Mongkut (Rama IV), (October 18, 1804 - October 18, 1868) was king of
Thailand from 1851 to 1868. Historians have widely regarded him as one
of the most remarkable kings of the Chakri Dynasty. Prince Mongkut was
the son of King Rama II and his first wife Queen Sri Suriyendra, whose
first son died at birth in 1801. Prince Mongkut was five years old when
his father succeeded to the throne in 1809. According to the law of
succession, he was the first in line to the throne; but when his father
died, his influential half-brother, Nangklao, was strongly supported
by the nobility to assume the throne. Prince Mongkut decided to enter
the Buddhist priesthood and travelled in exile to many locations in
Thailand. Prince Mongkut spent the following twenty-seven years searching
for Western knowledge; he had studied Latin, English, and astronomy
with missionaries and sailors. Prince Mongkut would later be noted for
his excellent command of English, although it is said that his younger
brother, Vice-King Pinklao, could speak even better English.
After his twenty-seven years of pilgrimage, King Mongkut succeeded to
the throne in 1851. He took the name Phra Chom Klao, although foreigners
continued to call him Mongkut. His awareness of the threat from the
British and French imperial powers, led him to many innovative activities.
He ordered the nobility to wear shirts while attending his court; this
was to show that Siam was no longer barbaric from the Western point
of view. King Mongkut hired an English woman, Anna Leonowens, whose
influence was later the subject of great Thai controversy, to be his
sons' tutor. It is still debated how much this affected the worldview
of one of his sons, Prince Chula, who succeeded to the throne. Anna
claimed that her conversations with Prince Chula about human freedom,
and her relating to him the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin, became the inspiration
for his abolition of slavery almost 40 years later. Leonowns' story
would become the inspiration for the American musical The King and I.
As king, Mongkut worked to established the Thammayut Nikaya, an order
of Buddhist monks that he believed would conform more closely to the
orthodoxy of the Theravada school.
One of King Mongkut's last official duties came in 1868, when he invited
the British consuls from Singapore to watch the solar eclipse, which
Mongkut had predicted two years earlier, at Wakor district in Prachuap
Khiri Khan province. This became perilous when Mongkut and Prince Chula
were infected with malaria. The king died several days later, and was
succeeded by his son, who survived the malaria.
Reportedly, Mongkut once remarked to a Christian missionary friend:
"What you teach us to do is admirable, but what you teach us to
believe is foolish".
King Mongkut of
The Prince Who Became a Monk
Prince Maha Mongkut was born on October 18, 1804 in the kingdom of Siam
(now called Thailand). His father, Buddha Loetla Nabhalai, became the
king of Siam (King Rama II) when Mongkut was five. Mongkut's mother
was Queen Sri Suriyendra.
As was traditional, Mongkut's father kept a large harem. Mongkut had
72 brothers and sisters, borne by 38 different mothers, but Mongkut
was the crown prince, expected to inherit the throne after his father's
death. He was called Chao Fah Mongkut, meaning "The High Prince
of the Crown." Until he was nine Mongkut lived in a palace near
the Chao Phraya River, where he studied Buddhism, history and literature.
He also learned to ride horses and elephants, and was trained in the
use of various weapons. When he was just 12 years old, his father put
him in charge of the Siamese army.
But Mongkut had a rival for the throne -- his half-brother Jetta or
Chesdabodin, the son of one of Rama II's many consorts. Prince Jetta
was seventeen years older than Mongkut, more experienced in government,
and much more powerful.
When Mongkut was 20, his father died and a council of princes and court
officials chose Jetta to be Siam's new king. Fearing for his safety,
Mongkut left his wife and two young children and became a Buddhist monk.
For 27 years the former crown prince lived a monastic life, but it was
hardly a dull life. He travelled barefoot throughout Siam, living on
handouts and learning about the way ordinary people lived. He also devoted
himself to intellectual studies, learning everything from printing to
astronomy. He founded the strict Thammayut monastic sect, which still
Mongkut as King
In 1851, Jetta (now called King Nangklao or Rama III) died. At last
Mongkut was elected to ascend the throne. At the age of 47 he left the
monkhood and became King Phrachomklao or Rama IV. One of his first acts
as monarch was to name a deputy king. This was his brother Chutamani,
another son of Queen Sri Suriyendra. Chutamani, now known as King Pinklao,
took charge of Siam's national defense.
Mongkut was a true monarch, with total power over his five and a half
million subjects. But he was different from previous Siamese kings.
