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THE SUPREME KING: HIS CHARACTER AND ADMINISTRATION.
Somdetch P'hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, late Supreme King of Siam, it may safely be said (for all his capricious provocations of temper and his snappish greed of power) that he was, in the best sense of the epithet, the most remarkable of the Oriental princes of the present century, — unquestionably the most progressive of all the supreme rulers of Siam, of whom the native historians enumerate not less than forty, reckoning from the founding of the ancient capital (Ayudia or A-yodhya, "the abode of gods") in A. D. 1350.
He was the legitimate son of the king P'hra Chow-P'hra Pooti-lootlah, commonly known as P'hen-din-Klang; and his mother, daughter of the youngest sister of the King Somdetch P'hra Bouromah Rajah Mira Pooti Yout Fah, was one of the most admired princesses of her time, and is described as equally beautiful and virtuous. She devoted herself assiduously to the education of her sons, of whom the second, the subject of these notes, was born in 1804; and the youngest, her best beloved, was the late Second King of Siam.
One of the first public acts of the King P'hra Pootilootlah was to elevate to the highest honors of the state his eldest son (the Chowfa Mongkut), and proclaim him heir-apparent to the throne. He then selected twelve noblemen, distinguished for their attainments, prudence, and virtue, — most conspicuous among them the venerable but energetic Duke Somdetch Ong Yai, — to be tutors and guardians to the lad. By these he was carefully taught in all the learning of his time; Sanskrit and Pali formed his chief study, and from the first he aspired to proficiency in Latin and English, for the pursuit of which he soon found opportunities among the missionaries. His translations from the Sanskrit, Pali, and Magadthi, mark him as an authority among Oriental linguists; and his knowledge of English, though never perfect, became at least extensive and varied; so that he could correspond, with credit to himself, with Englishmen of distinction, such as the Earl of Clarendon and Lords Stanley and Russell.
In his eighteenth year he married a noble lady, descended from the Phya Tak Slim, who bore him two sons.
Two years later the throne became vacant by the death of his father; but (as the reader has already learned) his elder half-brother, who, through the intrigues of his mother, had secured a footing in the favor of the Senabawdee, was inducted by that "Royal Council" into power. Unequal to the exploit of unseating the usurper, and fearing his unscrupulous jealousy, the Chowfa Mongkut took refuge in a monastery, and entered the priesthood, leaving his wife and two sons to mourn him as one dead to them. In this self-imposed celibacy he lived throughout the long reign of his half-brother, which lasted twenty-seven years.
In the calm retreat of his Buddhist cloister the contemplative tastes of the royal scholar found fresh entertainment, his intellectual aspirations a new incitement.
He labored with enthusiasm for the diffusion of religion and enlightenment, and, above all, to promote a higher appreciation of the teachings of Buddha, to whose doctrines he devoted himself with exemplary zeal throughout his sacerdotal career. From the Buddhist scriptures he compiled with reverent care an impressive liturgy for his own use. His private charities amounted annually to ten thousand ticals. All the fortune he accumulated, from the time of his quitting the court until his return to it to accept the diadem offered by the Senabawdee, he expended either iu charitable distributions or in the purchase of books, sacred manuscripts, and relics for his monastery.1
It was during his retirement that he wrote that notable treatise in defence of the divinity of the revelations of Buddha, in which he essays to prove that it was the single aim of the great reformer to deliver man from all selfish and carnal passions, and in which he uses these words: "These are the only obstacles in the search for Truth. The most solid wisdom is to know this, and to apply one's self to the conquest of one's self. This it is to become the enlightened, — the Buddha!" And he concludes with the remark of Asoka, the Indian king: "That which has been delivered unto us by Buddha, that alone is well said, and worthy of our soul's profoundest homage."
In the pursuit of his appointed ends Maha Mongkut was active and pertinacious; no labors wearied him nor pains deterred him. Before the arrival of the Protestant missionaries, in 1820, ho had acquired some knowledge of Latin and the sciences from the Jesuits; but when the Protestants came he manifested a positive preference for their methods of instruction, inviting one or another of them daily to his temple, to aid him in the study of English. Finally he placed himself under the permanent tutorship of the Rev. Mr. Caswell, an American missionary; and, in order to encourage his preceptor to visit him frequently, he fitted up a convenient resting-place for him on the route to the temple, where that excellent man might teach the poorer people who gathered to hear him. Under Mr. Caswell he made extraordinary progress in advanced and liberal ideas of government, commerce, even religion. He never hesitated to express his respect for the fundamental principles of Christianity; but once, when pressed too closely by his reverend moonshee with what he regarded as the more pretentious and apocryphal portions of the Bible, he checked that gentleman's advance with the remark that has ever been remembered against him, "I hate the Bible mostly!"
As High-Priest of Siam — the mystic and potential office to which he was in the end exalted — he became the head of a new school, professing strictly the pure philosophy inculcated by Buddha: "the law of Compensation, of Many Births, and of final Niphan,"2 — but not Nihilism, as the word and the idea are commonly defined. It is only to the idea of God as an ever-active Creator that the new school of Buddhists is opposed, — not to the Deity as a primal source, from whose thought and pleasure sprang all forms of matter; nor can they be brought to admit the need of miraculous intervention in the order of nature.
In this connection, it may not be out of place to mention a remark that the king (still speaking as a high-priest, having authority) once made to me, on the subject of the miracles recorded in the Bible:
"You say that marriage is a holy institution; and I believe it is esteemed a sacrament by one of the principal branches of your sect. It is, of all the laws of the universe, the most wise and incontestable, pervading all forms of animal and vegetable life. Yet your God (meaning the Christian's God) has stigmatized it as unholy, in that he would not permit his Son to be born in the ordinary way; but must needs perform a miracle in order to give birth to one divinely inspired. Buddha was divinely inspired, but he was only man. Thus it seems to me he is the greater of the two, because out of his own heart he studied humanity, which is but another form of divinity; and, the carnal mind being by this contemplation subdued, he became the Divinely Enlightened."
