Bangkok’s Harbour Master

Friday, 11 December 1863 - Bangkok, Siam

Back in the old days (older than 1863) when Ayuttaya was the capital of Siam, and Europe had discovered there was a whole world beyond Europe, Siam was the port of destination for many a merchant ship. But after Ayuttaya fell and the Burmese killed all the inhabitants, including the foreign merchants, trade dwindled.

King Mongkut (Rama IV) has been doing everything possible to rectify the situation, ushering in a new Golden Age of trading. If you go down to the port you can find ships from all over the world, from Chinese junks to British steamships. There are so many ships, King Mongkut had to appoint a Harbour Master to bring order. Chulalongkorn University asked me to find him.

Chinese junk
I expected to find a Siamese prince in charge, but instead found a ruddy-faced Englishman in his forties.

“Captain John Bush, Harbour Master,” he introduced himself. “Can I help you?” His manner was a bit gruff, but his smile pleasant. He had the no-nonsense bearing of a sailor.

I shook the proffered hand. “Well, to be honest...I mean I know you are a busy man...but, well if it’s not too much trouble...”

“Spit it out,” he grinned at me. “I don’t bite.”

I told him the same story I told King Mongkut, that I was a writer doing research on the modernization of Siam. Rather than looking annoyed, he seemed intrigued by my imaginary project. (Well, it’s not a total lie. I am doing research for Thai historians in the 27th century.)

Captain Bush nodded. “Yes, I am a busy man, and can’t just sit and chat. But you are welcome to follow me about if you don’t get in the way. And we can talk in between my dealings with other captains. Might be kind of nice talking to someone from back home.”

With that he turned and strode off. I followed him, keeping up with his long gait. He asked me all about London the last time I had seen it. I couldn’t tell him the last time I had seen it the port had been full of spaceships.

“Pardon me for asking.” I tried not to pant from the pace. “But how did an Englishman become the Harbour Master of Bangkok? Why not King Pinklao? He likes naval things.”

“King Pinklao has enough to worry with.”

“Well, what about all the half-brother, nephew and cousin princes?”

John Bush
Captain Bush turned and looked me in the face. “Because none of them have my experience, not even King Pinklao. I was a sea captain for years. Who better to deal with other sea captains? I know their problems and needs. And they respect me, because I am a sea captain. They wouldn’t respect a land-lubber prince, know would they?”

“I suppose not.”

Captain Bush started walking again. “Add to that I spent most of my life in this part of world. I’ve been to most of the ports these ships are from. I know these people.”

“Yes, I can see you would be a good choice.” I nodded.

“King Mongkut and Pinklao are both smart men. They want to make this port friendly to foreigners but they don’t want to lose control of it either. If this place was a mess, Britain or France might feel obligated to step in and take over.”

“Doesn’t it look like that now, with you in charge?”

Captain Bush stopped, turned and looked at me. “Hmm, I never thought of that.” Then he grinned. “Ah, His Majesty is even smarter than I thought. I assure you though I work for the Siam Government. They have my full loyalty, and why not. King Mongkut gave me land to build a house for the Missus and the kids. And I was allowed the buy land. Been selling it to foreigners to build houses themselves--at a nice profit. I don’t think a salty-dog like me would do this well back in England.”

“Have you ever thought of returning to England.”

“Are you barmy? Here I’m Luang Wisoot Sakoradit Chao Ta--that’s Director General of the Harbour Department. And I’m Captain of the Royal State Yacht, too. Yes, sometimes I get homesick but I like it here. And I’d be a damn fool to give this up.”

King Mongkut's Ceremonial State Barge
Captain John Bush served as Harbour Master in one of the busiest ports in the Far East from 1859 to 1890, first for King Mongkut and then for his son, King Chulalongkorn. When Chulalongkorn travels about the world, Captain Bush will pilot the steamship. He will be made both an admiral and knighted for his service to Siam.

