Hidden away on the banks of the Chao Phraya river several kilometres south of the thronging tourist attractions around the Grand Palace lies the small but serenely peaceful Protestant Cemetery. The land was granted to the Protestant community in 1853 by King Mongkut (Rama IV) and here rest some of the European and American settlers that helped shape the modern Bangkok that we now know.
The population of Bangkok in the 1850’s was probably no more than 100,000 and the majority of the people lived on the river or waterways. Land settlement only existed for the royal palaces and the major temples. But in the second half of the nineteenth century trade with the West increased dramatically and as the population increased (Predominantly due to Chinese migration) the number of European and American residents also grew. These early residents bought essential knowledge, equipment and skills from the West such as printing, road and later rail construction, and medicine.
Many of these European and Americans braved heat, arduous living conditions and rampant disease to live out their lives in Siam and their final resting place was to be the Protestant Cemetery. A walk through this cemetery therefore gives one the chance to reflect upon the lives and times of some of these great pioneers.
Perhaps the greatest of these pioneers is the American Dan Beach Bradley who lived here for all but three years between 1835 and his death in 1873. Arriving as a Protestant Missionary, this was perhaps the only enterprise in which he notably failed, counting only one convert from his evangelical work. However, he was tremendously successful as a doctor, soon opening a dispensary to which the local populace flocked, treating by his own records 3,500 people in his first year alone. In 1837 a cannon exploded during a ceremony to honour a high ranking government official and several onlookers were injured. In the aftermath Bradley conducted the first successful amputation in Siam, removing the badly injured arm of a monk. Today a monument to Bradley and this event can be seen at Khao Mor Mountain in Thonburi. He also introduced smallpox inoculations to Siam, this being a frequent killer at that time.
Bradley also set up the first printing press in Siam printing in both English and Thai and produced the country’s first newspaper. Bradley encouraged the establishment of Western schooling and education and was a contemporary of Anna Leonowens, the royal tutor made famous by The King and I musical.
The most imposing monument in the cemetery is in memory of Henry Alabaster who died in 1886 aged only 48. Alabaster first arrived in Siam as a translator in 1857 whilst King Mongkut (Rama IV) was still on the throne. He quickly became popular within the royal court and started assisting the Thais in surveying and road building – in fact he helped in the surveying and construction of Charoen Krung a.k.a New Road which is the very road that the Protestant Cemetery lies on. Alabaster continued as a favourite of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) becoming a personal adviser to the king in 1873. He went on to help establish the Survey Office which bought modern mapping techniques to Siam, planned the first telegraph link to the outside world via Battambang in French held Cambodia, set up the first museum within the Grand Palace and finally established the Post & Telegraph Office to bring modern communications methods to the country.
It was in recognition of these many services to Siam for which King Chulalongkorn donated this impressive monument in memory of Alabaster. The King commissioned one of his chief architects for the design, Joachim Grassi, who was responsible for designing many important buildings at the time.
However, a visitor to the cemetery should not miss Alabaster’s actual grave site. This is a much more prosaic affair located some 100 metres from the eye catching monument.
Another arrival in 1857 was Captain John Bush who was soon appointed by King Mongkut (Rama IV) as Harbour Master in order to manage the rapidly growing number of trade vessels arriving at the port of Bangkok. He held this post for thirty years as well as running his own successful Bangkok Dock Company. Bush also frequently captained the King’s own vessel up or down river. It was Bush who piloted King Mongkut’s ship at the head of the famous expedition in 1868 to witness a solar eclipse in the south of Siam (Henry Alabaster travelled on the same expedition leading a group of British astronomers). Under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) Captain Bush piloted the steamship “Bangkok” on the King’s first visit to India in 1871. When King Mongkut bought Anna Leonowens to Bangkok to tutor the royal children it was Captain Bush who met Anna and her son Louis off the steamship that had bought them up from Singapore and offered them sorely needed lodgings for the night in his own home.
“….Captain Bush, a cheery Englishman, with a round, ruddy face, sprang on board; in a few words our predicament was explained to him, and at once he invited us to share his house, for the night at least, assuring us of a cordial welcome from his wife.”
[The English Governess at the Siamese Court, Anna Leonowens, 1870]
Captain Bush’s house was located on what is now Charoen Krung Soi 30 near the Oriental Hotel and the Portuguese Embassy. The street is still marked as Soi Captain Bush.
During Captain Bush’s long career King Chulalongkorn honoured him with a knighthood as well as making him an Admiral of the Siamese navy. The final honour that the King bestowed upon Bush was the obelisk and inscription that he personally composed to mark Bush’s grave.
Where To Go
- The English Governess at the Siamese Court, Anna Harriette Leonowens, 1870
- Americans in Thailand, Robert Horn, Denis Gray, Nicholas Grossman, Jim Algie, Jeff Hodson, Wesley Hsu, Editions Didier Millet, 2015