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THE KINGDOM OF SIAM.
WITH her despotic ruler, priest and king; her religion of contradictions, at once pure and corrupt, lovely and cruel, ennobling and debasing; her laws, wherein wisdom is so perversely blended with blindness, enlightenment with barbarism, strength with weakness, justice with oppression; her profound scrutiny into mystic forms of philosophy, her ancient culture of physics, borrowed from the primitive speculations of Brahminism; — Siam is, beyond a peradventure, one of the most remarkable and thought-compelling of the empires of the Orient; a fascinating and provoking enigma, alike to the theologian and the political economist. Like a troubled dream, delirious in contrast with the coherence and stability of Western life, the land and its people seem to be conjured out of a secret of darkness, a wonder to the senses and a mystery to the mind.
And yet it is a strangely beautiful reality. The enchanting variety of its scenery, joined to the inexhaustible productiveness of its soil, constitutes a challenge to the charms of every other region, except, perhaps, the country watered by the great river of China. Through an immense, continuous level of unfailing fertility, the Meinam rolls slowly, reposefully, grandly, in its course receiving draughts from many a lesser stream, filling many a useful canal in its turn, and, from the abundance the generous rains bestow, distributing supplies of refreshment and fatness to innumerable acres.
In a soil at once so rich and so well watered, the sun, with its vivifying heats, engenders a mighty vegetation, delighting the eye for more than half the year with endless undulations of grain and a great golden Eden of fruit. Its staples are solid blessings: rice, the Asiatic's staff of life; sugar, most popular of dietetic luxuries; indigo, most valuable of dyes; in the drier tracts, cotton, tobacco, coffee, a variety of palms (from one species of which sugar not unlike that of the maple is extracted), the wild olive, and the fig. Then there are vast forests of teak, that enduring monarch of the vegetable kingdom, ebony, satin-wood, eagle-wood; beside ivory, beeswax and honey, raw silk, and many aromatic gums and fragrant spices. And though the scenery is less various and picturesque than that of the regions of Gangetic India, where ranges of noble mountains make the land majestic, nevertheless nature riots here in bewildering luxuriances of vegetable forms and colors. Vast tracts, shady and cool with dense dark foliage; trees, tall and strong, spreading their giant arms abroad, with prickly, shining shrubs between, while parasites and creepers, wild, bright, and beautiful, trail from the highest boughs to the ground; the bamboo, shooting to the height of sixty feet and upward, with branches gracefully drooping; the generous, kind banana; fairy forests of ferns of a thousand forms; tall grasses, with their pale and plumy blossoms; the many-trunked and many-rooted banyan; the boh, sacred to Buddha, — all combine to form a garden that Adam might have dressed and kept, and only Eve could spoil.
It is only when he approaches the borders of the land that the traveller is greeted by grand mountains, crowned with impenetrable forests, and forming an amphitheatre around the graceful plains. Along the coast the view is more diversified; islands, the most picturesque, and rich with diversified vegetation, make happy, striking contrasts, here and there, with the deep blue sea around them.
The extent and boundaries of the kingdom and its dependencies have been variously described; but according to the statement of his Majesty Maha Mongkut, the dominion of his predecessors, before the possession of Malacca by the Portuguese, extended over the whole of the Malayan peninsula, including the islands of Singapore and Pinang, which at that time formed a part of the realm of the Rajah of Quedah, who still pays tribute to the crown of Siam. It was at the instigation of English settlers that the states of Johore, Singapore, Rambo, Talangore, Pahang, and Puah became subject to British rule; so that to-day the Siamese dominion, starting from the little kingdom of Tringamu, extends from the fourth to the twenty-second degree of north latitude, giving about 1,350 miles of length, while from east to west its greatest breadth is about 450 miles. On the north it is bounded by several provinces of Laos, tributaries of Ava and China; on the east by the empire of Anam; on the west by the sea and British possessions; on the south by the petty states of Pahang and Puah. Beyond Siam proper are the kingdom of Ligor and the four small states, Quedah, Paten, Calantan, and Yeingana; on the east a part of the kingdom of Cambodia, Muang Korat, and several provinces of Laos; on the north the kingdoms of Chiengmai, Laphun, Lakhon, Muang Phiëé, Muang Naun, Muang Loan, and Luang Phrabang. The great plain of Siam is bounded on the east by a spur of the Himalayan range, which breaks-off in Cambodia, and is found again in the west, extending almost to the extremity of the Malayan states, on the north these two mountain ranges approach each other, and form that multitude of small hills which imparts so picturesque an aspect to the Laos country. This plain is watered by the river Meinam,1 or Chow Phya, whose innumerable branches, great and small, and the many canals which, fed by it, intersect the capital in all directions, constitute it the high-road of the Empire. For many miles its banks are fringed with the graceful bamboo, the tamarind, the palm, and the peepul, the homes of myriads of birds of the land and of the water, — creatures of brilliant plumage and delightful song.
