Imperialism at Home


FROM Haiphong in China to Karachi in India, the long coast-line of southeast Asia is possessed imperially, and with a show of permanence, by West Europeans — except for one interruption of freedom. One small nation, which calls itself the ‘Thais,’ the ‘free people,’ wedged in among the imperial frontiers of the English and the French, and under the shadow of Dutch and American dominations near at hand, keeps its own sovereignty in more than name. But Siam’s position, at the throat of the long Malay Peninsula which runs down from lower China to Singapore, its peculiar and respectable culture, its astonishing art and architecture, even its existence, are almost unknown. It is off the main traderoutes and out of the tourist range. And its political problem and the solution which seems likely to surmount its special difficulties are ignored.

The problem was to develop a nation which encroaching imperialisms would respect. The solution now being applied is an imperialism of a domestic and home-grown variety. The hereditary rulers of the Siamese people arc trying to do for themselves what West Europeans are trying to do for the more or less willing other Eastern peoples all around them. They are imposing Western culture as a modification and development of their native civilization.

The working-out of this experiment is not altogether evident in a traveler’s first glimpses of Siam. The incredible contrast between rare palaces and the crowded squalid dwellings of the people, which is characteristic of Asiatic cities, is especially marked in Bangkok. In fact, the ordinary Siamese citizen may be said to possess no house at all. He lives with his wife and naked babies on a boat in a canal. The capital city of Siam is a collection of villages held together by a few well-kept roads and many klongs, or wide ditches branching out from the river, and in these klongs the affairs of life and commerce are pursued in a muddy but orderly tenor by most of the population. Costumes are adapted to water living, being arrived at chiefly by elimination, and a people addicted to bathing can slip off their front porches, that is their front decks, into water more or less potable at any hour of day or night.

Along the shores are the gilded, glittering, flamelike temple-spires and even a few ugly business-buildings on a blazing-hot and dusty Main Street. Scattered about in compounds and paradises are the dwellings of princes, most of them in European style. There has been some trouble in adapting heavy Western styles to the swamps of that situation. His Majesty’s throneroom palace of Italian marble, which cost millions of ticals, began to settle in the mud when it was half built. It rides now in an understructure of concrete, an ingenious boat which was put under it and supports it as long as the chugging engines keep the water pumped out of the basement.

The marble palace of Rama V is a bad symbol, however, for the present interesting social and political condition of Siam. It is a triumph of modern science over natural difficulties. The attempt of the princely caste to conquer the swampy difficulties of modernizing an Oriental race is inspired by a nobler motive and is of tremendous importance.

In all imperialism, practised at home or abroad, there is a certain quality of precariousness that resembles riding on an elephant. The will and the intelligence of the rider are only uncertainly sufficient to keep several tons of slave from rebelling. A compromise as to benefits received for service given is always necessary. Imperialism is no longer frankly predatory. The Japanese, for example, give evidence of being honestly convinced that the Koreans are in need of Japanese guidance and culture; the Dutch exploit Java for its own sake; the English stoop to having official publicity-agents to tell the world how India gets on. The United States is even getting insensibly reconciled to being big brother (owner) to the Philippines. And it is all for their own good. We have completely forgotten the passions of twenty-five years ago when so notable a person as David Starr Jordan could print, then reprint in cooler blood, ‘The advances of civilization are wholly repugnant to the children of the tropics.’

The princes of Siam, although nearly all graduates of Oxford or Harvard or the Sorbonne, do not share this pessimism as they devote themselves to imposing the advances of civilization on their own tropical citizenry. The gap they have to span is enough to make any reformer dizzy. But they are conscious that what they are doing is for their own people, people of their own blood. I would not venture an opinion on the perplexed question of whether or not British imperialism is an activity of the British race for the benefit of other races. The difference is sufficient if one insists only on the fact that this interesting type of imperialism is imposed, not from the outside, but by natural, hereditary, and firmly entrenched rulers.

