“Lords of Life: A History of the Kings of Thailand: 60th Anniversary Edition” by Prince Chula Chakrabongse

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What do you do with a gang of monks who have been condemned to death for immorality? If you are King Rama II of Siam (1809-24), you commute their sentences to hard labor, which consists of making them cut grass for your elephants every day. This is one example of the sometimes quirky humanity of the Chakri Dynasty, which, as royal houses go, is a relative newcomer, having been founded only in 1784.

This account of the Chakri rulers, first published in 1959 and written in impeccable English by a distinguished Thai historian who just happened to be a Chakri prince (the grandson of King Chulalongkorn), reveals that they were indeed, at least for the most part, intelligent and enlightened rulers. Prince Chula’s book is engaging and informative, and, without being overly hagiographical, serves as an excellent introduction to Thai history. This beautifully-produced 60th anniversary reissue, copiously-illustrated with many period photographs, has an afterword by the historian Barend Terwiel which brings readers up to the accession of the present king Vajiralongkorn in 2016.

“It is easy to fall in love with these Siamese kings.”

Lords of Life: A History of the Kings of Thailand, HRH Prince Chula of Chakrabongse (River Books, January 2020)
Lords of Life: A History of the Kings of Thailand, HRH Prince Chula Chakrabongse (River Books, January 2020)

“Altogether it is easy to fall in love with these Siamese kings,” writes Hugh Trevor-Roper in his introduction, “but let us not be seduced by these engaging foibles. They enliven Prince Chula’s narrative, but are not the substance of it. These rulers were not dilettanti.” Fortunately, neither is Prince Chula; as a member of the family, he had access to all sorts of unpublished material such as personal letters and archival documentation unavailable to other scholars. He could also draw on a wide acquaintance among politicians and other important members of Thai society which helped him put more flesh and blood on many of the people he wrote about. Nevertheless, as his daughter Princess Narisa Chakrabongse (who also founded River Books) points out, Prince Chula, who died in 1963 at the early age of 55, was perhaps more optimistic about Thailand’s possibilities for change into a fully-fledged democracy than subsequent events proved. Furthermore, as she states, “I feel certain he would be shocked by the recent rise of right-wing nativism across the world.”

The book begins with a chapter called “Before”, a summation of Siamese history from about 4000 BCE to 1767: the influence of China on early Thai society, the nature and history of the various Thai kingdoms, the coming of Europeans, wars with the Burmese and the final consolidation of territory by Rama I, formerly Chao Phraya Chakri, a powerful general who had helped king Taksin drive out the Burmese in 1768.

When the king became mentally incompetent and failed to put down a revolt, Chakri stepped in and was accepted as king. The hapless king Taksin was eventually put to death, most likely, as Prince Chula believes, “executed as a prince … being hit on the back of the neck by a club of sandalwood, as decreed by king Trailok in 1450,” but he may have been beheaded, and there’s a rumor that he survived in a secret location until 1825. At any rate, he’s now known as Taksin the Great and is honoured by a statue in Bangkok.

 

Each Chakri ruler gets a chapter, defined by one dominant characteristic such as “The Ruler” (Rama III) or “The Revolutionary” (Chulalongkorn). Most people are only familiar with these monarchs when they have somehow moved into Western culture, such as King Mongkut’s reincarnation as the irascible ruler in the musical The King and I (more on this one later), based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, the governess who taught his children. The late king Bhumibol Adulyadej may also be counted here, although his long reign (1946-2016) is not covered by Prince Chula’s book, and Prince Chula does not choose to delve too deeply into the tragic shooting death of King Ananda Mahidol (1935-46), the elder brother of King Bhumibol, describing it as an accident. This, like other controversies surrounding the royal family, can be found discussed in various contemporary texts.

Prince Chula corrects a number of misconceptions about the Thai monarchy, beginning with the names of the kings. Technically speaking, they are all called Rama, the present one being Rama X. However, a number of them preferred to use their given names, notably Mongkut, who never styled himself Rama IV, Chulalongkorn (Rama V), Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII); indeed, Prince Chula lists only Rama I, II, III and VI in his index, the others being found under their own names.