For one thing, he was friendly toward the West, inviting European diplomats
to his coronation and introducing Western innovations into his kingdom.
He spoke English, French, and Latin as well as Siamese, Pali, and Sanskrit,
although he joked once that some Englishmen "have not understanding
of their own language when I speak."
Despite his open-mindedness about other cultures, Mongkut made sure
that Siam did not become a mere appendage of some Western nation.
In his personal life Mongkut adhered to Siamese tradition, having 82
children by 39 wives. Nine thousand women lived in his harem, kept apart
from the world in a separate city that they were seldom allowed to leave.
But Mongkut wanted the women of his court to be educated about the world
beyond Siam. He arranged for them to receive English lessons from Christian
missionaries, but the Siamese women were bored by their preaching. So
Mongkut's consul in Singapore hired another woman, Anna Leonowens, to
teach the king's wives and children. She arrived in Bangkok in 1862.
The Famous Governess
According to her own writings, Mrs. Leonowens had been born in Wales
in 1834. Her father, a military man, was sent to India when Anna was
six. He took his wife went with him, but young Anna was left behind
at a girls' school run by a relative. Her father died in India, and
Anna was not reunited with her mother until she was 15.
In 1851 Anna married
a British officer, Major Thomas Leonowens. Her husband died young. Left
with two children to support, Anna turned to teaching.
question the accuracy of Anna's version of her life story as well as
her account of life in the Siamese court, her two books (The English
Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem) created
great interest in King Mongkut and Siam that continues to this day.
Eventually author Margaret Landon converted Leonowens' books into the
very popular novel Anna and the King of Siam, published in 1944. It
was made first into a movie starring Rex Harrison, then into a Broadway
musical, The King and I, starring Yul Brynner, which became a movie.
It was followed by a 1972 television series, also starring Brynner.
In March 1999 an animated version of "The King and I" was
The most recent
film adaptation is Anna and the King, released in late 1999 and starring
Jodie Foster as Anna. Like its predecessors, "Anna and the King"
has been banned in Thailand due to its historical inaccuracy and what
Thai censors perceive as its disrespect for the monarchy.
The Death of King Mongkut
In 1868, King Mongkut impressed astronomers by predicting a solar eclipse.
Unfortunately, Mongkut and his 15-year-old son Chulalongkorn observed
the eclipse from a marshy area infested with mosquitoes, and both contracted
malaria. Knowing that he was dying, Mongkut called his advisors to his
bedside and urged them to continue working for the best interests of
his people. King Mongkut died on his 64th birthday.
Chulalongkorn recovered. Because he was his father's eldest royal son
(his mother was Queen Thepserin), he succeeded to the throne as King
Mrs. Leonowens was away from Siam when Mongkut died. She wrote the new
king a letter of condolence. He replied politely, but did not invite
her back to Siam. So Leonowens made a new life as a writer. She became
well-known and successful.
Mongkut's prime minister ruled as regent until Chulalongkorn turned
20 and took charge of the country. He immediately turned tradition on
its ear by announcing that the people of Siam were no longer required
to prostrate themselves in the king's presence. He also abolished slavery
and gave up his official ownership of all the land in Siam. His grandson,
Bhumibol, is Thailand's current king.
Mongkut or Rama
IV [räm'u] , 1804–68, king of Siam, now Thailand (1851–68).
A devout Buddhist monk, he was displaced in succession to the throne
by his brother, who ascended as Rama III. Mongkut became king as Rama
IV in 1851, and then used his knowledge, especially of the West, accumulated
during his long years of study, to further his country's interests.
He established diplomatic relations with several European countries
and the United States, opened Siam to Western trade, and undertook extensive
internal reform in all fields. Because of these measures, Siam was the
only country in Southeast Asia not to fall under Western control in
the 19th cent. He was succeeded by his son Chulalongkorn. Mongkut was
made famous in the West by Margaret Landon's book Anna and the King
of Siam (1944), which was based on the reminiscences of Anna Leonowens,
a British governess at the court of Siam.
Mongkut, who was born in 1804, spent more than half his adult life in
the yellow robe of a Buddhist monk. For 27 years, he traveled the countryside
with his alms bowl, ate one meal a day and studied scripture; for years
he served as abbot at a quiet riverside temple on the outskirts of Bangkok.
It was there that royal emissaries found him one steamy April morning
in 1851, when they brought the news that his half brother, King Rama
III, was dead.
