Page images

the performance of any servile office for a stranger as an act of extreme degradation, it was with the utmost reluctance that the chiefs consented to allow a few carriers to support the litters. The Siamese have another prejudice of vanity, more rare than national contempt for all others of the human race. They cherish a horror of permitting any thing to pass over the head, or having the head touched, or bringing their persons into a situation of physical inferiority, such as going under a bridge, or entering the lower apartment of a house when the upper one is inhabited. For this reason, their dwellings are all of one story. But the domicile of the mission had been intended for a warehouse, and consisted of two stories, to the second of which there was no access, save by a trap-door. This occasioned a serious dilemma to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, when he wished to visit and feast the envoy at home. He must suffer in public estimation, if a stranger could, by any possibility, walk over his head; so that though an unwieldy personage, he adopted the alternative of getting into the attic by means of a ladder which was erected against the side of the house.

An immense concourse of people occupied the neighbourhood of the sovereign's palace, to witness the entrance of the embassy on the day of their presentation. The four British officers were alone suffered to go into the hall of audience; and these not until they had taken off their shoes. We shall employ Mr. Crawfurd's narrative of the transaction, and of the equally interesting visit to the white elephants, which immediately followed.

"Opposite to the door of the hall of audience, there was an immense Chinese mirror of many parts, which formed a screen, concealing the interior of the court from our view.

"We had no sooner arrived at this spot, than a loud flourish of wind instruments was heard, accompanied by a wild shout, or yell, which announced, as we afterwards found, the arrival of his Majesty. We passed the screen to the right side, and, as had been agreed upon, taking off our hats, made a respectful bow in the European manner. Every foot of the great hall which we had now entered, was literally so crowded with prostrate courtiers, that it was difficult to move without the risk of treading upon some officer of state. Precedence is decided, upon such occasions, by relative vicinity to the throne, the princes being near the foot of it, the principal officers of government next to them, and thus in succession down to the lowest officer who is admitted into the presence. We seated ourselves a little in front of the screen, and made three obeisances to the throne, in unison with the courtiers. This obeisance consisted in raising the joined hands to the head three times, and at each, touching the forehead. To have completed the Siamese obeisance, it would have been necessary to have bent the body to the ground, and touched the earth with the forehead, at each prostration. I thought the place assigned to us, although not a very distinguished one, the highest it was intended to concede; but we had no sooner made our obeisances, than we were requested to advance, and were finally settled about half way towards the throne. The assigning to us the first place, and our advance afterwards to a more honourable one, was evidently an artifice of our conductors, to exact a greater number of obeisances, than we had pledged ourselves to make; for, when we were seated the second time, the whole court made their additional obeisances, in which we were compelled to join, to avoid the imputation of rudeness.

"The hall of audience appeared a well-proportioned and spacious saloon, of about eighty feet in length, perhaps half this in breadth, and thirty feet in height. Two rows, each of ten handsome wooden pillars, formed an avenue from the door to the throne, which was situated at the upper end of the hall. The walls and ceiling were painted of a bright vermillion; the cornices of the former being gilded, and the latter thickly spangled throughout with stars in rich gilding, Between the pillars, we observed several good lustres of English cut glass. The apartment would have been altogether in good taste, but for the appearance, against the pillars, of some miserable lamps of tin-plate, which had been imported from Batavia, and which were in all likelihood prized only because they were foreign..

"The throne and its appendages, occupied the whole of the upper end of the hall. The first was gilded all over, and about fifteen feet high. It had much the shape and look of a handsome pulpit. A pair of curtains, a gold tissue upon a yellow ground, concealed the whole of the upper part of the room, except the throne; and they were intended to be drawn over this also, except when used. In front of the throne, and rising from the floor, were to be seen a number of gilded umbrellas of various sizes. These consisted of a series of canopies, decreasing in size upwards, and sometimes amounting to as many as seventeen tiers. The king, as he appeared seated on his throne, had more the appearance of a statue in a niche, than of a living being. He wore a loose gown of gold tissue, with very wide sleeves. His head was bare, for he wore neither crown nor any other ornament on it. Close to him was a golden baton, or sceptre. "The general appearance of the hall of audience, the prostrate attitude of the courtiers, the situation of the king, and the silence which prevailed, presented a very imposing spectacle, and reminded us much more of a temple crowded with votaries, engaged in the performance of some solemn rite of religion, than the audience-chamber of a temporal monarch.

"The king seemed a man between fifty and sixty years of age, rather short in person, and disposed to corpulency. His features were very ordinary, and appeared to bespeak the known indolence and imbecility of his character; but, upon this subject, it was not easy to form any correct opinion, owing to the distance we were from the throne, and the sort of chiaro scuro cast upon it, evidently for effect.

