The Second Empire and Siam: a brief look at Franco-Siamese relations during the 19th century

Author(s) : DAVEY WRIGHT Hamish
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France, Britain, and the Kingdom of Siam

On 27 June, 1861, Napoleon III, Eugenie, and the Prince Imperial received the Siamese embassy, dispatched by King Rama IV, in a grand ceremony in the Sal de Bal at the Château de Fontainebleau, involving a procession of bowing ambassadors, sumptuous costumes, and lavish gifts. The embassy had come to in response to a Franco-Siamese treaty of friendship and commercial interest signed five years earlier.

The Moniteur Universel (dated 28 June) recorded details of this reception ceremony:

“Upon entering the room, the ambassadors and their entourage threw themselves on their knees, then continued onwards, on their knees and elbows, up to the balustrade, behind which was seated the imperial court. This walk was difficult, particularly for the first ambassador who, with his conical, wide-brimmed hat which sat poorly on his head, held in his hands a large golden chalice, with perforated stand, in which were placed two containers each bearing a letter from the co-ruling kings of Siam.

Arriving at their destination, the first ambassador, clearly moved, placed before him his precious burden, and prostrated himself three times, [each time] raising his hands together above his head. As he did this, the other members of his entourage performed the same gesture.”

This ceremonial procession was followed by an address on behalf of the Siamese kingdom, which was translated into French by the accompanying missionary and interpreter for the party, Father la Renaudie.

The reception marked the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between France and the Siamese kingdom (modern day Thailand), which had last been active during the seventeenth-century. (See the Château de Versailles’ article on the 1686 reception held by Louis XIV (external link in French) .) Such relations between Louis XIV and Siam – begun to combat the Dutch trading power, the Dutch East India Company, in and around the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and, perhaps of equal importance, to expand France’s missionary presence in the region – proved short-lived however, and Siam remained closed off to western powers until the mid-nineteenth-century.

This was all to change with the accession of the enlightened and liberal Rama IV, famously portrayed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, a story based on the life of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children and wives of Rama IV. Faced with an increasing western presence in the area and the relatively recent Opium War with China, Rama signed a series of trade treaties with Britain (1855), the United States and France (both 1856), Denmark (1858), Portugal (1859), the Netherlands (1860) and the German States (1862).

The French treaty was based on the work of Bishop Pallegoix, the Vicar Apostolic of Siam, who enjoyed a close relationship with Rama IV. The bishop made the French consul in Singapore aware of Siam’s interest in renewing ties with France. Indeed relations had not been entirely cut off since French missionaries were to continue to operate in the Siamese region after the rapprochement with Louis XIV, despite the Siamese isolationism. Following the efforts of Pallegoix, a French embassy under Louis Charles de Montigny – a French diplomat active in China during the period – was dispatched to the region. France and Siam signed a treaty on 15 August, 1856, setting out peaceful relations, developing free trade commercial ties between the two countries, and guaranteeing religious freedom for missionaries. Interestingly – and indicative of Rama IV’s interest in science and particularly astronomy – it also set out special dispensations and protection for French scientists and academics (“naturalists and others” in the treaty’s words) interested in visiting and performing research in Siam.

The treaty with France was in fact based on that with Britain, the latter known as the Bowring Treaty after Sir John Bowring, British governor in Hong Kong. The agreement redefined and – more importantly – codified import and export duties in favour of the western powers trading in the area, and also removed the trade monopolies held by senior Siamese officials and the nobility, a not insignificant reform. The signing of the treaties in the 1850s led to the development of a large European merchant population in Siam, located in the capital Bangkok (passports issued by the Siamese authorities were still however required for any foreigner seeking to journey into the interior). Of particular note is the establishment of European consuls in Bangkok (many of which later became legations), affording European governments extra-territorial jurisdiction over any nationals based in the kingdom. According to article four of the 1856 treaty, the French consul also acted as an intermediary by which all French citizens looking to interact with the Siamese authorities had to pass. The French consul would subsequently evaluate the request, resulting in either authorisation and subsequent transmission, or refusal. A Siamese national looking to treat with the French consul was before doing so likewise obliged to seek authorisation from the Siamese authorities. Amongst the list of exotic and luxury goods (and their respective customs duty) outlined in the treaty can be found ivory, pelican feathers, shark fins, turtle shells, swallows’ nests (actually produced by certain species of swift), “nerfs de daim” (deer sinew used in exotic soups), and even pangolin skin (an example of decorative, Indian-made pangolin-scale armour, presented to George III, can be found at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, UK (A photo of the armour can be found here (external link).).

As Josiah Crosby, Britain’s Consul-General in Bangkok between 1934 and 1941, notes in his short guide to Siam (published in 1920), “It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the results accruing from [the] treaties and from the consequent gradual penetration of Siam by foreign influences”. L’Annuaire des Deux Mondes from 1858-1859 also noted “The Government of Siam is showing itself more and more favourable towards Europeans, who find at Bangkok not only protection, but sympathy and toleration for their religion. Bangkok has become one of the most considerable markets of Asia; and the kingdom of Siam is reaping the reward of the liberal politics which it has introduced into the extreme East, and which is warmly seconded by France, England, and the United States.”

Further reading

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

Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam, volume II, John W. Parker and Son: London, 1857

Lewin B. Bowring, Autobiographical Recollections of Sir John Bowring, with a brief memoir, Henry S. King & Co.: London, 1877

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

A. Cecil Carter (ed.), The Kingdom of Siam, G. P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1904

Josiah Crosby, Siam, H.M. Stationery Office: London, 1920

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

Anna Harriette Leonowens, The English Governess At The Siamese Court, 1870

John MacGregor, Through The Buffer State: A Record of Recent Travels through Borneo, Siam, and Cambodia, F.V. White & Co.: London, 1896

Charles Meyniard, Le Second Empire en Indo-Chine (Siam-Cambodge-Annam), Société d’Editions Scientifiques: Paris, 1891

Henri Mouhot, Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860, John Murray: London, 1864

1856. 15 août. Traité d’amitié, de commerce et de navigation (Bangkok) (France et Siam)


1. See the Château de Versailles' article on the 1686 reception held by Louis XIV ( external link in French).
2. A photo of the armour can be found here ( external link).

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