- Sometimes, especially in Thai language documents, King Mongkut might also refer to Vajiravudh (Rama VI) , reigning title Phra Mongkut Klao Chaoyuhua (พระมงกุฏเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว).
- Rama IV redirects here. For the fourth book in the Rama series see Rama Revealed
Mongkut (October 18, 1804 - October 1, 1868) was king of Siam from 1851 to 1868. Historians have widely regarded him as one of the most remarkable kings of the Chakri Dynasty. For his role in introducing Western science and scientific methodology to Siam, Mongkut is still honored to this day in modern Thailand as the country's "Father of Modern Science and Technology".
Prince Mongkut was the son of King Rama II
and his first wife Queen Srisuriyendra
, whose first son died at birth in 1801. Prince Mongkut was five years old when his father succeeded to the throne in 1809. According to the law of succession, he was the first in line to the throne; but when his father died, his influential half-brother, Nangklao
, was strongly supported by the nobility to assume the throne. In 1824 at age 20, Crown Prince Mongkut became a Buddhist monk
, ordination name Vajirañāṇo, for the next 27 years (1824-1851). Observing what he saw as serious discrepancies between the rules given in the Pali Canon
and the actual practices of Thai monks, in 1833 he began the Thammayut Nikaya
reform movement that later became one of the two denominations of Buddhism in Thailand
; in 1836 he became the first abbot
of Wat Bowonniwet
, which is sponsored by the royal family to this day. During his time as a monk, Bhikkhu Vajirañāṇo discovered Western
knowledge, studying Latin
, and astronomy
and sailors. King Mongkut would later be noted for his excellent command of English, although it is said that his younger brother, Vice-King Pinklao
, could speak it even better.
Reign as king
After his twenty-seven years of pilgrimage, King Mongkut ascended the throne in 1851. He took the name Phra Chom Klao
, although foreigners continued to call him King Mongkut. His awareness of the threat from the British
imperial powers, led him to many innovative activities. He ordered the nobility to wear shirts while attending his court; this was to show that Siam was no longer barbaric from the Western point of view.
King Mongkut periodically hired foreign instructors to teach his sons and daughters English. Among teachers in the list were a missionary named Dan Beach Bradley
, who was credited for introducing Western medicine to the country and printing the first non-government run newspaper; and, on recommendation by Tan Kim Ching
in Singapore, an English woman named Anna Leonowens
, whose influence was later the subject of great Thai controversy. It is still debated how much this affected the worldview of one of his sons, Prince Chulalongkorn
, who succeeded to the throne.
Anna claimed that her conversations with Prince Chulalongkorn about human freedom, and her relating to him the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin, became the inspiration for his abolition of slavery almost 40 years later. It should be noted, however, that the slavery system in Siam was very different from that in the United States, where slavery was based on race. Slavery in Thailand was often voluntary and due to economic condition. One could be punished for torturing slaves in Siam and some 'slaves' could buy their freedom.
"Bishop Pallegoix states that slaves are 'well treated in Siam--as well as servants are in France;' and I, from what I have seen, would be inclined to go even farther, and say, better than servants are treated in England...
In small families, the slaves are treated like the children of the masters; they are consulted in all matters, and each man feels that as his master is prosperous, so is he... ( 1969:193-94).
Later scholars rely to a remarkable extent upon the conclusions of Jean Baptiste Pallegoix and Bowring. Bowring and Pallegoix are clearly the implied European observers behind Robert Pendleton's comment that "The slaves were, by and large, not badly off. European observers generally reported that they were better off than freemen servants in Western society" (1962:15). Citing Pallegoix, Bruno Lasker writes that "since they were essential to the support of their owners, they enjoyed a relatively humane treatment" (1950:58). Also citing Pallegoix, Virginia Thompson writes, "Though their condition varied...their status was always comparatively easy and generally humane" (1967:599). Citing Pallegoix and Bowring, R. B. Cruikshank writes, "In any event, most observers suggest that slaves in Siam were very well treated" (1975:320; see also Bacon 1881:296; Bock ( 1986:159; Colquhoun 1885:189, 267; Freeman 1910:100; Garnier 1873:171-72; Graham 1924:237-38; Pallegoix 1854:299; Turpin 1771:87, quoted in Lasker 1950:57; Wales 1965:63; Wilson 1962:96).
