History of King Mongkut
King Mongkut, the fourth king
in the Chakri Dynasty, which started in 1782, in the kingdom of
Siam (now called Thailand). He is considered one of the most intellectual
and educated kings of that country. He was born on Thursday, October
18, 1804. Prince Mongkut was five years old when his father succeeded
to the Throne in 1809.
Until the age of nine, Prince Mongkut lived at an old palace on the Thon Buri side of the Chao Phraya River. He was given an education befitting a Siamese Crown Prince being groomed to be King. His studies included literature and poetry in Siamese and Pali, the ancient language of Buddhist religion. He was also taught history and the ancient art of warfare, including the use of many kinds of weapons and elephant-and horse riding. He learned the precepts of Buddhism, including the Ten Moral Principles:
1. alms-giving or giving charity
to the less privileged
2. morality, or observance of moral precepts
3. sacrifice, or giving away something in benefit of others
6. self-restraint, or refraining from all temptations
At the age of 12, Prince Mongkut was assigned by his royal father to take charge of the armed forces.
When he was 14, the Prince was ordained as a novice monk for seven months at Mahathat Temple of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Royal Temple, but later moved to a smaller and more peaceful temple at the edge of the city. The little known Samorai Temple was where he thought he could better pursue his study of Buddhism. Ironically, it was his period in monkhood, requiring him to take a vow of poverty and self-denial that gave Prince Mongkut a good understanding of statecraft. Mongkut spent more than half his adult life in the yellow robe of a Buddhist monk. He was a Buddhist scholar who learned Latin, English and the Christian doctrine. For twenty-seven years he traveled the countryside with alms bowl, ate one meal a day and studied scripture. He traveled to various parts of the Kingdom, barefoot, depending on offerings of food and other necessities from the people. It allowed him to meet people from all walks of life, from the humblest to the elite, Thais as well as foreigners. From the Thais, he gained an invaluable first-hand insight into their welfare and livelihood. From the foreigners, he obtained precious information about the outside world, especially about technology and science.
Two weeks after Prince Mongkut's ordination to the monkhood, His Majesty King Phra Buddha Lertla Naphalai passed away. Following Siamese tradition an assembly of princes and officials met to choose his successor. They elected Prince Chesdabodin as the next king, a half-brother of prince Mongkut. Seventeen years older than prince Mongkut, more experienced in government and much more powerful, he had, for a long time, been assisting his father in conducting the affairs of the state. Prince Mongkut thus remained in monkhood to dedicate his time and effort to Buddhism.
Accession to the Throne
In April 1851, Royal Emissaries brought news to Prince Mongkut at the quiet riverside temple where he was serving as an abbot, that his half brother, King Rama III, was dead. When His Majesty King Nang Klao (of which Prince Chesdabodin was known when he became King) passed away in 1851, the Accession Council elected Prince Mongkut as his successor. When told of the decision, Prince Mongkut said modestly that he would accept to avoid trouble, and left the monkhood. Within days, the 47-year-old monk stepped from monastic life into the rich temptation and intricacies of the palace.
Once he became King, he immediately
instituted reforms, which would adapt the country to western ways.
He banned the death penalty for monks who broke their vows of
celibacy putting them to work instead. For the first time in 200
years, Western diplomats were invited to an inauguration and Buddhist
monks played a visible role in the ceremony. He ordered people
in the palace to wear shirts as Westerners did. He also began
to bring the king's godlike role down to earth, breaking protocol
by shaking hands with a favorite missionary. He traveled more
widely than any other king and he relaxed the stiff protocol of
royal visits, permitting foreigners to salute him according to
their own customs.
King Mongkut read the English newspaper from Both Singapore and Hong Kong. He followed the expansion of empires. Although Siam was a strong force in Southeast Asia, he realized how the European hungered for expansion. European powers were carving up Asia piece by piece. Despite his open-mindedness about other cultures, Mongkut made sure that Siam didn't fall into anyone's hands. He skillfully guided his country through perilous times. Having great insight, he strategically escaped domination by any one Western power by opening his doors to all. He signed trade treaties with England, France, the United States and several other countries, to avoid vulnerability to each.
Since King Mongkut was already
proficient in the English language, he was anxious that other
members of the Court be trained in this foreign language. Not
long after he ascended the Throne in 1851, two missionaries, Dr.
Bradley and Dr. Jones, received a letter from the Grand Chamberlain,
telling them of His Majesty's wish that the ladies of the court
be taught English, and asking their help to find teachers. The
missionaries assigned their wives, Mrs. Bradley and Mrs. Jones,
and a third woman, Mrs. Stephen Matton, to take turns going to
the palace to give lessons.
On August 13, 1851, a class was started for young ladies between the age of 16 and 21. They were soon joined by princesses from the court of King Rama ll, and the class grew to 30. But after three years, the lessons were stopped as the students got bored of being taught only from religious texts and shown pictures from the Bible, in what was seen as an effort to convert them to Christianity. It was then that the King sent word to his Consul in Singapore to hire an English teacher on the condition that she would refrain from teaching religion. Thus, in 1862, Mrs. Anna Leonowens arrived in Bangkok to teach English to the Children of the King of Siam for four years. By that time, King Mongkut was 58 years old. Anna Leonowens was not the first woman to come to the court and teach English to the royal children. She was the fourth in a series of English teachers and was not more special than the other previous teachers.
As was traditional, Mongkut kept a large harem. According to Thai books and records, Monkgut had 82 children by 35 different mothers and a harem of more. Nine thousand women lived in his harem, kept apart from the world in a separate city that they were seldom allowed to leave.
Event Leading to His Majesty's
His Majesty King Mongkut was greatly interested in astronomy. He was fascinated by the precision of Western scientific measurement. He filled his chambers with clocks, thermometers and barometers, and taught himself astronomy, and even erected an observatory on the palace grounds. This led to the greatest scientific triumph. He correctly calculated the time and place of a total eclipse of the sun, which occurred on August 18,1868, and pinpointed a remote village in Prachuab Khan, on the west coast of the Gulf of Siam, as the place where it could be clearly seen. The palace announced an expedition on the occasion of the solar eclipse. The King invited many dignitaries, including the Governor of Singapore, Henry Orde. In his letter of invitation, Sir Henry Orde, who came by sea, the King told him to come to the place at "East Greenwich longitude 99 degrees 42' and latitude North 11 degrees 39."
The French Government sent a large party of astronomers who traveled 6,000 mile from Paris to witness the event. King Mongkut's entourage included members of the royal family, retainers, skeptical court astrologers, horses, oxen and 50 elephants.
At the exact second indicated by the king's calculations, the sky went totally dark. The total eclipse of the sun, which lasted six minutes and 46 seconds, occurred exactly as the King had predicted and the European scientists conceded that he was a brilliant mathematician and real astronomer.
His Majesty's effort to learn English at an advanced age and become an expert in a western science, however, met a sad end. The King's pavilion for viewing the eclipse was built on low ground in a mosquito-infested spot. Soon after his return to Bangkok, in a matter of days, His Majesty seriously fell ill from malaria he caught at the site. His eldest son, Prince Chulalongkorn, who had gone with him to watch the eclipse, was also stricken by the same illness.
Like Buddha himself, he died on his own birthday. His Majesty King Mongkut passed away on the night of October 18, 1868. It was his 64th birthday. Prince Chulalongkorn, at age 15, assumed the throne. His intelligence and far-sightedness helped the country to maintain its independence despite Western threats during colonialism.
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