Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

SKETCHES OF SIAM AND THE SIAMESE.-No. I.

[graphic][merged small]

Siam is one of the most interesting of the Indo-Chinese nations. Our recent conquests and annexations have made us neighbours of the Siamese, and may, at some not distant period, bring us into hostile collision with them. During our first Burmese war (in 1825-26) there was a moment when the Siamese were on the point of joining the Burmese. By possessing ourselves of Pegu, Martaban, Mergui

, and the rest of the Tenasserim provinces, we press upon Siam at several points, the line of demarcation being here a ridge of hills, and here a narrow river, across which our Sepoys can challenge, or converse with the Siamese guards or pickets. Many of our readers may have friends and relatives with our army in Pegu, or engaged in trade on the banks of the Irrawaddi river ; but to all, the subject of Siam and its people may be, at this moment, particularly interesting. An abundance of information exists, but it is contained, for the most part, in rather voluminous works, of which some are scarce, and not a few written in foreign languages

The country which Europeans call Siam is called by the natives

Muang-Thai, or the “Kingdom of the Free."

For shortness, the Siamese frequently designate their country by the single word Thai. 'Their ancient name was Sajam, or the “ Brown Race;" and from Sajam proceeds our word Siam.

The first European nation to establish an intercourse with this remote country were the Portuguese, who, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, under the great Albuquerque, built up an empire in the east with limited means and as if by magic. Previously to the occupation of Malacca by the Portuguese (about the year 1511) the dominions of Siam extended over the whole of the great Malayan peninsula, as far as Singapore ; but at subsequent periods, territory was lost on this side, so that, at present, the kingdom begins only at Tringalu, in four degrees north, whence it extends to twenty-two degrees north latitude, thus being about four hundred and fifty leagues in length. Its greatest breadth from east to west is about one hundred and fifty leagues, reaching from ninety-six degrees to one hundred and two degrees longitude.

This, at least, is the measurement given by the French missionary Bishop, Pallegois, who has resided twenty-four years in Siam, and has, quite recently, published at Paris, a very valuable description of the country. But our English travellers and writers somewhat curtail these dimensions. According to the best of them, Mr. John Crawfurd, the Siamese empire extends from five degrees north, to about twenty-one degrees north ; and its longitude may be estimated at from ninety-eight degrees to one hundred and six degrees; its length thus being one hundred and sixty leagues, and its breadth eighty leagues, or, say, in round nuinbers, the whole country ineasures one thousand by five hundred English miles. Whether we take its

area, with Mr. Crawfurd, at two hundred thousand of our miles (square), or with Bishop Pallegoix, at considerably more, Siam, as far as regards size, must be ranked among the great empires of the extreme east.

The population bears no proportion to the size of the country. Neither Mr. Crawfurd nor Bishop Pallegoix can place it higher than six millions. Indeed, the first of these two writers seems to think that four millions would be nearer the mark. Vast tracts of country, once populous (to judge from the ruins or slight remnants of temples, pagodas, towns, and villages), are now wholly unpeopled except by monkeys and other wild animals. A Mohammedan prince of India, called by the early French writers the “King of Golconda,” sent an ambassador to Siam about two hundred years ago. This officer landed at Mergui (now in our possession), and

travelled through the immense wilderness which lies between that place and Yuthia, then the capital of Siam. One of the Siamese ministers afterwards rallied him on the small extent of his master's dominions in comparison with those of the great king. The Indian ambassador replied, that it was true his master's dominions were smaller, but they were inhabited by men, whereas the territories of his Siamese majesty, were, for the most part, peopled by monkeys!

" The checks to population,” says Mr. Crawfurd, “in a country of which the land is often fertile and always abundant, the communications generally easy, and the climate favourable, may be 'described at once to be comprised in barbarism and bad government."

The real Siamese, or Thai, do not form more than one-third of the entire population. The proper country of this race is the valley of the Me-nam, which, though not above sixty miles in breadth, is so long, that its area is calculated at twenty-two thousand square miles. Mixed with the Tahi, or grouped around them and dependent on their kings, are Chinese, Cochin-Chinese (more correctly called Anamese), Malays, Kambogians, Peguans, and the people of other tribes, or of distinct races. The Chinese, who, particularly of late years, have gone largely into emigration, in spite of the insane prohibition of their government, which would keep them at home to starve in an overpeopled country, form an important element in the population, being recently set down at one million five hundred thousand. If not the least vicious, they are certainly the most industrious and intelligent of all the people who dwell in Siam. The Malays, who are very fierce and turbulent, are reckoned at nearly one million ; the Kambogians at five hundred thousand; and the Peguans at fifty thousand. At the commencement of our late war in Burmah, many families, more in dread of the Burmese army than of our forces, migrated with their cattle and a few simple household goods, from Pegu into Siam, where they appear yet to remain ; as, from letters received from an English officer in the country, we find that the great want in our new annexation, is a want of people, and that many villages rather populous before the war, or in 1851, are now almost entirely deserted.

