This dominance by women extended to sex and relationships. Stamford Raffles in 1815 explained that, among Malays, “If a man was absent for the space of seven months on shore, or one year at sea, without sending any subsistence… the woman could dissolve the marriage and move in with whomever she chooses without any further process.”
Women were usually free to choose their partners. The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) mention one local fighter, Hang Tuah, who was so handsome that “if Hang Tuah passed, married women tore themselves from the embraces of their husbands so that they could go out to him”.
Duarte Barbosa, a sailor on Magellan’s world expedition, thought that Malays were “fond of music and given to love”. Edmund Scott, an early British spice merchant who travelled to the East in 1604, described the Siamese as “very lasciviously given, both men and women”.
The Austrian visitor in 1623, Christoph Carl Fernberger, though he only visited Ayutthaya in Siam, where commercial prostitutes worked near the docks, felt the Siamese women were “excessively lewd… they are always approaching the men and urging them to go with them into their houses and have sex with them”.
He also visited Muslim Patani and mentioned that the women there also “enjoyed many liberties”. Hans Morgenthaler, another Austrian, a geologist who came to work in southern Siam’s tin mines in the late 19th century, recalls “suddenly becoming the hero of all womankind whereas I was formerly only one of the crowd… this sympathy which every brown woman betrays in such an unmistakable manner is at first surprising then agreeable”.
This sexually open culture for women stems primarily from the Indian heritage in the peninsula where, since the earliest times, Hindu sculptures publicly depicted overt and often taboo sexual acts, even on temple walls. Indian texts such as the Kamasutra also promoted a more lascivious sexuality in which sex could be enjoyed by both sexes for its own sake.
This power of women may account for the willingness of men in the peninsula and Phuket to undertake the painful insertion of penis balls and bells. Ma Huan, a Chinese visitor in 1434, explains:
“When a man has attained his twentieth year, they take the skin which surrounds the membrum virile and with a fine knife… they open it up and insert tin beads inside the skin and heal it with medicinal herbs… the beads look like a cluster of grapes… if it is a great chief or a wealthy man, they use gold and make hollow beads inside which a grain of sand is placed, making a tinkling sound and this is regarded as beautiful.”
In 1604 the Dutch explorer Jacob Van Neck, a little confused by this custom, was told it was because “the women obtain inexpressible pleasure from it.” The early English trader Ralph Fitch agreed, “women do desire them”. In 1515 the Portuguese diarist Tome Pires tells us that men from Pegu (Burma) would have up to nine penis balls made into bells with different notes, “beautiful treble, contralto and tenor ones… Malay women rejoice greatly when Pegu men come to their country and are very fond of them. The reason for this must be their sweet harmony”.
Men and women endured another painful form of cosmetic enhancement – having their teeth blackened. Nicolas Gervaise, a Frenchman, noted in 1685, “The Siamese women cannot bear to see our white teeth for they believe the devil has white teeth and it is shameful for a man to have teeth like those of beasts.” Both girls and boys aged around 15 had to endure a painful three-day tooth-blackening ceremony using lemon juice and burnt coconut.
Unlike today however, many visiting foreign men were quite un-enchanted by these black-toothed Siamese ladies who wore more or less the same clothes and hairstyles as men. Fred Arthur Neale, a 19th century British doctor who worked in the Siamese king’s medical service, felt that:
“Siamese ladies may, without the smallest fear of competition, proclaim themselves to be the ugliest race of females upon the face of the globe. With their hair worn in the same fashion as the men (a porcupine cut or top knot) the same features and the same clothing, the man must be a gay Lothario indeed who would be captivated by their leering glances.
"But as though nature had not formed them sufficiently ugly… [they] dye their teeth and lips of a jet black colour… and in order that their gums be of a brilliant red… they resort to chewing betel from morning to night… and as they never swallow the juice, the results are very detrimental to the cleanliness of the floors of their houses and of themselves generally.”
Edmund Roberts, an American ambassador to Siam in 1832, held a similar opinion, saying Siamese ladies were “excessively ugly; and when they open their mouths, truly hideous; resembling the inside of a black painted sepulcher”.
Many European observers commented on how young children were when they became sexually active and got married or bore children – usually in their early teens. (This however, was not much different from Europe; in Britain, for example, 12 was the age of consent until 1885.) The Frenchman Pallegoix felt that:
“This is very wise because if one delays too long, young girls let themselves be debauched by young men and flee far from the paternal nest with their lovers… these flights of their daughters with their lovers are a very common thing.” Premarital sex was regarded indulgently and virginity at marriage was not expected of either party. However, if a pregnancy came of it, the couple was expected to marry.
Virginal blood was in fact seen as unclean and we are told there were men whose official job was to ritually deflower young virgins. One wonders whether they were paid for this, or did the job out of the goodness of their hearts. There are reports of foreigners in the peninsula being asked to perform this service.
The early Bolognese traveller Ludovico de Varthema, while passing through Tenasserim province, north of Phuket, tells us that his partner was requested by a local merchant to deflower his virgin bride, “but we were afraid it was a mockery”.
The merchant however assured them, “‘do not be dispirited for all the country follows this custom’… My companion said to the merchant he would be willing to undergo this fatigue… he did himself well, as he told me later, and had wished that the one night would have lasted a month. She was a pretty brown child of sixteen years. But after this night if found with her again he would have forfeited his life”.
According to the English sea captain Daniel Beckman, who came to the region in 1718, married women appear to have been chaste, honourable and “were very constant when married but very loose when single”. In 1544 a visiting Portuguese, Antonio Galvão, noted how chaste Malay and Siamese wives were, “Although they always go round among the men nearly naked … [they] do not fail to be very chaste and good which seems to be quite impossible amongst such a debauched people.”
In 1865 John Cameron, who took over as editor of the Singapore Free Press newspaper, notes that Malay marriages were affectionate due to the ease of divorce. Generally marriage was monogamous, though richer men often had several wives.
The Frenchman Gervaise felt that in Siam the wives of polygamous men and nobles: “are accomplished and full of sense. It is rare to find among them flirts and unfaithful ones, either because adultery does not go unpunished, or because they are of a temperament altogether different from that of European women”.
Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available at bookshops and Amazon.com. You can order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com