Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 27
In his early reign, King Chulalongkorn was a minor. All government functions had been taken care by the regent. The king had opportunities to make observation and study tours. In 1870 having been informed that the trip would be a long journey, he went instead to Singapore is land and Semarang, a major city on Java island. One year later, he traveled to India and Burna. After meeting with those countries' government officials, His Majesty become acquainted with their various systems and customs.
As was traditional in the Siamese Court, a "Co-King or Second King" was appointed; although opposed by some Nobility, the Regent engineered the choice of Second King perhaps fearing that young King Chulalongkorn would not survive an earlier illness. The Co-King was Grom Phra Rajawang Boworn Wichaicharn and he would accede to the Throne if King Chulalongkorn should die before reaching his 20th birthday. The prince was thirty-two at that time and was able candidate for the throne, but was thus sidelined. He was the son of Co-King Pinklao (during the reign of Rama IV) who named him as "Prince George Washington" after a British King and American President.
Nevertheless, King Chulalongkorn had learned well from his late father and was not prepared to idle away his teenage years. He asserted his will to travel and to learn from such travels. Extremely interested in the Great European Powers which had colonized many of Siam's neighbors (and determined to do his best to avoid a similar fate for his beloved Kingdom), teenage King Chulalongkorn travelled to visit Sir Harry Orde, Governor of Singapore and also a family friend of the Siamese Monarchy, and thence on to Java which was then controlled by Dutch colonists.
The most famous of his reforms was the abolition of slavery. He pronounced every person born during his reign free, and took gradual steps to liberate the present slaves by creating incentives for their owners.
Hugely interested in all that he saw (and keeping his aides furiously busy in taking notes!), King Chulalongkorn further travelled to the Raj of British India where he was received, with pomp and ceremonial, by Queen Victoria's Viceroy Lord Mayo. King Chulalongkorn was gratified by the welcome he had received from the officers of the Colonial Powers and learned much about their methods and means of governance. If the Kingdom of Siam was to modernize, as had been the wish of his late father, King Chulalongkorn knew that he had to rule decisively, diplomatically and skillfully. He did so with a wisdom that was beyond his years.
Even before the State Ceremonial of his Coronation had finished, King Chulalongkorn began his "Revolution from the Top". As Siam's nobility and military leaders prostrated themselves full-length before the newly crowned ruler, King Chulalongkorn announced, "His Majesty proposes to substitute, in place of crouching and crawling on all-fours, standing upright with a graceful bow of the head..." The gathered assembly of the mighty and powerful drew themselves to a standing position and, with quiet dignity, the collective heads bowed to their new king. That such homage was more suitable was something that King Chulalongkorn had learned from his travels and from his father King Mongkut.
Change and reform continued during the following years as nothing seemed to escape King Chulalongkorn 's attention or his desire for the overall welfare of his Kingdom. Slavery (most ordinary Siamese were bonded by some degree of servitude to Noble Families), education and health were all addressed. The conservative, and comfortable Nobility, were not entirely happy with some of the reforms especially with the abolition of hereditary slavery and the centralization of tax-revenue collection. Both of these changes weakened the power of the Nobility, as did the formation of two new committees the Privy Council and Council of State to lend their opinions to their Sovereign.
He later traveled extensively in Europe in 1897 and met the European royalty on equal terms. He was the first Siamese monarch to travel to the West. The King Knew English well. After reading many books on Western history, he was determined to resist foreign domination. knowing their strenght and tactics and he realized that Siam could never use force against them. Instead, King Chulalongkorn based his foreign policy on establishing equal rights for all European powers. He did not want any conforntation and therefore managed to continue friendly relations with each country.
The situation came to a head when a suspicious fire broke out in the Grand Palace and attempts to douse the flames (or otherwise) brought some of the Royal Guards into confrontation with members of the Co-King's army. King Chulalongkorn was furious (as the fire was a scant twelve feet from the palace gasworks and not far from the saltpetre magazine for the Royal Armory). The Co-King, apparently fearing his immediate arrest, fled to the haven of the British Embassy where he remained for a good two months.
In the interim, King Chulalongkorn requested Sir Andrew Clarke (the new Governor of Singapore) to come to Bangkok to mediate in any misunderstanding between King Chulalongkorn and his Co-King. This delicate matter, which also involved the former Regent, was successfully resolved to King Chulalongkorn 's satisfaction (and to that of Sir Andrew Clarke as he reported to the British Government). The reforming decrees of the Siamese Monarch continued although, perhaps, more slowly and less alarmingly for the Nobility.
King Chulalongkorn indicated that Royal Princes and Members of the Nobility should be better educated and established a place of learning for them within the palace compound. For children of his ordinary subjects, the King proclaimed, "All children, from my own to the poorest, should have an equal chance of education". And so began the opening of many schools.
After delighting in the opening of the first public hospital in 1886, King Chulalongkorn and the hospital supervisor, Dr. Peter Cowan, were dismayed to find the hospital could not attract patients despite there being many people in need. Traditional remedies were still to the forefront of Siamese minds and when it was suggested that beggars, suffering from sores, ulcers and other ailments, should be treated at the new hospital, the beggars themselves rejected this invitation feeling that a cure for their afflictions would deprive them of their livelihood! This deficit of patients was finally resolved when members of the hospital committee ordered any of their ailing employees into the hospital for treatment. Under Dr. Cowan's care and supervision, the many which were helped back to good health spread the word and soon the first of King Chulalongkorn 's hospitals had a waiting list!
Chulalongkorn Rama V, King of Siam - whose new broom swept away the old manacles of serfdom, launched Siam onto a river of modernization and progress. More was to follow, as were the King's further travels to the heart of the Colonial Powers Imperial Russia, Europe and Great Britain. Read more of King Chulalongkorn in our next issue.
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