King Mongkut of  Siam

HM King Mongkut


by John Thomson


His Majesty King Mongkut was born on 18 October 1804, eldest full royal son of His Majesty King Phutthaloetla Naphalai, or Rama II of the Chakri Dynasty (1767-1824) and Queen Sri Suriyendra (1767-1836). The then Prince Mongkut was the most senior ranking of King Rama II's children, as his mother was the Queen Consort. But, he was 19 years old when his father passed away, and did not have as much experience as his elder half brother, Prince Thap, The Prince Chetsadabodin, who though had a non-royal mother, worked closely with the king for a number of years, and was a trusted member of the king's circle. Prince Mongkut was ordined as a monk when King Rama II passed away, and the assembly of royals and nobles chose as the next king his elder half-brother, who became known as King Nangklao, or Rama III, Prince Mongkut thus decided to stay in the monkhood, possibly to avoid political conflicts. I personally believe that there must have been a meeting at some point between the two brothers to sort things out as well, as there were no conflicts between them, and King Rama III never elevated any of his wives as Queen Consort, nor his sons as Chao Fahs, or the highest ranking royals as children of both the king and queen.

The 27 years spent in the monkhood was a godsend. Prince Mongkut was able to travel around the country far easier than being a prince. There were also less ceremonies in the travels, as he was treated as a revered monk. He met with all kinds of people and learnt first hand about living conditions in different parts of Thailand. He would also meet with missionaries and representatives of different religions, and he enjoyed the exchanges greatly. He also learnt English from the missionaries as well, and became the first King of Siam to personally write to foreign Heads of States. He also saw first hand of the corrupt nature of Buddhist religion, and started his own branch, known as the Mahayana, that was much stricter than the Theravada branch.

With the passing of King Nangklao on 2 April 1851, the crown finally passed to Prince Mongkut, who became King Chom Klao, or Rama IV of the Chakri Dynasty, at the age of 46.


King Mongkut  01 King Mongkut 02 King Mongkut  03 King Mongkut 04 King Mongkut 05
Various images of King Mongkut  
Bangkok Panorama by John Thomson
A scenery by John Thomson
Siamese Scene by J Antonio
And one by J. Antonio
Rama IV letter
A letter from King Mongkut to a Robert Marsham

During his reign, he was still refered to as King Mongkut to foreigners and other countries, whilst in Siam he was King Chom Klao. He first embarked on the education reform to bring his subjects up from the previous substandard. He also adopted more Western standards and brought in new technologies with his many close contacts with foreign individuals, of which many became his friends. He had men and women wear shirts or tops at audiences, for previously men and women would go barechested because of the heat and humidity. The kingdom was much more opened to foreign traders and visitors during his reign, one notable outcome was the Bowring Treaty, arranged by Dis Bunnag, who was known as Somdetch Chao Praya Maha Prayurawongse, the most powerful man at the time, who tried to usurp his power to be above that of the king. The Bowring Treaty was a unfair treaty with the British ending up with most of the advantages. One notable point was the loss of monopoly of foreign good taxes once enjoyed by the royal coffer since the Ayudhya period. But, the action brought about free trade, and since then anyone can build their own businesses and become wealthy the American style.

Photography first entered Siam during this time, and John Thomson became the first photographer to photograph a King of Siam. His pictures were then circulated among foreign newspapers, and it became the first time that people around the world would learn about this faraway exotic land dotted with golden spires and cocnut trees. Another noted photograph was J. Antonio who set up a studio in Bangkok as well as one in Singapore.

King Monkut would forever be associated with "The King & I" and the governess Anna Leonowens. It is true that Anna became the governess of many of the Royal Children including the then Prince Chulalongkorn, who would be come King Rama V. It is now a known fact that Anna was in need of money after she moved back to the UK and then to the US, so she wrote a fictionalised biography based on her time spent at the Siamese Royal Court, which ultimately became musicals and films. One truth was that the King continued to learn the English language with her, and in the process, he was able to personally write foreign Heads of States directly, sending them presents and unique letters. In the process, he was able to make friends with foreign powers as well as feed them information about Siam. His "friends" would come to include kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, consuls, worldly travellers and newsmen. It made Siam more known to the world at the time when China, with its powerful and established though weekening dynasty, still a major world player, and Japan, still not quite opened up to foreigners.


Second King Pinklao of Siam
Second King Pin Klao

The king was a gifted astrologer and astronomer. It is said that he foresaw that his younger brother, Prince Chutamani, had a destiny that would equal his own, and thus appointed him Second King Pin Klao of Siam, the first and only time that there would exist a "Second King" in Siam. The Second King was also a much learned man, and controlled the navy fleet. Together they ruled the kingdom advancing it into new realms. At the same time, the mighty Bunnag clan still controlled many aspects in the government, and might have succeeded in some ways, but lost in others as well.

As an astronomer, the king famously predicted the complete solar eclipse of 18 August 1868, that could be seen clearly in Siam, and the exact date and time down to the last minute of the eclipsed period. It was known as the "King of Siam's Eclipse".

King Mongkut took wives before his ordination, and had a few children. He has since fathered more than 80 children with 30 plus wives. There are altogether 27 Royal Houses that descend directly from the Fourth Reign, more than any other reigns of the Chakri Dynasty.

His Majesty passed away on 1 October 1868 at the age of 63, leaving a rich nation that is still attractive to colony hunters. His heirs would have to deal with foreign powers for a few generations to come.


18 October 2019