Constantine Phaulkon: The Greek Dictator of Siam

Constantine Gerakis, c 1648-88, better known as Phaulkon, was an exemplar of Europe's burgeoning influence in Asia in the seventeenth century. He played the role of intermediary between the representatives of the European powers and King Narai of Siam with great success, argues Robert Bruce, but paid for eventual failure with his life.

French enterprise in Siam in the seventeenth century began when Bishop Lambert de la Motte of the newly-founded Socières arrived in Ayuthia, the capital, in 1662. Commercial, political and military endeavours came a little later, in the train of Christian evangelism, under the vigorous direction of Colbert, Louis XIV's brilliant minister. And when, in 1685, Louis's ambassador, the Chevalier de Chaumont, bowed before the King of Siam, Pra Narai, in order to conclude a military and trading alliance, his first objective was to convert the King to Christianity.

At the centre of these negotiations was a Greek adventurer, Constantine Phaulkon, who, between 1682 and his execution in 1688, was to play a vital role in the success or failure of the French mission, in the lives of many English merchants and sailors, and in the direction of Siam's maritime trade and foreign policy.

Phaulkon's life can be seen as a fine example of Machiavellian intrigue. He was skilful in the art of power politics and a master in the corrupt use of Christianity for wealth and selfish glory. It is fitting that his fall should have resulted in the manner of a Greek tragedy: Phaulkon's fatal flaw was hubris, inordinate vanity.

His Greek name was Constantine Gerakis,gerakis being the Greek for falcon. He was born on the Ionian island of Cephalonia, then under the Republic of Venice, in 1648 or possibly in one of the two succeeding years. His father was a poor inn-keeper. At the age of ten the boy left home and joined an English ship in the Mediterranean, probably as a cabin-boy. He became a sailor but we know little about his boyhood and adolescence. While in England he became an Episcopalian. It is not clear whether his earlier faith was Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox. In 1670 he sailed to India on board the Hopewell , a ship of the East India Company commanded by George White.

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