Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 25
The new king was a real scholar who brilliantly knew Buddhism and Pali. He also knew Latin and English langages well. He was the first and the only king in Asia during that time who corresponded in English with the head of states in Europe and America.
Prince Mongkut was born as the second son in 1804; his father was King Rama II and his mother, Queen Sri Suriyendra. Prince Mongkut was brought up as a Royal and was never in awe of Court surroundings. He learned much at his father's knee as he had an inquisitive, inquiring mind and was of a scholarly disposition. Although many regarded Prince Mongkut as the heir apparent, the Siamese Throne passed to his elder half-brother (Rama III) and, in his 20th year, Prince Mongkut entered the Buddhist priesthood. As a Buddhist monk (and subsequently Abbot), Prince Mongkut put aside all of the royal trappings and devoted himself to his faith and the teachings of Lord Buddha.
He learned Pali (the ancient language of Buddhist Scriptures) and he discovered the life-style of ordinary Siamese people as he wandered on pilgrimages throughout Siam. This revolution is the result of his long monkhood of 27 years. He travelled barefoot throughout Siam, living on handouts and learning how ordinary people lived. That was his opportunity for getting to know the way of his subjects really lived. His experience was of great value in preparing him for the task of governing the country as a king, Prince Mongkut loved people (and they loved him) because he often talked with farmers and lay-folk as well as offering them guidance in the ways of Buddhism. Not only did Prince Mongkut chat with working class rural and city folk; he also had a great ear for visiting missionaries from overseas.
Prince Mongkut developed good friendships and learned foreign languages with educated foreign residents. Roman Catholic Monsignor Pallegoix taught Latin meanwhile Dr. Dan Bradley and other Christian Missionary members taught English.
He liked to compare the beliefs and merits of Buddhism with Christianity so he would avidly welcome scholars and missionaries from Western lands. Besides religion being discussed there were other interesting topics as well languages, mathematics and astronomy were to the fore. From such contacts with Westerners, and erudite studies, Prince Mongkut learned Latin and, more importantly, English (both spoken and written). In a letter to an American friend before he himself ascended to the Throne, Prince Mongkut explained his name and title as follows: "Chao" corresponds to the English word "Lord", or the Latin word Dominus.
"Fah" means the sky, but when used with a person's name it becomes an adjective of exaltation, equivalent to the phrase "as high as the sky". Mongkut means "crown". The name Chao Fah Mongkut thus means "The High Prince of the Crown", or "His Royal Highness the Crown Prince". He was anxious that other Royal Court members be likewise trained in this foreign language. Once he ascended the throne, he invited the wives of two missionaries Dr. Bradley, Dr. Jones, and Mr. Matton's wife to teach English to the young ladies between the age of 16-21. Three years later, Mrs. Anna Leonowens from Singapore was hired to teach English to the King of Siam's children for four years.
Foreigners English, Americans, Dutch, Protuguese and Malay were permitted to attend the coronation ceremony and stood behind the Siamese officials who sat on the floor.
A keen reader of English newspapers (from Singapore), King Mongkut read of the Crimean War, of Bessemer steel and the "Industrial Revolution" in England, of President Abraham Lincoln and was aware of the imperial leanings of both Great Britain and France. He knew he would have to guide his Kingdom carefully if it was to avoid being colonized. King Mongkut was determined, to the best of his ability, to keep the core of Siam it's heart and soul free from any hostile takeover! His nation did not have the might to repel aggressive forces but thanks to his education and knowledge, King Mongkut possessed the friendship and respect of many influential Westerners. It was this quality that assisted the Siamese Monarch in his talks and negotiations with overseas powers.
Being a priest throughout the reign of King Rama 3, Prince Mongkut often made pilgrimages to various places in the country. He discovered many improtant things, such as the stone inscriptions of King Ram Kamhaeng, who invented Thai letters, and the stone throne of King Ram Kamhaeng.
