Rama I

Another general, Chakri, assumed the throne and took the name Yot Fa (Rama I, r. 1782–1809). Yot Fa established the ruling house that continues to the present. The court moved across the river to the village of Bangkok, the kingdom’s economy revived, and what remained of the artistic heritage of Ayutthaya was restored.

The Chakri (Rattanakosin) period has been a time of changes, development, progress, and greater prosperity in Thailand, under the leadership of the nine monarchs of the Royal House of Chakri, founded by King Rama I, or Chao Phraya Chakri, who established himself as a Chakri King, with the city of Bangkok (Rattanakosin), opposite Thon Buri, as the royal capital. Because his goal was to reassert Ayutthaya’s past glory on this site, King Rama I selected Rattanakosin as his royal capital because of its topographical similarity to Ayutthaya, with the Chao Phraya River from the north passing along the western and southern sides to empty into the Gulf of Thailand; branches of the river also formed double rings around the city-island. Faced with the continuing Burmese threat, such a strategic location was then a necessity.

The Kingdom of Bangkok consolidated claims to territory in Cambodia and the Malayan state of Kedah while Britain annexed territory in an area that had been contested by the Thai and the Burmese for centuries. Subsequent treaties—in 1826 with Britain and in 1833 with the United States—granted foreign trade concessions in Bangkok. The kingdom’s expansion was halted in all directions by 1851. [Source: Library of Congress]

The reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV, r. 1851–68) marked a new opening to the Western nations. To avoid the humiliations suffered by China and Burma in their wars with Britain and the resulting unequal treaties, Bangkok negotiated and signed treaties with Britain, the United States, France, and other European countries between 1855 and 1870. As a result, commerce with the West increased and, in turn, revolutionized the Thai economy and connected it to the world monetary system. Foreign demands for extraterritoriality convinced Mongkut that legal and administrative reforms were needed if Siam (as the Thai kingdom was officially known from 1855 to 1939 and from 1946 to 1949; prior to then, the Thai traditionally named their country after the capital city) were to be treated as an equal by the Western powers. Monkut’s death in 1868 postponed further reforms, however.

In an interview with National Geographic, King Bhumibol, the current king of Thailand, summed up of two centuries of rule under Chakri Dynasty: "Nine kings I am the ninth. Each has a special characteristic. Rama I built the system of governing and military security...Rama II followed through and as he got older emphasized literature and art...Rama III set up the administration of the country. Rama IV...brought modern technology...He blended modern science with a traditional religious outlook. Rama IV...calculated everything...He set up modern Thailand, but it was during the reign of his son Rama V, King Chulalongkorn, that it blossomed." [Source: Bart McDowell, National Geographic, October 1982, ♦]

"King Chulalongkorn," he continued, "set up all the ministries and railroads and systems of education. King Rama VI continued with emphasis on foreign relations...Rama VII...set up democracy, but the ones who wanted the democracy cut him short. He would have set up a real democracy in a few years instead of the government that was not well devised...We still have the effect of it. The eighth reign, my brother, had no time to do so many things—during and after World War II...When he died he was 20. ♦

The year 1982 was the 200th anniversary of the present Thai dynasty. To celebrate the occasion 50 royal barges were meticulously restored and paraded down the Chao Phray River with the King and Queen sitting on a platform higher than everyone else. Royal guarda in accompanying boats bowed as they pass so they would stay beneath the ruler and even photojournalists were denied higher vantage points. ♦

Rama I

By 1782 Phaya Takh Sin had gone insane, and his favorite general, who had been give the name Chaophraya Chakri, had effectively taken power. With the death of Taksin, he became King Rama I and founded the Chakri dynasty. The Chakri came from the Sanskrit word “chakra” (a double-edged discus held by the Hindu god Vishnu). [Source: Library of Congress]

Chakri was born with the name Tong Duang. As a general he had played a leading role with Taksin in the struggle against the Burmese and was responsible for many of the successful campaigns that reestablished Siam under the rule of King Taksin. Both he and his wife were of noble families of Ayutthaya. After he was crowned King Ramathibodi (Rama for short) he established his capital at Bangkok and the city quickly flourished thanks in great part to his insightful religious, bureaucratic, and legislative reforms and a reinstitution of royal and public ceremonies. Through subsequent battles against Burma, Siam was able to reassert itself as the dominant player in the heartland of Southeast Asia.

