Page images


It was Louis XIV., we believe, who said, "L'etat. c'est moi." The same remark might be made with more truth by the present King of Siam. The name of this sovereign is Somdetch Plira Parainendr Maha Mongkut. Proposing to give some account of the existing state of things in Siam, we begin with that which to us appears most remarkable, the personal history of the reigning monarch. The grandfather of Maha Mongkut was founder of the present dynasty, and was indebted to a revolution for his crown, the reigning monarch having been declared incompetent to reign because lie hud lost his reason. The new sovereign kept possession of the throne twentynine years, and at his death was succeeded by his son, who reigned thirteen years, and died in 1824. Several children survived him, but only the two sons of his chief wife, or queen properly so called, were considered legitimate heirs to the throne. These were Maha Mongkut and his brother, Chow Fa Noi, the actual first and second kings of Siam. It is one of the peculiarities of the Siame.-e legielature, that the regal title is vested in two persons, but the distribution of power is by no means equal. The first king is absolute, the lives and property of his subjects are at his beck; while the second king possesses only a kind of vicarious authority. The duties of his office are not distinctly defined, but his subordinate position is implied in the Siamese term by which he is designated, and which signifies "the junior king." The rank of second king is generally conferred upon a brother or near relative of the first king; but the last monarch, who was a usurper, was so jealous of his authority that he abolished the office of second king, which was afterwards restored by Maha Mongkut in favour of his brother Chow Fa Noi, of whom we shall say something by-and-by.

When the father of Maha Mongkut died, the two sons of his queen had the best claim on the succession ; but an elder brother, the son of an inferior wife, seized the crown, and by the aid of the nobles was proclaimed king. Maha Mongkut, seeing the inutility of urging his claims, retired into a wat, or convent, and received the priesthood. By this step he obtained two advantages. As bonze, or priest, he was not obliged to make the prostrations required from laymen to the king ; and, in the next place, the king should offer homage to his brother, the bonze. During a period of seven-and-twenty years, Maha Mongkut led a life of cloistered obscurity. He was a strict observer of religious rules, and even acquired considerable reputation as a religious reformer. He had eleven children before he entered the convent; but during the twenty-seven years of his abode there, he strictly observed the vow of chastity imposed on the bonzes. He devoted himself to study, and soon became remarkable for his proficiency in the Pali, Sanscrit, Cingalese, and Peguan tongues. He became president of the board appointed to examine the priests in the progress they had made in the Pali, the sacred language of the Siame e. From the French Catholic missionaries he learned Latin; and through the aid of the missionaries of the United States he acquired a knowledge of English. He studied astronomy and the abstract sciences. Of his knowledge of these branches he gave proofs in a series of papers published in the Bangkok Calendar in 1850. One of the reasons assigned by the prince for this publication -was, that his foreign friends "may know that he can project and calculate eclipses of the sun and moon, occultations of planets and some fixed stars of first and second magnitude, of which the immersion in and emersion from the limb of the illuminated moon can be seen by the naked eye, for every place of which the longitude and latitude are certainly known by him." Sir John Bowring, to whose interesting work on Siam we are indebted for this information, says of the present King of Siam: "He was born October 18, 1804; is of middle height, thin, with a somewhat austere countenance: his conversation is highly intellectual, but is carried on in the language of books rather than of ordinary colloquy."

It was thus by a life of retirement and study that Maha Mongkut was prepared for the discharge of his regal duties. The reigning king had seven hundred wives, and it was believed that he hoped to be succeeded by one of his sons. In January, 1851, he fell ill, and, the following February, summoned his nobles, requesting them to consider who best deserved the succession. The nobles, who were determined not to choose the king's son, feared to announce their resolution. They therefore delayed, and deferred coming to a conclusion until the middle of March, when the state of the king's health became alarming. Then it was that one of the ministers of the crown proposed to the council to nominate Maha Mongkut. This minister spoke warmly, and had taken the precaution to support his eloquence by powerful physical aid. All—even rival candidates—yielded to the claims of Maha Mongkut, and his friend the Praklang visited him next day in the temple to announce his election. The accession of the present king to the throne of his father was hailed with universal joy. His reputation for learning and religion caused the happiest auguries to be made for the prosperity of his kingdom—auguries which up to this time have not been belied, and which we hope the future will still more fully justify. Maha Mongkut has a great many wives, polygamy being one of those points which his European teaching has not yet influenced him to reform The king, speaking to Sir John Bowring on the subject, seemed anxious to excuse the custom. He said it was oriental, and sanctioned by the Siamese laws and the Buddhist religion. These explanations seemed to imply that he thought the custom required apology.

