The Life and Time of Prince Prisdang

Prince Prisdang Chumsai

For Thailand, the first proposal ever made for constitutional government was by Prince Prisdang Chumsai, who spent most of his life in exile and poverty, and who was all but forgotten. The following is what I've gathered about this prince......

King Mongkut's Ascension

Prince Prisdang was born Feb 23, 1851 (M.L.Manich Jumsai, Prince Prisdang's Files on His Diplomatic Activities in Europe, 1880-1886:4) to Prince Chumsai, the fourth eldest son of King Rama III. Later that same year King Rama III passed away (April 2, 1851) before he ever did resolve to select an heir. Of all the four candidates the King was considering, the objection toward Prince Mongkut seemed to be "the least devastating" ( Terwiel:156) -- the only reservation the King had about Prince Mongkut was his Mon (Buddhist) reformist beliefs that the King deemed incompatible with the existing Sangha order. With the decision not made by the King, the responsibility of choosing an heir of the throne fell into the hands of the PRAKLANG (Dit Bunnak - Somdet Jaopraya Barommaha Prayurawong).

The Bunnak Family

Praklang at the time was "the most senior and experienced administrator" (Terwiel:156) and had been in power since 1822. Praklang was the son of Jaopraya Mahasena, who was married to Nuan, a sister of Queen Amarin of King Rama I. The Bunnak family itself had been serving the Thai dynasties since the Ayuttayan time but began to exert more influences than all the other families since the beginning of the 19th century (Terwiel:240). When King Mongkut (Rama IV), at 47, ascended the throne after spending 27 years in monkhood during his brother's reign, it was by the backing of the Praklang (Dit Bunnak). In fact, the ascension to the thrones of both Kings, King Rama III and King Mongkut, were made possible by the backing of the Bunnak Family -- the most powerful "kingmakers" (Terwiel:167). Evidenced, for example, in the expression of gratitude King Mongkut displayed in front of two of the Bunnak Brothers (Somdet Ong Yai and Somdet Ong Noi) : the King prostrated himself in front of the Brothers during the ceremony to give the younger Somdet a new name.

The elder Somdet (Chuang Bunnak or Somdet Jaopraya Barommaha SRISURIYAWONG) became King Mongkut's chief minister, in charge of the Kalahom. During the reign, Srisuriyawong went on to become a conceder in a series of commercial treaties with many Western powers who came to trade and colonize in the area (Brailey:12), one of which was the important Bowring Treaty which opened the floodgate of European presence in the country, and which, according to Bowring's own personal journal, Srisuriyawong "played a greater role in the treaty than King Mongkut himself" (Terwiel:175). From 1852 onwards, Srisuiryawong's prominency in the affairs of Siam earned him a reference of "Prime Minister" by the Westerners (Terwiel:167). Internally he enjoyed the highest ranks and honors in the Sakdina system that had ever been awarded to a commoner (Terwiel:166).

King Chulalongkorn's Ascension

In 1868 King Mongkut went on a trip to Prajuab to observe a solar eclipse. Prince Chumsai and his young son Prince Prisdang, among others, accompanied him on this trip. While there, the King became stricken with malaria and returned to the capital to lay gravely ill for a month. The King, though physically weakening, was said to have maintained his full mental capability (Terwiel: 210) and to have chosen Prince Chulalongkorn, merely 15 at the time, to succeed his throne. With the support of Srisuriyawong, on the condition that Srisuriyawong himself would become a regent (Terwiel:211), Prince Chulalongkorn, who at the time was stricken ill with the same disease, was to become the next King of Thailand. And the position of Uparat (the front palace -- heir to the throne) was to be filled, according to Srisuriyawong's wish, by Prince Wichaichan, son of Pra Pinklao (the second King during the fourth reign).

Early in the Reign of King Chulalongkorn

The power Srisuriyawong held at the time could not be rivaled. He and his Bunnak Family controlled and supervised many positions and power structures in the land, so much so that it could have been he himself to succeed the throne (Terwiel:211). But perhaps the mere "formal" title of King would mean less to him compared to the real "kingmakers" power and influences he and his family had already been enjoying (Terwiel:212). So the first 5 years of the young King's reign was under the total control of the Regent Srisuriyawong, an "honorable" man (Terwiel:216), who treated the King with all the pomp, respect and encouragement the young King deserved and needed.

It was during these first 5 years of the young King's reign (1871) that Prince Prisdang was taken, along with other royal cousins, to Singapore with the King and left there for an education (Brailey:13). He did very well and was further sent to England to study engineering. He became "the first known Thai to study and graduate from a Western University" (Brailey:13), and with distinctions and awards to boot. Even the Times Magazine reported the Prince taking the first prizes in so many fields of studies upon his graduation at King's College where he attended (The Times dated 7th July 1876) (Manich:5).

