Throughout its long history Phuket has always been a lure for peoples from beyond its shores. Archaeological findings show that the island was home to prehistoric human settlements. Polished and rough-stone axes have been unearthed. However, much evidence was destroyed during the mining boom making it impossible to patch together a history of Phuket’s earliest settlements.
It is known that the first permanent residents of Phuket were primitive tribes similar to the Semang pygmies that still exist today in Malaysia. Small tribes of these hunter-gatherers survived in the jungle by hunting and eating the bountiful fruits and roots found in the lush triple-canopy rainforest that then covered the entire island. Small groups of these Semang people are reported to have survived in the dense jungles of Phuket’s interior until finally being displaced in the mid-nineteenth century by tin miners.
The coastal areas of Phuket were populated by a nomadic seafaring people, the Chao Leh or “sea gypsies.” The Chao Leh traditionally “stand looped” or traveled from cove to cove, staying until the shellfish and other resources were depleted. They then moved on, allowing the cove to re-establish its former ecological balance before returning to repeat the cycle.
Described as “Saliteers” (pirates), the Chao Leh developed a rather unsavory reputation among the sea captains that plied the Straits of Malacca. The Chao Leh figured prominently in reports filed by early visitors of the area. Often they were described as a small but hardy people, who were expert sailors and who built small but sturdy ships that could weather the roughest seas. They moved from place to place like gypsies, encamping on the islands but never cultivating the soil. Piracy and fishing for pearls were their only means of support. They had no written language, practiced a religion based on animism, and were generally described as heathens of the first order.
Captain Hamilton, an early European trader, writes of the Chao Leh: “Between Mergul [now coastal Burma] and Jonkceylaon [Phuket] there are several good harbors for shipping, but the sea coast is very thin of inhabitants, because there are great numbers of Freebooters called Saliteers, who inhabit islands along the sea coast and they both rob and take people for slaves and transport them to the Sumatran kingdom of Atjeh [Indonesia] and there make sale of them and Jonkceylaon often feels the weight of their depredations.”
An early French Jesuit missionary believed it impossible to go by foot more than half a league from the coast without life and property being endangered by bandits. The fierce reputation of these Saliteers may explain why it took so long for permanent trading and mining settlements to be established on Phuket. Although threatened by development, Chao Leh villages can still be found along the coast of Phuket and neighboring islands.
The earliest known mention of the island of Phuket comes from the records of Ptolemy, a Greek geographer in the third century A.D. In the Geographica he mentions that when making a voyage from Suwannapum to the Malay Peninsula it was necessary to pass the cape of Jang Si Lang. At that time there were scattered settlements of traders from south India along the west coast of Thailand. A four-meter (thirteen-foot) stone statue of the Hindu god Vishnu was unearthed in the nearby province of Phang-Nga. It is now on display in the Thalang National Museum in Phuket, and is one of many examples of art and sculpture recovered from this period. These early traders are believed to have been trying to establish a trade in cotton cloth, spices and tin.
Another early reference was in the 12th century Kedah Annals of Malaysia which mentions Ujang Salang, Malay for “northernmost island.” As a result, Phuket was known as Junk Ceylon or Jonkceylaon on early European maps. These are thought to be a corruption of the Malay Tanjung Salang, meaning Cape Salang. When control of the island was wrested from the Sirivijaya Empire by King Ramkhamhaeng, the island was called Muang Talang (then the capital city on the island). Other early records refer to it as Bukit, Malay for “hill” or “mountain.” During the reign of King Rama V (1869-1910), the island was declared a monthon and given the official name of Bhuket. It became a province of Thailand with the beginning of the constitutional monarchy in 1933 and spelling changed to present-day Phuket in 1967.
Located on trading routes between India and China, the island was subjected to foreign influences long before many other parts of Thailand. Ships would anchor in the safe harbors of Phuket and wait for the northeast monsoon winds which would allow them to proceed across the Andaman Sea to the Indian subcontinent. As these ships were at times forced to wait weeks or even months for favorable winds it is believed that these early sailors were the original discoverers of tin on the island.
Tin ranks 49th in abundance of the elements in the earth’s crust. Its principle ore is the mineral cassiterite (or tinstone), SnO2. Tin is widely used in hundreds of industrial purposes throughout the world and is important in the production of the common alloys of bronze (tin and copper), solder (tin and lead), and type metal (for printing presses, tin, lead, and antimony), and pewter (tin and lead). In the form of tinplate, it is used in the manufacture of tin cans and as a protective coating for steel, copper and other metals. It is also used as an alloy with titanium in the aerospace industry and as an ingredient in toothpaste and some insecticides. Tin is rarely used by itself, though blocks of pure tin were used as currency and were considered as legal tender to pay taxes with in Phuket until the democratic revolution in 1932.
Tin was discovered several millennia ago in the Kathu (central) district of Phuket. The metal was easily extracted in seemingly endless quantities was easily extracted from veins near the surface. While no written records exist of when tin was first discovered and mined, cave drawings and recovered artwork and other artifacts go back well into the Stone Age. In ancient times people did not mine for tin. They simply waited for a heavy rain to wash away the topsoil and expose the layers of gravel bearing tin.
Thai-speaking peoples are generally thought to have originated in western China and moved into the southern province of Yunnan in the 1st or 2nd century BC. Following the collapse of the Han dynasty around 220 AD, Thai leaders founded the kingdom of Nan Chao, which endured until the Mongol conquest in 1253. Long before that time; however, groups of Thai people had begun a southward migration that throughout the following centuries led them far down the Malay Peninsula and as far east as Cambodia. The Thais, who cultivated wet rice, were attracted to the agricultural potential of the watery Chao Phraya basin. Here they were subject to Indian influences and adopted the Buddhist religion. By the end of the 12th century several Thai principalities united and began to challenge the Khmers whose Angkor (Cambodia) government was in rapid decline for control of central Thailand. Taking land from the Mons (Burmese) to the west and north, the Thais controlled an area they called ”Lan Ni Thai” (literally, ”million Thai rice fields”).
