Johnny and the King(dom) of Siam

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 8, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

The word Siam once conjured up all things exotic and even bizarre. Siamese twins. Siamese cats. Anna and the (singing, dancing) King of Siam. "One night in Bangkok," went the song, "and the world's your oyster" - good or bad, depending on your fondness for shellfish, but certainly a rare taste to be had. Siam: foreigners often mispronounce the word, whose Thai spelling is sayahm, a word meaning "the dark race." Obviously the Siamese did not choose this label; they would - yes, pale at the thought that they were dark and therefore lowly. Thus did Siam become Thailand, from thai or "free" -- an apt name for their happy-go-lucky tribe and polity.

In 1856, a gentleman named Sir John Bowring published The Kingdom and People of Siam. Historian David Wyatt deems it "the finest account of Thailand at the middle of the nineteenth century": a remarkable feat given that Bowring spent barely a month in the kingdom. But John was no ordinary knight. His linguistic faculties alone were almost superhuman. Wyatt says that he had "considerable fluency" in nine languages and mastery of six more. And for some years he was governor of England's most prized Far Eastern possession: Hong Kong.

But to most amateur historians, the name of Bowring conjures the treaty bearing his name, a treaty that replaced Siam's monopolistic economy with, says Wyatt, "what was virtually a system of free trade." Among the treaty's accomplishments was that Siam began to export its most essential commodity: rice. Bowring was an early globalizer, convinced that free trade is win-win. "Commerce," he says, "is the natural parent and ally of peace." Yet like many of today's globalizers, he apparently believed that coercion is the natural parent of commerce. Bowring used more than arguments to pry open the Thai economy: the threat posed by the then-supreme British navy was almost certainly a factor in Siamese compliance, and Bowring himself confesses to mentioning his "large fleet" in correspondence with Siam's King Mongkut. Well, as the saying goes, "big fleet, big -"

But seriously, folks. Because of his commercial intentions, Bowring's book acts as a kind of prospectus, and it contains its fair share of the soporific statistics entailed by the genre. But it is perhaps more akin to the meatier bits of our travel guidebooks. Bowring leaves little out, and in many respects his account is still applicable. For it is sometimes said that Thailand may have modernized but it has not Westernized. A Thai may own a cell phone and still believe in communication with ghosts.

Bowring was an uncommonly forward-thinking chap. He took a dim view of missionary work (or at least of the tactics employed and the credulity required.) "Generalization as to national character," he writes, "are among the great defects of writers on foreign countries." He then proceeds to generalize as to the Siamese character, although seldom unfavorably. He praises their abstention from alcohol (not difficult, perhaps, for an Englishman to do.) He deems their legal system superior to the Chinese; he even compares it favorably with the English. Public disturbances in the kingdom are (still) rare. Bowring says that the Siamese lack the "mendacity so characteristic of Orientals," and that in any case oppression is often to blame for lying: better to fib than to end up in the clinker. According to Pallegoix, whose Description du royaume Thai ou Siam was Bowring's principal source, the Siamese are "gentle, cheerful, timid, careless, and almost passionless." Bowring finds Thai hospitality to be "almost oppressive" and he claims that the Thai kindness toward animals has made the animals tame to a degree unknown in European lands. The Thais are, moreover, "a cleanly people", and the condition of women in Thailand is superior to that of any other Oriental country. Bowring attributes this, rather unconvincingly, to Buddhism, but also suggests that Thai women have been elevated by their marriage to the industrious Chinese.

Without accounting for the Chinese, no description of Siam would be complete. According to Pallegoix's numbers, there were almost as many Chinese as Siamese in the kingdom; and Bowring repeatedly mentions that Siam had long been a tributary of China (as had Korea and Vietnam.) While acknowledging that the Chinese Diaspora is "one of the most remarkable events of human history," Bowring is ambivalent toward the Chinese themselves. He compares them to vultures (not, as is common, to Jews; but he does call the Parsees the "Jews of India"); and he remarks upon the hopeless disorganization of Chinese sailors. He laments the Chinese affection for opium, but equates it to the European affection for drink; and he is years ahead of his time in suggesting that outlawing opium would only exacerbate its societal ill effects.

Innocent of opium, I do however wonder whether the Hindu/Buddhist notion of nirvana was derived from its, or some similar drug's, use. Sir John renders a Chinese proverb relating to this state as "annihilation of thought is heaven." Have you never heard an addict or a drunkard saying something similar, albeit less eloquently? Bowring is sympathetic to Buddhism's rather nihilistic goal, but he only grudgingly admits that Gautama is not legendary. (The no less fabulous Jesus receives no similar slight.) And being a swashbuckler, he disapproves of the Hindu notion of ahimsa, or harmlessness. "In seeking to be harmless," he says, "a man becomes absolutely useless." And a Buddhist monk is "little better than a cumberer of the soil." (Cumberer: that is, a burden. For some reason I kept reading "cucumber" for "cumberer": call it figurative dyslexia.) The expectation that all Thai males become temporary monks creates "an enormous supply of an unproductive, idle, and useless race." This is about as close as Bowring comes to scowling at the bloody darkies; he is too shrewd for that.

