- James Houser
January 18, 1593 - Thailand's Famous Elephant Duel
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
I think this the only post I did on Southeast Asian history? Should've done more. Talked about the Trung Sisters, Bayinnaung, the Khmer Empire or Gajah Mada. We aren't all perfect.
January 18, 1593. One dude kills another dude with an elephant. I'm serious.
We've been hanging out in America and Europe a lot, guys. What do you say we take a trip? Let's go abroad. Let's go to Southeast Asia, and not for the weird sketchy reasons.
The year was 1593, and Siam (modern Thailand) and Burma were at war...again. In this regional power struggle through the jungles of southeast Asia, both sides had effectively armed forces with muskets and cannon that they both manufactured themselves and bought from Europeans - mostly the Portuguese. If there's one thing that doesn't change, it's that even if Europeans aren't involved in whatever war you're fighting, they LOVE selling some weapons.
Burma was the big power, and it had a run of really powerful kings. When Prince Naret of Siam was only 8, the great general and powerful King Bayinnaung had invaded Siam and forced its king to bend the knee. Young Prince Naret was taken as a hostage back to Burma, where he learned his opponents' tactics and observed their methods of rule. Naret's childhood playmate, several years older, was Bayinnaung's grandson Ningyi Swa.
When Burma eventually released Naret and let him return home to Thailand, the Burmese were convinced of his loyalty. (LOL) They were wrong. A couple of years later, Naret launched a military coup to overthrow the Burmese puppet king and reclaim Siam's independence. Now crowned as King Naresuan, he led multiple successful campaigns to repel the half-hearted Burmese attempts to reassert their dominance over his kingdom.
Well, eventually Burma got fed up and sent a huge army to crush Naresuan's smaller force. This army, of course, was led by Ningyi Swa, now the Crown Prince of Burma. When Naresuan's army was finally cornered at Nong Sarai, January 18, 1593, he realized that he was hopelessly outnumbered. To settle matters without bloodshed, he offered Ningyi Swa a chance for glory: a single duel, man to man...well, man with elephant against man with elephant. The exact quote is something like, "My brother, why do you stay on your elephant under the shade of a tree? Why not come out and engage in honorable single combat? There will be no kings who ever do this again."
Naresuan and Ningyi Swa both mounted their elephants and, as their armies looked on (probably relieved that the bosses were taking care of this so they could all go home in one piece), basically jousted on top of their elephants. After several near misses, including Ningyi Swa's glaive clipping Naresuan's head and laying open his helmet, Naresuan finally impaled his opponent with his own weapon. I like to think he was just really upset about Ningyi playing with his toys too long and being a bully when they were kids or something.
The Siamese attacked, the Burmese army scattered, and Naresuan was remembered ever after as the defender of his country.
Nice story, right? It's also one of the most heavily romanticized events in Thai history, its anniversary is celebrated as Armed Forces Day (18 January), there are film series and major budget movies, a television series, so on and so forth. It's such an important story and cultural touchstone in Thailand that questioning its accuracy is a crime and punishable by imprisonment. No, seriously. A famous professor and philosopher was arrested for questioning the accuracy of the elephant battle in 2014. The charges were dropped several years later, but come on man.
So who knows what exactly happened? Either way, it's pretty hardcore.
There are very, very few books on Southeast Asian warfare in English, and almost none that are written for a general audience. If you're ready for a scholarly work, try Michael Charney's Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900 (Leiden, Netherlands; Brill, 2004.) I read portions of it during my Master's program, and it's accurate if dry. For a general history try David Wyatt Thailand: A Short History (New York: Yale University Press, 2003)