Martyrdom of Two Chiangmai Christians in Thailand




The Martyrdom of two
Chiangmai Christians: Nan Chai and Noi Sunya


(An excerpt from a book
entitled: A half century among the Siamese and the Lao – an
by Daniel McGilvary, 1912)


*Daniel McGilvary was an
American Presbyterian missionary in Siam (Thailand) from 1858 until
his death in 1911. At that time the Siamese had called the Chiangmai
people “Lao.”



In the course of
these events our second year of work in Chiengmai had come to its
end. We were now beyond the middle of the year 1869. As some
indefinable sense of oppression in the air gives warning of the
approaching storm, so there were ominous hints, and even some dark
forebodings. Our Christian people – who understood far better than
we did both the character of their rulers and the significance of
furtive looks and innuendos – were anxious. But they stood firm
and their faith strengthened ours.


In the light of subsequent events we
now know that the most dangerous element in the gathering storm was
the angry surprise of the Prince himself at the discovery that the
old order seemed actually passing away under his very eyes; that his
will was no longer supreme in men’s minds, nor always consulted in
their actions – this and the deep treachery and ruthless cruelty of
his nature which it brought into play. But there were other sinister
influences at work also, and among them we must not overlook that of
a certain Portugese adventurer, Fonseca by name. He was a thoroughly
unprincipled man, who, having played his game in Bangkok and lost,
had worked himself into the favor of the Prince during his recent
visit to the capital, and had accompanied him on his return to
Chiengmai. The Prince was persuaded that his man could be of great
service to him in the two matters which were then causing him most
disquietude; namely, the defence of certain lawsuits involving large
sums of money, brought against him in the British Consular Court by
Burmese timber merchants; and the getting rid of the missionaries.
These last were more in Fonseca’s way than they were in the
Prince’s. He could accomplish his ends more readily if they were
not there.


The most plausible excuse that could be
offered for desiring to be rid of the missionaries was the failure of
the rice crop that year. In the early part of the season there was
no rain at all. When at last the fields had been planted, one of the
worst floods ever known in that region destroyed all the lowland
rice. Then, finally, the rains ceased prematurely, and the upland
crop was cut off by drought. The presence of the missionaries in the
country had offended the spirits, and they had withheld the rain.
Such was the pretext urged in a petition sent to Bangkok to have the
missionaries removed. The specific address of the petition to the
Minister for Foreign Affairs and the United States Consul leads one
to suspect that the matter was directed by some one who understood
the order of official business much better than did the Lao Prince.


The Minister forwarded the document to
Mr. McDonald, the acting Vice-Consul at the time. Mr. McDonald
replied to the Minister that there must be some mistake about it. It
appeared that the scarcity of rice complained of had begun the year
before the arrival of the missionaries; it was not confined to
Chiengmai, but extended over all the northern provinces. He added
roguishly, however, that he would strictly enjoin the American
missionaries to be very careful in future not to cause any famine.
Of all this secret plotting we were entirely ignorant at the time,
and learned of it only long afterwards. While these plots were
developing, I was frequently visiting the Prince, and all our
relations with him were apparently satisfactory. But we knew that he
was under the influence of a wily and unprincipled adversary.


The other matter in which Fonseca was
supposed to be able to help his patron out of difficulties even more
pressing, was the Burmese lawsuits pending before the British Consul.
But the British government was the last party to permit officious
meddling with its public business from such a quarter. It is
presumed that there was evidence of his interference with official
correspondence. This much is certain – a peremptory demand was
made on the Siamese government for his recall. The official order
sent up was too emphatic to be neglected. The man was sent out of
the country in quite different style from that in which he entered
it. This man is known to have been present at the consultation
relative to the mission. If the jealously and suspicion on the part
of the Prince did not originate with him, there is no doubt that he
at least worked on the Prince’s suspicious nature, increasing his
jealously of the growing popularity of the mission, and leading him
to think that it would be wise to stop it in its incipiency.


