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Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 24
King Mongkut, Rama IV of Siam The King,
The French, The British and the Solar Eclipse


The life-long outstanding monk, known as Khrua-In-Khong, was the great mural-painter in the reign of King Rama4. The king asked him to paint on the walls of the newly-built or renovated temples in Bangkok and provinces. He was regarded as the first Thai painter who adopted a western-style of painting.
To the west of the Kingdom of Siam, Great Britain had colonized what are now Burma/Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India including south Singapore and part of the Malay Peninsula while France was to the east in Vietnam. However, thanks to King Mongkut's statecraft, diplomacy and linguistic skills, the Siamese Monarch had important friends in both the British and French governments. France had taken the Vietnamese city of Saigon in 1859 and soon was knocking at the door of Cambodia.

Cambodia, at the time, was a vassal state of Siam with King Narodom Promborirak at its head. French Admiral de la Grandiere steamed up the Maekong River as far as Udon Meejai and, on 11st August 1863, obliged King Narodom Promborirak to sign a treaty which placed Cambodia under French "protection". When the news reached King Mongkut in Bangkok, the King was furious and sent letters of protest to the French Government in Paris.

To their acute embarrassment, the French Government knew nothing of the affair as Admiral de la Grandiere had acted on his own behalf and without his government's authority. Regrettably and despite its embarrassment, France held on to Cambodia and Siam had to ratify the treaty signed by King Narodom Promborirak. So King Mongkut lost Cambodia! However, French incursions into Laos were staved off when King Mongkut sent a personal Siamese envoy to confer with Emperor Napoleon III and further French expansionism was dropped!


As an astronomy expert, King Mongkut made the calculation and sharply perdicted both the time and the location of the total eclipse of the sun. Wah Gor Village on the southern sea cast of Gulf of Siam's western side was selected by the king as the observation place for the Solar Eclipse Party.
To the south of Siam the Malay States of Kelantan and Trengganu had been under Siamese rule (although the British, who claimed they were "independent", contested this). In 1859, the Sultan of Pahang (the neighboring State) died leaving his two sons in rivalry for the throne. The British supported one son and the other fled to Kelantan to gather support for his claim to the Sultanate. In another incident, the Sultan of Lingga was ousted from his Sultanate and he too ended up in Kelantan. The Sultan of Trengganu was then accused, by the British, of helping these two "refugees" so Governor Cavenaugh, of British Singapore, complained to King Mongkut.

Governor Cavenaugh, an impatient man, did not wait for full replies from Bangkok but sent a British warship to bombard the town and fortress of Trengganu. King Mongkut, upon learning of the bombardment, summoned the British Ambassador to Bangkok, Sir Robert Schomburg, to the Grand Palace. Sir Robert was deeply embarrassed that the Governor of Singapore had acted without first consulting with the British Embassy in Bangkok. And his displeasure Sir Robert conveyed to his Government in London. The British Government agreed that the Governor of Singapore had exceeded his authority and instructed that he was not to place any British warships on a war footing without permission from the British Government. So King Mongkut won a little moral victory and, sometime later, Governor Cavenaugh was replaced by Governor Butterworth and eventually by Sir Harry Orde who became the new Governor of Singapore.


In 1853 King 4 as a young monkfound the ruin of Siam;s largest pagoda in the area of Nakorn pathon province and built the new Chedi to cover the ruins. The famous artist, Khrua In-Khong drew and painted a picture of the Chedi celebration event on the wall of Maha Somnaram temple in Petchaburi.
King Mongkut favored diplomacy and dialogue to solve international difficulties and cultivating friendships with foreign Ambassadors and Envoys also gave him great pleasure. It enabled him to make important contacts and also display traditional Siamese culture and hospitality. Perhaps King Mongkut's escape from State Affairs, and most satisfying "hobby", was astronomy and, in 1868, he accurately calculated a total solar eclipse. The King also forecast that it could be best viewed from a remote place at "East Greenwich longitude 99 degrees 42' and latitude North 11 degree 39'", called Wah Gor Village, Klong Waan Subdistrict (about 15 kms. from the provincial city), Prajuab Khirikhan, on the west coast of the Gulf of Siam in the upper southern part of the Kingdom (The distance from Bangkok : 240 kms. to Hua Hin, and 281 kms. to Prajuab Khirikhan city). Accordingly (and long in advance), invitations were sent out to the Great and the Grand they were invited to a Solar Eclipse Party! The French Government accepted the invitation and would send a group of scientists. Sir Harry Orde, with a British retinue, would sail from Singapore and, likewise, the new British Consul to Bangkok, Mr. Alabaster, would be pleased to attend. If any of the honored guests were dubious about facilities and conditions at Wah Gor they were due for a major surprise. Certainly the place was surrounded by jungle but workmen had been sent, months in advance, to clear the land, construct a Royal Residence and build lavish accommodation for the expected guests. A fully equipped observatory was also established.


