Great Britain and Siam after 1855: informal empire and /or war with France?

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Britain becomes a local hegemon

When Britain began extending her influence over Burma and finally crushed all resistance in the First and Second Anglo-Burmese wars (1824-6 and 1852, respectively), the kingdom of Siam was forced to come to terms with the British superpower encroaching on her areas of influence. Britain on the other hand was not the only threatening European power in the region. When France began annexing Cochin China to the east of Siam (from 1858), Siam was thereupon caught between two conflicting and mutually competitive imperial projects. Indeed, France's interest in Cochin China dated from the period following a crucial moment at which Siam bowed to external pressure. In 1855, the Siamese king, Mongkut, and the British envoy and governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, signed the Bowring Treaty. This document, which effectively opened up Siam to the possibility of British trading activity free from heavy trade tariffs both with and within Siam, was notable for several reasons. Perhaps the most significant was that the acceptance of the treaty explicitly recognized British power in the region. In the letter that Mongkut wrote to Queen Victoria accompanying the treaty, the Siamese king noted that the treaty was “made according to the Siamese Royal custom for very respectful compliment to the Sovereign of Superior Kingdom, not to the equal or inferior”. And Mongkut further recognized the implications of this document when he referred to it as “a humiliating concession to [a] foreigner”, and furthermore encouraged Bowring to agree a similarly demeaning treaty with Cochin China so as to put Siam and Cochin China on the same inferior footing thus rendering traditional Siamese superiority over Cochin China intact.

Siam and China

However, whilst accepting the Bowring Treaty as an act of subservience, Mongkut also expected the document to have a certain resonance in neighbouring China. Before the treaty, Siam had been obliged to render a token ‘feudal' offering, the “Bunga Mas” [golden flowers], to China, as her local hegemon – a gesture of implied inferiority which Siam expected from her own clients. An act of subservience by Siam towards another hegemon, in this case Britain, would send a message to China that she was not the only strong figure in the region. So, whilst Siam kicked against British superiority, she was also encouraged by greater British presence in the zone and the recent humiliation of China by Britain and France in the First Opium War, thus underpinning Siam position of pre-eminence within the territories of her sphere. If Siam could prevent Britain from annexing her, in theory the former could gain: a) financially, by the granting of concessions (mineral and precious stone mines, railways and canals) to adventurers from the British Empire, and b) territorially, Britain's tutelage making it possible for Siam to extend her influence and power over areas on the periphery of the kingdom with tendencies towards autonomy and also to guarantee military support, given that Britain and France, though occasionally allied in Europe, were more frequently in fierce competition in lands far from the respective metropoles. Indeed, Siam used expressions of fear of China as a cover for preparing defence against possible French invasion. Siam therefore derived three advantages from subservience to Britain, simultaneously loosening her subservience to China, protecting herself against French aggression, and also preserving her status as local hegemon.