During the first millennium A.D. Phuket appears to have been a part of the Shivite Empire (known as the Tom Porn Ling in Thai) which was based on the Malay Peninsula. Later it was a part of the Srivichai and Siri Tahm Empires which ruled over twelve cities, of which Phuket was the eleventh. Based on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the Srivichai Empire had controlled the Malay Peninsula and vital trade routes between China and India since before the eighth century. During this period Phuket was known primarily by its emblem – the dog.
In 1238, King Si Intharathit declared full independence and established the Sukothai Kingdom (‘rising of happiness”). He expanded the kingdom”s sphere of influence not only at the expense of the Khmer Empire but by pushing deep into what is now southern Thailand, an area then controlled by the Srivichai Empire. During the reign of ‘King Ramkhamhaeng the Great” (1279-1300) the Thai army completed its conquest south as far as the present day location of Singapore. Thai control of Phuket began at this time and the island became associated with Takua-Pa in what is now Phang Nga province. Despite its small size Phuket became economically important due to its natural reserves of ivory, gems, natural pearls, hides, spices, firewood, caulk for ship hulls, and ambergris – the valuable slime emitted by whales which is used as a cloying agent in Western perfumes. Even then Phuket saw a diverse array of visitors step onto her shores, from Malay pirates to Arabian traders, Tamil merchants, Han dynasty traders and Portuguese explorers.
For well over two thousand years, traders from India and the Arab world and China had been plying the ocean trade routes through Southeast Asia. During the Thai conquest of this area in the 12th century; the amount of trade, and the degree of interdependence, between India, the kingdoms of Southeast Asia, and China and Japan was staggering. The pattern of exchange was for the Southeast Asia kingdoms to import cotton cloth from India, silver and copper from Japan, silk, porcelain and tea from China, in exchange for China’s exports of tin, teak, pepper, spices, aromatic woods, resins, rhinoceros horn, pearls, birds” nests, deerskin and sugar. The Chinese did not navigate directly to India, nor did Indian or Persian vessels go all the way to China. The southern Thailand cities of Chaiya (near Surat Thani) Nakorn Si Thammarat, Pattani and Songkhla were the halfway houses and served as huge trade bazaars where they met and exchanged their commodities.
To prevent disrupting the lucrative international trade, and to deter uprisings and rebellions by the conquered Muslim Malaysian states, King Ramkhamhaeng developed a policy of establishing tributary kingdoms on the borders of his kingdom. He allowed the hereditary sultans of the Malay states to remain in power, but he kept the Thai army nearby, and made the sultans pay substantial annual tribute. Forcing neighboring kingdoms to pay tribute became a major part of Thai foreign policy, which continued well into the eighteenth century. This policy no doubt greatly added to the national treasury but the lack of definite boundaries over the areas controlled by Thailand would lead to problems with both England and France during the colonial period of Southeast Asia.
About this time Thailand started paying tribute to the emperor in China. Some historians believe this was the price for not being invaded by Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes who did conquer parts of Burma, Viet Nam, and some Indonesian Islands to the south. Many Thai historians dispute the claim that Thailand ever paid tribute to China, they contend the kings of Thailand simply offered elaborate gifts on a regular basis to foster trade with the Chinese ruler. There is; however, no record of China feeling obliged to reciprocate in exchanging gifts of friendship, and Thailand continued paying tribute to China until being abolished during the reign of Rama IV 1851-68).
In southern Thailand, much of the international trade was controlled by Indian and Arab merchants who had settled there centuries before. Many had acquired great wealth and now curried favor with their new Thai rulers. Their knowledge and experience in the shipping and financial transactions — necessary to conduct trade with foreign countries — allowed some of them to attain high positions in the Thai government. As court ministers, these foreigners issued orders and decrees and conducted business in the name of the king. The Thais needed foreign experts, because up to that point they had been mostly rice farmers and on occasion warriors, not merchants, and did not possess the skills or technology needed to operate a fleet of ships to the far-flung ports of Asia.
Thai control of the mineral-rich west coast of southern Thailand, including Phuket, remained tenuous at first, in part because of the great distance involved, and the great resistance from the Chao Nam people and others who inhabited the area. Gradually, though, the Thai royal court organized the area and like a colonial power started siphoning off the wealth through a royal monopoly on mineral extraction and collecting a tax on the commerce of the area. By the end of the Sukothai period the leading source of revenue for the king of Siam were the royal tin mines on and around Phuket.. It was the wealth generated from tin and trade that financed the army that allowed Thailand to bind itself together as a nation and to be the dominant power in the area for the next four centuries. The first real innovation in tin mining was the use of open shafts for removing the tin ore from deposits that cropped out near the surface. A narrow shaft would be dug 20 to 40 feet deep through the soil into a vein of tin that was usually oblong or bell shaped. The tin-bearing gravel could then be hand-carried to the surface for processing. In spite of the back-breaking labor and danger of this type of mining the landscape was dotted with hundreds of open-shaft mine entrances.
The first Westerner known to visit Thailand was Marco Polo in 1288. His journal The Travels of Marco Polo describes the wonders of the Sukothai Kingdom but he used the Khmer word for Thailand, Siam. To the outside world Thailand continued to be known as ‘The Kingdom of Siam” until 1939 when it was officially changed. On his last return journey from China in 1294, Marco Polo is known to have traveled by ship through the Straits of Malacca and visited the nearby island of Sumatra. Entries in his journal mention stopping for provisions along the mainland of present day Thailand. He did not mention Jonkceylaon by name but it was a normal replenishment stop during this period, and on many maps of that time it was shown as a peninsula not an island. Marco Polo’s journals about exotic Asia and its treasures were to have a major impact on the history of Asia, as a wave of explorers and traders from the west would follow in his footsteps.
The Sukothai kings who followed King Ramkhamhaeng the Great were not warriors nor did they share his wisdom or vision. They spent most of their time battling amongst themselves over succession to the throne while events in other parts of the kingdom engulfed them. The Sukothai Kingdom lasted until being annexed by Ayutthaya in 1376.
