|The Phet Buri Song
The period of relocation from the
Sipsong Chao Tai extended from 1780 through the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Since 1792, all the Black Tai captives were apparently settled in Phet Buri province,
southwest of Krung Thep. In Siam, they came to be called "Lao Song Dam", marking
their affiliation with the northern Lao states. The first community was a grouping of
several hamlets of undetermined size, located in Tha Raeng commune, Baan Laem district.
During the reign of Rama III, the Song petitioned for permission to move from that low
lying floodplain to Khao Yoi, a hillier district, "like their homeland, where stands
of trees cut the wind" (Buruphat, 1983 ; my -translation from Thai).
The early history of the Phet Buri community is sparsely documented. Malloch reports
the receipt of census materials in 1827 which indicate the presence of 450 Lao in
"Muang Phitcabari", but it is unknown whether these included Lao Song (Burney,
1912 : 354). Thirty years later, Mouhot mentions contact with Lao captives in Phet Buri,
and describes customs of dress suggestive of the traditional Black Tai garb (1864 : 58).
Much of what is known of the early years of Song activities as slaves of the crown derives
from the accounts of Christian missionaries. In 1861, Revs. Daniel McGilvary and S. G.
McFarland, pioneer Protestant missionaries to Siam, established a mission station at Phet
Buri. McFarland's son writes:
For several years there had been interest in Petchaburi and several visits made there.
Doubtless the initial impulse was given added life when King Mongkut (Rama IV, author) built
a palace on the Petchaburi mountain in 1860 and dug canals connecting the rivers, thus
facilitating transportation (G. B. McFarland, 1928 : 2).
McGilvary adds that his' 'interest in Pechaburi was increased by the knowledge that
there was a large colony of Lao there" (1912 : 57). An anonymous history of the Phet
Buri mission echoes McGilvary, saying the interest in the province was "deepened by
finding villages near Petchaburi occupied by Lao captives taken in war and held by the
government as slaves". 3 That these" Lao captives" were Song or included
them is established by M. L. Court, who served at the Phet Buri station from to 1891.4
Writing of the Lao villages outside the provincial capital, she describes a community of
Lao whose costume and women's coiffure are unmistakably Song : 355-369). It is also
apparent from her discussion that the mission concentrated most of its efforts on this
particular settlement; as such, what comments missionaries' chronicles include are likely
applicable to the Song, though identification by name is absent. Such notes are not
numerous, but they give a clear indication of the Song circumstance as captives of war.
McGilvary, in personal correspondence, observed that the Lao "are in this place
literally the hewers of wood and the drawers of water", characterizing their status
as "serfs" of the Krung Thep dynasty.5 He notes further at a time when the crown
was turning increasingly to wage labor among Chinese grants instead of exacting corvee service
from the peasantry, 500 to 800 Lao men impressed into building the royal complex atop Khao
Wang-the palace mentioned by G. B. McFarland-for three months of each year, bearing bricks
and mortar up the steep slopes for the temples and fortifications.6 The employment of Lao captives at Khao Wang is
also noted by Thomson, who compared their masonic skills to those of the ancient
Kampuchean temple-builders (1875 : 114).
McGilvary learned from villagers that the Lao had been transplanted from the north some
two or three generations previously, which corresponds to the dates of capture early in
the nineteenth century.7 Bock, resting an evening in a Lao village outside Phet Buri
during his travels in Siam, determined that its headman was taken 'e from northern Vietnam
as a child, sometime in the early 1830's (1884 : 83-84). Neither observer noted later or
periodic additions to the colony.
King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, decreed freedom for native-born slaves and 1dants of
prisoners-of-war upon his ascension in 1868, but full abolition of y did not occur until
1905. It is unlikely that secondary migration of Song from Phet Buri colonies occurred
prior to the earlier date, and probably not until the decades of the nineteenth century.
All references to Lao Song between 1858 hot, 1864) and 1893 (ESJ), indicated contact with
or reference to Phet Buri villagers. After that, however, migration must have been rapid
and involved significant numbers. Graham encountered Lao Song in neighboring Rat Buri in
1924 (1924 : 169), Seidenfaden reported Song settlements scattered from the northwestern
periphery Chao Phraya River valley to the peninsular lowlands southwest of Krung Thep 7
(1954 : 88).
New trade opportunities with America and the Europe during the early nineteenth century
encouraged exploitation of rizicultural potentials in the Chao a flood plain, and
development of entrepot towns outlying Krung Thep facilitated governmental and
communicational centralization. In addition, it led land within the inner kingdom on which
farmers from overpopulated or less strategic areas, as well as growing numbers of
manumitted slaves, could be resettled.
