Today is the birthday (1853) of Somdetch Phra Paramindr Maha Chulalongkorn (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรมินทรมหาจุฬาลงกรณ์ พระจุลจอมเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว), or Rama V, the fifth monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri. He was known to the Siamese of his time as Phra Phuttha Chao Luang (พระพุทธเจ้าหลวง, the Royal Buddha). His reign was characterized by the modernization of Siam, governmental and social reforms, and territorial concessions to the British and French. Because Siam was threatened by Western expansionism, Chulalongkorn, through his policies and acts, managed to save Siam from colonization, which earned him the epithet Phra Piya Maharat (พระปิยมหาราช, the Great Beloved King).
Chulalongkorn was born to king Mongkut (of King and I fame) and Queen Debsirindra, and in 1861, he was designated Krommamuen Pikhanesuan Surasangkat. His father gave him a broad education, including instruction from European tutors such as Anna Leonowens. In 1866, he became a novice monk for six months at Wat Bawonniwet according to royal tradition. Upon his return to his secular life in 1867, he was designated Krommakhun Phinit Prachanat (กรมขุนพินิตประชานาถ). In 1867, Mongkut led an expedition to the Malay Peninsula south of the city of Hua Hin, to verify his calculations of the solar eclipse of 18th August 1868. Both father and son fell ill of malaria. Mongkut died on 1st October 1868. Assuming the 15-year-old Chulalongkorn to be dying as well, Mongkut wrote on his deathbed, “My brother, my son, my grandson, whoever you all the senior officials think will be able to save our country will succeed my throne, choose at your own will.” Si Suriyawongse, the most powerful government official of the day, managed the succession of Chulalongkorn to the throne and his own appointment as regent. The first coronation was held on 11th November 1868. Chulalongkorn’s health improved, and he was tutored in public affairs.
The young Chulalongkorn was an enthusiastic reformer. He visited Singapore and Java in 1870 and British India in 1872 to study the administration of British colonies. He toured the administrative centers of Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, and back to Calcutta in early 1872. This journey was a source of his later ideas for the modernization of Siam. He was crowned king in his own right as Rama V on 16th November 1873. Suriyawongse then arranged for the Front Palace of king Pinklao (who was his uncle) to be bequeathed to king Pinklao’s son, prince Yingyot.
As regent, Si Suriyawongse wielded great influence. Si Suriyawongse continued the works of Mongkut. He supervised the digging of several important khlongs (canals), such as Padung Krungkasem and Damneun Saduak, and the paving of roads such as Chareon Krung and Silom. He was also a patron of Thai literature and performing arts. At the end of his regency, Si Suriyawonse was raised to Somdet Chao Phraya, the highest title a noble could attain. Chulalongkorn then married four of his half-sisters, all daughters of Mongkut.
Chulalongkorn’s first reform was to establish the “Auditory Office” (หอรัษฎากรพิพัฒน์), solely responsible for tax collection, to replace corrupt tax collectors. As tax collectors had been under the aegis of various nobles and thus a source of their wealth, this reform caused great consternation among the nobility, especially the Front Palace. From the time of Mongkut, the Front Palace had been the equivalent of a “second king”, with one-third of national revenue allocated to it. Prince Yingyot of the Front Palace was known to be on friendly terms with many Britons, at a time when the British Empire was considered the enemy of Siam.
In 1874, Chulalongkorn established the Council of State as a legislative body and a privy council as his personal advisory board based on the British privy council. Council members were appointed by the king. On the night of 28th December 1874, a fire broke out near the gunpowder storehouse and gasworks in the main palace. Front Palace troops quickly arrived, fully armed, “to assist in putting out the fire”. They were denied entrance and the fire was extinguished. The incident demonstrated the considerable power wielded by aristocrats and royal relatives, leaving the king little power. Reducing the power held by the nobility became one of his main motives in reforming Siam’s feudal politics.
