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Sometimes, especially in Thai language documents, King Mongkut might also refer to Vajiravudh (Rama IV) , reigning title Phra Mongkut Klao Chaoyuhua (พระมงกุฏเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว).
Rama IV redirects here. For the fourth book in the Rama series see Rama Revealed

Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthramaha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua ( ), or Rama IV, known in foreign countries as King Mongkut (18 October 1804-1 October 1868), was the fourth monarch of Siammarker under the House of Chakri, ruling from 1851-1868. He was one of the most revered monarchs of the country.

Outside of Thailand he is best-known as the King in the play and film The King and I, based on the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam - in turn based on the writing of Anna Leonowens about her six years at his court.

In his reign, the pressure of Western expansionism was felt for the first time in Siam. Mongkut embraced Western innovations and initiated the modernization of Siam, both in technology and culture—earning him the epithet "The Father of Science and Technology" in Siam.

Mongkut was also known for his appointment of his brother, Prince Chutamani, as vice-king. Prince Chutamani was crowned in 1851 as King Pinklao. Mongkut himself assured that Pinklao should be respected with equal honor to himself. Mongkut's reign was also the time when the power of the House of Bunnak reached the zenith and became the most powerful noble family of Siam.

Early life

Mongkut was born to Prince Isarasundhorn, son of Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke the first Chakri king of Siam, and Princess Bunreod in 1804 as their second child at the Old (Thonburi) Palace. He was later joined by his brother Prince Chutamani, who was born in 1808. In 1809, his father Prince Isarasundhorn was crowned as Buddha Loetla Nabhalai. The prince himself was nine at the time and they all moved to the Grand Palace.

Monastic Life and Thammayut sect

In 1824, at age 20, Mongkut became a Buddhist monk, according to Siamese tradition (that men aged 20 should become monks), with the ordination name of Vajirañāṇo. However, the same year, his father Buddha Loetla Nabhalai died. According to succession traditions, Mongkut was to be crowned the next king. However, the nobility instead put the influential Prince Jessadabodindra, his half-brother, on the throne. Perceiving that the throne was irredeemable, Mongkut chose to stay in his monastic status to avoid political intrigues.

Mongkut became one of the members of royal family who devoted his life to the religion. He travelled all around the country as a monk and saw the relaxation of the rules of Pali Canon among the Siamese monks he met - which he considered inappropriate. In 1829, at Phetchaburimarker, he met a monk named Buddhawangso who strictly followed the canon. Vajirayan admired Buddhawangso for his obedience to the canon, and this inspired him to pursue his religious reforms.

The monk Vajirayan then established the Thammayut Nikaya or Thammayut sect in 1833. The new sect reinforced the canon law. The Thammayut sect gained royal recognition in 1902 by Mongkut's son Chulalongkorn (through Ecclesiastical Polity Act) and became one of the two major Buddhist denominations in modern Thailand. (see Buddhism in Thailand) In 1836, he became the first abbot of Wat Bowonniwetmarker, which is sponsored by the royal family to this day. During his time as a monk, Bhikkhu Vajirañāṇo discovered Western knowledge, studying Latin, English, and astronomy with missionaries and sailors.

King Mongkut would later be noted for his excellent command of English, although it is said that his younger brother, Vice-King Pinklao, could speak it even better.

Reign as King

Reliefs of King Mongkut's Privy seal and signature
Accounts vary about the intentions of Jessadabodindra regarding the succession. It is recorded that Jessadabodindra verbally dismissed the royal princes from succession for various reasons; Prince Mongkut was dismissed for encouraging monks to dress in the Mon style.

Some said that, however, Jessadabodindra wished his throne to be passed to his son, Prince Annop, and that he gave his bracelet which had been passed down from Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke to the prince. However, Dis Bunnak switched the bracelet for a forged one, thus preventing the throne from being inherited by the prince Annop.

Prince Mongkut was indeed supported by Dis Bunnak, the Samuha Kalahom, the most powerful noble of the late reign of Rama III. Bunnak sent his men to perform the leaving-from-monk-status ceremony for Prince Mongkut even before Jessadabodindra's death. With the support of powerful nobility, Mongkut's ascension to the throne was ensured.

After his twenty-seven years of pilgrimage, King Mongkut ascended the throne in 1851, aged 47. He took the name Phra Chom Klao, although foreigners continued to call him King Mongkut. His awareness of the threat from the Britishmarker and Frenchmarker 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.

However, Mongkut's own astrological calculations pointed out that his brother, Prince Isaret, was as well favored as himself to be the monarch. So, Mongkut then crowned his brother as King Pinklao, the second king. As a prince, Pinklao was known for his abilities in foreign languages and relations. Mongkut also raised his supporter Dis Bunnak to Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Prayurawongse - Somdet Chao Phraya was the highest rank of nobility equaled to the royalty - and made him his regent kingdom-wide. Mongkut also appointed Dis' brother, Tat, as Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Pichaiyat, as his regent in Bangkok. As the result, the administrative power laid greatly in the hands of the two Bunnaks, Dis and Tat.