Yet even when the blow was about to
fall, we could not believe that the Prince was so treacherous as to
plan to drive us out of the country, at the same time that he
continued to treat us so kindly, and would even come to dine with us.
We could not believe that the younger Princess, who had a
predominating influence over her father, could encourage one of the
Christians to put himself under her protection, only that he might
the more surely be sent to his death a day or two later. We could
not believe that an excursion down the river had been planned by the
Prince, only that he might be out of reach when the executions should
take place. We were still incredulous, even after we received
reliable information from the agent of the Borneo Company that he had
heard the Prince and a certain high officer consulting together to
stop our work. The plan which he reported was to expel the converts
from the country, giving their wives and children the option to
follow them or to remain. After all, that would not have been so
great a disaster. These men had no great possessions to lose. Their
banishment would only plant the Gospel in other provinces or other


When, in September, 1869, just before
the fatal stroke, the Prince started on what purported to be a three
weeks’ fishing trips, we thought that his absence would give us a
respite from our present fears, and would afford him leisure for
better thoughts. As his boats pushed off, we waved him a parting
good-bye from the shore. His first business was at Lampun, to secure
the co-operation of the governor of the province in ridding the
country of the new religion. Inasmuch as Sen Ya Wichai, the third
convert mentioned above, was a Lampun officer, it was thought prudent
in his case to secure the action of his own immediate superior. He
was at once sent for, and was condemned to death, but was saved by
his young master, the governor’s son, on the plea that he was a
backwoodsman, and knew no better.


Of the deep designs against us and our
work we were thus either ignorant or incredulous till, on the evening
of September 13th, just before dark, our night watchman
came to us with the common excuse for leaving us, that some relative
was dead or dying, and insisting that he must go immediately. In
vain we urged that he must not leave us thus in the lurch. As a
final argument, we threatened to dock him of a month’s wages. But
wages were nothing to him then. “All that a man hath will be give
for his life.” While we talked to him, he had reached the gate and
was gone. So, also, fled the cook and the coolie, leaving only one
blind Ngio who had taken refuge with us.


Mr. Wilson then lived across the river
on the new premises, and it was not until the next day that we
learned that all his people, too, had fled in like manner and at the
same hour. We went to Praya Tepasing, the Prince’s executive
officer, to enquire the cause. He feigned surprise, and professed
entire ignorance of any designs against the Christians. He said,
however, that the Prince had given an order that the inhabitants of
certain villages should bring in each a hewn slab of timber to repair
the stockade. Possibly, the scare might have somehow arisen from
that. We were aware of the order, and had told the Christians that
if pressed for time to procure the timber, they might each take a
slab of ours. We now told the Praya that we would ourselves be
responsible for the timbers required of them. To assure us with
regard to our servants, the Praya sent for our cook, gave him a
letter assuring his safety, and threatened, besides, to have him
flogged if he deserted us. The cook remained with us all through
these troubles, until we could find another to take his place. For
some reason Mr. Wilson did not avail himself of this offer. He and
Mrs. Wilson got on as they could without servants for several months.


We now know that the order for the
execution of the Christians had been given long before by that same
Praya Tepasing – in such fear of the Prince was the highest officer
in the realm! Not only had our servants vanished – there was a
sudden cessation of our visitors as well. Few even dared to come for
medicine for fear of being suspected of becoming Christians. There
were, however, a few notable exceptions, the abbot of the Umong
monastery being the most conspicuous.


During the following week Mr. Wilson
waded out across the flooded country to the home of Nan Chai, his
teacher. But his family did not dare to give any information
concerning him. To tell what they knew would cost their lives also –
so they had been told. He then went on another mile to Noi Sunya’s
home, with the same result. The wives of both these men pretended to
believe that their husbands had gone to the city to visit us. Mr.
Wilson noticed that one of the women had tears in her eyes as she
spoke. Puzzled rather than satisfied by the result of the visit, Mr.
Wilson returned with the hope that, after all, the men were still
alive, and that we yet should see them in the land of the living.


