The Object at Hand

Even as a bust, the real king of Siam turns out to be a more complex chap than the bald-headed caricature made famous by Yul Brynner and others

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The first thing you notice is the hair, not a bit like the shaven pate of Yul Brynner. The face appears solemn but not stern, the features sharp around the mouth but not frowning. It takes a moment--after the surprise of a face-to-face encounter at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland-to adjust your past impressions from stage, screen and television to this reality. The object at hand is a bust of His Majesty King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand), the man who loosely inspired the ruler played by Brynner, Rex Harrison et al. through thousands of performances of The King and I in all its incarnations.

So the basic story may be, if anything, a bit too familiar. Everyone remembers Anna, or Deborah Kerr anyway, entering the Siamese court in 1862 to be tutor to the king's myriad children (he had more than 80) while His Highness labors to bring his country not quite kicking and screaming into the modern age. We see him fall under her spell-and vice versa. We hear her sing "Getting to Know You" and we watch a royal ensemble perform an elaborate, showstopping number called "The Small House of Uncle Thomas."

Ever since the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit premiered in 1951, Mongkut has been an icon of the exotic East for many Americans. In the musical, now doing its third successful reprise on Broadway, he is tough and essentially inscrutable (except that he wants to modernize his country), but this is a mere caricature of the real king. In Thailand today, the characterization still grates-imagine a cartoon of Ambassador Ben Franklin drawn by a Parisian etiquette coach circa 1778-which is why stage and screen productions of the story are still banned there. In fact, the Mongkut of history represented by the Smithsonian's life-size, polychrome plaster bust is well worth getting to know.

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 own customs.

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 calculations.

About David A. Taylor

David A. Taylor is completing a book about immigrants, industrial espionage and three families caught up in World War II.

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