In Siam the domestic revolution began with King Mongkut. He was the beginner of modernism among the Thais in the middle of the nineteenth century, at about the time Japan emerged from seclusion. The third generation of princes is now struggling to make obstinate vision conquer the torpid fact. King Mongkut was kept from mounting his father’s throne for twenty-seven years by the usurping intervention of a half brother. He sought safety and wisdom in that period in a Buddhist wot among the shaven-headed, yellow-robed monks. When he finally arrived, he had acquired a determination to modernize his kingdom. He spent his allotted time of power in building up foreign trade relations and encouraging public works. His succeeding son, King Chulalongkorn, set the present fashion by being trained carefully in Western ideas. Chulalongkorn’s sons and his still more numerous grandsons have fixed and developed that policy.

Chulalongkorn faced for thirty-seven years of benign despotism a doubleedged problem. He had enemies within and without. The upper classes among his own people opposed his reforms because new laws defined new responsibilities and disturbed old prerogatives, while his frontiers, facing British expansion on one side and French on the other, were constantly endangered. But he abolished slavery, set up the first competent courts, brought the different regions of his territory closer together with better communications, encouraged irrigation of waste lands and better methods of rice culture. He was the great political explorer and discoverer, acting on his predecessor’s example and giving his ardent descendants a foundation worth building on.

King Chulalongkorn’s educational ideas have been recently systematized in a compulsory-education law which applies to the whole child-population, probably above two millions. Heretofore it has been chiefly in the wats, from the monks, that the boys, if ever, have learned to read. Girls and boys both are to have teachers now as fast as they can be provided. There are more than 15,000 Boy Scouts already enrolled and a Junior Red Cross organization is bringing Siamese children into touch with universal humanitarian ideas.


This work seems difficult in a huddle of large villages, a mixture of divine splendors and muddy squalor, like Bangkok. What can it mean outside the city, in paddy-field and jungle — even though every member of the populous royal family chooses his task in his boyhood and goes to the best school in the world for that particular profession and educates himself to do his special share? If you ride out from Bangkok on the state railway toward the North, to Ayuthia, for instance, where the rare visitor may go to see the ruins of ancient wonders, you pass through blue-and-silver swamps. The landscape looks very often as if a flood were just subsiding. In full ditches along the track float huge pink lotus flowers. The paddy-birds, all grace and pearly whiteness, fly in the yellow sunshine. Clumps of tiny thatched dwellings are lifted out of water on stilts. Under them in the ditches, and in the flooded rice-fields themselves, bulking everywhere are the clumsy, gray-black buffaloes, domestic slaves and best friends of Siamese farmers. Banana trees grow around the huts, or anywhere they can catch hold, and their flat dark leaves, springing stemless from the ground, are like weeds in a fantastic dream. Thickets of bamboo and tall sugar-palms make a pleasant edge of green for the glistening wetness of the fields. In such entrancing scenes the peasants live, amid lotus flowers and thoughts of Buddha, water buffaloes, and muddy toil, malaria, mosquitoes, and the hookworm.

Modern West Europeans or Americans, the beings who represent the fine flower of the culture which Siamese royal reformers are trying to inculcate by ukase, are not exactly received with enthusiasm when they visit the paddyfields or the rare villages. The stranger, in order to see them as they are, must invade a village on a market day; he sees most if he ploughs up the middle of the Menam or one of its tributary streams through a river market. On both sides of him the long narrow boats are filled to the gunwales — which are almost awash in the constant movement—with vegetables and fruits, pastries and sweetmeats, household utensils on which a suspiciously European trade-mark might be found, articles of clothing, straw sun-hats, and heaps of vermilion-colored paste. The paste is the preparation of lime that helps to give the betel-chewing habit its horrors of smell and expectoration.

The stranger, the representative of invading civilization, will probably receive simple grave curiosity from most of these disturbed merchants and their customers. But a modest and skeptical eye may notice more than one old woman, — her brown face wrinkled and drawn, her black hair standing up indignantly in a short pompadour above her low forehead, her shrunken shoulders and arms bare above her breast-cloth and her legs bare below her panung,—who spits from her blackened teeth a blood-red spurt of betel juice and glares with open malice. A properly humble visiting mind might understand her disapproval of pallid strangers with ridiculous, stiff, uncomfortable clothing, simpering manners, outlandish speech, and disgusting odors of alcohol and tobacco smoke.