Meanwhile back home no rapproachment was to be formed between the King and his regent. King Chulalongkorn matured into a reform-minded young King who sought to "gain control of the revenue collection," (Brailey:13) to "abolish the corvee system, slavery, and gambling, to reform the law courts, and to develop a salaried bureaucracy, a police force, and a regular army" (Terwiel:220). This might have painted a picture of Srisuriyawong as a reactionary figure working against all these reform attempts, but he couldn't be totally seen as such -- he had always been himself "in the vanguard of reformation" (Terwiel:228). The means and speed for such reforms were the differences between him and the young King (Terwiel:228). And without the support of Srisuriyawong and the "Bunnak-dominated" (Terwiel:230) Senabodi (a cabinet of 6 ministers), the young King could not make much progress. So the affairs of the nation in the earlier part of the King's reign was in the controlling hands of Srisuriyawong and the Senabodi; while the King controlled the affairs of the Grand Palace (Terwiel:232).

King Chulalongkorn's Consolidation of Power

It was not untile 1880 when the Buunak's grip of power began to loosen, giving the King a chance to consolidate his power. Srisuriyawong himself would later die of old age in 1883. Earlier on in 1874 the Uparat (Prince Wichaichan of the Front Palace) became embroiled in the "Palace Incident". The Grand Palace was on fire and the Front Palace were accused of setting it. The Uparat fled to the protection of the British Consulate where he held up there for a month, dragging in various international parties to be involved. Although the King had to suffer in the short-run -- the whole incident being seen as a result of the King's fast-pace reforms (Terwiel:227) and as risking the country's sovereignty by invoking Western interference (Brailey:13) -- in the long run it was an incident that eliminated the Uparat, who was stripped of all his military power. And he was to depart as the last Uparat Thailand was to have: the position was eliminated by King Rama V.

Prince Prisdang's Role

Prince Prisdang returned home briefly after his graduation 1876, and went back to England to gain work experience with British engineering companies (Brailey:13).

In 1879 another incident occured, one through which Prince Prisdang participated and won his first diplomatic recognition (Brailey:14). This incident involved Pra Preecha, a commoner from the Amatayakul family who was a middle-ranking government official with large-size power due to the fact that he knew the King personally (Terwiel:231). Accused of embezzlement by Srisuriyawong, he married Fanny Knox, the daughter of Thomas Knox, a British Consul-General, as a bid to save himself (Terwiel:231). Not long after the marriage, knowing he would be arrested, Pra Preecha gave all his possessions to his wife, who by now had become pregnant (Terwiel:231). To protect his daughter's interest, Thomas Knox went to the King, but by now the scandal had blown up and other members of the Amatayakul family were arrested, with charges ranging from malfeasance to murder (Terwiel:231). Desperate, Knox took advantage of the antipathy between the King and Srisuriyawong and accused the Bunnak family of being behind all these charges, assuring the King that he himself was on the King's side and ready with a warship to assist (Terwiel:232). The King didn't take the bait, and London recalled Knox instead of supplying him with the requested gunboat (Brailey:14). Pra Preecha's execution was eventually ordered by the Regent and Fanny took the children and fled Thailand (Manich:236).

Earlier on in 1879 Jao Praya Patsakorawong (Phon Bunnak) came to England (on a mission to sign a new treaty regarding Chiengmai) and met Prince Prisdang there. Their meeting led to Patsakorawong calling upon Prince Pritsdang to serve as First Secretary and interpreter (Manich:7). When Fanny Knox turned up in Paris at the Thai Legation i n destitution, claiming the money left her by her executed husband was all but swindled away by his friends (Manich:237), she wished to tell all to Prince Prisdang (Manich:237). And so Prince Prisdang became an interpreter in this Fanny Knox affair (Bradley:14), whose conclusion was never reached when Prince Prisdang left Europe. A year later the Prince interpreted for another Bunnak regarding the negotiations to modify some unfair treaties, with such a successful outcome that later, in the year 1881, Prince Prisdang, at 29, was appointed the first native Thai diplomatic representative in London (Brailey:14).

Prince Prisdang's rise to power became King Rama V's first chance to establish a direct link with European governments, bypassing Srisuriyawong and the other Bunnaks who had been in power at the time, and thus consolidating the King's power (Brailey:14).

In 1885, the news about Britain's annexation of Burma, following France's control of Vietnam early on, worried the King. He sought advice with Prince Prisdang in London. At first Prince Prisdang replied that he wasn't qualified enough of the affair and that his opinion might be too strong and could displease the King (Manich:253). But the King insisted and to his surprise and anger, since he was expecting a private correspondence, he received a 60-page reply signed by 11 persons. These included Prince Prisdang, 3 other Princes (all sons of King Rama IV): Prince Nares, Prince Savastisophon, Prince Sonabandit, and 7 commoners (senior officials working there at the time) (Manich:254).

