The English Governess at the Siamese Court

The author recounts her adventures with the King of Siam.

Library of Congress

In 1825, a royal prince of Siam (his birthright wrested from him, and his life imperilled) took refuge in a Buddhist monastery and assumed the yellow garb of a priest. His father, commonly known as Phen den-Klang, first or supreme king of Siam, had just died, leaving this prince, Chowfa Mongkut, at the age of twenty, lawful heir to the crown; for he was the eldest son of the acknowledged queen, and therefore by courtesy and honored custom, if not by absolute right, the legitimate successor to the throne of the Phra-batts (the Golden-footed). But he had an elder half-brother, who, through the intrigues of his mother, had already obtained control of the royal treasury, and now, with the connivance, if not by authority, of the Senabawdee, the Grand Council of the kingdom, proclaimed himself king, under the title of Phra-chow-Phra-sat-thong. He had the grace, however, to promise his plundered brother—such royal promises being a cheap form of propitiation in Siam—to hold the reins of government only until Chowfa Mongkut should be of years and strength and skill to manage them. But, once firmly seated on the throne, the usurper saw in his patient but proud and astute kinsman only a hindrance and a peril in the path of his own cruder and fiercer aspirations. Hence the forewarning and the flight, the cloister and the yellow robes. And so the usurper continued to reign, unchallenged by any claim from the king that should be, until March,1851, when, a mortal illness having overtaken him, he convoked the Grand Council of princes and nobles around his couch, and proposed his favorite son as his successor. Then the safe asses of the court kicked the dying lion with seven words of sententious scorn, — “The crown has already its rightful owner”; whereupon Phra-chow-Phra-sat-thong literally cursed himself to death; for it was almost in the convulsion of his chagrin and rage that he came to his end, on the 3d of April.

In Siam there is no such personage as an heir apparent to the throne, in the definite meaning and positive value which attaches to that phrase in Europe, — no prince with an absolute and exclusive title, by birth, adoption, or nomination, to succeed to the crown. And while it is true that the eldest living son of a Siamese sovereign by his queen or queen consort is recognized by all custom, ancient and modern, as the probable successor to the high seat of his royal sire, he cannot be said to have a clear and indefeasible right to it, because the question of his accession has yet to be decided by the electing voice of the Senabawdee, the Grand Council of the realm, in whose judgment he may be ineligible, by reason of certain physical, mental, or moral disabilities, — as extreme youth, effeminacy, imbecility, intemperance, profligacy. Nevertheless, the election is popularly expected to result in the choice of the eldest son of the queen, though an interregnum or a regency is a contingency by no means unusual.

It was in view of this jurisdiction of the Senabawdee, exercised in deference to a just and honored custom, that the voice of the oracle fell upon the ear of the dying monarch with a disappointing and offensive significance; for he well knew who was meant by the “rightful owner” of the crown. Hardly had he breathed his last when, in spite of the busy intrigues of his eldest son (whom we find described in the Bangkok Recorder of July 26, 1866, as “most honorable and promising”), in spite of the bitter vexation of his lordship Chow-Phya Sri Surry Wongse, so soon to be premier, the prince Chowfa Mongkut doffed his sacerdotal robes, emerged from his cloister, and was crowned, with the title of Somedtch-Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut.1

For twenty-five years had the true heir to the throne of the Phra-batts, patiently biding his time, lain perdu in his monastery, diligently devoting himself to the study of Sanskrit, Bali, theology, history, geology, chemistry, and especially astronomy. He was a familiar visitor at the houses of the American missionaries, two of whom (Dr. House and Mr. Mattoon) were, throughout his reign and life, gratefully revered by him for that pleasant and profitable converse which helped to unlock to him the secrets of European vigor and advancement, and to make straight and easy the paths of knowledge he had started upon. Not even the essential arrogance of his Siamese nature could prevent him from accepting cordially the happy influences these good and true men inspired; and doubtless he would have gone more than half-way to meet them, but for the dazzle of the golden throne in the distance, which arrested him midway between Christianity and Buddhism, between truth and delusion, between light and darkness, between life and death.

In the Oriental tongues this progressive king was eminently proficient; and toward priests, preachers, and teachers, of all creeds, sects, and sciences, an enlightened exemplar of tolerance. It was likewise his peculiar vanity to pass for an accomplished English scholar, and to this end he maintained in his palace at Bangkok a private printing establishment, with fonts of English type, which, as may be perceived presently, he was at no loss to keep in “copy.” Perhaps it was the printing-office which suggested, quite naturally, an English governess for the elite of his wives and concubines, and their offspring, — in number amply adequate to the constitution of a royal school, and in material most attractively fresh and romantic. Happy thought! Wherefore, behold me, just after sunset on a pleasant day in April,1862 on the threshold of the outer court of the Grand Palace, accompanied by my own brave little boy, and escorted by a compatriot.

