Siam in 1858: His Majesty the King Mongkut

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I was making my preparations for departure on the 16th October, my purpose being to penetrate into the north of the country and visit Cambodia and the savage tribes belonging to it, when I received an invitation from the King of Siam to be present at the great dinner which this monarch gives every year, on his birthday, to the European residents in Bangkok.

I was presented by Monseigneur Pallegoix, and his Majesty’s reception was kind and courteous. His costume consisted of a pair of large trousers, a short brown jacket of some thin material, and slippers; on his head he wore a little copper helmet like those worn by the naval officers, and at his side a rich sabre.

Most of the Europeans in Bangkok were present at the dinner, and enthusiastic toasts were drunk to the health[49] of his Majesty, who, instead of being seated, stood or walked round the table, chewing betel and addressing some pleasant observation to each of his guests in turn. The repast was served in a vast hall, from whence we could see a platoon of the royal guard, with flags and drums, drawn up in the courtyard. When I went to take leave of the King, he graciously presented me with a little bag of green silk, containing some of the gold and silver coin of the country,—a courtesy which was most unexpected, and for which I expressed my gratitude.

This King, whose official title is Somdel Phra, Paramanda, Maha-Mangkut—that is, His Majesty the King, encircled with the Great Crown—was born on the 18th October, 1804, and mounted the throne of Siam in the year 1851.

The first part of his life was passed in complete retirement in a monastery, in this following the example of many of his predecessors: for all sects emanating from Buddhism think it necessary that the rulers of nations should prepare themselves for supreme power by a previous life of repose and sanctity.

It was only after the accession of Somdel Phra that the mastery he had gained over the most difficult sciences became known. After having applied himself to the history and geography of his country, he turned to the study of astronomy, natural philosophy, politics, and philology.

He was familiar not only with all the dialects of Siam and Indo-China, but also with ancient Sanscrit and English, in which latter language he had written several treatises. The English journals at Hong-Kong have been honoured by articles from his pen, and no one who reads them can be surprised that the august contributor should have been elected a member of the Asiatic Society in London, a body which reckons on its list so many savans of the first rank.

His Majesty had also acquired a fair knowledge of Latin from the French missionaries, especially from Archbishop Pallegoix, who has been his friend for thirty years. He studied astronomy almost without a master, and had gained such proficiency in that science as to be able to calculate an eclipse and determine the latitude and longitude of a place. He introduced a printing-press into his dominions, in which both Siamese and Roman characters are used. His language testifies to his education and intelligence, though it more resembles the phraseology of books than that of ordinary conversation.

His predecessor had several hundred wives, and I believe the present King does not possess fewer than some dozen; but he only bestowed the title of queen on one, whose portrait hangs by the side of his own, and whose death, soon after my visit, left him inconsolable.

Read more:
Siam in 1858: The Menam river impressions
Siam in 1858: His Majesty the King

Text: Henri Mouhot
Photo: internet / Drawn by M. Bocourt, from a Photograph.
THE KING AND QUEEN OF SIAM
Abstract from the book TRAVELS IN THE CENTRAL PARTS OF INDO-CHINA (SIAM),
CAMBODIA, AND LAOS, DURING THE YEARS 1858, 1859, AND 1860.
BY THE LATE M. HENRI MOUHOT, FRENCH NATURALIST.
IN TWO VOLUMES.—Vol. I. WITH ILLUSTRATIONS.
LONDON:JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET,1864.

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