October the 23rd commemoratesthe death in 1910 of King Chulalongkorn, fifth ruler of the Chakri dynasty, Rama V of Siam; a monarch so revered by his people that even today his portrait hangs alongside that of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in public and private premises throughout Thailand.King Mongut is correctly credited with creating the blueprint that led to the modernization of Siam, but it was his son, King Chulalongkorn, who put that master plan into action.
Having greatness thrust upon him following the untimely death of his father, Prince Chulalongkorn, at the tender age of fifteen, began a five-year regency during which he completed his academic studies at home and abroad. Clearly wise beyond his years, the young prince paid heed to the political and diplomatic skills employed by the colonial powers of Great Britain and France as they gobbled up huge swathes of territory through the world. Chulalongkorn visited the colonized neighbors of Myanmar (Burma), Malaya and present - day Indonesia, seeing at first hand the vast improvements made to each country by their respective colonial masters: sound government, modern technology, education, health and welfare, public transport systems, and so on.
In his vision for a new Siam, the Prince Regent resolved to adopt these systems with the caveat that colonization of his country by a foreign power was to be resisted with every fibre of his being.
A glaring example of the guile employed by Great Britain to this end came in a seemingly helpful offer from that country's monarch, Queen Victoria. She proposed that her British East India Company build a railroad for Siam to improve public transportation, trade and commerce. Chulalongkorn had studied the creation and operation of the vast British Empire, and while welcoming the royal offer, politely declined. He then invited other European nations to bid for the contract to build Siam's railroad system. When bidding closed, Chulalongkorn took the best qualities from each bidder and formed a consortium, thereby avoiding the need to give control to any one foreign nation. Siam got its railroad, and Queen Victoria had to look elsewhere in the search to expand her empire.
During his reign, King Rama V continued to travel and to encourage foreign heads of state and other dignitaries to visit Siam.
And so it was that in 1881 King Chulalongkorn welcomed to Siam a fellow visionary and world traveller, Kalakaua, the 7th and last King of Hawaii.
King Kalakaua, faced with a population shortage, had embarked on a world tour to encourage immigration - in effect a search for cheap labor to work on the great sugar plantations in Hawaii. That observation may be seen by some as uncharitable, given that King Kalakaua was known to harbor a dream of a culturally pluralistic world where races, cultures and religions could live together in harmony and independence.
The hard economic facts of the day, however, point to Hawaii's dwindling population (less than 40,000 in 1881) and the obvious labor shortage that threatened its economy.
Kalakaua boarded the steamer, The Killarney, manned by an Irish captain and a Chinese crew, and steamed south from Hong Kong, across the South China Sea, into the Gulf of Siam, anchoring at the bar of the Menan which meaned "Chao Praya River".
Since Hawaii had no diplomatic representation in Siam, the king and his party expected no formal welcome upon arrival, and engaged a tug boat to carry them from The Killarney some twenty miles upriver to Bangkok. As the tug approached the customs office on the riverbank, a steam yacht flying the Royal Standard of Siam hove to alongside and a sailor asked whether the King of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) was on board. When told that His Majesty King Kalakaua was indeed aboard the tug, a deputation of five Siamese officers, resplendent in crisp, white uniforms, boarded the vessel and invited the king to be the guest of his Majesty King Rama V of Siam.
The visiting royal was astonished: firstly to be addressed in English, then to realize that his visit had been expected. The Siamese consul in Hong Kong had advised his government by letter that the King of Hawaii was the guest of the British crown in that colony, and had indicated that Bangkok would be his next port of call. It was then decided that this visiting monarch would be afforded the full measure of Siamese hospitality during his stay.
The party boarded the royal yacht; were seated on deck beneath an awning to protect them from the fierce heat of the day, and a European luncheon was served.
Steaming upriver toward the capital, the visitors were delighted to see coconut palms along the embankment, reminding them of their native Hawaii. As the yacht passed forts along the riverbank, royal salutes were fired from the ramparts and no sooner had the yacht dropped anchor in Bangkok than a royal barge moved alongside to ferry the visitors to a nearby landing.
The barge also bore the royal standard of Siam, had twenty oarsmen, and was ornately decorated with a canopy of silk and gold embroidery. The vessel came alongside the landing where a carpet had been laid from the water's edge to the nearby street, and as the visitors emerged they found a large number of soldiers standing to attention beside a row of royal carriages, driven by coachmen dressed in red and gold uniforms lined with yellow, and sporting unbrushed silk hats.