A flood of light sweeping through the spacious Hall of Audience displayed a throng of noblemen in waiting. None turned a glance, or seemingly a thought, on us, and, my child being tired and hungry, I urged Captain B to present us without delay. At once we mounted the marble steps, and entered the brilliant hall unannounced. Ranged on the carpet were many prostrate, mute, and motionless forms, over whose heads to step was a temptation as drolly natural as it was dangerous. His Majesty spied us quickly, and advanced abruptly, petulantly screaming, “Who? Who? Who?

Captain B—— (who, by the by, is a titled nobleman of Siam) introduced me as the English governess, engaged for the royal family. The king shook hands with us, and immediately proceeded to march up and down in quick step, putting one foot before the other with mathematical precision, as if under drill. “Forewarned, forearmed,” my friend whispered that I should prepare myself for a sharp cross-questioning as to my age, my husband, children, and other strictly personal concerns. Suddenly his Majesty, having cogitated sufficiently in his peculiar manner, with one long final stride halted in front of us, and, pointing straight at me with his forefinger, asked, “How old shall you be?”

Scarcely able to repress a smile at a proceeding so absurd, and with my sex’s distaste for so serious a question, I demurely replied, “One hundred and fifty years old.”

Had I made myself much younger, he might have ridiculed or assailed me; but now he stood surprised and embarrassed for a few moments, then resumed his quick march, and at last, beginning to perceive the jest, coughed, laughed, coughed again, and then in a high, sharp key asked, “In what year were you borned?”

Instantly I “struck” a mental balance, and answered, as gravely as I could, “In 1788.”

At this point the expression of his Majesty’s face was indescribably comical. Captain B slipped behind a pillar to laugh; but the king only coughed, with a significant emphasis that startled me, and addressed a few words to his prostrate courtiers, who smiled at the carpet, — all except the prime minister, who turned to look at me. But his Majesty was not to be baffled so: again he marched with vigor, and then returned to the attack with Elan.

“How many years shall you be married?”

“For several years, your Majesty.”

He fell into a brown study; then suddenly rushed at me, and demanded triumphantly—

“Ha! How many grandchildren shall you now have? Ha! ha! How many? How many? Ha! ha! ha!”

Of course we all laughed with him; but the general hilarity admitted of a variety of constructions.

Then suddenly he seized my hand, and dragged me, nolens volens, my little Louis holding fast by my skirt, through several sombre passages along which crouched duennas, shrivelled and grotesque, and many youthful women, covering their faces, as if blinded by the splendor of the passing Majesty. At length he stopped before one of the many-curtained recesses, and, drawing aside the hangings, disclosed a lovely, childlike form. He stooped and took her hand (she naively hiding her face), and placing it in mine, said: “This is my wife, the Lady T. She desires to be educated in English. She is as renowned for her talents as for her beauty, and it is our pleasure to make her a good English scholar. You shall educate her for me.”

I replied that the office would give me much pleasure; for nothing could be more eloquently winning than the modest, timid bearing of that tender young creature in the presence of her lord. She laughed low and pleasantly as he translated my sympathetic words to her, and seemed so enraptured with the graciousness of his act that I took my leave of her with a sentiment of profound pity.

He led me back by the way we had come; and now we met many children, who put my patient boy to much childish torture for the gratification of their startled curiosity.

“I have sixty-seven children,” said his Majesty, when we had returned to the Audience Hall. “You shall educate them; and as many of my wives, likewise, as may wish to learn English. And I have much correspondence in which you must assist me. And, moreover, I have much difficulty for reading and translating French letters; for French are fond of using gloomily deceiving terms. You must undertake; and you shall make all their murky sentences and gloomily deceiving propositions clear to me. And, furthermore, I have by every mail many foreign letters whose writing is not easily read by me. You shall copy on round hand, for my readily perusal thereof.”

Nil desperandum; but I began by despairing of my ability to accomplish tasks so multifarious. I simply bowed, however, and so dismissed myself for that evening.

When next I “interviewed” the king, I was accompanied by the premier’s sister, a fair and pleasant woman, whose whole stock of English was, “Good morning, sir”; and with this somewhat irrelevant greeting, a dozen times in an hour, though the hour were night, she relieved her pent-up feelings, and gave expression to her sympathy and regard for me. We found his Majesty in a less genial mood than at my first reception. He approached us coughing loudly and repeatedly, a sufficiently ominous fashion of announcing himself, which greatly discouraged my darling boy, who clung to me anxiously. He was followed by a numerous “tail” of women and children, who presently prostrated themselves around him. Shaking hands with me coldly, but remarking upon the beauty of the child’s hair, half buried in the folds of my dress, he turned to the premier’s sister, and conversed at some length with her, she apparently acquiescing in all that he had to say. He then approached me, and said, in a loud and domineering tone, —

“It is our pleasure that you shall reside within this palace with our family.”

I replied that it would be quite impossible for me to do so; that, being as yet unable to speak the language, and the gates being shut every evening, I should feel like an unhappy prisoner in the palace.

“Where do you go every evening?” he demanded.

“Not anywhere, your Majesty. I am a stranger here.”

“Then why you shall object to the gates being shut?”

