Adultery, government corruption, betrayal: The life of Prince Prisdang Chumsai of Siam reads like a modern soap opera. When historian Tamara Loos came across his confessional letters in the Thai Royal Archive, she couldn’t resist digging in.
The result is her latest book, “Bones Around My Neck: The Life and Exile of a Prince Provocateur” (Cornell University Press).
“I wanted to write a history from a human perspective, a book for nonspecialists to show what life was like for one controversial Thai man during an era of immense change in Asia,” said Loos, associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Prisdang is someone you can relate to across all that time and space. He tells a story about his integrity that makes you want to believe him or find out why so many people had it in for him.”
Prisdang rose to the heights of Siam’s government in the late 19th century, appointed Thailand’s first permanent diplomatic presence in Europe, ambassador to at least 10 countries. In 1885, the king asked Prisdang for advice on how to stave off a European colonial takeover. Prisdang’s answer: Westernize. Replace the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy to prove how civilized Siam is.
The king’s response was to recall Prisdang to Siam and promote him – but within a few years, whispers against Prisdang began to spread. By 1890, Prisdang was forced to flee Siam, chased away by accusations of massive debt, treason and sexual impropriety.
“For each rumor, I could find a counter narrative but I couldn’t tell which was true,” said Loos. “But Prisdang’s personality is tricky enough that some of the gossip might actually have been based in fact.”
In exile, Prisdang returned to his first occupation – engineer – working for the British on roads located along the border of British Malaya and Siam, apparently so he could try to sneak back into the country. But the Thai king ordered spies to shadow him, ready to arrest Prisdang as soon as he crossed the border.
Prisdang’s next strategy was to become ordained as a monk, since monks are immune from prosecution. He quickly rose in the Buddhist ranks in British Ceylon and invited the King of Siam to visit the country, which was an important Buddhist center, in an attempt to reconcile. But it all went horribly wrong when a faux pas at a temple – not Prisdang’s fault – angered the king, who left Ceylon in a fit of pique.
Prisdang’s last and most desperate gambit was to travel to India to obtain the bones of the Buddha, which he intended to give as a gift to his king, the last remaining independent Buddhist monarch in colonial Asia. But again Prisdang’s enemies used this against him, and instead of forgiveness, Prisdang received a telegram that he would be disrobed and imprisoned for the theft of the Buddha’s bones.
In 1911, the king died and Prisdang was allowed to return to Siam. But once there, he was defrocked and refused permission to re-ordain or leave the country. His family wouldn’t help him and no one would hire him. He died in 1935, poor, disrespected and forgotten.
But he lived to see his 1885 recommendation implemented: In 1932, a constitutional monarchy replaced absolutism, though Loos was unable to find a record of what Prisdang thought of the changes.
“Prisdang’s biography allows me to tell the story of what it’s like to be a semi-colonial subject since he owes his fame to colonialism,” said Loos. “He’s British-educated but profoundly patriotic and racially conscious. He was an early race-rights activist, critical of Western white society, which he articulated in a way that made him popular with white progressives critical of imperialism – but also royals. He had a soft spot for royalty.”
Loos notes that Prisdang’s politically ambivalent loyalties – at once a loyal royalist while also critical of absolutism – has its parallels in Thailand today, where citizens struggle to find a way to express critical forms of patriotism under a similarly fraught royalist regime.
Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.