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Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 23
King Mongkut, Rama IV of Siam
The King as a Statesman


While Prince Narodom Promborirak was being crowned as the ruler of Combodia by King Mongkut in Bangkok, he had to rush bach to Combodia due to the invasion by the French. Once he arrived in Phnom Pen, he was forced by the French commander, Admiral Lagrandiere, to sign a document on 11th August, 1863 to give up Combodia and be under the French Colonization, however, he still submitted tributes to King Rama 4
As an Absolute Monarch we may believe that King Mongkut could merely snap his fingers to have his every wish obeyed. In theory this would be a fair assumption but, in practice, the Siamese King had many internal and external pressures to consider before reaching a decision. King Mongkut's personal agenda was to move Siam forward in progress and prosperity but to do so in a way which did not upset the conservative element of Siam's powerful Nobility nor frustrate foreign powers which might accuse Siam of dragging its coattails when it came to freeing-up trade and commerce.

To achieve these goals required great skills of diplomacy and statecraft. King Mongkut had these skills in full measure! So, just as a high-wire walker moves with grace, skill, patience and balance, King Mongkut pressed his agenda forward slowly but surely with all the balance of that high-wire walker. He had much to lose if he missed a step or failed to keep a diplomatic equilibrium. Internal strife was a possibility and the loss of independence of his nation to either of the colonial powers of Great Britain or France was a probability!


Mom Rachothai (M.R. Gratai Israngkurl), born during King Rama 2's era, was very know ledgable in the English Language. He was one of the members of the Siamese diplomatic mission to Queen Victoria's Court. He wrote a book in poetry verse, "A Journey to London". He granted the copyright permission to Dr. Bradley to publlish his book. It was the first time that a copyright was undertaken in the Siam History.

On the domestic scene King Mongkut's brother, Prince Chudamani, had a strong political following (and a personal army!) and may well have been troublesome, however, with commendable foresight, King Mongkut elevated his brother to be Second King (Phra Pin Klao) which satisfied Prince Chudamani's immediate ambitions. Likewise, the loyalty of the rich and influential Bunnag Family (which had migrated from Persia in the early 1600's) had to be maintained but King Mongkut didn't wish to be "mill-stoned" by the Bunnag's conservative "old guard".

The Noble Bunnag Family had dominated the Government Ministries of the Phraklang and Kalahom for more than two decades so the Senior Member was accorded even higher title and rank before being gently retired. King Mongkut then brought young and progressive thinking members of the Noble Bunnags into government. By such domestic strategies, King Mongkut consolidated his personal political foundations and maintained balance and harmony within his kingdom.

In 1855, overseas relations got off to a splendid beginning with the Bangkok visit of Sir John Bowring. Sir John was the ambassador from Great Britain, representing the world's most powerful person of the time Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria, and he had been forewarned (see our April issue) to expect a less than cordial welcome. King Mongkut had recently acceded to the Siamese Throne (upon the death of Rama III) so "rolled out the red carpet" to welcome Queen Victoria's representative. Sir John Bowring was most impressed by the new Siamese King and reported as much to his own monarch and government. In fact, such was the personal style, charisma and charm of King Mongkut; he was to become a firm friend to many visitors from foreign nations.


After Emperor Napoleon 3 of France sent M. De Montigny as an envoy to sign the treaty with Siam in 1856, King Mongkut gave an dudience to the French envoys. In return, he sent the Siamese envoys in 1860 led by Phraya Sripipat who were given an audience by Nopoleon 3.
The background to King Mongkut's ability lay in his 27 years as a working Buddhist monk and Abbot. During that time he had acquired many foreign friends, who were residing in Siam, in his pursuit of his many "hobbies". King Mongkut had become fluent in English and was fascinated by news from other countries as well as mathematics, astrology and astronomy the latter being one of his favorite past times. On becoming King, Mongkut was already extremely well versed in protocol, the English language and how to offer hospitality and discourse to visitors whether they were diplomats or church clerics. And it was all done with the unique charm and tradition of Siamese culture!

In his passion to keep up with what was going on abroad (and thereby know how best to protect Siamese interests), King Mongkut regularly read newspapers from the British Colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong. Such newspapers were brought to Bangkok aboard Siam's newly acquired, iron steamships, which were proving such valuable links in the nation's developing trade and commerce.


The hand shake was a western greeting tradition which was accepted by King Rama 4. In 1866, he offered a hand shake to Prince Gawila of Chiangmai. That was the first time the King ever shook hands with a Siamese of Thai.

King Mongkut did not wait in the Grand Palace for the world to come to him. In as far as he could, he went to the world! The King was an avid letter writer! So he made himself, and his Kingdom of Siam, known to leaders of other nations. He communicated with several American Presidents and in 1861 President Abraham Lincoln, amidst the sore and agonizing trials of Civil War, received a letter from King Mongkut which offered two elephants (male & female!) as the King had learned the President did not have such "war machines". Although touched by this kindly offer, President Lincoln had to respond that he did not think elephants would survive in the cold, alien environment of North America. Emperor Napoleon III of France begged to differ so when he received a letter from King Mongkut, with a similar offer, he dispatched a warship to embark two elephants at Bangkok so that they might be conveyed to Paris Zoo!

King Mongkut was in the business of advancing his nation through statecraft and diplomacy and he was graciously careful not to tread on the toes of those mightier than he was. Treaties had already been signed with Great Britain and further treaties were agreed with France, Prussia, the Hanseatic League, Australia, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and the United States. By having powerful, personal friends in many countries King Mongkut was able to balance his foreign affairs and so he hoped that no single foreign power would ever pose a threat to his beloved Siam.

During 1857 King Mongkut decided to send a letter and envoy to the Monarch he admired most Queen Victoria. The letter and envoy were carried to Great Britain aboard a British warship and both were well received by that imperious lady. King Mongkut referred to Queen Victoria as "Our most respected and distinguished Friend, and by race of the royalty our very affectionate Sister" but he deferred to Queen Victoria's worldwide power by declaring himself "Your obedient and humble servant". Queen Victoria's reply, carried aboard HMS Auckland to Bangkok by Her Consul to Hong Kong, Harry S. Parkes, revealed how moved she had been by King Mongkut's oriental eloquence because she concluded her letter with the words, "Your affectionate sister and friend".

The statecraft and diplomacy of King Mongkut was legend at the time and it is ironic that two of his favorite occupations being hospitable to overseas guests and astronomy should lead to his untimely death. Our next issue will reveal what happened!

See related articles (History of Ayutthaya):


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