Captain Bush will also remembered as the founder of the Bangkok Harbour Department. The city will even name a street for him. When he dies in 1905, he will be buried in the Protestant Cemetery here with a gravestone inscription composed by King Chulalongkorn himself. Captain Bush was also manager for the highly-successful Bangkok Dock Company, and retired very wealthy. Not bad for a “salty-dog.”


I Meet the Second King of Siam

Friday, 4 December 1863 - Bangkok, Siam

My word, but the politics in Siam can get very complicated. Apparently Siam currently has two kings! Siam also has a Vice King known by the title “Front Palace,” so called because of the second palace built in front of the Grand Palace. The Vice King is similar to the heir apparent, except with more power.

The concept is suppose to come from India. It first started in Siam in 1448 when Trailokanat, the king of Sukhothai, was also crowned as the king of Ayutthaya, which united the two kingdoms. Trailokanat moved to Ayutthaya and let his son “rule” Pitsanulok, in the Kingdom of Sukhothai as a Vice King. Later rulers built a palace in front of theirs for the heir to stay in when visiting Ayutthaya, thus the title “Front Palace.”

Front Palace - Home of the Vice King
When the capital was moved to Bangkok, the concept of Vice King was still continued by the Ramas of the Chakri Dynasty. Again a palace was built in front of the king’s grand palace for the Vice King. Most Chakri Vice King’s were brothers, uncles or cousins who never outlived the king and thus never took the throne.

One Vice King however was crowned--while the first King still lived! King Mongkut not only made his younger brother, Pinklao, Vice-King, but crowned him as the Second King with honors and titles equal to his own!

Pinklao was born four years after his brother Mongkut, so would have been sixteen when his father died and his thirty-seven-year-old half-brother Jessadabodindra was made king by the ministers. While Mongkut became a monk, Pinklao became part of the court and was given the tile of Krom Khun.

When King Jessadobodindra died, Pinklao was heir presumptive to the throne. Mongkut’s claim was stronger. However, Mongkut made his little brother Vice King, then did something unprecedented--he crowned his brother Second King.

Legend says Mongkut did so because his astrological calculations showed Pinklao also held the fate to become a king. Some Westerners think Mongkut did it so his brother wouldn’t fight him for the throne, except history shows their relationship was always amiable. Personally I think one motivation was that Pinklao knew Siam politics and government well, and would prove an asset to the former monk.

King Pinklao
Pinklao has indeed been an asset. His English is actually better than Mongkut’s. He played a great role in the negotiations with the British, who know him as “Second King.” Pinklao also has an interest in modern warfare. He has his own army, which he drills European style, and his own navy with several modern ships. No vice king ever had as much power as Pinklao and he will never abuse Mongkut’s trust.

Pinklao will die two years before Mongkut, so he never became First King. After Mongkut’s death, Pinklao’s son Vichaichan will be appointed Vice-King by the Royal Council while Chulalongkorn is still a teenager and under the thumb of a regeant. Before that only the king was allowed to appoint the Vice King. Perhaps that is why Vichaichan’s relationship with King Chulalongkorn was not like their fathers, Mongkut and Pinklao. There was a power struggle and the Vice-King will be stripped of his powers. After Vichaichan died, the title was abolished and replaced with an heir apparent Crown Prince, like in European monarchies. As for the Front Palace itself, it will someday become the Bangkok National Museum.

King Pinklao will be remembered fondly. Navy ships and a naval hospital will be named in his honor because of his part in modernizing the Thai Navy. In 1973 a bridge over the Chao Phraya River will also be named after him, as well as the surrounding district. (Which is why malls and shops now bear Pinklao’s name.)

HTMS Pinklao of the Royal Thai Navy (circa 2000)
I was able to speak with King Pinklao. He was very busy but I was able to at least record a short conversation. His English really is excellent. He had only nice things to say about his big brother and seemed to genuinely like him. I can see why Mongkut assured Siam that Pinklao should be respected with equal honor to his own. I think it also says something about King Mongkut’s humility and wisdom.