Siam and France

As noted above, France's position as an encroaching power on Siam's eastern borders – firstly in the region of Cochin China around Saigon and later in Cambodia, a traditional area of Siamese influence – was always presented by Siam to its British partners as a threat. Not only did this speak to a traditional (to a certain extent also well grounded) British diplomatic distrust of French policy, thus possibly attracting British military assistance, but it was also a fear which came true when, in 1893 during the Franco-Siamese crisis, France annexed the Middle and Upper Mekong, and Siam was forced to cede the Lao kingdoms east of the Mekong river, pay France a 3 million franc indemnity and to tolerate occupation of the eastern coastal areas of the gulf of Siam.
On the other hand, French Cochin China was not the only way France disturbed Siamese independence. As I shall show below, Siam via the Bowring treaty had allowed British entrepreneurs access to territory and raw materials in Siam proper and in more tenuously held territories of Siamese influence such as the northern Shan States – notably in coal mines and the teak forests of the Shan States (though gold and sapphire mines were also mooted). In fact, King Mongkut had complained of a plague of British concession hunters. Siam then, it can be seen, was sensitive to growing internal influence and power via limited British imperial companies and syndicates who would trade in Siamese raw materials and exploit Siamese natural wealth, this in turn leading also to political and financial influence and power, creating a situation which some have called ‘informal empire'. Since Siam was sensitive to this, but also keen wherever possible to play British diplomacy off against its French counterparts, she reacted allergically when British-proposed major schemes of civil engineering that included French collaborators or financiers. This was certainly the case in the mid-1880s when a certain Captain Barnes made demands for a concession regarding the sapphire mines near the border with French Cochin China (a point and mine of high strategic import). Though Captain Barnes' scheme was initially well received, this positivity was snuffed out when the Siamese discovered that he had a French partner and they cancelled the arrangement. The same was true of the massive scheme to build a ship canal through the Kra isthmus. The Siamese strongly objected to the presence of French engineers, entrepreneurs and financiers in this British project – though this presence was in fact logical given French expertise (both technical and financial) derived from the ongoing (largely successful) experience of the creation of the Suez canal and De Lesseps' own subsequent scheme to mount a Panama Canal project. In fact, the presence of Frenchmen in the project led to the refusal of contracts to British engineers. The creation of a short cut to Saigon which by-passed British-held Singapore, was seen in Siam as too favourable to France. But even this was a least-worst scenario – a Franco-British partnership in the building of the Kra Canal appeared to the Siamese to presage partition of Siam itself. Indeed,  British support for the project (the British government was present on the Suez Canal financing committee) implied to the Siamese that the British would combine with France to carve up Siam.

The Burma China railway

The Colquehoun-Hallett Burma-China Railway was an even greater cause of discord and distrust on the part of the Siamese as to British intentions – especially since it was seen as the first stage in the British annexation of Siam. The railway had been planned in the first half of the 19th century as an overland route to China, starting from Moulmein in Burma. As Britain then opened up Siam to trade and later annexed more of north-eastern Burma, two British officials in Burma, Archibald Colquhoun and Holt S. Hallett, undertook surveys in the 1880s and proposed a financing package to the Siamese royalty that included them investing in the initial surveying and then guaranteeing the project based on financing from the Indian government. The scheme was to go through many different stages, only finally to be built with Siamese financing in the early 20th century. However, throughout the 20 years of the project and counter project, not to mention British official encouragement, Siam steered a steady course of gentle firmness, basically refusing to undertake the financing alone and forbidding foreign investment. The fundamental reason advanced by British diplomats for this blocking behaviour was that the Siamese did not wish to engage in an arrangement that included extraterritoriality (something which not allow them to get out of the contract) and that they would be glad to have railways if they could get them for nothing.  Some British diplomats saw the railway as a way of preventing French expansion and getting British troops to a putative front line in order to prevent possible French annexation, but (as the Siamese saw) it could also serve to annex Siam for Britain. And despite being besieged with demands for railway concessions, the king maintained that Siam would be the mistress of her own destiny! In fact, she kept her eyes on the goal of the strategic utility of the line for internal Siamese security. The railway line as built would in the end allow the swift transport of Siamese troops towards eastern Siam and lands threatened by French expansion, but did not, most importantly, provide a link to Burma, the part of the project so redolent of British encroachment.

The problem of the Malay Peninsula

Franco-British-Siamese relations reached new levels of complexity in the issues related to the fate of the Malay States, in principle lands subordinate to Siam but which according to British and British-Singaporean politicians and businessmen preferred independence and indeed annexation by Singapore. A Franco-British company, the Malay Peninsula Exploration Syndicate or MPES, was founded in early 1886 by the French politician and Consul in Hué, François Deloncle, and the leading British merchant based in Singapore, W. H. Read. This syndicate was supposed to be a British majority company (to pacify potential Siamese objections, though nevertheless with French shareholders), located and registered in London, whose raison d'être was the creation of infrastructure in the Malay peninsula such as roads, railways, tramways, irrigation canals and also potentially a maritime canal– a nod towards the Kra project. Siam met the idea with its usual mixture of downright refusals and temporising. The French and the British on the other hand were, as usual, attempting to stab each other in the back. Indeed W. H. Read was particularly frank about this. In a private letter, he remarked that British presence in the syndicate was simply to torpedo potential French attempts at annexation of the Malay States and thereafter Siam as a whole. Indeed, British fears were not entirely ungrounded since in 1885, the French Ambassador in London had proposed the partition of Siam to Foreign Minister Lord Salisbury, a proposal rejected out of hand since British politicians in both London and Anglo-India were nervous about a contiguous Franco-British border and preferred to keep Siam in existence as a buffer state. Furthermore, Siam also played mind games with the British. In one interview in the late 1880s, the Siamese Prince dealing with the project, Thewawong, leaked to the British Minister, Earnest Satow, that the French Consul Deloncle had attempted to render the Kra canal project more attractive by stating that it would prevent British encroachments! Faced with Siamese rejection, the syndicate melted away.


