Auguste Pavie, the French Charge d’Affaires in Bangkok, was a man with a mission. As he saw it, France’s growing empire in Indochina, currently centred on Vietnam, would be greatly enhanced if Siam were somehow incorporated.
As those charged with administering the Indochinese empire looked westward they saw an opportunity to take Laos out from under Siamese overlordship and, at the same time, precipitate a confrontation which might allow Siam itself to fall into French hands. Their only concern was the stance which might be taken by Britain.
The pretext for the ensuing crisis came when France claimed the eastern boundary of their occupied state of Annam (Vietnam) was marked by the Mekong River. Siam countered and said their eastern border was a ‘chain of mountains parallel to the seaboard.’
On 14 March, Auguste Pavie was instructed to demand Siam’s immediate withdrawal from the left bank of the Mekong and seek compensation for French subjects whom France claimed had suffered damages. At the time, the French gunboat Le Lutin was anchored in Bangkok, as a visible threat.
To reach the Bangkok roadstead it is necessary for vessels to sail into the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, and as early as the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824) strategists were aware of the importance of the seaport of Samut Prakan, situated at the entrance to the river on the Gulf of Thailand.
In 1819, the king, in conflict with Vietnam and worried about a possible seaborne attack, ordered the construction of six forts in the area around Paknam. Three of the forts were completed over the next three years; the remainder were finished during the reign of King Rama III.
To further strengthen the seaward defences, the Phra Chulachomklao Fort was constructed on the west side of the Chao Phraya River at the entrance to the estuary, and designed to command the river mouth and for a distance of two kilometres upriver. Commanded by a Danish captain, the Phra Chulachomklao Fort was only completed in April 1893.
On 3 April a French military column reached Stung Treng, on the Cambodian side of the Mekong. The 14-man Siamese post at Stung Treng retreated without firing a shot. Two days later the French took possession of nearby Kong island.
At the same time, King Chulalongkorn made a decision to fight rather than meekly submit to the French and issued orders for three new forts to be built on the Chao Phraya. He also hoped to purchase three warships and expand the army, sending forces to bolster the garrison at the gulf port of Chantaburi (Chantaboon).
Pavie, alarmed by these preparations, advised an immediate resolution of the crisis by way of military action. The French Foreign Minister, Jules Develle, ordered Admiral Edgar Humann, the commander of the French Far Eastern Naval Division, to concentrate his nine warships off Saigon. Pavie considered this presented the ideal moment to turn Siam into a French protectorate. As he noted, if Siam resisted, ‘A protectorate over Siam will be our compensation. If we neglect such an opportunity now, will we ever be offered another to round off our Indochinese empire?’
The stakes increased when the Thais regained Kong island, capturing a French captain. Then, the French Inspector of the Civil Guard was ambushed and killed. France claimed he had been murdered.
In June, the French sent a special envoy to Bangkok with instructions to withdraw their entire diplomatic mission and, with the help of the governor-general of Indochina, send warships to blockade the mouth of the Chao Phraya if Siam refused to recognise the French claim to the left bank of the Mekong and pay compensation for a series of incidents stretching back to 1891.
At the same time, British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery sent two gunboats to Bangkok, ostensibly to provide protection to British citizens. In reality, as Lord Kimberley, the Secretary of State for India, wrote privately to Rosebery, sending gunboats was ‘the natural mode of demonstrating…’
On 10 July, France informed the Siamese Foreign Minister, Prince Devawongse, the French gunboats Inconstant and Comete would, in accordance with Article 15 of the Franco-Thai Treaty of 1856, cross the bar and anchor at Paknam before proceeding to Bangkok. Prince Devawongse issued a protest at this and asked that further negotiations take place.
Although Pavie ostensibly agreed he sent Admiral Humann orders for the warships to proceed to Bangkok. The gunboats, with the Jean Baptiste Say, a small French merchant ship as a pilot, sailed towards the entrance of the Chao Phraya on 13 July.
Over the preceding years King Chulalongkorn had spent some time strengthening his navy, bringing in foreign expertise. At least 25 Danish officers were then serving in the Siamese navy and the commander at Paknam was Vice Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu. He later became the commander-in-chief of the Royal Siamese Navy.
