His Majesty King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V) was born in 1853, the son of His Majesty King Mongkut (Rama IV) and Her Majesty Queen Thep Sirinthorn. In 1868, He was given the title Duke ‘Meun Phikhartnaresueansurasangkas.’
HM King Chulalongkorn the Great.
HM King Chulalongkorn ascended the throne in 1868, with the title ‘Phrabat Somdej Phra Paraminthra Maha Chulalongkorn Bodinthorn Thep Phaya Maha Mongkut Burutsaya Ratanaraj Rawiwong Warut-tapong Saboripatara Wora Khatiyaraj Nikarodom Jaturatana Borom Maha Chakarapaddiraj Sangart Boromtammika Maha Raja Thiraj Boromanat Bopitara Phra Chulachomklao Chao Yoo Hua’.
His Majesty King Chulalongkorn lived with one purpose in his mind and heart: the happiness and well-being of the Siamese people. His Majesty would often dress as a commoner and move among his people with only two or three advisors. In this way, he could find out how his subjects really felt and see what was happening in his Kingdom.
There is one famous story of His Majesty and two counselors who, after a hard day’s travel, stopped at a farmer’s house to ask for a drink of water. Rural hospitality being a hallmark of Thai people, the family asked the three strangers to stay and have food with them. Speaking freely, the farmer and his wife told the strangers of how their life was progressing and what they would like to see done for their village by the ‘Great King who lives in the Palace in Bangkok.’ The farmer’s son noticed that one of the strangers looked familiar. He went and looked at a daguerreotype the family had of the King. Running back to the group, the family learned that they were serving food to the ‘Lord of Life’ in Siam. HM King Chulalongkorn the Great did this often and thus became ‘in touch’ with the needs of the Siamese people.
Another story of the great love and respect happened in 1893. The territory hungry French had formulated a plan to take the Siamese territory of Laos and certain valuable territories on the Eastern Seaboard which produced precious rubies and sapphires.
In a carefully formulated plan, a French warship entered the Chao Phraya River. It was required by international law that all foreign ships fly their colors when entering the waters of another sovereign country. The French deliberately did not do this. When hailed by the river guard to fly their colors, the French ignored the guard. The guard fired a warning shot over the French ship’s bow.
The French Embassy in Bangkok was prepared in advance to carry out the plan. Bringing a letter sent from France months before the incident, it stated that Siam had performed an act of aggression on the French and must pay huge reparations.
The French were not prepared for what happened next. Hearing of the huge demands, Siamese both wealthy and poor brought cartloads of jewels, precious metals and every valuable possible to the Royal Palace and offered it to His Majesty to keep the French out of Siam.
The French had not imagined that Siam was so wealthy and the people so devoted to their King.
Siam was able to pay the reparations but the French, deciding this was not enough, took all Siamese territory east of the Mekong River.
His Majesty King Chulalongkorn was wise, knowing that Siam could not resist the French and British and held the motto of ‘giving up some so as not to lose all.’
Siam lost over 160,000 sq. kilometers of territory to the French and British.
His Majesty King Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese monarch to visit the West. He believed in adopting all things good from the West while Siam kept its culture. The wise King Chulalongkorn made Russia a strong ally of Siam to counteract the British and French influence in SE Asia. He followed the Chinese concept of ‘have strong allies but make sure their borders are far away.’
Many of the Royal Princes were sent to study in Russia. In His letters to His sons, HM King Chulalongkorn wisely warned them ‘do not feel that you are important because you are a prince. In Siam, there are many princes, whereas in Russia there are few. Do the best you can at your studies and that is enough.’
HM King Chulalongkorn’s most noteworthy achievement in Siam was the abolition of slavery. He did not do this in a haphazard manner as it was done in other countries. He devised a complex method of ‘freeing’ slaves so that older ones would not be left in poverty with no place to live. Younger slaves were to be released by ‘stages’, responsibility falling to the owner to see that they had a way of supporting themselves.
His Majesty King Chulalongkorn the Great is beloved of Thai people and considered a truly ‘enlightened’ ruler among historians. His Majesty passed away 103 years ago, on October 23, 1910, after the second longest reign in the history of the Thai nation.
He is remembered and loved by the Thai people and the date of his death is commemorated every year. Ceremonies are held, offerings are made to his memory and the entire student body from the university that bears his name perform obeisance before his statue.
Locally, city officials, people from the business community, members from local charitable organizations, the private sector and many local residents hold ceremonies in the morning at the Chulalongkorn monument in front of the Banglamung district offices to celebrate this Remembrance Day for King Rama V, all paying homage to one of the greatest and most highly revered Kings of Thailand. Each organization and institute will present wreaths to the King Rama V statue.
Would that all countries were so lucky to have one such enlightened ruler in their collective histories.