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

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