As King Rama I (Yot Fa, ruled1782-1809), he founded the present Thai ruling house. During an energetic reign, he revived the country's economy and restored what remained of the great artistic heritage lost in the destruction of Ayutthaya. The king is credited with composing a new edition of the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Ramayana) to replace manuscripts of the Thai national epic that were lost in the conflagration.

In the following years Thai influence grew until challenged by Western powers. In 1795 the Thai seized the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap in Cambodia, where throughout the first half of the next century Chakkri kings would resist Vietnamese incursions. The conflict between the Thai and the Vietnamese was resolved finally by a compromise providing for the establishment of a joint protectorate over Cambodia. The Thai also pressed their claim to suzerainty in the Malay state of Kedah in the face of growing British interest in the peninsula. As a result of the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), Britain annexed territory in the region that had been contested by the Thai and the Burmese for centuries. This move led to the signing of the Burney Treaty in 1826, an Anglo-Thai agreement that allowed British merchants modest trade concessions in the kingdom. In 1833 the Thai reached a similar understanding with the United States.

Thai Kingdom Expands Under Rama II and Rama III

Contact with foreign countries heightened in the Second Reign, that of King Phraphutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II). The Portuguese Consulate, the first foreign consulate in Siam, started its diplomatic and trade missions, dealing with countries such as China and Sri Lanka. Later, in the reign of King Phranangklao (Rama III), a large number of academics and medical doctors from Great Britain and the United States of America came to Siam to propagate Christianity. The most notable among them was Dr. Dan Beach Bradley, an American doctor who introduced Thai typesetting for the first time, to publish Christian teachings in Thai. As a qualified surgeon, he also performed operations in this country. The first Thai newspaper was launched in 1844.

Chakkri expansionism had been halted in all directions by the end of the reign of Nang Klao (Rama III, 1824-51) as tributary provinces began to slip away from Bangkok's control and Western influence grew. In 1850 Nang Klao spurned British and American requests for more generous trading privileges similar to those that Western powers had exacted by force from China. Succeeding Thai monarchs, however, were less successful in controlling Western economic influence in their country.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “The third Chakri king, Phra Nang Klao (r 1824–51), went beyond reviving tradition and developed trade with China, while increasing domestic agricultural production. He also established a new royal title system, posthumously conferring ‘Rama I’ and ‘Rama II’ upon his two predecessors and taking the title ‘Rama III’ for himself. During Nang Klao’s reign, American missionary James Low brought the first printing press to Siam and produced the country’s first printed document in Thai script. Missionary Dan Bradley published the first Thai newspaper, the monthly Bangkok Recorder, from 1844 to 1845. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

The early Chakri kings were very conservative and they kept Thailand isolated.. Rami I built up Bangkok and established a military mechanism to protect it. He road around in an elaborate gilded barge with animal heads carve on the bow that was powered by men with gilded paddles. Tha Din Daeng, a famous Thai stronghold, bul during the reign of King Rama I in Kanchanaburi at Thai-Burmese border stopped advancing Burmese troops. Rama III opened the country a tweak and paved the way for his brother Rama IV.

The first three Chakkri kings, by succeeding each other without bloodshed, had brought the kingdom a degree of political stability that had been lacking in the Ayutthaya period. There was, however, no rule providing for automatic succession to the throne. If there was no uparaja at the time of the king's death — and this was frequently the case — the choice of a new monarch drawn from the royal family was left to the Senabodi, the council of senior officials, princes, and Buddhist prelates that assembled at the death of a king. It was such a council that chose Nang Klao's successor.

King Mongkut, the King and I King

King Mongkut (Rama IV, ruled 1851-68) was Thai rule featured in the film and Broadway musical “The King and I”. He kept Thailand free during a time when Southeast Asia was coming under the control of the European colonial powers and is considered one of the most important figures in Southeast Asian history. Treaties with Western countries and extensive economic reforms were carried out during his reign. He retained foreigners as advisors for the first time and was a self-taught astronomer who accurately predicted a full solar eclipse, and was honored as the “Father of Thai Science” in later days.

Just prior to his father’s death Mongkut was ordained as a Buddhist monk at an unusually young age and he studiously absorbed the knowledge of Buddhist texts and the mental discipline of meditation. His half-brother, King Rama III, who claimed the throne after the death of their father (Rama II). He appointed Mongkut abbot of a new Buddhist order, which also served as a center for western scientific and mathematic studies.