The carriages, accompanied by cavalrymen, conveyed the visitors to a palace where they were housed in spacious apartments with high ceilings and rich furniture. Several princes entertained the royal party, speaking to them in English and giving orders to a small army of attendants who catered to the visitors' every wish.
Being somewhat homesick, members of the royal party expressed their desire to drink the refreshing water from coconuts they had seen on palm trees in the palace grounds. Servants rushed out of the building, returning minutes later laden with fresh, young coconuts from which they extracted the water for their honored guests.
An audience with King Chulalongkorn had been scheduled for the following day and the visitors retired early.The following day saw the return of the royal carriages, and the guests were transported to the grand palace to meet with the King of Siam.Arriving at the royal palace, set in about ten acres of private parkland, the Hawaiian monarch led his party across a red carpet and into the palace where they were greeted by King Rama V, King Chulalongkorn.
The Kings spoke to one another in English as they passed through several rooms en route to the audience-chamber deep inside the palace. The chamber was furnished in European style with carpets, sofas and chairs, and on the walls hung many portraits of former monarchs.
The kings spoke at length about language, education, labor, religion and foreign affairs. Both men had traveled extensively and shared many an anecdote from their visits to foreign lands.
King Kalakaua praised the beautiful temples, chedis, and pagodas he had seen in the capital, expressing at the same time regret that his people possessed no skills for the construction of such buildings.
That evening, the King of Hawaii and his entourage again boarded the royal barge and were taken down the river to the residence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The minister proved to be an intelligent man who, like his sovereign, had a mind open to Western ideas. There followed a lavish, European style banquet, after which the visitors were led to a balcony overlooking the city of Bangkok. The Hawaiian monarch remarked that it resembled a floating city as far as the eye could see, with temple spires rising here and there, and single-storey houses stretching far inland.
The next day saw the visitors given the rare privilege of seeing the interior of the royal chapel where King Chulalongkorn had fasted and prayed before his coronation.
In this superbly ornamented building stood a large image of Buddha with jewelled eyes, and surrounded by artificial flowers studded with diamonds.
The visitors then returned to their own palatial quarters to prepare for the reciprocal visit by the King of Siam. King Chulalongkorn's arrival was closely followed by cabinet ministers and the members of the consular corps.
That evening the visitors were treated to a display of music and dance in the form of a traditional play.
The following day saw the Hawaiian King's party return to the royal palace for a farewell banquet in their honor. Arriving in the courtyard, they found a regiment of soldiers lined up and bearing hundreds of torches to light the way to the palace entrance. One inside, they were again welcomed by King Chulalongkorn who led his guests to the audience-chamber where a band struck up the Hawaiian national anthem; the music for which King Kalakaua had played on a piano the previous day for the benefit of the Siamese band master.
King Chulalongkorn then bestowed upon his royal guest the Grand Cross of the Order of Siam, before receiving from the Hawaiian king the Order of Kamehameha. The lavish feast began and Kalakaua asked that the military band to play typical Siamese music, and he detected a similarity to the music of Hawaii.
During the feast, a young prince asked one of the visitors if Hawaii was in the control of foreigners as he saw only white men in King Kalakaua's entourage. The question would receive a very different answer in the not too distant future as America colonized Hawaii before making it one of the United States.
Their appetites satisfied by the lavish spread, King Chulalongkorn's guests retired for the night. The following morning, the King of Siam ordered that photographs be taken of his guests before they made their departure.
Then, with all the pomp and ceremony befitting a royal visit, King Kalakaua and his party were driven to the landing; the royal barge, with the stately movements of its twenty four oars, brought them alongside the steamer "Bangkok," where Buddhist monks, on behalf of the Siamese owner of the steamer, passed a white string around the ship and hung wreaths of flowers in the saloon. Kneeling, they gave a blessing to the ship and all aboard her before going ashore.
The royal hospitality of Siam had filled the ship's lockers with mangosteens, durians and young coconuts. Royal salutes were fired from the battlements of every fort along the riverbank as the steamer headed downriver to the Gulf of Siam and onward to the Malay peninsula.
Both kings had shared their love of travel, education, music and modernization; the monarchs delighting in the discovery that they had much in common.
Both kingdoms, however, went their very separate ways; Hawaii to be colonized by the Americans before gaining full statehood. Siam, or even today's Thailand, never to be colonized by any foreign power, and for the country's people to retain to this day their adoration and respect for the great Kings of the Chakri Dynasty.
See related articles (King Chulalongkorn, Rama 5):
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