Sunday, December 7, 2014

King Chulalongkorn (Part 1): Abolitionist

King Rama V
As the nation mourned the death of their beloved King Rama IV or King Mongkut, Siam was in the middle of its modernization in a quest to preserve its sovereignty as a free country. As cries flowed for the dead King, the court prepared to crown a new king to continue the legacy of his predecessor. Prince Chulalongkorn ascended to the throne as King Rama V. He presided over the continuity of Siam’s change towards the modern age and the change of its long time traditions as well.

Chulalongkorn, who became King Rama V (reigning from 1868 to 1910), was born in September 20, 1853. Known for his shorter name, Chula, He was the eldest son of King Mongkut to his wife Queen Debsirindra. King Mongkut was an intellectual. He saw the impact of the education to him. And he wanted it also to be inculcated to his children as well. Mongkut, in addition, saw that if his modernization program would continue, his children must also see it as vital for the survival of the kingdom as he does. In the process, he hired foreign tutors to provide modern education to his numerous children. The most well-known tutor hired by Mongkut was the British widow from Singapore – Anna Leonowens. The Princes and Princesses received lessons in English language, literature, philosophy, geography, mathematics, and modern sciences, like astronomy. Leonowens saw Prince Chula as a bright Prince and became her favorite.
Kimg Mongkut (left) with Prince Chulalongkorn (right)

On October 1, 1868, King Mongkut died from malaria. Prince Chula was just 15 years old when his father died. Nevertheless, he was crowned King of Siam under the condition that a regent would rule in his behalf until the young King reach majority. Si Suriyawongse, the loyal and effective official of the late King Mongkut, served as Chula’s regent for the next five years. The time of the regency of Si Suriyawongse was an opportunity for King Chula to prepare for his duty more. He was able to travel the Kingdom and learn the conditions and the cultures of his people, just like what his father did during his time of his monkhood. Other than his own subjects, Chula ventured also abroad, which just few Siamese kings did so. King Chula visited the famous British colony of Singapore. He then moved on to travel to the Dutch held island of Java. Then, he went to the jewel of the crown of the British Empire – India. Once again, his travels were not just mere luxurious vacation trips, it served as educational tours. In each of the places he visited abroad, he studied the technology and science available to the place. He also observed their administrative and judicial system, learning what he could use and apply for Siam. The trips also served diplomatic purposes. A visit of a monarch to a foreign city would have been a news and influential and the wealthy would certainly want to meet the Siamese King Chula. Hence, Chula was able to meet some of them. It became an opportunity for Chula to build connections and a network of acquaintances who would be a later help in times of crisis and to maintain Siamese independence.
Si Suriyawongse

After five years of travelling, studying, and preparing for his direct rule, he finally took the state affairs in his own hands with no problem of transition. Si Suriyawongse did not made any fuss of the transition and submitted to retirement after the regency. Chula, like his father, and what his regent wanted to do, looked forward for the continuing of the modernization of Siam. He first started in his own royal court. He learned that some court traditions were seen as barbaric and humiliating in the eyes of foreigners. For Chula, they must cope with it to prevent the idea of foreigners that the Siamese were barbarians and needed to be civilize by them – one of the main arguments of imperialists in taking over a country. One tradition that was deemed as uncivilized and degrading was the tradition of procrastinating in presence of the King. King Mongkut previously exempted foreigners from the practice. But it was King Chulalongkorn who abolished the practice completely.

But merely removing humiliating practices in the royal court was just not enough. He needed also to address the prevailing longtime Siamese tradition of slavery. In the west, slavery was already dead and by that time, they saw those who practice it as, again, barbaric. King Mongkut did not address the issue immediately due to the high probability of instability. Mongkut was not just protecting Siamese independence, he was defending the House of Chakri itself. He realized that an absolute and quick abolition of slavery would cause political, social, and economic chaos. And so, the issue fell in Chula’s hands. Chula choose to abolish slavery slowly but surely. He began in 1873 by making a decree which would free individuals born from slaves from that year. According to the decree, all those who were born in 1873 onward from slaves would be free by the time they reach the age of 21. Chula moved also to outlaw ways for a person to become slaves. For example, he forbid anyone from selling oneself to slavery and prohibit anyone from accepting someone selling himself or herself to slavery. He also cracked down on gambling which was a root cause of people being drowned in debt and offering themselves as slaves. Through the following years, slavery dwindled. By 1905, he finally banned slavery. By 1912, slavery disappeared in Siam.

Abolition of slavery and submissive and degrading royal court customs were just a start of Chula’s reign. Chula in his long reign faced many challenges. He faced harder problems from difficult enemies. He endured it in order to preserve Siam as a free nation and earn the respect and admiration of his people.

See also: King Chulalongkorn (Part 2), King Mongkut

Hinks, P. et al. Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Mishra, P. The History of Thailand. California: Greenwood, 2010.

"King Chulalongkorn, Rama V: The Fifth King of the Chakri Dynasty" Welcome to Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai. Acessed on June 23, 2013.

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