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It Happened Here: The first Brits in Phuket

PHUKET: Close to 40,000 British tourists visit Phuket annually, with thousands also having made the island their home. And what is the most conspicuous sign of Britain’s enduring presence here?


By Nicholas Walker

Saturday 13 September 2014, 04:00PM


This painting depicts Tudor-era ships heading east from Dover.

This painting depicts Tudor-era ships heading east from Dover.

The traditional boozer of course; more commonly known as the “pub”. And notable among them are Michael’s Bar in central Phuket Town and Chalong’s The Green Man, housed in an elegant Tudor-style building. And it was during Tudor times that the Brits first make recorded landfall on Phuket.

In 1591, the first English fleet ever to head east for trade left Plymouth in four ships, and around 200 men under the command of James Lancaster (above left), a hero of the victory over the Spanish Armada. By the time they reached South Africa one ship had to turn back due to 50 sailors suffering terribly from scurvy.

Another ship was wrecked off the southern African coast, and eventually only two of these vessels, with a combined crew of of 55 weary and weak surviving mariners, reached the Malay Peninsula in June 1592.

We are informed of events by the pen of Edmund Barker, a lieutenant and scribe on the “Bonadventure”, Lancaster’s flagship. “Our men were very sicke and many fallen … we espied a canoe which came neere to us … having in it some sixteen naked ‘Indians’, with whom nevertheless, going afterward on land, we had friendly conference and promise of victuals”. The English fleet decided to set up a privateering base “in the kingdom of Junsalaom [Phuket] … as the Portingals must needs come from Goa or San Thome, for the Molucos, China and Japan … so we lay to for such shipping as should come that way”.

Barker then gives us what is probably the first European report of going ashore on Phuket. He tells that they pulled into “the kingdom of Junsalaom [Phuket] … to seeke for pitch [damar] to trim our ship. Here we sent our soldier (a Portuguese) … because he had the Malayian language, to deal with the people for the pitch, which he did faithfully, and procured us some two or three quintals with promise of more. We sent commodities to their king to barter for Ambergris, and for the horns of “Abath” [rhinoceros], whereof the king only has the traffic thereof in his hands.

Now this abath is a beast which has one horn only in her forehead, and is thought to be the female unicorn, and is highly esteemed in those parts as a remedie against poison. At last the king went about to betray our Portingal with our merchandise, but he, to get aboard us, told the king we had gilt armour, shirtes of maile and halberds, which things they greatly desire, for hope whereof, he let him returne aboard, and so he escaped the danger.”

Waiting listlessly on the island for passing ships to plunder, the Englishmen gradually succumbed to assorted tropical diseases until there were only 33 of them left.
But these determined though not terribly scrupulous souls still managed to capture some serious booty.

“Three ships, being all of a burthen sixty or seventy tonnes, one of which we made strike with our very boat”. One was a Portuguese ship, which they plundered. The other two were Burmese, which they allowed to go on their way.

Later, “Upon Sunday, we espied a saile which was a Portugal ship … and that night we took her, being of 250 tonnes, she was laden with rice for Malacca.” Barker wrote. “In this month also we tooke a great Portugal ship of some hundred tons, laden with victuals, pintados [fish], and other commodities.”

From Phuket the English freebooters ventured south towards Melaka and captured, plundered and then torched two more Portuguese ships. 

They then crossed to Muslim Aceh to sell their plunder before returning to Phuket. In 1594, after two years of pirating off Phuket, the two English ships headed for home.

However, on the way back, the flagship, the “Bonadventure”, got wrecked and all her loot was lost. Therefore only one ship limped home, and with 25 sick, starving crewmen remaining of the original 200 or so. Such was the fate of the first Englishmen who attempted to make their fortune in Phuket.

They fared, however, better than the second attempt, by a fleet of three ships. Using information gathered by Lancaster’s expedition, they, too, sailed out to base themselves in Phuket.

This expedition was led by Captain Benjamin Wood, a successful pirate, much feared in the Caribbean. With the exception of a single French crewman, who jumped ship in Mauritius, not one of these sailors returned home.

One ship was wrecked off Madagascar on the outward journey. Then, after a successful period of raiding along the Indian coast, the remaining two ships came to Phuket to wait for passing Portuguese vessels.

Our knowledge here is gleaned from Portuguese sources, which report these two English ships in the area, undertaking piracy. They may even have been doing fairly well until they had the misfortune to encounter a full Portuguese war fleet in the Andaman Sea.

A week-long battle was fought until the two out-gunned and badly damaged English ships sought refuge on the coast of Malaysia’s present-day Kedah State.

Due to the damage to the English ships, and the greatly diminished number of crewmen, they abandoned their smaller vessel. Then headed out to sea again in their last ship, which shortly afterwards foundered in a storm, west of the Tarutao islands.

There ended the second attempt by Englishmen to make their fortunes in Phuket, as recounted from historic Portuguese accounts.

Today’s British visitors are rather less mercenary and can arrive on this balmy tropical island from their homeland in the North Atlantic, in around 15 hours, give or take a stop in Dubai or Bangkok.

Thailand has had an impact on Britain too, thanks to these visitors. Many a British pub’s food menu includes an unambitious selection of Thai dishes.

Which reminds me of catching up with a Scouser pal of mine in an English-style pub in Bangkok a few months ago. On scanning the “pub grub” menu, his eyes alighted on the limited Thai fare choice: green curry or red curry. “Green curry, red curry – the fish’n’chips of Thailand,” he muttered sardonically.

Made me wonder how the first Brits to arrive in these parts found the local fare. Probably the least of their culture shocks.

Adapted from “A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region” by Colin Mackay.

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Jimbo | 17 September 2014 - 11:28:42

"Therefore only one ship limped home, and with 25 sick, starving crewmen remaining of the original 200 or so. Such was the fate of the first Englishmen who attempted to make their fortune in Phuket."

Could have been 1591,could have been last week!

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