Old women, however, being the guardians of old things, are almost always hostile to the new. The young Siamese do not resent the education laws, the sanitation, the railroads that are being brought to them by their princes. It is said that they envy their betters the chance to study abroad, and thus acquire directly a Western illumination, more than they envy them their birth and right to rule. Perhaps they envy them also the streak of exceptional capacity that seems to run through the princes. They are a remarkable group of men for other reasons than just their rank and their responsibilities. The list is long and hard to read, whether the names are given in transliteration out of the royal Pali alphabet or in English equivalents. Prince Nagar Svarga (called Nagung Sawung) is royal adviser and a strength to the kingdom. Prince Amoradat is secretary of the Red Cross and so administrator of the ambitious public-health programme being carried on through that organization. Prince Kambaeng Bejra builds and maintains railroads. Someone suited for every necessity seems discoverable. One young man, after a Beaux Arts training, devotes himself to the study of Khmer architecture, out of which the Siamese architectural idiom was derived, and serves the State in preserving old temples as well as in designing new ones whose weird, glittering beauties do not fall noticeably beneath the standards of the ancients. Youth holds on to what is worth while in the past as it reaches out for the new.

Communication and transportation are, of course, the necessary nerves of unification and growth. The task of H. R. H. Prince Kambaeng Bejra is not simple and calls out the extraordinary energy and power which that prince possesses. He has an example of successful railway maintenance near at hand. The traveler going down the peninsula bursts suddenly out of Siam where the railway runs between pressing jungle walls into open spaces where the same jungles have been conquered and cleared. At the very border of the Federated Malay States the long-standing achievements of British administration are attested by well-policed highways and an appearance of established order. In his own territory the Siamese administrator cannot run a train at night, even now, without patrolling every mile. It is said, although for this no one is willing to stand as authority, that within the last two years more than one jungle elephant has charged out of the immense florid thickets and attempted — with some success — to butt a puny man-made train off the track. Trains do run, however, with precision and comfort, making it possible to go back and forth from Singapore without braving the choppy terrors of the Gulf.


The works of Imperialism all around Siam may be achievements to emulate; but the political circumstances are a threat. A small triangle of rice-swamp, jungle, and mountain wilderness, inhabited by a few millions, cannot hope to remain the only free spot in southern Asia just by wishing. For about six centuries after Kublai Khan drove them southward out of his empire they made a yearly bow to the nominal suzerainty of China, but it was only a bow and they got weary of giving even that. In the nineteenth century, when they were casting off these vestigial bonds, their neighbors, Shans and Burmese and Malays on west and south, were slipping into the hands of British rulers; and on the north and east the Laos and Annamites into the hands of the French. Their policy of imposing imperialistic benefits on themselves might be interpreted as an effort to keep abreast of neighbors who receive those benefits from alien Western hands, and so to render Siam less obvious prey for invasion and control.

A complete cynic who had no faith that any motives but the most material actuate imperial foreign offices might say that the Siamese arc unmolested because across their narrow triangle of free territory the British and the French find themselves unpleasantly face to face. Those two nations have obvious reasons for not wanting to share a boundary in Asia which might be so fertile of difficulties, a boundary of jungle and mountain, illdefined and infested with tribes which might be hard to control.

As the French came westward from Saigon and the British east into Burma, they hesitated and eyed each other. The French did not escape actual conflict with the Siamese. The Indo-Chinese peoples over whom the French had acquired domination were blood relatives and prehistoric enemies of the Thais. Boundary disputes broke into guerrilla dueling in the 1890’s. But the two Western Powers saw whither this might lead and in 1896 they signed an agreement between themselves, to be extended later, which defined the limits of Siam and constituted a mutual promise between these strangers not to encroach on the Siamese kingdom.