During the reigns of Rama IV and Rama V, large numbers of Song were enlisted in taming
the swamps, jungles, and savannahs of western Central Thailand.
Elders of the numerous Lao Song villages in Nakhon Pathom province, west of Krung Thep,
indicate different periods of settlement between the mid-nineteenth century and about
1900, and Phet Buri origins in every case. Buruphat (1983) ascribes current settlement
patterns in the southern delta region entirely to voluntary migration. It may be that the
earliest Song migrants were removed from Phet Buri and its public works as slave laborers,
artisans, and militia for urban and rural settlement projects in the area. As the
infrastructure of agricultural commerce grew, other Song probably followed to farm as
retainers of the landed gentry, under the government program of strategic resettlement
(see Montri, 1930). Given the burgeoning population in the southern colonies at that time,
it is also possible that some immigrants were not Phet Song but Black Tai deported along
with other Lao Tai from areas depopulated under orders of Prince Damrong between 1885 and
1889 (see ESJ : 154-162).
As with descriptions of Black Tai in the northlands of Indochina, the Phet Buri
captives have been remarked consistently as conservative of cultural form, according to
the obvious indicators of language, costume, and ritual practice. Traditional dress is
particularly identificational, each reference to the Lao Song includes mention of the
distinctive costume, many going no further in description. Maintenance of a separate
dialect has been less noted, but the 'author (s) of the Phet Buri mission history observed
that the captives, after two or three generations in Siam, could not easily communicate in
the language of their captors. 8 Mouhot, in 1858, noted that "isolated in their
villages, these Laotians have preserved their language and customs, and they never mingle
with the Siamese" (1864 : 58). Cort, describing Lao villagers later in the century,
observed the retention of indigenous beliefs and practices regarding "demons, devils,
and the ghosts of their ancestors" (1886 : 361). Noting that some young men were
entering the priesthood in the manner of surrounding Siamese peasants, she demurred that
this was but the "addition of the more prominent Buddhist customs to their own old
rites and ceremonies" (361). The degree of attendance to Buddhism, maintenance of
upland dialect, and physical enclavement seem not much different among Song, today.
The core of Lao Song traditional culture is the ideology of patriliny, and the
institutional framework of the temporal community is the patriline and its contingent
structures. Among Black Tai in northern Laos and Vietnam, patriliny supported the
hierarchy of ruler, priestly, and commoner clans, and defined the structure of
sociopolitical and economic relations among members according to the subordination of
local communities to the tao elite of the myang (Diguet, 1895 : 6-10, ] 6-20
; Shrock et aI., 1972 : 37, 42-45). For the Lao Song of Central Thailand, patriliny has no
such role in the supralocal political structure. The logic of descent as manifest in
patrilineal ideology, cosmology, and ritual practice has, however, a primary significance
to ethnic differentiation and the maintenance of tradition.
Among Song, the sing is a category, rather than a structured, localized group,
whose members trace descent through unknown linkages to a mythic founding ancestor. The sing
is without corporate function or property, excepting common worship of the founding
ancestor and tutelary deity of the clan. These clan deities are among the class of the
most powerful heavenly spirits, responsible for the creation of the world and its
inhabitants, the governance of human conduct, and regulation of the seasons. As with Black
Tai, some clans observe prohibitions regarding the consumption or use of undomesticated
flora and fauna, and certain distinctions of ritual practice among the aristocratic and
commoner clans. Pu tao ancestral spirits are more powerful than those of pu noi,
and thus require more elaborate propitiation and deference; this has no discernible
effect on noble/commoner relations. In their manifestation as spirits, the tao are
privileged with greater control over the living clan members and inhabit an exclusive
abode in the land of the dead, but this affords no prerogative to their mortal
descendants. The worldly Status preferment of the pu tao is part of a bygone era in
which the nobility controlled access to wealth, prestige, and positions of leadership
through divine right of inheritance. For rural Song, no formal political offices other
than elective village and commune headmanship exist. Although traditionally a heritable
office among Black Tai, village headmanship was not exclusive to the tao (see
Halpern, 1961: 142; Whittier et al., 1972: 51) ;and, while communes among the Black Tai
were led by nobles, the scattered distribution of Song communities in Central Thailand and
external imposition of administrative divisions result in many communes including non-Song
villages. Nor have the tao assumed positions of leadership in the political setting
of Central Thailand.