One Letter - Two Hundred Years of History
Updated: Aug 20, 2018
This week two hundred years ago, a nobleman in the court of Siam wrote a letter to President James Monroe, what is today considered the first official contact between the government of the United States and the Kingdom of Thailand. It was this letter that inspired the Embassy of the United States in Bangkok to organize the “Great and Good Friends” exhibition, which in turn, inspired the creation of our curatorial partnership, Merrion & Smith. To pay tribute to this connection, the story of this historic letter will be the inaugural post in our new blog, which we will be using to chronicle our explorations in museums and collections throughout the world.
In the summer of 1818, an American captain named Stephen Williams arrived in Bangkok looking to trade for sugar, then one of the most coveted commodities in the world. The captain met with Prince Chetsadabodin (soon to be King Rama III), who graciously provided Williams with the goods he sought. The first official correspondence between the Kingdom of Thailand to the United States describes the details of this meeting. What Williams provided the kingdom in exchange for Thai sugar is unclear, but the letter concludes with an entreaty that any Americans returning to Bangkok bring muskets.
Beyond its significance to U.S.-Thai history, this letter contains many details that illuminate early nineteenth century Thailand. The letter concludes with a request for American traders to bring firearms to Bangkok because, at the time, European powers were busy colonizing kingdoms throughout Asia. This request underscores the Thai court’s awareness of the need for Western weapons to defend the kingdom against this threat. It would be through a century of savvy diplomacy, illustrated in moments like this 1818 letter, that the Kingdom of Thailand would become the only Southeast Asian power to never be colonized.
It is also remarkable to see that this letter was written by the nobleman Dit Bunnag, one of the most prominent figures in Thailand’s history. In nineteenth century Siam, absolute power was vested in the monarchy, while the kingdom was run by a collective of ministers who controlled different aspects of the government. The kalahom, who oversaw defense, and the phraklang, who managed foreign affairs and finance, were the two most powerful ministers in the kingdom. For two decades, Dit Bunnag was both. His stature in Thai history is comparable to figures like Cardinal Richelieu or Alexander Hamilton, politicians who had vast influence, but always in the shadows of the seat of power. In the 1818 letter, however, we see Dit Bunnag, writing with the title Phraya Suriyawong, more in the role of a prince’s orderly, still on his way to the highest echelons of power.
For many years, this letter hid in obscurity within the collected papers of President James Monroe at the Library of Congress. A 2014 Didier Millet publication, Americans in Thailand, rescued this historical document from oblivion and put in motion the 2018 celebrations that Merrion & Smith were so fortunate to be a part of. From the beginning of the “Great and Good Friends” project, we knew we wanted the original 1818 letter to be displayed in Bangkok. One complication was that the letter, having been archived over a century ago, was adhered into a bound ledger. Conservators at the Library of Congress were able to carefully remove this letter from its adhesive binding, allowing it to be displayed publicly for the first time ever. Now removed from its adhesive binding, the letter will also be better preserved into the future, ready for the next major exhibition to honor the history shared by our two nations for so many years.
To learn why this letter is in Portuguese, and more about what makes Thailand and the United States “Great and Good Friends,” visit the Google Arts & Culture virtual exhibition.