It was two weeks before our suspense
was broken by the certainty of their death. On Sunday morning,
September 26th, a Ngio friend and neighbor of the martyrs
called at my house. After looking all about him, he asked where the
Christians were. I told him there seemed to be a mystery about them
that we could not unravel, but we hoped they were secreting
themselves in safety somewhere. Seeing that I was really ignorant of
their fate, he came close up to me, and looking around again to
assure himself that no one was near, he asked, “If I tell you, will
you promise never to betray me?” Having demanded and received an
emphatic promise equivalent to an oath, he drew his hand
significantly across his neck, and whispered, “That is the way.”
His gesture was too well understood in that reign to leave any doubt
as to what was meant. The man had really come on a sad and dangerous
errand of kindness. As soon as it was accomplished, he hurried away,
evidently fearing that the birds of the air might hear it, or that
some breeze might waft it to the palace.


On Monday morning Mr. Wilson and I went
again to the Praya. He could now no longer lie for his master as to
the fact of the execution of the men, but he offered the flimsy
excuse that it was because they had not brought in their slabs on
time. We were then obliged to charge him with patent falsehood. He
knew that they were executed for no crime whatever, but only for
being Christians.
Poor man! He seemed somewhat ashamed; but
what could he do? He was not at heart a bad man, as his letter of
protection for the cook showed. The lives of two peasants were no
great matter in those days. He had been so trained to execute every
behest of his master, that it scarcely occurred to him that he ought
to hesitate at this.


But it was some relief to know the
worst, and to know that it was known that we knew it. Before this we
had been obliged to feign hopes that we hardly believed ourselves.
Now we could speak openly. The Prince had not yet returned from his
fishing trip; so we went to his elder daughter and her husband,
afterward Prince Intanon. In their position they could not say much;
but they did say that what the Prince had done was not right, and
that they did not approve of the act.


One outcome of the situation was a
flood of the wildest rumors – some of them, no doubt, started on
purpose to frighten us away. One of these touched us in a most
tender point. One of our most faithful servants, who had been with
us from the very first, was desirous of visiting Bangkok. So we
arranged to have him go down in charge of a boat that was to bring up
our supplies for the year. By him we sent a large package of letters
written before we had reason to suspect so serious an outcome of the
troubles that were brewing. While we could not conceal some gloomy
forebodings, our reports were, on the whole, full of hope for the
speedy progress of the Gospel. The boat left for Bangkok a few days
after the Prince started on his fishing trip. Presently it was
reported that the boat had been intercepted, and that this man, with
his wife, his son, and his son’s family, even down to a little
grandchild of two years old, had been killed, and the boat broken to
pieces and burned.


Although such atrocity seemed beyond
belief, yet a number of circumstances combined to give the report
credibility. Why, for instance, was the long, unusual trip down the
river taken just before our boat was to start? What did it mean
that, after the number of the Christians was known, no sum of money
could induce a Lao man to take a letter to Bangkok? If the story of
the fate of our messenger were true, the act was the act of a madman
– and there is no telling what a madman may not do. He was in a
position to keep us from escaping; and if he had really gone so far
as that, he evidently did not intend that we should be heard from


For a time we virtually resigned
ourselves to what seemed inevitable fate. When we could get no
letters sent, we actually began writing the history of those days on
the margins of books in our library, so that, if we were never heard
from again, some of the precedent circumstances of our end might
thus, perhaps, come to light. It was a great relief, therefore, when
an influential Burmese, knowing our situation, offered to carry a
letter through to our friends in Bangkok.


On September 29th, when the
letters carried by the Burmese were written, we were still under the
impression that our boatman had been murdered, and that neither he
nor the letters and reports carried by him had been heard from. It
was the knowledge that these rumors were false, and that he had
passed Raheng in safety, that first relieved our minds. So, too, his
arrival in Bangkok gave our friends there the first assurance of our
safety. With this explanation the letters themselves will give the
best idea of our situation in those dark days. The following is from
a letter of Dr. S. R. House to our Mission Board in New York, printed
in the Presbyterian Record of February, 1870. It is dated November
11th, 1869.


