In Thailand October 23rd is celebrated as ‘The Day of the Beloved and Great King’ Chulalongkorn (1853-1910) who reigned as King Rama V of Siam. The fifth monarch of the Chakri dynasty, the king was credited with modernising Siam while protecting his country’s borders from the colonial ambitions of the Western powers. A fervent Anglophile, King Chulalongkorn was the first ruler of Siam to leave the borders of his realm; most famously taking two lengthy tours of Europe and Russia in 1897 and 1907.
King Chulalongkorn’s childhood is fictionally chronicled in the 1956 film musical The King and I with Yul Brynner playing his father King Mongkut (Rama IV) and Deborah Kerr the British governess Anna Leonowens who taught the Siamese royal children between 1862 and 1867. Leonowens’ memoir recorded conversations with the adolescent Prince Chulalongkorn in which she explained Western notions of human rights by reading him Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ‘Mrs Anna’ would tacitly take credit for King Chulalongkorn abolishing slavery in Siam and ending draconian court protocols such as the command for all who came before the king to prostrate themselves before him.
King Mongkut did introduce English and American governesses to the Inner Palace but his eldest son by a royal consort was also schooled in Siamese traditions such as Court protocol, military science, horse riding, wrestling and armed combat. In 1867, Prince Chulalongkorn accompanied his father on an expedition to the Malay Peninsular. Both contracted malaria. Though King Mongkut died in 1868, the fifteen-year old prince survived. While Court mandarin Si Suriyawongse served as Regent, the new King Chulalongkorn was sent on a series of fact-finding missions to nations under colonial rule such as Malaya, Burma, the Dutch East Indies and India.
On reaching his majority in 1873, King Chulalongkorn was crowned and immediately began reform by overhauling the corrupt tax collecting system. One of the most divisive protocols in the royal court of Siam was the Front Palace; a power-sharing hierarchy whereby the king’s brother or son all but reigned as a ‘Vice King’. The Front Palace had passed from King Mongkut’s brother Pinklao to his son Prince Yingyot who was a staunch conservative. Prince Yinglot’s faction opposed King Chulalongkorn’s reforms until his death in 1885 when the king abolished the rank and appointed his son Crown Prince.
The king had married four of his half-sisters born to King Mongkut and various consorts and concubines. He maintained an Inner Palace for his own harem said to total 116 women with whom he bore thirty-three sons and forty-four daughters. There is an extraordinary 1897 photograph taken at Eton of King Chulalongkorn wearing Western dress at the head of a line of eleven sons. Each of the boys wears an Eton tailcoat and black silk top hat. After Prince Yinglot’s death, King Chulalongkorn divided to rule: establishing a cabinet government with royal princes at the head of each ministry. This paved the way for a Royal Military Academy founded on the Western model, the 1900 Employment Act that abolished slavery and the construction of a national railway system.
When the king acceded to the throne, one third of the Siamese population was subjected to slavery and children born to slaves automatically added to their number. In his 2002 book Lords of Things: The Fashioning of the Siamese Monarchy’s Modern Image Maurizio Peleggi writes ‘King Rama V created in the hearts of his subjects an entirely new outlook with regard to the ruler, a deep personal affection for the sovereign who had done so much to relieve the hardships of his people, as apart from the ingrained traditional respect for the kingship’.
Siam was surrounded by territories occupied by the English and the French. The king kept relations cordial, sending food supplies to the British army fighting in Burma but stopping short of sending troops to support the colonial war. Siam’s greatest export was King Chulalongkorn himself. In 1897 he was received in Russia as equal rank with Tsar Nicholas II and was invited to lunch with Queen Victoria at Osborne House. His royal tour also included France, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands, Monaco, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Egypt.
On his tour of Britain, King Chulalongkorn made the front page of the Illustrated London News. However the British Press Association were a little more condescending saying ‘the King of Siam is coming to Britain not on an ordinary State Visit but with a view of educating himself in the matters of British customs and resources’. Tailor & Cutter reported ‘it can be seen at a glance that his clothes were made by an English tailor. The king, judged by his dress, looks like a typical English gentleman. Perhaps the silk facings on the lapel of his neatly fitting coat is a little too heavy for the real West End article…(but) it does credit both to His Majesty’s good taste and to the tailor who produced the garment’.
The King was not dressed by Henry Poole in 1897. His order in the company ledgers is dated 1907: the tour when National Geographic magazine declared he was ‘one of the most kindly looking men now gracing a throne’ and ‘the handsomest man in Asia’. But the European tour was covertly conducted to find a cure for the kidney disease that would kill the king in 1910. His postal address in the Poole’s ledger is the Hotel des Alps in Lucerne suggesting he was undergoing treatment in Switzerland. When he died, King Chulalongkorn was the longest reigning monarch in Siamese history and the most well-beloved. He published several books including Far from Home, An Annual Royal Ceremony and The King’s Criticism but his true legacy was to leave his heir a modern, efficient and independent nation.