force from Siam and operated as a private company — a trade, mining and pepper center — and a British naval base under the jurisdiction of the British East India Company. Preparations began in Madras to send a military fleet to Phuket.

However, these had to be put on hold due to the disruptions that the American Revolutionary War had on British shipping. Britain had needed vast numbers of ships to fight in the Atlantic and Caribbean. The Asian trade was badly disrupted when British naval forces had to be concentrated elsewhere, leaving its Indian colonies relatively unprotected. France sent a fleet to the Bay of Bengal to take advantage of the situation. The British invasion of Phuket had to be postponed as the government was not “able to grant any supplies, and the merchants [were] unwilling to trust their property on the eve of war.”

Scott and Light returned to Phuket in 1784 after receiving word that the war was over and peace had been declared. They attempted to resume their scheme with Praya Pimon but he had taken ill. Undeterred by this, the East India Company directors in Madras approved the project to colonize Phuket. One official stated “that Junk Ceylon possesses every advantage that can be desired as a productive country with a healthy climate for a British settlement, has been fully established by the concurring testimony of all persons who have visited the place or considered the subject.”

By this time, there were increasing rumors of an imminent Burmese invasion of Siam. A coup d’état removing King Taksin from the throne had taken place in the capital of Thonburi in 1782. The disturbance widely spread, with killing and looting prevalent. When the coup occurred, General Chao Phraya Chakri was away fighting in Cambodia, but he quickly returned to the Thai capital following being informed of the coup. Upon having arrived at the capital, the General extinguished the coup through arrests, investigations and punishments. Peace was then restored in the capital. According to the Royal Thai Chronicles, General Chao Phraya Chakri decided to put the deposed Taksin to death. The Chronicles stated that, while being taken to the executing venue, Taksin asked for an audience with General Chao Phraya Chakri but was turned down by the general.

Taksin was beheaded in front of Wichai Prasit fortress on April 10, 1782, and his body was buried at Wat Bang Yi Ruea Tai. General Chao Phraya Chakri then seized control of the capital and declared himself king together with establishing the House of Chakri. He bcame Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok (พระพุทธยอดฟ้าจุฬาโลก), also known as Rama I. Soon after, he decided to move the capital of Siam to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River for several reasons, including its better strategic location and a desire to promote his legitimacy by starting from a clean slate. He decided to name his new capital “Rattanakosin” (“Keeping place of the Emerald Buddha”).

The Burmese took the opportunity to invade Siam in December 1784. The Burmese–Siamese War of 1785–178 is known as the Nine Armies’ Wars in Siamese history. The Burmese had mustered a huge force estimated at some 144,000 men, split into nine armies. Seven armies attacked north and west Siam and, for the first time in the long history of Burmese-Siamese wars, two armies attacked south into the peninsula. The first of these two southern forces, comprising 6,000 soldiers, crossed over the Tenasserim hills and captured Prachuap Kiri Khan. A Malay rebel army from the south joined them in this attack and helped capture Ligor, Phattalung and Songkla.

King Bodawpaya of the Konbaung dynasty sent a seaborne invasion fleet of 5,000 men to take Junk Ceylon (Phuket) to prevent foreign arms shipments to Siam. This occurred just as the second East India Company invasion force for Phuket was being prepare in Madras and before forts could be built on Cape Yamoo and Kho Rang. As the Burmese invaded the island, Scott and Light sailed away. The British parliament, pushed by Prime Minister Pitt, had passed an Act just two years prior that forbid the East India Company to get involved in local wars without first obtaining British government permission. This effectively ended the plans for a British colony on Phuket.

The fleet commanded by the Burmese General Yiwun sailed down the peninsular coast from Burma. Tenasserim and the main western Siamese seaport of Mergui had fallen to the Burmese in 1767 when they had defeated Ayutthaya.  Thus, the west coast attack was probably aimed at stopping the flow of weapons from the west reaching the capitol through Siam’s only remaining west coast ports of Takuapa, Phuket and Trang. Another goal was in opening a supply line to the Burmese army in Ligor. The Burmese fleet captured Ranong in December 1784 and moved south to Takuapa. Rather than utilizing the protective stone fort there, the people of Takuapa fled into the jungle. The fleet sailed further south to attack Bangkhli and Phuket.

Governor was quite ill when news of the Burmese forces at Takuapa reached the island. His wife, Lady Chan, wrote a plea to Francis Light asking for help:

I have heard news that you are making ready your ship to leave and we have received news that the Burmese are coming to attack Thalang and the Governor is very ill. If the Burmese come I must depend on you as a post to cling to.”