Within days, the 47-year-old monk stepped from monastic life into the
rich temptations and intricacies of the palace, with its inner city
thronging with hundreds of women, its precincts patrolled by female
guards and its life revolving entirely around his royal person. The
holy man was now officially the "Lord of Life," the fourth
ruler in Siam's Chakri dynasty, able to exert life-or-death control
over some 5.5 million subjects. (As king, he banned the death penalty
for monks who broke their vows of celibacy, putting them to work, instead,
cutting grass for the royal elephants.) A spectacular coronation inaugurated
the reign with great pomp. Brahmin priests sounded ceremonial conch
shells. The new monarch, clad in golden robes, was carried off in a
gilded palanquin. Even in that moment of glory, though, Mongkut made
clear that he would scrutinize tradition more critically than had previous
rulers. For the first time in 200 years Western diplomats were invited,
and Buddhist monks played a visible role in the ceremony. This was just
the kind of gesture feared by Siam's conservative nobility.
Once crowned, Mongkut traveled more widely than any other king had,
revisiting many of the paths that he trod barefoot as a monk. Like Rex
Harrison and Yul Brynner's monarch, he relaxed the stiff protocol of
royal visits, permitting foreigners to salute him according to their
He had long observed the growing number of European steamships entering
Bangkok's port and understood their importance. (The stage and screen
king grasped this, too, but in those kindergarten versions, Mongkut
caught up with Western studies only under Anna's tutelage.) The king's
learning and discipline were formidable. He studied Latin with a helpful
French bishop. He also acquired English from American missionaries,
a Promethean task at a time when no Thai-English dictionary existed.
To translate from Thai to English, the king first had to find a comparable
word in ancient Sanskrit, then plow his way through the bulky Sanskrit-English
dictionary to find a near match. It was not surprising that he sometimes
startled visitors with a colorful turn of phrase. "There are Englishmen,"
he joked to one Scotsman, "who have not understanding of their
own language when I speak."
Reading the English newspapers from Singapore and Hong Kong, the king
followed the expansion of empires. Siam was a strong force in Southeast
Asia, but European powers hungered on a global scale. His response to
all that was like the insight gained from a koan: to escape dominion
by any one Western power, he would open his doors to all. He signed
trade treaties with England, France, the United States and half a dozen
other countries, thereby limiting his vulnerability to each.
In cementing these relations, the king displayed a sensitivity to each
country's situation. A royal letter to President Franklin Pierce included
an unusually intimate daguerreotype portrait. It shows Mongkut bareheaded,
wearing a simple robe and seated beside Queen Thepserin, mother of the
future king Chulalongkorn. No throne or crown appears in the portrait
destined for the land without royalty. His letters to Queen Victoria,
on the other hand, invoked the bond of noble blood.
Mongkut was fascinated by the precision of Western scientific measurement.
He filled his chambers with clocks, thermometers and barometers, and
taught himself astronomy, erecting an observatory on the palace grounds.
This led to his greatest scientific triumph-and, indirectly, to his
death. In August 1868, the palace announced an expedition on the occasion
of a solar eclipse. For villagers, eclipses foretold bad tidings; they
saw them as attempts by the dragon Rahu to swallow the sun and used
clanging bells and fireworks to impel Rahu to disgorge it. Mongkut believed
he could disabuse such fears if he could predict the event with mathematical
Invitations provided guests with the latitude and longitude of a spot
on the Siamese coast where the eclipse would last longest. A mission
of French astronomers journeyed more than 6,000 miles from Paris to
witness the event. They were met by Mongkut's entourage, including members
of the royal family, retainers, skeptical court astrologers, horses,
oxen and 50 elephants.
On the appointed morning, August 18, 1868, at the exact second indicated
by the king's calculations, the sky went totally dark, a remarkable
feat of prediction. Mongkut and his prime minister cried "Hurrah!
Hurrah!" The exhausted French astronomers acknowledged his accuracy;
court astrologers were nonplussed. But skeptics soon claimed justification
for their fears and superstitions; in a matter of days, the king and
several others in the royal party fell ill with malaria contracted on
the marshy shore.
In October, an ailing Mongkut gathered his advisers and urged them:
"please go on with our good work in the interest of the people."
Then he lay upon his right side and recited the sacred name of the lord
Buddha to fix his mind firmly in the moment of his death.
Like the Buddha
himself, he died on his own birthday: October 18. Eight years later,
his son, King Chulalongkorn, commissioned the bust now at the Smithsonian.
It was to be a centerpiece of the Siamese exhibition at the U.S. Centennial
Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.