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The History of Phuket: The social fabric of early Phuket

Prostitution and the availability of slave women for sale meant that sex workers were never a thriving business in Phuket until later in the 19th century when thousands of single Chinese male “coolies” arrived to work in the tin mines.

By Colin Mackay

Saturday 22 February 2020, 12:00PM

Traditional women in Phuket at the Market Photo: History of Phuket

Traditional women in Phuket at the Market Photo: History of Phuket

Prostitution and the availability of slave women for sale meant that sex workers were never a thriving business in Phuket until later in the 19th century when thousands of single Chinese male “coolies” arrived to work in the tin mines.

Before that, concubinage served the purpose for many foreign sailors visiting the island. The Dutchman Admiral Van Neck, who visited Patani in 1604, explained the system at the time stating:

“When foreigners come there from other lands… men come and ask them whether they do not desire a woman. These young women and girls themselves also come and present themselves, from whom they may choose the one most agreeable to them, provided they agree with what he shall pay for certain months.

Once they agree about the money (which does not amount to much for so great a convenience) she comes to his house and serves him by day as his maidser­vant and by night as his wedded wife. He is then not able to consort with other women or he will be in the gravest trouble with his wife. She is, similarly, wholly forbidden to converse with other men, but the marriage lasts only as long as he keeps his residence there, in good peace and unity. When he wants to depart he gives her whatever is promised and so they leave each other in friendship and she may then look for another man as she wishes, in all propriety, without scandal.”

In the 18th century, Portuguese sailors in the peninsular West Coast ports also tell of women paddling out to their ships in boats to offer their temporary services. Alternatively, a visitor could buy and use a slave woman then simply sell her on when he left. Edmund Roberts, the American ambassador in the 1830s, noted, “Temporary marriages are so notorious, that to sell a daughter wholly to a stranger, or for a stipulated term of time, is as common among the middling and lower classes of people, as to sell any common commodity to be found in a bazaar.”

One British officer, Col Garnett Wolseley, wrote triumphantly back to his brother in England that in the East he had acquired a woman who “fulfilled all the purposes of a wife without giving any of them bother.” Captain Edmund Scott, in 1606, tells us the Chinese used this method, buying “women slaves… by whom they have many children when they return to their own country… they sell their women but the children they carry with them.”

Straight prostitution in Siam was usually organized via a “farm” – a license for a monopoly purchased from the local lord or king. In 1680, for example, the king in Ayutthaya sold the prostitution farm rights for the city to one Chinese official, who used a stable of 600 enslaved women. The Frenchman De La Loubère, in 1688, however, felt that “the Siamese are naturally too proud easily to give themselves to foreigners or at least to invite them.” He thought that Mon, not Siamese women, “do more highly esteem of foreigners”, and without their blackened teeth, were generally “of a more amorous complexion than Siamese.”

Children of mixed-ethnicity
Ibn Majid, in 1462, was taken by the relaxed mores of the peninsula: “The infidel mar­ries Muslim women while Muslims take pagans to wife.” It was also an official Portuguese colonial policy to encourage interbreeding and by the 17th century, significant Portuguese Catholic mestizo communities existed in Tha Reua in Phuket and Takua Thung in Phang Nga. Most of the local women the Portuguese took as wives and their children were converted to Christianity.

However, as increasing numbers of European and Chinese arrived wanting women, often on a temporary basis, a sense of the impropriety of temporary marriages with foreigners grew among the Siamese. In the 17th century, King Prasat Thong forbade Siamese women to marry foreigners, and, always in need of manpower, strictly forbade the removal of any mixed-race offspring from the kingdom.

There was the normal range of diseases in Phuket as anywhere else, the worst being fevers, malaria, dengue, cholera, leprosy, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, cholera, polio and of course sexually transmitted diseases, all of which could kill. Medicine was not very advanced, remedies were usually herbal and spiritual. The 17th-century Persian envoy Al Ibrahim reported, “In general the science of spells and incantations is practised to a great extent in Siam.” At the same time, the French envoy Simon de la Loubère was particularly depreciative, stating, “medicine cannot merit the name of Science amongst the Siamese. They are utterly ignorant of Anatomy, they know nothing of surgery.”

Monks and doctors studied remedies written in books or passed down orally. One 19th-century traveler in Siam tells us that, if patients were not cured, it was not thought to be the fault of the remedy, but due “to the want of sufficient goodness in the life and character of the doctor or the patient.” He also explained, “if a sick man dies, the doctor gets no remuneration for his services…”

The locals invested a great deal of faith in spells, incantations, and talismans. Alfonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese leader in the siege of Malacca in 1511, tells us of one Malay fighter who did not bleed from the many sword wounds they had inflicted on him until a sacred bone amulet was removed from his arm. “When they took this off all his blood flowed away and he expired.”

Commentators and historical evidence show that Malay and Siamese women tended to start giving birth earlier, had fewer babies and finished sooner than elsewhere in the world. Pallegoix tells us in the 19th century that, by tradition, Siamese “women do not suckle their children for six months, but for two and even three years, even while giving them rice and bananas to eat.” The Sejarah Melayu notes that abortion was not uncommon, being accomplished by herbs and massages. The prevalence of abortions may have had something to do with the extremely unpleasant ordeal of “roasting” pregnant mothers; one 18th century missionary in 1818 said that this frequently caused the women to emerge “scorched and blackened [with] severe blistering of the skin It is difficult to explain this singular custom in a country where it is so hot. Nevertheless, everybody is convinced that it is indispensable and that one must go through it.”

Dr Bradley, an American missionary doctor in 19th century Siam, similarly writes of witnessing one of these “cruelties of Siamese midwifer fiery ordeals. The poor woman was doomed to lie before a hot fire a full month on a narrow wooden bench without a cushion exposed to fire about eighteen inches distant. The fire was sufficiently hot to have roasted a spare rib at half the distance she complained much of soreness.” In this case, as in many, the child died. Dr Bradley was unable to persuade the midwives “conceited and headstrong old women” to change their ways.

Many Siamese children died within a year or so of childbirth. The French missionary Nicolas Gervaise in 1683 tells us, “As soon as the child comes into the world they go and wash it in the river, after which, without a single swaddling cloth, it is placed in a little bed where it remains until it is six months old many children cannot get accustomed, at so early an age, to this Spartan code of life and die within a few days or months after their birth. It is by great luck, that of every 10 or 12 born, two or three are saved.”

Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at:

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