March 20th Beginning of Thai-US Diplomatic Relations
“The First Thai-US Treaty”, March 20, 1833
In 1833, one year after the arrival of the first American missionary in Siam, President Andrew Jackson sent envoy Edmund Roberts to Bangkok. The American interest in trade opportunities in Asia and the Pacific had, of course, begun much earlier. The first American trading vessel reached Bangkok in 1821, and four years later the U.S. consul in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) recommended to the United States government that an embassy be sent to open trade relations with Siam. After British envoy Henry Burney concluded a treaty of commerce with Siam in 1826, the United States became even more interested in trading with Siam.
Britain was the second country to try to revive friendly relations with Siam after a gap of more than a century. During the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain was keenly interested in trading with countries in Asia, and was looking for both markets and sources of raw materials. British commercial and political policy in East Asia was consequently increasingly aggressive. Siam was one of the countries that interested Britain, but the Thais preferred to trade with Asian neighbors, particularly China. Western nations who wanted to trade with Siam met several obstacles, such as the king’s monopoly of certain goods, the tax collection system, and the strict routine of Thai officials.
Britain’s first attempt to open trade relations with Siam in 1821 was a complete failure. Neither the commercial nor the political goals of the embassy, set by the governor of India, were reached, at least partly because of Thai conviction that contact with the West would bring trouble. A passage in the Rattanakosin Chronicles remarks:
Among the foreigners who have come to trade with us, the Westerners, the Indians, and the Chinese have proved to be very different since Ayudhya days. The Western traders tend to bully other nationalities, including fellow white men. In a situation of conflicting interests their competitive spiritwould go as far as fighting, or even killing. In addition, they would not hesitate to use power and, given a chance, would impinge on our politics and administration. For instance, they would ask for land to build warehouses and business offices and would take an opportunity to include a fortification. The Chinese and the Indians, on the other hand, stay under the complete control of the King. They only want commercial gains. For this reason Siam prefers to trade with Chinese and Indian merchants to Westerners.
After capturing Rangoon in 1824, the British were suffering from the effects of wars with Burma and wanted to persuade Siam to join them against the Burmese. King Rama III sent Thai troops to help at several points, but Thai relations with Britain were far from smooth. By early 1826, the British had conquered almost all of Burma. Lord Amherst, the governor general of India, sent Captain Henry Burney for another round of talks with Siam. Burney spent five months in Bangkok, concluding a fourteen-point treaty and a trade agreement in June. On the political front, Britain recognized Thai suzerainty over the northern Malay states of Kedah, Kelantan, and Trengganu. On the issue of commerce it was agreed that only measurement duty would be levied on imported goods, although the rate would be high. British merchants could trade freely in Siam except in rice, firearms, and opium. For this first Western treaty with Siam since the beginning of the Bangkok period, much credit was due to Captain Burney.
Edmund Roberts, the first American envoy, arrived in Bangkok on February 18, 1833, on the American warship Peacock. The Thai government arranged for the American representative and his party of fourteen to stay at the official guesthouse, in the compound of the Chao Phraya Phra Klang’s residence, near Wat Prayoon. On March 18, King Rama III granted the U.S. representative an audience. Roberts brought a number of gifts from President Andrew Jackson, including a silver basket, a gold watch, and silk. The most important item was a ceremonial sword with a gilt scabbard. An eagle and an elephant were carved into the gold handle. Rama III in turn sent local products, including ivory, tin, wood, incense, pepper and sapan wood, as gifts to President Jackson. Negotiations between Roberts and Chao Phraya Phra Klang, representing Thai interests, took three weeks. The ensuing ten-clause treaty, concluded on March 20, 1833, was substantially similar to the one Siam concluded with Britain in 1826, allowing free trade for American merchants except in rice, firearms, and opium. This treaty contained a “most favorable nation” clause, under which any concessions made to any other nation could also be claimed by the United States. Written in Thai, Chinese, English, and Portuguese, Roberts considered the treaty a success, and the American delegation departed Bangkok on April 6.
