By mid-19th century, European commercial as well as territorial ambition, backed by modern military power, was increasingly able to impose itself upon indigenous rulers in Asia. This was increasingly recognised by Siam, especially after the British defeated both Qing China, the premier power of the region, in the First Opium War, and Burma, in the First Anglo-Burmese War. The Bowring Treaty was was signed between Siam and the United Kingdom in this wider international context.
The Treaty of Friendship and Commerce or, more commonly, the Bowring Treaty of 1855 was the first of many treaties signed between Siam and European powers over the course of the long 19th century, leading the gradual opening up and modernisation of Siam. The treaty granted British subjects the right to trade in Siam, extraterritoriality as well as the implementation of fixed tariffs for the import as well as export of goods alongside a most-favoured-nation clause; all this led to a wider range of commercial as well as diplomatic interactions between Siam and Britain. The treaty was also the basis of later treaties signed with France and the United States in 1856.
King Mongkut and Siam’s political elite were increasingly cognisant of Siam’s relative military and physical inferiority and realized that isolationism as a policy was not sustainable in the long-run. King Mongkut’s willingness to conclude an unequal treaty illustrated a forward thinking monarch who recognised the fact that in order to retain its independence in the face of European imperialism, Siam must make certain trade-offs with regards to its concept of power, diplomacy and commercial interactions. Mongkut’s appreciation and understanding of western culture played a role in the successful conclusion of the treaty. This is best exemplified by Article Two of the treaty whereby Siam granted extraterritoriality to British subjects in Siam, a key point of dispute in many ‘unequal treaties’ signed between Western powers and Asian rulers during the 19th century.
The signing of the treaty resulted in the economic transformation of Siam and in particular Bangkok, as an influx of Western traders and ships helped transform Bangkok into a key commercial hub of the region, linked to regionals ports of call such as Singapore and the larger China trade. This also influenced changes to the monetary policies of Siam.
The immediate economic impact notwithstanding, the treaty represented a willingness on the part of Siam to conform to a new international order based on Western-centric notions of diplomatic, political as well as commercial interactions. The BowringTreaty illustrated Siam’s appreciation of the changed international context in which it now had to operate, and the increasing realisation among the traditional elites that Siam must adapt to changed circumstances in order to preserve independence and sovereignty. Events in the previous year, including encounters with Sir James Brooke of Sarawak who advocated the use of gunboat diplomacy, impressed upon Siamese officials the futility of a military confrontation and the awkward realisation of Siamese military weaknesses.
Thus it can be argued that the treaty was the clearest indication of Siam’s recognition of its physical weakness vis-à-vis the Western powers, who were expanding their influence in the region in ways that increasingly made traditional local practices of governance and power appear outmoded and inefficient.
Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Siam and Great Britain Signed at Bangkok, April 18, 1855[Ratifications exchanged at Bangkok, April 5, 1856]
Their Majesties Phra Bard Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klau Chau Yu Hua, the First King of Siam, and Phra Bard Somdetch Phra Pawarendr Ramesr Mahiswaresr Phra Pin Klau Chau Yu Hua, the Second King of Siam, and Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and all its dependencies, desiring to establish upon firm and lasting foundations the relations of peace and friendship existing between the two countries, and to secure the best interests of their respective subjects by encouraging, facilitating, and regulating their industry and trade, have resolved to conclude a Treaty of Amity and Commerce for this purpose, and have, therefore, named as their Plenipotentiaries, that is to say:
Their Majesties the First and Second Kings of Siam, His Royal Highness Krom Hluang Wongsa Dhiraj Snidh; his Excellency Somdetch Chau Phaya Param Maha Payurawongse; his Excellency Somdetch Chau Phaya Param Maha Bijai-neate; his Excellency Chau Phaya Sri Suriwongse Samuha Phra Kalahome; and his Excellency Chau Phaya, Acting Phra-Klang;
Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Sir John Bowing, Knight, Doctor of Laws, &c.;
Who, after having communicated to each other their respective full powers, and found them to be in good and due form, have agreed upon and concluded the following Articles:
There shall henceforward be perpetual peace and friendship between Their Majesties the First and Second Kings of Siam and their successors, and Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and her successors. All British subjects coming to Siam shall receive from the Siamese Government full protection and assistance to enable them to reside in Siam in all security, and trade with every facility, free from oppression or injury on the part of the Siamese; and all Siamese subjects going to an English country shall receive from the British Government the same complete protection and assistance that shall be granted to British subjects by the Government of Siam.
