Of all the obscure and yet impossibly implausible Greeks that have graced the pages of history, perhaps the most alluring is Constance Hierax, or Phaulkon – literally ‘the Falcon’ – who expeditiously ascended through the ranks of King Narai’s court to become the Prime Minister of Siam, the precursor kingdom to modern day Thailand.
Consistently vilified throughout history by scholars and contemporary authors, Phaulkon was given such eccentric characterizations as adventurer, trader, pirate, cavalier, smuggler and a rogue, who set forth to manipulate others solely to parlay political and economic supremacy.
However, it is only upon careful examination and assessment of the primary sources that the real Phaulkon emerges: a self-educated linguist and entrepreneur who became a diplomat when he was abruptly thrust into the political arena.
A pawn of the establishment, he was manipulated by “interlopers” or private traders and an astute king, who was desperately trying to keep his nation’s autonomy by pitting foreign usurpers against one another while enacting measures to ensure the strength and longevity of his country from neighbouring states.
Constance Phaulkon may not have been the first outsider to obtain a position of prominence in Siam in his era, but he was able to achieve a position of prominence that was to be coveted but never duplicated.
At the pinnacle of his power, he was in control of a nation. Power came with a price: loneliness and isolation from those whom he suppressed in the political arena.
The obscure Constantine Hierax was born in Cephalonia in 1647, in a family of impeccable pedigree.
His father was the son of the governor of Cephalonia, and his mother’s forebears governed the island under the Republic of Venice.
Family lineage notwithstanding, in 1660 at age 13, with no formal training, he left home in search of a better life, taking up with an English master where he completed several voyages prior to migrating from the Mediterranean to England.
In England he soon became immersed in the heady politics of Restoration England, studying the English language and enlisting in Prince Rupert’s fleet against the Dutch. Subsequently, he sailed to India under another master who changed his name from Hierax to “Falcon,” the English equivalent.
Feeling a strong attachment to the Far East, upon his return to England he decided to return and make his fortune as a trader.
Consequently, he signed on as an assistant gunner on the Hopewell, bound for Batam in 1669 in order to obtain passage back to The East Indies. Arriving in Batam, he enlisted his services with the British East India Company where he was assigned as a junior clerk.
Here he picked up yet another language, Malay, in addition to Siamese, English, Greek, Latin and Portuguese.
Phaulkon’s first big break came on 29 May 1678 at a birthday party for King Charles II of England. A gunner, while loading a cannon, accidentally set fire to the gunpowder that spread to the well-stocked powder magazine nearby. When everyone fled, he alone entered the magazine, removing the open cask of gunpowder, thereby saving the magazine and the factory.
For his heroism, he was given a reward of one thousand crowns. Having never before set his eyes on such a princely sum, he saw this as an opportunity to make his fortune.
He resigned his post with the East India Company in Batam and invested in a modest vessel and cargo that he intended to sell in Aceh.
It was at this point that his fortunes decidedly changed.
The city of Singora had rebelled against Siamese rule, and Phaulkon decided to make a profit by supplying the rebels in that town with arms and provisions. However, during the voyage a storm broke out and his boat was broken into pieces by the violent sea off the cost of Ligor.
This unfortunate experience was observed by some locals, and the Siamese authorities were quickly notified.
The Governor caught wind of what was going on and interrogated Phaulkon and his crew. Phaulkon, who had by this time mastered the Siamese language, replied to the governor in his mother tongue.
He surprised the governor and was able to talk his way out of receiving any punishment by stating he was working for the East India Company and was bringing supplies to various towns in Siam when the ship was wrecked.
To avoid further suspicion from the Siamese that he was trading outside the Company and carrying contraband goods, Phaulkon offered his services to the Barcalon, or foreign minister, in 1680, to serve as an interpreter between himself and the English.
Acquitting himself in his position admirably, he soon earned the trust of the king. After the death of the king’s chief counsellor, the Iranian Aqa Muhammad, the king foiled an attempt by the Iranians at his court to dethrone him and replace him with his brother.
Fearing the Iranians, the king turned to Phaulkon to fill the void in his administration. However, by degree of momentum, raised him in the space of eight years to the highest credit and authority.
He was put at the head of the finances of the Kingdom, and also the direction of the King’s household. Almost all public affairs of the most important concern were determined by his advice, and whoever had anything to solicit was required to apply to him.
Although at the zenith of his power in 1685 he was in complete control of the country, he refused to accept official positions, rightly fearing to create more enemies than he already had.
He placed non-entities in government posts and held all the power in his hands. The Abbe De Choisy in his memoirs states; “Mr. Constance, though neither Phra Klang, nor prime minister possessed all their functions…”
In the mid 1680s, King Narai had Phaulkon turn to the French in the hope of using them to counteract the Dutch influence in Siam. Initially the idea had merit, since the Dutch and the French were enemies in Europe.
The credit for opening up the relations between Siam and France did not go to Phaulkon, but to the French Catholic missionaries whose main aim was to propagate Roman Catholicism in Annam, Tonkin, and China. Narai sent two embassies to France with the hopes of securing their “friendship.” The first embassy was shipwrecked, and the second embassy was entrusted with the duty of inviting France to send an embassy to Siam with the idea of concluding a treaty of friendship. Louis XIV sent an embassy to Siam in hopes of converting Narai to Christianity.
While the French embassy itself was written off as a failure, it represented a great success for Phaulkon and Siam. For his master, he had obtained the coveted alliance with France without surrendering anything more than vague offers for the missionaries, which were never published.
Phaulkon’s closeness to the king naturally earned him the envy of some members of the royal court, which would eventually prove to be his undoing. When King Narai became terminally ill, a rumour spread that Phaulkon wanted to use the designated heir, Phra Pui, as a puppet and actually become ruler himself.
As unlikely as this was, it provided an excuse for Pra Phetracha, the foster brother of Narai, aided by the Durch enemies of Phaulkon to stage a coup d’etat, the 1688 Siamese revolution. Without the king’s knowledge, both Phaulkon and his followers, as well as the royal heir, were arrested and executed on June 5, 1688 in Lopburi. When King Narai learned what had happened, he was furious, but was too weak to take any action. Narai died several days later, virtually a prisoner in his own palace. Phetracha then proclaimed himself the new king of Siam and began a xenophobic regime which expelled almost all foreigners from the kingdom.
Despite being a man of outstanding qualities, Phaulkon is considered a failure in conventional historiography. Orientalising historians emphasize his Greek background, possessing “all of their negative behaviour traits and vices,” as one stated, despite having limited contact with Greece after the age of thirteen, save for a few letters from his mother and bottles of Greek wine which he lavishly entertained.
Yet the truth is much different. Phaulkon ably ran the kingdom for his master and was able to deftly skit past the imperialistic ambitions of the European powers. Siam during his time was enlightened, tolerant, pluralistic and independent.
Phaulkon’s legacy can be felt in the careers of the Europeans who also raise to positions of power in Asia.
In Japan, Will Adams, hero of the famous novel Shogun by James Clavell, also received an official title coupled with the corresponding influence, but without ever reaching the height of power as Phaulkon.
The Portuguese adventurer Philip de Brito was the first to trace the route toward absolute power in Burma, who after winning over the king of Arakan, betrayed him.
No-one however, has been as reviled and then forgotten as the Falcon, Constantine Hierax.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.