Europeans had been in the Orient for a couple hundred years by this point. The Portuguese and the Dutch came to trade shortly after Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The British East India Company had arrived in India in 1600 and had taken over effective government of India by 1757. By 1839, the British were starting to pester China about a better trade balance with the first of the Opium wars. And then, the French arrived.
The first French were Jesuit missionaries in the Mekong Delta. They sided with the winners, the Nguyen, of the Vietnamese civil wars and were expanding their influence in the unified country. Ultimately, the stricter Catholic moral codes caused the Nguyen to limit missionary access and to begin to expel the Jesuits. The Church appealed to the Napolean III who sent gun boats in 1858. By 1859, the French controlled Vietnam. By 1863, the paranoid Khmer king of Cambodia, Norodom, invited the French to take over as a “protectorate” to keep the Siamese and Burmese away. By 1885, Laos jumped on the protectorate bandwagon and French Indochina was formed.
The British, not happy to see French gunboats in the neighborhood, ran over Burma, (1852-1885), establishing a Crown Colony. They kept relations more cordial in Malaysia, remaining “advisors” to the Sultanate. In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles signed a treaty with the Sultanate and founded Singapore on an island just off the southern tip of the Malaysian Peninsula.
Southeast Asia had been colonized. Only Siam remained free from colonial influence, which is one of the themes of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (50th Anniversary Edition). The musical is a very romanticized version of a true story. King Mongkut, or Rama IV, of Thailand was astute enough to acknowledge the superior military strength of the European nations. (All kings of Thailand have assumed the title “Rama”. We are about to get Rama X.) He knew he needed to convince the colonialists that Thailand was a modern state that did not need any help from western nations.
In Mongkut’s view, Britain was the leading European power. So, he sought coaching from the British diplomatic representatives on how to appear more civilized. In 1862, he brought British teacher Anna Leonowens to his court from Singapore to tutor some of his 82 children, including the crown prince. In one fell swoop, Rama was able to modernize Thailand, preserve its independence, and salvage the foundering acting career of Yul Brenner. No small feat! His son, Rama V, continued the reforms and the independent course for the nation.
An ironic consequence of Thailand’s insulated self-reliance is that, compared to its neighbors, there has been much less instruction in English and French. Today’s international traveler will be pretty intimidated by the tonal Thai language and its beautiful, but completely incomprehensible script. The written Thai language has 46 characters and 21 vowels, no word separation or punctuation. In fact, less than 20% of the Thai population can read it. As an example, the Thai name for the capitol, Bangkok, was 169 characters, acknowledged by Guinness as the longest place name in the world. Even now, it’s not that easy to get around without a guide.
The Colonial period, until about 1930, was characterized by occasional insurrections and a lot of squabbling between France and Thailand for different parts of Laos and Cambodia. However, this was all about to seem very petty. It is often said that the solution to a problem is to create a bigger problem. In this case, a much bigger problem was looming.