Rama III died in 1851 and was succeeded by the Mongkut succeeded to the throne at age 47. As King, Mongkut made economic concessions to foreign powers and established personal diplomatic relations with various world powers in order to insulate Siam against British and French colonialism. He also set a slow course for domestic changes that he knew would take time to implement and were continued by his son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

Life of King Mongkut

King Mongkut was born in 1804. He spent more than half of his adult life (27 years) traveling the countryside with an alms bowl as a barefoot saffron-robed monk As a monk he ate only one meal a day, spent much of his time studying Buddhist scriptures and was abbot of temple near Bangkok. Before he became king he spent a great deal of time studying history, astronomy and foreign languages. He s said to have mastered at least 10 modern and ancient languages.

Mongkut's father, Loet La (Rama II, 1809-24), had placed him in a Buddhist monastery in 1824 to prevent a bloody succession struggle between factions loyal to Mongkut and those supporting Nang Klao (although Nang Klao was older than Mongkut, his mother was a concubine, whereas Mongkut's mother was a royal queen). As a Buddhist monk, Mongkut won distinction as an authority on the Pali Buddhist scriptures and became head of a reformed order of the Siamese sangha. Thai Buddhism had become heavily overlain with superstitions through the centuries, and Mongkut attempted to purge the religion of these accretions and restore to it the spirit of Buddha's original teachings. [Source: Library of Congress]

Mongkut's twenty-seven years as a Buddhist monk not only made him a religious figure of some consequence but also exposed him to a wide array of foreign influences. Blessed with an inquiring mind and great curiosity about the outside world, he cultivated contacts with French Roman Catholic and United States Protestant missionaries. He studied Western languages (Latin and English), Sanskrit, Pali, science, and mathematics. His lengthy conversations with the missionaries gave him a broad perspective that greatly influenced his policies when he became king in 1851. He was more knowledgeable of, and at ease with, Western ways than any previous Thai monarch. He died of malaria in 1868.

King Mongkut Becomes King

King Mongkut became king at the age of 47 after his brother, King Rama III, died in April, 1851. It must have been quite a change to go from being a celibate monk to king of a wealthy kingdom, living in a luxurious palace, where visitors were greeted by 50 elephants, and even the guards were beautiful women. He established a harem, which occupied a third of a palace, and gave birth to 82 children with 35 wives. King Mongkut chewed betel nut and had stained teeth.

King Mongkut ruled over a kingdom with 5.5 million people. During his coronation he was dressed in golden robes and carried on a golden palanquin while Brahman priests blew conch shells. Breaking tradition, he invited Western diplomats, allowing them to salute him according to customs in their own country, and gave Buddhist monks a prominent role in the ceremony.

King Mongkut as Ruler of Thailand

After becoming king Rama IV quickly established diplomatic relations with Britain, France and the United States and created a foreign policy that allowed Thailand to escape colonization. He also opened the nation to free trade, , instituted freedom of religion, reinvigorated the Buddhist monastic community and issued Thailand’s first currency, metal coins.

King Mongkut modernized Thailand somewhat with help from Europeans and Americans; produced rice surpluses which was used for trading with other nations; and established a Buddhist theocracy that was open to Western ideas. He banned the death penalty for monks who broke their vows of celibacy (former monks instead were put to work cutting grass and taking care of the royal elephants).

Rama IV felt that unless Siam's legal and administrative systems were reformed, the country would never be treated as an equal by the Western powers. Although little in the way of substantive modernization was accomplished during his reign, Mongkut eliminated some of the ancient mystique of the monarch's divinity by allowing commoners to gaze on his face, published a royal gazette of the country's laws, and hired a number of Western experts as consultants, teachers, and technicians. Long-standing institutions such as slavery remained basically untouched, however, and the political system continued to be dominated by the great families. Conservatives at court remained strong, and the king's death from malaria in 1868 postponed pending reform projects.

King Mongkut and Learning

King Mongkut taught himself English and Latin, with the help of foreign missionaries and a French bishop. There was no Thai-English dictionaries at the time. He worked out the meaning of many words by first getting a Thai-Sanskrit translation and them look up the words in massive Sanskrit-English dictionary.

The king's language-learning methods sometimes produced strange English. He once told a visiting Scotsman, “There are Englishmen who have not understanding of their own language when I speak." One of his tutors, he said "would inquire if it would not be more elegant to write “murky” instead of “obscure”, or “gloomily dark” rather “not clearly apparent”.

King Mongkut read newspapers from Hong Kong and Singapore was determined to adapt western thought to Buddhist doctrine. He also loved science and technology. His palace was full of clocks, barometers and thermometers. He taught himself astronomy and meteorology and used to conduct experiments and make observations from a palace observatory.

