Gascon of Lanka and Falcon of Siam

It was the era of young European seafarers exploring for wealth and adventure in the Orient . These soldiers of fortune had no high social background, neither military skills nor any professional competence . Some were just trying their luck as individuals while some got their breakthrough thanks to contacts their masters had cultivated in those Asian countries. It may be through contraband trade, arms dealing or even through slave trade, the contacts were valuable to the trader as well as to the ruler. The lucrative shipping and trade routes from Europe to Far East created a great opportunity for energetic youngsters to join a ship , experience the exotic orient , learn the local language and perhaps get married, settle down and wait for the correct moment to arrive and then try to zoom up the social ladder in lightning speed.

This true story is about two such young lads of European origin who came to the East as cabin boys, one of the lowest chores in a ship and toiled themselves up or elevated their siblings to very high positions in their respective surrogate mother countries. They wielded great influence and tremendous power over and above the traditional feudal lords and high level state officials. Both of them were able to win the confidence of the highest in the lands and were able to maneuver deftly the state affairs almost reaching the point they wished to achieve. Similarly their downfall was so swift and sharp.

One adventurer hailed from Greece and the other from France . The Greek got his breakthrough in Siam through a British trader and was enlisted to the Royal court of Siam as a Junior accounts clerk while the Frenchman reached Sri Lanka as a valet to the first French Ambassador in 1648 and was recruited to the Royal court of Kandy as a horse trainer.

There are partly similar and sometimes strange parallels on episodes and situations faced by Pedro Gascon (Dascon ) in Lanka and Constantine Falcon( Phoulcon ) in Siam. The similar backdrop and timing leads to an assumption that both of them were under command of a superior power in Europe, possibly the Jesuit church or the Royal court in Paris under Louis the XIV. Overwhelming research work done on Falcon of Siam by many modern scholars in Thailand, France, Greece , England and other Asian and European countries contrast sharply with limited historical research done on Dascon of Sri lanka. This drawback could be attributed to the non availability of written records except folk lore, poetry , a mythical story of a love affair between the queen and Gascon and a few other accounts which are not extensive enough for a solid academic study. The reports sent by the Dutch Governor in Colombo to his head office throws some light occasionally into this period.

A further study on these two personalities, taking into account the political and economic aspirations of the then French regime and the religious ambitions of the Jesuit church would draw some strange parallels. Diminishing authority of high officials and receding leadership of Buddhist clergy in both countries paved way for the rise of French and Jesuit interests while other foreign contenders mainly Dutch and English witnessed with alarm the eroding powers of the traditional hierarchy. It was clear that both Falcon and Gascon were somewhat culpable for that situation. Both were young adventurers , who made good use of their language abilities which were in great demand in the royal courts in the orient at that time. They happened to be there at the right time for the right job and rose up rapidly. Fortuitous circumstances also may have played a role. However there is no evidence to suggest that they knew each other before either in Europe or in Asia.

Constantine Falcon (Phoulcon) was born in 1647 in the Greek island of Cephalonia. Early in his life he left Greece in search of greener pastures and joined the East India company in London. as a cabin boy. in a ship. He had neither substantial education nor any professional skill to bluster over other foreigners who were also engaged in servile chores like him in Company ships. Nevertheless, with high aptitude for learning languages , he quickly picked up English , which became very useful for him in future deals in international trade and as an interpreter at the Royal court of Siam. Apart from his own language Greek , he spoke English , Portuguese, French Latin and Dutch being the languages of neighboring European countries and learnt Malay and Siamese while in Asia . He made several voyages to Asia as a sailor and as a gunner of a ship owned by Richard Burnaby , the British trader, company director, arms dealer and smuggler who had some kind of influence over the Siamese officials. Burnaby introduced Falcon to the Siamese Prime Minister Kosa Lec who was very impressed with the young foreigner and offered him duties at the royal warehouse. This was the breakthrough Falcon was waiting for years. Working at the royal warehouse he controlled the financial transactions in favour of Siamese interest with dedication. The recognition he desired from the king came through very quickly. When he was sent as a member of the trade delegation to Persia, he negotiated skillfully and wrested a favourable position to Siam over the hitherto dominant Persians.