Siam’s not-so-secret weapon were seven British-made Armstrong six-inch ‘disappearing’ guns at the Chulachomklao Fort. These were state-of-the-art cannons loaded while hidden behind bunkers but popped up hydraulically to fire. The guns in both Phra Chulachomklao Fort and Phissuasamut Fort opened fire on the French. Siamese gunboats also joined the assault.
The Jean Baptiste Say was run aground and her crew made prisoner while the Siamese steel cruiser Makut Rajah Kumar suffered damage.
The Inconstant and Comete made it through the gauntlet, suffering some damage and casualties, with three sailors killed.
They sailed up to anchor opposite the French Legation where they allegedly trained their guns on the Royal Palace. The Siamese lost between 15 and 25 dead in the battle.
The delightfully-named Walter Christmas, who held the rank of captain, later described the action, saying it was ‘just a hodgepodge of hopeless ships, useless guns, and incompetent crews, commanded by men who, however stout and resourceful in other fields, for the most part were without knowledge in military skills.’ Christmas claimed he fired his cannon four times, but when he tried to fire a fifth time, ‘it collapsed’.
On 20 July, France issued an ultimatum – with a 48-hour deadline – demanding Siam formally recognise the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong and the islands in the Mekong; withdraw Siamese troops from the left bank within one month; pay compensation for damage inflicted on French troops and warships; punish Siamese offenders and pay compensation to the families of French subjects adversely affected; pay an indemnity of two million francs to French subjects for various claims and deposit the sum of three million francs as a guarantee Siam would abide by these demands.
The French had also occupied Koh Si Chang, opposite Sri Racha, and on 22 July Admiral Humann arrived to oversee future operations.
Siam was forced to accept the French ultimatum but asked that the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong be limited to the 18th Parallel. Siam also sought the joint use of the islands in the Mekong. The French rejected the Siamese proposals, withdrew their consular officers from Bangkok, and blockaded the Gulf of Thailand, using Koh Si Chang as their headquarters.
The incident caused relations between France and Britain to grow tense, although the British were unwilling to risk a war over the independence of Siam, despite the tacit support of Germany. Instead, the British advised Siam to accede to French demands to avoid an all-out conflict. Siam conceded and on 3 August the French lifted their blockade.
Siam subsequently signed a treaty with France on 3 October 1893. Siam renounced her claim to the left bank of the Mekong as well as the islands in the river; agreed not to construct any fortifications or military establishment within a 40-kilometre radius of the right bank of the Mekong and gave the French the right to establish consulates wherever it deemed appropriate, (such as Khorat and Nan). The French also demanded the right to occupy Chantaburi until Siam complied with all the terms of the treaty.
The compensation demanded by France amounted to three million francs and paid for out of Siam’s foreign reserves as well as a contribution by King Chulalongkorn and some of his relatives. The silver was delivered to the Le Lutin.
On 4 December, an Anglo-French agreement was signed which ostensibly guaranteed Siamese independence. France and Britain agreed to maintain the region as a neutral zone using the Mekong as a boundary line. In a subsequent declaration, the British and French agreed not to send troops to the region between the Mekong and the Tenasserim Mountains without the prior consent of the other party and stated French and British nationals residing in the region would not receive special privileges or benefits which nationals of the other party did not receive.
The agreement, reached without the involvement of Siam, basically meant neither Britain nor France would impinge upon Siamese sovereignty without the prior consent of the other party. It in no way guaranteed Siamese independence, merely indicating the British and French were not prepared to go to war over Siam.
In January 1896, a second Anglo-French agreement regarding Siam was signed. The British abandoned their claims to any territory east of the Mekong, thereby making the river the official border between Laos and Burma. In return, the French agreed to accept the independence of Siam.
Cementing relations further with the British, Siam signed a secret agreement with Britain in April 1897 whereby Siam agreed not to cede any territory or rights south of the 11th Parallel on the Malay Peninsula without prior British consent. In return, Britain promised to support Siam against any attempts by a third power to assume control in the Malay Peninsula.
The French continued to occupy Chantaburi until 7 October 1902 when an agreement was signed with Siam ceding two southern Lao provinces. The agreement was not ratified by the French parliament and French troops occupied Trat.
The seven Armstrong guns that participated in the action against the French in 1893 were still in working order 105 years later when they fired a seven-gun salute to celebrate the fort’s anniversary. Since the Paknam Incident, they have never fired a shot in anger.