When prince Yingyot died in 1885, Chulalongkorn took the opportunity to abolish the titular Front Palace and created the title of “Crown Prince of Siam” in line with Western custom. Chulalongkorn’s son, Prince Vajirunhis, was appointed the first Crown Prince of Siam, though he never reigned. In 1895, when the prince died of typhoid at age 16, he was succeeded by his half-brother Vajiravudh, who was then at boarding school in England.
In Burma, while the British Army fought the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty, Siam remained neutral. Britain had agreements with the Bangkok government, which stated that if the British were in conflict with Burma, Siam would send food supplies to the British Army. Chulalongkorn honored the agreement. The British thought that he would send an army to help defeat the Burmese, but he did not.
During his reign the king employed his brothers and sons in the government, ensuring royal monopoly on power and administration. Chulalongkorn initiated reforms such as establishing the Royal Military Academy in 1887 to train officers in Western fashion. His upgraded forces provided him with the power to centralize the country. The government of Siam had remained largely unchanged since the 15th century. The central government was headed by the Samuha Nayok (prime minister), who controlled the northern parts of Siam, and the Samuha Kalahom (grand commander), who controlled southern Siam in both civil and military affairs. The Samuha Nayok presided over the Chatu Sadombh (Four Pillars – social spheres). The responsibilities of each pillar overlapped and were ambiguous. In 1888, Chulalongkorn moved to institute a government of ministries. Ministers were, at the outset, members of the royal family. Ministries were established in 1892, with all ministries having equal status.
The Council of State proved unable to veto legal drafts or to give Chulalongkorn advice because the members regarded Chulalongkorn as an absolute monarch, far above their station. Chulalongkorn dissolved the council altogether and transferred advisory duties to the cabinet in 1894. Chulalongkorn abolished the traditional Nakorn Bala methods of torture in the judiciary process, which were seen as inhumane and barbaric to Western eyes, and introduced a Western judicial code. His Belgian advisor, Rolin-Jaequemyns, played a key role in the development of modern Siamese law and its judicial system.
Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese king to send royal princes to Europe to be educated. In 19th century Europe, nationalism flourished, with calls for more liberty for peoples within multi-ethnic states. The princes were influenced by the liberal notions of democracy and elections they encountered in republics such as France and constitutional monarchies like the United Kingdom.In 1884 (year 103 of the Rattakosin Era), Siamese officials in London and Paris warned Chulalongkorn of threats from European colonialism. They advised that Siam should be reformed like Meiji Japan and that Siam should become a constitutional monarchy. Chulalongkorn demurred, saying that the time was not ripe and that he himself was making reforms. Throughout Chulalongkorn’s reign, writers with radical ideas had their works published for the first time. The most notable ones included Tianwan, who had been imprisoned for 17 years and from prison produced many works criticizing traditional Siamese society.
In 1863, king Norodom of Cambodia was forced to put his country under the French protectorate. The cession of Cambodia was officially formulated in 1867. However, Inner Cambodia (as called in Siam) consisting of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Srisopon, remained a Siamese possession. This was the first of many territorial cessions. In 1887, French Indochina was formed from Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1888, French troops invaded northern Laos to subjugate the Heo insurgents. However, the French troops never left, and the French demanded more Laotian lands. In 1893 Auguste Pavie, the French vice-consul of Luang Prabang, requested the cession of all Laotian lands east of the Mekong River. Siam resented the demand, leading to the Franco–Siamese War of 1893.
The French gunboat Le Lutin entered the Chao Phraya and anchored near the French consulate ready to attack. Fighting was observed in Laos. Inconstant and Comete were attacked in Chao Phraya, and the French sent an ultimatum: an indemnity of three million francs, as well as the cession of and withdrawal from Laos. Siam did not accept the ultimatum. French troops then blockaded the Gulf of Siam and occupied Chantaburi and Trat. Chulalongkorn sent Rolin-Jacquemyns to negotiate. The issue was eventually settled with the cession of Laos in 1893, but the French troops in Chantaburi and Trat refused to leave. Despite Siamese concessions, French armies continued the occupation of Chantaburi and Trat for another 10 years. An agreement was reached in 1903 that French troops would leave Chantaburi but hold the coast land from Trat to Koh Kong. In 1906, the final agreement was reached. Trat was returned to Siam but the French kept Koh Kong and received Inner Cambodia.
