Getting to know... . King Mongkut. Researched and prepared by Dennis Elliott. Hello! Some of you may not recognize me. I am Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua .. or King Rama IV of Siam.
Getting to know...
Researched and prepared by Dennis Elliott
Some of you may not recognize me. I am Phra Bat SomdetPhraPoramenthraMahaMongkutPhraChomKlao Chao Yu Hua.. or King Rama IV of Siam.
In English speaking countries I am known as King Mongkut but you may call me .....
I have some pictures for you from my family album. Look!
What is that you say!
You have never been to Siam. You have never seen the Royal City of Bangkok. We are modern country with scientific knowledge! You will see! Let me show you!
The Royal City of Bangkok
The Kingdom of Siam
A great deal has been written about me..... and some of it is true. But there are things that are ..well let us say, somewhat exaggerated.
I shall endeavour to tell you the true story of my life so that you may see what is fact and what is fiction.
I command you.....pay close attention!
In 1801, my mother Princess Bunreod gave birth to her first child but sadly he died shortly after birth.
Three years later, on October 18, 1804, I was born... the second son of Princess Bunreod and Prince Isarasundhorn.
When I was four years old my brother, Prince Chutumani, was born. Only one year later, in 1809, my grandfather, Buddha YodfaChulaloke, the first Chakri King of Siam, known as King Rama I, passed away.
My father was now King Rama II and I was first in line to the throne!
After my father’s coronation we moved to the Grand Palace.
I think I have a photo of...ah, yes! See for yourself how magnificent it is.
The Grand Palace in the Royal City of Bangkok in the Kingdom of Siam
It was a tradition in my country that young men who had turned 20 years of age should become a Buddhist monk for a period of time. And so, in 1824, I did just that. I was ordained a Buddhist monk.
Unfortunately, in the same year, my beloved father the King passed away.
According to tradition, I should have been crowned the next King of Siam. Instead, they chose Prince Jessadabodindra, the son of a concubine! That is his picture I am holding.
Not wanting to cause trouble, I devoted my life to my religion. I travelled extensively throughout my country where I met many of my fellow monks.
In 1836 I became the abbot of WatBowonniwetVihara, a temple in what is now Bangkok. Here I discovered Western Knowledge and was inspired to study Latin, English and Astronomy. I became a close friend of a Roman Catholic priest and invited him to preach Christian sermons within the temple.
Then on April 2, 1851 my half-brother, the King, passed away. Despite having 51 children he failed to name a successor.
With the support of the most powerful nobles ...and the British! .. I became King... King of Siam! In Siam I am known as Phra Prom Klao but Westerners call me King Monkgkut.
Yes .. of course.. bow your head! Prostrate yourself, and show due deference to a King!
After twenty seven y ..... Is your head higher than mine? Higher than the King’s? It must not be so!
After twenty seven years as a monk I decided to build a family...... one might say, a very large family.
Bymy 64th year I had 32 wives and 82 children.
This was the family of a King!
Early in my reign I appointed my brother Prince Chutumani as Second King! He was known as King Pinklao. I decreed that he be accorded the same respect and honour as myself. See ... here he is in a Western style naval uniform!
Do you know that I am schooled in language of English?
I am much admired for this.
And therefore I decreed that wives of visiting English and American missionaries be employed to teach young ladies and princesses of the court to speak English ... the Queen’s English!!
At first 16 students...then 30..all learning to speak English.
But why teach wives and princesses only from Bible texts and pictures? We are Buddhists! We do not need another God. Three years after they began I decreed that the lessons be stopped.
I read in English newspapers from Singapore of the great war in the Crimea, and of the Industrial Revolution and of the Civil War in America.
I knew that Siam could not defend itself militarily against these great powers but I was determined to protect and preserve my country and its culture from French, British, and American colonialism.
Therefore, in 1855, only four years into my reign, I concluded treaties with the greatest of the Western powers: Great Britain and the United States. This was commercially beneficial to my country and Siam’s economy grew rapidly.
I also extended the hand of friendship to visiting foreign ambassadors and showed them that Siam was not a country of “barbarians”, but one of culture, religion and education.
Better the “enemy” you know.... do you not think?
Yes! ...education was the key!
So in 1861, I invited an English woman to come to teach at my palace. I think I have a copy of the letter... ah!..yes...here it is.
1862, 26th February
Grand Royal Palace, Bangkok
We are in good pleasure, and satisfaction in heart, that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children (whom English, call inhabitants of benighted land) you will do your best endeavour for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religions.
We beg to invite you to our royal palace to do your best endeavorment upon us and our children. We shall expect to see you here on return of Siamese steamer Chow Phya.
We have written to Mr William Adamson, and to our consul in Singapore, to authorize to do best arrangement for you and ourselves.
S.S.P.P. Maha Mongkut
Mrs Leonowens was in service at my court for a period of almost six years. During that time she was English language teacher and later my language secretary.
I do not deny that she was of invaluable service to me but I must say that she was...how shall I put this... “a difficult woman, and more difficult than generality”. But now is not the time nor the place. I must leave!
I have calculated that a solar eclipse will take place on August 18 and I have invited high ranking Siamese and European officials, including Sir Harry Orde, the British Governor of Strait Settlements to accompany me to witness the event.
The total eclipse will best be viewed at Wakor Village in PrachuapKhiri Khan province, south of HuaHin. They will see that Siam too has science! There is a lot to do. The audience is ended.
During the solar eclipse expedition both King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn contracted malaria. Six weeks later, on October 18, 1868, Mongkut died in Bangkok, aged 63.
Prince Chulalongkorn recovered and was crowned King Rama V on November 11, 1868. He was just fifteen years of age.
The Legacy of King Mongkut
During his reign King Mongkut was responsible for the establishment of a reform movement which emphasised a stricter adherence to the Buddhist canon. This eventually evolved into the DhammayuttikaNikaya or Thammayut sect. He was also aware of the growing influence of Western colonial powers in the Asian region and sought ways to avoid his own country and its culture being “swallowed up” by the expansionist policies of the great Western powers. Educational reform, better rights for women, increased trade with Western powers and perceptive diplomacy all contributed to “insulate” Siam from Western colonialism.