The second or junior king is brother to the first. Of the present second king, Sir John Bowring says :—" He is a cultivated and intelligent gentleman, writing and speaking English with great accuracy, and living much in the style of a courteous and opulent European noble, fond of books and scientific inquiry, interested in all that marks the course of civilization." The second king is reported to have at his command an army of two thousand men, and it is also said that onethird of the public revenue is at his disposal. He pays ceremonial

[ocr errors]

visits to the first king, but is not required to make prostrations in his presence. He salutes the superior monarch by elevating his hands. The present kings of Siam, though using these public ceremonies, converse in private on terms of fraternal equality. The second king is entitled to the same pomp and state as the first, and appears inublic adorned with the same royal insignia. All persons enteringis presence make the same prostrations as before his elder brother. The intellectual tastes of the younger brother seem nowise inferior to those of the elder. A gentleman who saw him twenty years since, gave the following account of the prince, then in his thirtieth year :— "Chow Fa Noi is the probable successor to the throne, and in fact is now entitled to it rather than the present monarch, who is an illegitimate son. Should he assume the government, Siam must advance from her present lowliness and semi-civilization. No man in the kingdom is so qualified to govern well. His naturally fine mind is enlarged and improved by intercourse with foreigners, by the perusal of English books, by studying Euclid and Newton, by freeing himself from a bigoted attachment to Buddhism, by candidly recognizing our superiority, and a readiness to adopt our arts. He understands the use of the sextant and chronometer, and was anxious for the latest nautical almanac, which I promised to send him. His little daughters, accustomed to the sight of foreigners, so far from showing any signs of fear, always came to sit upon my lap, though the yellow cosmetic on their limbs was sure to be transferred in part to my dress. One of them took pride in repeating to me a few words of English, and the other took care to display her power of projecting the elbow forward."

Sir John Bowring's account of the prince twenty years later gives assurance that the intervening time had not been misemployed. "I found him," says our authority, "a gentleman of very cultivated understanding, quiet—even modest—in manners, willing to communicate knowledge, and earnest in the search of instruction. His table was spread with all the neatness and order that are found in a wellregulated English household. A favourite child sat on his knee, whose mother remained crouched at the door of the apartment, but took part in the conversation. The king played to his guests very prettily on the pipes of the Laos portable organ. He had a variety of music { and there was an exhibition of national sports and pastimes, equestrian feats, elephant combats, and other amusements. But what seemed most to interest the king was his museum of models, nautical and philosophical instruments, and a variety of scientific and other curiosities."

No person can read the history of the present first and second kings of Siam without admitting that both are very remarkable men. Wonderfully in advance of their people, and with the power and disposition to effect great reformatory changes, their reign must form one of the most remarkable epochs in Siamese history. That there is a great deal to be done before Siam reaches the standard of European civilization will be admitted when we say that a third of the population of the kingdom of Siam are slaves; and though some European residents say that these slaves are not so badly treated as domestic servants often ate in the Old World, still the fact remains that a vast portion of the people are doomed to slavery. These slaves are of three classes: first, prisoners of war; secondly, redeemable; and thirdly, unredeemable slaves. Prisoners taken in war are divided among.-t tiie noides, to whom they become a source of profit, being convertible into money, at the rate of six pounds sterling each. The secon'l cla^s of slaves are debtors upon whom their creditors have seized, and whose labour is taken in lieu of their debts. After a certain time of service, when the obligation is supposed to be discharged, the man is set at liberty. The third class of slaves consists of children sold by their parents. These slaves are unredeemable, and the exclusive property of the purchasers. The position of these latter is said to be by no means intolerable. They are kindly treated, and looked upon as members of the family where they live.

