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Siam in the 19th Century

Part 1: A Short History of Siam

Concerning the Effects of the Policies of His Majesty, King Chulalongkorn of Siam. The changes brought to the society and the Economy, and the effects Thereof.

by Chris Jones

The kingdom of Siam stands as one of the few non-western nations to have escaped domination by western powers in the nineteenth century. This was due in large part to the efforts of two extraordinary Siamese Kings, Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn. Under their rule, Siam made great strides towards following Japan along the path of westernization and modernization.

Due to several factors, Siam's attempts were not as completely successful as those of Japan. But in the late nineteenth century, it would appear to outside observers that Siam was charging down precisely the same path as Japan, and may indeed have been threatening to catch up.

Siamese Development: 1851-1900

The modernization of Siam began with the fourth king of the Chakri dynasty, King Mongkut. Mongkut took the throne just as Great Britain and France were showing a growing interest in acquiring lands in Southeast Asia, and he was determined not to see his country go down the same route to subservience that Siam's long-time rivals Annam (Vietnam) and Burma had.

Mongkut set out to slowly reform and modernize his country so that it would be better able to stand up to the European powers. Among Mongkut's reforms were the codification and publication of the country's laws, the election of judges (a failed reform that was abandoned), allowing citizens to petition the king for the redress of grievances, and an attempt to alleviate the poor condition of slaves. Breaking with tradition, Mongkut allowed his subjects to look at him, and even went so far as to make frequent public appearances.

Mongkut had dozens of children, and planned to turn the throne over to his eldest legitimate son, Chulalongkorn, when the boy reached age 20 in 1873. Unfortunately, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn both contracted Malaria on a trip to the Malay peninsula in 1868. Mongkut died from the disease, and Chulalongkorn seemed likely to die as well. Upon the king's unexpected death, the diseased Chulalongkorn became king at the age of fifteen, and a regent was appointed to guide him until he reached majority. Since the boy seemed unlikely to live, the new regent took the liberty of appointing Prince Wichaichan (an older nobleman) as Chulalongkorn's heir-apparent. Assuming the boy died and Wichaichan became king, he would owe a debt of gratitude to the regent.

Surprising everyone, Chulalongkorn didn't die, but did remain sickly for several years. Chulalongkorn turned out to be a bright and well-educated young man of fairly radical political leanings. He tried to enact several reforms in 1872-73, including the appointment of a royal privy council, the sale of government-owned opium and gambling houses, and, most importantly, the gradual abolition of slavery. Many entrenched forces within society felt threatened by the reforms. All of them either undermined the power of the lesser nobility, increased the power of the king, or both.

Late in 1873, members of the new privy council wished to grant the king the power to change his designated heir. The current heir, Wichaichan, was a political foe of the king, but tradition forbade Chulalongkorn to choose someone more to his political liking. Wichaichan was enraged by this motion, and rallied the anti-Chulalongkorn forces against the young king. Wichaichan had Chulalongkorn's palace set on fire, then had some of his men show up, fully armed, and demand to be allowed into the palace under the guise of fighting the fire. Chulalongkorn refused, and the fire was put out. His coup attempt a failure, Wichaichan took refuge in the British Consulate and attempted to rally political support for himself both in Siam and abroad. Siam teetered on the edge of a civil war.

Finally, Chulalongkorn backed down and abandoned his reforms. Because of the young king's political vulnerability, the status quo remained largely unchanged for more than a decade. It was only as the old guard in the ministerial positions started dying or retiring in the 1880s that Chulalongkorn was able to replace them with his men more to his liking. It wasn't until 1888 that he had his own hand-picked men in every key position in government. Chulalongkorn had finally achieved total control of his government.

Chulalongkorn had a very clear plan for modernizing his country, and set out to do so in a methodical way. He reformed the educational system, bringing it more in line with European systems. He began construction on railroads and other civic improvements. He appointed a particularly clever brother, Prince Damrong, to run the provincial administration. Within a very few years, Damrong's reforms had radically improved provincial management. Corruption and cronyism were in decline and tax revenues from the provinces had tripled. Chulalongkorn eventually enacted a plan to phase out both corvee labor and slavery, which would make all men in Siam free by the early twentieth century.

