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King Rama IV (1851-1868)

Nang Klao died in 1851 and was succeeded by his forty-seven- year-old half brother, Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-68). 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.

Ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of 20, King Mongkut spent 27 years as an important ecclesiastical leader. Under his guidance, Thai Buddhism was cleansed of its superstitious elements. Through his reforming zeal, King Mongkut brought religion firmly into the mid-19th century and made it, once again, a vital force in Thai daily life.

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), 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.

King Mongkut, who taught himself English, was highly intelligent - a fact that foreign visitors to the Kingdom noted in their journals. He gained sufficient facility to converse with missionaries who found him witty and intellectually curious about everything. His experience as a monk had brought him into first-hand contact not only with foreigners but also ordinary citizens and gave him insight into their daily lives and perceptions.

King Mongkut was the best-informed and most forward-looking king. He realized that while neighboring countries like Burma were under siege by England, and Indochina was under the influence of France, the Royal Kingdom would survive only if he implemented a new foreign policy by opening the country to trade with the Western countries. 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. King Mongkut also pursued an open door policy.

In 1855, the king welcomed the English diplomatic corps led by Sir John Bowring and made a diplomatic and trade pact. (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, the British were allowed extraterritorial rights and Siam had to change certain tariffs. Furthermore, the Royal Treasury's monopoly of the sale of rice had to be lifted.

Later, Siam signed similar pacts with other Western countries, too. Similar treaties were negotiated the next year with the United States and France. Among his innovative ventures was to offer President James Buchanan (1857-1861) Thai elephants to handle heavy work. And over the next fifteen years further treaties were signed 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.

The demand for extraterritorial privileges also convinced the king 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.

The widow of a British army officer stationed in South-east Asia, Anna Leonowens started a school in Singapore, but it had financial difficulties. In 1862 sheaccepted an offer to teach European manners and English to the thirty-nine wives and concubines and eighty-two children of King Mongkut of Siam. Leonowens sent her daughter to school in England, took her son with her to Bangkok, and set to work. For almost six years Leonowens taught at the court and became a language secretary to the king. Her position carried great respect and even a degree of political influence. She criticized the treatment of women in the Siamese courtand opposed slavery, which was still practiced in Siam. An abolitionistand a feminist, Leonowens had the royal family translate Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin from English into Siamese. The book so moved one of the ladies of the harem that she liberated all 130 of her slaves. In 1868 Leonowens returned to England to regain her health.

Anna Leonowens brought out a very interesting book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, at Boston USA in the year 1870 anil followed it with The Romance of Siamese Harem Life in 1873. Leonowens was friends with Henry Longfellow’s family and may have met the poet himself since she knew a number of his friends. In 1944 Margaret Landon fictionalized Leonowens’s account in her popular book, Anna and the King of Siam. The King is largely considered to be a barbarian by those in the West, and he seeks Anna's assistance in changing his image, if not his ways. While both keep a firm grip on their respective traditions and values, Anna and the King grow to understand - and eventually, respect - one another. Landon’s tale was immortalized in film, television, and on Broadway. Based on this true story, East meets West in the extraordinary Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote only two musicals about people who actually lived. Before the Trapp family in The Sound of Music there was The King and I (1951), the movie starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.

King Mongkut was also very interested in science and astronomy and calculated that there would be a full solar eclipse at Wa Ko, Prachuab Khiri Khan Province. During that time there were very few Western scientists who could do so. The king went to see the solar eclipse and, because of the journey, he had a bad attack of malaria and died two weeks later. Conservatives at court remained strong, and the king's death from malaria in 1868 postponed pending reform projects.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:43:07 ZULU