A video remembrance of King Pinklao


The Real King and I

Friday, 27 November 1863 - Bangkok, Siam

King Mongkut (on far right) with some of his family
Chulalongkorn University had asked me to come to Bangkok to record what I could of King Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthramaha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua or King Rama IV for short. He is better known to the outside world as simply King Mongkut. He is remembered as the man who brought Siam into the modern world.

When I spoke to Professor Ratana Winichakul, the head of the university’s history department, I’m afraid I offended her. “King Mongkut,” I said. “Wasn’t he the monarch in the musical The King and I?”

“That buffoon was not King Mongkut!” Her voice sounded icey. “Not the real one, anyway. I do not know why you Westerners make fun of a great man like Rama IV.”

“I do apologize. Now I am truly intrigued. I take it you want me to show the world what he was really like? I love dredging up buried history.”

“You would be doing Thailand a great service, Dr. Howe. All we have of Mongkut are a few sepia-tone photos and some historical records--including the tripe you Westerners toss about.” Then she put her hands together to give me the wai gesture, showing respect. “Forgive me for my outburst. In my country we consider slander a serious crime. And when that slander is directed at one of our most beloved monarchs...”

That was an outburst? She hardly raised her voice. Still I suppose by Thai standards I had been royally chewed out. “It’s quite all right, Dr. Winichakul. As a Western historian I feel it is my duty to mend the injustice we have done.”

So, I arrived in 1863 Bangkok, wondering how I was going to rectify that problem. Recording royalty can only be done at a distance. I’m a commoner, and one without any connections in the 19th century. The closest I have ever gotten to Queen Victoria I is about thirty feet--and don’t think that wasn’t a thrill to even get that close.

So I knew it was a long shot, but I sent a letter to King Mongkut, telling him I was an author writing about the current modernization of Siam and could I please have an audience. Any time he could spare would be appreciated.

You can imagine my shock yesterday when I received a hand written letter delivered by a palace servant to my hotel room. The letter was written in first person saying the King had an hour to spare in his busy schedule and I was invited to speak with him at eleven o’ clock. This had been written by someone with a very good grasp of English. I found out later the reason the letter was in first person was because King Mongkut himself had written it!

Royal Palace in Bangkok
I arrived promptly at ten minutes to eleven at the grand palace. On the hour I was taken down a hall to a small room. In it sat an elderly man in western attire. He did have a sash across his chest marking him as someone official. I assumed this was the king’s secretary or minister, which didn’t explain why my escort was kowtowing. He was on his knees placing his forehead on the floor

I decided I better emulate the servant, and so got down on my knees.

“That is quite all right, Dr. Howe.” the gentleman spoke in excellent English with a slight accent. “You do not need to kowtow.” He then said something to my escort who raised himself just enough so he could lower himself to the floor again. He then crawled out of the room.

“I do apologize. I know you English consider getting on ones knees to anyone humiliating. It’s merely a way to show respect here. Please take a seat. I‘m sorry it is so low, but custom dictates no one’s head can be higher than mine. Silly custom.”

I thanked him and took him up on his offer. “Not meaning to be impatient, but will I be able to meet His Majesty today, or did something come up?”

The man smiled at me. “Dr. Howe, I am King Rama IV.”

“Oh!” I stood up and bowed to him. Then placed my hands together to do the wai. and bowed again. I know the more respect the higher the hands. I had mine over my head. “I do beg you pardon, Your Majesty.”

“What were you expecting?”

How could I tell him I was expecting someone who looked like Yul Brynner. This man looked as much like a professor as I did. “I suppose I was expecting someone who looked...well...more exotic?”

King Mongkut or Rama IV
“You would have preferred more traditional attire? I do wear those on ceremonial occasions to keep the conservatives happy. When I meet with British I dress like them to put them at ease and to show them I am not a ‘savage.’”

“Not being British does not make you a savage.”

Mongkut inclined his head to me. “I see you will give your people a fair report of me. Yes, my country is backwards compared to yours, but we are changing. And we may not be as backwards as you think.”