“Since our last mail was dispatched,
tidings have been received from the mission families in North Laos
which have greatly distressed and alarmed us, causing no little
anxiety for their personal safety. This outburst of persecution from
which they are now suffering must have been quite unlooked for, for
their letters down to September 10th were full of
encouragement. Never had the king and the princes seemed more
friendly; never had their prospects seemed brighter. Seven
interesting converts had been baptized since the year began, and they
had just been enjoying a wonderfully favorable opportunity to make
the gospel message known to the people from every part of the
kingdom….What has caused this sudden change in the demeanor of the
king of Chiengmai toward our missionaries there, does not appear…


“Thus far they seem to have had no
apprehension for themselves personally; but the next letter, of two
days’ later date, indicates that something had occurred or had come
to their knowledge which led them to believe that their own lives
were in jeopardy. On September 29th Mr. McGilvary writes
hurriedly to his father-in-law, Rev. D. B. Bradely, M.D., of the A.
M. A. mission as follows:-


“ ‘Dear Father and Mother: – We
writes to tell you that we may be in great danger. If you never hear
from us more, know that we are in heaven. Send some one up here to
look after our Christians, and do not, we beg you, grieve over the
loss of our lives. Two of our church members died at the martyr’s
stake on the 14th of September. Warrants are out for the
others. What is before us we do not know. We are all peaceful, and
very happy. We have written letters giving the full facts, but dare
not send them for fear of their interception.


“ ‘ Lunk Puk left here on the 12th
direct for Bangkok. Should he never reach you, you may fear the
worst for us….He had a large mail with our reports, etc. Should
worst come to worst, we have counted the cost beforehand, and our
death will not be in vain. Love to all the dear ones. Good-bye,
dear father, mother, brothers, sisters, and friends – perhaps till
we meet in heaven!’ ”


Dr. House then continues:


“That these letters – the last one
especially – awakened our deepest solicitude, I need not assure
you. The brethren from the Pechaburi station reached Bangkok, to
attend the annual session of Presbytery, the very day the startling
tidings come; and anxious were our deliberations, and earnest our
prayers in behalf of those brethren beloved and their helpless
families. A month had then elapsed since the date of the letters.
Were they still in the land of the living?


“It was deemed advisable that some of
our number should proceed as far up the river as possible – to
Raheng at least – to learn the existing state of things and extend
all possible assistance. After consultation this service devolved on
Bros. McDonald and George.


“Owing to the peculiar allegiance
which holds the Lao tribes tributary to the Siamese, it was thought
best not to press any doubtful treaty rights and claims through the
United States Consul – that is, the protection they would be
entitled to claim anywhere on the soil of Siam proper – but to
throw ourselves on the friendliness and good-will of the Siamese
Government as old residents here, most of us, who are greatly
troubled lest harm should befall our friends who are living in one of
their tributary states. What could they do to help us?


“The deputation, consisting of Dr.
Bradley, Mr. McDonald, Mr. George, and myself, were most kindly
received by the new Regent of the kingdom, the late Prime Minster –
were received in every respect as friends, and the best endeavors of
the Siamese Government were promised. A government official would be
dispatched at once bearing a letter to the king of Chiengmai,
enjoining on him to give protection to the missionaries. But the
Regent added, ‘It is difficult to deal with a man so moody and
arbitrary as this Chief of Chiengmai. He is like King Theodore of
Abyssinia.’ – This too significant comparison had already
suggested itself in anything but an agreeable way to ourselves.


“The Siamese move slowly at the best,
and the brethren who have consented to go on this errand so full of
perplexity and possible peril started several days before the royal
messenger’s preparations were completed. We are waiting with the
greatest solicitude further tidings. I must say from what I know of
the character of the man in whose hands and at whose mercy they are,
that I have great fears. Others have, however, are confident that no
harm can come to them personally.”


The following, from a note of mine to
the Board, will throw further light on our letter to our friends and
on our situation. It was dated October 31st, while we
were anxiously waiting for the reply to our letters.


