The English Governess at the Siamese Court

The author recounts her adventures with the King of Siam

     Slavery in Siam is the lot of men of a much finer intellectual type than any who have been its victims in modern times, in societies farther west. Phra-Alack had been his Majesty’s slave when they were boys together. Together they had played, studied, and entered the priesthood. At once bondman, comrade, classmate, and confidant, he was the very man to fill the office of private secretary to his royal crony. Virgil made a slave of his a poet, and Horace was the son of an emancipated slave. The Roman leech and chirurgeon were often slaves; so, too, the preceptor and the pedagogue, the reader and the player, the clerk and the amanuensis, the singer, the dancer, the wrestler, and the buffoon, the architect, the smith, the weaver, and the shoemaker; even the armiger or squire was a slave. Educated slaves exercised their talents and pursued their callings for the emolument of their masters; and thus it is to-day in Siam. Mutato nominee, de te fibula narratur, Phra-Alack.

     The king’s taste for English composition had, by much exercise, developed itself into a passion. In the pursuit of it he was indefatigable, rambling, and petulant. He had “Webster Unabridged” on the brain, —an exasperating form of king’s evil. The little dingy slips that emanated freely from the palace press were as indiscriminate as they were quaint. No topic was too sublime or too ignoble for them. All was “copy” that came to those cases,—from the glory of the heavenly bodies to the nuisance of the busy-bodies, who scolded his Majesty through the columns of the Bangkok Recorder.

     I have before me as I write a circular from his pen, and in the type of his private press, which, being without caption or signature, may be supposed to be addressed “to all whom it may concern.” The American missionaries had vexed his exact scholarship by their peculiar mode of representing in letters the name of a native city (Prippri, or in Sanskrit Bajrepuri). Whence this droll circular, which begins with a dogmatic line—

     “None should write the name of city of Prippri thus—P’et cha poory.”

     Then comes a scholarly demonstration of the derivation of the name from a compound Sanskrit word, signifying “Diamond City.” And the document concludes with a characteristic explosion of impatience, at once critical, royal, and sacerdotal: “Ah what the Romanization of American system that P’etch’ abwry will be Will whole human learned world become the pupil of their corrupted Siamese teachers? It is very far from correctness, why they did not look in journal of Royal Asiatic Society, where several words of Sanskrit and Pali were published continually? Their Siamese priestly teachers considered all Europeans as very heathen; to them far from sacred tongue and were glad to have American heathens to become their scholars or pupils; they thought they have taught sacred language to the part of heathen; in fact, they themselves are very far from sacred language, being sunk deeply in corruption of sacred and learned language, for tongue of their former Laos and Cambodian teachers, and very far from knowledge of Hindoostanee, Singhalese, and Royal Asiatic Society’s knowledge in Sanskrit, as they are considered by such the Siamese teachers, as heathen; called by them Mit ch’a thi thi, &c., &c., i.e. wrongly seer or spectator, &c., &c.”

     In another slip, which is manifestly an outburst of the royal petulance, his

Majesty demands, in a “displayed” paragraph:—

     “Why name of Mr. Knox [Thomas George Knox, Esq., British Consul] was not published thus: Missa Nok or Nawk. If name of Chaw Phya Bhudharabhay is to be thus: P’raya P’oo t’a ra P’ie; and why the London was not published thus: Lundun or Landan, if Bejrepuri is to be published P’etch’ abury.”

     In the same slip with the philological protest the following remarkable paragraphs appear:—

     “What has been published in No. 25 of Bangkok Recorder thus :—

     “The king of Siam, on reading from some European paper that the Pope had lately suffered the loss of some precious jewels, in consequence of a thief having got possession of his Holiness’ keys, exclaimed, ‘What a man! professing to keep the keys of Heaven, and cannot even keep his own keys!”

     “The king, on perusal thereof denied that it is false. He knows nothing about his Holiness the Pope’s sustaining loss of gems, & c., and has said nothing about religious faith.”

     This is curious, in that it exposes the king’s unworthy fear of the French priesthood in Siam. The fact is that he did make the rather smart remark, in precisely these words: “Ah! what a man! professing to keep the keys of Heaven, and not able to guard those of his own bureau!” and he was quite proud of his hit. But when it appeared in the Recorder, he thought it prudent to bar it with a formal denial. Hence the politic little item, which he sent to all the foreigners in Bangkok, and especially to the French priests.

     His Majesty’s mode of dealing with newspaper strictures (not always just) and suggestions (not always pertinent) aimed at his administration of public affairs, or the constitution and discipline of his household, was characteristic. He snubbed them with sententious arrogance, leavened with sarcasm.

     When the Recorder recommended to the king the expediency of dispersing his Solomonic harem, and abolishing polygamy in the royal family, his Majesty retorted with a verbal message to the editor, to the purport that “when the Recorder shall have dissuaded princes and noblemen from offering their daughters to the kind as concubines, the king will cease to receive contributions of women in that capacity.”

     In August, 1865, an angry altercation occurred in the Royal Court of

Equity (sometimes styled the International Court) between a French priest and Phya Wiset, a Siamese nobleman, of venerable years, but positive spirit and energy. The priest gave Phya Wiset the lie, and Phya Wiset gave it back to the priest, whereupon the priest became noisy. Afterward he reported the affair to his consul at Bangkok, with the embellishing statement that not only himself, but his religion had been grossly insulted. The consul, one Monsieur Aubaret, a peppery and pugnacious Frenchman, immediately made a demand upon his Majesty for the removal of Phya Wiset from office.

     This despatch was sent late in the evening by the hand of Monsieur Lamarche, commanding the troops at the royal palace; and that officer had the consul’s order to present it summarily. Lamarche managed to procure admittance to the penetralia, and presented the note at two o’clock in the morning, in violation of reason and courtesy as well as of rules, excusing himself on the ground that the despatch was important and his orders peremptory. His Majesty then read the despatch, and remarked that the matter should be disposed of “to-morrow.” Lamarche replied, very presumptuously, that the affair required no investigation, as he had heard the offensive language of Phya Wiset, and that person must be deposed without ceremony. Whereupon his Majesty ordered the offensive foreigner to leave the palace.

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