Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 20
Changes from King Nangklao (Rama III)
to King Mongkut (Rama IV)
Until the time of his death in 1851, Rama III had reigned for twenty-seven years during which the Chakri Dynasty became even more firmly established. Regional conflicts with Laos and Cambodia were dealt with firmly but King Nangklao was less sure what to do about increasing pressures from Western nations. By nature he was a conservative Monarch and, providing trade and commerce was comfortable for Siam. He was reluctant to open his kingdom to further commercialism or foreign demands. Standard trade agreements had been signed with several Western nations but, as the Siamese Crown had a "middle-man" monopoly on all forms of commerce, many merchants regarded this as a restrictive practice. They wanted a freeing-up of regulations and the ability to deal directly with producers instead of having to negotiate constantly with the King and His Court Ministers.
Such was the situation in 1850 when the U.S. Presidential Envoy, Joseph Balestier, arrived in Bangkok with the express task of conferring with King Nangklao to find ways to improve Treaty and trade relations. Rama III declined to receive Mr. Balestier but, instead, delegated his Phra Klang (Finance Minister) to do so. The U.S. Envoy's brief was to confer with the Siamese King only but, as he was not permitted, he returned to the United States in a less than happy mood.
The following year, 1851, King Rama III was taken ill so it is understandable that he did not personally receive Sir James Brooke representing Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria. Sir James, also wishing to discuss the liberalization of trade and access, was likewise received by the Phra Klang. The Phra Klang indicated that the Trade Agreement with Great Britain was similar to agreements with other countries and, therefore, had no need for change. Sir James Brooke the White Rajah of Borneo (Sarawak) was furious at this slight.
Sir James subsequently wrote to a colleague "Siam is, however, a country well worthy of attention and, in commercial point of view, second only to China, but the Government is as arrogant as that of China, and the King, in comparison, is inimical to Europeans. We may wait till the demise of the king brings about a new order of things. Above all, it would be well to prepare for the change, and to place our own king on the throne.." Would Great Britain have forced the issue by placing their own man on the Siamese Throne? We shall never know because, as events transpired, King Nangklao, Rama III, died on 2nd April 1851. But it is a point speculated upon by HRH Prince Chula Chakrabongse (great-grandson of King Mongkut) who wrote, "It is almost the general belief that if King Nangklao had lived a little longer the disputes might have led to more serious consequences".
Rama III had not named his successor so it was left to the Council of Ministers to elect their new Monarch. Although the late King had fathered 22 sons, the Ministers decided that the late King's half-brother, Prince Mongkut, was the best possible choice for the Crown of Siam and how right they were.
Prince Mongkut was the son of King Lert-Lah (Rama II) and his Royal Queen, so was of the purest Chakri line. He had entered a monastery at the age of 20 and worked and studied as a monk until called to be king at 47 years. Prince Mongkut was an able scholar with immense curiosity about life, religion, people, language, science and astronomy. In short, not only was he a Prince of the Blood, Prince Mongkut was an extremely intelligent and well-educated man. Also, he was fluent in English both the spoken and written words and looked upon progress with interest and discernment. On 22nd May 1851 he was crowned King Mongkut (Rama IV) of Siam to great rejoicing of his people. As a Buddhist monk for 27 years, King Mongkut knew the people, had travelled around their villages, accepted their gifts of food and given them spiritual guidance. Now he was their King and the people were happy.
One of King Mongkut's early decrees was for his subjects' right to petition their Monarch. A huge drum had stood outside the Royal Palace and, traditionally, a person could bang on the drum if he wished to be heard by his King. However, the tradition had long fallen into disuse and no one now dared hit the drum. King Mongkut changed that by appearing in public, once a week, and personally listening to petitions.
King Mongkut handled relations with Great Britain, so strained during the latter reign of Rama III, with diplomacy, tact, intelligence and skill. In 1855, Sir John Bowring, on behalf of H.M. Queen Victoria, arrived in Bangkok. Forewarned by his predecessor Sir James Brooke, Sir John was not prepared to allow his Queen, or himself, be demeaned in any way. Arriving from Singapore on the warship HMS Rattler with HMS Grecian in attendance, Sir John Bowring sought audience with King Mongkut not with any Phra Klang. At such an audience, he indicated, it would not be fitting for him to "crawl like Eastern people" nor remove his shoes nor relinquish his sword of office.
King Mongkut granted an audience to Sir John Bowring and, with finesse and charm, completely disarmed Queen Victoria's Envoy. As Sir John reported, Royal Barges conveyed the entourage to the landing place and, when summoned to the Audience Hall, "the Plenipotentiary and all officers proceeded there on foot without laying aside any portion of their dress". After bowing three times to His Majesty King Mongkut, Rama IV, of Siam, Sir John Bowring was warmly greeted by the Siamese Monarch and was seated, about 10 meters before the Throne, in line with the highest Siamese Nobles. His reception and the civilized, diplomatic handling of all events impressed Sir John Bowring to the highest degree.
Such was the style of King Mongkut of Siam a progressive, learned Sovereign who was to do much for his Kingdom. We shall read more in our next issue.