Many Thais consider the Sukothai era as the birth of their nation and as a time when Thai language, culture, art, politics, and religion all flourished and the kingdom was at peace. After the death of King Ramkhamhaeng the then vassal kingdom of Pegu (Burma) rebelled and conquered Thailand’s west coast port cities of Mergui and Tenesserim. King Loetai (King Ramkhamhaeng’s son) apparently did not realize the strategic significance of these ports and made only a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to retake them. This allowed the young Thai Prince Bodi, who was the governor of the central Thailand district of Supanburi, an opportunity to fill this void. He did so by forming an army and capturing the ports back from the Burmese and adding them to his district.
Sailing ships of that day had only limited ability to sail against the wind. Because of the prevailing winds it could take a ship six months or more to sail the three thousand miles from India to Thailand. Pirates that plagued the Straits of Malacca and the monsoons that sweep across the Andaman Sea could be very dangerous for the merchant ships so careful planning was required to transport goods on a regular basis. Many Indian and Arab traders and the Europeans who followed chose to land at Mergui and travel by barge upriver to Tenesserim, which took them roughly half way across the peninsula. They would then portage their goods the rest of the way over the mountains and through the jungle to the Gulf of Thailand. This was not an easy journey, as was attested to by an early Jesuit priest who reported seeing a traveling companion ripped to pieces by a tiger. But it reduced the distance by half and lessened the travel time from India to a little over one month.
Control over this strategic trade route gave Prince Bodi access to wealth and foreign technology. The prince then moved to annex the central Thai port city of Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is situated on an island, the confluence of three rivers, the Chao Phya, the Lopburi, and the Pasak, being at a distance of about 110 kilometers or 70 miles upriver from the Gulf of Thailand. Controlling Ayutthaya effectively reduced the king’s control to the landlocked central and northern parts of Thailand. The prince was soon too powerful to be controlled by the rulers of Sukothai who were still preoccupied with internal problems. In 1350 Prince Bodi promoted himself to King Ramatibodi established his capital in Ayutthaya and ruled for nineteen years until his death in 1369.
Ayutthaya, which now controlled both the overland trade routes and sea lanes between India and China, quickly developed into the wealthiest and most important city in Southeast Asia. It was a thriving seaport with ships from all over the world, a center of culture, religion and commerce. Through an unbroken succession of thirty-four kings and covering a period of over four hundred years, the Ayutthaya period was the pinnacle of Thai power and influence. The kingdom extended across the whole of northern Thailand to include the (‘Million Elephant’) kingdom known today as Laos, most of Cambodia, part of Burma, and Malaysia.
Ayutthaya was built on trade, and the king and his ministers acquired great wealth. The king maintained a royal monopoly on the acquisition and trade of tin, lead, elephants, salt, betel nuts, scented woods (like sappanwood), deerskins, and pearls. Any merchant who wished to trade in these commodities or export them to India was obliged to deal with the king at his terms — under pain of death. To facilitate trade with India the king built and operated a royal fleet of ships based at Mergui. At first these ships were commanded and manned by Indians and Arabs, who were later supplanted by Europeans. One large and very profitable item of trade between Thailand and India was ‘elephants’. There were always wars in India, and in warfare of that day elephants had a tactical importance similar to that of tanks today. Up to thirty elephants at a time were loaded onto what were presumably very stout ships for the sixteen to twenty day journey to India. Trade was not limited to India. Ships from Ayutthaya in the mid 16th century annually shipped 2,000 tons of sappan wood a year to China, and 300,000 deerskins to Japan.
Trade with China increased dramatically after 1408 when the Chinese explorer and trader Zheng He arrived on a trading mission in Ayutthaya, with a large fleet of ships. In 1511, having taken the Port of Malacca the Portuguese were the first European power to arrive in Ayutthaya (via Cape Horn). They established an embassy and built trading posts on Phuket and at Mergui. The Thais quickly tired of overzealous attempts by the Portuguese to convert them to Christianity. The Thais wanted to trade for weapons and manufactured goods from the Portuguese but were not interested in adopting a new religion. The Portuguese may have failed to convert Thailand to Christianity, but they did have an almost spiritual impact on Thai food; the Portuguese are credited with introducing chilies to Thailand.
The gate was open and the Portuguese were soon followed by the other major European trading nations. Many of early European traders were clearly in awe of the capital city of Ayutthaya and described it as making the European cities of the day seem to be common villages in comparison. One report suggested that London should adopt the idea of erecting street lights on the roads at night as they did in Ayutthaya. Many of the traders were astonished to discover that even the common people of Ayutthaya lived in comfortable surroundings and were far better off than the ragged starving peasantry of Europe.
Reports on the living conditions of the rural Thais in places such as Phuket contrasted starkly with those about life in Ayutthaya and the royal court. Thailand then used a system of corvee (state labor). When males attained the height of 3 three cubits (about four feet) they were obligated to pay a tax or provide free labor to the king for a fixed period of time each year.
A French official with the embassy in Ayutthaya mentioned Phuket in a sixteenth-century report. He noted that islanders were granted the privilege of working their own tin mines, paying a royalty to the king. However, allowing corrupt officials to control the weighing and smelting of tin often rendered the mining of tin an unprofitable exercise for the miners and production was only a fraction of potential.
Another early French visitor filed the following report:
“The trade from this province [Phuket] is small, considering its potential; however numerous taxes, slavery and never-ending forced labor imposed on the people by the ruling class, coupled with the corruption and dishonesty of the government officials engulf and ruin whole families and render all work fruitless. Still despite the small size of the population, exports to the royal court include substantial quantities of black pepper, sugar, coffee, salted fish and sea slugs, turtle shells and elegant reed mats that are often exported to China.”
Once the strategic location and abundant wealth of Phuket were noted the race was on among the various European countries to gain the upper hand and control the trade with this vital island. In 1583, Portuguese merchants opened a tin-mining company in the island’s main town, Thalang. They brought guns, ironworks and other manufactured goods from Europe (and later opium from India) to Phuket and traded for tin, spices, ivory, pearls and ambergris (a grayish slime that is spewed by sick sperm whales and collected by fisherman). Ambergris was used in the production of perfume, and was so highly prized in Europe that its value was set as ounce for ounce the same as gold. Blocks of Phuket tin were used as currency and could be easily traded elsewhere in Asia for silks, spices, gems, and other products.