Despite these treaties, foreign trade did not flourish. Foreign merchants alleged that the Thai government did not respect the agreement on free trade. One problem was the system of tax-farming, which increased the cost of commodities. Under this system, tax farmers, most of whom were Chinese and had been granted concessions by the king, would collect taxes and give to the government annually an agreed sum for each item, keeping the rest for profit. Although this system had been used since the end of the Second Reign, during the Third Reign the government allowed many more goods to be taxed in this way, evading the free trade agreement with the British and the Americans. Foreign merchants also complained that the government increased the number of trade monopolies in commodities such as sugar, which was in great demand by foreign traders. The government sent officials to buy sugar from private producers all over the land and sold it to foreign merchants, who were denied permission to travel to the provinces. This practice pushed the sugar price so high that in 1838 the American trading vessel Stag left Bangkok without any sugar in its hold. Between that year and 1850, no American ship sailed up the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok.
Unhappy with this situation, both Britain and America tried to improve trade by revising the treaties toward the end of the Third Reign. In early April 1850, the United States sent former American consul in Singapore Joseph Balestier to Bangkok in hopes of amending the 1833 treaty. As the Chao Phraya Phra Klang was away in the provinces, Balestier went with an interpreter to see Phraya Sripipat. Phraya Sripipat refused Balestier’s demand for an audience with King Rama III to present President Zachary Taylor’s letter. The following account from the Chronicles explains the Thai view:
Phraya Sripipat replied that in the past an envoy always came with a retinue of officials. This time Joseph Balestier, with an umbrella held underarm, came alone and unattended except for a Mr. Smith, apparently the adopted son of Rev. John T. Jones picked up here in Bangkok, carrying a letter casket. The whole thing was most unlike our usual custom and therefore it was not possible to arrange an audience with the King for him. Joseph Balestier, thereupon, replied that European protocol had changed, and it was the custom now to send an envoy alone, who is all-important, hence there being no seal affixed upon the letter. Balestier then asked whether or not Phraya Sripipat would accept the letter from the American President. Thereupon the Thai Minister replied that if the letter was transmitted it would be received, but no audience with the King could be granted since the manner of the Mission was not in accordance with our court etiquette.
Upon Chao Phraya Phra Klang’s return, Balestier petitioned him, accusing Phraya Sripipat of contemptuous behavior to himself and to the head of the United States government, but Chao Phraya Phra Klang did not respond. Balestier further said that at no point was he given a warm welcome, not even an honorable reception at Paknam, at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. One reason Balestier was unattended by a diplomatic retinue was that he arrived immediately after a serious outbreak of cholera, so the captain of the U.S. vessel Plymouth, which brought him to Bangkok, would not let more passengers go ashore than necessary. Balestier’s mission failed, and he left Bangkok at the end of April.
“Article 1, There shall be a perpetual peace between the United States of America and the magnificent King of Siam.”
Commercial Treaty of 1833
Treaty of Amity and Commerce between
His Majesty the Magnificent King of Siam and
the United States of America
His Majesty the Sovereign and Magnificent King in the city of Siayuthia, has appointed the Chau-Phaya Phraklang one of the first Ministers of State, to treat with Edmund Roberts, Minister of the United States of America, who has been sent by the Government thereof on its behalf, to form a Treaty of sincere friendship and entire good faith between the two nations. For this purpose the Siamese and the Citizens of the United States of America, shall, with sincerity, hold commercial intercourse in the Ports of their respective nations, as long as Heaven and earth shall endure.
This Treaty is concluded on Wednesday the last of the fourth month of the year 1194 called Pimarong Chattavasok (or the year of the Dragon) corresponding to the twentieth day of March, in the year of our Lord 1833. One original is written in Siamese, the other in English; but as the Siamese are ignorant of English, and the Americans of Siamese, a Portuguese & a Chinese translation are annexed, to serve as testimony to the contents of the Treaty. The writing is of the same tenor and date in all of the languages aforesaid: it is signed on the one part, with the name of Chau-Phaya Phraklang, and sealed with the seal of the Lotus flower of glass; on the other part it is signed with the name of Edmund Roberts, and sealed with a seal containing an Eagle and stars.