King Mongkut wowed Thais and Westerners alike when he successfully predicted, to the second, a solar eclipse in August 1868. He caught malaria after observing the eclipse in a marshy swamp, however, and died soon afterwards. In his last meeting with his advisors, he urged them to "please go on with our good work in the interest of the people."

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: King Mongkut “attempted to demythologise Thai religion by aligning Buddhist cosmology with modern science, and founded the Thammayut monastic sect, based on the strict discipline he had followed as a monk... He also sponsored Siam’s second printing press and instituted educational reforms, developing a school system along European lines. Although the king courted the West, he did so with caution and warned his subjects, ‘Whatever they have invented or done which we should know of and do, we can imitate and learn from them, but do not wholeheartedly believe in them’. Mongkut was the first monarch to show his face to Thai commoners in public.”

King and I

Rogers and Hammersteins' “The King and I” debuted on Broadway in 1951. It became an instant hit and at the time was the most successful Broadway musical of all time. The King Mongkut was played by Yul Brynner, who won both a Tony and an Oscar for the role and played it for 30 years. In the film version of the play, Anna Leonowens was played by Deborah Kerr. Famous songs from the play include “Getting to Know You, Shall We Dance” and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”.

“The King and I” is banned in Thailand for the historical liberties it took and distortions of the truth. Thais object to the portrayal of King Mongkut as a tyrannical buffon not the thoughtful decision maker, linguist and Buddhist scholar that he was.

“Anna an the King” (1999) is another film connected with the King and I story. It stared Chow Yun-Fat as King Mongkut and Jody Foster as Anna Leonowbes. It was a straight movie without any songs but with a hundreds of extras and an elaborate re-creation of the royal palace made of Styrofoam. . It was filmed in Malaysia after Thailand withdrew its support of the film, which was again banned for being disrespectful to the Thai monarchy.

Basis of the King and I

“The King and I” is based on “The English Governess at the Siamese Court”, a memoir by Anna Leonowens who spent six years in Thailand. She was recruited by the king from Singapore in 1862 to be one of many tutors for his many children. She spent time with king but it is doubtful that she spent must time alone with him. Leonowens’ book contains some elements of truth but, in the eyes of some, borders on being a compete fabrication because she portrays herself as one of the king's trusted advisors. She made a bundle on lecture circuit and wrote two more books on her adventure in Siam.

Leonowens wrote that King Mongkut was both "liberal and beneficent" and "more systematically educated and more capacious devourer of books and news, than perhaps any man of equal rank in our day." She also wrote he was "envious, revengeful, fickle and petulant as he was suspicious and cruel." She called his harem "his own private Utah" (a reference to the polygamous Mormons in Utah) and quoted him as saying, "You are one great difficulty. You are not wise. Wherefore are you so difficult? You are only a woman." The incident in which the King offers to send Abraham Lincoln some elephants to help him during the American Civil War is based on a real event.

The story was embellished further with romantic interludes in “Anna and the King of Siam”, a best-selling 1944 novel by Margaret Landon that was made into a 1946 movie with Rex Harrison, a forgotten 1972 television miniseries, and a 1999 film with Jody Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. The story has also appeared in an animated feature.

“The King and I” is a 1956 musical film directed by Walter Lang, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. It is based on the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical “The King and I”, which in turn is based on Landon’s book “Anna and the King of Siam”, The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five. Brynner won the Oscar for best actor. An animated adaptation of the film was made in 1999.

On Anna Leonowens. The journalist Gareth Powell wrote: “Yes, we can prove that some of what she wrote was bollocks. And yes, her life after the period in Thailand takes some strange twists and turns. But although she was a liar, and although her depiction of the king left much to be desired she is worth reading and publishing because we have no one else. A distorted view through a telescope is better than no view at all. “

Anna Leonowens and the King and I Story

In a review of “The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the “King and I” Governess” by Susan Morgan, Harvard English professor Leah Price wrote in the New York Times: “Unlikely as the plot of “The King and I” is, Anna Leonowens’s real life was even stranger. A mixed-race Anglo-Indian army brat, she managed to pass as a Victorian lady long enough to be hired as a governess at the court of Siam. Her experience in the royal harem was later parlayed into literary fame and a trans-Atlantic career of teaching, writing and lecturing. [Source: Leah Price, New York Times, October 10, 2008]

“On disembarking in Singapore as a young widow in 1859, this gifted con woman subtracted three years from her age, relocated her birthplace from Bombay to Wales, forgot her mother’s Indian parentage, promoted her father from private to major and changed her husband from a clerk to an army officer. “The most important thing in life,” she declared, “is to choose your parents.” Leonowens’s racial passing depended on her eye for detail: a letter from her waxes sentimental over the “golden locks” of two of her children, although both happened to be brunettes. Equally crucial to these reinventions was her ear for language: not simply her knowledge of Hindi, Marathi, Persian and Sanskrit but the ability to mimic a genteel English accent.