The Dutch took control of Java in 1626 forcing King Songdharma to sign a pact ceding monopoly of the Thalang tin trade to Dutch merchants. A trading post was established to harvest the area’s excellent tin resources. Although the northern and eastern areas of the island remained in Thai hands, the western and southern regions were administered by the Dutch. In 1641, they wrested control of Malacca from the Portuguese but a popular uprising in Thalang drove the Dutch from Phuket in 1667.
The French were the next western power to temporarily gain the upper hand in Thailand — thanks in part to an enterprising Greek named Constantine Phaulkon, who became a very high official in Siam under King Narai from 1675 to 1688. Phaulkon was an exceptional linguist and learned to speak Thai, Malay, and several European languages. Combining good business sense with his language skills, Phaulkon rose through the ranks of the Thai government to become the court minister responsible for all the trade in the kingdom — a position traditionally held by a wealthy Indian or Arab merchant. Determined to make as much of his position as possible, Phaulkon skillfully played one European power off the other enraging everyone but enriching himself and the king of Thailand. He feared the Dutch and English and used the French as a counterbalance. In 1681, a French medical missionary Brother Ren?e Charbonneau was named the Governor of Phuket.
Being appointed governor of Phuket was considered both very prestigious and very lucrative. The governor was allowed to keep a percentage of the tin produced and traditionally received all the revenue generated from the smelting of the tin ore on the island. In exchange for these concessions the governor was held responsible for the production of tin from the royal tin mines. Many of those promoted to governor would find the position to be much more dangerous and less profitable than commonly believed. Since most of the labor was conscripted in lieu of paying annual taxes, the miners had little incentive to produce. If the governor pushed the miners too hard they might rebel, as they had done against a South Indian merchant who had been appointed governor in 1650. The governor was killed by the miners along with a general massacre of most of the Indian residents on the island. If tin production fell below an acceptable level the Thai army may be sent to collect the shortfall. A European ship captain who was in Phuket on a trading mission on one such occasion wrote the following. “Elephants and cannon were employed to breach the defenses. The governor who was seriously wounded but alive was clamped in irons and the elephants were used to finish the destruction of the compound and the adjoining village huts, killing several score of villagers”.
A few years later in a controversial move Phaulkon appointed an Englishman Samuel White to the lucrative position of ‘Master of the Port’ in Mergui. Although foreigners had in the past and would again occupy positions of great influence in the Thai government, many of the royal court were deeply offended and resentful of Phaulkon. The fact that by most accounts Phaulkon exercised his authority prudently and produced substantial revenue for the kingdom did not lessen their displeasure. In 1688, when Phaulkon sanctioned the stationing of 600 French troops in Thailand, the Thais fearing a takeover forcefully expelled the French troops. Phaulkon was arrested and executed, and all of the European residents were taken hostage. French forces in Pondicherry (French colony in India) threatened to retaliate by occupying Phuket. General Desfarges arrived at Phuket with 332 men. They did not occupy the island but apparently looted a shipment of tin to compensate for losses suffered in the anti-foreign uprising. The most lasting result of the rebellion was that Thailand closed its borders, and it would be over a hundred years before another European country would be able to open official relations.
By the mid-eighteenth century Phuket had large state-of-the-art tin strip-mining operations. Mining technology evolved to allow surface excavation by power shovels, bucket-wheel excavators, and high-speed conveyors that could deliver huge amounts of sand and gravel-bearing ore to a mechanical system of screens, jigs, and sluices used to recover the tin ore. During the rainy season ample water use was available to feed huge high-pressure hydraulic nozzles that would break down and sluice away the gravel bank from an entire hillside.
The British became interested in Jonkceylaon around this time and the East India Company began to scout island as a possible strategic base to control the Malacca Straits. They sent Captain Francis Light to reconnoiter the island. In 1772, he set up a trading station at Ban Tha Rua, starting a close relationship with the Governor of Thalang. Although the British eventually chose Penang as their base, Captain Light married a Phuket girl and built a home on the island.
The Burmese launched a full-scale attack on Thailand, and in 1767, following a 4-year siege, Ayutthaya was captured and destroyed. Even though the Burmese had long considered themselves the true protectors of the Buddhist faith, they destroyed precious manuscripts, religious sculpture, and pulled Buddhist temples to the ground.
Burmese control of Thailand was shortly terminated in an uprising led by General Pya Taksin who forced the Burmese into retreat, and proclaimed himself king in 1769. King Taksin (1769-1782) established his royal capital in Thonburi a city across the Chao Phraya River from the present day capital of Bangkok. King Taksin then set about reining in a number of rebellious Thai princes and reasserting central control over the entire kingdom including the tributary kingdoms.
Not willing to give up without a fight, in 1785 the Burmese launched a raid by sea against Phuket, intending to capture as many people as possible and carry them off to slavery. Captain Francis Light discovered the Burmese fleet and sent word of the attack to Phuket. At the First Battle at Thalang Phuket forever earned its place in the annals of modern Thai history. Burmese invaders had attacked by land and sea and captured several cities on the west coast of Thailand. While preparing to defend his capital then located in the village of Thalang the governor died leaving the forces defending Phuket leaderless, out-manned and out-gunned. Realizing they were out numbered, Kunying Chan, the governor’s widow and her sister Mook disguised the island’s women as men. The great number of soldiers defending the island confused the Burmese, and cleverly devised attacks on their flanks and rear weakened their resolve. Believing the island had been reinforced from Bangkok and running short of food and provisions the Burmese decamped after a month-long siege. They sailed away on 13 March 1785. A grateful King Rama I awarded Chan with the title of Thao Thep Kasattri (Divine Lord of Kasattri), an honorific usually reserved for royalty. Her sister Mook was given the title of Thao Sri Suntorn.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ships of the British East India Company transiting the Straits of Malacca were under constant attack from pirates and slave traders. To stem this assault on the prestige of the British flag they sought one or more defensible islands with a good harbor to expand their empire and guard the northern entrance of the Straits of Malacca. Having lived on Jonkceylaon for many years, Captain Francis Light was well aware of the strategic advantages of Phuket and Penang, farther down the coast, and he recommended acquisition of both islands. A very energetic man who was fluent in both Thai and Malay, he held secret negotiations with both the Governor of Phuket and the Sultan of the Malay state of Kedah. The then governor of Phuket was under intense pressure to increase the production of tin. The governor sought to cede Phuket to the British in return for commercial concessions. The British had seized control of foreign territories on less pretense than this offered and they apparently seriously considered the proposal.