When Britain took control of northern Burma after the Third Burmese War (1885), British logging companies active in those parts desired to enter neighbouring Shan States nominally under Siamese control in order to exploit the teak forests there. Since these regions were distant from Bangkok and resistant to control from the capital, the Siamese royal agent welcomed chances to bring order and trade to parts of the kingdom that were difficult to manage. British diplomats lobbied Siamese royal administrators for concessions that could be used by British companies, notably the Borneo Company Ltd and the Bombay Burmah Trading Company. The diplomats also underlined that the presence of these companies would be a check on French encroachment in those parts, though it was clearly of interest to British northern Burma to have Siam between it and French possessions further East. It has been argued that this lobbying and subsequent British monopolisation of teak production in the Siamese Shan States is an example of informal empire. Though when taken in the context general British patience in the face of Siamese stalling and her not resorting to force as she had done in Burma, this is a very passive and at least legal attempt at influence and trade. Indeed, the teak forests remained probably the only significant large-scale British exploitation of Siamese raw materials in the period.


Siam's careful play of her weak position in the face of two powerful imperial neighbours was remarkably successful. Perhaps conscious of Britain's interest in buffer state rather than an expansion of the Empire, she toyed with her suitors, though never went so far as to provoke invasion, partition or occupation. One could possibly argue that the self-financing of the railway was in some ways a failure, but it was a success in terms of autonomy and self-determination. One political feature which perhaps was in Siam's favour, was the liberal nature of the British government under Gladstone in the period 1880 to 1885, which in principle believed in the peaceful coexistence of all nations great and small, precisely the period when France proposed partition and which was rejected firmly both at home and in Anglo-India. And even though those on the spot (notably in Singapore and the Malay States) were raving annexationists, the combination of reticence in London and immobility on the part of the Siamese royalty meant the continuation of an independent Siam. As regards the question as to whether British policy in Siam was informal empire or economic war against France, one could reply that there attempts to do both. However, outplayed by outwards displays of friendship and firm immobility back stage, but also convinced that Siam's major utility was her status as a buffer state, Great Britain found herself obliged, almost despite herself, to act according to the rule of law and to respect Siam's autonomy.


Gregory A. Barton & Brett M. Bennett, “Forestry as Foreign Policy: Anglo-Siamese Relations and the Origins of Britain's Informal Empire in the Teak Forests of Northern Siam, 1883-1925” in Itinerario: International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction, vol. 34, issue n° 2 (2010), pp. 65-86

Nigel Brailey, “The Scramble for Concessions in 1880s Siam”, in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 33, issue n° 3 (1999), pp. 513-549

Hamish Davey Wright, “The Second Empire and Siam: A brief look at Franco-Siamese Relations during the 19th Century”, on (2011)

V. G. Kiernan, “Britain, Siam, and Malaya: 1875-1885”, in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 28, Issue 1 (Mar., 1956), pp. 1-20

V. G. Kiernan, “The Kra Canal Projects of 1882-85: Anglo-French Rivalry in Siam and Malaya”, in History (Feb.-Oct. 1956), pp. 136-57

Junko Koizumi, “Siamese Inter-State Relations in the Late Nineteenth Century: From An Asian Regional Perspective“, in Taiwan Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 5, issue n° 1, (2008), pp. 65-92


Fondation Napoléon, September 2013.
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