Siam has some excellent harbors, though the principal one, on the gulf, is partially obstructed by great banks of sand that have accumulated at the mouth of the Chow Phya. Ships of ordinary burden, however, can cross these banks at high tide, and in a few hours cast anchor in the heart of the capital, in from sixty to seventy feet of water. Here they are snug and safe. Besides, the gulf itself is free from the typhoons so destructive to shipping on the China seas.
In all the Malayan Islands there are numerous unimportant streams, which, though limited in their course, form excellent harbors at their debouchement on the coast. The eastern regions of Laos and Cambodia are watered by the river Meikhong, which has a course of nearly a thousand miles; but its navigation, like that of the Meinam at its mouth, is impeded by sand-banks. The smaller streams, Chantabun, Pet Rue, and Tha Chang, all run into the Meikhong, which, mingling its waters with those of the Meinam, flows through Chiengmai, receives the waters of Phitsalok, and then, diverging by many channels, inundates the great plain of Siam once every year, in the month of June. By the end of August this entire region has become one vast sheet of water, so that boats traverse it in every direction without injury to the young rice springing up beneath them.
The climate of Siam is more or less hot according to the latitude; only continual bathing can render it endurable. There are but two seasons, the wet and the dry. As soon as the southwest monsoon sets in, masses of spongy cumuli gather on the summits of the western mountains, giving rise to furious squalls about sunset, and dispersing in peals of thunder and torrents of refreshing rain. From the beginning to the end of the rainy season, this succession of phenomena is repeated every evening. The monsoon from the north brings an excess of rain, and the thermometer falls. With the return of the dry season the air becomes comparatively cool, and most favorable to health; this continues from October to January. The dews are extremely heavy in the months of March and April. At dawn the atmosphere is impregnated with a thick fog, which, as the sun rises, descends in dews so abundant that trees, plants, and grass drip as from a recent shower of rain.
The population of Siam is still a matter of uncertainty; but it is officially estimated at from six to seven millions of souls, comprising Siamese or Thai-Malay, Laotians, Cambodians, Peguans, Kariens, Shans, and Loas.
Siam produces enormous quantities of excellent rice, of which there are forty distinct varieties; and her sugar is esteemed the best in the world. Her rivers and lakes abound in fish, as well as in turtles and aquatic birds. The exports are rice, sugar, cotton, tobacco, hemp, cutch, fish (salted and dried), cocoanut oil, beeswax, dried fruits, gamboge, cardamoms, betel-nuts, pepper, various gums and barks, sapan-wood, eagle-wood, rosewood, kracheewood, ebony, ivory, raw silk, buffalo-hides, tiger-skins, armadillo-skins, elephants' tusks and bones, rhinoceros bones, turtle-shells, peacocks' tails, bird's-nests, kingfishers' feathers, &c.