“I do not clearly know,” I replied, with a secret shudder at the idea of sleeping within those walls; “but I am afraid I could not do it. I beg your Majesty will remember that in your gracious letter you promised me ‘a residence adjoining the royal palace,’ not within it.”

He turned and looked at me, his face growing almost purple with rage. “I do not know I have promised. I do not know former condition. I do not know anything but you are our servant; and it is our pleasure that you must live in this palace, and you shall obey.” Those last three words he fairly screamed.

I trembled in every limb, and for some time knew not how to reply. At length I ventured to say: “I am prepared to obey all your Majesty’s commands, within the obligation of my duty to your family; but beyond that I can promise no obedience.”

“You shall live in palace,” he roared, — “you shall live in palace. I will give woman slaves to wait on you. You shall commence royal school in this pavilion on Thursday next. That is the best day for such undertaking, in the estimation of our astrologers.”

With that, he addressed, in a frantic manner, commands, unintelligible to me, to some of the old women about the pavilion. My boy began to cry; tears filled my own eyes; and the premier’s sister, so kind but an hour before, cast fierce glances at us both. I turned and led my child toward the oval brass door. We heard voices behind us crying, “Mam! Mam!” I turned again, and saw the king beckoning and calling to me. I bowed to him profoundly, but passed on through the brass door. The prime minister’s sister rushed after us in a distraction of excitement, tugging at my cloak, shaking her finger in my face, and crying, “My di! my di!”2 All the way back, in the boat, and on the street, to the very door of my apartments, instead of her jocund “Good morning, sir,” I had nothing but my di.

But kings who are not mad have their sober second thoughts like other rational people. His Golden-footed Majesty presently repented him of his arbitrary “cantankerousness,” and in due time my ultimatum was accepted.

* * *

About a year later, when I had been permanently installed in my double office of teacher and scribe, I was one day busy with a letter from his Majesty to the Earl of Clarendon, and finding that any attempt at partial correction would but render his meaning more ambiguous, and impair the striking originality of his style, I had abandoned the effort, and set about copying it with literal exactness, only venturing to alter here and there a word, such as “I hasten with wilful pleasure to write in reply to your Lordship’s well-wishing letter,” etc. Whilst I was thus evolving from the depths of my inner consciousness a satisfactory solution to this conundrum in King’s English, his Majesty’s private secretary lolled in the sunniest corner of the room, stretching his dusky limbs and heavily nodding, in an ecstasy of ease-taking. Poor Phra-Alack! I never knew him to be otherwise than sleepy, and his sleep was always stolen. For his Majesty was the most capricious of kings as to his working moods, — busy when the average man should be sleeping, sleeping while letters, papers, despatches, messengers, mail-boats waited. More than once had we been aroused at dead of night by noisy female slaves, and dragged in hot haste and consternation to the Hall of Audience, only to find that his Majesty was, not at his last gasp, as we had feared, but simply bothered to find in Webster’s Dictionary some word that was to be found nowhere but in his own fertile brain; or perhaps in excited chase of the classical term for some trifle he was on the point of ordering from London, — and that word was sure to be a stranger to my brain.

Before my arrival in Bangkok it had been his not uncommon practice to send for a missionary at midnight, have him beguiled or abducted from his bed, and conveyed by boat to the palace, some miles up the river, to inquire if it would not be more elegant to write murky instead of obscure, or gloomily dark rather than not clearly not clearly apparent. And if the wretched man should venture to declare his honest preference for the ordinary over the extraordinary form of expression, he was forthwith dismissed with irony, arrogance, or even insult, and without a word of apology for the rude invasion of his rest.

One night, a little after twelve o’clock, as he was on the point of going to bed like any plain citizen of regular habits, his Majesty fell to thinking how most accurately to render into English the troublesome Siamese word phi, which admits of a variety of interpretations.3 After puzzling over it for more than an hour, getting himself possessed with the word as with the devil it stands for, and all to no purpose, he ordered one of his lesser state barges to be manned and despatched with all speed for the British consul. That functionary, inspired with lively alarm by so startling a summons, dressed himself with unceremonious celerity, and hurried to the palace, conjecturing on the way all imaginable possibilities of politics and diplomacy, revolution or invasion. To his vexation, not less than his surprise, he found the king seated in dishabille, with a Siamese-English vocabulary, mentally divided between “deuce” and “devil,” in the choice of an equivalent. His preposterous Majesty gravely laid the case before the consul, who, though inwardly chafing at what he termed “the confounded coolness” of the situation, had no choice but to decide with grace, and go back to bed with philosophy.

No wonder, then, that Phra-Alack experienced an access of gratitude for the privilege of napping for two hours in a snuggery of sunshine.

“Mam-Kha,”4 he murmured drowsily, “I hope that in the Chat-Nah (The next state of existence) I shall be a freed man.”

“I hope so sincerely, Phra-Alack,” said I. “I hope you’11 be an Englishman or an American, for then you’11 be sure to be independent.”

