Think of the craziest fight you’ve ever been in. Bare knuckles? Sure. Sticks? Probably as a kid, I guess. Baseball bats? If you’re unlucky. Knives and guns? Man, I really hope not.
However, if you’re a 16th-century king of Thailand, not only is there an elephant present, but two of them. And you and your opponent are on top of them, swinging your swords in a fight to the death. More on that shortly. Let’s meet this week’s Historical Badass.
Naresuan the Great (Sanphet II)
Born: c. 1555-56, Phitsanulok, Thailand
Died: April 25th, 1605, Wiang Haeng, Thailand
Occupation: Crown prince, King of Ayuthayya, savior of Thailand
Our story begins when Naresuan, then known as Naret, was nine years old. The kingdom of Ayutthaya was attacked and conquered by neighboring Burma, and Naret was taken as a hostage by the king of the Burmese Taungoo Empire, Bayinnaung, in order to ensure fealty from his new vassal lord, Maha Thammarachathirat. Naret was removed to the Taungoo royal palace in Pegu, where he spent six years studying military history and martial arts with the palace nobility.
When Naret turned 15, his father declared him the Crown Prince, and he took the new name Naresuan. Colloquially, he was also known as the Black Prince. Maha Thammarachathirat cut a deal with Bayinnaung to return Naresuan and his brother, the White Prince, to their homeland, in exchange for taking the king’s daughter in return as a concubine (Sorry, Princess.). While Naresuan was technically ruling in name only with the Taungoo dominating Ayutthaya and the rest of Siam, his newfound freedom immediately saw him work on a quest for revenge against his former captors.
Here’s a list of what makes Naresuan such a badass:
- Early in his time as crown prince, when he was still feigning allegiance to the Taungoo, he assisted in staging an invasion into the Khmer Empire, in what is now Cambodia. When full-scale frontal assaults by the Burmese were repelled with ease by the Khmer, Naresuan took a sword, held it in his teeth, climbed a sheer cliff face, and scaled the walls of the city at the top of the mountain, taking it single-handedly and embarrassing the Taungoo immensely.
- Naresuan saw a trap being laid for him and his army in 1584 as they made camp near the city of Khraeng; by this time, the old Burmese king Bayinnaung was dead, and his son, Nanda Bayin, had ascended the throne. After sending the Thais to help put down a rebellion by Nanda Bayin’s uncle, the Taungoo king sent his son to pursue Naresuan and hopefully catch his army off-guard. Some of Naresuan’s old childhood friends got wind of this, and came to him with word, preventing him from being caught from two sides. As Naresuan retreated from Mingyi Swa, the Crown Prince of Burmese Taungoo, he managed to snipe his top military commander from the other side of the Sittaung River – using only a single-shot Portuguese musket. That is absolutely ridiculous.
- Free of his allegiance to Burma, he returned to Phitsanulok, but not before rescuing 10,000 Siamese families stranded in Burma along the way. Between 1584 and 1593, Ayutthaya, under Naresuan’s command, would repel not one, but five separate invasions from the largest Empire in southeast Asia, including resisting a five-month-long siege in 1586.
- It’s because of the fifth and final invasion that Naresuan is now the stuff of legend in Thailand. In 1590, King Thammarachathirat died, and Naresuan assumed the throne as King Sanphet II. In 1593, the Taungoo Empire launched their final assault on Ayutthaya, determined to bring the Thais to heel once and for all. Vastly outnumbering Ayutthaya, the Burmese army met Naresuan at Nong Sarai; Crown Prince Mingyi Swa still wanted revenge for his defeat at Naresuan’s hand from many years earlier. Not wanting to make things more difficult for his army, Naresuan agreed to take on Mingyi Swa in single combat, shouting at the Burmese prince, “My brother, why do you stay on your elephant under the shade of a tree? Why not come out and engage in single combat to be an honor to us? There will be no kings in future who will engage in single combat like us.”
- The two leaders sat atop their elephants, each with a ngaw – a long pike with a curved blade at the end – determined to end each other. The elephants charged, trying to knock their opposing riders off, as the poles clanked off each other. Mingyi Swa caught Naresuan on the side of the head, cutting his helmet and scarring his face, but Naresuan managed to disarm Mingyi Swa, swinging his blade and chopping the Crown Prince clean in two. Thailand was free once more, and the Burmese retreated.
- In the ensuing chaos, the Burmese empire fell apart. Naresuan managed to conquer some of the coastal areas of Burma, further expanding the power of Siam and Ayutthaya, as well as Cambodia and northern Thailand as well.
By all other accounts, Naresuan was an excellent leader – he brought stability and peace to a huge region of southeast Asia, managed to establish diplomatic relations with the Spanish, Dutch and Chinese, and fostered greatly expanded international commerce as well. His death was somewhat premature – he only ruled for fifteen years, and died in 1605 from either septic shock or smallpox – but his legacy, continued thereafter by his brother and by subsequent rulers after him, allowed Thailand to flourish for 200 years. January 23rd is celebrated yearly as the anniversary of the elephant battle, and also marks the day of honor for the Thai armed forces. The university in Naresuan’s hometown of Phitsanulok is also named in his honor, as well as a battleship of the Thai Royal Navy. Finally, the movie Kingdom of War is all about the reign of Naresuan – I haven’t seen it myself, but apparently it’s good – it scored a 7.1/10 on iMDB. All in all, anyone who can bring freedom to an entire country and also kill his opponents while riding an elephant is without a single doubt a historical badass of extremely high caliber.