Mongkut, or Rama IV, was king of Siam, now Thailand, from 1851 to 1868. He has been immortalized, and sadly calumniated, in various versions of The King and I.
Mongkut Before Kinghood
Mongkut was born in 1804 in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, and died there in 1868. (The Grand Palace is now a major tourist attraction and national monument, though the royal family no longer lives there. It's quite beautiful, and you should visit it if you ever go to Bangkok.)
Mongkut's father, Rama II, was king, and his mother queen. (Not all of a king's wives and concubines were queens. A king could choose women of royal blood or particular favourites to be queen. Usually only one or two.) As a prince, Mongkut lived a life of privilege and luxury.
In 1824 his father called his advisors to him and said that it was a time of uncertainty and danger and that he wanted Mongkut to enter the monkhood without delay. The next day, with little ceremony, Mongkut was ordained a Buddhist monk. Within two weeks his father was dead, and his elder brother was named king. His brother's mother was not a queen, so he could be said to have a lesser claim to the the throne, but he was older and more experienced in politics.
Mongkut remained a monk, a prudent course of action since Siamese history is full of stories of kings killing their rivals to secure their position. (The preferred method of killing royalty, by the way, is to place the rival in a velvet sack and beat them to death with sandalwood clubs. Being a monk is one of the best ways to avoid this nasty fate.) As a monk, Mongkut was less of a threat than he would have been as a prince. He could not have children, and he would remain detached from worldly matters and focused on religious pursuits.
Mongkut remained in the monkhood for 27 years, and his life changed dramatically from the time when he lived in the palace. Monks live an austere life, without luxury, sleeping on mats, with few possessions. They survive by begging for food: every morning they rise before dawn, chant and pray, and then walk to the nearest community with their alms bowls. They walk through the streets, and if people want to give the monks food, they wait by the roadside and put food in their bowls.
As a monk, Mongkut travelled throughout the country and came in contact with people he never would have met as a prince. He was an exemplary scholar. He studied Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism, and passed difficult exams to rise in the Buddhist hierarchy; eventually, he became an abbot. His discovery that the practice of Buddhism in his day often deviated from doctrinal precedent prompted him to found a more austere sect which in his son's reign became known as the Thammayut - "Those adhering to the Law" - the older and more established sect being called the Mahanikai - literally "the great sect", though in Mongkut's eyes "Those adhering to long-standing habit". He also studied Latin, French, and English with the bishop of Siam and with American missionaries. He liked to debate with them about points of doctrine. He also studied western scientific techniques and technology which he would later use to great effect. He was an erudite man.
Mongkut, King of Siam
In 1851 his brother died and Mongkut became king. He was 47 years old and had been a monk for 27 years. He took many wives and concubines. It was his duty to produce heirs for the kingdom, and one he seemed to enjoy. He was a doting father who dearly loved his many children.
Mongkut wanted his children to be able to lead the kingdom into the twentieth century. He thought that they needed to know about the world and ought to speak foreign languages. They needed teachers. He originally had the wives of his friends, the American missionaries, teach his children, but they persisted in trying to convert them although he told them many times not to. One day they arrived to find the palace doors locked, and that was that. No more English lessons.
He wrote to his friend, the governor of Singapore, looking for a suitable teacher. The governor recommended Anna Leonowens.
Mongkut was very interested in western science and technology, and had had a house in his palace which was, in the words of Sir John Bowring, "filled with various instruments, philosophical and mathematical...in a word, all the instruments and appliances which might be found in the study or library of an opulent philosopher in Europe". As monarch, Mongkut used his knowledge to great effect, by, for example, establishing a system of mean time for Siam in 1852; by comparison, the English Act on Greenwich Mean Time was not passed until 1880. A famous anecdote relates how, almost two years before its occurrence, Mongkut predicted the exact time of a complete solar eclipse. He arranged for a lavish expedition of courtiers and farang guests to a spot in southern Thailand where he had calculated that the eclipse could best be viewed, and laid on a sumptuous reception. Particularly impressive to many of the guests was the large quantity of ice available in a jungle setting. Also unusual was the open presence of several of Mongkut's wives: traditionally secluded in the palace, this was the first occasion that many of Mongkut's senior officials and farang associates had even seen the women.
In the event, Mongkut was elated to find that his prediction of its timing was more accurate by two seconds than that of a team of French scientists camped nearby. The king's success helped him appear more scientific than those paragons of science themselves, western experts. Tragically, his triumph was also a death blow. The spot he had chosen to view the eclipse was in a low, swampy area, and both he and his son Chulalongkorn contracted malarial fevers which raged on their return to the capital. Chulalongkorn survived; Mongkut did not. According to the Buddhist lunar calendar, and like the Buddha himself, Mongkut died on the same day he was born.
Mongkut's interest in and mastery of things western did not mean that he abandoned eastern traditions, however. He demonstrated a good grasp of European astronomical techniques, but the king was also well versed in Siamese, Mon, and Burmese astrology. The chronicles of the fourth reign stated that Mongkut had used both western and indigenous texts to arrive at his eclipse prediction, implying that for the king, western science supplemented, but did not replace, older traditional knowledge. The king did not hesitate to draw on Southeast Asian astrological traditions in ways appropriate to royal statecraft, such as determining the most auspicious moment for important ceremonies like his own coronation, his son Chulalongkorn's tonsure ceremony, and so on. The king was not the Siamese counterpart of a typical Western rationalist of that era; his religious reforms did not cleanse Buddhism to bring it in line with western reason, as has sometimes been argued, but restored it to canonical precedent.
