Per la prima volta sul web. Questo reportage é frutto di una nostra faticosa ricerca dato che lo scritto é stato pubblicato "privatamente" nel 1981
Near the turn of the century a Bangkok editor remarked that Siam was obviously bed added to the "globe trotter's route" for visitors were "dropping in at the rate of sometimes as many as two or three a day"!
'Foreigners' had, of course, discovered Siam long before; but few of the each travelers came for pleasure alone.
They had other priorities to convert the Siamese to Christianity, or to make then own fortunes.
If they were able to accomplish both, so much the better.
For those who gained these objectives, honor and rank awaited their return to their home country. The number of early arrivals who came solely to benefit the Siamese could have danced on the head of a pin.
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 A.D and the first to arrive were the Portuguese, in 1511. Following his capture of Malacca, Albuquerque sent an emissary with gifts for King Rama Tibodi II.
The Siamese King extended a cordial welcome to the Portuguese envoy and in 1518, the two kingdoms signed their first Treaty of Friendship and Commerce.
In return for military assistance from the Portuguese, Siam granted religious and commercial privileges. The Portuguese taught the Siamese to construct forts and manufacture arms, and in 1536 one hundred twenty Portuguese served in King Phra Chai's personal guard.
The Portuguese were given land where they founded their settlement of more than two thousand people, and built their churches. They brought with them more than help in waging wars however, and even today the dessert-loving Thais make "kanom" (sweets or cake) based on the centuries old recipes brought by the Portuguese.
Following the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767, the surviving Portuguese established their community on the west side of the river at Bangkok. On November 9, 1820, a land grant was given where the Portuguese Embassy stands today on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River - the oldest foreign embassy in the Kingdom of Thailand.
Descendents of these early Portuguese settlers have served the government and the kings of Thailand for centuries.
An extract from "Tome Piris-A Suma Oriental" of 1515 says:
". . . The land of Siam is large and very plentious. with many lords and many foreign merchants, and most of these foreigners are Chinese, because Siam does a great deal of trade with China.... The Kingdom of Siam is heathen.... They are considered to be prudent folk of good counsel.
The Kingdom is justly ruled (and) the King is always in residence in the city of Odia (sic)."
"Through the cunning of the Siamese the foreign merchants who go to their land . . . are ill paid . . . For this reason less people go to their port than would otherwise go.
However, as the land is rich in good merchandise, they bear some things on account of the profit." This description continues with one rather odd observation:-"The Siamese wear bells like the men of Pegu, and no less but just as many. The lords wear pointed diamonds and other precious stones in their privy parts in addition to the bells-a precious stone worn is according to the person or his estate."
The foreign community grew in Ayutthaya. Dates of these establishments vary depending on which records are consulted. The Chinese were mostly merchands and traders. In 1592, a volunteer He of some 500 Japanese are said to have fought with the Siamese, but they also carried on a profitable trade.
The Dutch, English, and French all made For presence known in Ayutthaya from early time.
The French were interested in converting the King, therefore the kingdom. to Catholicism. In this endeavor they were devoutly assisted by Costant Phaulcon, himself a convert.
Often called the "Greek Adventurer", he actually arrived in Siam by way of a ship of England. He became in time, extrimely rich and powerful, focusing his remaining western loyalties on France and the Pope, with whom he carried on a lengthy correspondence.
Tachard wrote of the numerous courtyard and levels of the palace, for the king must always be higher than anyone else.
The king "wore a tiara brilliant with jewels. It was a large bonnet terminating in a pyramid, around which where three circles of gold. He had on his fingers many huge diamonds, sparkling greatly ; his jacket was red with a fringe of gold, and over it he had a gauze of gold which had large diamond buttons...."
The King rarely left the palace-too many had been deposed in their absence.
On the occasions when he did venture out, people were forbidden to look at him and all paths and roadways were cleared.
La Loubere wrote that preceding the king on land, marching men carrying blowpipers, shot hard peas at laggards. Abbe de Choisy admired the city from outside the wall as well as from the inner side, and described the Chao Phraya River as "three times the size of the Seine"; while the Dutchman Schouten called the King's palace a magnificent separate town with many of its towers and buildings completely gilded.
There was no lack of entertainment in Ayutthaya, music then, as now, was popular. Even then some must have considered that quality depended on volume for in the late 15th century the King decreed that no "musical performance could take place in or near the royal palaces without prior royal approval." Nicholas Gervaise gave one of the first European references to Siamese music, in 1688:
"We heard concerts of a vocal and instrumental nature.
The most pleasing of these instruments is somewhat similar to that we hear from two violins playing in perfect harmony.
But there is nothing more disagreeable than the small edition of this instrument-a kind of violin with three brass wires.