The interests of all British subjects coming to Siam shall be placed under the regulation and control of a Consul, who will be appointed to reside at Bangkok. He will himself conform to, and will enforce the observance by British subjects of all the provisions of this Treaty, and such of the former Treaty negotiated by Captain Burney in 1826 as shall still remain in operation. He shall also give effect to all rules or regulations that are now or may hereafter be enacted for the government of British subjects in Siam, the conduct of their trade, and for the prevention of violations of the laws of Siam. Any disputes arising between Siamese and British subjects shall be heard and determined by the Consul, in conjunction with the proper Siamese officers; and criminal offences will be punished, in the case of English offenders, by the Consul, according to English laws, and in the case of Siamese offenders, by their own laws, through the Siamese authorities. But the Consul shall not interfere in any matters referring solely to Siamese, neither will the Siamese authorities interfere in questions which only concern the subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.
It is understood, however, that the arrival of the British Consul at Bangkok shall not take place before the ratification of this Treaty, nor until 10 vessels owned by British subjects, sailing under British colours, and with British papers, shall have entered the port of Bangkok for purposes of trade, subsequent to the signing of this Treaty.
If Siamese, in the employ of British subjects, offend against the laws of their country, or if any Siamese having so offended or desiring to desert, take refuge with a British subject in Siam, they shall be searched for, and, upon proof of their guilt or desertion, shall be delivered up by the Consul to the Siamese authorities. In like manner, any British offenders resident or trading in Siam, who may desert, escape to or hide themselves in Siamese territory, shall be apprehended and delivered over to the British Consul on his requisition. Chinese, not able to prove themselves to be British subjects, shall not be considered as such by the British Consul, nor be entitled to his protection.
British subjects are permitted to trade freely in all the seaports of Siam, but may reside permanently only at Bangkok, or within the limits assigned by this Treaty. British subjects coming to reside at Bangkok may rent land, and buy or build houses, but cannot purchase lands within a circuit of 200 sen (not more than 4 miles English) from the city walls, until they shall have lived in Siam for 10 years, or shall obtain special authority from the Siamese Government to enable them to do so. But with the exception of this limitation, British residents in Siam may at any time buy or rent houses, lands, or plantations situated anywhere within a distance of 24 hours' journey from the city of Bangkok, to be computed by the rate at which boats of the country can travel. In order to obtain possession of such lands or houses, it will be necessary that the British subjects shall, in the first place, make application through the Consul to the proper Siamese officer; and the Siamese officer and the Consul having satisfied themselves of the honest intentions of the applicant, will assist him in settling, upon equitable terms, the amount of the purchase-money, will mark out and fix the boundaries of the property, and will convey the same to the British purchaser under sealed deeds. Whereupon, he and his property shall be placed under the protection of the Governor of the district and that of the particular local authorities; he shall conform, in ordinary matters, to any just directions given him by them, and will be subject to the same taxation that is levied on Siamese subjects. But if through negligence, the want of capital, or other cause, a British subject should fail to commence the cultivation or improvement of the lands so acquired within a term of three years from the date of receiving possession thereof, the Siamese Government shall have the power of resuming the property, upon returning to the British subject the purchase-money paid by him for the same.
