French Gunboat Diplomacy in Siam 1893




A hundred years ago French Indochina and British Burma (and India) squeezed the kingdom of Siam (Thailand) which was struggling to not become a colony itself.

This incident involved a border conflict over the Mekong River. The French response included a naval assault on Bangkok. The French used three gunboats (the Inconstant, Comete and Lutin) and one merchant ship ('Jean Baptiste Say')to force their point of view on the Siamese. There was a brief battle with Siamese forts as the French went up the Chao Phraya River and a Siamese gunboat (the Mongkut Rajakumarn, sometimes also spelled in English as 'Mahut Rajakumar' or 'Makutraj Kumar'), which was damaged (along with the French ship Jean Baptiste Say).

The French ships involved were colonial gunboats, a type useful for squasing native resistance, forcing non-Christians to convert, and intimidating local rulers. However, they were not powerful front-line warships and an average protected cruiser could have crushed them handily. (The French probably did have a squadron of more formidable ships available to blockade the coast, judging from the fleet they used against China in the 1884-85 Sino-French War and the presence of a French cruiser squadron in the Far East in the late 1890's.)

Siam would own one cruiser (also fitted as a royal yacht) completed in 1893, but this ship is not mentioned in the accounts (it is not the royal barge, which could have been rammed into the French as a last resort) and so probably was not available yet.

France and Thailand would fight another obscure naval battle in 1941, as the Vichy (German puppet) French government tried to hold onto the nation's overseas colonies. The Thais would make progress on land, using tanks and air superiority, but at sea their two modern but small coast-defense armored gunboats would be defeated by a French squadron consisting of a cruiser and several sloops and gunboats.

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