Their copper trumpets resemble in sound the cornets our peasants use to call their cattle. Their flutes are scarcely any softer . . . bronze gongs which distress those not accustomed to the sound."
Following the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767 and the establishment of the capital in Bangkok in 1782, there were few Western residents or visitors in the kingdom. In 1822 John Crawford failed in his attempt to negotiate a treaty of trade between the British and Siamese, however it seems that Mr. Crawford wasn't the most amiable of men in dealing with officials here.
Henry Burney did achieve a treaty of 'friendship and commerce' in 1826; and in 1833 Edmund Roberts signed a similar (and first) treaty between Siam and the United States which stated American merchants trading in Siam "shall respect and tallow the laws and customs of the country on all points."
As for Roberts, he was inpatient with the delays, insulted when the officials came on his ship to see what gifts had been brought for the King and aher high ranking officials; and he thought the people unbelievably dirty "but not as dirty as those in Indo-China!"
The Singapore Chronicle of March, 1825, seemed undecided in its opinion of Siam: "Bangkok, the modern capital of Siam has a salubrious climate. The comforts and necessities of an Asiatic life as easily attained at Bangkok as in any country in the east.
Rice is wonderfully cheap, and fish, poultry, and pork are plentiful and the last two of excellent quality.... Even a European might put up with such a country but for a few material drawbacks, as for example no roads, or carriages-swarms of mosquitoes, and the ugly spectacle of a despotic government with its long train of evils and inconveniences."
Sir Robert Schomburgk remarked in a consular report of 1860 that "Siam is a peculiar country, inhabited by a peculiar race of people . . . less civilized than the Hindoos (sic) and less industrious than the Chinese."
Perhaps more than any other King of Siam, unfair and malicious stories were told about H.M. King Mongkut, Rama IV. After twenty-seven years as a Buddhist monk, he left the monastery to become king following the death of his elder half-brother.
Among his children, born after he became king, were some of the wisest and most able men Siam had ever produced - among them H. M. King Chulalongkorn, T.R.H. Prince Damrong and Prince Devawongse. Having pursued learning all his life, King Mongkut felt it essential that his children become educated.
The world was changing and long ahead of his countrymen he became aware that Siam would need both strength and diplomacy to remain free from colonizing.
The King himself, while a monk, had studied with missionaries; and when his children reached the age of attending school, wives of the Protestant missionaries were invited to teach the children. The King made one very important stipulation for teaching the Royal children however-they were not to teach them religion or try to convert them to Christianity.
This was more than the ladies could manage and one day they found the palace gates locked to them- effectively ending the lessons.
Following this episode, King Mongkut decided to employ a foreign tutor for his children and such favored wives who wanted to learn. So it was that Mrs Anna Leonowens came to Siam.
She remained from 1862-1867, and it is from Anna that much of the early gross distortion of the history and customs of Siam became known to the world. She wrote not for truth about this fascinating nation, but sensationalism coupled with a certain amount of spite; replying when chided for writing untruths, that people enjoyed reading scandalous things.
More than 100 years later-they still do.
Missionaries came - and went. Some lived only a short time after arriving, this usually blamed on the "unhealthful climate" - yet such as John Bush, Samuel Smith, Mr and Mrs Dan McGilvary, and others spent entire lives here, living well into their 80s.
Although they did the normal amount of complaining, all did seem to enjoy their lives in this country. In retrospect their lives seem rather barren in some cases- their work and pleasure revere both in the church, yet they were almost totally unsuccessful in converting the Siarnese to Christianity-but they labored on.
The McGilvary family, including two small children, left Bangkok to open a new mission in Chiang Mai in January, 1867. Now, in reading of their difficulties one wonders how they endured-but endure they did! Other children were born and other missionaries joined them in time.
They learned the Lao dialects and it was said he became so proficient in reading Lao that when helping the native children to read, he could read the letters upside down. One of his best friends in Chiang Mai was a learned monk, whose company and council he enjoyed for many years with no prospect of either changing the religious beliefs of the other.
In his fascinating biography McGilvary wrote about their return from the first furlough in the United States: ". . . we reached Bangkok on August 27, 1874. On November 14 a son was given us to take the place of the children left behind (in school in the U.S.). In December we began our river journey to Chiang Mai....
The homecoming at last was delightful ... It was February 7, l875 when at last we drew up beside our own landing place and felt the warm handshake of old friends. Among the Laos at last!-and no place that we had ever seen would we exchange for our Laos home. ..."
As Anna knew, bad reports receive more attention than good ones, so it's always pleasant to discover a story or article by someone who enjoyed Siam as id was, the bad along with the good.