Many farang had great respect for Mongkut. Sir John Bowring, governor of Hong Kong, visited Bangkok in 1855 as British envoy, negotiated a treaty with Mongkut, and had much favourable to say about the king and his rule. On their first, informal meeting he found Mongkut "very gracious" and accessible: "I sat opposite his Majesty, only a table being between us...An amicable conversation took place, which lasted some time". He spoke approvingly of the main supporters and aides of the king, and, like many contemporary farang, he reserved his highest praise for the uparat, Chudamani, who he opined was "a cultivated and intelligent gentleman, writing and speaking English with great accuracy, and living much in the style of a courteous and opulent European noble, fond of books and scientific inquiry, interested in all that marks the course of civilization".
Bowring repeated the prejudices of his day in reading signs of Europeanization as symbols of progress and civilization. Some Europeans, however, were abashed to find themselves out-civilized by the Siamese. Mellersh, captain of one of Bowring's vessels, thought it "a wonderful thing to hear the King of a Country so little known and heard of as Siam, speaking and writing English better than nine foreigners out of ten who live within 50 miles of our country". Mellersh professed himself "astonished" at the "great minuteness" with which some visitors examined everything about the ship and the "very pertinent questions" they asked, and concluded with some surprise that "men may be very intelligent tho' they do not wear shirts". Learning that the uparat had built a steamship, he declared, "I believe (indeed there is no doubt about it) that he understands more about the steam engine than I do, for I could not make a steam engine if it were to save my life".
The treaty which resulted from this visit was said by Bowring to have brought about a "total change in the system of taxation...uprooting a great number of privileges and monopolies...held by the most influential nobles", and the Englishman expressed satisfaction at his own role in this "total revolution in all the financial machinery of the Government". Bowring's hubris and its subsequent repetition in many texts has not gone unchallenged, however. In fact, the treaty negotiations and economic restructuring had been instigated by the Siamese themselves, and internal taxation was not liberalized in the wake of the signing, as Bowring had boasted, but continued unabated, in part because of the terms of the treaty itself, which set some tariffs consonant with pre-treaty levels and did not specify many others. The main and lasting effect of the signing was a removal of protective import barriers, which soon undermined thriving indigenous industries and transformed the Chao Phraya delta into a mono-cropping area. Still, the endorsement of this treaty was viewed as a success by the British, and similar documents were soon signed with other European nations as well as the United States.
Placating western powers by negotiating treaties which appeared to give more than they actually did was one tactic Mongkut used to curb European expansionist designs. Another was to insist on presenting his kingdom on an equal footing with foreign powers in all dealings. His shrewd understanding of the process of colonization was revealed in a private address to members of a Prussian expedition:
First, ships are sent out to explore the unknown parts of the world. Then other ships follow for the purpose of trading. Then merchants settle down, who are either fought by the natives or who try to subjugate the native population. In short, wars emerge out of guilt and misunderstanding on both sides. The foreigners keep extending their influence until entire empires belong to them. Nowadays there is hardly any country left for new colonies, except for Oceania and the islands of the South Sea. The Asian countries have been in a disadvantageous position since the norms of Western international law have not been applied to them.
Determined to resist this fate, and like Narai
before him, Mongkut strove to receive foreign envoys in a manner befitting both European and Siamese custom, often frustrating diplomatic visitors who wanted to conclude their missions and leave the kingdom. In a letter to Queen Victoria
, Mongkut signed himself "Your Majesty's distinguished friend by race of the royalty affectionate brother", alluding to a fraternity on their shared exalted positions. He wrote to Abraham Lincoln
offering to send elephant
s to aid him in the civil war
; the American president politely declined in his 1862
Much of the information about Mongkut was gleaned from John Blofeld's biography, King Maha Mongkut of Siam, as well as one by Abbot Low Moffat, Mongkut, the King of Siam.
Sir John Bowring's quotations are taken from his massive tome The Kingdom and People of Siam (originally published in 1857). B. J. Terwiel's article, "The Bowring Treaty: Imperialism and the Indigenous Perspective" (in the Journal of the Siam Society) is the inspiration for the criticism of Bowring's hubris which I discuss above.
Nerida Cook's article, "A Tale of Two City Pillars: Mongkut and Thai Astrology on the Eve of Modernization" (in Patterns and Illusions: Thai History and Thought, edited by G. Wijeyewardene and E. C. Chapman) contains much of interest about Mongkut's syncretic use of eastern and western techniques.
The quotes from Mellersh are contained in an article by Nicholas Tarling (also in the Journal of the Siam Society) entitled "The Bowring Mission: The Mellersh Narrative". Mongkut's long quote about colonization can be found in Bernd Martin's "The Prussian Expedition to the Far East (1860-1862)", again in the Journal of the Siam Society.
See my nodes on Anna Leonowens and Chulalongkorn for more.