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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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Invitations provided guests with the latitude and longitude of a spot on the Siamese coast where the eclipse would last longest. A mission of French astronomers journeyed more than 6,000 miles from Paris to witness the event. They were met by Mongkut's entourage, including members of the royal family, retainers, skeptical court astrologers, horses, oxen and 50 elephants.

On the appointed morning, August 18, 1868, at the exact second indicated by the king's calculations, the sky went totally dark, a remarkable feat of prediction. Mongkut and his prime minister cried "Hurrah! Hurrah!" The exhausted French astronomers acknowledged his accuracy; court astrologers were nonplussed. But skeptics soon claimed justification for their fears and superstitions; in a matter of days, the king and several others in the royal party fell ill with malaria contracted on the marshy shore.

In October, an ailing Mongkut gathered his advisers and urged them: "please go on with our good work in the interest of the people." Then he lay upon his right side and recited the sacred name of the lord Buddha to fix his mind firmly in the moment of his death. Like the Buddha himself, he died on his own birthday: October 18. Eight years later, his son, King Chulalongkorn, commissioned the bust now at the Smithsonian. It was to be a centerpiece of the Siamese exhibition at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

"A bust is a Western idea," notes Lisa McQuail, an anthropologist studying the extensive Thai collection at Suitland. After years of research, sponsored by the Smithsonian's Heritage of Thailand Project, under the direction of curator Paul Taylor, McQuail has traced the bust to its likely creator: Prince Pradit Warakan, a sculptor who had actually known the king.

In Philadelphia, the Siamese exhibition joined those from nearly 50 other countries. In general, though, Asia's exotic otherness was too much for Americans to accept on an equal footing. Newspapers were reporting anti-Chinese violence in California. The Exposition's opening ceremony was marred by attacks on Asian diplomats. Many visitors had difficulty reconciling the "wonderful things" in the Asian exhibits, as one visitor put it, with the "quaint little people" who had made them.

This was the perfect audience for a memoir by Anna Leonowens called The English Governess at the Siamese Court, which had been published in London and Philadelphia six years before the Centennial. Anna had her eye on book sales and the lecture circuit. King Mongkut did indeed recruit her from Singapore in 1862 as one in a series of English-language tutors for his children. Once in Bangkok, Anna-a woman with a highly questionable background-reinvented herself as a widow of means. In her memoirs she upgraded herself again, presenting herself in the role of the king's trusted adviser and coloring many anecdotes to her advantage. But at points, Anna's observations overcome prejudice and self-interest. "He was more systematically educated," she wrote, "and a more capacious devourer of books and news, than perhaps any man of equal rank in our day."

The view of Mongkut popular in the West today, however, may owe less to Anna than to one Margaret Landon, a diplomat's wife who in 1944 took Anna's memoir and spiced it liberally with romantic daydreams to fashion the best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam. From that came the 1946 movie with Rex Harrison, Rodgers and Hammerstein's disarming songs, Brynner's Tony award and Oscar, and a forgettable 1972 television series.

King Mongkut's bust may soon be in the public eye again. A book on this historic collection of more than 2,000 royal Thai gifts to the United States is under way. In addition, the Heritage of Thailand Project, which has been sponsoring research by McQuail and others, hopes to mount an exhibition of the gifts that will tour the world. King Mongkut would heartily approve.

By David Taylor


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