When his teacher had begun to entertain hopes that he would one day become a Christian, he came out openly against the idea, declaring that he entertained no thought of such a change. He admonished the missionaries not to deceive themselves, saying "You must not imagine that any of my party will ever become Christians. We cannot embrace what we consider a foolish religion."
In the beginning of the year 1851 his supreme Majesty, Prabat Somdetch P'hra Nang Klou, fell ill, and gradually declined until the 3d of April, when he expired, and the throne was again vacant. The dying sovereign, forgetting or disregarding his promise to his half-brother, the true heir, had urged with all his influence that the succession should fall to his eldest son; but in the assembly of the Senabawdee, Somdetch Ong Yai (father of the present prime minister of Siam), supported by Somdetch Ong Noi, vehemently declared himself in favor of the high-priest Chowfa Mongkut.
This struck terror to the "illegitimates," and mainly availed to quell the rising storm of partisan conflict. Moreover, Ong Yai had taken the precaution to surround the persons of the princes with a formidable guard, and to distribute an overwhelming force of militia in all quarters of the city, ready for instant action at a signal from him.
Thus the two royal brothers, with views more liberal, as to religion, education, foreign trade, and intercourse, than the most enlightened of their predecessors had entertained, were firmly seated on the throne as "first" and "second" kings; and every citizen, native or foreign, began to look with confidence for the dawn of better times.
Nor did the newly crowned sovereign forget his friends and teachers, the American missionaries. He sent for them, and thanked them cordially for all that they had taught him, assuring them that it was his earnest desire to administer his government after the model of the limited monarchy of England; and to introduce schools, where the Siamese youth might be well taught in the English language and literature and the sciences of Europe.3
There can be no just doubt that, at the time, it was his sincere purpose to carry these generous impulses into practical effect; for certainly he was, in every moral and intellectual respect, nobly superior to his predecessor, and to his dying hour he was conspicuous for his attachment to a sound philosophy and the purest maxims of Buddha. Yet we find in him a deplorable example of the degrading influence on the human mind of the greed of possessions and power, and of the infelicities that attend it; for though he promptly set about the reforming of abuses in the several departments of his government, and invited the ladies of the American mission to teach in his new harem, nevertheless he soon began to indulge his avaricious and sensual propensities, and cast a jealous eye upon the influence of the prime minister, the son of his stanch old friend, the Duke Ong Yai, to whom he owed almost the crown itself, and of his younger brother, the Second King, and of the neighboring princes of Chiengmai and Cochin China. He presently offended those who, by their resolute display of loyalty in his hour of peril, had seated him safely on the throne of his ancestors.
From this time he was continually exposed to disappointment, mortification, slights, from abroad, and conspiracy at home. Had it not been for the steadfast adherence of the Second King and the prime minister, the sceptre would have been wrested from his grasp and bestowed upon his more popular brother.
Yet, notwithstanding all this, he appeared, to those who observed him only on the public stage of affairs, to rule with wisdom, to consult the welfare of his subjects, to be concerned for the integrity of justice and the purity of manners and conversation in his own court, and careful, by a prudent administration, to confirm his power at home and his prestige abroad. Considered apart from his domestic relations, he was, in many respects, an able and virtuous ruler. His foreign policy was liberal; he extended toleration to all religious sects; he expended a generous portion of his revenues in public improvements, — monasteries, temples, bazaars, canals, bridges, arose at his bidding on every side; and though he fell short of his early promise, he did much to improve the condition of his subjects.
For example, at the instance of her Britannic Majesty's Consul, the Honorable Thomas George Knox, he removed the heavy boat-tax that had so oppressed the poorer masses of the Siamese, and constructed good roads, and improved the international chambers of judicature.
But as husband and kinsman his character assumes a most revolting aspect. Envious, revengeful, subtle, he was as fickle and petulant as he was suspicious and cruel His brother, even the offspring of his brother, became to him objects of jealousy, if not of hatred. Their friends must, he thought, be his enemies, and applause bestowed upon them was odious to his soul. There were many horrid tragedies in his harem in which he enacted the part of a barbarian and a despot. Plainly, his conduct as the head of a great family to whom his will was a law of terror reflects abiding disgrace upon his name. Yet it had this redeeming feature, that he tenderly loved those of his children whose mothers had been agreeable to him. He never snubbed or slighted them; and for the little princess, Chow Fâ-ying, whose mother had been to him a most gentle and devoted wife, his affection was very strong and enduring.
But to turn from the contemplation of his private traits, so contradictory and offensive, to the consideration of his public acts, so liberal and beneficent. Several commercial treaties of the first importance were concluded with foreign powers during his reign. In the first place, the Siamese government voluntarily reduced the measurement duties on foreign shipping from nineteen hundred to one thousand ticals per fathom of ship's beam. This was a brave stride in the direction of a sound commercial policy, and an earnest of greater inducements to enterprising traders from abroad. In 1855 a new treaty of commerce was negotiated with his Majesty's government by H. B. M.'s plenipotentiary, Sir John Bowring, which proved of very positive advantage to both parties. On the 29th of May, 1856, a new treaty, substantially like that with Great Britain, was procured by Townsend Harris, Esq., representing the United States; and later in the same year still another, in favor of France, through H. T. M.'s Envoy, M. Montigny.
Before that time Portugal had been the only foreign government having a consul residing at Bangkok. Now the way was opened to admit a resident consul of each of the treaty powers; and shortly millions of dollars flowed into Siam annually by channels through which but a few tens of thousands had been drawn before. Foreign traders and merchants flocked to Bangkok and established rice-mills, factories for the production of sugar and oil, and warehouses for the importation of European fabrics. They found a ready market for their wares, and an aspect of thrift and comfort began to enliven the once neglected and cheerless land.
A new and superb palace was erected, after the model of Windsor Castle, together with numerous royal residences in different parts of the country. The nobility began to emulate the activity and munificence of their sovereign, and to compete with each other in the grandeur of their dwellings and the splendor of their cortéges.