Such was a report by a young American Naval officer who came to Bangkok early in 1868.
The American Navy ship came to Siam to bring a gift of guns and ammunition to the Prime Minister from the U.S. Nvy Department. The crew wasn't too happy about the trip; preferring to spend their "R & R" in Japan. However by the end of their ten days in port, they regretted leaving and wished for a longer stay.
The descriptions of the houses, boats, temples and the Siamese, as written by the young officer, are detailed and interesting, with a minimum of criticism.
"As we crossed the bar and entered the river, just before sunset, a most beautiful sight met our gaze-an island covered with a temple of unique architecture, glowing like burnished marble and looking more like a creation of fairyland than I supposed any thing of mortal building could look.... It seemed impossible that any eastern people of today could erect such a structure."
Officers who could be spared from the ship were invited to an audience with King Mongkut. He spoke to each in turn, shook their hand, and inquired their rank.
"He was dressed in crimson silk, with a huge star of diamonds on his breast but no other ornament whatever. His conversation was addressed principally to the Captain, and during our stay of over an hour he showed himself to be possessed of an amount of information astounding in a person in his situation. ... he asked if we had seen the steamer that the Prime Minister was building for his use on the occasion of the eclipse, and gave us quite a lecture on the various objects to be looked after in observing the phenomenon-all of his conversation in well chosen English."
The Ambassador of the Netherlands made an official visit to Siam during October-November, 1872, spending more than 30 days here. He expressed his admiration for the young King Chulalongkorn and in his farewell address said:-"My visit to Siam will be one of the most pleasant reminiscences of my life."
King Chulalongkorn was the first king of Siam to employ foreign advisors extensively. His navy, army, treasury, judiciary, post & telegraph service, and many other departments all saw the service of foreigners. Certainly the King's personal charm, consideration, and personal ability had much to do with the devoted service of most of them. James McCarthy, an Irishman 'borrowed' from the British Indian Service, is credited with the first major survey and mapping of Siam, as well as the establishment of the Royal Survey Department and school.
In his book, published in England in 1900 by the Royal Geography Society, McCarthy wrote of his many frustrations and lack of cooperation d officials, during his surveying. He added that he had submitted his resignation ~ the King several times during those years, but each time the charm of King Chulalongkorn won him over and he agreed to stay on and complete the job.
In 1877, soon after the close of his second term as President of the United States, General U.S. Grant, his wife, and son, set out on a world tour.
He had no plans to visit Siam; however on arrival in Singapore the American Consul met the General with a letter from King Chulalongkorn, inviting him to Siam. The graciousness of the letter (enclosed in an envelope of blue satin) and the general advice that "a visit around the world would be incomplete unless it included that most interesting country" and the General himself deciding that "when people go around the world they may as well see what is to be seen" caused the itinerary to be changed to include Siam.
The trio up from Singapore was so rapid, no one was at the bar to meet them. "We doffed our ship garments and came out in ceremonial attire to meet our friends the Siamese. But there was no crossing the bar, and for hours and hours we waited . . . in the mud, on a bar, and Siam before us."
At high tide the pilot missed the course and stuck them on another mud bank; then the rains came, the sea became rough and choppy, and all they could do was huddle in the small cabin. At nine the next morning, the Royal yacht came for them with the Consul carrying a second letter from the King. The trip up-river was described with the detail of someone amazed at what he was seeing -the following houses, Wat Arun ("one of the wonders of the East") and the "city of canals where your 'Broadway' is a canal"-"Happy Siam" with a King "who does everything".
At 4 p.m. the General was taken ashore on a Royal Barge with Priory Alabaster as interpreter and Captain Bush 'in attendance'....
The General and his party were driven to Saranrom Palace (across from the Grand Palace) and home of HRH Prince Bhanurangsri, the youngest full brother of the King, where they were to stay, and "treat the palace as their own while there". In passing the Defence Ministry on the way to the palace, a salute of 21 guns was fired in honor of the former U.S. President.
Wined and dined with the very best Siam had to offer, at the dinner given at the palace by the King, Grant said it would have been a misfortune if he had missed seeing Siam-"I have seen (in nearly 2 years) nothing that has interested me more than Siam."
In March, 1888, a local editor deplored the lack of interest of the Siamese in recording their own history:-"Books on the country ... have been written, but always from the European point of view!
... The characteristics common to all subjects on Siam is that they lie beyond the capacity of any European to understand. ..." Reports of progress in Siam were often in conflict. While one complained of the inefficiency of the government and the King's control of the treasury disbursements saying "... they will give you no information ... but reply with polite evasions.... The Siamese are particularly jealous of outside scrutiny into their affairs...."-another wrote "The unprecedented success of such branches of the public service as the War Office, the Post and Telegraph Department, the Educational Department, and the Treasury Department . . . must be a source of satisfaction.... the reign of his present Majesty will prove the salvation (of the Siamese), rousing them to a consciousness of as yet, undeveloped capabilities. ..."
