A History of Phuket: “An Absolute Must Read”

Phuket

Review by Alasdair Forbes

First, a declaration of interest: I edited an early version of Colin Mackay’s A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region. I thought then that it was an excellent piece of work. The final product is just plain superb. Mackay spent five or six years researching the book, unearthing memoirs, official documents, love letters and even an epic poem, in Thai, English, Dutch, Russian, German, Portuguese, French, Danish, Malay and more languages. He has had to travel across half the globe to find them. He is particularly proud of the bibliography – more than 400 sources are listed – which he believes is the “really valuable thing about this book”. He still sees it primarily as a scholarly academic work – and it is that. But it is much more. It’s a rollicking, swashbuckling read, full of pirates, the roar of guns, smuggling and skullduggery and a huge cast of characters, most of whom are quite dreadful people.

If at times it reads like a novel, the structure is absolutely conventional, starting with prehistory and moving through 38 chapters to modern times. This is a history book, so there are no plot twists. It doesn’t need them anyway. In his preface Mackay quotes Immanual Kant: “From the crooked timbers of humanity no straight thing shall come.” The figures in the history of the island, some of them carved from very crooked timber indeed, provide all the twists one could wish for.

Mackay has unearthed parts of history that were hitherto unknown, and thrown light on others that were ignored in much of official history and unknown to most people. For example, there was the aftermath of the Battle of Thalang; the island left devastated and depopulated for years, or the Burmese invasion 25 years later, when the fort in Thalang that was so valiantly defended by the Heroines, Chan and Mook, was utterly destroyed and the island again made uninhabitable. He quotes a Malay saga which tells how, after that victory, the Burmese slaughtered or carried off the population and the livestock,
and even “… uprooted all the chili plants … heaped them together and burnt them…” And the Burmese came back again in 1818.

He explains how various colonial powers coveted the island and attempted to take it, how Phuket once had a French governor (the French built the famed fort), and how the British East Indian Company plotted for years to take it before finally settling on Penang. The last colonial claim on Phuket was just 68 years ago, when Britain demanded the entire west coast of peninsular Thailand – including the island – as part of reparations for Bangkok siding with Japan in World War II. (The Americans told London not to be silly).

Phuket’s strategic desirability – as a base on the east coast of the Bay of Bengal; as a source of tin (found lying around on the ground), ambergris (found lying around on the beaches), tigers, elephants and many other animals that could be turned into valuable products; and as a convenient base for crossing the Isthmus of Kra and from there trading with China – resulted in it being fought over again and again. Usually those who suffered most were the islanders. 

The history itself is colourful and violent enough to make good reading, but what raises this book a very significant notch is the way it’s told. Mackay, as anyone who knows him will attest, is a delightful and robust raconteur. A History of Phuket is his finest yarn so far. It’s not just the stories he tells – it’s the way he tells ’em. For example, there’s a chapter on the introduction of rubber. Rubber trees were native to the Amazon rainforest and anyone found smuggling rubber seeds out of Brazil faced the death penalty. A British character called Henry Wickham, however, managed to smuggle some seeds out. Mackay writes, “The romantic story goes that he hid them in the heels of his shoes, but given that a rubber seed is roughly the size of a large grape, and that he brought our some 70,000 seeds, he must have worn a suspiciously colossal pair of shoes as he walked past the Brazilian port guards.”

There are many tales that are just plain funny in their own right, such as the attempted annexation of Phuket by a French admiral in the late 17th Century. His small fleet reached Phuket by trial and error (they had to ask the way of local people on other islands) to find no one home – the Phuketians had done their usual trick of running away or hiding whenever they spotted a threatening sail. The French sat at anchor for months. Finally a resupply ship was sent, but after sailing around in circles, failed to find the fleet, and went back home again to Pondicherry in India. The invasion fleet, after six months of sitting “… on their hot dank ships through the rainy season with no one to attack” gave up and went back to India.

More modern history is no less fascinating. Phuket was the scene of naval action in World War II. The last successful kamikaze attack took place off that most popular sunset spot, Cape Phrom Thep, resulting in the sinking of HMS Vestal, now a popular dive site. The book is broad in its sweep, taking in events in Keddah, Penang, Ayutthaya, Bangkok and across the world, all of which informed or influenced events on Phuket. This broad approach makes the history of this island so much more easy to grasp.

This is a fine book, and a must-read for anyone on the island who has ever ventured outside the hallowed halls of Bangla Rd. Buy it.

Review originally posted in The Phuket News