King Rama V
King Rama V of Siam or modern Thailand was born on September 20, 1853. He was the eldest son of Mongkut or Rama IV, immortalized as the king in “The King and I.” King Chulalongkorn, as he was known during his lifetime, took over the throne in 1863, after his father’s death. He ruled through regents until he was officially crowned ten years later. Chulalongkorn quickly established himself as a fair-minded, reforming monarch who sought to modernize his country. He abolished slavery, built the first hospitals and laid the early railways. He also improved Siam’s system of government and laid the foundations of a modern state.
Chulalongkorn also engaged western tutors for all his children and sent his sons to Europe for their university education. However, there were certain customs he did not do away with- including marriage to his sisters. Overall, Chulalongkorn had 153 consorts, concubines and wives who gave him over 77 children between them. These women came from a variety of backgrounds- but Chulalongkorn’s queens had to be of royal blood: in other words, family members.
So Chulalongkorn chose three of his half-sisters as his queens. He justified his action as “due to custom.” However, his attitude to his Queen consort, his sister Sunandha Kumariratana, shows this wasn’t quite the case. For Chulalongkorn loved his sister-Queen- as was illustrated by his reaction to her death.
On May 31, 1880, the pregnant young Queen was making her way to the royal summer palace by boat when the vessel capsized. Sunandha and her child drowned- because royal protocol forbade anyone from touching the Queen under any circumstances- even to save her from death.
Chulalongkorn was grief-stricken. He built a memorial to his lost wife and child at the summer palace and punished the guard who had merely obeyed the law too precisely when he prevented anyone from touching the drowning queen. However, despite his love for Sunandha and his reforming nature, Chulalongkorn never changed the law that brought about the death of his wife.