Captain Light also obtained an offer from the Sultan of the Malay State of Kedah to sell the British the island of Penang. Ultimately the company officials opted to establish only one colony and they felt that Penang Island offered the better harbor of the two. In 1786, Captain Light was off to found the British colony of Penang. At the time, the Sultan was also under pressure from the Thai Royal Court regarding payment of tribute to the Thai king and was seeking both money and protection from the British. In spite of the agreement reached with Captain Light the British never had any intention of going to war to protect the Sultan. After the island had become a colony a short period of hostilities erupted between the Sultan and the British during which it was determined that payment for the island would not be necessary after all.
On the death of King Taksin the crown passed to General Pya Chakri, founder of the present dynasty of Thai kings, who ruled (1782-1809) as Rama I. King Rama I moved the capital to its present location in Bangkok and fought another war with the Burmese who were again trying to wrest control of Siam.
In 1809 Phuket was again attacked by the Burmese (the famous sisters had both passed away by then), who wreaked such destruction on the island that many of the surviving residents fled to the mainland and settled around the present day location of Phang Na.
Reports filed by European traders who witnessed the Burmese attacks on Phuket read more like a black-comedy than a serious military campaign. One account has the Burmese savagely attacking Phuket in an orgy of killing and destruction then carrying off many survivors to be sold as slaves. When the Burmese tried to sail away, the wind blew their ships back upon the rocky coastline, smashing them, and the enraged residents of the island took their revenge on the hapless Burmese soldiers. One of the Burmese leaders was captured and sent to Bangkok where he was beheaded. The king Rama II was so enraged with the disruption of tin production, and the death and destruction wrecked upon the island he ordered the governor of Phuket be arrested and brought to Bangkok in chains and imprisoned as a warning to others.
The following year, during another attack by the Burmese, the Thai navy was sailing to the rescue, but a carelessly handled keg of gunpowder on one of the ships set off a sympathetic explosion that blew most of the Thai fleet out of the water. Meanwhile, the new governor had built stockades to defend the island and was holding off the attacking Burmese. The Burmese commander making little headway against these defenses devised a clever strategy and loaded all his forces back onto their ships and sailed away out of sight of the governor and his troops. The governor, believing the attack was over, celebrated his victory and let his people return to their homes. Several days later the Burmese returned unnoticed and captured the capital and sacked the island without organized resistance.
The Burmese proved adept at attacking Phuket but never managed to hold the island long enough to gain either an economic or a strategic benefit. The long period of bloody warfare with the Burmese had depleted the population of Phuket and virtually halted the production of tin. Production of tin fell from over 500 tons in 1784 to less than 20 tons in 1820. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and America had already sent the demand for tin skyrocketing, when a patent taken by a British inventor to use tinplated steel to manufacture containers to preserve food (tin cans) led to a shortage that forced the price of tin to record levels. The scramble to meet the worldwide demand for tin put tremendous pressure on the King Rama II to bring tin production back on line in Phuket and the surrounding provinces, or risk losing them.
Shortly after Rama III (1824-51) ascended the throne the British and Thai governments concluded a commercial treaty that officially re-opened Thailand to world commerce. One of the rights obtained in this agreement was unrestricted British access to the tin trade on Phuket. British influence in Thailand was increased; an indirect result of this agreement being that throughout the remainder of the 19th century the Burmese were too busy fending off the British to ever pose a threat to Thailand again. With British warships making life very short and very difficult for pirates operating in the Straits of Malacca, and with the threat of foreign invasion under control Phuket was ready to prosper. King Rama III ordered a new town built at Ban Tha Rua. New Thalang was established on the north part of the island as the new capital city of the island but its prominence was to be short-lived. Tin ore was soon discovered in large quantities at Ban Ket Ho (now Kathu) and Ban Thung Ka (now Amphoe Muang Phuket) in the southern part of Phuket. Settlement of what would become Phuket Town followed the tin belt and the new town became vassal to Thalang. The community’s importance rose and within a few decades dominated the island’s economic and political life.
Phuket, faced with a severe manpower shortage to work the tin mines, was forced to import workers. In 1825 Siam signed the Burney Treaty with the British, marking the beginning of direct trade with the ports of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore easing the immigration of Chinese. Thousands of Chinese miners came to labor in the tin mines; some came from nearby Malaysia and some from China itself. Diligent and hard-working, a lucky few would go on and become wealthy mine-owners themselves and build the splendid mansions that still grace the island. By the middle of the century an estimated 30,000 Chinese were employed by mines scattered in various locations all over the island. Malays also came and established a strong Muslim presence on the island. Many of the Muslim Malays came and settled in the Surin area where their descendants continue to work the farms and fish to the present day.
Rama III, concerned that the opium smoking then common among the miners from China would spread to the Thai population, banned the drug. Then, as today, the ban was largely ignored. In 1840 the King had a large quantity of opium seized from traders in Phuket and shipped to Bangkok. Beginning a tradition that exists periodically to this day, over 900 chests full of opium were publicly burned to show that drugs would not be tolerated. In what was undoubtedly a wise decision, it was also the last reported incident of this ritual taking place on the palace grounds. It was reported that a toxic but oddly pleasant aroma surrounded the palace grounds for most of the day.