"To the left of the throne, we saw exhibited the portable part of the presents from the governor-general: a secretary proceeded to read a list of them; and I make no doubt they were represented as tribute, or offering, although of this it was impossible to obtain proof. The letter of the governor-general was neither read nor exhibited, notwithstanding the distinct, pledge which had been given to that effect.

"The words which His Siamese Majesty condescended to address to us, were delivered in a grave and oracular manner. One of the first officers of state delivered them to a person of inferior rank, and this person to Ko-chai-sahak, who was behind us, and explained them in the Malay language. The questions put, as they were rendered to us, were as follows: The Governor-General of India, (literally, in Siamese, The Lord, or Governor, of Bengal) has sent you to Siamwhat is your business?" A short explanation of the objects of the mission was given in reply. Have you been sent with the knowledge of the King of England? It was here explained, that, from the great distance of England, the political intercourse with the distant nations of the East, was commonly intrusted to the management of the Governor-General of India, Is the Governor-General of India brother to the King of England? To this question it was replied, that the Governor-General of India had been the personal friend of his sovereign from early life, but that he was not his brother. The following questions were successively put: 'What difference is there in the ages of the King and Governor-General-Was the Governor-General of India in good health, when you left Bengal ? Where do you intend to go, after leaving Siam ?"-"Is peace your object in all the countries you mean to visit?'- Do you intend to visit Hué, the capital of Cochin-China? After receiving replies to these different questions, His Majesty concluded with the following sentence: 'I am glad to see an

envoy here, from the Governor-General of India. Whatever you have to say, communicate to the minister, Surirvangkosa. What we chiefly want from you are fire-arms.'

"His Majesty had no sooner pronounced these last words, than we heard a loud stroke, as if given by a wand against a wainscoting; upon which the curtains on each side of the throne, moved by some concealed agency, closed upon it. This was followed by the same flourish of wind instruments, and the same wild shouts which accompanied our entrance; and the courtiers, falling upon their faces to the ground, made six successive prostrations. We made three obeisances, sitting upright, as had been agreed upon.

"As soon as the curtain was drawn upon His Majesty, the courtiers, for the first time, sat upright, and we were requested to be at our ease,-freely to look round us, and admire the splendour and magnificence of the court,-such being nearly the words made use of by the interpreter, in making this communication to us.

"During the audience, a heavy shower had fallen, and it was still raining. His Majesty took this opportunity of presenting us each with a small umbrella, and sent a message to desire that we would view the curiosities of the palace at our leisure. When we arrived at the threshold of the hall of audience, we perceived the court-yard and the roads extremely wet and dirty, from the fall of rain. We naturally demanded our shoes, which we had left at the last gate. This was a favour which could not be yielded, and we were informed that the first princes of the blood could not wear shoes within the sacred enclosure in which we now were. It would have been impolitic to have evinced ill-humour, or attempted remonstrance; and therefore we feigned a cheerful compliance with this inconvenient usage, and proceeded to gratify our curiosity.

"The greatest of the curiosities to which our attention was directed, were the white elephants, well known in Europe to be objects of veneration, if not of worship, in all the countries where the religion of Buddha prevails. The present king has no less than six of these, a larger number than ever was possessed by any Siamese monarch; and this circumstance is considered peculiarly auspi cious to his reign. Four of them were shown to us. They approached much nearer to a true white colour than I had expected; they had, indeed, all of them, more or less of a flesh coloured tinge; but this arose from the exposure of the skin, owing to the small quantity of hair with which the elephant is naturally covered. They showed no signs of disease, debility, or imperfection; not less than six feet six inches high. Upon inquiring into their history, we found that they were all either from the kingdom of Lao, or Kamboja, and none from Siam itself, nor from the Malay countries, tributary to it, which last, indeed, had never been known to afford a white elephant.

"The rareness of the white elephant is, no doubt, the origin of the consideration in which it is held. The countries in which it is found, and in which, indeed, the elephant in general exists in greatest perfection, and is most regarded, are those in which the worship of Buddha and the doctrine of the metempsychosis prevail. It was natural, therefore, to imagine that the body of so rare an object as a white elephant, must be the temporary habitation of the soul of some mighty personage, in its progress to perfection. This is the current belief, and accordingly every white elephant has the rank and title of a king, with an appropriate name expressing this dignity-such as the "pure king," the "wonderful king," and so forth. One of the Jesuits, writing upon this subject, informs us with some naiveté, that His Majesty of Siam does not ride the white elephant, because he, the white elephant, is as great a king as himself!

"Each of those which we saw, had a separate stable, and no less than ten keepers to wait upon it. The tusks of the males, for there were some of both sexes, were ornamented with gold rings. On the head they had all a gold chain net, and on the back a small embroidered velvet cushion.

"Notwithstanding the veneration with which the white elephants are considered in some respects, it does not seem to be carried so far in Siam, as to emancipate them from occasional correction. Two of them were described as so vicious, that it was considered unsafe to exhibit them. A keeper pricked the foot VOL. IV. No. S. 5S

of one, in our presence, with a sharp iron, until blood came, although his majesty's only offence was stealing a bunch of bananas; or rather, snatching it before he had received permission!

