Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
SIAM. When first known to the Portuguese explorers of the sixteenth century, this country, full of brown-skinned people, or "Moors," was called Siam, from a Malay word (Sâyâm) meaning "brown race," and quite unknown as a proper name to the Siamese, who call their land Muang Tai, "The Free Kingdom." This national designation of the Tai people is significant of the victory of Buddhism, which knows no caste, over Brahmanism, in which men are fixed, as by decrees of predestination, in various ranks of subordination to the Brahmans. Tai (Siam) constantly rejoices in its deliverance from the dogmas of caste, and in the purity of its Buddhism, which is of the "southern" or less modified form of Shaka Muni's teachings. Occupying the heart of the Indo-Chinese peninsula, Siam proper is, geographically, the basin of the Meinam river. A long, narrow strip of land, which runs southward from the head of the gulf of Siam to near latitude 4, forms the isthmus of Kraw, and nearly half of the lessening "Malay" peninsula. The other frontagers of Siam are the wealthy Chinese province of Yunnan on the north, and Annam and Cambodia on the east and south. Siam is thus an axeshaped country, with an extreme length of 1,350 miles, with a breadth varying from 60 to 400 miles, with a coast line nearly equal to its land frontiers. The greater portion of the kingdom is an unexplored wilderness of forest land, the settled portion consisting of teeming alluvial plains, which in many respects resemble the Nile lands of Egypt. The reports of the area vary from 320,000 to 180,000 square miles, a fact which is due partly to genuine ignorance of topography, and partly to the elastic nature of boundaries in those portions whose inhabitants fluctuate in their loyalty to the lord of the golden umbrella. Politically, the neighbors of Siam are the British in Burmah and Wellesley province, the Malays in the peninsula, the Chinese, the Cambodians, the Annamese, and the French who are near enough for possible close relations. The vassalage of some of the people under Siamese rule is of a nominal character; but the tendency is to the increase, rather than the contrary, of Siamese supremacy. Two seasons, the wet and the dry, rule the year. Most of the habitable portion of the Meinam's basin is overflowed from June to August, by which latter month the snows of Thibet have fully melted, and the cities and villages rise like islands out of the Nilelike flood, the people living in boats and moving over the crops beneath. This abundance of neverfailing water in a tropical land makes it a perpetual garden. Plant life attains its maximum, and animal forms are abundant. The dry season lasts from November to April. The thermometer ranges from 64° to 99°, averaging 81°. On the whole, the climate is salubrious, though malarial disorders prevail during the wet season. Europeans, with an occasional visit to a cooler climate, can maintain health, and work during most of the days of the year. Food is excessively cheap, clothing light, and shelter easily erected. The people manifest the traits of a weak and passive race. Their bodies are frail and slim, and their minds quick rather than strong. Their virtues and vices are those usually found in a climate in which nature is an over-indulgent mother, and are fostered by a religion that, like southern Buddhism, of which Siam is the citadel, is full of intellectual subtlety, but allows little outward manifestation.
—Most of the land was formerly held on a semi-feudal tenure, the farming population being kept in practical serfdom, and compelled to work at forced labor during portions of the year. This system of debt-slavery which formerly prevailed, by which millions of debtors in bondage to creditors were branded with the seal or mark of their owners, is now radically modified, and is in course of extinction. Yet the rice is still badly cultivated; and, notwithstanding the fertility of the soil, famines are far from unknown. Yet better methods of agriculture are being introduced. The old plan of driving herds of buffaloes over the fields to level the weeds and turn up the soil, which was afterward harrowed with thorny shrubs, has given way to improved labor, which has greatly increased the output of cereals, and made the export of grain possible and profitable. Rice, cotton, sugar, indigo, various woods, gums, spices, metals and ivory are now exported.
—Of the 12,000,000 souls under Siamese rule, one-third only are of the Tai race, another third are Chinese, the remainder being Laotians, Malays, Hindoos, Cambodians, etc. The Siamese are a mixed people, sprung from Mongolian and Aryan ancestors, and possess the mental and physical traits of both the Hindoos and the Chinese. Nearly half of the words in their language have their roots in Sanskrit. The written language has an alphabet of sixty-four letters, of which forty-four are consonants and twenty vowels. Like most alphabets or syllabaries of Chinese Asia, the Siamese system has been derived from ancient India by Buddhism, though in this instance mediately through Cambodia, the ancient Cambodian character being still used in their sacred books. The vocabulary, which is meagre and mostly monosyllabic, is eked out by tonic inflections, by which one word does duty for several distinct meanings. The language is simple in structure, with few idioms, and in general features resembles Chinese. The spelling, like that of Corea, and most countries having an alphabet unnecessarily large, is in a state of chaos. Writing is from left to right. The national literature is of local importance only, most of what is excellent in it being borrowed from Chinese or Hindoo sources, or closely formed on foreign models. The Buddhist writings are very voluminous. The homely wisdom and keen wit of the people are best expressed in their proverbs. Education is almost entirely in the hands of the priests, who constitute a large and influential class. Siam for over 1,200 years has been intensely and only Buddhist, and it is estimated that the priests obtain for their personal and bodily support alone, the sum of $23,000,000 annually.