The revenue arising from duties and tolls on imported and native produce being mostly collected in kind, only a small part is converted into specie; the rest is distributed in part payment of salaries to the dependants of the court, whose name is legion. Princes of the blood royal, high officers of state, provincial governors, and most of the judges, receive grants of provinces, districts, villages, and farms, to support their several dignities and reward their services; and the rents, fees, fines, bribes, and sops of these assignments are collected by them for their own behoof. Thus, to one man are given the fees, to another the fines or bribes, which custom has attached to his functions; to others are alloted offices, by virtue of which certain imposts are levied; to this man the land; to another the waters of rivers and canals; to a third the fruit-bearing trees. But money is distributed with a niggard band, and only once a year. Every officer of revenue is permitted to pocket, and "charge to salary," a part of all that he collects in taxes, fines, extortions, bribes, gifts, and "testimonials."
The rulers of Laos pay to the crown of Siam a tribute of gold and silver "trees," rings set with gems, and chains of solid gold. The trees, which appear to be composed entirely of the precious metals, are really nothing more than cylinders and tubes of tin, substantially gilt or plated, designed to represent the graceful clove-tree indigenous to that part of the country; the leaves and blossoms, however, are of solid gold and silver. Each tree is planted in an artificial gilt mound, and is worth from five hundred to seven hundred ticals, while the chains and rings are decorated with large and pure rubies.
The raw silk, elephants' tusks, and other rare products of Siam, are highly prized by the Mohammedan traders, who compete one with another in shipping them for the Bombay markets. They are usually put up at auction; and, strange to say, the auctioneers are women of the royal harem, the favorite concubines of the First King. The shrewd Moslem broker, turning a longing eye upon the precious stores of the royal warehouses, employs his wife, or a trusty slave, to approach this Nourmahal or that Rose-in-bloom with presents, and promises of generous premium to her whose influence shall procure for the bidder the acceptance of his proposal. By a system of secret service peculiar to these traders, the amount of the last offer is easily discovered, and the new bidder "sees that" (if I may be permitted to amuse myself with the phraseology of the Mississippi 'bluff-player) and "goes" a few ticals "better." There are always several enterprising Stars of the Harem ready to vary the monotony by engaging in this unromantic business; and the agitation among the "sealed" sisterhood, though by no means boisterous, is lively, though all have tact to appear indifferent in the presence of their awful lord. The meagreness of the royal allowance of pin-money is the consideration that renders the prize important in the eyes of each of the competitors; and yet it is strange, in all the feminine vanity and vexation of spirit that the occasion engenders, how little of jealous bitterness and heartburning is directed against the lucky lady. The competitors agree upon a favorable opportunity to present the tenders of their respective clients to his Majesty. Each selecting the most costly and attractive of her bribes, and displaying them to advantage on a tray of gold, lays the written bid on the top; or with a shrewd device of the maternal instinct, so fertile in pretty tricks of artfulness, places it in the hands of a pet child, who is taught to present it winningly as the king descends to his midday meal The attention of his Majesty is attracted by the display of showy toys; he deigns to inquire as to the donors; the "sealed proposals" are respectfully, and doubtless with more or less coquetry, pressed upon him; and the matter is then and there concluded, almost invariably in favor of the highest bidder. This semi-romantic mode of traffic was gravely encouraged by his late Majesty, for the benefit of his favorites of the harem; and great store of produce, of the finer varieties, was thus disposed of in the palace.
The poll-tax on the Chinese, levied once in three years, is paid in bullion.
The annual income of the public treasury rarely exceeds the outgo; but whatever the state of the exchequer, and of the funds reserved for the service of the state, the personal resources of the monarch are always most abundant. Nor do the great sums lavished upon his favorites and children deplete, in any respect, his vast treasures, because they are all supported by grants of land, monopolies of market, special taxes, tithes, douceurs, and other patrimonial or tributary provisions. A certain emolument is also derived from the valuable mines of the country, though, poorly worked as they are, but small importance has as yet been ascribed to these as a source of revenue; yet the gold of Bhangtaphan is esteemed the purest and most ductile in the world. Beside mines of iron, antimony, gold, and silver, there are quarries of white marble. The extraordinary number of idols and works of art cast in metal seems to indicate that these mines were once largely worked; and it is believed that the vast quantities of gold which for centuries has been consumed in the construction of images and the adornment of temples, pagodas, and palaces, were drawn from them. The country abounds in pits, bearing marks of great age; and there are also remains of many furnaces, which are said to have been abandoned in the wars with Pegu. Mineral springs — copious and, no doubt, valuable — are numerous in some parts of the country.