One copy will be kept in Siam, and another will be taken by Edmund Roberts to the United States. If the Government of the United States shall ratify the said Treaty, and attach the seal of the Government, the Siam will also ratify it on its part, and attach the seal of its Government.
The Citizens of the United States shall have free liberty to enter all the Ports of the Kingdom of Siam, with their cargoes, of whatever kind the said cargoes may consist; and they shall have liberty to sell the same to any of the subjects of the King, or others who may wish to purchase the same, or to barter the same for any produce or manufacture of the Kingdom, or other articles that may be found there. No prices shall be fixed by the officers of the King on the articles to be sold by the merchants of the United States, or the merchandise they may wish to buy, but the Trade shall be free on both sides to sell, or buy, or exchange, on the terms and for the prices the owners may think fit. Whenever the said citizens of the United States shall be ready to depart, they shall be at liberty so to do, and the proper officers shall furnish them with Passports: Provided always, there be no legal impediment to the contrary. Nothing contained in this Article shall be understood as granting permission to import and sell munitions of war to any person excepting to the King, who, if he does not require, will not be bound to purchase them; neither is permission granted to import opium, which is contraband; or to export rice, which cannot be embarked as an article of commerce. These only are prohibited.
Vessels of the United States entering any Port within His Majesty’s dominions, and selling or purchasing cargoes of merchandise, shall pay in lieu of import and export duties, tonnage, licence to trade, or any other charge whatever, a measurement duty only, as follows: The measurement shall be made from side to side, in the middle of the vessel’s length; and, if a single-decked vessel, on such single deck; if otherwise, on the lower deck. On every vessel selling merchandise, the sum of 1700 Ticals, or Bats, shall be paid for every Siamese fathom in breadth, so measured, the said fathom being computed to contain 78 English or American inches, corresponding to 96 Siamese inches; but if the said vessel should come without merchandise, and purchase a cargo with specie only, she shall then pay the sum of 1,500 ticals, or bats, for each and every fathom before described. Furthermore, neither the aforesaid measurement duty, nor any other charge whatever, shall be paid by any vessel of the United States that enters a Siamese port for the purpose of refitting, or for refreshments, or to inquire the state of the market.
If hereafter the Duties payable by foreign vessels be diminished in favour of any other nation, the same diminution shall be made in favour of the vessels of the United States.
If any vessel of the United States shall suffer shipwreck on any part of the Magnificent King’s dominions, the persons escaping from the wreck shall be taken care of and hospitably entertained at the expense of the King, until they shall find an opportunity to be returned to their country; and the property saved from such wreck shall be carefully preserved and restored to its owners; and the United States will repay all expenses incurred by His Majesty on account of such wreck.
If any citizen of the United States, coming to Siam for the purpose of trade, shall contract debts to any individual of Siam, or if any individual of Siam shall contract debts to any citizen of the United States, the debtor shall be obliged to bring forward and sell all his goods to pay his debts therewith. When the product of such bona fide sale shall not suffice, he shall no longer be liable for the remainder, nor shall the creditor be able to retain him as a slave, imprison, flog, or otherwise punish him, to compel the payment of any balance remaining due, but shall leave him at perfect liberty.
Merchants of the United States coming to trade in the Kingdom of Siam and wishing to rent houses therein, shall rent the King’s Factories, and pay the customary rent of the country. If the said merchants bring their goods on shore, the King’s officers shall take account thereof, but shall not levy any duty thereupon.
If any citizens of the United States, or their vessels, or other property, shall be taken by pirates and brought within the dominions of the Magnificent King, the persons shall be set at liberty, and the property restored to its owners.
Merchants of the United States, trading in the Kingdom of Siam, shall respect and follow the laws and customs of the country in all points.
If hereafter any foreign nation, other than the Portuguese, shall request and obtain His Majesty’s consent to the appointment of Consuls to reside in Siam, the United States shall be at liberty to appoint Consuls to reside in Siam, equally with such other foreign Nation.