Because of the seriousness of foreign affairs, Chulalongkorn visited Europe in 1897. He was the first Siamese monarch to do so, and he desired European recognition of Siam as a fully independent power. He appointed his queen, Saovabha, as regent in Siam during his travel to Europe.
Siam had been composed of a network of cities according to the Mandala system codified by king Trailokanat in 1454, with local rulers owing tribute to Bangkok. Each city retained a substantial degree of autonomy, as Siam was not a “state” but a “network” of city-states. With the rise of European colonialism, the Western concept of state and territorial division was introduced. It had to define explicitly which lands were “Siamese” and which lands were “foreign”. The conflict with the French in 1893 was an example.
With his experiences during travel to British colonies and the suggestion of Prince Damrong, Chulalongkorn established the hierarchical system of monthons in 1897, composed of province, city, amphoe, tambon, and muban (village) in descending order. (Though an entire monthon, the Eastern Province, Inner Cambodia, was ceded to the French in 1906). Each monthon was overseen by an intendant of the Ministry of Interior. This had a major impact, as it ended the power of all local dynasties. Central authority now spread all over the country through the administration of intendants. For example, the Lanna states in the north (including the Kingdom of Chiangmai, Principalities of Lampang, Lamphun, Nan, and Prae, tributaries to Bangkok) were made into two monthons, voiding the power of the Lanna kings. Local rulers did not cede power willingly. Three rebellions sprang up in 1901: the Ngeaw rebellion in Phrae, the 1901–1902 Holy Man’s Rebellion in Isan, and the Rebellion of Seven Sultans in the south. All these rebellions were crushed in 1902 with the city rulers stripped of their power and imprisoned.
Ramathibodi II established a system of corvée in 1518 after which the lives of Siamese commoners and slaves were closely regulated by the government. All Siamese common men (phrai ไพร่) were subject to the Siamese corvée system. Each man at the time of his majority had to register with a government bureau, department, or leading member of the royalty called krom (กรม) as a Phrai Luang (ไพร่หลวง) or under a nobleman’s master (Moon Nai or Chao Khun Moon Nai มูลนาย หรือเจ้าขุนมูลนาย) as a Phrai Som (ไพร่สม). Phrai owed service to sovereign or master for three months of the year. Phrai Suay (ไพร่ส่วย) were those who could make payment in kine (cattle) in lieu of service. Those conscripted into military service were called Phrai Tahan (ไพร่ทหาร).
Chulalongkorn is perhaps best known for his abolition of Siamese slavery (ทาส.) He associated the abolition of slavery in the United States with the bloodshed of the American Civil War. Chulalongkorn, to prevent such a bloodbath in Siam, provided several steps towards the abolition of slavery, not an extreme turning point from servitude to total freedom. Those who found themselves unable to live on their own sold themselves into slavery with rich noblemen. Likewise, when a debt was defaulted, the borrower would become a slave of the lender. If the debt was redeemed, the slave regained freedom. However, those whose parents were household slaves (ทาสในเรือนเบี้ย) were bound to be slaves forever because their redemption price was extremely high.
Because of economic conditions at the time, large numbers of people sold themselves into slavery, and in turn they produced a large number of household slaves. In 1867 they accounted for one-third of the Siamese population. In 1874, Chulalongkorn enacted a law that lowered the redemption price of household slaves born in 1867 (his ascension year) and freed all of them when they had reached 21. The newly freed slaves would have time to settle themselves as farmers or merchants so they would not become unemployed. In 1905, the Slave Abolition Act ended Siamese slavery in all forms. The reverse of 100 baht banknotes in circulation since the 2005 centennial depict Chulalongkorn in navy uniform abolishing the slave tradition.