The St. James Gazette in 1888, published a brief sketch of the temples, palaces, and "ornamental tropical trees which make Bangkok look . . . Iike a vast Royal Garden ... the architectural beauty of Siam's capital with its palaces and pagodas has long been admired and there is more of novelty and interest to passing travelers in a few hours than can be found in China in many weeks."
Another, in the April, 1888 Family Herald, admired and described the beauties of the city but added: - "People do their shopping in boats and while a woman sells to her customers . . . for all houses have open fronts-her lazy husband fishes, sitting upon a box of goods, and his children bathe and swim around the house."
The Russian czarevitch visited Siam in the late 1800s. He was royally entertained and in a 2-volume book about his world travels (written by Royal command, by Prince Ukhtomsky) there was only praise for the hospitality shown. ". . . the legendary hospitality of the Siamese Court has long ... been known to us from books, but what we see and experience is beyond description.
"Though many men of rank and celebrated foreigners have been received here of late years with genuine courtesy and honor, as well as the greatest readiness to show the country with all its delightful peculiarities, yet one scarcely finds a single word of this in any European literature and the western press. Beyond improbable anecdotes, or pure inventions, very little has been published about Siam by educated western travelers, who have repaid the natives most strangely for their hospitality and kindness.... ordinary decency would seem to call for silence at least concerning what one does not know or is not able to understand, instead of publishing what are really caricatures and lampoons on a whole country.
Educated Siamese cannot even speak calmly of many such writers who have undertaken to acquaint Europe and America with their native land."
There were many who coveted the riches of Siam-they encroached on her borders from all sides. Some came as 'wolves in sheep's clothing', offering their "help" but only working to gain a foothold for their own country. The Calcutta Statesman, in May, 1892: - ". . . Siam, they say, is wealthy and offers magnificent trade opportunities; but France casts a longing eye on the Kingdom, so we should either annex, or protect it." When Holt Hallett surveyed areas near the Burmese border ostensibly for future railroads which were to benefit Siam as well as British Burma, he wrote:-". . . we (England) must annex Siam in the interest of our trade and the splendid prospects it is presenting under the stimulus of British enterprise."
A Bangkok editor (also English) responded:-"... under the guise of friendship we see faddists of the Holt Hallet type formulating thinly veiled schemes for annexation which would be offensive if put forward by responsible individuals, but which are simply contemptible when advanced by "mere mapmakers."
In a later editorial the same editor denounced "the amount of fabulous twaddle (in) circulation about this country." An English paper informed its readers that "The King of Siam has a bodyguard of 4,000 of the most beautiful girls in the Kingdom."
J.G. D. Campbell who was at one time employed in Siam, wrote of the Siamese in "Siam in the XXth Century" (1902) "With all their vices, with all their ignorance and superstition, and with all their sufferings, were they not happier, . . . were they not perhaps better, before they came in contact with the European and his civilization?" M. Rene Pinon however, writing in the "Revue des Deux Mondes", stated that Bangkok was the most hideous (city) in the Far East."
Almost anyone and everyone who came to Siam eventually wrote about their experiences-at length-and used to the fullest, the concept of "literary licence". Those based "75 % on fact and 25% on fiction" would at best, be committing permeditated murder of history.
Prince William of Sweden came to attend the Coronation of King Vajiravudh in 1911-oddly for Royalty who visited he wasn't complimentary about the country in his writing. He did take time however, to go on an extensive hunting excursion while here.
Casper Whitney came only to hunt, and found a great many varieties of animals which fell to his gun-he too, wrote a book.
Still there were many who came and loved both the country and the people. Some-Capt. John Bush, Samuel J. Smith, Dr and Mrs McGilvary, Dr Dan Bradley and many others-never left and are buried here in their final rest. Hamilton King, American Minister from 1898 till his death in 1912, is also buried in his "beloved Siam". They may have criticized, but it was done with love and not meanness-there is a difference. Henry Alabaster served several Kings of Siam, as well as the Crown of England. But he resigned from the British service rather than leave-his grave too, is in Bangkok and today his descendants still serve Thailand in the diplomatic field.
Somerset Maugham said it best:
"Some men are born out of their place, and the resultant sense of strangeness sends them hungrily far and wide in search of something permanent. When the wanderer hits upon a spot to which he mysteriously feels he belongs, here is the home he seeks. He settles! If he must ever leave, a part of him remains forever behind and he is never again the same person!"