…“But the particular fact that
filled us with deepest anxiety when we sent that note to Bangkok, was
a rumor that the king had, in person, stopped a boat in charge of our
old servant whom we had sent down to Bangkok after money and
supplies, and had put him, his wife, and all the boatmen to death.
That rumor was currently believed here, and we had so many questions
asked us about them by persons in high and in low station, that we
were constrained almost to believe it. And if that had been done, we
knew not what would come next. Of course we had serious
apprehensions regarding our own safety; yet our duty was clear.
However dangerous our position, we felt that flight would be more
dangerous….Our strength was to sit still…


“After waiting a month in suspense
about our servants, we have just learned, on pretty good authority,
that they were not murdered. They have been reported as having
passed Raheng. In a few days we shall know the truth. If they are
safe, our greatest fears were groundless. We wait to see the Lord’s
purpose in reference to this people. We yet believe they are
purposes of mercy. The excitement has somewhat died down, and we
have daily many visitors. But there is great fear of the
authorities. No one feels safe; no one knows what will come next.”


I quote from a letter of Mr. Wilson
to the Board the following account of the suffering and death of the
, written January 3rd, 1870, after all the
various rumors had been sifted, and the facts were clearly known.
Meantime the Commission referred to in the letter of Dr. House had
come, and this letter was brought to Bangkok by it on its return.
This letter and the one cited just above were printed in the Foreign
for March and for May, 1870.


“Till within a very short time before
their execution, we had no apprehension that any serious obstacle
would be thrown in the way of the Lao becoming Christians. All the
baptisms had taken place publicly. The number, and some of the
names, of the Christians had been given in answer to questions asked
by the younger daughter of the king, and by others of royal blood.
We had become convinced that the king must know that some of his
people had become disciples of Jesus. His two daughters had assured
Mr. McGilvary that no one should be molested for becoming Christians.
With such an assurance from the highest princesses in the land, we
flattered ourselves that the king would tolerate Christianity. The
fearlessness, also, with which all but Nan Chai professed Christ,
made us feel that there was no danger to the life of any one who had
received baptism.


“Nan Chai, however, seemed anxious.
Some two months before his baptism he requested us to write to
Bangkok and get the King of Siam to make proclamation of religious
toleration. Not a month before his baptism he asked me, ‘If the
king should call me and ask, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” would
it be wrong to say “No”?’ We knew that for some time he had
loved the Savior, but he was following Him tremblingly. His position
as overseer (ex-abbot) of the monastery made his renunciation of
Buddhism a more noticeable event, and rendered him more liable to
persecution than some of the others. I may here state that those
who, after leaving the monastery, are appointed overseers of the
temple, are, by virtue of their position, exempt from the call of
their masters to do government work. Nan Chai belonged to this
class. His resignation of this post when he became a Christian, both
proved his sincerity, and made him a mark for Buddhist hate and


“Noi Sunya’s work was to tend the
king’s cattle, and in this way he performed his share of public
service. He also worked a farm, and was a physician. He was of a
genial disposition and cheerful temper, always looking on the bright
side of life, happy himself, and trying to make others happy. He was
thus a general favorite. His reception of the truth was hearty and
childlike. How his face beamed with joy that communion Sabbath!
Next day, Monday, September 6th, about noon, he started
for his walk of nine miles across the plain to Me Po Ka. In bidding
him good-bye we little thought we should see his face no more.


“Our teacher, Nan Chai, came in the
following Thursday, somewhat sad because the head man of his village
was urging him for some government work and supplies that were then
being raised for the army. After resigning the oversight of the
temple, being virtually without a master, he had come in to the city
to put himself under the king’s younger daughter. On Saturday
morning the 11th, she gave him his protection papers, for which he
paid the usual three rupees. Some ten days before, whom Mr.
McGilvary had called with him in reference to this matter, he had, at
the princess’ request, made a statement of his Christian faith,
even to the repeating of prayer.


“On that same Saturday afternoon a
message came from the head man of the village for Nan Chai’s
immediate return home. The message was so urgent that he concluded
not to wait for the accustomed Sabbath morning worship. Knowing that
there was a disposition on the part of some of the public officers to
find fault with the Christians, I thought it best for him to go home,
and not return to us till quiet should be restored. He seemed very
sad, and said that his master was disposed to oppress him. All that
I could say did not rouse him from his depression. He took leave of
us about ten o’clock at night. When we awoke on Sabbath morning,
he was gone. We know now that shortly after the princess had given
him her letters of protection on Saturday morning, she dispatched a
messenger to the head man of the village ordering Nan Chai’s
arrest. Imagine that Sabbath morning’s walk of nearly nine miles,
much of the way through water nearly knee-deep! Dear gentle heart,
full of care and fear!