King Somdet Phra Narayana ( Narai 1656- 1688 ) recognized the skills of this Greek and employed him with the long term aim to weaken the domination of a few Chinese families controlling the finances of the country. During the reign of this king there was a dramatic development on relations with France which owed much to Falcon. King Narai took a great liking to him and relied upon his advice on many important state matters. At the same time French Jesuits established themselves in the capital and operated a seminary and was allowed to preach Christianity . Falcon who was a Greek Orthodox by birth was converted to Catholism , a clever move by the Jesuit priests which paid rich dividends later . Although only one step below the king he was considered as the supreme authority in almost everything including finances and foreign affairs. As an appreciation for showing close allegiance with the French interests, he was awarded the status of Count of France and Knight of the order of St Michael. He reached the peak of his career when he was conferred with the rank of Phra Wijayendra, a powerful Siamese position with continued access to the king.

Falcon identified himself with Jesuit aspirations and maneuvered a grand plan of converting King Narai and Kingdom of Siam to Christianity They firmly believed that the salvation of " the Siamese heathens" could be combined with the French territorial expansion in Asia That fantasy scheme of Falcon and his total disregard to old values annoyed the Buddhist monks , high ranking officials and members of the Royal hierarchy who were considered to be the traditional guardians of religious and social morals of the society. When the king fell gravely ill in 1688 they moved in quickly and foiled an attempt by Falcon to baptize the king at his death bed . According to his grand plan, the next step was to announce the assumption to the throne the new king Mom Pit , an adopted son of king Narai. Falcon relied upon the help of eight hundred strong French squadron stationed in Bangkok for this coup but the expected intervention by the French troops did not materialize . Prince Petraja leading the anti Falcon group moved in immediately and ordered the arrest of Falcon and the pretender to the throne Mom Pit who was said to have already been converted to Christianity. He was executed on 20th May and two weeks later on 5th June 1688 Falcon was beheaded.

Pierre Gascon who hailed from the province of Gascony in France worked as a cabin boy in a French ship and got an opportunity to see the Orient when he was recruited to the entourage of Ambassador La Nerolle as a valet. They reached Sri anka in the year 1672 and were escorted to the capital city of Kandy with full honours . As a result of some unfortunate incidents happened there they had to mark time for a long and uncertain period realizing that they will have to settle down finally in Kandy. Meanwhile the Ambassador married a Sinhalese girl from a high class family while others in the entourage selected their own way of life in the Sinhalese capital. Gascon married a girl from the Catholic Portuguese community living in Kandy. He was recruited to the service of the Palace as a horse trainer that gave a grand opportunity to cultivate acquaintances with the Royalty for himself and later for his young son

Pedro Gascon

Gascon junior (Pedro) learnt Portuguese, then language of diplomacy and Sinhalese from his mother and was groomed by his father to be a potential acquaintance in the Royal circles specially by training him in horse riding which was the favorite pastime of the Royalty. The coveted breakthrough to meet and associate the young crown prince occurred most probably at horse riding exercises held in the palace compound. It appeared that the prince had a liking to the talented young European who could speak and write French , Portuguese and Sinhalese as well

During this time the Dutch who were ruling only the western coastline of the island issued harsh laws against people of other faiths, specially against the Catholics. living in their domain. In 1658 the Dutch governor issued a proclamation making punishable with death any person harbouring or giving protection to Roman catholic priests. and imposed a law that no native can aspire to the higher ranks or even permitted to hold office who had not been baptized and become a member of the Protestant church. Catholics suffered heavily under these severe Dutch proclamations and were seeking asylum elsewhere

The king of Kandy allowed them to settle down in his kingdom and gave them permission to build churches .The Catholic priests were permitted to engage in missionary work while stationed in Kandy.

