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Book Review


Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xvii + 325. Appendix, Glossary, Notes on Some Key Sources, References and Index. $34.99 (paper).


     This latest offering from Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit is an historical feast. As an addition to their numerous other works that include the general A History of Thailand that I assign for Modern Southeast Asia students, the present volume has been long awaited by historians of the region, as well as the country. For too long pre-modern Siamese history has been given short shrift in favor of the origins and growth of the present Chakri dynasty and the modern era. Baker and Phongpaichit have given the needed volume plus new analytic insights based on original research and the work of other scholars. Their final product re-visions important questions and assumptions about early Siamese history and society that point to new directions.

     The introductory chapter, "Before Ayutthaya," reviews such topics as early human settlements, influences from India and China, religion and trade patterns. However, the chapter's true starting point is its discussion of the early settlement of Sukhothai on the northern side of the Chaophraya River Plain. In the late thirteenth century, this early settlement broke from Khmer dominance to start a new regime.

     The second chapter, "Ayutthaya Rising," then examines the significant growth of this nascent Tai state which was accelerated by incorporating Sukhothai and other northern cities. Here the authors reject earlier interpretations of military conquest in favor of a more benign process of gradual political incorporation of these cities and their inhabitants. By the sixteenth century this process was quite advanced with administrative structures knitting formerly distinct regions into one. Along with governmental developments, the merger of the two large regions entailed a contestation between the ruling elites of both areas and engendered cultural debates, such as the appropriate language to be spoken and even the patterns of Buddhist religiosity to be followed.

     Another aspect of Ayutthaya's story was its strength as a port city on the Chaophraya River with access to the people and products up river and easy passage south to the open waters of Southeast Asia. Ayutthaya's strong role in regional commerce began with the decline of Srivijaya, the maritime empire of island Southeast Asia. As well, the kingdom maintained an active commercial contact with China, where the Tai kingdom was referred to as Xian. Ayutthaya's importance as a trade center would tip the balance in its favor over the northern cities and its ruling families and make Ayutthaya a center for regional commerce.

     Ayutthaya's relatively peaceful rise was shattered for two centuries beginning in the late fourteenth century as detailed in the third chapter. Ayutthaya fit into a mainland Southeast Asian pattern seen among the Burmese and the Khmer. Conflicts began as local affairs, but as states grew larger and stronger, the clashes became more widespread, finally developing into wars between kingdoms by the mid-decades of the 1500s. This was an era of "Elephants, Guns and Mercenaries" that impacted the cultural life of the times and led to a regimentation of society.

     The decline of violence by the 1600s as described in the fourth chapter, "Peace and Commerce," saw Ayutthaya further develop into one of Asia's major trade centers. Links with China remained strong, despite a blip during the Ming-Qing dynastic transition, but the entrance of European traders, as well as an active trade with Tokugawa Japan and "Moors" from the Middle East, also benefited Ayutthaya. The era's wealth transformed the contenders in periodic struggles for succession as reigning monarch from warriors to court nobles. This new pattern then ended in 1688 with the rise of a non-royal blooded successor to the throne with close ties to the Buddhist Sangha and the support of the general population. This political event also marked the loss of influence by both British and French merchants. Instead, the new regime renewed its close ties to China and the Moors who came back into positions of influence.

     Before returning to their political-economic historical survey, the authors' fifth chapter examines the country's social life in rich detail. This chapter serves as a welcome break similar to one in their Thai history survey textbook. My students really appreciate that survey textbook's chapter, and its counterpart in A History of Ayutthaya serves the same purpose, describing the lives of regular people as a means to gauge the broad impact of changes in the regime's political-economic life. Although the authors must rely heavily on accounts by western observers, they use them critically and even contradict some conclusions of noted historians such as Anthony Reid when describing the early kingdom's rich and varied urban environments. Their descriptions of gender role flexibility between peasants and nobility, the social role of Buddhism, and even language use all make for fascinating reading.

     The final major chapter tells the story behind "Ayutthaya Fall" in 1767. This is the book's richest chapter, due to its use of innovative source materials, and also the most daring, as it challenges many earlier assumptions for the reasons why invading Burmese armies were able to conquer a seemingly strong and prosperous society. The authors present a complex and convincing analysis of a series of fundamental changes in Tai society itself that weakened the state's ability to defend against such an obvious threat as invading Burmese armies.

     The seventh and concluding chapter brings the story up to Bangkok in a brief sixteen pages. This is a familiar story, especially of the dynamic Taksin who came from unclear humble origins and resuscitated the collapsed Tai state. That new state shifted its center southward on the Chaophraya River to modern day Bangkok and the new Chakri dynasty was founded.

     Baker and Phongpaichit's A History of Ayutthaya could very reasonably be added to an upper-division course on world history and most definitely to the first semester of a two-semester course on Southeast Asia. The book could even be used in any number of graduate courses focusing on early urbanization, trade, or ethnic and cultural identity. While it should not be assigned to an undergraduate introductory world history survey course, the book could be useful as a reference for instructors who wish to bring Thai variants to their world history survey courses.

Paul A. Rodell is a Professor of history at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA. He can be contacted at


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