Wednesday, December 24, 2014

King Chulalongkorn (Part 2): Modernization and Opposition

King Chulalongkorn
Previously, Chulalongkorn ascended to the throne and continued the legacy of his father. At stake was his kingdom’s independence from the threats of western imperialism. However, modernization didn't came without threats. After the slow process of abolition of slavery, nobles and those within the royal family plotted against the king. Also, much were needed to be done for the people to experience the benefits of the modernization.

As expected by Chulalongkorn and his deceased father, there were indeed opposition to the gradual abolition of slavery starting in 1873. On the following year, a number of conservative nobles rallied behind Prince Wichaichan, a cousin of King Chula and best known as Prince George Washington. Wichaichan was a serious threat. He held the powerful position of Second King or Vice King of Siam. And it seemed that they were poised to take the throne from Chula and keep slavery intact. Chula, nevertheless, acted strongly against such threats. And during the turn of the year from 1874 to 1875, Chula and his cousin faced off in the Front Palace or Wang Na incident. Chula managed to get the upper hand when he gained the support of the British. The British support behind Chula weakened the rival faction, which led to the end of the crisis in 1875 with Chulalongkorn emerging as the victor.

After the incident, Chula placed more of his brothers and allies in key positions. One of his best choice was Prince Damrong. Prince Damrong was a great intellectual and administrator, holding key position in the army and internal affairs. He became a prominent figure in reforming the military, education, administration, and the judiciary of the kingdom. Another Prince that helped throughout the reign of Chulalongkorn was Prince Devawongse Varopakar. His diplomatic skill became important for maintaining good relations with the British and French. With their help, the modernization of Siam continued and progressed.

With Prince Damrong, Siamese education system underwent reforms. In order to keep the spirit of modernization, education was key for the next generation to become enlightened and prepared for the changing world around them. Under King Chula and Prince Damrong, the education system was made secular and reduction of religious influence in the instruction. But even before the Wang Na Incident, King Chula had already made head ways with the establishing of the Royal Pages Barracks in 1871. It was tasked to train civil servants from the nobility. The Royal Pages Barracks later became one of the leading educational institutions in the country and in 1917, it was renamed Chulalongkorn University, one of Thailand’s leading university even to this day. In 1887, Chulalongkorn officially crated the Department of Education with Prince Damrong as its director. The Department became involve in providing scholarship to citizens and financial aid in sending princes and nobles to study abroad. Within his household, Chula also did the same thing that his father did to them. He hired Robert Morant to serve as tutor for his children. He wanted his children to learn modern sciences, foreign languages, and many more things under the guidance of a foreigner as a tutor. The same way he learned under the guidance of Anna Leonowens.

Other than formal education, Chula made great contributions to other intellectual activities. For example, in 1880, he established the first museum in Siam, located within the Grand Palace. In 1881, he and Prince Damrong founded a library for literature. In 1895, an official gazette began publishing. On the same year, Chula and Damrong issued the first official textbook for elementary, the Paetsat Sonkhra.

In 1881, a tragedy struck Chula that led him to modernize the healthcare of the country. In 1881, a cholera outbreak in Bangkok killed one of Chula’s son Prince Siriraj. From then on, he became determined to improve the healthcare services in his kingdom. In 1888, the first public hospital was founded. It was named after his deceased son and called the Siriraj Hospital. The hospital used western and modern medicine and medical practices. It also placed emphasis on the basic importance of sanitation. In order to cater for the need of modern doctors, in 1890, the King and Prince Damrong supported the founding of the first medical school in the country.

Afterwards, during the 1890’s the finance of the country and the financial sector underwent changes. During the 1888 to 1894, British banks began to enter Siam. And in 1897, the French Banque de L’Indochine founded a branch in Siam. To manage the rise of these banks, a finance office was founded in 1895 under Prince Narathip. It was to regulate and guide the banks operating in Siam. Other than that it served purpose within the government as well. It handled tax collection and the managed government budget and spending. 

See also: 

King Chulalongkorn (Part 1)
King Chulalongkorn (Part 3)
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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