—The government is nominally a duarchy, the supreme king possessing about two-thirds, and the lesser king one-third, of the power, the latter acting as a prime minister or first counselor, though, like the other high nobles, taking semi-annually the oath of allegiance to the supreme king. The legislative power is vested in a council of state and the senabawdi or ministry; the former consisting of from ten to twenty counselors, presided over by the king, with the ministers who sit without voting; and the latter, of the ministers or heads of departments. The king can not promulgate laws without the consent of this council, which also confirms the succession to the throne, which, though nominally hereditary, is not always to the eldest son.
—The untrustworthy annals of the Siamese extend back centuries before Christ, but history, in the modern critical sense, begins with the founding of the capital, Ayuthia, A. D. 1350. The civil era, as used by the ruling dynasty,begins at 638 A. D., so that the present year 1883 is the 1245th of Siam. In the sixteenth century the Siamese extended their sway over Cambodia and the Malay peninsula. Among the people trading with them, or serving in their armies, were the Japanese. Relations with Europe were first established in 1513, when the king of Siam sent an embassy with gifts to the great Portuguese buccaneer Albuquerque, who had conquered Malacca. Commerce with Portugal was established, and in 1604 the Dutch took a share in the profits of trading between Bangkok and Europe on the one hand and Nagasaki on the other. The first English vessel arrived at Ayuthia in 1612. Later on a Greek adventurer, named Phaulkon, who had found his way to Siam, ingratiated himself in the king's favor, was appointed by degrees to high office, and persuaded the Siamese to send an embassy to France. This was done, the envoys visiting Paris, and also London, concluding treaties with Louis XIV. and Charles II. The French king sent out embassies in 1685 and 1687, and through the influence or treachery of Phaulkon, a force of five hundred French soldiers were given possession of the citadel at Bangkok, which they held until 1690, when they were expelled, and French influence suffered a bloody, decisive overthrow. In 1782 the Burmans, having invaded Siam, sacked and burned Ayuthia, the present ruling dynasty was founded, and the capital removed to Bangkok. Since the foundation of Ayuthia, in 1350 A D., forty sovereigns have ruled over Muang Tai. Treaties with the East India company were made in 1822 and 1825. The American sea captain Edmund Roberts, of Portsmouth, N. H, was commissioned by President Jackson to make a treaty with Siam, which was accomplished March 20, 1833. Townsend Harris, in 1856, negotiated a second treaty on behalf of the United States, which allowed greater privileges to American citizens. The court of Bangkok has already signified its intention of sending an embassy to the United States, and of establishing a legation at Washington. The present king, Chulalankarana I., born Sept. 21, 1853, succeeded his father Oct. 1, 1868. The second king is George Washington (Kroma Phraracha). During the past two generations, the American missionaries in Siam have been very active in promoting science, education and the introduction of American ideas, methods and machinery, and have been very influential for good at the court. The present kings are well educated, and have begun a series of reforms which promise a new life for the nation, and show that Siam, like Japan, has begun to abandon Asiatic ideals of civilization, and to put herself in harmony with the political ideas of Christendom. In regard to education, schools after the American model have been established for sons of nobles, and an increasing number of Siamese young men are being educated in western science and literature. Dress and etiquette are less restricted by servile customs, trade is being gradually unfettered, and in place of the old fractional currency in paper promises, bronze tokens, minted in England, form, with the silver coins stamped with the effigy of a white elephant, the circulating medium of commerce.
—In 1880 the foreign trade was valued at $10,000,000, the imports being mainly hardware, machinery, dry goods and opium, with which latter article Americans have nothing to do. An increasing fleet of steamers, and square-rigged vessels in the commercial marine, and war vessels after the British model, and army drilled according to western tactics, the adoption of a national flag bearing the design of a white elephant on a crimson field, the granting of perfect religious freedom, the abolition of slavery and feudal or debt bondage, and the beginnings of a diplomatic usage similar to that of western nations, illustrate the earnestness of the rulers of Siam to enter the comity of nations and pursue national prosperity along the lines marked out by the leading governments of the earth.
—LITERATURE. Crawfurd's Embassy to Siam, London, 1628; Pallogoix, Description du Royaune Thai, Paris, 1854; Bowring's Kingdom and People of Siam, London, 1857; Leonowen's An English Governess at the Court of Siam, Boston, 1870; Vincent's Land of the White Elephant, New York, 1874; Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 1868.
WM. ELLIOT GRIFFIS.
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