So prosperous did the country become under the benign influence of foreign trade and civilization, that other treaties were speedily concluded with almost every nation under the sun, and his Majesty found it necessary to accredit Sir John Bowling as plenipotentiary for Siam abroad.
Early in this reign the appointment of harbor-master at Bangkok was conferred upon an English gentleman, who proved so efficient in his functions that he was distinguished with the fifth title of a Siamese noble. Next came a French commander and a French band-master for the royal troops. Then a custom-house was established, and a "live Yankee" installed at the head of it, who was also glorified with a title of honor. Finally a police force was organized, composed of trusty Malays hired from Singapore, and commanded by one of the most energetic Englishmen to be found in the East, — a measure which has done more than all others to promote a comfortable sense of "law and order" throughout the city and outskirts of Bangkok. It is to be remembered, however, in justice to the British Consul-General in Siam, Mr. Thomas George Knox, that the sure though silent influence was his, whereby the minds of the king and the prime minister were led to appreciate the benefits that must accrue from these foreign innovations.
The privilege of constructing, on liberal terms, a line of telegraph through Maulmain to Singapore, with a branch to Bangkok, has been granted to the Singapore Telegraph Company; and finally a sanitarium has been erected on the coast at Anghin, for the benefit of native and foreign residents needing the invigoration of sea-air.4
During his retirement in the monastery the king had a stroke of paralysis, from which he perfectly recovered; but it left its mark on his face, in the form of a peculiar falling of the under lip on the right side. In person he was of middle stature, slightly built, of. regular features and fair complexion. In early life he lost most of his teeth, but he had had them replaced with a set made from sapan-wood, — a secret that he kept very sensitively to the day of his death.
Capable at times of the noblest impulses, he was equally capable of the basest actions. Extremely accessible to praise, he indiscriminately entertained every form of flattery; but his fickleness was such that no courtier could cajole him long. Among his favorite women was the beautiful Princess Tongoo Soopia, sister to the unfortunate Sultan Mahmoud, ex-rajah of Pahang. Falling fiercely in love with her on her presentation at his court, he procured her for his harem against her will, and as a hostage for the good faith of her brother; but as she, being Mohammedan, ever maintained toward him a deportment of tranquil indifference, he soon tired of her, and finally dismissed her to a wretched life of obsoleteness and neglect within the palace walls.
The only woman who ever managed him with acknowledged success was Khoon Chom Piem: hardly pretty, but well formed, and of versatile tact, totally uneducated, of barely respectable birth, — being Chinese on her father's side, — yet withal endowed with a nice intuitive appreciation of character. Once conscious of her growing influence over the king, she contrived to foster and exercise it for years, with but a slight rebuff now and then. Being modest to a fault, even at times obnoxious to the imputation of prudishness, she habitually feigned excuses for non-attendance in his Majesty's chambers, — such as delicate health, the nursing of her children, mourning for the death of this or that relative, — and voluntarily visited him only at rare intervals. In the course of six years she amassed considerable treasure, procured good places at court for members of her family, and was the means of bringing many Chinamen to the notice of the king. At the same time she lived in continual fear, was warily humble and conciliating toward her rival sisters, who pitied rather than envied her, and retained in her pay most of the female executive force in the palace.
In his daily habits his Majesty was remarkably industrious and frugal. His devotion to the study of astronomy never abated, and he calculated with respectable accuracy the great solar eclipse of August, 1868.
The French government having sent a special commission, under command of the Baron Hugon le Tourneur, to observe the eclipse in Siam, the king erected, at a place called Hua Wânn ("The Whale's Head"), a commodious observatory, besides numerous pavilions varying in size and magnificence, for his Majesty and retinue, the French commission, the Governor of Singapore (Colonel Ord) and suite, who had been invited to Bangkok by the king, and for ministers and nobles of Siam. Provision was made, at the cost of government, for the regal entertainment, in a town of booths and tabernacles, of the vast concourse of natives and Europeans who followed his Majesty from the capital to witness the sublime phenomenon; and a herd of fifty noble elephants were brought from the ancient city of Ayudia for service and display.
The prospect becoming dubious and gloomy just at the time of first contact (ten o'clock), the prime minister archly invited the foreigners who believed in an overruling Providence to pray to him "that he may be pleased to disperse the clouds long enough to afford us a good view of the grandest of eclipses." Presently the clouds were partially withdrawn from the sun, and his Majesty observing that one twentieth of the disk was obscured, announced the fact to his own people by firing a cannon; and immediately pipes screamed and trumpets blared in the royal pavilion, — a tribute of reverence to the traditional fable about the Angel Rahoo swallowing the sun. Both the king and prime minister, scorning the restraints of dignity, were fairly boisterous in their demonstrations of triumph and delight; the latter skipping from point to point to squint through his long telescope. At the instant of absolute totality, when the very last ray of the sun had become extinct, his Excellency shouted, "Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!" and scientifically disgraced himself. Leaving his spyglass swinging, he ran through the gateway of his pavilion, and cried to his prostrate wives, "Henceforth will you not believe the foreigners?"
But that other Excellency, Chow Phya Bhudharabhay, Minister for Northern Siam, more orthodox, sat in dumfoundered faith, and gaped at the awful deglutition of the Angel Rahoo.
The government expended not less than a hundred thousand dollars on this scientific expedition, and a delegation from the foreign community of Bangkok approached his Majesty with-an address of thanks for his indiscriminate hospitality.
