Baylor College Medical School

111. Biography (King Mongkut of Siam (1804-1868)

Mongkut was born in 1804 and became a Buddhist monk at the age of 20. He remained a monk for 26 years. When his brother, King Rama III, died in 1851, Mongkut ascended to the throne of Siam.

Mongkut had a better understanding of the West than most of the Asian rulers of his time. He knew that Siam would have to make some changes to its traditions in order to survive in a world that was becoming more and more dominated by the West. Soon after he took the throne, Mongkut ended the tradition of treating the king like a god. He was the first Siamese king to allow his subject to look at his face. He also invited Westrners to attend his coronation.

Mongkut was very aware that European powers were colonizing neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. When Queen VIctoria sent her representative to the Siamese court to establish diplomatic relations, Mongkut saw this as Britain's first step toward colonization. The king signed a treaty with Britain and with every other major Western power, including the United States. As a result, the foreign powers limited each other's influence, and Siam was never under the control of any Western country.

In domestic affair, Mongkut was a sensitive diplomat and concerned about the welfare of his people. He traveled more widely throughout his kingdom than any previous king. He held progressive views about religious tolerance, and he made the monarchy more approachable.

Mongkut hired the English governerness Anna Leonowens to tutor his children in Western subjects. HEr memoirs became the basis for the best-selling 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, and the well-known 1951 musical, The King and I.

The king was particularly fascinated by Western astronomy. In 1868, he calculated the exact date of a total eclipse of the sun. Mongkut hoped scientific information would dissolve h is people's superstitions. He traveled to southern Siam to view the eclipse with a delegation of French scientists. During the trip, Mongkut contracted malaria. H died two months later.

King Msongkut was able to maintain Siam's independence through his approach with Western countries. Yet he took a risk.

Question.....What are some other, less successful outcomes that could have occurred? (Can you please help answer this question)

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The biggest fear that King Mongkut had was to be colonized by a western country. This would have meant a loss of identity and sovereignty in his own country. His people and resources would become disposable commodities to the colonizing force. There would also be a clash of cultures with his own culture on the losing end. The King was able to prevent this from happening.