“From what I have seen of your country, I would have to say you are civilized.”

“My culture has much that should be preserved, but I do admire much of British culture, too. I want to combine the best of both of our cultures. However, I have to go slowly. I’m hoping my son can continue my reforms.”

“I thought this was an absolute monarchy. Isn’t your word law?”

“Wasn’t your Charles I an absolute monarch. Wasn’t he beheaded? I have to precede cautiously. Too much change too fast will cause unrest and turmoil. The other princes will perceive me as foolish or mad and dispose me.”

“Ah yes.” I nodded. “There are always evil men ready to seize power.”

“I’m more concerned with good men who would do away with me thinking they were protecting their country. I do not wish to sound vain, but I think Siam really needs my knowledge and skills right now. Replacing me might create much harm for my country.”

“Your knowledge?”

Mongkut as a monk
“I was a Buddhist monk for twenty-seven years. In that time however I also studied your culture. I made friends with several Christian missionaries so I could learn English and French. I am also fascinated by your science, especially astronomy. The missionaries were very eager because they thought I wanted to convert. I was a big disappointment. I will admit I do admire Christian morality and ideas, but your doctrine makes no sense to me.”

“Why did you want to learn about the French and English?”

“To learn how Siam could best survive. We are a rabbit between two fearsome tigers who would love to gobble us up.”

He was right. France is taking over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the east and south. Britain is getting a foothold in India, Burma and Malaysia to the north and west. Siam is surrounded. “Yes, I can see why. So you were doing this while your father was still alive in preparation for the time you would be crowned?”

“My father, Rama II, died when I was twenty, when I had first become a monk. I hadn’t planned to stay a monk. It is traditional for those young men that can to wear the yellow robes of a Buddhist monk for at least a few months. But then my father died. I had expected to take the throne, but my half-brother, Prince Jessadabodindra, became king.”

“You were the eldest son?”

“Of the Queen, yes. But Jessadabodindra was thirty-seven and very influential in the court, even if he was the son of a concubine. I did not fight it because I was afraid.”

“Afraid your brother would kill you?”

“No, afraid I would plunge the country into a civil war, or at least an unstable government. Siam could not afford that. Perhaps it was just as well. My brother was a warrior. At that time we needed a warrior to secure our borders with our neighbors.”

“So you became king after your brother died?”

King Mongkut and son
Prince Chulalongkorn
“Yes, and now we need a diplomat to deal with the European powers and a reformer to modernize Siam. I’m not sure which is more delicate. I know my son will have to carry on my work. It‘s why I hired an English teacher recently to teach him as well as my other eighty-one children and thirty-five wives.”

“Thirty-five wives?”

“Yes, old tradition. I not only have to produce an heir, but dozens of officials, too. I was forty-seven when I took the throne. Bit of a shock going from being a celibate monk living in poverty to a king with a harem living in a palace. I sometimes miss the monastery, but I have a duty to fulfill.”

“This teacher. Is she Anna Leonowens?”

“Yes, you know her?”

“No, I have heard of her.”

King Mongkut frowned. “Difficult woman, but a good teacher. She told me I should free the slaves. I told her slaves here are not innocent victims kidnapped from a faraway land and whipped to work like in her country. Here slaves are volunteers, to pay off a debt. I did abolish the practice of being allowed to sell one’s wife to pay off a debt. In Siam even though one is a slave the master must treat them with respect. I have noticed we treat our slaves better than some Englishmen treat their servants. Still I don’t think one has the right to own another person. I told Mrs. Leonowens the time was not right yet to abolish slavery. That just made her angry. She seems to think I can just wave my hand and change things. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with her much.”

“So you would like to abolish slavery?”

“Yes. I would also like to get rid of this silly kowtowing in my presence, too. It’s hard to have servants wait on you crawling about. And I think it’s not healthy for the ruler if he takes it too seriously. Here is a king is more than a monarch. I am also a national symbol and they are really kowtowing to my title more than to me. I was able to eradicate the rule of no shirts. It used to be no one approaching the king wore a shirt for fear they might hide a weapon. The English however were deeply offended by bare chests. Said it was barbaric.”