Upon coronation, Mongkut married his first wife, Queen Somanat. However, Queen Somanat then died in the same year. He then married his half-grandniece, Mom Chao Rampoei Siriwongse, later Queen Debsirindra.

Shan campaigns

In 1849, there were upheavals in the Shan state of Kengtungmarker and Chiang Hung kingdom in response to weakened Burmese influence. However, the two states then fought each other and Chiang Hung sought Siamese support. Jessadabodindra saw this as an opportunity to gain control over Shan states but he died in 1851. In 1852 Chiang Hung submitted the request again. Mongkut sent Siamese troops northwards but the armies found difficulties climbing mountainous highlands. In 1855 the Siamese marched again and reached Kengtung - though with even greater difficulty. They laid siege on Kengtung for 21 days. However, the resources of the Siamese army ran out and the army had to retreat.

Cultural Reforms

Photograph of King Mongkut
In 1852 saw the large influx of English and American missionaries into Siam as Mongkut hired them to teach the English language to the princes. He also hired Western mercenaries to train Siamese troops in Western style. In Bangkok, American Dan Beach Bradley had already reformed the printing and then resumed the publishing of Siam's first newspaper, the Bangkok Recorder. However, the missionaries were not as successful when it came to making religious conversions. Reportedly, King 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".[33114]

However, Mongkut didn't abandon the traditional culture of Siam. In 1852, he ordered the nobles of the court to wear upper garments. Previously, Siamese nobles were forbidden to wear any shirts to prevent them from hiding any weapons in it and met the king bare-chested. The practice was critized by Westerners and so Mongkut ended it.

For Buddhism, Mongkut pioneered the rehabitilation of various temples. He also began the Mekak (มาฆบูชา) festival in the full moon of the third lunar month, to celebrate Buddha's announcement of his main principles. And he instigated the Recompilation of Tripitaka in Siam according to Theravada traditions. Of course, he formally established the Thammayut sect as a rightful branch of Theravada.

Mongkut also improved woman's rights in Siam. He released a large number of royal concubines to find their own husbands. This is a marked contrast to how his story has been dramatized. He banned the forced marriages of all kinds and selling one's wife to pay a debt.

In contrast to the previous king, Jessadabodindra, Mongkut didn't see the importance of sending envoys to Qing dynastymarker. The last mission was sent in 1853 and Mongkut eventually ceased it because the mission symbolised Siam's subjection to the Qing and because the Qing was then not so powerful, as it was itself threatened by Western powers.

The Bowring Treaty

In 1854, John Bowring the Governor of Hong Kong, in the name of Victoria of United Kingdom, came to Siam for a treaty. For the first time Siam had to deal seriously with international laws. Prayurawongse negotiated on the behalf of the Siamese. The result was the Bowring Treaty, which was regarded as an unequal treaty imposed by British Empire. The main principle of the treaty was to abolish the Royal Storage (พระคลังสินค้า), which since Ayutthaya times owned the monopoly of foreign trade. The Royal Storage had been the source of Ayutthaya's prosperity as it collected immense taxation on foreign traders - including the taxation according to the width of the galleon and the tithe. Western products had to go through series of tax barriers to reach Siamese people.

The Europeans, of course, had been attempting to undo this monopoly for a long time but no serious measures had been taken. For Siamese people, trading some kinds of goods with foreigners subjected them to severe punishment. The taxation was partially reduced in the Burney Treaty. However, in the world of liberalism of the nineteenth century, such unequal and government-interfered trade would barely exist.

The abolition of such trade barriers replaced the Siamese commerce with the free trade. Import taxation was reduced to 3% and could only be collected once. This, of course, was a blow on the national revenue. However, this led to the dramatic growth of commercial sectors as common people then gained access to foreign trade. Never before in Siam was agriculture for sale and exports rather than subsistence farming (Before Bowring, those who traded rice with foreigners would be executed for treason). People rushed to acquire vast, previously empty fields to grow rice and the competition eventually resulted in the lands ending up in the hands of nobility.

The Bowring Treaty also had a legal impact. Due to the horror of the Nakorn Bala methods of torture in judicial proceedings, the British chose not to be tried under the Siamese system, securing a grant of extraterritoriality; the British in Siam were therefore subject only to British law, while the Siamese in Britain enjoyed no reciprocal privilege.

More treaties were then made with other powers, further undermining national revenue and legal rights. The Bowring treaty was, of course, the economic and social revolution of Siam. Mongkut's reign saw immense commercial activities in Siam for the first time, which led to the introduction of coinage in 1860. The first industries in Siam were rice milling and sugar production. The infrastructure was improved e.g. paving of roads and canal digging - for transport and water reservoirs for plantations.

