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.”

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