“Yes, we come from a colder climate. Necessity becomes social etiquette. Running about half naked is as frowned upon in my culture as yelling at someone is in yours. I do have one question though. I heard rumors you had one of your concubines burned alive for supposed infidelity?”

King Mongkut stared at me in disbelief. “What? I would never order just a cruel act! In fact I have told my concubines that any who wish to be released to find a husband of their own may go with my blessing. Several have taken me up on the offer. Why would I kill a woman just because she was unhappy here? Where did you hear this horrible lie?”

How could I tell him that Anna Leonowens will later write a book about her experience and tell about this incident. Of course, a few other things in her book will be proved to be false. Was I to believe a woman trying to get attention or this soft-spoken gentleman? “I believe you, Your Majesty. Your reaction is too genuine to be faked. I will be sure to let the folks back home know this rumor is untrue.”

“Please do! I’m sure it would hurt my image in your country if they believed this tale. I know I would think less of your Queen Victoria if she had someone killed for a slight.”

“Yes, you don’t strike me as a man of violence. In fact I can’t imagine you leading an army. How does a Buddhist monk keep the French and British at bay

“By making friends. I wrote Queen Victoria a letter of introduction, calling myself her brother since we are both rulers. She wrote me a very nice letter back. I sent Napoleon III of France an elephant. I offered President Abraham Lincoln of America one too, so he wouldn’t feel slighted. When the British wanted a treaty to trade with Siam, I signed it. They are welcome to trade. I think that is really all they want. Now the British have no reason to conquer us. And now if the French attack us, the British will see it as an attack on their interests. And the British don’t dare conquer us, or the French will see it as a threat. Siam serves them both best as a buffer state, don’t you think?”

I stared into that serene face and suddenly realized this was definitely no fool! Historians act like France and Britain just decided to make Siam a buffer state on their own. Funny they didn’t need other buffer states in other parts of the world. King Mongkut had gently but firmly steered them to this conclusion. The man understood European politics better than most crowned heads in Europe.

King Mongkut cocked his head at me. “Are you all right?”

“Sorry Your Majesty. I suddenly realized just how brilliant you are! A pity we don’t have more kings like you.”

“Thank you, Dr. Howe. I assume you will tell the folks back home that I am not a backward barbarian and that Siam is not some uncivilized country that needs colonizing?”

I assured him I would. I asked him to expound on his other reforms. We talked until a man came crawling into the room. King Mongkut patiently spoke with him then looked up at me. “I am sorry, Dr. Howe but it appears I have another engagement I must go to. A ruler is ruled by duty.”

King Mongkut going about his duties
I thanked him for his time and told him what a great pleasure it had been to meet him. I am well aware of the great honor I had been given. Chulalongkorn University would have been happy if I had just got King Mongkut on vid speaking a few words. They should be ecstatic with this interview I recorded.

King Mongkut made great strides in science and education in his country. He not only used his skills in astronomy to update the Siam calendar, but to predict the Wakor solar eclipse of 1868. He invited both local and European officials to join him to witness the event. Unfortunately both the King and his fifteen-year-heir, Prince Chulalongkorn contacted malaria on the trip. The prince survived, but sadly King Mongkut died six weeks later.

Prince Chulalongkorn will carry on his father’s work of modernizing Siam, including abolishing slavery and kowtowing to the king. His grandson, King Vajiravudh, will start Chulalongkorn University, named in honor of his father.

Siam will be devastated by King Mongkut’s death. He will be given many honors, but perhaps the greatest will be in 1974 when Thailand will combine three technical colleges to create one university. Everyone agreed it seemed only fitting it should be named King Mongkut’s University of Technology. After all, he was their unofficial founder when he introduced modern science and technology to Siam. King Mongkut would be pleased.

Palaces of the World - Bangkok
A video about the reign of King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn.

King Mongkut
A collection of photos and artwork of King Mongkut.