It was impossible not to pity the poor old man, — stiff with continual stooping to his task, and so subdued! — liable not only to be called at any hour of the day or night, but to be threatened, cuffed, kicked, beaten on the head, in every way abused and insulted, and the next moment to be taken into favor, confidence, bosom-friendship, even as his Majesty’s mood might veer.

Alack for Phra-Alack! though usually he bore with equal patience his greater and his lesser ills, there were occasions that sharply tried his meekness, when his weak and goaded nature revolted, and he rushed to a snug little home of his own, about forty yards from the Grand Palace, there to snatch a respite of rest and refreshment in the society of his young and lately wedded wife. Then the king would awake and send for him, whereupon he would be suddenly ill, or not at home, strategically hiding himself under a mountain of bedclothes, and detailing Mrs. Phra-Alack to reconnoitre and report. He had tried this primitive trick so often that its very staleness infuriated the king, who invariably sent officers to seize his trembling accomplice and lock her up in a dismal cell, as a hostage for the scribe’s appearance. At dusk the poor fellow would emerge, contrite and terrified, and prostrate himself at the gate of the palace. Then his Majesty (who, having spies posted in every quarter of the town, knew as well as Phra-Alack himself what the illness or the absence signified) leisurely strolled forth, and, finding the patient on the threshold, flew always into a genuine rage, and prescribed “decapitation on the spot,” and “sixty lashes on the bare back,” both in the same breath. And while the attendants flew right and left, — one for the blade, another for the thong, — the king, still raging, seized whatever came most handy, and belabored his bosom-friend on the head and shoulders. Having thus summarily relieved his mind, he despatched the royal secretary for his ink-horn and papyrus, and began inditing letters, orders, appointments, before scymitar or lash (which were ever tenderly slow on these occasions) had made its appearance. Perhaps in the very thick of his dictating he would remember the connubial accomplice, and order his people to “release her, and let her go.”

* * *

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.

* * *

Lamarche repaired forthwith to the consul, and reported that the king had spoken disrespectfully, not only of his Imperial Majesty’s consul, but of the Emperor himself, besides outrageously insulting a French messenger. Then the fire-eating functionary addressed another despatch to his Majesty, the purport of which was, that in expelling Lamarche from the palace, the king of Siam had been guilty of a political misdemeanor, and had rudely disturbed the friendly relations existing between France and Siam; that he should leave Bangkok for Paris, and in six weeks lay his grievance before the Emperor; but should first proceed to Saigon, and engage the French admiral there to attend to any emergency that might arise in Bangkok.

His Majesty, who knew how to confront the uproar of vulgarity and folly with the repose of wisdom and dignity, sent his own cousin, the Prince Mom Rachoday, Chief Judge of the Royal Court of Equity, to M. Aubaret, to disabuse his mind, and impart to him all the truth of the case. But the “furious Frank” seized the imposing magnate by the hair, drove him from his door, and flung his betel-box after him, — a reckless impulse of outrage as monstrous as the most ingenious and deliberate brutality could have devised. Rudely to seize a Siamese by the hair is an indignity as grave as to spit in the face of a European; and the betel-box, beside being a royal present, was an essential part of the insignia of the prince’s judicial office.

On a later occasion this same Aubaret seized the opportunity a royal procession afforded to provoke the king to an ill-timed discussion of politics, and to prefer an intemperate complaint against the Kalahome, or Prime Minister. This characteristic flourish of ill temper and bad manners, from the representative of the politest of nations, naturally excited lively indignation and disgust among all respectable dwellers, native or foreign, near the court, and a serious disturbance was imminent. But a single dose of the King’s English sufficed to soothe the spasmodic official, and reduce him to “a sense of his situation.”


“SIR: — The verbal insult or bad words without any step more over from lower or lowest person is considered very slight & inconsiderable.

“The person standing on the surface of the ground or floor Cannot injure the heavenly bodies or any highly hanging Lamp or glope by ejecting his spit from his mouth upward it will only injure his own face without attempting of Heavenly bodies—&c.

“The Siamese are knowing of being lower than heaven do not endeavor to injure heavenly bodies with their spit from mouth.

“A person who is known to be powerless by every one as they who have no arms or legs to move oppose or injure or deaf or blind &c. &c. Cannot be considered and said that they are our enemies even for their madness in vain—it might be considered as easily agitation or uneasiness.

“Persons under strong desires without any limit or acting under illimited anger sometimes cannot be believed at once without testimony or witness if they stated against any one verbally from such the statements of the most desirous or persons most illimitedly angry hesitation and mild enquiry is very prudent from persons of considerable rank.”

No signature.

Never were simplicity with shrewdness, and unconscious humor with pathos, and candor with irony, and political economy with the sense of an awful bore, more quaintly blended than in the following extraordinary hint, written and printed by his Majesty, and freely distributed for the snubbing of visionary or speculative adventurers: —


“When the general rumor was and is spread out from Siam, circulated among the foreigners to Siam, chiefly Europeans, Chinese, &c, in three points—

“1. That Siam is under quite absolute Monarchy. Whatever her Supreme Sovereign commanded, allowed &c, all cannot be resisted by any one of his Subjects.