But the extraordinary excitement, and exposure to the noxious atmosphere of the jungle, proved inimical to the constitution of the king. On his return to Bangkok he complained of general weariness and prostration, which was the prelude to fever. Foreign physicians were consulted, but at no stage of the case was any European treatment employed. He rapidly grew worse, and was soon past saving. On the day before his death he called to his bedside his nearest relatives, and parted among them such of his personal effects as were most prized by him, saying, "I have no more need of these things. I must give up my life also." Buddhist priests were constant in attendance, and he seemed to derive much comfort from their prayers and exhortations. In the evening he wrote with his own hand a tender farewell to the mothers of his many children, — eighty-one in number. On the morning of his last day (October 1, 1868) he dictated in the Pali language a farewell address to the Buddhist priesthood, the spirit of which was admirable, and clearly manifested the faith of the dying man in the doctrines of the Reformer; for he hesitated not to say: "Farewell, ye faithful followers of Buddha, to whom death is nothing, even as all earthly existence is vain, all things mutable, and death inevitable. Presently I shall myself submit to that stern necessity. Farewell! for I go only a little before you."
Feeling sure that he must die before midnight, he summoned his half-brother, H. R. H. Krom Hluang Wongse, his Excellency the prime minister, Chow Phya Kralahome, and others, and solemnly imposed upon them the care of his eldest son, the Chowfa Chulalonkorn, and of his kingdom; at the same time expressing his last earthly wish, that the Senabawdee, in electing his successor, would give their voices for one who should conciliate all parties, that the country might not be distracted by dissensions on that question. He then told them he was about to finish his course, and implored them not to give way to grief, "nor to any sudden surprise," that he should leave them thus; "'t is an event that must befall all creatures that come into this world, and may not be avoided." Then turning his gaze upon a small image of his adored teacher, he seemed for some time absorbed in awful contemplation. "Such is life!" Those were actually the last words of this most remarkable Buddhist king. He died like a philosopher, calmly and sententiously soliloquizing on death and its inevitability. At the final moment, no one being near save his adopted son, Phya Buroot, he raised his hands before his face, as in his accustomed posture of devotion; then suddenly his head dropped backward, and he was gone.
That very night, without disorder or debate, the Senabawdee elected his eldest son, Somdetch Chowfa Chulalonkorn, to succeed him; and the Prince George Washington, eldest son of the late Second King, to succeed to his father's subordinate throne, under the title of Krom P'hra Raja Bowawn Shathan Mongkoon. The title of the present supreme king (my amiable and very promising scholar) is Prabat Somdetch P'hra Paramendr Maha Chulalonkorn Kate Klou Chow-yu-Hua.
About a year after my first ill-omened interviews with Maha Mongkut, and when I had become permanently installed in my double office of teacher and scribe, I was one day busy with a letter from his Majesty to the Earl of Clarendon, and finding that any attempt at partial correction would but render his meaning more ambiguous, and impair the striking originality of his style, I had abandoned the effort, and set about copying it with literal exactness, only venturing to alter here and there a word, such as "I hasten with wilful pleasure to write in reply to your Lordship's well-wishing letter," etc. Whilst I was thus evolving from the depths of my inner consciousness a satisfactory solution to this conundrum in King's English, his Majesty's private secretary lolled in the sunniest corner of the room, stretching his dusky limbs and heavily nodding, in an ecstasy of ease-taking. Poor P'hra-Alâck! I never knew him to be otherwise than sleepy, and his sleep was always stolen. For his Majesty was the most capricious of kings as to his working moods, — busy when the average man should be sleeping, sleeping while letters, papers, despatches, messengers, mail-boats waited. More than once had we been aroused at dead of night by noisy female slaves, and dragged in hot haste and consternation to the Hall of Audience, only to find that his Majesty was, not at his last gasp, as we had feared, but simply bothered to find in Webster's Dictionary some word that was to be found nowhere but in his own fertile brain; or perhaps in excited chase of the classical term for some trifle he was on the point of ordering from London, — and that word was sure to be a stranger to my brain.
Before my arrival in Bangkok it had been his not uncommon practice to send for a missionary at midnight, have him beguiled or abducted from his bed, and conveyed by boat to the palace, some miles up the river, to inquire if it would not be more elegant to write murky instead of obscure, or gloomily dark rather than not clearly apparent. And if the wretched man should venture to declare his honest preference for the ordinary over the extraordinary form of expression, he was forthwith dismissed with irony, arrogance, or even insult, and without a word of apology for the rude invasion of his rest.
One night, a little after twelve o'clock, as he was on the point of going to bed like any plain citizen of regular habits, his Majesty fell to thinking how most accurately to render into English the troublesome Siamese word phi, which admits of a variety of interpretations.5 After puzzling over it for more than an hour, getting himself possessed with the word as with the devil it stands for, and all to no purpose, he ordered one of his lesser state barges to be manned and despatched with all speed for the British Consul. That functionary, inspired with lively alarm by so startling a summons, dressed himself with unceremonious celerity, and hurried to the palace, conjecturing on the way all imaginable possibilities of politics and diplomacy, revolution or invasion. To his vexation, not less than his surprise, he found the king in dishabille, engaged with a Siamese-English vocabulary, and mentally divided between "deuce" and "devil," in the choice of an equivalent. His preposterous Majesty gravely laid the case before the consul, who, though inwardly chafing at what he termed "the confounded coolness" of the situation, had no choice but to decide with grace, and go back to bed with philosophy.
No wonder, then, that P'hra-Alâck experienced an access of gratitude for the privilege of napping for two hours in a snuggery of sunshine.
"Mam-kha,"6 he murmured drowsily, "I hope that in the Chat-Nah7 I shall be a freed man."
"I hope so sincerely, P'hra-Alâck," said I. "I hope you'll be an Englishman or an American, for then you'll be sure to be independent."
It was impossible not to pity the poor old man, — stiff with continual stooping to his task, and so subdued — liable not only to be called at any hour of the day or night, but to be threatened, cuffed, kicked, beaten on the head,8 every way abused and insulted, and the next moment to be taken into favor, confidence, bosom-friendship, even as his Majesty's mood might veer.
