Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 26
Rama V : King Chulalongkorn The Beginning
23 October commemorates the death of Maharaj (the Great) King Chulalongkorn, Rama V of Siam (20 September 1853 - 23 October 1910). On this date Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit will pay respects to their illustrious ancestor at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok. The day is a Public Holiday in Thailand and many people will pay homage to King Chulalongkorn at his equestrian statue in Bangkok. If King Chulalongkorn were alive today, he would be 150 years old. The United Nations' UNESCO voted him as world outstanding leader this year which is recognized on this 150 year anniversary. UNESCO emphasized that King Chulalongkorn contributed his work to promote international understanding, closer relations among people and peace especially in the six areas of education, culture, social science, humanities, social development, and mass communication.
Rama IV, King Mongkut Buddhist Monk, Statesman, Educator and Absolute Monarch of Siam was dead. He died on 1st October 1868 from a form of blackwater fever (related to malaria) which he had contracted when hosting a Solar Eclipse party (at the Wah Gor "Jungle Palace") for foreign diplomats and friends. The Heir Apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, also attended the Royal Party and, likewise, was stricken by fever. King Mongkut died and teenaged Prince Chulalongkorn survived to become Rama V, King Chulalongkorn.
King Chulalongkorn is one of the most revered monarchs of Siam and, even today, many homes, shops and offices offer respect by displaying his portrait (as well as that of the present monarch H.M. King Bhumibol, Rama IX) and other likenesses. A slightly built, moustached figure, King Chulalongkorn was the Sovereign who, building on his father's teachings, brought Siam very much closer to a modernizing world while keeping his Kingdom independent and free. But the beginning was a delicate series of stepping-stones over which he had to pass. The reason he was too young to rule!
Born on 20 September 1853, Prince Chulalongkorn was the son of King Mongkut and Queen Thepsirinthara. From his earliest childhood he was groomed in the ways of the Royal Court protocol and responsibilities. He was also tutored regularly in basic subjects and, in addition, was brought up to be fluent in English. The Prince had specialized tutors (mostly from overseas) for his wide ranging curriculum but he also learned much from his father, King Mongkut, and had inherited his father's inquiring mind. By the time he was thirteen he was of such responsible bearing he was able to supervise the Monarch's Royal Guards (although his father had not yet appointed him as Second King). At his father's side, he had also met many important visitors to the Grand Palace including ambassadors and envoys from overseas. Prince Chulalongkorn was being well prepared for kingship but he had no idea how soon the mantle would fall on his shoulders. On 1st October 1868 his father died!
Only 15 years of age, Prince Chulalongkorn had now become King Rama V, and he was still weakened from the blackwater fever which had claimed his father. Siam's House of Nobles decided that a Regency must be formed; a Regency that would govern Siam until the King reached his 20th year. The man chosen for the supreme rank of Regency Chairman was from one of Siam's noblest and most capable families the Noble "Bunnags" (who had migrated from Persia to Siam centuries earlier) he was Jao Phraya Suriyawong.
Prince Yodyingyot headed the Royal Office and Treasury. Perhaps not expecting King Chulalongkorn to survive the malarial illness, it is interesting that Regent Jao Phraya Suriyawong proposed that the eldest son of second (Deputy) King Pin Klao who shared the throne with King Mongkut and made great contributions to the country Prince Yodyingyot (who, strangely, sometimes took the name "George Washington"), to be Second (Deputy) King with the royal rank of Maha Uparaj as H.R.H. Grom Phra Rajawang Boworn Wichaicharn. This proposal was challenged, but overruled. Had King Chulalongkorn died before his 20th year, the result of this maneuver could have afforded Jao Phraya Suriyawong long-term power.
Happily, the Regency was largely benign and King Chulalongkorn (well recovered from his illness) was able to work with the members. It is not the Siamese way to be aggressive but young King Chulalongkorn, well aware of his Royal Prerogative, was assertive when it came to realizing his own wishes.
Two of the items on King Chulalongkorn's personal agenda were travel and knowledge of the colonizing superpowers (Great Britain & France) which hovered around his Kingdom. The young King, fluent in English and informed by his father about many European affairs, wanted to visit Europe and see for himself how the colonial giants functioned. By such knowledge, King Chulalongkorn hoped to avoid the colonial jaws that had snapped up Indo-China, the Malayan Peninsula, Burma and India. However, the Regency was alarmed that one so young wished to go as far as Europe so a compromise was reached! King Chulalongkorn would travel abroad (the first Siamese Monarch to do so since the Sukhothai period) on tours of the colonies of the Great Powers. This suited King Chulalongkorn just fine as he would have the opportunity to study the colonial powers within the King's own Asian setting.
In 1870, the Royal Yacht "Pitayam-Ronnayoot" , with 17 year old King Chulalongkorn aboard, set sail for British Singapore. The King was royally welcomed to Singapore by the Governor (he had already been introduced to Sir Harry Orde who had attended the Siamese Royal Eclipse Party) and was acquainted with other Singaporean administrative officials. Next stop for the royal yacht was the Dutch controlled islands of Sumatra and Java (now part of Indonesia). Again a warm welcome was afforded and the King was immediately able to compare similarities and differences between the British and Dutch colonial systems. Not only interested in seeing the sights, King Chulalongkorn asked many pointed questions relating to conditions of the local people, how revenue was raised, education policies, transportation needs and plans indeed, his own accompanying Siamese officials were hard pressed to keep up with their young Sovereign and take notes of all that was discussed.
After this successful and informative tour to Southeast Asia, King Chulalongkorn returned to Bangkok where he gave the benefit of his thoughts and observations to the governing Regency. But there had to be more. Singapore, although commercially busy, was territorially small and the Spice Islands didn't really give a view of the "big picture". The King needed to see and learn MORE!
The following year, 1871, King Chulalongkorn boarded the Royal Yacht "Bangkok" and steamed off to what was the Jewel of Queen Victoria's Crown British India! Thanks to groundwork laid down by his father, The Kingdom of Siam was well known (and regarded) by Raj administrators so there was no hesitation in receiving young King Chulalongkorn. Again questions were asked and answered governance, administration, commerce, taxation, medical facilities, army training and so on. In this way the King learned a lot about custom and practice of governing European and civil authorities. Such knowledge would help him enormously, and his Kingdom of Siam, in the years to come.
King Chulalongkorn came of age in 1873 and was crowned on 16 October of that year. As Absolute Monarch, His Majesty King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, of Siam would prove to be one of the greatest Sovereigns, Ruler, Leader and Father to his Kingdom of Siam. (Read the next chapter in our November issue)