"In the stables of the white elephants, we were shown two monkeys, whose presence, the keepers insisted, preserved their royal charges from sickness, These were of a perfectly pure white colour, of considerable size, and of the tribe of monkeys with long tails. They were in perfect health, and had been long caught."

The members of the mission were permitted to wander about the metropolis and its environs as they pleased, and whenever they appeared in a crowd, their presence was announced by shouts. The deportment of the people towards them, in the questions with which they were teased, and the examination of the texture of their dress and the trinkets which they wore, resembled altogether the treatment of the deputations of Osages or Winnebagoes in the streets of our cities. The most consequential of our optimates cannot be more persuaded of his superiority over the blanketted and painted red-man, than were even the lowest of the Siamese in relation to the British officers and their Hindu retinue. Among the objects of attraction for the embassy, none engaged them more than the religious temples, the construction and furniture of which are particularly mentioned. Every church is not only a place of worship, but a monastery of the Talapoins or monks. In one of the temples which Mr. Crawfurd surveyed, the number of regular Talapoins was five hundred, and of noviciates and pupils seven hundred and fifty; he was informed, moreover, that it contained no less than fifteen hundred images, great and small, four hundred of which were of gigantic proportions. Although very costly and ostentatious, these structures are not durable. More credit for piety is gained by building and adorning them, than by keeping them in repair. Hence, they multiply inordinately, only to fall into speedy decay and neglect. The British envoy entered them at a period of religious festival, when they were crowded with votaries of all ages and sexes. Instead of the gravity and decorum becoming the scene and occasion, he was scandalized by a wild clamour and indecent levity. The visiters were at one moment stretched before the idols, and at another involved in some frolic, or singing idle catches. One man, for example, lighted his segar at an incense rod; another played a merry air on a flageolet, before an image; the women, without veils, mixed in the crowd, and practised a familiarity with the other sex, which gave colour to the hint of Mr. Crawfurd's conductor-that the temples were frequently places of assignation. His thirteenth chapter consists in part of a curious and instructive exposition of the Siamese creed, and of Buddhism generally-one of the forms of worship which have exerted the most extensive and permanent influence upon the destinies and opinions of mankind. The

moral precepts of the Siamese are comprised in ten commandments, remarkable enough to be repeated:

"1. Do not slay animals. 2. Do not steal. 3. Do not commit adultery. 4. Do not tell lies nor backbite. 5. Do not drink wine. 6. Do not eat after twelve o'clock. 7. Do not frequent plays or public spectacles, nor listen to music. 8. Do not use perfumes, nor wear flowers or other personal ornaments. 9. Do not sleep or recline upon a couch that is above one cubit high. 10. Do not borrow nor be in debt."


Some four or five of these prohibitions are abundantly sensible; but, according to our author, they are not more efficacious with the Buddhists, than are those of Mahomet with the Turks, according to Dr. Walsh; or those of Brahma with the Hindus, according to Bishop Heber; or a more sacred and unquestionable decalogue, with a very large proportion of a great division of mankind called Christians, according to the experience of every country of Christendom. The impotence of the first and chief of the Siamese commandments, may convey a just idea of the force of all. Mr. Crawfurd remarks, that the abhorrence of shedding blood, inculcated in theory by the worship of Buddha, has had no influence whatever in humanizing the character of its votaries; for, the history of the Singalese, the Burmans, the Peguans, and Siamese, teems with acts of the utmost cruelty and ferocity in a word, there are no countries in Asia, in which human life is held so cheap, as in those in which the shedding of blood is considered sacrilege. In Siam, a strict observance of religious precepts is expected only from the priests. The laity imagine that all duties are performed, if they honour and provide for the clergy, go to church, and keep the usual holydays. Every male in the kingdom, must, at one period or other, enter the priesthood, for however short a time. This step seems to be a sort of necessary spiritual confirmation. The details of the institution are very singular. There are no monastic establishments for females. Almost all the education received by the male children, is in the convents of the Talapoins. Our author encountered among them, a Javanese who had been ordained, and inquired into the reasons of his change of religion. The convert “proceeded at once with considerable vivacity, to a detail of the temporal immunities and advantages of the Siamese priesthood,such as respect from the people, fine clothes, abundance of food, and, above all, a total exemption from labour." Mr. Crawfurd went by invitation into the house of a prior of a monastery. Every thing indicated comfort and plenty. The walls were decorated with Chinese copies, in gilt frames, of English pictures, including portraits of celebrated English beauties. A number of priests were seated on the ground, each with a book before him, placed on a neat reading desk.

The British party, in one of their excursions on the river, remarked the fort which was occupied by the French at the close

« PreviousContinue »