In 1861, Mongkut, the king of Siam, asked his agent in Singapore to find his children a governess. A former Buddhist monk and an accomplished scholar who had earlier allowed American missionaries access to the harem, Mongkut was seeking a woman who would teach English without trying to proselytize. With few unmarried British ladies on the spot, Anna Leonowens — apparently ladylike and genuinely widowed — was chosen. From this point on, Morgan’s heroine will remind readers of Becky Sharp, the governess who schemes her way through Regency society in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” Unlike Becky, however, Leonowens turned out to be a good teacher.

At the time of her arrival, she estimated that Mongkut’s harem housed a population of 9,000: his sisters, aunts and children of both sexes, as well as consorts, concubines and slaves, and other women who had been offered to the king in order to pay debts or cement political alliances. Although she later described this city within a city as a hotbed of “Slavery, Polygamy, Flagellation of women & children, Immolation of slaves, secret poisoning and assassination,” Leonowens thrived there. She taught Mongkut’s children, then numbering about 60, including the crown prince. (Historians continue to debate her influence on the political reforms he carried out after his father’s death.) She also gave English lessons to adults and served as an unofficial secretary to the king. (Historians differ on her relations with him: did she shape his policies and draft his English-language documents or simply copy out some letters.

After five years, Anna Leonowens left, traveling to England and Ireland before settling in the United States, where she once again supported herself by teaching. The friends she found in the American publishing world helped her bring out two memoirs, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” and “The Romance of the Harem,” which were sufficiently popular to open up a new career for her as a lecturer on topics from “Siam: Its Court and Customs” to “Hinduism, Ancient and Modern” and “Christian Missions to Pagan Lands.” Leonowens sent dispatches from Russia to an American magazine; she moved to Nova Scotia to live with her daughter, and then to Germany to accompany her grandchildren to school; she wrote a memoir of India that mixed vivid reportage with autobiographical fibs; she lectured on women’s suffrage. She died in 1915.

Anna Leonowens’s story has been told twice before: in her own memoirs and by Landon, a Midwestern matron who stumbled across them while serving as a missionary in Siam. Landon (whose husband later became one of the architects of United States-Thai relations during the cold war) credited Leonowens with bringing Christian values to Siam.

Book: “Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the “King and I” Governess” by Susan Morgan (University of California Press, 2008]

Rama IV’s Foreign Policy

King Mongkut opened up trade to all countries; wrote cordial letters and sent daguerreotypes (early photographs) to Queen Victoria and president Lincoln (as well as the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis). He negotiated treaties with England, France, the United States and a half dozen other countries; and urged Thais to learn from the West their people not to fall in the "traps" of foreigners. "Whatever they have invented or done which we should know of and do," Rama IV said, "we can imitate and learn from them, but do not wholeheartedly believe in them."

Mongkut was convinced that his realm must have full relations with the Western countries in order to survive as an independent nation and avoid the humiliations China and Burma had suffered in wars with Britain. Against the advice of his court, he abolished the old royal trade monopoly in commodities and in 1855 signed the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with Britain. (This treaty, commonly known as the Bowring Treaty, was signed on Britain's behalf by Sir John Bowring, governor of Hong Kong.) Under the terms of the treaty, British merchants were permitted to buy and sell in Siam without intermediaries, a consulate was established, and British subjects were granted extraterritorial rights. [Source: Library of Congress]

Similar treaties were negotiated the next year with the United States and France, and over the next fifteen years with a number of other European countries. These agreements not only provided for free trade but also limited the Siamese government's authority to tax foreign enterprises. The elimination of these barriers led to an enormous increase in commerce with the West. This expansion of trade in turn revolutionized the Thai economy and connected it to the world monetary system.

Thailand’s Escape from Colonialism

Thailand was never colonized. During the colonial period in the 18th and 19th century—when Malaysia and Burma were ruled by the English; and Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by the French—Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to escape the control of the Europeans.