The most revealing misconception, of course, is the one perpetuated by the notorious English governess, whose inaccurate characterization of king Mongkut and elevation of her own status still informs many Western readers. King Mongkut, who ruled from 1851 to 1868, was in many ways the most interesting of the Chakri monarchs. A Buddhist monk for 27 years before becoming king, he taught himself to read, write and speak English, was a skilled mathematician and astronomer, and had studied European history, religion and government. “What you teach is good,” he once remarked perceptively of Christianity, “but what you believe is foolish.” He had a wide circle of friends abroad to whom he wrote, often informally, in English, yet he was every inch a Chakri monarch. As such, “King Mongkut expected complete and immediate obedience,” Prince Chula writes, “but he was at heart a democrat,” and he pushed through many enlightened reforms, thus bringing his country firmly into the 19th century.

As for Anna Leonowens, he did indeed hire her, and thus unwittingly laid himself open to her exaggerations (and those of Margaret Landon, whose 1944 best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam was based on them) and indeed outright lies about life at his court (he was far too busy to fritter away his time in the harem, as she claimed he did), and thus to popular artists of the 20th century. To this day, many Thais, whose reverence for their kings seems sincere enough (there is a strict lèse-majesté law in Thailand), loathe The King and I.

 

The question of a family history becoming hagiography, however, must be asked in connection with this book, as this isn’t just any author writing about his family. However, as Trevor-Roper notes in his Introduction, this may well  be a family history, but Prince Chula is a trained historian; “he has studied history at Cambridge,” we are told, “and has written ‘objective,’ ‘professional’ history before turning his industry and talent to this tempting but intimate and therefore difficult subject.”

The author himself states in his Preface that “I have tried to write this book objectively and not from the Thai point of view,” and he apologizes for having to mention his own family in the book, which is made necessary by the fact that they held prominent political positions at various times. At the same time, Thailand owes its very independence to the hard work of the Chakri dynasty, who steered their country, particularly in the 19th century, through the colonial era without themselves ever submitting to British or French domination, as did their Asian contemporaries in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, not to mention India or Nepal. Largely thanks to Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, Siam, as it was generally known then, managed not just to keep its territorial integrity, but eventually to be acknowledged as an equal in trade and political negotiations by the European powers.

Prince Chula chronicles all this and more with notable detachment, but he never loses sight of the human side of his subjects. The many photographs included in this book are also illuminating; we see Chulalongkorn, for example, squatting shirtless in front of a sizzling wok cooking a meal (apparently he also wrote a cookbook), and there are several informal family groups as well.

Prince Chula does not forget the royal women; due to the accepted custom of royal polygamy and concubinage there were quite a few of them, and of course many sons and daughters as well—King Mongkut fathered 83 children, remarkable at any time, but as he had been a monk for 27 years before becoming king, he had started his family at the age of 47. King Rama VI (Vajiravudh) was also prolific. Whenever he has the information, Prince Chula gives as full a portrait of individual women as he can, but until the reign of Chulalongkorn the data is somewhat scanty, as women were not politically active. Monogamy came in with King Prajadhipok and was continued by King Bhumibol (Ananda Mahidol never married), but the present king has revived the concubinage system.

While Prince Chula deals with serious issues, such as Mongkut’s drive to abolish serfdom (1868) or King Prajadhipok’s decision to rule as a constitutional monarch and his eventual abdication, the narrative never becomes dry, and as an introduction to the history of Thailand from this particular viewpoint it’s a good place to start and River Books did exactly right to reissue it and bring it up-to-date. It also helps us understand why the Thais revere their monarchy—because of the intellectual and artistic curiosity of these rulers as well as their inherent decency as human beings, they have, on the whole, done very well for their country, and it is to be hoped that Thailand will continue to be well-served by the Chakri dynasty.

 

Note from the reviewer (14 September 2020): As result of some reader feedback, I feel I might reiterate more strongly than I evidently did in the original review that that the author, Prince Chula, was of course a member of the Chakri royal family. He was a trained historian, which is what gives the book its shape, but he would certainly have had a personal stake in what was being said. It would not be inaccurate to consider the book as at least a “semi-official history”. It is furthermore a product of its time and society: 1950s Thailand. The book needs to be read with this in mind.
      Some readers might have preferred me to discuss in book in the context of more recent developments, but this is a 60th anniversary volume and arguably should be reviewed as such. It was not meant to be a politically critical work, as Trevor-Roper’s introduction notes. Prince Chula very much wants — or, more accurately, wanted — the world to see his family as progressive and innovative. Thailand, alone among Southeast Asian nations, avoided falling to Western colonialism, so perhaps Prince Chula has a point, especially from his 1950s perspective. Readers of the book who find it valuable to draw parallels and contrasts with the present day may of course do so, but these considerations lie outside the book itself.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.