So within a constricted circle the Siamese Princes have been, in a degree, at liberty to work out their people’s destiny; but it is a liberty that seems precarious, unquiet, and charged with responsibility. There is almost an air of hurry about the effort, as if they feared the opportunity might not last.

The rights that powerful neighbors demand for themselves, even of a free country, are not always consistent with what a free country may consider best for its own interests. Take the question of opium. It is a comparatively recent problem for the Siamese; their first experience with opium and their first adoptions of Western ideas came together in the middle of the last century. There was prohibition of the dangerous new drug, with public burnings and preaching and other useless demonstrations, until the Government decided to get what benefit it could out of a bad business. Opium-dealing was farmed out and a substantial part of the State revenue was obtained from a traffic which the State did not cease to condemn and discourage. Supplies came largely from British India. The agitation which swept through the Orient at the end of the century was shared in Siam and the Government made its disapproval more effective by changing the farming-system into complete control through smokers’ licences.

The difficulty of having powerful neighbors became manifest when the Siamese Government decided that it must find a substitute for the opium revenues, which were then nearly a fourth of the total income, if it was to suppress the vice still further. The ricegrower seemed to be paying all he could scrape together in ordinary taxes. The obvious resource was a tariff on the imports which the imperial Governments of Europe (and America) put at Siam’s door. Here is where freedom had a condition. The State found itself bound by treaties, the same treaties which protect it from aggression and encroachment, not to tax such imports. In an official statement before the health conference of the Oriental Red Cross Societies, Bangkok, November 1922, the Minister of Finance said, ‘The want of power to readjust her revenues, as required, is one of the reasons which may deter this country from putting into force the measures having for their object the registration of smokers ‘—in other words, the measures for suppressing the opium habit.

Other questions are not so complex. In a brave fight against the hookworm, Western intervention, exerted through the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, has been a necessary aid. There has been foreign help, too, in the effort to collect into hospitals the numerous lepers and begin their cure with chaulmoogra oil.

It would require an acute and determined mind to draw any lesson for America out of the Siamese experiments. There are American minds at work on the experiments themselves, as advisers to the State and in the technical boards for public improvement. Americans are on the ground to supplement what princes have been able to learn at first hand in American and European schools. But to bring back out of that alien and unique situation anything useful to us is difficult. Careful study might accomplish something, however, and we are not so established in our own political maturity that we can afford to neglect any hint.

Are we, in truth, ready for, or interested in, any imperialism in our own dooryard? If we mean what we frequently say about our benevolent desires to weld the whole of two continents into one harmonious and developed unity, if we are willing to share a cultural hegemony of the two Americas with the elements of Hispanic civilization which are comparable to our own Anglo-European ideas — we might learn something in method from the Siamese royal family, whose laboratory is only slightly more populous than New York and Chicago taken together.

The one inevitable lesson is that imperialism at home — or over your next-door neighbors — is possible, in accord with our avowed political ethics, only if there exists a sincere and wellunderstood impulse of brotherhood. If the Siamese princes are capable of imposing Western civilization on their own countrymen it is largely because there is no suspicion of ulterior purposes behind the rigorous, exacting laws for improvement. We cannot make laws for our neighbors; and we cannot even make fruitful suggestions unless we are purged of our conviction of superiority and free from the taint of selfishness.

Even then we may be helpless. It is hard to be certain that the Siamese civilizers are not helpless. In one of their Western-like houses, in an atmosphere of cultivated hospitality and intelligent worldliness, the whole programme seems feasible if not easy. But after the evening is done the visitor from the West is bowed out through the front gate into the road. The liveried servants withdraw and the compound goes back to its forest silence. At the entrance to that circle of cosmopolitan and generous thought lies still the old world of the klong and the house boat. The coolie, for whom all the efforts are invoked, is sleeping on the poop deck of his dwelling on a square of ragged matting, with the water lapping under his head and visions of bigger ricebowls in his dreams. His wife is rocking one of the next generation behind him in the shadows. In the minds and hearts of these is the answer to the problem of future change. The stranger is shut out. The native apostle of improvement is fascinated by the question as to how far into this mystery his own campaign can penetrate.