In the early 19th century the Thai also pressed their claim to suzerainty in the Malay state of Kedah in the face of growing British interest in the peninsula. As a result of the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), Britain annexed territory in the region that had been contested by the Thai and the Burmese for centuries. This move led to the signing of the Burney Treaty in 1826, an Anglo-Thai agreement that allowed British merchants modest trade concessions in the kingdom. In 1833 the Thai reached a similar understanding with the United States. In 1850 Nang Klao spurned British and American requests for more generous trading privileges similar to those that Western powers had exacted by force from China. Succeeding Thai monarchs, however, were less successful in controlling Western economic influence in their country.

The most intense colonialism in Southeast Asia occurred in the 19th century after the Opium Wars in China in 1840s. The fact that Thailand was never colonized was largely the result of the efforts of King Mongkut, who avoided conquest by one Western power by inviting them all to Thailand. Christian missionaries were well received and respected in Thailand but less than two percent of the population converted to Christianity. One Thai businessman told National Geographic, "We are an open society that has always learned from outsiders." A U.S. diplomat added, "Thai's don't have a chip on their shoulder where outsiders are concerned, maybe because of that they have never been a colony."

Thailand did not completely escape the negative effects of Europeans in Southeast Asia. In the 19th century Thailand was striped of a third of her territory by European powers. Some territory was lost to the British in Burma and to the French in Laos when Europeans entered the teak and rice markets in the 19th century. Consequently, the Thai monarchy realized the importance of defining its borders and established a more centralized provincial government.

Before the arrival of arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, Thailand's borders were only vaguely defined. The Thai monarchs primarily controlled Bangkok and the area around the capital. Provincial regions enjoyed a great deal of autonomy as long as they paid taxes. From time to time, Thailand established protectorates over Laos and Cambodia. The European powers took advantage of the lack of central authority in the provincial regions, and one by one took over these territories. France seized Laos and Cambodia and England acquired the northern Malay states. Although Britain and France guaranteed Thailand’s sovereignty the two countries divided Thailand into spheres of influence in 1907. [Source: People's Almanac]

King Rama V (Chulalongkorn)

Real reform occurred during the reign of Chulalongkorn (Rama V, ruled 1868–1910). After his formal enthronement in 1873, he announced reforms of the judiciary, state finance, and the political structure. An antireform revolt was suppressed in 1874, after which Chulalongkorn embarked on less radical approaches. In time, he ordered the gradual elimination of slavery and corvée labor. He introduced currency-based taxes and a conscription-based regular army; allowed Christians and Muslims to freely practice their faith; introduced electricity; and waterworks were introduced in his reign, along with the use of banknotes and coins in daily exchanges. But most importantly, King Chulalongkorn held fast to Siam’s sovereignty and independence amid pressures from France and Britain, opting to lose some territory to both powers, rather than yield to colonial rule. Today, the anniversary of King Chulalongkorn’d death is a national holiday.

Appointed King at the age of 15 upon his father’s death,King Chulalongkorn had been groomed by his father to lead Thailand into the 20th century. Benefiting from a classical Thai education, western tutors (including Anna Leonowens), and several years of hands-on apprenticeship with his father, Chulalongkorn began enacting reforms immediately upon being crowned after coming of age. Among the accomplishment during his storied 42 year reign were restructuring the form of government to a more modern and effective bureaucracy.

Rama V is arguably the most important and influential of all Thai monarchs. Although not as famous as his father, King Mongkut, he reformed the Thai kingdom and opened it to the West without sacrificing its sovereignty during his long 42-year reign. Even today groups of Thais gather around the equestrian statue in the middle of the Royal Plaza in Bangkok that symbolizes King Chulalongkorn reign and leave burning joss sticks and offering to show their respect for his rule.

Former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun wrote in Time, “Thais remember and revere him as a paragon of learning, accomplishment and dynamism. The man who more than once brought their ancient nation into the modern world....He also single-handedly ushered in a new order to replace the old one...He was seeking power as a means to effect progressive change and advancement for Siamese society.”

King Rama V’s Life

Chulalongkorn was born in Bangkok on September 21, 1953. The eldest son of King Mongkut, he was a feeble child, often in poor health. In accordance with father’s wishes he received a well-rounded education with both classical Thai and modern Western elements. He also spent a lot of time at his farther’s side to observe how he ruled.

When Mongkut died in 1868, Chulalongkorn, then only 15 years old, succeeded him. Under his father's direction, Chulalongkorn had received a thorough education by European tutors. During the regency that preceded his coming of age, the young king visited Java and India in order to witness European colonial administration. Thus he was the first Chakkri monarch to leave the country.