The young crown prince was enthroned as the King of Sri lanka in 1707 at the tender age of seventeen years and was conferred with the royal title King Naraindrasinghe of Sri Lanka. He was reported to be a rather a violent character from childhood getting into fits of rage sporadically causing concern among the high ranking palace officials and aristocrats who refused to work under him. . There is no doubt that they were the driving force behind the massive revolt erupted which pushed the young king to react brutally . At one stage of the revolt , the teenage king was almost isolated and was in the verge of being defeated . Pedro Gascon the closest ally the king had at that crucial moment. rallied round and organized the counter attack . The revolt was crushed ruthlessly and the king showing his gratitude to the foreign prodigy, appointed him as the Maha Adhikaram ( Prime Minister) of the Sinhalese kingdom in 1709.. The Jesuit priests in Kandy would have rather well pleased to see a Franco/ Portuguese Christian appointed to the post of second in command of the kingdom

It is clear that Gascon was the forerunner of some anti Buddhist proclamations issued by king Naraindrasinghe .which annoyed the Buddhist monks and Kandyan leaders. Edicts such as wearing of compulsory headgear in white by the high ranking Buddhist monks attending the royal court, terminating the royal patronage granted hitherto to the great annual procession honoring the Tooth relic (Kandy Perahera ) refusal of granting permission to visit Siam for Saranankara samanera ,the much revered Buddhist monk at that time.

The end of Gascon came so swift by a command of the immature King , even his mentors the Jesuit priests attached to the royal court were taken by surprise. Searching for clues for the sudden order by the king, one can easily discard the mythical romantic story of a love affair with the queen discovered suddenly caused the death of the country’s Prime Minister It was not so simple as that ! . Similar type of folk tales and fanciful stories were in wide circulation in Minor Asia long before this event leading to surmise that the story of the love affair was a. cover up to hide Gaascon’s some other sins.

If we discard that romantic story, the theory that Palace politics and intense interference and conspiracies by Gascon in order to serve a more superior master elsewhere , probably the French. , caused his downfall could be accepted.

The king might have been in a fit of rage at a council meeting and have commanded the execution of his Prime Minister . Enemies of Gascon in the Palace acted speedily before the king changes his mind and within two hours after the royal command was given he was arrested, taken to the execution grounds and was beheaded .

These episodes happened in two of the leading Buddhist countries in Asia within a span of thirty seven years. Falcon of Siam reached the zenith of his career in 1678. and stayed in power for ten years He was beheaded in 1688. Gascon of Lanka was elevated to the high post in 1709 , functioned in that super position for six years until his execution in 1715 . While in power they handled foreign affairs, finances and even administration of justice.and many other functions Falcon moved his residence to the small city of Lopburi situated close by the capital city of Ayutthiya. Gascon did the same and moved into the small city of Diyatilleke nuwara situated close by the capital city of Kandy. They entertained ambassadors and foreign guests lavishly in their newly built mansions full. with wine women and song

It is interesting at this juncture to compare the strange but similar episodes experienced by Falcon of Siam and Gascon of Lanka . Both arose from humble beginnings , demonstrated their unusual skills in languages and their capacity to deal with the " enemies" of the king . Acting with absolute loyalty they earned the confidence of their masters gradually and reached the highest level a civil servant could achieve holding the titles of Phra Wijayan in Siam or Maha Adhikaram in Lanka .It is crystal clear that both of them , while paying allegiance to their respective kings, were under a stealthy command of a much superior authority in Europe, either in Paris or Rome.

It has to be noted however that they were not really contemporaries .as there is a gap of 27 years in between their grandiose days. Falcon the Franco/ Greek Prime Minister of Siam was already dead when Gascon the Franco/ Iberian Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was elevated to the high post. There are some close parallels , which can be discarded easily as superficial and merely incidental Nevertheless there are strange parallels which deserve a further study

The writer was the former Sri Lanka Ambassador in the Netherlands and in the Philippines.

www island.lk

Copyright©Upali Newspapers Limited.

Hosted by


Upali Newspapers Limited, 223, Bloemendhal Road, Colombo 13, Sri Lanka, Tel +940112497500