The invention in 1839 by Briton Peter Durant of tin-coated metal alloy ushered in the era of high global demand for tin. Prior to 1853, tin-mining on Phuket consisted of panning for ores in rivers and streams using little manpower and simple instruments. Phuket Town’s governor ran sluice box and pegmatite mines. In the mid-1850’s large numbers of Chinese fleeing the Q’ing Dynasty’s oppressive rule settled in Kathu and later in Thung Ka.
King Mongkut (Rama IV reigned 1851-68) was the first of two successive outstanding rulers whose willingness to modernize and to establish friendly relations with the Western powers enabled their country to escape colonial conquest. Before succeeding his brother on the throne, Mongkut served 27 years as a Buddhist monk learned to speak English and studied Western history and science. As king, Rama IV introduced European-style education established the first printing press, and hired foreign experts to modernize Siam’s government and economy. The most controversial act during the reign of Rama IV was the signing of the Bowring Treaty under duress from Great Britain. This treaty granted extra-territoriality rights and other privileges to British citizens. In effect under this treaty the British were free to do as they pleased in Thailand. They could import previously banned items like opium and gold bullion, all royal monopolies were canceled, import and export duties were taxed at a flat rate of 3%, and no British citizen could be arrested and or tried in a Thai court. The treaty was much to the benefit of Britain and could never be canceled without her permission. Virtually every European power and America rushed to sign a similar treaty. The treaty was more economical than making Thailand a colony because all the benefits of a colony were obtained without any obligation to build roads, schools, establish postal services, build railroads, etc. Rama IV was a model for the king in Margaret Landon’s book ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, which was based on the experiences of an English governess at the Siamese court, and from which the musical comedy ‘The King and I’ was adapted.
Having been elevated to peer status with Thalang in 1853, in 1861 Phuket was made a vassal to Bangkok, with Thalang itself becoming its serf. The government imposed a flat tax for the entire town. Phuket became a boom town with all the attendant problems. For a few it offered a continuous wave of prosperity, but for most who labored under the control of the strict Chinese overlords it was a life of relentless toil. Dissatisfaction with working conditions and rivalry between two Chinese secret societies resulted in a miner’s rebellion in which pitched battles were fought between police and the miners. Eventually the emperor of China dispatched emissaries to broker a peace agreement and keep the mines in operation. After working for three to five years to pay off the debt incurred from their transportation from mainland China, a miner could earn the privilege of mining for themselves. The miner lost 25% of his ore after smelting to the royal tax, 12-15% as a fee for smelting controlled by the Chinese overlords, and owed an additional tax if he attempted to export the tin off the island. The only other option was to sell the tin to a Chinese trading company who had purchased export rights from the Thai Royal Court. A select few would prosper and became wealthy beyond imagination but it was the rare exception.
In 1867 Chinese miners fighting over water rights organized into bands called Ang Yi. The subsequent rebellion was stamped out in a government crackdown. Global tin prices slumped in 1876 and renewed conflicts between Ang Yi groups, unhappy with their wages and working conditions, began a bloody rampage of theft and murder across the island. The locals rallied to Wat Chalong, where the head monks gave shelter to the people. The monks, Luang Pho Chaem and Luang Pho Chuang, were reputed to be great healers in possession of supernatural powers. They convinced the miners to end their rampage and brought the uprising to a peaceful end. Statues of the two monks still stand in Wat Chalong and many locals come to the temple to pray to the two heroes for guidance and good luck.
King Chulalongkorn (Rama V reigned 1868-1910) ruled during the height of the onslaught of European colonization. Rama V is generally regarded as Thailand’s greatest ruler. He was the son of Rama IV, Siam’s first great modernizing monarch. Besides abolishing slavery and the ancient practice of prostration before the monarch, Chulalongkorn continued the policies of his father and introduced major economic, administrative, educational, and transportation-communications reforms. He continued the vigorous modernization efforts of his father and managed to maintain the country’s independence, albeit at considerable cost in territorial concessions.
In 1888 Chinese miners adopted gravel-pump and strip mining from Malaya. The practices led to widespread environmental degradation on Phuket. In 1891 the government set up the Department of Metallurgy and launched an overhaul of the mining concession system. Phraya Tipkosa (To Jotikasathira) was appointed to lead a tax reform. The following year an administrative reform sees Phuket become the center of a group of mining provinces called West Monthon. It was given control of Phang Nga, Krabi, Ranong, Trang, Satun and Takua-Pa. Thalang’s status was lowered to that of a district of Phuket and it’s governorship was aboblished.
In 1893 Thailand became embroiled in a boundary dispute with France, which was then the dominant power in Cochin China (Viet Nam), and Cambodia. The French dispatched warships to Bangkok and forced the Thais to yield Cambodia and all of Laos east of the Mekong River. Additional Thai territory, situated west of the Mekong, was acquired by France in 1904 and 1907. Thailand gave up control over four states in the Malay Peninsula to Great Britain in 1909.
West Monthon became Monthon Phuket in 1894 under direct control of the Interior Ministry. Phraya Tipkosa was named the first Regent of Phuket.
The beginning of the 20th century was a period of positive growth for Phuket. Tin mining boomed, and the very capable and benevolent governor Rasada Korsimbi helped diversify the island’s economy and the capital city of Phuket began its modern expansion. The town of Phuket grew rapidly, its streets lined with handsome buildings in the Sino-Portuguese style inspired by those of Malacca, and ships from all over the world called at its bustling port. Rama V was the first Thai king to visit Phuket dramatizing the island’s importance to the central government.
In 1901 Phraya Rasadanupradit Mahisarabhakdi (Kosimby na Ranong) was named Regent of Phuket. He is credited with leading the island to progress and prosperity. During his time many roads were built, the first Mining Act was promulgated and Chinese laborers were shipped in three times a year.
In 1903 missionary John Carrington wrote that Phuket is a place where wild elephants, rhinoceros, tiger, water buffalo, cattle, monkeys, multicolored birds and reptiles abound. That was, however, about to change. Two significant developments were about to bring major economic and environmental changes to the island – the first rubber trees and tin dredger.