Alack for P'hra-Alâck! though usually he bore with equal patience his greater and his lesser ills, there were occasions that sharply tried his meekness, when his weak and goaded nature revolted, and he rushed to a snug little home of his own, about forty yards from the Grand Palace, there to snatch a respite of rest and refreshment in the society of his young and lately wedded wife. Then the king would awake and send for him, whereupon he would be suddenly ill, or not at home, strategically hiding himself under a mountain of bedclothes, and detailing Mrs. P'hra-Alâck to reconnoitre and report. He had tried this primitive trick so often that its very staleness infuriated the king, who invariably sent officers to seize the trembling accomplice and lock her up in a dismal cell as a hostage for the scribe's appearance. At dusk the poor fellow would emerge, contrite and terrified, and prostrate himself at the gate of the palace. Then his Majesty (who, having spies posted in every quarter of the town, knew as well as P'hra-Alâck himself what the illness or the absence signified) leisurely strolled forth, and, finding the patient on the threshold, flew always into a genuine rage, and prescribed "decapitation on the spot," and "sixty lashes on the bare back," both in the same breath. And while the attendants flew right and left, — one for the blade, another for the thong, — the king, still raging, seized whatever came most handy, and belabored his bosom-friend on the head and shoulders. Having thus summarily relieved his mind, he despatched the royal secretary for his ink-horn and papyrus, and began inditing letters, orders, appointments, before scymitar or lash (which were ever tenderly slow on these occasions) had made its appearance. Perhaps in the very thick of his dictating he would remember the connubial accomplice, and order his people to "release her, and let her go."
Slavery in Siam is the lot of men of a much finer intellectual type than any who have been its victims in modern times in societies farther west. P'hra-Alâck had been his Majesty's slave when they were boys together. Together they had played, studied, and entered the priesthood. At once bondman, comrade, classmate, and confidant, he was the very man to fill the office of private secretary to his royal crony. Virgil made a slave of his a poet, and Horace was the son of an emancipated slave. The Roman leech and chirurgeon were often slaves; so, too, the preceptor and the pedagogue, the reader and the player, the clerk and the amanuensis, the singer, the dancer, the wrestler, and the buffoon, the architect, the smith, the weaver, and the shoemaker; even the armiger or squire was a slave. Educated slaves exercised their talents and pursued their callings for the emolument of their masters; and thus it is to-day in Siam. Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur, P'hra-Alâck!
The king's taste for English composition had, by much exercise, developed itself into a passion. In the pursuit of it he was indefatigable, rambling, and petulant. He had "Webster's Unabridged" on the brain, — an exasperating form of king's evil. The little dingy slips that emanated freely from the palace press were as indiscriminate as they were quaint: No topic was too sublime or too ignoble for them. All was "copy" that came to those cases, — from the glory of the heavenly bodies to the nuisance of the busybodies who scolded his Majesty through the columns of the Bangkok Recorder.
I have before me, as I write, a circular from his pen, and in the type of his private press, which, being without caption or signature, may be supposed to be addressed "to all whom it may concern." The American missionaries had vexed his exact scholarship by their peculiar mode of representing in English letters the name of a native city (Prippri, or in Sanskrit Bejrepuri). Whence this droll circular, which begins with a dogmatic line: —
"None should write the name of city of Prippri thus — P'et cha poory."
Then comes a pedantic demonstration of the derivation of the name from a compound Sanskrit word, signifying "Diamond City." And the document concludes with a characteristic explosion of impatience, at once critical, royal, and sacerdotal: "Ah! what the Romanization of American system that P'etch' abury will be! Will whole human learned world become the pupil of their corrupted Siamese teachers? It is very far from correctness. Why they did not look in journal of Royal Asiatic Society, where several words of Sanskrit and Pali were published continually? Their Siamese priestly teachers considered all Europeans as very heathen; to them far from sacred tongue, and were glad to have American heathens to become their scholars or pupils; they thought they have taught sacred language to the part of heathen; in fact, they themselves are very far from sacred language, being sunk deeply in corruption of sacred and learned language, for tongue of their former Laos and Cambodian teachers, and very far from knowledge of Hindoostanee, Cinghalese, and Royal Asiatic Society's knowledge in Sanskrit, as they are considered by such the Siamese teachers as heathen; called by them Mit ch'a thi-thi, &c., &c., i. e. wrongly seer or spectator, &c., &c."
In another slip, which is manifestly an outburst of the royal petulance, his Majesty demands, in a "displayed" paragraph:
"Why name of Mr. Knox [Thomas George Knox, Esq., British Consul] was not published thus: Missa Nok or Nawk. If name of Chow Phya Bhudharabhay is to be thus: P'raya P'oo t'a ra P'ie. And why the London was not published thus: Lundun or Landan, if Bejrepuri is to be published P'etch' abury."
In the same slip with the philological protest the following remarkable paragraphs appear: —
"What has been published in No. 25 of Bangkok Recorder thus:
"'The king of Siam, on reading from some European paper that the Pope had lately suffered the loss of some precious jewels, in consequence of a thief having got possession of his Holiness' keys, exclaimed, "What a man! professing to keep the keys of Heaven, and cannot even keep his own keys!"'
"The king on perusal thereof denied that it is false. He knows nothing about his Holiness the Pope's sustaining loss of gems, &c., and has said nothing about religious faith."
This is curious, in that it exposes the king's unworthy fear of the French priesthood in Siam. The fact is that he did make the rather smart remark, in precisely these words: "Al what a man! professing to keep the keys of Heaven, and not able to guard those of his own bureau" and he was quite proud of his hit. But when it appeared in the Recorder, he thought it prudent to bar it with a formal denial. Hence the politic little item which he sent to all the foreigners in Bangkok, and especially to the French priests.
His Majesty's mode of dealing with newspaper strictures (not always just) and suggestions (not always pertinent) aimed at his administration of public affairs, or the constitution and discipline of his household, was characteristic. He snubbed them with sententious arrogance, leavened with sarcasm.