Living, traveling, and marketing in canals or klongs were regarded as people's daily life-style during the reign of King Rama4
King Mongkut's personal entourage included several of his wives and children including Prince Chulalongkorn who was the King's eldest son and heir apparent. Numerous Siamese Nobility and Government Officials also joined the Royal vessel, which conveyed them from Bangkok to the newly constructed wharf at Wah Gor. Eventually Singapore Governor, Sir Harry Orde, with several British Officers and their Ladies, disembarked from a British warship and soon the complement of overseas guests was complete. They were more than amazed at what they saw. Guest bungalows most suited for any Gentleman and his Lady, a French chef preparing the meals and fine wines supervised by an Italian Maitre d'Hotel. Magnums of Champagne were chilled in buckets of crushed ice- the ice was more of a luxury than the champagne! Everyone mixed informally throughout the days spent at the Wah Gor Beach Palace and the politeness and English ability of the Royal children particularly entranced the guests.


After the Wah Gortrip, King Rama 4 contracted malaria and became ill in Bangkok since 1st october 1868. He did not recover and passed away on 1st October 1868. With full consciousness, he dictated his secretary to write down his last words of Farewell in Pali language given to all abbots at various temples.
Eclipse day, Tuesday 18th August 1868, proved gray and overcast with rain and clouds rolling in from the south. But all was not lost because, moments after the eclipse began, the clouds parted and serious astronomical observations could be taken. The total eclipse of the sun, lasted six minutes and 46 seconds. The scientific observations and data collected by the Siamese, British and French experts deemed the prediction a complete success. The Solar Eclipse Party had been an educational and fun event plus a social and diplomatic triumph for King Mongkut!

Tragically, the King and his teenage son, Prince Chulalongkorn, had both contracted a fever when in Wah Gor (blackwater fever- related to malaria). Upon returning to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the young Prince slowly recovered but King Mongkut's health did not respond to treatment and gradually declined. The King was not afraid of death and thought again and again of the teachings of Buddha, which he had learned during his 27 years as a monk, and Abbot. So death claimed a Siamese Sovereign, very much at peace with himself, when it took him on 1st October 1868 The King was 64 years of age and had reigned for only 17 years. Thus ended the life of King Mongkut, Rama IV, of Siam-one of Thailand's most educated, forward thinking and enlightened Monarchs.

Bangkok used to have many canals which provided transportation to the citizens. The city was known as "Venice of the East". King Mongkut decided to build modern roads. The two new roads were Bumrungmuang (1863) and Fuengnakoem (1864) Knowing the importance of the English language as will as the difficulties in learning it, King Mongkut hired an English teacher from Singagpore, Miss Anna Leonowens, to teach English to his children including Prince Chulalongkorn and members of royal families in the royal court. King rama 4 liked to travel up country and made close contacts with his subjects. He renovated the old Narai Palace in Lopburi province and built Pra Nakorn Kiree Palace on the top of the hill in Petchaburi province during his visits.
More transportation projects were needed. Canals were the main traffic ways for people. The king assigned his engineers to dig more canals both inside and outside the capital. King Rana 4 summoned british Ambassador to Siam after learning of the attached on one of Siam's vassal Malay States, Trengganu, by the British warship. The Governor of Singapore, Cavenaugh, ordered the bombardmetn without permission from London.

 

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