In 1903 the first rubber trees were planted, beginning a major new industry that would transform Phuket’s agriculture and greatly add to its prosperity. Over forty percent of the island’s remaining rainforest was cut down and planted in rubber. Many large and profitable plantations were established and created another wave of immigration to fill the needs of this labor-intensive industry. Thai Muslims make up the vast majority of people working the rubber tree fields.
Hevea Brasiliensis, the rubber tree, is most productive within a narrow belt extending about 700 miles (1100 km) on either side of the equator. About 250 trees are planted per hectare (100/acre). The annual yield is about 450 kg/hectare (400 lb/acre) of dry crude rubber. In specially selected high-yield trees, the annual yield may range as high as 2225 kg/hectare (2000 lb/acre), and experimental trees that yield 3335 kg/hectare (3000 lb/acre) have been developed. Planted in straight rows, rubber trees dot the landscape of southern Thailand and Malaysia.
The method of collecting the latex from the trees on Phuket is basically the same as developed by Henry Nicholas Ridley at the Singapore Botanical Garden in 1877. The tappers begin work around two o’clock in the morning and continue until sunrise. A cut in the shape of a chevron is made through the bark of the tree extending from one-third to one-half of the trunk’s circumference. The latex exudes from the cut and is collected in a small cup. The amount of latex obtained on each tapping is about 1 fluid ounce (30 ml). Thereafter, a thin strip of bark is shaved from the bottom of the original cut to retap the tree, usually every other day. When the cuttings reach the ground, the bark is permitted to renew itself and a new tapping panel is started. The gathered latex is strained, diluted with water, and treated with acid to coagulate the particles of rubber then poured into a pan to harden. Once the latex turns solid, the sheets are turned through one mangle (roller) to stretch them and then another mangle which scores them with deep lines to squeeze out the liquid and make them pliable. A common sight on Phuket is what appear to be dirty white sheets the size of large floor mats hanging outside on a clothes line. These are the raw sheets of rubber being air dried for shipment.
The introduction of the first tin dredger in 1907 by Australian Captain Edward Miles dramatically transformed its coastline. This first dredger was launched by Prince Damrong at Thung Ka Bay and operated by Thungkha Harbor Ltd. Dredgers would later be adopted for inland mining. Several types of dredges were used locally. Hydraulic dredges sucked the ocean floor for the alluvial deposits of tin through a pipe, separated the tin and discharged the spoil on the shore through a floating pipeline. Elevator dredges employed an endless chain of small buckets to scrape the ocean floor and separate the tin ore from the rest of the spoil which was then discarded back into the sea. The coastline of Phuket and the surrounding ocean floor were dramatically altered by the dredging for tin.
In the extraction of tin, the ore is first ground and washed to remove all impurities and then roasted to oxidize the sulfides of iron and copper. After a second washing, the ore is reduced in a furnace; the molten tin that collects on the bottom is drawn off and molded into blocks known as block tin. Tin melts at 232?C (about 450? F), boils at about 2260? C (about 4100? F). Ordinary bar tin, when bent, issues a crackling sound called ‘tin cry’, caused by the friction of the tin crystals. Smelting tin ore produces small amounts of other valuable minerals usually tantalum (used in the aerospace industry), niobium and wolfram.
Thailand’s first Chinese school was founded in 1911 in Phuket. It was named the Hua Bun School in 1917 and later renamed the Phuket Thai Hua School.
In 1912 a group of Thai Military officers unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the monarchy. Military takeovers of the government and attempted takeovers have been a feature of Thai political life ever since. As a show of support for the Allies in World War I, Rama VI sent a small contingent of troops to France in 1918.
In 1927 Chatchai Landing was declared a communal grazing pasture. Three years later, the Prince’s Mine, Thailand’s first gravel-pump mine, opened. This method of mining devastates the top soil, leaving a deep impact on the environment.
In June 1932, during the reign of King Prajadhipok Rama VII (1893-1941), a small group of Thai military and political leaders organized a successful revolt against the government, until then an absolute monarchy. The insurgents, led by Pridi Phanomyong and Colonel Phibul Songgram, proclaimed a constitutional monarchy. In March 1935 Rama VII abdicated in favor of his nephew, Prince Ananda Mahidol (1924-46).
In 1932 Phuket was made a separate province. The new government was very nationalistic and became an active supporter of Japanese initiatives that promoted “Asia for Asians” as a foreign policy. In 1933, Thailand abstained from voting on a motion to condemn Japan for occupying Manchuria. One of its first parliamentary acts was to invalidate all treaties with foreign nations, and greatly enhance the budgets for the army and navy. In September 1939 Thailand declared its neutrality but continued to openly side with Japan. In June 1940 Thailand signed non-aggression pacts with Britain and France.
In September 1940 with Japanese encouragement and support, Phibul’s government made demands on occupied France, to return territory ceded in and after 1893. In November 1940 the Thai army attacked and occupied parts of Laos and Cambodia. The dispute was settled, with Japanese mediation, in January 1941. By the terms of the settlement, Thailand received part of western Cambodia and all of Laos west of the Mekong River. There was in Thailand great rejoicing in reasserting control over this territory and the relations between Japan and Thailand became increasingly friendly thereafter.
On 8 December 1941, a few hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan demanded the right to move troops across the country to the Malayan frontier. The Japanese landed at Bangkok and at several locations along the east coast of southern Thailand. The Thai army put up a nominal resistance for some six to eight hours before determining it would be impossible to defend the kingdom from the Japanese and granted them free passage. On 21 December 1941, Thailand and Japan signed an alliance with a secret protocol wherein Tokyo agreed to help Thailand get back territories lost and Thailand undertook to assist Japan in her war against Allied forces. Japan made a pledge to respect the sovereignty and independence of Thailand. On 25 January 1942 Thailand declared war on the United States and Great Britain.
