When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

At the time of his appointment as Governor of Hong Kong, Bowring had been granted plenipotentiary powers in respect not only of China, Japan and Korea but also of Cochin-China and Siam. Given his background and the tenor of the free trade times it was to be expected that he would use these powers to extend British commerce on the basis of opening up markets in both South-East Asian states. Despite the establishment of the five treaty ports trade with China had proved disappointing because the Chinese still did not want what the British offered. As France was showing a keen interest in Cochin-China and given the repeated failure of attempts to negotiate a satisfactory trade agreement with Bangkok it was probably inevitable that the ambitious Bowring would set his sights on success in Siam. Merchants in Singapore took the view that the Siamese could well be more receptive consumers than those of East Asia and in this view had the support of British textile manufacturers who were generally fervent free traders. One example was Titus Salt, the creator of Saltaire, a model industrial village near Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. No-one, said one contemporary commentator, were the friends of free trade more energetic than at Bradford. Bowring himself had once been an MP for Bolton, an important northern textile town on the other side of the Pennines. Even in the 1840s British made cloth was an important element of exports to Siam and included,

white and grey shirtings, madapolems etc. figured shirtings, cambrics, jaconets, lappets, fancy muslins, cold and printed long cloths, chintzes, Turkey red cloth, grey and Turkey red twist and light woollen cloths...

Besides enhancing the opportunities to export a wide variety of fabrics, there were also the consequences of not pressing for a new Anglo-Siamese agreement to consider. In 1851 a Great Exhibition had been held in London. It was in a sense a showcase for Britain but foreign products were also on display, some of which gave a salutary lesson to British industrialists. Great Britain had been the first nation to industrialise, but other powers were catching up and one commentator noted the exhibition taught the useful lesson that we possess no monopoly of inventive genius or practical skill. Export markets were vitally important for maintaining economic growth and there was consequent competition for them. If the British did not act might the French, allies at the moment, but still regarded as a threat by many, try to steal a march? And what about the United States?

When Bowring sailed for Bangkok he had no intention of negotiating with the Siamese in the manner of his predecessors. He would certainly not put up with the treatment given to Crawfurd and Burney but then had both the authority and the means for employing effectual intimidation. In such a status sensitive area, where observing the appropriate protocol were so vital, the fact that Bowring was directly accredited by Queen Victoria was very important. Burney had merely been accredited to the Governor General of India and even Brooke’s credentials were only authorised by the Foreign Secretary. In contrast Bowring was the direct representative of the British monarch herself. As for the means of intimidation the Siamese were well aware of the power of the steam driven warship and of how important these had been in the British defeat of Burma. Bowring arrived on the Rattler and insisted on a 21 gun salute, a move that would have been approved of by other frustrated negotiators, for the British were by no means the only ones pressing for access to Siamese markets just at that moment. The United States was certainly interested and in the the following year the American envoy Townshend Harris said;

The proper way to negotiate with the Siamese is to send two or three men of war of not more than sixteen foot draft of water. Let them arrive in October and at once proceed up to Bangkok and fire their salutes.

Fortunately for Siam Bowring’s determination not to be trifled with did not lead to the kind of aggressive action seen in China and Burma. In a large part this was due to the reins of power having recently passed into the hands of the prince denied the throne in 1824. He became Rama the Fourth and was usually referred to as King Mongkut by the British. After being overlooked Mongkut had become a monk, avoiding political intrigue. He did not choose to retire to a life of religious contemplation however, for not only was he active in reforming Buddhism in Siam, but, freed from the responsibilities of kingship, was able to pursue studies of Western science and technology. Based in Bangkok and having frequent contact with Westerners allowed Mongkut, or Vajiranyan as he was known when a monk, to develop English language skills and keep abreast of political developments. In his long period of observation he apparently drew the conclusion that, sooner or later, Siam would either have to reach an accommodation with the West, particularly, Britain, or see her independence and sovereignty jeopardised. He must doubtless have wondered if the British had ambitions to instigate a full scale annexation. For their part the British, particularly Brooke, were keen to identify and support a suitable successor to Rama the Third and saw in Mongkut, who clearly had a modernising outlook, someone likely to give them what they wanted at the least possible cost. Consequently, when the old king died British influence played a part in ensuring Mongkut became the next Siamese monarch.

Within four years of acceding to the throne King Mongkut was to sanction the drafting of a treaty that, when ratified, would radically alter the basis of the economy of his country and hand substantial power to the British. The final document was not long but at a stroke destroyed the old Siamese system of foreign trade based on what was known as Royal Storage. This was a royal monopoly supported by a structure under which several taxes might be imposed on a single product as it was taken through the country. The new treaty ended this monopoly, stopped multiple tax gathering and set a standard 3% import tax on most commodities, bullion and opium being major exceptions. The calculation of Bowring and other free traders was that the change would have a beneficial effect similar to that which had occurred after the monopoly of the East India Company had ended. In the short term there might be a reduction in state revenues but the advent of free trade would provide an opportunity for entrepreneurs and stimulate economic growth that would eventually lead to these being substantially increased. Bowring evidently had no qualms about the duty free import of opium but then his eldest son, John Charles Bowring, was secretary to the mission to Siam and had become a partner in Jardine Matheson in the previous year. Bowring himself had been indebted to this company when facing financial difficulties in the late 1840s.

As the 3% duty rate was enshrined in the treaty and could only be changed if the British agreed, Siamese autonomy on import taxes was effectively conceded to a foreign power and would not be completely restored for seventy years. Brooke had made the point that, ultimately, any new treaty might need to be enforced or it would be but wasted parchment but in the event there was no need to threaten military action to ensure the terms of the treaty were adhered to even though it caused considerable resentment amongst the powerful middle men who had benefited from Royal Storage. Brooke thought any war against Siam would be merely a petty one, but Mongkut skilfully avoided any confrontation that might lead to armed conflict, which was hardly likely to be petty as far as Siam was concerned. Instead he chose to try and modernise and reform his kingdom so it would be better able to cope with the demands of the new global world trade system into which it had been drawn.

His work done Bowring sailed back to Hong Kong. He was not to visit Siam again but protocol demanded the treaty be ratified before final copies were exchanged. Harry Parkes was entrusted with the job of taking the English language version to London and to ensure its safe return, a process that was to take the best part of a year and, in an echo of niceties of suzerain, Queen Victoria was to send a personal letter and presents to King Mongkut with the approved treaty.

As documents and gifts were being prepared in London Richards was preparing his ship for a voyage to the Gulf of Siam too. The final exchange of the treaty and acceptance of any necessary clarifications and additions would be important events, the gravity of which would be underscored by a British naval presence. The Saracen would have important work to do in anticipation of the growth of trade too and it was to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River that she departed in December 1855.

Chapter 22 - To the Gulf of Siam

Back to Introduction

Chapter 21 - Bowring and Siam

Commanders and clippers

The Indian court at the Great Exhibition of 1851

King Mongkut of Siam