When the Recorder recommended to the king the expediency of dispersing his Solomonic harem, and abolishing polygamy in the royal family, his Majesty retorted with a verbal message to the editor, to the purport that "when the Recorder shall have dissuaded princes and noblemen from offering their daughters to the king as concubines, the king will cease to receive contributions of women in that capacity."
In August, 1865, an angry altercation occurred in the Royal Court of Equity (sometimes styled the International Court) between a French priest and Phya Wiset, a Siamese nobleman, of venerable years, but positive spirit and energy. The priest gave Phya Wiset the lie, and Phya Wiset gave it back to the priest, whereupon the priest became noisy. Afterward he reported the affair to his consul at Bangkok, with the embellishing statement that not only himself, but his religion, had been grossly insulted. The consul, one Monsieur Aubaret, a peppery and pugnacious Frenchman, immediately made a demand upon his Majesty for the removal of Phya Wiset from office.
This despatch was sent late in the evening by the hand of Monsieur Lamarche, commanding the troops at the royal palace; and that officer had the consul's order to present it summarily. Lamarche managed to procure admittance to the penetralia, and presented the note at two o'clock in the morning, in violation of reason and courtesy as well as of rules, excusing himself on the ground that the despatch was important and his orders peremptory. His Majesty then read the despatch, and remarked that the matter should be disposed of "to-morrow." Lamarche replied, very presumptuously, that the affair required no investigation, as he had heard the offensive language of Phya Wiset, and that person must be deposed without ceremony. Whereupon his Majesty ordered the offensive foreigner to leave the palace.
Lamarche repaired forthwith to the consul, and reported that the king had spoken disrespectfully, not only of his Imperial Majesty's consul, but of the Emperor himself, besides outrageously insulting a French messenger. Then the fire-eating functionary addressed another despatch to his Majesty, the purport of which was, that, in expelling Lamarche from the palace, the King of Siam had been guilty of a political misdemeanor, and had rudely disturbed the friendly relations existing between France and Siam; that he should leave Bangkok for Paris, and in six weeks lay his grievance before the Emperor; but should first proceed to Saigon, and engage the French admiral there to attend to any emergency that might arise in Bangkok.
His Majesty, who knew how to confront the uproar of vulgarity and folly with the repose of wisdom and dignity, sent his own cousin, the Prince Mom Rachoday, Chief Judge of the Royal Court of Equity, to M. Aubaret, to disabuse his mind, and impart to him all the truth of the case. But the "furious Frank" seized the imposing magnate by the hair, drove him from his door, and flung his betel-box after him, — a reckless impulse of outrage as monstrous as the most ingenious and deliberate brutality could have devised. Rudely to seize a Siamese by the hair is an indignity as grave as to spit in the face of a European; and the betel-box, beside being a royal present, was an essential part of the insignia of the prince's judicial office.
On a later occasion this same Aubaret seized the opportunity a royal procession afforded to provoke the king to an ill-timed discussion of politics, and to prefer an intemperate complaint against the Kralahome, or prime minister. This characteristic flourish of ill temper and bad manners, from the representative of the politest of nations, naturally excited lively indignation and disgust among all respectable dwellers, native or foreign, near the court, and a serious disturbance was imminent. But a single dose of the King's English sufficed to soothe the spasmodic official, and reduce him to "a sense of his situation."
"TO THE HON. THE MONSIEUR AUBARET, the Consul for H.I.M.
"SIR: — The verbal insult or bad words without any step more over from lower or lowest person is considered very slight & inconsiderable.
"The person standing on the surface of the ground or floor cannot injure the heavenly bodies or any highly hanging Lamp or globe by ejecting his spit from his mouth upward it will only injure his own face without attempting of Heavenly bodies — &c.
"The Siamese are knowing of being lower than heaven do not endeavor to injure heavenly bodies with their spit from mouth.
"A person who is known to be powerless by every one, as they who have no arms or legs to move oppose or injure or deaf or blind &c. &c. cannot be considered and said that they are our enemies even for their madness in vain — it might be considered as easily agitation or uneasiness.
"Persons under strong desires without any limit or acting under illimited anger sometimes cannot be believed at once without testimony or witness if they stated against any one verbally from such the statements of the most desirous or persons most illimitedly angry hesitation and mild enquiry is very prudent from persons of considerable rank."
Never were simplicity with shrewdness, and unconscious humor with pathos, and candor with irony, and political economy with the sense of an awful bore, more quaintly blended than in the following extraordinary hint, written and printed by his Majesty, and freely distributed for the snubbing of visionary or speculative adventurers:
"When the general rumor was and is spread out from Siam, circulated among the foreigners to Siam, chiefly Europeans, Chinese, &c, in three points:
"1. That Siam is under quite absolute Monarchy. Whatever her Supreme Sovereign commanded, allowed, &c all cannot be resisted by any one of his Subjects.
"2. The Treasury of the Sovereign of Siam, was full for money, like a mountain of gold and silver; Her Sovereign most wealthy.
"3. The present reigning Monarch of Siam is shallow minded and admirer of almost everything of curiosity, and most admirer of European usages, customs, sciences, arts and literature &c, without limit. He is fond of flattering term and ambitious of honor, so that there are now many opportunities and operations to be embraced for drawing great money from Royal Treasury of Siam, &c.
"The most many foreigners being under belief of such general rumour, were endeavoring to draw money from him in various operations, as aluring him with valuable curiosities and expectations of interest, and flattering him, to be glad of them, and deceiving him in various ways; almost on every opportunity of Steamer coming to Siam, various foreigners partly known to him and acquainted with him, and generally unknown to him, boldly wrote to him in such the term of various application and treatment, so that he can conclude that the chief object of all letters written to him, is generally to draw money from him, even unreasonable. Several instances and testimonies can be shown for being example on this subject — the foreigners letters addressed to him, come by every one steamer of Siam, and of foreign steamers visiting Siam; 10 and 12 at least and 40 at highest number, urging him in various ways; so he concluded that foreigners must consider him only as a mad king of a wild land!