The local Siamese military commissioners in Kok Kloi — Phraya Thammatrailok and Phraya Phiphithokhai — had only a small regular force of Siamese troops at their disposal. An urgent militia draft was called. They made a stand at Kokkloi junction where the jungle trails split, going north to Bangkhli, south to Phuket and east to Takuatung and Phang Nga. The Burmese fleet, with 3,500 men, landed on Kokkloi beach, advanced inland and attacked the Siamese force fortified behind their bamboo stockades. The surviving Siamese retreated and tried to make a stand at Kao Sok pass. This, however, left Phuket and Phang Nga completely exposed and the Burmese swept south.

Captain Francis Light, noted that he had observed a force of “3,000 of the Burmar army in 80 large prows” as he was leaving Phuket on his trade ship for India. Light left just prior to the arrival of the Burmese fleet. James Scott also sailed away, leaving his wife and children on the island. He noted that he sighted the van of the Burmese war fleet approaching Phuket in his ship’s log for February 8, 1785.

Governor Phaya Pimon had died in December. Lady Chan, his widow, was about 45 years old at the time, having been born around 1740 to Chom Rang, head of the hereditary family of Ban Takien and a former governor of Thalang himself. Chan was the eldest daughter, followed by her sister Mook. Phaya Pimon had been governor of Thalang for about ten years at the time of his death. He’d kept a house for business in Tharua port but used Lady Chan’s country house at Ban Takien in the interior of the island as their main residence.

Lady Chan is reported in the Thai Annals of Thalang to have been in Kokkloi with the Siamese military commissioners when the Burmese attacked there. After the Siamese defeat, she fled back to Thalang with the remnants of the Phuket militia. She later wrote to Captain Light:

When the Burmese came, Phaya Thammatrailok summoned me to Pak Pra. I returned home when they captured Pak Pra. Those who guarded the place had gone away and left it and everything had been looted …. when the Burmese defeated the [Siamese] at Pak Pra [Kokkloi], the people became scared and fled into the jungle leaving their homes and properties which were later seized.

When Lady Chan returned to Thalang, the people of Phuket may have already heard that Ligor had fallen to the Burmese. There was also a rumor, spread by the Burmese, that Bangkok had fallen to them as well.  The people on the island therefore had no idea if any Siamese force would be coming to their rescue. A meeting was called to decide whether they should attempt to flee to Phang Nga and the jungle, or attempt to make a stand at the old fort build by the Frenchman René Charbonneau a century before.

At the time, Phuket had an estimated population of 14,000. Only 2,000 of these were able-bodied fighting men, perhaps a few hundred of which were professional fighters — former retainers of Phaya Phimon. The rest of Phuket’s militia was a motley mix of traders, fishermen, farmers, and miners.

Chan, supported by her younger sister Mook, made the decision to make a stand at the fort in Thalang. They knew that the fort had many cannons and the island was well-stocked with powder, grapeshot and muskets having been Siam’s main western port for arms importation from India and the west since the Burmese had captured Mergui in 1767. Food, arms and valuables were hurriedly taken to the fort and any remaining food sources outside were destroyed to prevent the Burmese having access to them. About 600 local men, women and children crowded into the fort.

The Burmese fleet first landed on Phuket at Nai Yang beach in the northwest part of the island. They quickly captured Ban Sakhu, just south of the present-day airport. Additional forces paddled war prows inland to Thalang up the river that flows into the sea at Layan beach north of Bang Tao. To this day, the klong (canal) is still known by many locals as “Burmese Soldier Klong”. The deserted villages of Ban Sakhu, Ban Takien, Ban Lippon, and Tharua were sacked and burnt by the Burmese invaders who then converged on the Thalang fort. This stood somewhere between present-day Thalang Town and Ban Don.

The Burmese troops on Phuket probably numbered less than 3,000 men. They had no large siege cannons, just the small-caliber demi-culverins and swivel cannons they took from some of their war prows and remounted on wooden platforms. These weren’t sufficient to bring down the earthen and wooden walls of the Thalang fort. Nor could they outrange the bigger Danish and British field cannon in the fort. Some of the Burmese troops had muskets and bayonets but most would have carried only spears and swords. The Burmese army surrounded the fort but stayed out of range of the cannons. They dug trenches and built stockades in preparation for a siege.

Lady Chan had the women in the fort made up to look like soldiers in order to bluff the Burmese as to the strength of the Siamese forces. An East India Company official in Penang, John Anderson, wrote about this some 50 years later:

The wife of Pia Pimone, the former Siamese governor of the island, was in the habit of relating to her visitors, with particular satisfaction, a strategem for intimidating the Burmahs … when they had effected a landing and attempted a night attack. A small fort had been constructed, with a door in front and one in the rear. Having but few muskets, the old lady caused the leaves of coconuts [palm fronds] to be stripped and cut to the length of a musket and made all her attendants throw one across each shoulder. They then paraded round and round the fort, entering at one door and going out the other, thus giving the appearance of a large assemblage of troops entering the fort, as if they had come from a distance. The Burmahs, seeing so many men parading about became alarmed … and took off to their vessels.