The traditional corvée system declined after the Bowring Treaty, which gave rise to a new class of employed labourers not regulated by the government, while many noblemen continued to hold sway over large numbers of Phrai Som. Chulalongkorn needed more effective control of manpower to undo the power of nobility. After the establishment of the monthon system, Chulalongkorn instituted a census to count all men available to the government. The Employment Act of 1900 required that all workers be paid, not forced to work.
Chulalongkorn had established a defense ministry in 1887. The ending of the corvée system necessitated the beginning of military conscription, thus the Conscription Act of 1905 in Siam. This was followed in 1907 by the first act providing for invoking martial law, which seven years later was changed to its modern form by his son and successor, King Vajiravudh.
In 1873, the Royal Siamese Government Gazette published an announcement on the abolition of prostration. In it, King Chulalongkorn declared,
The practice of prostration in Siam is severely oppressive. The subordinates have been forced to prostrate in order to elevate the dignity of the phu yai [dignitary]. I do not see how the practice of prostration will render any benefit to Siam. The subordinates find the performance of prostration a harsh physical practice. They have to go down on their knees for a long time until their business with the phu yai ends. They will then be allowed to stand up and retreat. This kind of practice is the source of oppression. Therefore, I want to abolish it.
The Gazette directed that, “From now on, Siamese are permitted to stand up before the dignitaries. To display an act of respect, the Siamese may take a bow instead. Taking a bow will be regarded as a new form of paying respect.”
The royal Equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn was finished in 1908 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the king’s reign. It was cast in bronze by a Parisian metallurgist. Chulalongkorn had visited Europe two times, in 1897, and 1907, the latter visit to find a cure for his kidney disease. His last accomplishment was the establishment of a plumbing system in 1908. He died on 23rd October 1910 of his kidney disease at the Amphorn Sathan Residential Hall in the Dusit Palace, and was succeeded by his son Vajiravudh (King Rama VI).
Kaeng Phet Pet Yang (Roast Duck Curry) is a Thai dish with royal origins that is quite popular among tourists. To make it at home you will need to do some searching for ingredients, but it is not difficult to make. Nowadays the dish is served in the better quality restaurants in Thailand.
Kaeng Phet Pet Yang (Roast Duck Curry)
For the curry paste
7 dried Thai chiles
2 tbsp sliced shallots
3 tbsp chopped garlic
½ tbsp chopped galanga
2 tbsp chopped lemon grass
1 tbsp thin slices of kaffir-lime peels
1 tbsp chopped coriander roots
1 tbsp ground dried coriander seeds
1 tsp ground dried fennel seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tsp shrimp paste
For the duck curry
1 roast duck, boned and sliced
1 cup thick coconut cream
6 cups of thin coconut cream from the second or third pressing
½ cup sweet basil leaves
2 tbsp chopped jalapeno pepper
6 sliced kaffir-lime leaves
20 small tomatoes, halved
1 small pineapple, peeled and cut into small pieces
½ cup chopped bamboo shoots, boiled
2 tbsp Thai fish sauce
3 tbsp cooking oil
To prepare the curry paste:
Pound the dried chiles and salt together in a mortar. Then add all the remaining ingredients except the shrimp paste and pound them together until they are well blended. Add the shrimp paste and blend thoroughly.
To prepare the curry.
Boil the thin coconut cream vigorously over high heat in a large pot for several minutes, then turn off the heat and let it stand.
Fry the curry paste in cooking oil in a wok over medium heat for a few minutes, then add the roast duck and blend them together. Remove the wok from the heat and pour its contents into the pot of cooked coconut cream.
Bring the pot to the boil over medium heat, and add the pineapple, tomatoes and boiled bamboo shoots. Simmer for five minutes, then add the thick coconut cream and stir to combine. Season with the fish sauce, sweet basil leaves, kaffir-lime leaves and jalapeno pepper. Cook gently for an additional five minutes, and serve in bowls with plain boiled rice.