Book Reviews

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Two Yankee Diplomats In 1830’s Siam

Edmund Roberts
W. S. W. Ruschenberger.
Edited with an introduction by
Michael Smithies.

2002 232 pp. 19 x 13.3 cm. Softbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-004-4 $19.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-004-9

Book review by Stephen B. Young

(The Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 91, 2003)

This contribution to the Bibliotheca Asiatica series of Orchid Press, introduced and edited by Michael Smithies, presents the observations of an American diplomat and a doctor during their respective visits to Bangkok in 1833 and 1836.
   The two diplomatic missions-the first to obtain a treaty of commerce and friendship from the King of Siam for the United States of America and the second to return such a treaty for formal ratification by the king after it had been agreed to by the Senate of the United States-constituted some of the very earliest forays by Americans into the international politics of sovereign Asian nations. But the reports of Edmund Roberts on his mission of 1833 and of Dr W.S.W. Ruschenberger on the return mission of 1836 provide us with scant insight into the diplomatic arts on any level.
   The accounts were not written for the professional edification of others in diplomatic service or even those interested therein. Instead, Roberts and Ruschenberger wrote for a general American audience to acquaint them with the realities of a far-off land and culture. From this perspective, the two accounts are of considerable interest on a number of points. General readers today thus have reason to be grateful to Orchid Press for reprinting the observations of Roberts and Ruschenberger and to Michael Smithies for editing this publication.
   One historical note of considerable importance is Ruschenberger’s description of his meetings with the royal prince he calls “Momfanoi”, also known as Chao Fa Noi. “Momfanoi”, to use Ruschenberger’s quaint nomenclature, was the younger brother of the future King Rama IV or, King Mongkut. In 1836, Rama III was on the throne and the future King Mongkut had withdrawn from an active life to fulfill the obligations of Buddhist monkhood. Prince “Momfanoi” was, however, a leading and well-known member of the Chakri royal family. According to Ruschenberger, Prince Momfanoi liked to use the English expression “Wow!” to give vent to a very non-traditional public burst of eagerness and enthusiasm in personal interactions.
   Ruschenberger reports “Momfanoi” as being flexible, open-minded, curious about western ways and instruments, and a student of English. We thus see Mongkut’s younger brother setting the very example of promoting westernization that his brother would champion after attaining the throne as King Rama IV. In short, Ruschenberger gives us an insight into the precedents upon which Mongkut built his policy of engagement with the industrializing west.
   Something of reform, an openness to change, was in the air among at least some of the leading Chakri princes even before Mongkut ascended the throne.
   Also of some relevance for future Thai foreign policy are the various comments by Roberts and Ruschenberger as to how the Siamese seemed genuinely to like Americans and to prefer them over other Caucasian nations. Perhaps even as early as 1833 and 1836 the Thai instinct for seeking patrons less able to do harm to Siamese interests was directing their attention towards the United States. Roberts was able to obtain better terms of trade for American vessels should they ever enter the Siamese trade than the English had previously wrung from the Siamese court. And Ruschenberger delights in reporting comments from his hosts as to the honor and dignity bestowed upon representatives of the American president.
   After King Rama V, the sensitive position of advisor on foreign affairs would be given to Americans and not to either English or French nationals. Then, after World War II Thailand entered into a long period of alliance with the United States in order to protect itself from Communism. It would seem, then, that Roberts and Ruschenberger accurately sensed a bias in Thai orientations favorable to the United States.
   On a minor note, Ruschenberger reports that the two Siamese Twins—Sam and Eng—were widely known in Bangkok after their departure for the United States, but significantly for their failure to send home remittances to their mother.
   What I found to be of greatest merit in these accounts are the insights they provide into important determinants of politics: those arising from culture.
   First, descriptions of Thai social and cultural practices of the 1830s found in Roberts and Ruschenberger would apply with equal force to conditions in Thailand within recent decades. Robert’s fixation on the Thai instinct for social hierarchy and for levels of personal subordination to patrons and superiors illuminates a psycho-cultural dynamic so powerful it drives much of Thai politics, corporate practice and government performance standards today. Roberts reports that the Thai “attach a ridiculous importance to mere form and ceremony” which observation, though expressed with the arrogance associated with the colonial era, will not surprise any contemporary sojourner in Thailand.
   Roberts describes Thai dance and music that one can see and hear today in Bangkok. The throne hall in which King Rama in received the Americans in 1833 and 1836 can be visited in the palace grounds today. It has not changed its appearance in any significant way. And we are told many times of the Thai custom of bathing daily. A review of these testimonies to Thai life in the 1830s will reveal just how much has not changed in 170 or so years-just what might be considered to be “really” Thai.
   An equally revealing comment on the durability of “Thai-ness”-for lack of a better word-comes in Ruschenberger’s prediction that the coming conversion of the Thais to Christianity would alone promote the diffusion of knowledge and the advancement of virtue and the success of large scale commercial enterprise in Siam. The Thais never did so convert to that religion but they modernized nevertheless.
   Reading Roberts and Ruschenberger reveals to us the central role played in Thai politics and decision-making of the leading personage, the man of baramee or wasanaa. Roberts accurately learned the conceptual justification for such a practice in the merit accumulated by that person in previous lives under tenets of Theravada Buddhism. We learn from these two accounts that, on a fundamental level of human behavior and motivation, change comes slowly, if at all. Roberts and Ruschenberger present a case for cultural determinism.
   Second, the distaste of both Roberts and Ruschenberger for much of what they saw in Siam reveals the power of Calvinism over their minds. Their religion had shaped their culture so profoundly that they saw the world through colored lenses of Christian manhood and righteousness. Roberts seemed personally affronted at how low the Thais would stoop or crawl in the presence of superiors and how the Portuguese living for generations in Siam and now serving as interpreters had accommodated themselves to this life-style of “unmanly and un-Christian” self-abasement.
   The power of our mental prisms to filter truth and render it comfortable to our minds should not be ignored as we consider the travails of diplomats, business persons, missionaries, and even simple tourists caught up in international experiences.
   The accounts of Roberts and Ruschenberger are thus worth reading as a reminder of our potential for similarly seeing reality myopically.
   A brief reflection on recent American policy towards Iraq with the administration’s conviction that American military force could install democracy there shows the sustaining power of Calvinist perceptions among many Americans of political consequence.
   Those who do not study the past are condemned to repeat it. Roberts and Ruschenberger are worth study.

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