The single greatest threat to Siamese independence in the 1890s was France. Throughout the late 19th Century, the French had been exploring further and further up the Mekong river valley, searching for a "back door" into the riches of China. Most of the Mekong Valley lay well within the borders of Siam. The French naturally felt that their expeditions would be safer and the area better managed if France took ownership of this land. French paranoia about an independent nation so close to their Annam and Cambodia protectorates only served to exacerbate the problem.

Finally, in 1893, the French forced an incident along the Siamese border with their protectorate of Annam, and used it as an excuse to demand land concessions along the Mekong from Siam. Although Siamese soldiers had been defending internationally recognized Siamese borders against troops of a foreign country, the French demanded that the soldiers responsible be tried for murder. Three French gunboats forced their way up the Menam (or Chao Phrya) River to Bangkok and demanded the Siamese comply. Siam, knowing it couldn't hope to win a war with France, appealed to Britain to bring pressure on the French to observe international law and abandon their spurious demands. The British refused to intervene, and the Siamese gave in to the French demands, losing significant territory to the French.

Aside from French meddling, Siam's development suffered from a number of other hindrances. One was that Chulalongkorn refused to borrow money from foreign banks. While this was a solid guarantee against problems caused by foreign debts, it limited the rate at which modern infrastructure could be constructed, and at which the economy could expand.

Another obstacle to growth was an extreme shortage of educated men to fill vital roles in society. Westernization meant introducing modern bureaucracies and book-keeping methods, creating a high level of demand for rational administrative skills at all levels of government and business. These things required educated minds, and the western-style schools that Chulalongkorn established were very hard-pressed to keep up with demand.

Siamese Society

Like most pre-industrial societies, Siam in the middle of the nineteenth century was a country populated primarily by peasant farmers. The typical Siamese peasant lived in a small village in the Menam river basin. He had to split his time between his rice crops and performing his corvee labor for the local nobleman. Because a farmer spent so much of his time at work on the nobleman's projects, his own rice production was relatively poor.

Though Siam was officially an absolute monarchy, the nobles of Siamese society had grown in power over the span of the Chakri dynasty, and by the time of Mongkut's reign they were powerful enough to exert significant influence over the king himself. During the reign of Chulalongkorn, the nobility lost much of its power to government officers and bureaucracies, as well as to the king. A reluctance by Siamese nobles to send their children for western-style educations meant that there was little place for them in the new Siam. Thus the majority of the new bureaucrats came from Chinese or Siamese merchant families.

Traditionally, the level of a family's nobility decreased with each generation, and by the sixth generation the descendants of nobles were considered commoners. While the children and grandchildren of a king were known as phra ong chao (prince), and mom chao (princess), the next two generations would be known by the lesser titles of mom ratchawong or mom luang (approximately equivalent to a baron or marquis).

There were also noble titles, often referred to as ranks, granted to persons in high offices of government or the military. These were usually associated with the level of the office. Thus a cabinet minister or governor of a large province would hold the title chao phrya. Other ranks in descending order were phrya, phra, luang, and khun. The title khun would apply to junior army officers and lower- to middle-level civil servants.

The predominant religion in Siam was Buddhism. From the king on down to the lowest peasant, the Siamese were a deeply religious people. Buddhist temples or wats dotted the landscape throughout the country. In the cities there were dozens of large elaborate wats, many of which were as grandiose as European cathedrals. In addition to this, every home, shop, and boat in Siam had a small shrine to Buddha, which would often contain statuettes, burning sticks of incense, or offerings of fruit.

Buddhist monasteries and monks were a vital part of everyday life, as well as traditional Siamese education. The monks could be seen everywhere with their heads shaved and wearing simple brown or yellow clothing. In fact, so important was Buddhism in Siam, that it was a tradition for all kings-to-be to enter the monastery and live as a monk for several years before ascending to the throne.

Chulalongkorn, realizing the importance of Buddhism in providing unity and stability among his people, stepped carefully while instituting his reforms. He always remained deferential to the church and couched the terms of all of his reforms and programs in Buddhist philosophy.

A map of Siam is included with this article.


Fournereau, Lucien, Bangkok in 1892, White Lotus Press, 1998. (Orig. 1894). ISBN 974-8434-42-7.

Tips, Walter, The 1894 Directory to Bangkok and Siam, White Lotus Press, 1996. (Orig. 1894). 974-8496-77-5.

Wyatt, David K., Thailand, A Short History, Yale University Press, 1984. 0-300-03582-9.

Last Updated Monday, 04-May-2009 19:54:24 EDT

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