The Thai version of history during WWII is largely at variance with the facts, and is usually summarized with a few very short sentences in Thai history books. Regarding war crimes committed in Thailand during the war there is near total amnesia. Thailand allowed the Japanese to move Allied POWs (prisoners of war) to central Thailand where they were forced to work on a railroad link with Burma (made famous with the movie ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’). At least 16,000 Allied POW’s, and 100,000 plus Asian workers were starved and worked to death on Thai soil and are buried outside of Kanchanaburi. In May 1944 Allied planes intensified the bombing campaign on Bangkok and targets throughout Thailand. In July 1944 with the war going badly for the Japanese, Phibul’s pro-Japanese government was voted out by the Thai parliament. Under the new prime minister, and with the support and leadership of pro-western Pridi Phanomyong considerable sympathy for the Allied cause developed among the Thai people.
After the war ended, Thailand was in an awkward position it that it was neither an occupied country nor a liberated one. Thailand was allowed to nullify its declaration of war against the United States, sparing Thailand the ignominy of becoming part of the defeated Axis alliance. Thailand over the objections of several neighboring countries and Britain avoided prosecution for war crimes. To prevent Thailand from gaining any territory from its duplicity during the war, Thailand was obliged to conclude a treaty with Great Britain and India, renouncing, among other things, its claims to Malayan and Burmese territory obtained during the war. In November 1946 Thailand reached an agreement with France providing for the return to France of the territory obtained in 1941.
A civilian government under Seni Pramoj led the nation between 1945 and 1946. Meanwhile, on June 9, 1946, King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) was killed under mysterious circumstances. A regency was appointed to rule until his brother (the current king) and successor, King Rama IX, came of age. Thailand was admitted to the United Nations on 15 December 1946, becoming the 55th member.
In 1947 Thai Airways began a service to Phuket. That same year, a bloodless military coup brought General Phibul Songgram back to power. Except for a brief period early in 1948, Phibul retained control of the government until 1957. His regime, essentially a dictatorship, based its foreign policy on maintaining close relations with the U.S. and Great Britain. On 29 November 1951, a group of army officers seized control of the government in a coup d’?tat and reestablished the authoritarian constitution of 1932. Phibul was retained as premier.
In September 1957, Phibul’s government was overthrown by a military coup d’?tat led by General Sarit Thanarat, commander in chief of the Thai armed forces. A coalition government was formed in January 1958 under the premiership of General Thanom Kittikachorn. Another coup in October 1958, again headed by General Sarit, overthrew the General Thanom government. The constitution was suspended, a state of martial law was proclaimed, and all political parties were banned. A permanent constitution was promulgated in June 1968 (it lasted a little over three years) and parliamentary elections were held in February 1969. In November 1971 the military, led by General Thanom, abolished the new constitution and dissolved Parliament. In December 1972 a new constitution was proclaimed.
Although Phuket regularly contributed more than any other province to the national revenue with its tin mines and rubber plantations, for many years it remained an obscure and isolated southern province. Roads in southern Thailand were scarce, infested with gangsters, and often impassable during the rainy season. The only reliable way of getting to or from the island was by boat. In the mid-1960s a major road building program, the opening of regular air service, and most of all the opening of the Sarasin Bridge on 7 July 1967, connecting the island with the mainland dramatically changed this state of affairs. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a number of hotels built on the island to serve the tourist trade. With the mining industry in rapid decline by 1972 tourism became the new leading industry. The following year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) drew up a master plan for Phuket’s tourism development, eventually opening a local office in 1977.
In the mid-1970s Newsweek magazine, in a special feature, listed Phuket as a destination for travelers seeking something special and undiscovered. Within a short time, people begun flocking to Phuket’s splendid west-coast beaches and a significant new industry was born.
The Royal Forestry Department named Khao Phra Teaw Forest a non-hunting zone on 8 July 1980, one of the first efforts to curb rampant development of the island’s few remaining pristine areas. The following year, Sirinart National Park was created out of the highland, sea-pine and hill forest as well as Nai Yang and Nai Ton beaches.
Phuket’s mining industry came to an end with the 24 June 1986, arson of the Tantalum plant. The focus on tourism increased and the Visit Thailand Year in 1987 saw the island’s growth accelerate. In 1990 Phuket was named a center of international travel. The island began grappling with the dilemma of how to sustain growth without destroying the environment that makes Phuket so desirable. In 1992 it was declared a pollution control and environmental protection zone with special measures imposed. There were plans by the National Economic and Social Development Board to make Phuket a special administrative zone but these were abolished in the wake of the Thai economy’s complete collapse in 1997. The stock market crashed as the true amount of borrowed money invested in unproductive segments of the economy became apparent and the currency lost over half of its value in just six months.
Without a master plan to channel the growth and to develop the island into an integrated tourist destination much of Phuket’s recent growth has been haphazard and counterproductive. Traditionally, it has been the awesome beauty of Phuket the white sandy beaches, the balmy air, and warm sea that has been the principal attraction to the island, but the current trend seems to favor the continued development of glitzy and expensive tourist resorts that require massive environmental changes to the island.
On 26 December 2004, Phuket and other nearby areas on Thailand’s western coast suffered extensive damage when they were struck by a tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The waves destroyed several highly populated areas in the region, killing as many as 5,300 people nationwide, and tens of thousands more throughout the wider Asian region. As many as 250 people were reported dead in Phuket, including foreign tourists. ITN journalist John Irvine and his family survived the tsunami, despite being washed 50 meters inland. Almost all the major beaches on the west coast, especially Patong, Karon and Kata, sustained major damage, with some damage also being caused to resorts and villages on the island’s southern beaches.
However, by February 2005 most undamaged resorts were back in business, and throughout 2005 and 2006 life slowly returned to normal for the people of Phuket. By May 2007, following strenuous recovery programs, there was little obvious tsunami damage remaining other than at more remote beaches, and the tourist industry which drives the Phuket economy appeared to have almost fully recovered despite occasional setbacks such as outbreaks of diseases in 2005 and 2009, an airliner crash in 2006, a political coup in 2007, and seizure of the airport by anti-government protesters in 2008. Time and again, Phuket has proven that it can weather any temporary downturn that would cripple less-resilient locales.
last revised August 2009
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