Ernest Satow’s First Audience with the King of Siam

Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843–1929) was a legendary British diplomat. He played a key role in Anglo-Japanese and -Chinese relations, particularly in Bakumatsu and Meiji Era Japan, and in China after the Boxer Rebellion. He also served in Siam (present-day Thailand), Uruguay, and Morocco, and represented Britain at the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907. Satow passed away eighty-seven years ago on August 26, 1929.

Young Satow
Young Satow

On his way to Japan, Satow stayed in China for eight months in 1862, where he witnessed the Taiping rebels attacking Shanghai, toured the city of Peking, and trespassed on the royal Temple of Heaven or Tien Tan as a reckless young lad.

A sketch of the Temple of Heaven by Satow
A sketch of the Temple of Heaven by Satow

While Satow served in Japan for his first term of consular service (1862–1882), the country was going through a significant change from rule by the Tokugawa shogunate to the restoration of Imperial rule. He was the eyewitness to a series of historical events, including the Namamugi Incident (in which a British merchant was killed), the Bombardment of Kagoshima, and the Iwakura Mission to the West.

A piece of wood-block engraving attached to the diary entry of 15 February 1867, with the following description: Tenôji [天王寺]
A piece of wood-block engraving attached to the diary entry of 15 February 1867, with the following description: Tenôji [天王寺]
Satow finished his first term of service in Japan in December 1882 and went back to England.  A year later he was appointed the Minister Resident and Consul-General to Siam and served in the country from February 1884 to May 1887. His experience in Siam or today’s Thailand has been well recorded in his diaries and travel journals, which are included in Volume 3 of Diaries and Travel Journals of Ernest Satow (1883–1888).

In the late nineteenth century, Thailand managed to remain an independent nation but constantly faced the threat from Western powers, especially France and Great Britain that had colonized almost all the nations bordering Thailand on the Indochinese Peninsula. France and Great Britain wanted to either control the country alone or partition it into two separate spheres of influence. At the same time, China under the rule of Qing Dynasty never wanted to loosen its grip on this southern neighbor and desired to establish her suzerainty over it through her diplomatic corps led by Tseng Chi-tse (曾紀澤), a prominent Chinese diplomat who had been ministers to London, Paris and Saint Petersburg. Satow experienced all these political intrigues and struggles while in Thailand.

As with all early Western diplomats, the first important thing for Satow was to request an audience with the Siamese King (Chulalongkorn) upon his arrival in Bangkok. He negotiated hard for being “treated civilly” and given “all the honors” he was entitled to as a “Foreign Representative”. Luckily, he hadn’t been asked to kowtow to the King as his predecessor Lord Macartney who was requested but refused to do so during the latter’s historic meeting with the Chinese Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing in 1793.

April 2.

The King has sent down to say that he will after all receive me in full audience.

I started at ¼ to 4 with the Newman & French in uniform. We drove into the Palace by the [blank space] gate, & were set down opposite to the Museum. At this moment a salute was fired by a field battery placed outside the palace opposite the barracks. The outer courtyard was lined with troops as well as the minor one wch. we had to traverse on foot to the great staircase, where we were met by the Minister for F.A. [Foreign Affairs] & conducted into the King’s drawing room, gilded & decorated in European style. Panels in the walls with oil paintings of the King & his predecessors on the throne, & busts of European monarchs. After sitting here for a quarter of an hour, the King’s entrance into the hall of audience was announced by a horrible out-burst of trumpets & drums executing a music of the bagpipe kind, but greatly inferior, wch. was followed by the national anthem. The King who was seated on a throne on a dais of five steps, rose as we entered the hall, & we advanced up the centre, making the usual three bows, till we got to the middle, where the

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Kromatah was standing, at least a dozen yards fr. the King. The “Court Speaker”, who is the son of the Kromatah & vice min. for F.A. [vice minister for Foreign Affairs] read a speech in Siamese, in wch. my name occurred 3 times & Newman’s & French’s once. Then I read a short address to the King to wch. he replied, and I presented the Queen’s letter in reply to Prisdang’s letters of recall. The King spoke a few words, wch. were interpreted to signify his satisfaction at my appontt. [appointment] for wch. I thanked him, & he then asked whether I had enjoyed good health since my arrival in Bangkok, for wch. I again thanked him. Not a word about Prince Leopold’s death [Leopold George Duncan Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha]. After the King had descended fr. the throne, went up to shake hands with the princes, & then took farewell of the Kromatah, who engaged to come to see me on the 10 7th at 10 o’clock. As we crossed the courtyard again, the band struck up “die Wacht am Rhein” [Max Schnecken] for the second time. We then drove to the Wangna’s, where we went right in as far as the carriages could be taken, & after waiting in a detached building, were introduced into the hall of audience. The ceremonial was much less formal than

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at the other places, the King standing on a carpet in the middle of the floor, abt. ⅓ fr. the lower end. Some way behind him was a sort of altar-like throne. The doors ornamented with beautiful conventional groups of trees in gold on black ground, in the Chinese style. The King’s foreign min. introduced us, & I read my address, to wch. the Wangna replied, & coming forward he shook hands with each of us in turn. He invited us to sit down at a table in the rear of the throne, where tea & cigars were offered to us, & some informal conversation took place. After about a quarter of an hour we took our farewell. Here the band played as was correct, “God Save Queen” as we entered, and “Rule Britannia” as we left.

I am told that the King interpreter made use of very servile language in putting my words into Siamese, & that is not the only objectionable point about the business. We ought to have been driven up to the foot of the grand stair case, & have been brought much nearer to the King’s throne. I expected that something of this kind would be done &

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had purposely asked Dewan to send me someone to explain the details of the ceremony beforehand but he declined.

Mr. Shinichi Miyazawa, a retired Japanese professor of English, has spent nearly thirty years researching and transcribing Ernest Satow’s diaries and travel journals the latter kept for a period of sixty-six years (1861–1926).

The transcript edition is being published by Gale in ten print volumes under the title of Diaries and Travel Journals of Ernest Satow

As of today, three volumes have been published, covering the years he spent in China (January–August 1862), Japan (September 1862–October 1874; January 1877–December 1882), and Thailand (February 1884–May 1887).

Book covers of volumes 1 to 3
Book covers of volumes 1 to 3

More information about Volumes 1-3 of Diaries and Travel Journals of Ernest Satow can be found here.




About the Author

Yang Liping is a member of the Gale primary source publishing team. Based in Singapore, he focuses on acquiring and developing Asia-related products, including print, eBooks, and digital archives.