Curiously, Bowring says that the Buddha, who in most accounts died a natural death, was poisoned. Perhaps he meant to say crucified, for he invariably views Buddhism through a Christian lens. It is intriguing but unsurprising that he devotes so much space to Buddhist scriptures pertaining to hell, and so little to those pertaining to, say, the practicality of virtuous conduct. Sin, also, is a prominent feature of Bowring's Buddhism, less so in Buddhism itself.

Yet Bowring is no less willing to skewer the Christians. He quotes a passage in which Christians in Cochin China ransack a Buddhist temple, ostensibly because it contains idols. "Every night, they demolished the halls, the cells of the bonzes [monks], the tower, the walls, and the pyramids." Wisely, the monks evacuate, saying, "Do you suppose we are going to leave our gods to your Christians, who will melt them and make them into musket-balls?" No end is heard of the Islamic passion for dwelling in persecution, but the early Christian missionaries were quite as perverse in their search for martyrdom: kissing one's chains, and so forth. "God grant that it may be for His glory," sputters a persecuted God-man, "that the palace of the King has thus been watered with our blood!" Presumably God would pay the cleaning bill.

Bowring is similarly open-minded regarding slavery, the condition of fully one-third of the Siamese population. Slaves in Siam, he says, are better treated than are servants in England, and slavery is not "absolute" like that being practiced in, say, the southern United States. "No slaves," writes Bowring with startling candor, "are so ill treated as those of Christians."

Not that he was blind to the Siamese capacity for atrocity. Torture and punishment of criminals and prisoners of war in this world can well be imagined, also the horrible fate of perjurers in the world to come. During a siege the Siamese "made a great collection of human excrement in huge jars, which they flung down on the besiegers" - this according to Pallegoix. Also this: a certain 16th century Siamese King Naret swore to "wash his feet in the blood of the perfidious monarch of Cambodia" - and did so. Bowring complains that Siamese songs are "frequently gross and lascivious" and that Siamese drama is "libidinous", marked by "obscenity and vulgarity." Which I suppose is to say that the Siamese are fairly comfortable with sexuality, whereas Sir John is perhaps an early advocate of artificial insemination as an alternative to That Which Shall Neither Be Publicly Discussed Nor Joked About, Ever. Interestingly, though, Bowring does not criticize one of the main reasons that Siamese (men) were cold toward Christianity: it prohibits polygamy, in the practice of which the King was a leader, having as he did some 600 concubines.

The delight of an account of this kind is surely in the details. Unfortunately the tourist Bowring sometimes gets the details wrong. He says that the Thai language has 6 tones (it has 5.) The Buddhist holidays of Visakha Bucha and Khao Pansa he calls "Visa Khabuxa" and "Khao-vasa". More plausibly, he suggests that -buri, a suffix roughly meaning "city", is a cognate of "borough." He adds to the confusion over the name of Ayutthaya (called Judea by some Europeans), by noting that the Burmese called it Indura or Indaya (i.e. India.) He is probably right in saying that polysyllabic words in Thai are of foreign (mostly Sanskrit) origin. And he is most certainly right in saying that Thais often refer to themselves in the third person, a charming linguistic correlate to their religion's emphasis on humility.

"No portion of the East," chirps Bowring, "is probably so inviting as the Siamese regions." He was talking about the land, and with a commercial, not to say a mercenary eye. Indeed, one of the projects he mentions is the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, a canal that would make Thailand a very pretty penny, but is still in the planning stages 150 years later. Anyway, it is obvious that Bowring had a high opinion of Siam, and especially of its reigning king. The climate he found "salubrious" - relatively speaking. He loved the "sweet music" of Laos, often to be heard in Bangkok. He finds nam-phrik to be "one of the most appetite-exciting condiments". He marvels at how a Thai sentence of several words indistinguishable except by tone can translate to "Is nobody selling eggs in the city?" (Good at parties, these tone jokes.)

Bowring may have steamed into Siam with pound sterling signs in his eyes and the British navy at his heel, but he seems eventually to have become what so many other visitors to Siam have become since: in a purely noncommercial sense, enriched.

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Review of Sir John Bowring's The Kingdom and People of Siam, Volume One, Oxford University Press, 1969.

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