In the capital and principal seaports of Siam, there are about four thousand Christians of the Roman Church, chiefly the halfcaste, very degenerate descendants of the brave, energetic, old Portuguese; an adventurous, and most enterprising race, never to be named without wonder and respect, although their greatness in the “golden east was of so brief a duration.

POLITICAL DIVISION. Comprised within the wide geographical limits we have given, are, Siam Proper, on the Me-nam, and in the centre of all, the old kingdom of Ligor, and four small Malay states, Quedah, Patani, Galantan, and Tringanu, to the south ; to the west, a part of the kingdom of Kambogia, Muang-Korat, and several principalities or states occupied by a Lao population ; and to the north the old kingdoms of Lao, Xùng-Mai, Laphun, Lakhon, MuangPhre, Muang-Nan, Muang-Lom, and Luang-Phrapang. Several of these little states are merely tributary, and appear to be not very perfectly subjected to Siam. Every three years they are bound to present to the king trees made of gold and silver. In these fancy trees the fruit is sometimes represented by diamonds and other precious stones; but when not made by the Chinese immigrants, there is not much to admire in the art or workmanship. These tributary states also pay the suzerain lord tribute in kind, in copper, tin, ivory, wax, teakwood, &c., and are under the obligation of furnishing their contingent of troops in case of invasion, or, indeed, whenever the king of Siam may call upon them to reinforce his armies.

ASPECT OF THE COUNTRY. The great plain of Siam is bordered on the east and on the west by two chains of mountains, which descend from Southern China, and are ramifications or offshoots of the mighty Himalaya, which fringes our possessions in Hindostan. These mountains are from two thousand to six thousand feet in height; and thus it is always easy to escape from the scorching heat and dried-up vegetation of the low country, to a cool atmosphere and a verdant region, with cascades, lakes, and clear and rapid mountain streams. Those who have complained so much of the heat of the climate, have lived only in the valleys. The mountain chain to the east terminates in Kambogia, that to the west extends to the very extremity of the Malayan peninsula. To the north, these two chains approach each other rather closely, and throw out a multitude of little branches, which render the whole of Lao quite a hilly or mountainous country, abounding in mineral wealth, which, hitherto, has been but little drawn upon. The grand plain of Siam, the length of which is stated by Bishop Pallegoix at four hundred and fifty leagues, is watered by the great river Me-nam, which has its source in the mountains of China, and by many inferior tributary rivers, and a prodigious number of canals, bordered for the most part with tall growing bamboos, tamarinds, and other fruit-trees. For irrigation, or for water carriage, there seems little left to desire.

The great plain is also dotted, here and there, with groups of antique palm-trees, the resort of multitudes of water-fowl. The mountains, which rise in the form of an amphitheatre, are green and well wooded, and most of them are covered with almost inaccessible forests. The sea-coasts present the most picturesque and most varied sites and prospects; all along the seaward line, from distance to distance, islands or groups of islets, raise their heads above the ocean waves, being now close in shore, now in middle distance, and now on the line of the horizon. Most of these islands have a fertile soil and a rich vegetation; some are as beautiful as the best of the isles of Greece, or as any of the islands that lie off the Italian or Sicilian shores—Calypso-like regions, where the poet and painter might love to sojourn ; but they are for the most part quite uninhabited. Verily, a bountiful Providence has given us scope and verge enough! Men ought not to be cribbed and confined, and starved out for want of room, when such millions upon millions of acres of fertile land, under a fructifying and genial climate, lie untouched by the hand, untrodden by the foot of man,

PORTS.

On her maritime coasts Siam possesses a certain number of excellent harbours and safe roadsteads. But the commerce of the country may be said to be almost confined to Bang-kok, the capital, on the great Me-nam river. At the bottom of the Gulf of Siam are the mouths of this river, which traverses the whole of the empire, and would afford wonderful facilities for trade. There are three mouths, of which only the largest, lying to the east, is passable by European ships of any considerable burthen; and even this passage is somewhat impeded by sand-banks, which, when the tide is at its lowest, are scarcely three feet below the surface of the water ; but, with the aid of a pilot, and the advantage of the rising tide, an ordinary merchant-vessel may easily cross the bar, and get into the deep broad river, where every difficulty of navigation ceases. Ships of superior size may get across the bar by putting part of their cargoes into junks, and other country vessels. At the distance of only half a day's sail from the mouth of the river you reach Bang-kok, and cast anchor in the very midst of that city, in eight or ten fathom water.

It is rare to find a port so spacious, secure, and commodious ; for there is nothing to fear from impetuous currents, sandbanks, rocks,

« AnteriorContinuar »