Colin Mackay, A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region

Bangkok: White Lotus, 2013. Pp. xii, 543; timeline, maps, figures, photographs, bibliography, notes, no index.

Reviewed by Michael Montesano.

In the twenty-sixth of the thirty-eight chapters of Colin Mackay’s physically massive, generally sprawling History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region from “Geology and Early Men” to the era of tourism and property boom, one encounters several lines quoted from the diary of Henry Burney, whom the East India Company sent as its emissary to Siam in the mid-1820s.

The recent successes of the British arms on the Coast of Tenasserim now promise to afford the Chief and inhabitants [of Phuket] a degree of security which they have never before enjoyed . . . (page 265)

In two ways, Mackay’s quotation of these lines exemplifies the greatest strengths of his book.

First, Mackay’s nearly exhaustive bibliography makes clear that he has mined a huge number of secondary sources and of primary sources available in English for material relating, directly and sometimes (as in his too long, too broad and poorly focused discussion of early Southeast Asia) rather indirectly, to the history of Phuket. While Phuket represents in its own right the principal concern of very few of these sources, Mackay’s assiduousness in combing them for insight into its history permits him to enrich his narrative with considerable detail.

Second, Mackay has approached his sources from a resolutely local or sub-national perspective. In this perspective, Captain Burney’s comments regarding the implications of what we now call the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) for the West Coast of peninsular Siam take on considerable importance. Britain’s control of Tenasserim after the conclusion of that war eliminated the threat of Burmese attacks on the island for good. Along with a much reduced threat from the pirates that had infested the waters to the south, between Phuket and Penang, it thus made possible an era of trade and prosperity along the eastern littoral of the Andaman Sea that would last into the second half of the twentieth century. That long peace shaped the West Coast of southern Thailand as we know it today. Its roots in the first of the three wars through which the British empire conquered Burma might earn at best a few lines in histories written from the national perspective that still dominates the study of Southeast Asia. In histories written in a regional or “world history” perspective, they would be likely to earn no mention at all.

This same resolutely local perspective permits Mackay to enliven his discussion of the Dutch East India Company’s surprising failure to make a go of its factory at Phuket in the mid-seventeenth century. He also writes with exceptional vividness of the Burmese siege of Thalang, at that time still the most important center on Phuket Island, in the mid-1780s. It is, in fact, in his treatment of that siege and the hardship that it caused the residents of the island that the Phuket of today comes into view. Likewise, in narrating the story of the Khaw or Na Ranong family, perhaps the leading benficiaries of the security that the First Anglo-Burmese War brought to the West Coast of peninsular Siam, Mackay avoids the long-standard practice of incorporating Khaw Sim Bi into anachronistic Thai royal-nationalist historiography. Instead, he offers an account that appropriately balances the Khaw family’s role in Monthon Phuket with its enduring orientation toward Penang.

For all the strengths of Mackay book, a number of weaknesses undermine its achievements. One of these weaknesses is linked to the author’s relationship to his sources. The material presented in A History of Phuket often appears, in its voluminousness, undigested and poorly synthesized. Equally often, extended summaries of developments in Siam or Thailand as a whole come at the expense of sharper focus on developments on Phuket. The “surrounding region” of the book’s title remains essentially undefined, though the book’s preface notes that its focus is “the central peninsula region” (page v). This vagueness of geographic scope leaves one wishing that Mackay would take a step back from his sources and consider, explicitly, the West Coast of peninsular Siam and later of Thailand as a region, centered on Phuket, with a distinctive history and with a changing relationship with Nakhon Si Thammarat and the eastern side of the peninsula. The elements for such a consideration lie scattered through the pages of his book, but its realization would require more distance from sources and greater effort at synthesis. The same is true of the demographic history of Phuket and the West Coast. Even as Mackay lays particular stress on the history of Phuket’s Chinese and notes that the province’s ethnically diverse Muslim population today accounts for more than thirty per cent of its inhabitants, his book is missing a sustained and focused discussion of demographic change over time. That change is one of the crucial and unexplored dimensions of the history of the West Coast of southern Thailand. It is also a matter of no little import to contemporary Phuket.

