In 1897 King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) embarked upon his first grand tour of Europe. In his own words, the purpose of this tour was “First, to study how life in Europe is; second, to study how wealth and goods originate; third, to fathom their strength, were they to attack us; fourth, to enjoy myself as well.” On this trip he was to meet with the ruling families and heads of state of Europe, meetings which are still widely remembered through popular magazine articles and photographs to this day. But one of the most important meetings seems also to be one of the least remembered, that being his meeting with Queen Victoria.
Background to the Grand Tour
King Chulalongkorn’s motivation for this trip to Europe lay in the tense political situation in which Siam found itself in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. In 1893 France had used gunboat diplomacy to force Siam to cede its claim on territories east of the Mekong River and France continued to push for further concessions. Meanwhile Britain had massive commercial interests in the north in the teak industry and in the south in rubber and tin, interests that Siam feared would be used as a reason to annex the northern and southern provinces.
After the shock of the 1893 clash with French forces and the ensuing loss of territory King Chulalongkorn and his advisors realised that Siam could never hope to rely on force of arms alone to defend itself against the Europeans. Instead this trip was organised to allow the king to meet on equal terms with Europe’s rulers and so establish that Siam was a legitimate sovereign nation. The king expressed the hope that “my visit could be a chance for our country’s survival“.
The King’s Journey
The King and his entourage left Siam on 7th April 1897 aboard his personal steam-powered cruiser The Maha Chakri. They steamed west to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where they stopped for a few days, long enough to cause a diplomatic incident when Chulalongkorn asked to hold, and was refused, the sacred Buddha tooth relic. Leaving outraged monks in their wake the royal party departed Colombo, headed westward through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea and arrived in Venice on 14th May.
Avoiding the Queen
On June 22nd 1897 Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee commemorating sixty years on the throne. The celebrations included much pomp and pageantry including a lengthy procession through London. Heads of State however were not invited to the celebrations, possibly so that the government could avoid inviting the queen’s grandson King Wilhelm II of Germany. Siam was therefore represented at the celebrations by the 16 year old Prince Vajiravudh, the future Rama VI, who was attending school in England.
Meanwhile King Chulalongkorn had to avoid arriving in England during this period. On the day of the celebrations he was in fact in Vienna meeting Franz Josef I, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Arrival in England
King Chulalongkorn spent eleven weeks touring Europe, predominantly by train, before eventually arriving in England on July 30th where he was greeted at Portsmouth by Prince George, Duke of York (The future George V). They lunched together aboard the Maha Chakri and the king presented the Duke with The Most Illustrious Order of the Royal House of Chakri (The king gave out at least 34 of these decorations on this European tour).
Following lunch the king boarded a train for London, whilst the band of the Shropshire Regiment played the Siamese national anthem. In London he was hosted for several nights at Buckingham Palace, although Queen Victoria was absent. He had a busy program over several days visiting the major sights of the capital. From newspaper reports it appears he was a great success with London society, one paper remarking “Everybody who has anything to do with the King of Siam is delighted by his cheerful, affable ways, and his eager interest in all that is going on. Unlike most of our Oriental guests, His Majesty speaks English so well that the restraint of an interpreter does not check conversation.”
Meeting the Queen
Queen Victoria liked to spend the summer months at her private residence Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. So on 5th August the King and his entourage returned by train to Portsmouth and crossed the Solent by boat to arrive at Osborne House for lunch with the Queen.
The Queen recorded the meeting in her diary;
A very hot day. — Breakfast in the tent, after which saw Louise for a moment, who had arrived yesterday evening at Kent House. — At ½ p. 1 I went down to the Hall, where I was joined by Alix, Beatrice, & my 4 grand-daughters. The King of Siam had arrived just before with Bertie & Georgie, & his son Pce Chira, at the other door. Everybody was in uniform, including the Siamese. Took the King to the Drawingroom, & there he presented his suite to me, all my Ladies being present, as well as Ld Salisbury & Ld Lathom. The King was very friendly & said how pleased he was to see me. We lunched in the Durbar Room, & the Band of the Scottish Rifles played outside. It was a big luncheon, including all the suites. I sat between the King & Bertie, Alix sitting on his other side next to Pce Chira. The King left again at ½ p9, Bertie & Alix having preceded him, in order to receive him.
From the queen’s description the visit lasted 8 hours and given the formality of the occasion with “everybody in uniform” it must have been quite exhausting. Queen Victoria was a famously voracious eater, consuming daily huge multi-course dinners. Thus when Victoria herself writes that “It was a big luncheon” we can be sure that this would have been a massive feast. One guide perhaps might come from an audience the Aga Khan had with the queen also in 1897 after which he wrote “The dinner was long and elaborate – course after course – three or four choices of meat, a hot pudding and an iced pudding, a savoury and all kinds of hothouse fruit – slow and stately in its serving…….. The Queen, in spite of her age, ate and drank heartily – every kind of wine that was offered, and every course, including both the hot and the iced pudding.”
One can only imagine how the king felt that hot afternoon, tightly buttoned up in his finest dress uniform, whilst eating course after course of meats and puddings.
However, despite any physical discomfort there is no doubt that the King would have been thoroughly pleased with the day. Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was by far the most powerful monarch in the world and had been on the throne since before King Chulalongkorn was born. Britain was enormously important for Siam at this time as its major trading partner, as a source of western knowledge and as a bulwark against open colonial aggression from France (In fact just one day before the King departed on his Grand Tour of Europe, Siam had signed a secret convention with Britain which provided protection for Siam’s southern Malay territories). This August afternoon fully achieved the king’s aim of being recognised as a peer of the queen and a monarch of a worthy civilised nation. Importantly it also signaled the close and cordial relationship between Siam and Britain just five weeks before he was to visit Paris where he was very uncertain of how he would be received.
This was a momentous occasion but unfortunately, as far as I am aware, no photographs were taken that afternoon, unlike King Chulalongkorn’s meetings with other European royalty. It would seem that it is for this reason this most important meeting with Queen Victoria is largely forgotten, whilst images of King Chulalongkorn meeting Europe’s other monarchs and leaders continue to be reprinted in popular books, magazines and websites to this day.
The full names of the family and guests mentioned in Queen Victoria diary entry are as follows;
- Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, Queen Victoria’s sixth child, 49 at the time.
- Princess Alexandra (“Alix”), Princess of Wales, wife to Prince Albert, aged 52.
- Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s fifth and youngest child, aged 40.
- “My 4 grand-daughters” appear to have been Princess Beatrice’s daughter Princess Victoria (Aged 10) plus the daughters of Princess Alexandra, Princesses Maud (Aged 27), Victoria (Aged 29) and Louise (Aged 30)
- Prince Albert (“Bertie”), Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s second child, aged 55, the future King Edward VII
- Prince George (“Georgie”), Duke of York, Prince Albert’s second son, aged 32, the future King George V.
- Prince Chirapravati Voradej, Prince Kromaluang Nakhon Chaisrisuradej, King Chulalongkorn’s 17th child.
- Lord Salisbury, at this time the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (His third and final period as PM)
- Lord Lathom, a minister in Lord Salisbury’s government and at the time Lord Chamberlain of the Household, the most senior position in the Royal Household.
Where to Go
Osborne House is open to the public daily, 10am – 5pm
This article was updated on 15 April 2021 to correct the identification of Prince Chira.