“2. The Treasury of the Sovereign of Siam, was full for money, like a mountain of gold and silver; Her Sovereign most wealthy.

“3. The present reigning Monarch of Siam is shallow minded and admirer of almost everything of curiosity, and most admirer of European usages, customs, sciences, arts and literature &c, without limit. He is fond of flattering term and ambitious of honor, so that there are now many opportunities and operations to be embraced for drawing great money from Royal Treasury of Siam, &c.

“The most many foreigners being under belief of such general rum our, were endeavoring to draw money from him in various operations, as alluring him with valuable curiosities and expectations of interest, and flattering him, to be glad of them, and deceiving him in various ways; almost on every opportunity of Steamer Coming to Siam, various foreigners partly known to him and acquainted with him, and generally unknown to him, boldly wrote to him in such the term of various application and treatment, so that he can conclude that the chief object of all letters written to him, is generally to draw money from him, even unreasonable. Several instances and testimonies can be shown for being example on this subject—the foreigners letters addressed to him, come by every one steamer of Siam, and of foreign steamers visiting Siam; 10 and 12 at least and 40 at highest number, urging him in various ways; so he concluded that foreigners must consider him only as a mad king of a wild land!

“He now states that he cannot be so mad more, as he knows and observes the consideration of the foreigners towards him. Also he now became of old age, (he was sixty-two at this time) and was very sorry to lose his principal members of his family namely, his two Queens, twice, and his younger brother the late Second King, and his late second son and beloved daughter, and moreover now he fear of sickness of his eldest son, he is now unhappy and must solicit his friends in correspondence and others who please to write for the foresaid purpose, that they should know suitable reason in writing to him, and shall not urge him as they would urge a madman! And the general rumours forementioned are some exaggerated and some entirely false; they shall not believe such the rumours, deeply and ascertainedly.

BANGKOK 2nd JULY 1867.”

And now observe with what gracious ease this most astute and discriminating prince could fit his tone to the sense of those who, familiar with his opinions, and reconciled to his temper and his ways, however peculiar, could reciprocate the catholicity of his sympathies, and appreciate his enlightened efforts to fling off that tenacious old-man-of-the-sea custom, and extricate himself from the predicament of conflicting responsibilities. To these, on the Christian New Year’s day of 1867, he addressed this kindly greeting: —


“Called in Siamese ‘Phra-Chomklau chao-yuhua,’ In Magadhi or language of Pali ‘Siamikanam Maha Rajah,’ In Latin ‘Rex Siamensium,’ In French ‘Le Roi de Siam,’ In English ‘The King of Siam,’ and in Malayan ‘Rajah Maha Pasah’ &c.

“Begs to present his respectful and regardful compliments and congratulations in happy lives during immediately last year, and wishes the continuing thereof during the commencing New Year, and ensuing and succeeding many years, to his foreign friends, both now in Siam namely, the functionary and acting Consuls and consular officers of various distinguished nations in Treaty Power with Siam and certain foreign persons under our salary, in service in any manner here, and several Gentlemen and Ladies who are resident in Siam in various stations: namely, the Priests, preachers of religion, Masters and Mistresses of Schools, Workmen and Merchants, &c, and now abroad in various foreign countries and ports, who are our noble and common friends, acquainted either by ever having had correspondences mutually with us some time, at any where and remaining in our friendly remembrance or mutual remembrance, and whosoever are in service to us as our Consuls, vice consuls and consular assistants, in various foreign ports. Let them know our remembrance and good wishes toward them all.

* * *

“Though we are not Christians, the forenamed King was glad to arrive this day in his valued life, as being the 22,720th day of his age, during which he was aged sixty-two years and three months, and being the 5,711th day of his reign, during which he reigned upon his kingdom 15 years and 8 months up to the current month.

“In like manner he was very glad to see & know and hope for all his Royal Family, kindred and friends of both native and foreign, living near and far to him had arrived to this very remarkable anniversary of the commencement of Solar Year in Anno Christi 1867.

“In their all being healthy and well living like himself he begs to express his royal congratulation and respect and graceful regards to all his kindred and friends both native and foreign, and hopes to receive such the congratulation and expression of good wishes toward him and members of his family in very like manner, as he trusts that the amity and grace to one another of every of human beings who are innocent, is a great merit, and is righteous and praiseworthy in religious system of all civil religion, and best civilized laws and morality, &c.

“Given at the Royal Audience Hall, ‘Anant Samagome,’ Grand Palace, Bangkok,” etc., etc.

His Majesty usually passed his mornings in study or in dictating or writing

English letters and dispatches. His breakfast, though a repast sufficiently frugal for Oriental royalty, was served with awesome forms. In an antechamber adjoining a noble hall, rich in grotesque carvings and gildings, a throng of females waited, while his Majesty sat at a long table, near which knelt twelve women before great silver trays laden with twelve varieties of viands, — soups, meats, game, poultry, fish, vegetables, cakes, jellies, preserves, sauces, fruits, and teas. Each tray, in its order, was passed by three ladies to the head wife or concubine, who removed the silver covers, and at least seemed to taste the contents of each dish; and then, advancing on her knees, she set them on the long table before the king.