Even with its extensive bibliography and 1002 end-notes, A History of Phuket also falls short in its usefulness as a resource for those who would follow in Mackay’s footsteps in researching the history of the West Coast of southern Thailand. He has opted to cite in his notes only material directly quoted from his sources. As a result, researchers interested in following up on other material among the wealth of data and detail presented in the text will find themselves forced to start from scratch. In addition, the book has no index.

In a volume of this scope and ambition, errors are of course inevitable. Many readers will find amusing the attribution of a “Marxist” perspective to the late David Wyatt (page 300). They will find it unfortunate that, in a work defined from its opening pages by a gratifying sensitivity to geography, in all but its last occurrence the name of the Sarasin Bridge that has linked Phuket to the Phang Nga mainland since 1967 appears as “Saracen” (for example, on pages 236, 244 and 355). Similarly, the discussions of “Funan” and “Chenla” as “kingdoms” with “kings” (pages 27 and 29) and of the cult of the deva raja (page 13) draw on dated understandings of premodern Southeast Asia. Beyond these lapses, the rendering of the names of the scholars Srisak Walliphodom and Phuwadol Songprasoet as, respectively, “Srisak Walliporn” (page 38) and “Somprasong Phuwadol” (page 344) suggests an unfortunate degree of sloppiness with source material. And this reviewer has been unable to confirm that the Thai surnames taken by various Phuket Chinese and listed on page 346 were in fact namsakun phratchathan bestowed by King Wachirawut, as Mackay appears to suggest.

An energetic researcher long resident on Phuket, Colin Mackay devotes a surprisingly small proportion of his history of the island to the twentieth century, the period for which sources are most readily available and oral-historical methods still possible. This choice is disappointing, for Mackay closes A History of Phuket with a series of well informed and astute observations on the recent history of the island: on the end of tin mining, on the gradual growth and then explosion of tourism, on the shocking evolution of the real estate market, on the implications of changes in the province’s labor force and demography, and on the perception of its fiscal “raw deal from Bangkok” (page 411). These observations see Mackay free himself a bit from excessively close tracking of his sources to write from a position of critical distance. They also touch on matters that more attention to Phuket’s twentieth-century history would put into better perspective.

In Chapter XXXIII, “The Golden Years: 1914-1942”, Mackay treats us to a dazzling sample of what might have been. This chapter sketches, but only sketches, the changes that came to Phuket town and to the society of Chinese merchants and Western tin miners who dominated it during the period. The photographs from these and later years that accompany both this chapter and others reinforce the effect of the text in leaving one wishing for more. Ever so briefly, Mackay reprises the discussion in this chapter in his brief discussion of post-war Phuket five chapters later, in the final chapter of the book. The discussion there draws explicitly on an interview with a figure prominent in the business life of the province during the 1950s and 1960s. A program of interviews with several dozen such figures, active both in those years and in subsequent decades, would–if coupled with systematic attention to changes in the composition of Phuket’s business, political and social elites; to the evolution of Chinese society on the island suggested by the problematic embrace of “Peranakan” identity among some Phuket Chinese in recent years and by William Callahan’s brief but trenchant analysis of that society (in a 2003 article that does not appear in Mackay’s bibliography); to the respective roles of local and outside capital; and to the rich extant documentary record of post-1932 Thailand–serve our understanding of one of the most distinctive centers in contemporary Thailand. A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region brings no such systematic attention to Phuket’s recent history. But one must hope that the near future sees Colin Mackay turn his energy and insight to such a project.

Michael Montesano is co-coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Singapore, where he also serves as managing editor of SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia .


William A. Callahan, “Beyond Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism: Diasporic Chinese and Neo-Nationalism in China and Thailand”. International Organization LVII, 3 (Summer 2003): 481-517.