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Help find Phuket's lost Thalang Fort

HISTORY: During research for my book The History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region, I found to my astonishment that nobody could authoritatively tell me the exact site of the old Thalang fort.


By Colin Mackay

Friday 19 April 2013, 12:00PM


This was where the now revered Heroines, the sisters Chan and Muk, made their successful stand against the Burmese in 1785, although the same fort was captured and burned down in another Burmese attack in 1811.

The Heroines are a source of pride to the people of Phuket. But even though they won on that first occasion, the carnage was huge.

I estimate that in the great battles that occurred around the fort in the sieges of 1785 and 1811 more than 1,000 people, both locals and Burmese, may have died in the fighting, so the site of the fort should be treated with greater respect than seems to be the case.

During the first siege of 1785 as many as 500 people may have been killed in the battle for the fort. Just after the battle the new governor of Thalang noted that the Burmese had “suffered between 300 and 400 killed and wounded”.

On the Siamese side Lady Chan noted, just after the siege, “In the Burmese attack on Thalang many of my friends were lost to me, killed in the fighting”.

If it can be found, the site could become a focus for further study and a strong commercial attraction for visitors.

Finding the fort site is a project both reverential and beneficial for Phuket. If Phuket’s residents, Thai and non-Thai, can work together to share our knowledge from local Thai, Burmese, Malay and foreign sources, I believe we could find it.

It is important for Phuket to locate the site of the fort so that excavation work can be done there before it gets built over with houses – if that has not already happened.

I hope this article can be the start of this project, leading to the discovery of the fort site and the solution of the mystery.

The background:

In 1785, and still in 1811, Phuket was one of Siam’s main ports for importing Western arms, which was a major reason the Burmese wanted to capture the island.

The historian EHS Simmons has calculated – from letters from Francis Light, a British trader based in Tharua – that in just a few years before 1785 Light alone sold the Siamese 8,372 muskets, 50 field cannon, and a huge quantity of cannon balls, grape shot, flints and gunpowder.

Just before the 1811 siege Monsieur Rabeau, the pastor of the Christian community in Tharua, noted, “I fled into the citadel… the hope and refuge of all the inhabitants”. He calls the fort a “citadel”, perhaps indicating that a town had grown up around the fort for security.

There were two separate attacks on the fort in the sieges of 1811. During the first it is recorded that around 2,000 Phuketians took refuge in the fort. It was then attacked by more than 4,000 Burmese.

The fort’s cannons, grapeshot and musket shot took a terrible toll.

One Burmese officer recorded, “We lost over 500 men killed as a result of Siamese cannon fire as well as a great number of wounded”. The Burmese abandoned the siege and retreated to Ranong.

But just a month later they returned. A Malay officer fighting with the Keddah (the old name for Kedah) fleet on the Siamese side in this second invasion wrote, “The Burmese attacked with speed and straight away laid siege to the Thalang fort…the people [Phuketians] who were able to get into the fort numbered only 600 and were surrounded by thousands of Burmese”.

The Phuketians were also caught short of gunpowder for their cannons and muskets. This time the Burmese succeeded in their siege, took the fort and destroyed it.

One Malay record tells us, “Great numbers of men were killed…mothers, fathers, sons and wives lost contact…they fought to get out first…women and children were crushed like mushrooms at the gates…many others were wounded or maimed. Others were captured and put in prison cages…”

After the fort was taken, it was destroyed. The Burmese followed up with scorched earth tactics across the island, taking everyone they captured back to Burma as slaves, destroying all the remaining houses, and carrying off crops, livestock and anything else of value.

The Burmese occupation force was eventually driven off the island by a Siamese relief force in 1812.

What was the fort like?

A fort may have first been built as early as 1695 when Phuket was under a French governor. But this is uncertain. It may well have been built much closer to 1785. Indeed, there may not have been one main fort but two smaller stockades.

The Ponagsawan na Thalang (Thalang Annals), written around 1840, 30 years after the Burmese took the fort, states that before the Burmese invaded in 1785, the Phuketians “assembled men and built two large stockades wherewith to protect the town…so [the Burmese] were unable to reduce the town”.

However, most other Thai and foreign sources – Malay, Burmese, British and French – imply that there was only one substantial fort.

In a letter written before the siege of 1785 by Lady Chan to an English trader in Keddah, she says, “The men sent to guard the town and the fort are short of opium. Please have Captain Scott bring [some].”