But his Majesty was notably temperate in his diet, and by no means a gastronome. In his long seclusion in a Buddhist cloister he had acquired habits of severe simplicity and frugality, as a preparation for the exercise of those powers of mental concentration for which he was remarkable. At these morning repasts it was his custom to detain me in conversation, relating to some topic of interest derived from his studies, or in reading or translating. He was more systematically educated, and a more capacious devourer of books and news, than perhaps any man of equal rank in our day. But much learning had made him morally mad; his extensive reading had engendered in his mind an extreme scepticism concerning all existing religious systems. In inborn integrity and steadfast principle he had no faith whatever. He sincerely believed that every man strove to compass his own ends, per fas et nefas. The mens sibi conscia recti was to him an hallucination, for which he entertained profound contempt; and he honestly pitied the delusion that pinned its faith on human truth and virtue. He was a provoking melange of antiquarian attainments and modern scepticism. When, sometimes, I ventured to disabuse his mind of his darling scorn for motive and responsibility, I had the mortification to discover that I had but helped him to an argument against myself: it was simply “my peculiar interest to do so.” Money, money, money! that could procure anything.

But aside from the too manifest bias of his early education and experience, it is due to his memory to say that his practice was less faithless than his profession, toward those persons and principles to which he was attracted by a just regard. In many grave considerations he displayed soundness of understanding and clearness of judgment, — a genuine nobility of mind, established upon universal ethics and philosophic reason, — where his passions were not dominant; but when these broke in, between the man and the majesty, they effectually barred his advance in the direction of true greatness; beyond them he could not or would not make way.

Ah! if this man could but have cast off the cramping yoke of his intellectual egotism, and been loyal to the free government of his own true heart, what a demigod might he not have been, among the lower animals of Asiatic royalty!

When the darling of his old age, the sweet, bright little princess, Somdetch Chowfa Chandrmondol (who was so dear to me by her pet name of Fa-ying), was seized with cholera on the night of the 13th of May, 1863, his Majesty wrote to me: —


“Our well-beloved daughter, your favorite pupil, is attacked with cholera, and has earnest desire to see you, and is heard much to make frequent repetition of your name. I beg that you will favor her wish. I fear her illness is mortal, as there has been three deaths since morning. She is best beloved of my children.

“I am your afflicted friend,


In a moment I was in my boat. I entreated, I flattered, I scolded, the rowers. How slow they were! How strong the opposing current! And when we did reach those heavy gates, how slowly they moved, with what suspicious caution they admitted me! I was fierce with impatience. And when at last I stood panting at the door of my Fa-ying’s chamber—too late! Even Dr. Campbell (the surgeon of the British consulate) had come too late.

There was no need to prolong that anxious wail in the ear of the deaf child, “Phra-Arahang! Phra-Arahang!”5 She would not forget her way; she would nevermore lose herself on the road to Heaven. Beyond, above the Phra-Arahang, she had soared into the eternal, tender arms of the Phra-Jesus, of whom she was wont to say in her infantine wonder and eagerness, Mam cha, chan rak Phra-Jesus mak (“Mam dear, I love your holy Jesus”)!

As I stooped to imprint a parting kiss on the little face that had been so dear to me, her kindred and slaves exchanged their appealing “Phra-Arahang” for a sudden burst of heart-rending cries.

An attendant hurried me to the king, who, reading the heavy tidings in my silence, covered his face with his hands and wept passionately. Strange and terrible were the tears of such a man, welling up from a heart from which all natural affections had seemed to be expelled, to make room for his own exacting, engrossing conceit of self.

Bitterly he bewailed his darling, calling her by such tender, touching epithets as the lips of loving Christian mothers use. What could I say? What could I do but weep with him; and then steal quietly away, and leave the king to the father?

“The moreover very sad & mournful Circular6 from His Gracious Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, the reigning Supreme King of Siam, intimating the recent death of Her Celestial Royal Highness, Princess Somdetch Chaufa Chandrmondol Sobhon Baghiawati, who was His Majesty’s most affectionate & well beloved 9th Royal daughter or 16th offspring, and the second Royal child by His Majesty’s late Queen consort Rambery Bhamarabhiramy who deceased in the year 1861. Both mother and daughter have been known to many foreign friends of His Majesty.

“To all the foreign friends of His Majesty, residing or trading in Siam, or in Singapore, Malacca, Pinang, Ceylon, Batavia, Saigon, Macao, Hong-kong, & various regions in China, Europe, America, &c ...