“He reached home about noon. After
dinner he called upon the head man of the village; but no one knew
the nature of the conference. He was permitted to sleep at home that
night. Next morning came the order from the chief man of the
district for the overseers of the temples and those doing the king’s
own work to appear at his house. This order included, of course,
both our brethren, Noi Sunya and Nan Chai. But to make their
attendance doubly sure, armed men were sent with clubs and pikes to
conduct them to the appointed rendezvous. Noi Sunya took leave of
his wife and six children in tears. When they reached the house of
the district chief, they found a large armed force ready to receive
them. When arrested at their homes they had been charged with
refusing to do the king’s work. But now Nan Chai was asked, “Are
you an overseer of a temple?’ He answered, “I was, but am not
now.’ ‘Have you entered the religion of the foreigners?’
‘Yes.” Noi Sunya was asked the same question, to which he also
answered ‘Yes.’


“They were then seized, and after
further examination were told that they had been condemned to death.
While Nan Chai was giving the reason of the faith that was in him,
one of the examiners kicked him in the eye, leaving it bloodshot and
causing it to swell till the eye was closed.
The arms of the
prisoners were tied behind their backs. Their necks were compressed
between two pieces of timber (the death-yoke) tied before and behind
so tightly as painfully to impede both respiration and the
circulation of the blood. They were thus placed in a sitting posture
near a wall, and cords were passed through the holes in their ears
and tied to a beam above. In this constrained and painful position –
not able to turn their heads or bow them in slumber – they remained
from Monday afternoon till Tuesday morning about ten o’clock, when
they were led out into the jungle and executed.


“When Nan Chai was arrested, his wife
started on a run to inform us, supposing that he would be brought to
the city to undergo a regular trial. In that case she hoped the
missionaries could ensure his release. She had arrived in sight of
our house, when a messenger from the head man of the village overtook
her, and informed her that if she called on us, it would be at the
risk of her life. She returned immediately, to join him at the
district chief’s house; but was informed that if she made the least
demonstration of grief, she too would be put to death. She sat down
by her husband for a time. They conversed together as opportunity
offered, being narrowly watched by the merciless guard. The
prisoners both said, ‘Oh, if the missionaries were here, we should
not have to die!’ Nan Chai’s last words to his wife were,
‘Tell the missionaries that we die for no other cause than that we
are Christians.’
One of the guards angrily asked what he had
said. She saw that it was best for her to retire, and they parted.


“When Nan Chai knew that he and his
comrade were doomed, he said to one of the officers, ‘You will kill
us; we are prepared. But I beg you not to kill those who are in the
employ of the missionaries. They are not Christians, and are not
prepared to die.’ What a triumph of faith in this once fearful
disciple! What a noble forgetfulness of self in that earnest request
for the lives of others!


“And now, after a long and weary
night of painful watching, the morning of Tuesday, the 14th,
dawns upon them. The hour is come. They are led out into the
lonely jungle. They kneel down. Nan Chai is asked to pray. He does
so, his last petition being, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’

The tenderness of the scene melts his enemies to tears. The
heads of the prisoners – prisoners for Jesus’s sake – are drawn
back by slightly raising the cruel yoke they have worn for more than
twenty hours. The executioner approaches with his club. Nan Chai
receives the stroke on the front of the neck. His body sinks to the
ground a corpse…Noi Sunya receives upon the front of his neck five
or six strokes; but life is still not extinct. A spear is thrust
into his heart. His body is bathed in blood, and his spirit joins
that of his martyred brother.
Their bodies were hastily buried.
Their graves we may not yet visit…


Only a few days before his death
Nan Chai wrote
, at Mrs. Wilson’s request, a little slip which
she forwarded to her friends as a specimen of the Lao language. The
last line – the last, no doubt, that he ever wrote – contained
the following words
‘Nan Chai dai rap pen sit leo. Hak Yesu
Nak’ (Nan Chai has become a disciple. He loves Jesus much)





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