King Chulalongkorn had 77 children with 92 wives, sent his children abroad to study, and employed Western advisors. He was a committed Buddhist and made an effort to introduce morality and ethics in the teaching of children and incorporated Buddhist monasteries in his education system.

Presumably one of King Chulalongkorn’s reasons for reforming the monarchy and the relationship between commoners and the royal family was a tragedy that befell his family. Queen Sunanda Kumariratana, eldest daughter of King Mongkut (Rama IV), was a much loved wife and first queen of King Chulalongkorn. Unfortunately, she died at just 19 years of age, while pregnant, from drowning. The Queen was on her way to Bang Pa-in Summer Palace, on the Chao Praya River, when her boat sank. The old Siamese customs that prevented anyone from touching the queen except for the king made it impossible to save the young queen. Her only daughter, Princess Karnabhorn Bejraratana (nearly 2 years old), died with her.

According to a translation of laws regarding the rescue of a royal person in the “Siamese State Ceremonies” by H.G. Quaritch-Wales: “If a boat founders, the boatmen must swim away; if they remain near the boat they are to be executed. If the boat founders and the royal person falls into the water and is about to drown, let the boatmen stretch out the signal-spear and throw the coconuts so that he may grasp them if he can. If he cannot, they may let him seize the signal-spear. If they lay hold of him to rescue him, they are to be executed. He who throws the coconuts is to be rewarded with forty ticals of silver and one gold basin. If the barge sinks and someone else sees the coconuts thrown and goes to save rhe royal person, the punishment is double and all his family is to be exterminated. If the barge founders and someone throws the coconuts so that they float towards the shore [away from the royal person], his throat is to be cut and his home confiscated.

King Rama V as King

King Chulalongkorn was crowned at the age of 21 in 1873 but did not take full power until 1883 after the death of the regent who had restricted his reforms. Perhaps his greatest achievement was wrestling power away from the oligarchy of noble families that controlled the country when he took the throne. In their place he set up a provincial administration under his control and legal system that addressed concerns of ordinary people.

King Chulalongkorn reformed the monarchy itself, giving it more power while discarding public prostrations. He filled his court with talented, open-minded young men, including his Western-educated brothers, set up a quasi-cabinet, and carefully studied Western development and colonialism.

Under Rama V, slavery was abolished, hospitals were opened, a school system was set up, canals were paved over to make streets, bridges were built, telegraph lines were raised, irrigation canals were dug and mining projects were launched. Thailand’s first railway was completed in 1900. Chulalongkorn University was opened in 1902 to train provincial administrators. The military was upgraded and farmers were given title to their land and the tax system was made more fair.

Rama V introduced currency-based taxes and a conscription-based regular army. In 1893 a centralized state administration replaced the semifeudal provincial administration. The regime established European-style schools for children of the royal family and sent government officials, promising civil servants, and military officers to Europe for further education. The country's first railroads were built during Chulalongkorn's reign, and a line was completed between Bangkok and Ayutthaya in 1897. This was extended farther north to Lop Buri in 1901 and to Sawankhalok in 1909. A rail line built south to Phetchaburi by 1903 was eventually linked with British rail lines in peninsular Malaya. [Source: Library of Congress]

King Rama V’s Reforms

At his coronation in 1873, Rama V announced the abolition of the ancient practice of prostrating before the monarch, which he regarded as unsuitable for a modern nation. A number of reform decrees followed, designed to modernize the judiciary, state finances, and political structure. The reforms, however, provoked a revolt by conservatives under Prince Wichaichan in December 1874. Although the revolt was suppressed, it obliged Chulalongkorn to abandon "radicalism" and proceed more carefully with reforms. It was more than a decade before the king and his associates were in a position to enact more significant changes. [Source: Library of Congress]

One of the most far-reaching of the later reforms was the abolition of slavery and the phrai corvee (state labor). Slavery was eliminated gradually, allowing considerable time for social and economic adaptation, and only disappeared in 1905. As a result of the introduction of a head tax paid in currency and a regular army manned by conscription, the corvee lost most of its function, and wage labor, often provided by Chinese immigrants, proved more efficient for public works projects. Likewise, the introduction of salaries for public officials eliminated the need for the sakdi na. These reforms wrought profound changes in Thai society.