This 60-page reply was a Petition that assesed the political and cultural situation at the time and suggested the reforms needed. In short the petition's points are as follows:
No means diplomatic, militaristic, buffer-state dependent, or treaties reliant, would suffice to save the country from being colonized (Manich:254-Sumet Jumsai). And so it was "mandatory" for the country to reform itself internally, in addition to reforms that had already been instituted but so far not adequate (Manich:255-Sumet Jumsai). These additional reforms included: "the change from absolute to constitutional monarchy", the more "clearly defined" Law of succession of the reign, the "eradication of corruption in official circles", "freedom of the press", the establishment of "the law of equality" that would "guarantee equal justice for all", the institution of a "fair system of taxation", a "gradual phasing-in of universal suffrage", the administrative system based on merit and not birth-right (Manich:255-257-Sumet Jumsai).

On a subsequent occasion, Prince Prisdang, in a correspondence to the King, criticized the King on his practice of polygamy, which "doubtless caused the King most anger" (Brailey:18).

The next year, Prince Prisdang was recalled back to Thailand. Prince Nares and Prince Sonabandit were also recalled from their respective posts, and Prince Svaddisophon (only 19 at the time) from his studies in England (Manich:257-258). The Prince came home to, on top of it all, face his mother's awful death of cholera (Brailey:19). Then, thanks to friends, he was able to gain employment as a Director-General of Posts and Telegraphs, while at the same time busying himself with other engineering and construction projects (Brailey:19). In 1890, on his way to Japan with the new Minister of War Prince Prisdang escaped, to eventually end up in Ceylon 5 years later. The official account was that he abandoned his wife and children and met with another married woman in Hong Kong. We will never know what actually happened: Prince Prisdang's own decision was to withhold 6 pages from his autobiography pertaining to this flight and its subsequent 5-year period (Brailey:21).

But for sure the Prince stayed in Ceylon, living his life as a buddhist monk. A British resident he met there persuaded him to write a memorandum, which he did in 1891 (Brailey:21). In 1911, he returned to Thailand to attend King Rama V's funeral but was forced to disrobe (Prince Damrong made it a prerequisite to view the King's remains) and not permitted to reordain himself in the Thai sangha system (Brailey:23). Disroped, and cooperation with Prince Damrong obtained, Prince Prisdang went on to work as an editor at the Siam Observer but was soon fired. Not in good terms with the present King (Rama VI), the Prince went and made friends with the King's rebellious brother, Prince Rapee, until the latter died in 1920 (Brailey:24). Then he travelled to Japan again. And then he started to work on his autobiography, which he couldn't finish until 1929. He outlived most of his contemporaries to see the 1932 Revolution, the 1934 abolition of polygamy as a Royal practice, to pass away in 1935 at age 84 (Brailey:24).

What Prince Prisdang epitomized was the critical sentiments toward King Chulalongkorn after his consolidation of power. The expression of these sentiments was considered a grave crime: the violation of the Lese Majeste Law -- punishable up to death. Apparently no death sentence was put upon anyone involved. Prince Prisdang suffered infamy, exile, poverty and obliteration from Siamese history. His brilliant career especially in diplomacy, and also in engineering forgotten; his contributions obscured. Only questions remain. Was he a revolutionary? Was he way before his time? What was his reason for giving the credit for writing the petition to someone else? Etc....

I was able to obtain Prince Prisdang's autobiography, but not the petition of 1885. In the autobiography Prince Prisdang mentioned, among other things, that there were 4 copies of the petition, that he himself was NOT instrumental in the drafting of it and instead Prince Svaddisophon (at the mere age of 19) was incredibly credited for the work, and that it was his false to allow others into the correspondence the King was directing to him privately. There was no mention (in the version of the autobiography that I have) of the content of the petition of 1885, only a few details of the events surrounding it were included.

I would like to thank the following persons without whose assistance this writing wouldn't have been possible: Ajarn Thongchai Winichakul of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Ajarn Chalong Soontravanich of the Department of History, the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, my mother, and Khun Liang.


Brailey, Nigel. "Two Views of Siam on the Eve of the Chakri Reformation". Whiting Bay, Scotland: Kiscadale Publication, 1989.

M.L.Manich Jumsai. "Prince Prisdang's Files on His Diplomatic Activities in Europe, 1880-1886". Bangkok: Chalermnit, 1977.

Praworawongter Praongjao Julajakrapong. "Jao Cheewit". Bangkok: Riverbook Press, 2536.

Prince Pritsdand Chumsai. "Autobiography". B.E.2472.

Terwiel, B.J. "A History of Modern Thailand 1767-1942". St.Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1983.


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