Anna Leonowens

In 1862, on recommendation by Tan Kim Ching in Singapore, an English woman named Anna Leonowens, whose influence was later the subject of great Thai controversy, was hired. It is still debated how much this affected the worldview of one of his sons, Prince Chulalongkorn, who succeeded to the throne. Her story would become the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, as well as the Hollywood movies of the same title, which, because of their incorrect historical references and supposedly disrespectful treatment of King Mongkut's character, were for some time banned in Thailand as the Thai government and people considered them to be lèse majesté (an illegal insult to the king or monarchy). To correct the record, well-known Thai intellectuals Seni and Kukrit Pramoj in 1948 wrote The King of Siam Speaks (ISBN 9748298124). The Pramoj brothers sent their manuscript to the American politician and diplomat Abbot Low Moffat (1901-1996), who drew on it for his 1961 biography, Mongkut the King of Siam ISBN 0801490693. Moffat donated the Pramoj manuscript to the United States Library of Congressmarker in 1961. (Southeast Asian Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress)

Anna claimed that her conversations with Prince Chulalongkorn 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. It should be noted, however, that the slavery system in Siam was very different from that in the United States, where slavery was based on race. Slavery in Thailand was often voluntary and due to economic condition. One could be punished for torturing slaves in Siam and some slaves could buy their freedom. Western scholars and observers have commented that Siamese slaves were treated better than European servants.

Death and Legacy

Astronomy was always Mongkut's interest. In 1868, when he invited Sir Harry Ord, the British Governor of Straits Settlementsmarker from Singaporemarker, as well as a party of French astronomers and scientists, to watch the total solar eclipse of 18 August, which King Mongkut himself had calculated two years earlier, at (in his own words) "East Greenwich longitude 99 degrees 42' and latitude North 11 degrees 39'." The spot was at Wakor village in Prachuap Khiri Khan provincemarker, south of Bangkok. King Mongkut's calculations proved accurate, but during the expedition King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn were infected with malaria. The king died six weeks later in the capital, and was succeeded by his son, who survived the malaria.

As in 1868, the foreigners again filled in Siam. However, they came with the new colonialism. Mongkut had initiated the reforms and modernization of traditional Siam, as Siam gained acceptance and became a rightful nation in world diplomacy. The Western threats would be immense in the reign of his son Chulalongkorn.

Contrary to popular belief, King Mongkut did not offer a herd of war elephants to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War for use against the Confederacy. He did, however, offer to send some domesticated elephants to President James Buchanan, to use as beasts of burden and means of transportation. The royal letter, which was written even before the Civil War started, took some time to arrive in Washington DCmarker, and by the time it reached its destination President Buchanan was not in office any longer. Lincoln is said to have been asked what the elephants could be used for, and in reply he said that he did not know, unless "they were used to stamp out the rebellion."[33115] In his replying letter Lincoln, who succeeded Buchanan as the US President, respectfully declined to accept King Mongkut's proposal.[33116]


  1. 'King's Ears Won't Hear Songs From "King and I"', Washington Post (28 June 1960), pg. C1.
  2. Marguerite Higgins, 'Siam King Found Shy And Welfare-Minded', Washington Post (30 August 1951), pg. B11.
  3. Lawrence Meyer, 'Court And “The King”', Washington Post (21 November 1972), pg. B2.
  4. Landon v. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 384 F. Supp. 450 (S.D.N.Y. 1974), in Donald E. Biederman, Edward P. Pierson, Martin E. Silfen, Janna Glasser, Law and Business of the Entertainment Industries, 5th edition (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2006), pp. 349-356.
  5. 'Thailand bans “Anna and the King”', Asian Economic News (3 January 2000). Accessed 29 August 2008.
  6. Accordingly, the Hollywood depiction of the bare-chested Kralahome (prime minister) in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and Yul Brynner’s shirtless King Mongkut in The King and I (1956) are not only historically inaccurate, but considered by Thais to be offensive to the memory of the reformist monarch.
  8. NASA: Solar Eclipses of Historical Interest


  • Abbot Low Moffat, 'Mongkhut, the King of Siam', Cornell U. P. 1961
  • Constance Maralyn Wison, 'State and Society in the Reign of King Mongkut, 1851-1868: Thailand on the Eve of Modernization', Ph. D. thesis, Cornell 1970, University Microfilms.
  • B. J. Terwiel, 'A History of Modern Thailand 1767-1942', University of Queensland Press, Australia 1983. This contains some anecdotes not included in the other references.
  • Stephen White, 'John Thomson: A Windows to the Orient', University of New Mexico Press, United States. Thomson was a photographer and this book contains his pictures some of which provided the basis for the engravings (sometimes mis-identified) in Anna Leonowens' books. There is reference to Mongkut in the introductory text.

External links

  • The King's Thai: Entry to Thai Historical Data - Mongkut's Edicts maintained by Doug Cooper of Center for Research in Computational Linguistics, Bangkok; accessed 2008-07-11.

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