The Thai Annals state that the Phuketians:

assembled men and built two large stockades wherewith to protect the town. The Dowager governess [Lady Chan] and her maiden sister displayed great bravery and fearlessly faced the enemy. They urged the officials and the people both males and females to fire the ordinance and muskets and led them day after day in sorties out of the stockades to fight the Burmese. So the latter were unable to reduce the town and after a month’s vain attempts, provisions failing them, they had to withdraw.

The Burmese siege of the fort in Thalang lasted 25 days and involved some heavy fighting both during the daytime and at night. A new governor of Thalang appointed shortly after the Burmese withdraw reported that “the Burmese suffered between 300 and 400 casualties, killed and wounded. They then broke off the action and retired.”

On March 13, 1785, five weeks after they had first landed on Phuket, the Burmese forces returned to their war prows and sailed back north up the coast to Burma. They had utterly devastated the entire island outside of the small confines of the walls of the wooden fort at Thalang. No figures are known, but hundreds of locals probably died in the fighting and from food shortages and disease or drowning when trying to flee to the mainland. Probably several hundred if not a few thousand more were captured and carried back to Burma where they became slaves. Most others had fled to the mainland. The island was depleted of people. All the villages, temples, homes, boats, and crops had been pillaged, burnt, uprooted, and destroyed by the Burmese. There was a shortage of food and people to work the fields or dig for tin.

King Rama I conferring royal titles upon Thao Thepkassatri and Thao Sri Sunthorn. Display at Thalang National Museum. Photo by Mark Jochim
King Rama I conferring royal titles upon Thao Thepkassatri and Thao Sri Sunthorn. Display at Thalang National Museum. Photo by Mark Jochim

In the midst of these hardships, King Rama I later awarded Lady Chan the title of Thao Thep Kasattri (ท้าวเทพกระษัตรี) for her forthright leadership. Being a woman, she was unable to take over from her husband as governor but one of her sons later became a governor of Thalang. He younger sister was given the title of Thao Sri Sunthon (ท้าวศรีสุนทร) and the king requested one of her daughters as a concubine in the royal palace. She later bore him a child.

In 1786, on behalf of the British East India Company, Captain Francis Light leased Penang Island from Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah of Kedah Sultanate, renaming it Prince of Wales Island, and the capital, George Town. Under the administration of Governor-general Sir John Macpherson, Light was entitled Superintendent and put in charge of the settlement; thus occasioning the beginning of British expansion into the Malay States, and into British colonization in Southeast Asia. The multicultural colony of Penang became extraordinarily successful from its inception and Light served as Superintendent of the settlement until his death.

The Burmese returned to Phuket in August 1809, launching four invasions and a great naval battle between then and late December 1811 which left the island completely devastated once again. Phuket remained deserted and overgrown for almost a decade afterwards and became a base for pirates who thrived in the lawless environment.

The Battle of Thalang is annually commemorated by a huge reenactment just west of Thalang Town. The 12 acts take place on an elaborate set using more than 1,200 performers from Phuket Rajabhat University and other schools in Phuket and Phang Nga. Even the provincial governor of Phuket plays a role — the part of King Rama I — while the deputy governor usually plays his arch-enemy, the commander of the Burmese invasion force.

In 1967, the Heroines Monument was constructed at Tharua; the two main roads that meet there were named after the sisters, Thepkrassatri Road from Phuket Town and Srisoonthorn Road from Kamala. The monument has been portrayed on several Thai postage stamps, including today’s Scott #1104 which was released to commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Thalang on March 13, 1985. The two-baht stamp was printed by Harrison & Sons Ltd. in England using lithography. It’s perforated 15×14.

In early 2014, nine additional statues  were installed at Thalang Victory Memorial Field, the location of the annual reenactments.  According to Phuket Governor Maitri Inthusut, “These historical figures will serve to remind all Phuket people of their brave ancestors who defended the island from Burmese invaders.” The statues are each about 2.5 meters tall, cast in bronze.

Thalang Victory Memorial. Photo by Mark Jochim
Thalang Victory Memorial. Photo by Mark Jochim

“Specifically nine figures were chosen in order to honor HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej because he is the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty,” explained Governor Maitri. The new statues include the sisters Chan and Mook, military strategist Phraya Thalang Tongpoon, one of Lady Chan’s daughters — Mae Prang, two leaders of the Royal Thai Navy who helped battle the Burmese at other times — Phraya Yokrabut Jui and Phraya Thalang Thian — who were both sons of Lady Chan, Tongpen — a civilian who commanded the batteries of cannon fire against the invading Burmese at the fort in 1785. the first Phuketian to work as a royal page — Niam (to Rama I), and Chao Chom Manda Thong — another of Lady Chan’s daughters, who became the only Phuketian consort to Rama I to bear him a daughter.

Further developments at Thalang Victory Memorial Field are planned to turn the park into a major tourist attraction.

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