The British East India Company (EIC) records from Penang also note that in 1786 “a small fort had been constructed”.

Lt James Low, an EIC envoy from Penang who came to Phuket in 1825, 14 years after the fort had fallen, tells us that on his return journey on the island of Ko Libong south of Phuket, he saw the remains of a fort made of teakwood planks “ten feet in length, eight inches broad and one inch thick”.

These planks, he noted, were the same as the remains he had seen of the Thalang fort.

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During the 1811 siege we have more information about the fort. One contemporary British EIC account from Penang tells us the fort was 400 metres by 400 metres square – that’s 100 rai inside – and made of wood with four lookout/defensive turrets, one at each corner, covered by roofs of nipa palm leaves. The buildings inside would probably have been abobe or wood, also with nipa palm roofs.

It would have had to be big – enough to hold 2,000 people and around 80 cannon and supplies of arms, ammunition, food and water for over a month.

It was common in that time to dig a ditch around forts and then pile the excavated earth inside the wooden walls to support it against cannonball hits and to create a raised platform for firing cannons and muskets at the enemy.

We do not know if this was the case in the Thalang fort, but with 80 cannon in the fort it seems reasonable to suppose they would have had an earth firing platform inside.

How the fort may have been destroyed:

The Burmese showered the fort with flaming arrows to set the buildings inside alight, and took their biggest field cannons up Khao Pra Thaew mountain to fire down into the fort.

They also started digging trenches towards the fort on three sides, under the cover of mobile bamboo stockades.

When the trenches reached the foot of the fort’s wooden walls the Burmese brought up many logs, hollowed out and filled with gunpowder, and rolled them down a chute to sit against the fort walls on three sides. These were then set alight and the huge explosions blew holes in the walls and set them alight.

The heat from the fires was so great the Phuket defenders had to flee. At this point the massed Burmese attacked and took the fort.

Where could it have been?

The fort probably sat somewhere between the current town of Thalang and Ban Don.

In 1786 it is generally presumed that the town of Thalang we know today did not exist; local Thai records tell us the current town was established only in 1862.

Historically, people lived in four main communities in Thalang: Tharua (the port), Baan Lipon, Baan Don, and Baan Takkien. So which town was the fort protecting?

Lt Low called it “the stockade of Bandan in Salang”. This implies the fort was closer to, or in Baan Don itself.

However a Thai account noted that in the later 1811 siege, in order to fire down into the fort the Burmese “hauled their cannons up Khao Phra Taew mountain”. The closest of the four communities to Khao Phra Taew is Baan Takkien, which implies the fort was there.

But then again, during the siege of 1811, one Burmese officer noted that his Burmese force pursued the Siamese defenders “as far as Baan Takkien, while the Siamese retreated to their fort at Thalang.

“We set up camp at Baan Takkien and…proceeded to invest Thalang by setting up 15 stockades to cut off the town”. This statement implies the fort was not in Baan Takkien but nearer to Thalang (or Baan Don).

What are the signs to look for?

The fort was probably made of hardwood planks sunk deep into the ground. The underground portions of these planks probably would have survived the fire. Some pieces may still be preserved in the mud now, 200 years later.

During the two sieges, around 1,000 people died in the area, some blown apart by cannon balls. So even if most of the corpses were removed and burned there should still be some human bone remains.

There should also be many musket, grape and cannon balls in the area of the fort. Traces of the fort outline and the moat (if there was one) might be discernible from aerial photos.

Some children who survived in 1811 and escaped capture by the Burmese could conceivably have lived till 1880. This would mean that some of the older local Phuket people today are the great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren of these survivors – only four or five generations removed from the siege.

So it is possible that there still remains some verbal history carried by the elders in Thalang, that may cast more light on the fort’s location. These might tie in with more research being done on Thai and foreign records.

Modern technology such as metal detectors, hand-held magnetometers, or trenching in the area with a backhoe could be used to define the site better (if it’s not built over already).

I would therefore like to ask the reporters of all newspapers in Phuket, readers of this feature, and anyone else interested in helping to try to locate this site, to ask around in their local communities for any elders or private documents that may help shed more light on the subject.

If all Phuketians, Thai and non-Thai, work together, we may be able to resolve this mystery.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/History.of.Phuket

How to report findings or suggestions:

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