The Spice Islands of Indonesia were in the hands of the Dutch and even the enormous Middle Kingdom of China was feeling the sway of colonialism at Hong Kong, Macau, Canton, Fuchow, Shanghai and other "Treaty" ports. Everywhere that King Mongkut looked he witnessed expansionism! But King Mongkut was prepared to demonstrate that primitive barbarians were not people of his nation; that Siam was a nation of culture with its own history of language, religion and civilization. Mutual understanding and respect was what King Mongkut wanted and offered to the overseas giants.
In the reign of King Rama 3, the Christian Missionaries came to Siam to spread Christianity to the people. In 1836 Dr. Dan Beach Bradley M.D., member of A.B.C.F.M. Protestant Mission came to Bangkok to spread Christian Teaching and to introduce modern medicine to Siam.
On the home front, King Mongkut was able to maintain a balance of power, of the Nobility, within his Kingdom. He did this by elevating his brother to be Second King and gently retiring the "old guard" from positions of power in government while promoting young, suitably qualified members to the vacated ministries. So as one elderly Noble retired, a son (from the same Noble family) was promoted. This tactic satisfied most and kept a balance of power coupled with administrative skills. The ordinary subjects of Siam, too, saw a different approach they were now allowed to look at their Monarch as he passed in procession. Indeed, they were able to petition King Mongkut directly if they had a serious grievance. The King also opened the door for his subjects to experience some Western ways education, printing and medicines came with visiting missionaries.
Although King Mongkut did not have total success in discussions with the imperial giants (territory east of the Mae Khong River would eventually be colonized by France while vassal Malayan States would be ceded to Britain), he did protect and preserve the living body of Siam. The King did this by cultivating friendships with foreign ambassadors and balancing one colonizing power against the other. Sir John Bowring and Sir Harry Orde (British diplomats) became personal friends. King Mongkut also wrote letters of friendship to world leaders to Queen Victoria (he addressed her as "Dear Sister" since they were both Royalty), to Emperor Napoleon III and Princess Eugenie of France, and to President Abraham Lincoln. King Mongkut made other Heads of State aware of friendly Siam and that he was an intelligent, educated, cultured King of a non-belligerent, co-operative nation!
His Majesty King Mongkut was greatly interested in astronomy. He correctly calculated the time and place of a total eclipse of the sun, which occurred on August 18, 1868, and pinpointed a remote village in Prajuab Khirikhan, on the west coast of the Gulf of Siam, as the place where it could be clearly seen. The King invited many dignitaries, including the Governor of Singapore, Henry Orde. The French Government sent a large party of scientists.
In his letter of invitation, Sir Henry Orde, who came by sea, the King told him to come to the place at "East Greenwich longitude 99 degrees 42' and latitude North 11 degrees 39' ". The total eclipse of the sun, which lasted six minutes and 46 seconds, occurred exactly as the King had predicted two years earlier and the European scientists conceded that he was a brilliant mathematician and real astronomer.
His Majesty's effort to learn English at an advanced age and become an expert in a western science, however, met a sad end. The King's pavilion for viewing the eclipse was built on low ground in a mosquito-infested spot. Soon after his return to Bangkok, His Majesty fell seriously ill from malaria caught at the site, and his eldest 15 years son, Prince Chulalongkorn, who had gone with him to watch the eclipse. His Majesty King Mongkut passed away on the night of October 18, 1868. It was 64th birthday.
In modern terms of public relations for the Kingdom of Siam, King Mongkut was a hard act to follow. The threats of colonization did not immediately disappear but passed to King Mongkut's son, Prince Chulalongkorn, when he became Sovereign. But King Mongkut had taught his son well, and assured him of a magnificent education, so the Kingdom of Siam continued to be independent and free. The public relations slogan "Amazing Thailand" may not be as recent as one thinks!
See related articles (History of Ayutthaya):
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Last modified on: December 03 2012