The exports of Siam are various and profitable; and of the raw materials, teak timber is entitled to the first consideration. The domestic consumption of this most useful wood in the construction of dwellings, sacred edifices, ships, and boats, is enormous; yet the forests traversed by the great rivers seem inexhaustible, and the supply continues so abundant that the variations in the price are very slight. The advantage the country must derive from her extensive commerce in a commodity so valuable may hardly be overrated.
Next in importance are the native sugars, rice, cotton, and silk, which find their way in large quantities to the markets of China and Hindostan. Among other articles of crude produce may be mentioned ivory2 (a single fine tusk being often valued at five thousand dollars), wax, lead, copper, tin, amber, indigo, tobacco, honey, and bird's-nests. There 'are also precious stones of several varieties, and the famous gold of Bhangtaphan. Forty different kinds of rice are named, but these may properly be reduced to four classes, — the Common or table, the Small-grained or mountain, the Glutinous, and the Vermilion rice. From the glutinous rice arrack is distilled. The areca, or pinang-nut, and the betel, are used almost universally, chewed with lime, the lime, — being dyed with turmeric, which imparts to it a rich vermilion tint; the areca-nut is also used in dying cotton thread.
THE ROYAL BARGE.
The characteristic traits of the Siamese Court are hauteur, insolent indifference, and ostentation, the natural features and expression of tyranny; and every artifice that power and opulence can devise is employed to inspire the minds of the common people with trembling awe and devout veneration for their sovereign master. Though the late Supreme King wisely reformed certain of the stunning Customs of the court with more modest innovations, nevertheless he rarely went abroad without extravagant display, especially in his annual visitations to the temples. These were performed in a style studiously contrived to strike the beholder with astonishment and admiration.
The royal state barge, one hundred cubits long, beside being elaborately carved, and inlaid with bits of crystal, porcelain, mother-of-pearl, and jade, is richly enamelled and gilt. The stem, which rises ten or eleven feet from the bows, represents the nagha mustakha sapta, the seven-headed serpent or alligator. A phrasat, or elevated throne (also termed p'hra-the-nang), occupies the centre, supported by four pillars. The extraordinary beauty of the inlaying of shells, mother-of-pearl, crystal, and precious stones of every color, the splendor of the gilding, and the elegance of the costly kinkob curtains with which it is hung, combine to render this one of the most striking and beautiful objects to be seen on the Meinam. The barge is usually manned by one hundred and fifty men, their paddles gilt and silver-tipped.
This government reproduces, in many of its shows of power, pride, and ostentation, a tableau vivant of European rule in the darker ages, when, on the decline of Roman dominance, the principles of feudal dependence were established by barbarians from the North. Under such a system, it is impossible to ascertain, or to represent by any standards of currency, the amount of the royal revenues and treasures. But it is known that the riches of the Siamese monarch are immense, and that a magnificent share of the legal plunder drawn into the royal treasury is sunk there, and never returns into circulation again. The hoarding of money seems to be the cherished practice of all Oriental rulers, and even a maxim of state policy; and that the general diffusion of property among his subjects offers the only safe assurance of prosperity for himself and stability for his throne is the last precept of prudance an Asiatic monarch ever learns.
The armies of Siam are raised on the spur of the moment, as it were, for any pressing emergency. When troops are to be called' out, a royal command, addressed to all viceroys and governors, requires them to raise their respective quotas, and report to a commander-in-chief at a general rendezvous. These recruits are clothed, equipped with arms and ammunition, and "subsisted" with daily rations of rice, oil, etc., but are not otherwise paid. The small standing army, which serves as the nucleus upon which these irregulars are gathered and formed, consists of infantry, cavalry, elephant-riders, archers, and private bodyguards, paid at the rate of from five to ten dollars a month, with clothing and rations. The infantry are armed with muskets and sabres; the cavalry, with bows and arrows as well as spears; but the spear, which is from six to seven feet long, is the favorite weapon of this arm of the service, and they handle it with astonishing dexterity. The king's private body-guards are well paid, clothed, and quartered, having their stations and barracks within the palace walls and near the most attractive streets and avenues, while other troops are lodged outside.