Bangkok is the capital of Siam. This city is built on the river Meinam, along whose banks it extends for several miles. The scenery, as one approaches the city by water, is highly picturesque. Along the banks of the river are lofty forest-trees, of a luxuriant verdure, to be found only in tropical climes. Bright-plumaged birds in countless numbers Hit from branch to branch, presenting in every movement, to the eye of the spectator, fresh and- ever-varying hues. Sometimes, perched in repose, they afford the traveller an opportunity of contemplating their peculiarities of form. All is animation along the river; the very sandbanks are frequented by a species of amphibious creature, that are seen alternately sporting in the water or gambolling among the roots of the jungle-wood. Vessels of various forms are continually passing and repassing on the waters, the messengers of constant commerce. Sometimes a floating house is met, and numbers of similar habitations are seen moored along the banks, ready, at the convenience or wishes of the owners, to be transferred to another locality. Further inland are seen temples, and in their vicinity numerous bonzes, with yellow garments and shaven crowns, lounging listlessly in the sun, shading their faces with palm-leaf fans. To add to the beauty of the landscape, flowers of a thousand hues spread their bright leaves to the sun, and perfume the air with fragrunt odours. This picture is prolonged through a space of several miles, for the city is very extensive. Of the population we have not a very exact account, writers varying in their estimates. Some reckon the population at thirty thousand, others so high as half a million. The city is situated about twenty miles from the sea, but, owing to the smuosities ol the river, the distance by water is more than thirty. There is a shorter passage practicable for small boats, through a narrow branch of the Meinam. The city, as we have said, lies on both banks of the river, and seems as it were enclosed in a circle, owing to the curving of the stream on the western side, and the sweep of a canal on the eastern, both extremities of the canal joining the river. So largely is Bangkok intersected with canals, that it may be looked upon as the Asiatic Venice. There are two main canals, one running from north to south, the other from east to west, through the entire length and breadth of the city; there are besides numerous branch canals on both sides of the river. Bangkok is indeed the Venice of Asia, for here, as in the elder city, the highways are not solid roads and paved streets, but fluent waves, traversed by boat, and barge, and pinnace; every household has a boat attached as an indispensable appendage to the establishment. Women and children are trained to the use of the oar, and in their aquatic vehicles the Siamese find a vent for display which elsewhere is exhibited in horses and carriages. Sir John Bowring says :—" The existence of the people of Bangkok may be called amphibious. The children pass much of their time in the water, paddling, and diving, and swimming, as if it were their native element. Boats often run against one another, and those within them are submerged in the water; but it seldom happens that any life is lost, or mischief done to the persons whose bouts are run down. I have again and again seen boats bottom upwards, wl ose owners have floated them to shore, or otherwise repaired the damage done as speedily as possible. The constant occurrence of petty disasters seems to reconcile everybody to their consequences.

"The gilded barges are among the gayest objects which float upon the Meinam waters. They are some of them one hundred and twenty feet long, scooped out of the trunk of a single tree. The prow, rising high aloft, represents the head of a serpent, a dragon, a fish, a deity, a monster, or any fantastic object. The poop, which is also elevated high above the water, is like the tail of a bird or fish, but generally ends in a wavy point.

"The concussion of boats, and the knocking of their rowers and crews into the water, are of constant occurrence, and seldom produce any expression of irritation. I have seen canoes swamped and destroyed, and the calamity has been submitted to without any vituperation of its cause. Generally speaking, the boats are paddled about with consummate dexterity, the practice being acquired from the earliest trainings of childhood."

An extraordinary specimen of the aquatic powers of the Siamese was exhibited in the person of a child only three years old, whose aptitude for living in the water seemed almost to assimilate it to a fish. This little creature was more diminutive than children of the same age in general. It seemed deficient in intelligence, was very shortsighted, and could neither speak nor walk. At three years of age it was still unweune'l; but though so helpless on land, its feats in the water were truly astonishing. It rolled among the waves, buoyant and pliant as a fish. In the waters it seemed a mere creature of volition, now wheeling round, then making somersaults, again diving beneath the surface, until the spectators often began to tremble for its existence. But when it reappeared, the delight impressed upon its face showed how pleasant the submarine excursion had been. This child was not a year old when, upon its first immersion in the river, it displayed this strong delight at living in the flood. It often cried at being removed, and never seemed fatigued by its exertions.

Next to the king, the great visible object of reverence in Siam is the white elephant. All animals of a white colour are held in great

« PreviousContinue »