In many (nationalist) renderings of modern Thai history, the two Chakri kings, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, loom large as figures who are credited with almost single-handedly saving Siam/Thailand from colonization and modernizing the land.

As Maurizio Peleggi wrote in his Lords of Things: The Fashioning of the Siamese Monarchy’s Modern Image, “The view of the Fifth Reign [i.e., Chulalongkorn’s reign] as a period of momentous change and of King Chulalongkorn as a Prometheus-life figure who bestowed the gift of modernity on Thai society is deeply entrenched in both historical writings on Thailand and in Thai collective consciousness.” (4)

Peleggi goes on to quote a passage written in the early 1960s by the late David K. Wyatt in which Wyatt praised Chulalongkorn for resisting the more conservative members of his government in his effort to bring about modernization. To quote:

“Being firmly committed personally to reform and vitally convinced of its importance to the survival of the nation, he [Chulalongkorn] had to battle and overcome the resistance to change and modernization. This was a slow, painful, and delicate task, to which few men would have been equal. He accomplished it with great skill, consummate patience, supreme determination, and a single-minded dedication to the ultimate good of the nation.” (5)

Such a view of successful modernizers, as people who had the vision to “pick and choose” what was right for the nation, is a common one in nationalist writings. One could easily find similar passages about government officials in Japan during the Meiji period, for instance. And Peleggi rightfully criticizes such a view as simplistic.

After all, did monarchs really have the ability to pick and choose? If so, did they always make the best choice?

I was reading a newspaper called the Bangkok Recorder, and I found that in 1865 King Mongkut sent a brief letter to the editors in which he talked about the discovery of mineral oil in America, a topic that this newspaper had earlier reported about.

King Mongkut was already familiar with mineral oil, and while he understood its importance, he also felt that coconut oil was better for some usages, such as in house lamps. In the end, however, he expressed an interesting in recruiting a foreign expert to look for oil in Siam.

At this point in his letter, Mongkut went on to talk a bit about foreign experts. He indicated that there were foreigners who wanted Siam to purchase products that were not suitable for the country, and here he mentioned two products in particular – telegraph lines and railroads.

Why did Mongkut feel that telegraph lines and railroads were not suitable for his kingdom? It was because the people were “poor and ignorant” and would just steal the wires and iron used in constructing the telegraph lines and railroads. This would thus end up simply wasting money.

The editors of the Bangok Recorder commented on King Mongkut’s letter (they did so on the front page of their paper while they put King Mongut’s letter on page 3), by stating the following:

“His Majesty complains that many foreigners would try to induce the Siamese, to enter into many things at great expense, which they think would be of no advantage to them. We suppose it would be difficult to accept all the proposals made to the Siamese by Europeans and it will require the exercise of judgement to chose those which will be really useful, but we are sorry that His Majesty thinks that his people are not yet in a condition to appreciate railroads and telegraphs. He thinks the iron rails, and telegraph wires, would be too great a temptation to their thieving propensities.”

I found this letter and response interesting. It fits with the nationalist rendering of this period in that Mongkut does choose what he thinks is best for the kingdom. However, what he thinks is best for the kingdom is to not waste money on telegraph lines and railroads, which of course were essential technologies in the modernization process. And the reason why he felt that investing in telegraph lines and railroads would be a waste is because the “poor and ignorant” people in the kingdom would steal the materials.

I think that the idea that modernizing monarchs chose what was right for their people assumes that the monarchs thought of what was most suitable for the culture of the nation. So the fact that Mongkut made a decision because he felt that the people were ignorant does not really fit that way of viewing the past.

Ultimately, it supports Peleggi’s critique of the writings of scholars like Wyatt. To say that modernizing monarchs like Mongkut always had the best interests of “the nation” in mind, is simplistic.

In any case, here is the content of King Mongkut’s letter:

Royal Residence Grand Palace Bangkok

6th February 1865


I was very glad to learn from statement in your paper relating to discovery of the mineral oil in United States of America, the specimen of which I have in my possession from firm of Markwald & Co. here some time ago.

It in a case of cold season can be said that it is better than cocoanut oil, for it was not becoming thick for prevailing of cold less than 780 Farenheit. But in other case of hot or warm sun in general prevailing in Siam, cannot be said as better than Cocoanut oil, as the American oil is of strong smell and power of combustibility or inflammability; so it may be considered as dangerous.

Also its flame red and producing black smoke for making our room unclean, in case of use in lamp with glass chimney sometime alarming noise of strong flame. For this instance to great care ought to be given in its use. So the require of the cocoanut oil is yet inevitable for our usual lamps.

I shall be glad however to have any person who may examine our land and point out where some mineral oil would be obtainable from, either in like manner of American oil or of the usual Burman mineral oil. It will be good production of our land.

I think such the consideration and endeavoring is suitable for us who are very far from use of telegraph or railway which endeavor no doubt might be liable to be favor to thieves, or metallic wires and iron bars and long stones &c before use of telegraph and railroad.

Ah! O! many foreigners who are endeavoring very often to let us be advised and have great expense for what we think will be of no use for this country of poor and ignorant people.

I will be glad to know as soon as possible who will assist us to point the place for some mineral oil in Siam.

I beg to be your good friend.

S.P.P. Mungkut-R.S.

in 5017th day of reign.