It is customary to detain the families of conscripts in the districts to which they belong, as prisoners on parole, — hostages for the good conduct of their young men in the army; and for the desertion or treachery of the soldier, his wife or children, mother or sisters, as the case may be, are tortured, or even executed, without compunction or remorse. The long and peaceful reign of the late king, however, has almost effaced from the minds of the youth of Siam the remembrance of such monstrous oppressions.
The Siamese are but indifferent sailors, their nautical excursions being mainly confined to short coasting trips, or boating in safe and familiar channels. The more adventurous export trade is carried on almost wholly by foreigners, About one thousand war-boats constitute the hulk of the navy. These are constructed from the solid
of the teak-tree, excavated partly with fire, partly with the adze; and, while they are commonly from eighty to a hundred feet long, the breadth rarely exceeds eight or nine feet, though the apparent width is increased by the addition of a sort of light gallery. They are made to carry fifty or sixty rowers, with short oars working on a pivot. The prow, which is solid, has a flat terrace, on which, for the king's up-country excursions, they mount a small field-piece, a nine or a twelve pounder. There are also several men-of-war belonging to the government, built by European engineers.
The number of vessels in the merchant marine cannot be great. Dwelling so long in peace and security at home, the tastes and the energies of the Siamese people have been confirmed, by their political circumstances, in that inclination toward agricultural rather than commercial pursuits which their geographical conditions naturally engender. The extreme fertility of the soil, watered by innumerable streams, and intersected in every direction by a network of capacious canals (of which the Klong Yai, Klong Bangkok-noi, and Klong P'hra-cha-dee, are the most remarkable); the generating heats of the climate; the teeming plains of the upper provinces, bulwarked by mighty mountains; and, above all, that magnificent mother, the Meinam, winding in her beauty and bounty through a vast and lovely vale to the sea, in her course subjecting all things to the enriching and adorning influence of her touch, — all combine by their irresistible inducements to determine the native to the tilling of the around.
Nothing can be more delightful than an excursion through the country immediately after the subsidence of the floods. Then nature is draped in hues as charming as they are various, from the palest olive to the liveliest green; broad fields wave with tall golden spires of grain, or are dotted with tufted sheaves heavy with generous crops; the refreshed air is perfumed with the fragrance of the orange, lemon, citron, and other tropical fruits and flowers; and on every side the landscape is a scene of lovely meadows, alive with flocks and herds, and busy with herdsmen, husbandmen, and gardeners.
The most considerable of the many canals by which communication is maintained with all parts of the country is Klong Yai, the Great Canal, supposed to have been begun in the reign of Phya Tâk. It is nearly a hundred cubits deep, twenty Siamese fathoms broad, and forty miles long. Bangkok has been aptly styled "the Venice of the Orient"; for not only the villages thickly studding the banks of the Meinam, but the remoter hamlets as well, even to the confines of the kingdom, have each its own canals. In fact, the lands annually inundated by the Mother of Waters are so extensive, and for the most part lie so low, and the number of water-ducts, natural and artificial, is so great, that of all the torrents that descend upon the country in the months of June, July, and August (when the whole land is as a sea, in which towns and villages show like docks connected by drawbridges, with little islets between of groves and orchards, whose tops alone are visible), not a tithe ever returns to the ocean.
The modern bridges of Siam, which are mostly of iron in the European style, are made to be drawn for the passage of the King's barge, since the royal head may not without desecration pass under anything trodden by the foot of man. The more ancient bridges, however, are of stone and brick; and here and there are strange artificial lakes, partly filled up with the débris of temples that once stood on their banks. Of roads there are but few that are good, and all are of comparatively recent construction.
1 "Mother of Waters," — a common Siamese term for all large streams.
2 In Siam reserved as a royal appropriation.