"He now states that he cannot be so mad more, as he knows and observes the consideration of the foreigners towards him. Also he now became of old age,9 and was very sorry to lose his principal members of his family namely, his two Queens, twice, and his younger brother the late Second King, and his late second son and beloved daughter, and moreover now he fear of sickness of his eldest son, he is now unhappy and must solicit his friends in correspondence and others who please to write for the foresaid purpose, that they should know suitable reason in writing to him, and shall not urge him as they would urge a madman And the general rumours forementioned are some exaggerated and some entirely false; they shall not believe such the rumours, deeply and ascertainedly.
"ROYAL RESIDENCE GRAND PALACE
BANGKOK 2nd July 1867."
And now observe with what gracious ease this most astute and discriminating prince could fit his tone to the sense of those who, familiar with his opinions, and reconciled to his temper and his ways, however peculiar, could reciprocate the catholicity of his sympathies, and appreciate his enlightened efforts to fling off that tenacious old-man-of-the-sea custom, and extricate himself from the predicament of conflicting responsibilities. To these, on the Christian New Year's day of 1867, he addressed this kindly greeting: —
"S. P. P. M. MONGKUT:
"Called in Siamese 'P'hra-Chomklau chao-yuhua,' in Magadhi or language of Pali Siamikanam Maha Rajah,' In Latin 'Rex Siamensium,' In French 'Le Roi de Siam,' In English 'The King of Slam,' and in Malayan Rajah Maha Pasah' &c.
"Begs to present his respectful and regardful compliments and congratulations in happy lives during immediately last year, and wishes the continuing thereof during the commencing New Year, and ensuing and succeeding many years, to his foreign friends, both now in Siam namely, the functionary and acting Consuls and consular officers of various distinguished nations in Treaty Power with Siam and certain foreign persons under our salary, in service in any manner here, and several Gentlemen aud Ladies who are resident in Siam in various stations: namely, the Priests, Preachers of religion, Masters and Mistresses of Schools, Workmen and Merchants, &c, and now abroad in various foreign countries and ports, who are our noble and common friends, acquainted either by ever having had correspondences mutually with us some time, at any where and remaining in our friendly remembrance or mutual remembrance, and whosoever are in service to us as our Consuls, vice consuls and consular assistants, in various foreign ports. Let them know our remembrance and good wishes toward them all.
• • • •
"Though we are not Christians, the forenamed King was glad to arrive this day in his valued life, as being the 22,720th day of his age, during which he was aged sixty-two years and three months, and being the 5,711th day of his reign, during which he reigned upon his kingdom 15 years and 8 months up to the current month.
"In like manner he was very glad to see & know and hope for all his Royal Family, kindred and friends of both native and foreign, living near and far to him had arrived to this very remarkable anniversary of the commencement of Solar Year in Anno Christi 1867.
"In their all being healthy and well living like himself, he begs to express his royal congratulation and respect and graceful regards to all his kindred friends both native and foreign, and hopes to receive such the congratulation and expression of good wishes toward him and members of his family in very like manner, as he trusts that the amity and grace to one another of every of human beings who are innocent, is a great merit, and is righteous and praiseworthy in religious system of all civil religion, and best civilized laws and morality, &c.
"Given at the Royal Audience Hall, 'Anant Sama-gome', Grand Palace, Bangkok," etc., etc.
The remoter provinces of Siam constitute a source of continual anxiety and much expense to the government; and to his Majesty (who, very conscious of power, was proud to be able to say that the Malayan territories and rajahs — Cambodia, with her marvellous cities, palaces, and temples, once the stronghold of Siam's most formidable and implacable foes; the Laos country, with its warlike princes and chiefs — were alike dependencies and tributaries of his crown) it was intolerably irritating to find Cambodia rebellious. So long as his government could successfully maintain its supremacy there, that country formed a sort of neutral ground between his people and the Cochin-Chinese; a geographical condition which was not without its political advantages. But now the unscrupulous French had strutted upon the scene, and with a flourish of diplomacy and a stroke of the pen appropriated to themselves the fairest portion of that most fertile province. His Majesty, though secretly longing for the intervention and protection of England, was deterred by his almost superstitious fear of the French from complaining openly. But whenever he was more than commonly annoyed by the pretensions and aggressive epistles of his Imperial Majesty's consul he sent for me, — thinking, like all Orientals, that, being English, my sympathy for him, and my hatred of the French, were jointly a foregone conclusion. When I would have assured him that I was utterly powerless to help him, he cut me short with a wise whisper to "consult Mr. Thomas George Knox"; and when I protested that that gentleman was too honorable to engage in a secret intrigue against a colleague, even for the protection of British interests in Siam, he would rave at my indifference, the cupidity of the French, the apathy of the English, and the fatuity of all geographers in "setting down" the form of government in Siam as an "absolute monarchy."
"I an absolute monarch! For I have no power over French. Siam is like a mouse before an elephant! Am I an absolute monarch? What shall you consider me?"
Now, as I considered him a particularly absolute and despotic king, that was a trying question; so I discreetly held my peace, fearing less to be classed with those obnoxious savans who compile geographies than to provoke him afresh.
"I have no power," he scolded; "I am not absolute! If I point the end of my walking-stick at a man whom, being my enemy, I wish to die, he does not die, but lives on, in spite of my 'absolute' will to the contrary. What does Geographies mean? How can I be an absolute monarchy?"
Such a conversation we were having one day as he "assisted" at the founding of a temple; and while he reproached his fate that he was powerless to "point the end of his walking-stick" with absolute power at the peppery and presumptuous Monsieur Aubaret, he vacantly flung gold and silver coins among the work-women.
In another moment he forgot all French encroachments, and the imbecility of geographers in general, as his glance chanced to fall upon a young woman of fresh and striking beauty, and delightful piquancy of ways and expression, who with a clumsy club was pounding fragments of pottery — urns, vases, and goglets — for the foundation of the watt. Very artless and happy she seemed, and free as she was lovely; but the instant she perceived she had attracted the notice of the king, she sank down and hid her face in the earth, forgetting or disregarding the falling vessels that threatened to crush or wound her. But the king merely diverted himself with inquiring her name and parentage; and some one answering for her, he turned away.