“Her Celestial Royal Highness, having been born on the 24th April 1855, grew up in happy condition of her royal valued life, under the care of her Royal parents, as well as her elder and younger three full brothers, and on the demise if her royal mother on the fore-mentioned date, she was almost always with her Royal father everywhere day & night. All things which belonged to her late mother suitable for female use, were transferred to her as the most lawful inheritor of her late royal mother; She grew up to the age of 8 years & 20 days. On the ceremony of the funeral service of her elder late royal half brother forenamed, She accompanied her royal esteemed father & her royal brothers and sisters in customary service, cheerfully during three days of the ceremony, from the 11th to 13th May. On the night of the latter day, when she was returning from the royal funeral place to the royal residence in the same sedan with her Royal father at 10 ‘clock P.M. she yet appeared happy, but alas, on her arrival at the royal residence, she was attacked by most violent & awful cholera, and sunk rapidly before the arrival of the physicians who were called on that night for treatment. Her disease or illness of cholera increased so strong that it did not give way to the treatment of any one, or even to the Chlorodine administered to her by Doctor James Campbell the Surgeon of the British Consulate. She expired at 4 o’clock P.M. on the 14th May, when her elder royal half brother’s remains were burning at the funeral ball outside of the royal palace, according to the determined time for the assembling of the great congregation of the whole of the royalty & nobility, and native & foreign friends, before the occurrence of the unforeseen sudden misfortune or mournful event. ...

“The sudden death of the said most affectionate and lamented royal daughter has caused greater regret and sorrow to her Royal father than several losses sustained by him before, as this beloved Royal amiable daughter was brought up almost by the hands of His Majesty himself, since she was aged only 4 to 5 months, His Majesty has carried her to and fro by his hand and on the lap and placed her by his side in every one of the Royal seats, where ever he went; whatever could be done in the way of nursing His Majesty has done himself, by feeding her with milk obtained from her nurse, and sometimes with the milk of the cow, goat &c. poured in a teacup from which His Majesty fed her by means of a spoon, so this Royal daughter was as familiar with her father in her infancy, as with her nurses.

“On her being only aged six months, his Majesty took this Princess with him and went to Ayudia on affairs there, after that time when she became grown up His Majesty had the princess seated on his lap when he was in his chair at the breakfast, dinner & supper table, and fed her at the same time of breakfast &c, almost every day, except when she became sick of colds &c. until the last days of her life she always eat at same table with her father, where ever His Majesty went, this princess always accompanied her father upon the same, sedan, carriage, Royal boat, yacht &c. and on her being grown up she became more prudent than other children of the same age, she paid very affectionate attention to her affectionate and esteemed father in every thing where her ability allowed; she was well educated in the vernacular Siamese literature which she commenced to study when she was 3 years old, and in last year she commenced to study in the English School where the school-mistress, Lady L has observed that she was more skillful than the other royal Children, she pronounced & spoke English in articulate & clever manner which pleased the schoolmistress exceedingly so that the schoolmistress on the loss of this her beloved pupil, was in great sorrow and wept much.

“... But alas! her life was very short. She was only aged 8 years & 20 days, reckoning from her birth day & hour, she lived in this world 2942 days & I8 hours. But it is known that the nature of human lives is like the flames of candles lighted in open air without any protection above & every side, so it is certain that this path ought to be followed by every one of human beings in a short or long while which cannot be ascertained by prediction, Alas!

“Dated Royal Grand Palace, Bangkok, 16th May, Anno Christi, 1863.’

The remoter provinces of Siam constitute a source of continual anxiety and much expense to the government; and to his Majesty (who, very conscious of power, was proud to be able to say that the Malayan territories and rajahs—Cambodia, with her marvelous cities, palaces, and temples, once the stronghold of Siam’s most formidable and implacable foes, the Laos country, with its warlike princes and chiefs—were alike dependencies and tributaries of his crown) it was intolerably irritating to find Cambodia rebellious. So long as his government could successfully maintain its supremacy there, that country formed a sort of neutral ground between his people and the Cochin-Chinese; a geographical condition which was not without its political advantages. But now the unscrupulous French had strutted upon the scene, and with a flourish of diplomacy and a stroke of the pen appropriated to themselves the fairest portion of that most fertile province. His Majesty, though secretly longing for the intervention and protection of England, was deterred by his almost superstitious fear of the French from complaining openly. But whenever he was more than commonly annoyed by the pretensions and aggressive epistles of his Imperial Majesty’s consul, he sent for me, — thinking, like all Orientals, that, being English, my sympathy for him, and my hatred of the French, were jointly a foregone conclusion. When I would have assured him that I was utterly powerless to help him, he cut me short with a wise whisper to “consult Mr. Thomas George Knox” and when I protested that that gentleman was too honorable to engage in a secret intrigue against a colleague, even for the protection of British interests in Siam, he would rave at my indifference, the cupidity of the French, the apathy of the English, and the fatuity of all geographers in “ setting down” the form of government in Siam as an “absolute monarchy.”

I an absolute monarch! For I have no power over French. Siam is like a mouse before an elephant! Am I an absolute monarch? What shall you consider me?”

Now as I considered him a particularly absolute and despotic king, that was a trying question; so I discreetly held my peace, fearing less to be classed with those obnoxious savans who compile geographies than to provoke him afresh.