A civil service was established and the legal code restructured. In 1887 the king asked one of his princes, Devawongse, to initiate a study of European forms of government and how European institutions might be fruitfully adopted. The following year, the prince returned with a proposal for a cabinet government consisting of twelve functionally differentiated ministries. The king approved the plan, though several years passed before it could be fully implemented. In 1893 Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, acting as minister of interior, began an overhaul of Siam's antiquated provincial administration. The old semifeudal system in the outer provinces was gradually replaced by a centralized state administration. Under Damrong, the Ministry of Interior became immensely powerful and played a central role in national unification.

Like his father, Chulalongkorn fully appreciated the importance of education. He founded three schools on European lines for children of the royal family and government officials, including one for girls and one with an English headmaster in the Royal Palace. Specialized schools were attached to government departments for the training of civil servants. Study abroad was encouraged, and promising civil servants and military officers were sent to Europe for further education. In 1891 Prince Damrong went to Europe to study modern systems of education. Upon his return he became head of the new Ministry of Public Instruction, though he was obliged to assume the Ministry of Interior post a year later.

Foreign Policy Under King Rama V

King Chulalongkorn came to the throne during the Victorian era, a time when the European nations were at the peak of their colonial powers. Rather than confront them or withdraw from them he chose to engage them. With diplomatic skill he made concessions without giving up sovereignty. His political and economic reforms took away their excuse for intervention. In 1907, King Chulalongkorn met with European leaders in Europe to make sure that Thailand would remain sovereign. He was the first Thai king to travel to Europe.

The Europeans helped Thailand develop. The British built ports, the Dutch constructed railways, the Swedes built a power station and the Danes established cement factories. The monarchy at one point decreed that Thais had to wear European-style hats, skirts and gloves.

During Chulalongkorn’s reign, British and French colonial advances in Southeast Asia posed serious threats to Siam’s independence and forced Siam to relinquish its claims in Cambodia, Laos, and the northern Malay states. Although much diminished in territory by the 1910s, Siam preserved its independence, and the kingdom served as a buffer state between the British and French colonies. During this time, anti-Chinese sentiments came to the fore. About 10 percent of the population was Chinese, and ethnic Chinese largely controlled many government positions, the rice trade, and other enterprises, much to the resentment of the native Thai.

Rama V Cult

In the 1990s a cult that worshipped Rama V arose in Thailand, particularly in the Bangkok area. Photographs of Rama V and reproductions of his image on coins and various utensils became objects of devotion. Yano Hidetake wrote in the Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter, “The cult of Rama V is not limited to the display of photographs in one's home or place of business. Some people wear photographs of the king in pendants or lockets, and memorial coins embossed with the king's image or symbols of his achievements are minted and collected. The most striking phenomenon may be the worship performed each Tuesday (the day of the week on which the king was born) before the image of Rama V on horseback found in front of the old National Assembly in Bangkok. The worship involves no specifically set time, collective ritual, nor leader, but from about six o'clock in the evening, people began gathering around the statue, each one offering flower garlands, candles and incense, or even more intriguing, brandy. [Source: Yano Hidetake, Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter, January 1, 1996]

Currently, there is little research regarding this phenomenon of worship of Rama V. In fact, probably the sole academic study is that written in 1993 by the Thai historian Niti Iawsriwong. According to Iawsriwong, the Rama V cult has spread primarily among middle-class urban merchants and self-employed businessmen. The rapid rate of current economic growth in Thailand has led to a closer linkage between the activities of such businessmen and government policies and authorities, but that linkage involves a contradiction which Iawsriwong considers an important factor in the spread of the Rama V cult. On the one hand, the lives of merchants and entrepreneurs are tied closely to the national political situation and governmental policies, but on the other hand, businessmen have no route to approach power on the national level and voice their desires. As an alternative mechanism, they have adopted the worship of Rama V as a symbol of political stability and power.

Further, Iawsriwong also considers this phenomenon to be linked to a strengthening of Thais' consciousness of nationality and patriotism. This estimation comes from Iawsriwong's belief that the Rama V cult represents a composite of official hero-worship (conceived primarily by the bureaucracy), and religious activities elaborated by the common people (particularly middle-class urban businessmen). Namely, descriptions of the achievements of Rama V have been publicized through the educational system and the media as official "historical facts," and those "facts" have infused the common people before countering versions of the legends could be created, with the result that religious rites were stimulated based on that information.

Also, the traditional ties of regional community and family have become weakened among urban middle-class entrepreneurs, and they now tend to consider their own lives and futures first within the context of their mutual ties as Thai nationals and their relation to the state. Against this background, to participate in the cult of Rama V has the effect of strengthening their consciousness of being a "people" sharing the same "history."

Iawsriwong's theory is interesting but he offers little data to back them up.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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