by Kon Cze Yan
I write about King Chulalongkorn with some trepidation. Thailand’s Lese-Majeste Law prosecutes for slights against both living and dead royals. I do want to visit Thailand again after the pandemic!
Chulalongkorn appears in Muzium Negara in the old photograph below.
Chulalongkorn has the epithet “Phra Piya Maharat”, the Great Beloved King. He is Rama V, 5th monarch of the reigning Chakri dynasty of Siam (now Thailand). The Chakri dynasty has ruled since 1782. He is the great-grandfather of the current King of Thailand.
A Glimpse of Chulalongkorn’s family life
Chulalongkorn was the 9th son of King Mongkut (Rama IV), but since he was the first to be born to a royal queen, he was recognized as heir to the throne. His mother was Queen Debsirindra and she was Mongkut’s grandniece.
Chulalongkorn was only 15 years old when his father died in 1868. He succeeded the throne under the regency of Somdet Chao Phraya Si Suriyawong. Over the next 5 years, he prepared to assume duties by observing court business and by travels to British Malaya, Dutch East Indies, Burma and India.
Chulalongkorn had at least five royal consorts who were his half-sisters (Mongkut’s daughters) and about 92 consorts and concubines in total. Nothing to raise your eyebrows about. Royal intermarriage used to be very prevalent in Europe and other parts of the world as well. (For Lese-Majeste reasons, note this is a statement and not a criticism!) Once when he visited Italy, he was asked by the Queen of Italy how many wives he had and his reply to her was, “Had I met you first perhaps I would have had only one.” The King of course knew how many he had because each wife was given a sum of money for personal expenses every year.
In theory, the King could make any of his wives a queen. However, in practice, his queens were the daughters of kings. They were called Somdet Phra Raja Devi. From these he promoted the mother of the Crown Prince who was the eldest son. The Crown Prince’s mother was called Somdet Phra Boroma Rajinee.
Chulalongkorn was a prolific producer of children. He had 77 children. Not as many as his father, King Mongkut, who had at least 82 children! (For Lese-Majeste reasons, note this is a statement and not a criticism!)
Why is Chulalongkorn one of Thailand’s most loved and revered Kings?
King Chulalongkorn is considered one of the greatest kings of Thailand. His reign was characterized by extensive social and economic reforms and development.
Chulalongkorn matured into a shrewd politician and managed to fend off very skilfully the threat of European colonialism. Large tracts of Siam were ceded to the Europeans during the period, but Thailand remains the only country in Southeast Asia to have never been colonized.
His abolition of slavery made him the Beloved Great King of all people of Siam. In the beginning of his reign, more than a third of the population were slaves.
Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese King to send the Royal Princes to be educated in Europe. He nurtured a corps of bright Western-educated royal relatives who helped him carry out reforms and to conduct diplomacy.
Dummies’ Quick Guide to What Was Happening In and Around Siam during Chulalongkorn’s Reign
In 1782, Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, founded a new capital city across the Chao Phraya River in an area known as Rattanakosin Island, now called Bangkok.
From the middle of the 16th century, there were many Burmese-Siamese wars and repeated attacks on Siam. In the 1790s, Burma was defeated and driven out and Siam reached its greatest extent around 1809.
Left: Greatest extent of Rattanakosin’s orbit (c. 1809). Image credit: Wikipedia
Right: Territorial cessation of Siamese protectorates in 19th to 20th centuries. Purple to France. Red to Britain. Image credit: Wikipedia
Two kings, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, witnessed the expansion of both France and Britain to increase their colonial territories in Southeast Asia and encircle Siam. From the west, the British “conquered” India (mid-18th century), Burma (1826-1885) and Malaya (1874), and from the east, the French “conquered” Vietnam (1859), Cambodia (1863) and Laos (1893).
The French takeover of Cambodia and Vietnam led to keen French interest in the Lao territories. They saw (wrongly) the Mekong as a potentially major trade route with China. They feared Thai interests in the territories would be championed by their imperial rival, Britain (also wrong!). The loss of Laos to France in 1893 was a prime example of gunboat diplomacy practiced by western powers. With French gunboats menacing Bangkok, Siam reluctantly signed the Franco-Siamese treaty, which transferred to the French Lao territories east of the Mekong.
After the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, King Chulalongkorn realised the threat of western colonial powers, and accelerated extensive reforms in the administration, military, economy and society of Siam.
In 1896, British and French concluded the Anglo-French Declaration, which made a border between their colonies, with Siam defined as a buffer state. The negotiations for this started around 1887 and the exceedingly subtle and active role that Siamese diplomats played must be appreciated.
This was quickly followed by the Anglo-Siamese Secret Convention 1897 whereby, in return for a Siamese undertaking not to grant any concession or cede any part of the Malay Peninsula without prior British approval, Britain pledged itself to come to the defence of Siamese rights in that region if they were threatened by any third power.
The Entente Cordiale of 8 April 1904 ended the rivalry between Great Britain and France over Siam. As far as Siam was concerned, what the two Powers did in 1904 was nothing more than a reaffirmation of their previous agreement of 1896.
The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 defined the modern border between Siam and British Malaya. The treaty stated that Siam transfer all rights of suzerainty over its four Malay dependencies – Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis – to Britain. In return, Britain agreed to relinquish its extraterritorial rights over British subjects in Siam. Britain also agreed to abrogate the 1897 Secret Convention and loan Siam £4 million for the construction of a railway to the Malay Peninsula.
When King Chulalongkorn died in 1910, Siam had achieved the borders of today’s Thailand. In 1910, he was peacefully succeeded by his son Vajiravudh, who reigned as Rama VI.
Was Anna Leonowans real?
My first memory of the King of Siam was from the musical “The King & I”. The source material for this musical was a 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, a missionary to Thailand. Anna Leonowans herself did write her own commercially successful memoirs, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” (1870) and “The Romance of the Harem”(1873), to which King Chulalongkorn responded with the statement that she “has supplied by her invention that which is deficient in her memory.”
Many movie and musical versions have been made of Anna’s story – all highly sensationalized and fictionalized. One was even filmed in Malaysia – “Anna & the King” (1999) starring Jodie Foster & Chow Yun Fat. These movies are banned in Thailand and considered to be lèse majesté because of their disrespectful treatment of King Mongkut.
A World Without A Sun
King Chulalongkorn died in 1910 of kidney disease. He was nursed by Queen Saovabha and his favourites. Princess Chongchitra said, ”It was very sad in the Palace after King Chulalongkorn’s death because his successor was unmarried and would not live Inside. So for us Inside, it was like a world without a sun. Life was all monotony. No King’s meals to prepare; nothing to do for him. We, who had talked about what the King did, what he said, what he liked and what he disliked, now had nothing to talk about.”
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