“I have no power,” he scolded; “I am not absolute! If I point the end of my walking-stick at a man whom, being my enemy, I wish to die, he does not die, but lives on, in spite of my ‘absolute’ will to the contrary. What does Geographies mean? How can I be an absolute monarchy?”

Such a conversation we were having one day as he “assisted” at the founding of a temple; and while he reproached his fate that he was powerless to “point the end of his walking-stick” with absolute power at the peppery and presumptuous Monsieur Aubaret, he vacantly flung gold and silver coins among the work-women.

In another moment he forgot all French encroachments, and the imbecility of geographers in general, as his glance chanced to fall upon a young woman of fresh and striking beauty, and delightful piquancy of ways and expression, who with a clumsy club was pounding fragments of pottery—urns, vases, and goglets—for the foundation of the mat. Very artless and happy she seemed, and free as she was lovely; but the instant she perceived she had attracted the notice of the king, she sank down and hid her face in the earth, forgetting or disregarding the falling vessels that threatened to crush or wound her. But the king merely diverted himself with inquiring her name and parentage, which some one answered for her, and turned away.

Almost to the latest hour of his life his Majesty suffered, in his morbid egotism, various and keen annoyance by reason of his sensitiveness to the opinions of foreigners, the encroachments of foreign officials, and the strictures of the foreign press. He was agitated by a restless craving for their sympathy on the one hand, and by a futile resentment of their criticisms or their claims on the other.

An article in a Singapore paper had administered moral correction to his Majesty on the strength of a rumor that “the king has his eye upon another princess of the highest rank, with a view to constituting her a queen consort.” And the Bangkok Recorder had said: “Now, considering that he is full threescore and three years of age, that he has already scores of concubines and about fourscore sons and daughters, with several Chowfas among them, and hence eligible to the highest posts of honor in the kingdom, this rumor seems too monstrous to be credited. But the truth is, there is scarcely anything too monstrous for the royal polygamy of Siam to bring forth.” By the light of this explanation the meaning of the following extract from the postscript of a letter which the king wrote in April, 1866, will be clear to the reader, who, at the same time, in justice to me, will remember that by the death of his Majesty, on the 1st of October, 1868, the seal of secrecy was broken.


“There is a newspaper of Singapore entitled Daily News just published after last arrival of the steamer Chowphya in Singapore, in which paper, a correspondence from an Individual resident at Bangkok dated 16th March 1866 was shown. but I have none of that paper in my possession. ... I did not noticed its number & date to state to you now, but I trust such the paper must be in hand of several foreigners in Bangkok, may you have read it perhaps—other wise you can obtain the same from any one or by order to obtain from Singapore after perusal thereof you will not be able to deny my statement forementioned more over as general people both native & foreigners here seem to have less pleasure on me & my descendant, than their pleasure and hope on other amiable family to them until the present day.

“What was said there in for a princess considered by the Speaker or Writer as proper or suitable to be head on my harem (a room or part for confinement of Women of Eastern monarch) there is no least intention occurred to me even once or in my dream indeed! I think if I do so, I will die soon perhaps!

“This my hand writing or content hereof shall be kept secretly.

“I beg to remain

“Your faithful & well-wisher

“S. P. P. M. MONGKUT R. S.

“on 5441th day of reign.

“the writer here of beg to place his confidence on you alway.”

As a true friend to his Majesty, I deplore the weakness which betrayed him into so transparent a sham of virtuous indignation. The “princess of the highest rank,” whom the writer of the article plainly meant, was the Princess of Hhiengmai (or Chiengmai); but from lack of accurate information he was misled into confounding her with the Princess Tui Duany Prabha, his Majesty’s niece. The king could honestly deny any such intention on his part with regard to his niece; but, at the same time, he well knew that the writer erred only as to the individual, and not as to the main fact of the case.

Much more agreeable is it—to the reader, I doubt not, not less than to the writer—to turn from the king, in the exercise of his slavish function of training honest words to play the hypocrite for ignoble thoughts, to the gentleman, the friend, the father, giving his heart a holiday in the relaxations of simple kindness and free affection; as in the following note—


34th February 1865.



“We having very pleasant journey. ... To be here which is a township called as above named by men or republick affairs in Siam, & called by common people as ‘Parkphrieck’ where we have our stay a few days.  & will take our departure from hence at dawn of next day.  We thinking of you both regardfully & beg to send here with some wild aples & barriers which are delicate for tasting & some tobacco which were and are principal product of this region for your kind acceptance hoping this wild present will be acceptable to you both.

“We will be arrived at your home Bangkok on early part of March.

“We beg to remain

“Your faithful


“in 5035th day of reign.

“And your affectionate pupils


  1. Duke, and royal bearer of the great crown
  2. Bad, bad!
  3. Ghost, spirit, soul, devil, evil angel
  4. Kha, your slave
  5. One of the most sacred of the many titles of Buddha, repeated by the nearest relative in the ear of the dying, till life is quite extinct
  6. From the pen of the king
  7. The present king.