Almost to the latest hour of his life his Majesty suffered, in his morbid egotism, various and keen annoyance, by reason of his sensitiveness to the opinions of foreigners, the encroachments of foreign officials, and the strictures of the foreign press. He was agitated by a restless craving for their sympathy on the one hand, and by a futile resentment of their criticisms or their claims on the other.
An article in a Singapore paper had administered moral correction to his Majesty on the strength of a rumor that "the king has his eye upon another princess of the highest rank, with a view to constituting her a queen consort." And the Bangkok Recorder had said: "Now, considering that he is full threescore and three years of age, that he has already scores of concubines and about fourscore sons and daughters, with several Chowfas among them, and hence eligible to the highest posts of honor in the kingdom, this rumor seems too monstrous to be credited. But the truth is, there is scarcely anything too monstrous for the royal polygamy of Siam to bring forth." By the light of this explanation the meaning of the following extract from the postscript of a letter which the king wrote in April, 1866, will be clear to the reader, who, at the same time, in justice to me, will remember that by the death of his Majesty, on the 1st of October, 1868, the seal of secrecy was broken.
"VERY PRIVATE POST SCRIPT.
"There is a newspaper of Singapore entitled Daily News just published after last arrival of the steamer Chowphya in Singapore, in which paper, a correspondence from an Individual resident at Bangkok dated 16th March 1866 was shown. but I have none of that paper in my possession…. I did not noticed its number & date to state to you now, but I trust such the paper must be in hand of several foreigners in Bangkok, may you have read it perhaps — other wise you can obtain the same from any one or by order to obtain from Singapore; after perusal thereof you will not be able to deny my statement forementioned more over as general people both native & foreigners here seem to have less pleasure on me & my descendant, than their pleasure and hope on other amiable family to them until the present day.
"What was said there in for a princess considered by the Speaker or Writer as proper or suitable to be head on my harem (a room or part for confinement of Women of Eastern monarch10) there is no least intention occurred to me even once or in my dream indeed! I think if I do so, I will die soon perhaps!
• • • • •
"This my handwriting or content hereof shall be kept secretly.
"I beg to remain
"Your faithful & well-wisher
"S. P. P. M. MONGKUT R. S.
"on 5441th day of reign.
"the writer here of beg to place his confidence on you alway."
As a true friend to his Majesty, I deplore the weakness which betrayed him into so transparent a sham of virtuous indignation. The "princess of the highest rank," whom the writer of the article plainly meant, was the Princess of Chiengmai; but from lack of accurate information he was misled into confounding her with the Princess Tui Duang Prabha, his Majesty's niece. The king could honestly deny any such intention on his part with regard to his niece; but, at the same time, he well knew that the writer erred only as to the individual, and not as to the main fact of the case. The Princess of Chiengmai was the wife, and the Princess Tui Duang the daughter, of his full brother, the Second King, lately deceased.
Much more agreeable is it — to the reader, I doubt not, not less than to the writer — to turn from the king, in the exercise of his slavish function of training honest words to play the hypocrite for ignoble thoughts, to the gentleman, the Mend, the father, giving his heart a holiday in the relaxations of simple kindness and free affection, — as in the following note: —
"Dated RANCHAUPURY 34th February 1865.
"To LADY L___ & HER SON LUISE, Bangkok
"We having very pleasant journey . . . . to be here which is a township called as above named by men of republick affairs in Siam, & called by common people as 'Parkphrieck' where we have our stay a few days. & will take our departure from hence at dawn of next day. We thinking of you both regardfully & beg to send here with some wild aples & barries which are delicate for tasting & some tobacco which were and are principal product of this region for your kind acceptance hoping this wild present will be acceptable to you both.
"We will be arrived at our home Bangkok on early part of March.
"We beg to remain
"S. P. P. M. MONGKUT R. S.
"in 5035th day of reign.
"And your affectionate pupils
"YING YULACKS. MANEABHADAHORN.
SOMDETCH CHOWFA CHULALONKORN.11 KRITAHINIHAR.
1 "On the third reign he [himself] served his eldest royal half-brother, by superintending the construction and revision of royal sacred books in royal libraries: so he was appointed the principal superintendent of clergymen's acts and works of Buddhist religion, and selector of religious learned wise men in the country, during the third reign." — From the pen of Maha Mongkut.
2 Attainment of beatitude.
3 In this connection the Rev. Messrs. Bradley, Caswell, House, Matoon, and Dean are entitled to special mention. To their united influence Siam unquestionably owes much, if not all, of her present advancement and prosperity. Nor would I be thought to detract from the high praise that is due to their fellow-laborers in the cause of Christianity, the Roman Catholic missionaries, who are, and ever have been, indefatigable in their exertions for the good of the country. Especially will the name of the excellent bishop, Monseigneur Pallegoix, be held in honor and affection by people of all creeds and tongues in Siam, as that of a pure and devoted follower of our common Redeemer.
4 "His Excellency Chow Phya Bhibakrwongs Maha Rosa Dhipude, the P'hraklang, Minister for Foreign Affairs, has built a sanitarium at Anghin for the benefit of the public. It is for benefit of the Siamese, Europeans, or Americans, to go and occupy, when unwell, to restore their health. All are cordially invited to go there for a suitable length of time and he happy; but are requested not to remain month after month and year after year, and regard it as a place without an owner. To regard it in this way cannot be allowed, for it is public property, and others should go and stop there also." — Advertisement, Siam Monitor, August 29, 1868.
5 Ghost, spirit, soul, devil, evil angel.
6 Kha, "your slave."
7 The next state of existence.
8 The greatest indignity a Siamese can suffer.
9 He was sixty-two at this time.
10 A parenthetical drollery inspired by the dictionary.
11 The present king.