Not only have scholars argued that slaves were well-treated, but many have argued that the entry into servitude was the voluntary economic decision of the slave. Bowring cites as evidence "the fact that whenever they are emancipated, they always sell themselves again" (1969 :193).
Anna Leonowens' story would become the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, as well as the Hollywood movies of the same title, which, because of their incorrect historical references and supposedly disrespectful treatment of King Mongkut's character, were for some time banned in Thailand as the Thai government and people considered them to be lèse majesté. To correct the record, well-known Thai intellectuals Seni and Kukrit Pramoj in 1948 wrote The King of Siam Speaks ISBN 9748298124. The Pramoj brothers sent their manuscript to the American politician and diplomat Abbot Low Moffat 1901-1996), who drew on it for his 1961 biography, Mongkut the King of Siam ISBN 0801490693. Moffat donated the Pramoj manuscript to the United States Library of Congress in 1961. (Southeast Asian Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress)
Contrary to the popular belief held by some Westerners, King Mongkut never offered a herd of war elephants to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War for use against the Confederacy. He did offer to send some domesticated elephants to President James Buchanan, to use as beasts of burden and means of transportation. The royal letter, which was written even before the Civil War started, took some time to arrive in Washington DC, and by the time it reached its destination President Buchanan was not in office any longer. In his replying letter Lincoln, who succeeded Buchanan as the US President, respectfully declined to accept King Mongkut's proposal, explaining to the King that American steam engines could also be used for the same purposes.
As a monk and Buddhist scholar, King Mongkut worked to establish the Thammayut Nikaya
, an order of Buddhist monks
that he believed would conform more closely to the orthodoxy of the Theravada
school. It was said that the newly-established order was tacitly supported by King Nangklao, despite oppositions to it by conservative congregations, including some princes and noblemen. Later, when King Mongkut himself became King, he would strongly support his sect. Reportedly, King Mongkut once remarked to a Christian missionary
friend: "What you teach us to do is admirable, but what you teach us to believe is foolish"
It was during his reign and under his guidance that Siam entered a treaty
relationship with the United Kingdom
. Sir John Bowring
, Governor of Hong Kong
, as representative, concluded the trade
treaty (later commonly referred to as "the Bowring Treaty
") with the Siamese Government in 1855. The Bowring Treaty later served as a model for a series of trade treaties with many other western countries, and historians often give credit to King Mongkut (and Sir John Bowring) for opening the new era of Siam's international commerce
. These treaties, however, were also later considered unequal treaties, and after Siam had been modernized, the Siamese government began negotiations to renounce the Bowring Treaty and other similar treaties in the reign of King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, grandson of King Mongkut, a task that would not succeed until well into the reign of Rama VII, another grandson of his.
Later life and death
One of King Mongkut's last official duties came in 1868, when he invited Sir Harry Ord
, the British Governor of Straits Settlements
, as well as a party of French astronomers and scientists, to watch the total solar eclipse
of 18 August, which King Mongkut himself had calculated two years earlier, at (in his own words) "East Greenwich longitude 99 degrees 42' and latitude North 11 degrees 39'." The spot was at Wakor village in Prachuap Khiri Khan province
, south of Bangkok. King Mongkut's calculations proved accurate, but during the expedition King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn were infected with malaria
. The king died six weeks later in the capital, and was succeeded by his son, who survived the malaria.
- Abbot Low Moffat, 'Mongkhut, the King of Siam', Cornell U. P. 1961
- Constance Maralyn Wison, 'State and Society in the Reign of King Mongkut, 1851-1868: Thailand on the Eve of Modernization', Ph. D. thesis, Cornell 1970, University Microfilms.
- B. J. Terwiel, 'A History of Modern Thailand 1767-1942', University of Queensland Press, Australia 1983. This contains some anecdotes not included in the other references.
- Stephen White, 'John Thomson: A Windows to the Orient', University of New Mexico Press, United States. Thomson was a photographer and this book contains his pictures some of which provided the basis for the engravings (sometimes mis-identified) in Anna Leonowens' books. There is reference to Mongkut in the introductory text.
- The King's Thai: Entry to Thai Historical Data - Mongkut's Edicts maintained by Doug Cooper of Center for Research in Computational Linguistics, Bangkok; accessed 2008-07-11.