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!
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 (he 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 (who also was a family friend of the Siamese Monarchy), and thence on to Java which was then controlled by Dutch colonists. 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 ceremony, 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.
The young King began to travel and observe more the countries around him. Malaya, Bali (presently Indonesia), and Burma, were all visited and the King was able to see firsthand the influence of the controlling, colonial powers. King Chulalongkorn could see and understand the benefits of European technology, government systems and commerce which would greatly assist in developing Thailand. So the King wanted to maintain the closets of links with the colonial powers - - especially Great Britain - - but not so close that Siam could be swallowed up and become another colony. Siamese independence was to be treasured at all costs even if that meant a slower growth of change. It took a lot of personal negotiating and diplomatic skills, both at home and abroad, but King Chulalongkorn was more than able to meet the challenge.
One of the King's great skills was making haste slowly and striking a guiding balance between opposing interests. Possibly His Majesty's most gratifying achievement, at home, was freeing His subjects from slavery. Unfortunately, many of his people were born into serfdom but the King made it his business to introduce legislation in 1905 which gradually freed his subjects from lives of unpaid servitude. So that such persons would have proper work and income, King Chulalongkorn introduced many new government schemes, including health programs, which began to raise standards for the ordinary people.
Colonization and western influences were coming to Asia and some other parts of the world. King Chulalongkorn had to speed up his modern programs on government structure, economy, transportation, and defence. The State Railway Department was established in 1890, and the concession of the first Bangkok-Samutpragarn railway construction was granted to a Belgo-Danish company in the following year. The State Railway Department started to build the first government's Railway of Bangkok-Nakorn Rajsima in 1896. King Chulalongkorn and Queen Saovapha Phongsri presided over the opening ceremony of the spike installing on the track.
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 of 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!
King Chulalongkorn visited Europe twice, 1897 and 1907, during his reign. He built up close friendly relationships with the state heads: Russia, England, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Those friendships greatly benefited Siam.
Foreign experts were engaged to assist in various fields and, generally, these were good men with a sincere desire to assist King Chulalongkorn in the development of Siam - - but the hidden agenda of their governments was, perhaps, another matter. The "neighbors" were France to the East (French Indo-China Colonies) and Britain to the West and South (Burma and Malaya Colonies). Britain was nibbling at Siam's southern territories but France was taking great bites of territory on the left bank of the Mekhong River (present day Laos and Cambodia). During the course of King Chulalongkorn's reign, Siam had to "give" some 294,000 square kilometers of territory to France while a further 52,000 square kilometers went to Britain.
King Chulalongkorn's learned education and fluency in English allowed him to communicate easily with visiting diplomats so they were usually welcome guests - - as were other visiting Royalty. An important visitor to Siam was the Tsarevitch Nicholas who thoroughly enjoyed his visit while staying at the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace north of Bangkok. An easy, genuine friendship sprang up between the visiting Tsarevitch and King Chulalongkorn. It was especially appreciated as Russia had no territorial eyes on Siam. Another visitor, in 1881 (the same year as telephone services began in Siam), was His Majesty King Kalakaua of Hawaii. Again the two Monarchs got on famously but, sadly, King Lalakaua was to be the last king of Hawaii as his island Kingdom was later seized and annexed by the United States. Territorial loss was an ever-present worry for the Siamese King as he could see the Great Powers were instable in extending their "spheres of influence".
King Chulalongkorn regarded the situation as so potentially serious that, in 1897, he embarked on a visit of European countries. He hoped to establish "balancing" friendships and create bonds with as many European nations as possible. Likewise to learn of latest developments, which could be incorporated into Siamese progress, and to arrange for Siamese students to study in European countries.
So began an arduous, nine month, overseas journey with much of its success being credited to Tsar Nicholas II and the inherent "likability" of King Chulalongkorn. The Tsar had spoken highly of the Siamese King to Austrian Emperor Franz-Josef who had, in turn, spoken to Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II. The road for successful visits was, accordingly, paved as was, most importantly, King Chulalongkorn being accepted as a Royal equal.
The Royal European Progress began in Italy on May14, 1897 and, after meeting with the Italian King and His Holiness the Pope, King Chulalongkorn moved on to Switzerland, Austria and Hungary before catching up with his friend Tsar Nicholas II at the Peterhof. Throughout his journey, European Crowned Heads and Presidents of Republics welcomed the Siamese King royally, graciously and warmly. Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belguim, Spain and Portugal were all captivated by the slightly built Siamese Monach. The Prince of Wales officially welcomed King Chulalongkorn for his five weeks visit to Great Britain during which he toured extensively and called on Her Majesty Queen Victoria at her Isle of Weight residence (the elderly Queen was preparing for her Diamond Julibee). Another call was to visit his son who was being educated at Harrow - - a noted English "public" school.
As it happened, such were the strains between Siam and the French Republic, France had not been included in the Royal itinerary. However, having heard of the magnificent receptions accorded to King Chulalongkorn by other European Heads of State, President Faure of France sent his presidential train to Brussels (where King Chulalongkorn had been visiting King Leopold II) to invite and embark the Siamese King. The reception in France, on 11 September 1897, was magnificently regal and wherever he went King Chulalongkorn was cheered by the French people - - Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and, indeed, Longchamps horse races were all graced by visits from King Rama V. The ordinary people of France were heart - warmed by King Chulalongkorn (and by his gifts to the poor of Paris) but the Government of France never returned the Siamese territory it had taken. But, thanks to these eminently successful State Visits, France could not risk censure and the embarrassment of further bullying tactics. Siamese territorial losses were stemmed!
After visiting fourteen European countries and making many important connections, His Majesty King Chulalongkorn, Rama V returned to Siam in the latter part of 1897, Success had been heaped upon success and, in a speech to his Nobles, Government and people, the Siamese King declared "I am determined to do everything in my power to make Siam a free and progressive country". And he did!
See related articles (King Chulalongkorn, Rama 5):
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