The truth about Anna Leonowens


Siam - Land of the Free

Thursday, 19 November 1863 - Bangkok, Siam

I am currently in Bangkok, Siam. The city has an ancient feel to it, even though it is less than 100 years old. I decided to come here in November, the cool dry season, and yet it is still hot and muggy. Siam is definitely in the tropics.

Most people in Siam are Tai, originally coming from southwestern China in the first millennia. They came into Indochina during the Khmer Empire that was influenced by Indian culture. Hindu, then Buddhism, came from Indian missionaries.

The first kingdom considered Tai was the Sukhothai kingdom, founded in 1238. The Buddhist King Ramkamhaeng invented the Thai script, promoted free trade and saw himself as a benevolent father figure. He also united the various Thai city states into an Empire.

1686 French map of Siam
Sadly subsequent rulers did not measure up to Ramkamhaeng. In 1378 Sukhothai was conquered by a rival, the Ayutthaya kingdom. This was considered the Golden Age. The Tai traded with China, India, Persia, Japan and later the Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese. At it’s peak, the city of Ayutthaya had a million residence. It was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world!

Father figure wasn’t enough for the Ayutthaya kings. They considered themselves the avatars of the god Vishnu. (Yes, I know Vishnu is a Hindu god. Apparently the Tai’s converted him to Buddhism.) He had absolute power, honored and worshipped by his subjects.

In 1767 Burma decided to take revenge for a defeat they had suffered 200 years before. They razed Ayutthaya to the ground and most of the inhabitants butchered. One of those to escape was Taksin. He drove the Burmese out and established a new kingdom at Thonburi, further down the river in 1768. Taksin then spent the next 14 years putting the country back together both physically, politically and culturally. He did a good job until 1782.

I have read a half a dozen accounts as to what happened to Taksin. Some say he went mad and decided he was Buddha. Vishnu is one thing, but this was blasphemy! He was duly executed. Others say he became a monk and disappeared. One account says he faked his death to get out of a debt with China. Or maybe there was a bloody coup. Whatever happened, Taksin disappeared and General Chao Phraya Chakri took over.

Map of Bangkok in the 1860s

Chakri took the name King Rama the first and moved the capitol across the Chao Phraya River and named it Bangkok. Rama IV, better known as Mongkut, is the current ruler (in 1863, anyway.)

And that is an oversimplified history of Siam. Even the name Siam is confusing. It appears to have been foisted upon the Tai by foreigners, and they have just come to accept it. The name is believed to come from Sanskrit and means “dark” or “brown” in reference to the complexion of the Tai who are the color of black tea with a spot of cream.

Speaking of the Tai, they tend to be slim, medium build, almond eyed and rather handsome. They are quiet and gentle. Yelling at anyone is considered very rude (unless you are warning them to get out of the way of a charging elephant.) Spreading rumors and lying are not just rude, but rate up there with stealing. They do their best to live up to the Buddhist beliefs of tolerance and compassion. Foreigners are accepted as long as they don’t try to take over the country.

Siam is at a crossroads. No longer having to contend with just her neighbors, Britain and France are dividing up IndoChina amongst themselves. So far Siam has managed to remain independent, and will be the only Southeastern nation to avoid colonization.

King Mongkut
Perhaps the man most responsible for that is King Mongkut. I was sent to learn as much as I can about him. I have even sent a letter asking for an interview. I doubt I will get it, after all he is a king, but I thought it worth a try. Maybe I can speak with his secretary or minister. We shall see.

In the mean time I want to record as much as I can of this fascinating land before it becomes Westernized. Canals are being dug, criss-crossing the city with watery roads. Bangkok is called the Venice of the Orient. People get about in canoes, even selling produce out of their boats.

I’m also quickly becoming addicted to cha-yen. It’s strong black tea with orange blossoms, star anise and crushed tamarind seed added. It’s a bit like Siamese culture--throw together a bunch stuff that doesn’t seem to belong together and create something unique and wonderful.