All British subjects intending to reside in Siam shall be registered at the British Consulate. They shall not go out to sea, nor proceed beyond the limits assigned by this Treaty for the residence of British subjects, without passport from the Siamese authorities, to be applied for by the British Consul; nor shall they leave Siam if the Siamese authorities show to the British Consul that legitimate objections exist to their quitting the country. But within the limits appointed under the preceding Article, British subjects are at liberty to travel to and fro under the protection of a pass, to be furnished them by the British Consul, and counter-sealed by the proper Siamese officer, stating, in the Siamese character, their names, calling, and description. The Siamese officers at the Government stations in the interior may at any time, call for the production of this pass, and immediately on its being exhibited, they must allow the parties to proceed; but it will be their duty to detain those persons who, by travelling without a pass from the Consul, render themselves liable to the suspicion of their being deserters; and such detention shall be immediately reported to the Consul.
All British subjects visiting or residing in Siam shall be allowed the free exercise of the Christian religion, and liberty to build churches in such localities as shall be consented by the Siamese authorities. The Siamese Government will place no restrictions upon the employment by the English or Siamese subjects as servants, or in any other capacity. But wherever a Siamese subject belongs or owes service to some particular master, the servant who engages himself to a British subject, without the consent of his master, may be reclaimed by him; and the Siamese Government will not enforce an agreement between a British subject and any Siamese in his employ, unless made with the knowledge and consent of the master, who has a right to dispose of the services of the person engaged.
British ships of war may enter the river, and anchor at Paknam, but they shall not proceed above Paknam, unless with the consent of the Siamese authorities, which shall be given where it is necessary that a ship shall go into dock for repairs. Any British ship of war conveying to Siam a public functionary accredited by Her Majesty's Government to the Court of Bangkok, shall be allowed to come up to Bangkok, but shall not pass the forts called Pong Phrachamit and Pit-patch-nuck, unless expressly permitted to do so by the Siamese Government; but in the absence of a British ship of war, the Siamese authorities engage to furnish the Consul with a force sufficient to enable him to give effect to his authority over British subjects, and to enforce discipline among British shipping.
The measurement duty hitherto paid by British vessels trading to Bangkok, under the treaty of 1826, shall be abolished from the date of this Treaty coming into operation, and British shipping and trade will thenceforth be only subject to the payment of import and export duties on the goods landed or shipped. On all articles of import the duties shall be 3 per cent, payable at the option of the importer, either in kind or money, calculated upon the market value of the goods. Drawback of the full amount of duty shall be allowed upon goods found unsealeable and re-exported. Should the British merchant and the Custom-House officers disagree as to the value to be set upon imported articles, such disputes shall be referred to the Consul and proper Siamese officer, shall each have the power to call in an equal number of merchants as assessors, not exceeding two on either side, to assist them in coming to an equitable decision.
Opium shall be imported free of duty, but can only be sold to the opium farmer or his agents. In the event of no arrangement being effected with them for the sale of the opium, it shall be re-exported, and no import or duty shall be levied thereon. Any infringement of this regulation shall subject the opium to seizure and confiscation.
Articles of export, from the time of production to the date of shipment shall payment impost only, whether this be levied under the name of inland tax, transit duty, or duty on exportation. The tax or duty to be paid on each article of Siamese produce previous to or upon exportation, is specified in the Tariff attached to this Treaty; and it is distinctly agreed that goods or produce which pay any description of tax in the interipr, shall be exempted from any further payment of duty on exportation.
English merchants are to be allowed to purchase directly from the producer the articles in which they trade, and in like manner to sell their goods directly to the parties wishing to purchase the same, without the interference, in either case, of any other person.
The rates of duty laid down in the Tariff attached to this Treaty, are those that are now paid upon goods or produce shipped in Siamese or Chinese vessels or junks; and it is agrees that British shipping shall enjoy all the privileges now exercised by, or which hereafter may be granted to, Siamese or Chinese vessels or junks.
British subjects will be allowed to build ships in Siam on obtaining permission to do so from the Siamese authorities.
Whenever a scarcity may be apprehended, of salt, rice and fish, the Siamese Government reserve to themselves the right of prohibiting, by public proclamation, the exportation of these articles.
Bullion, or personal effects, may be imported or exported free of charge.
The Code of Regulations apprehended to this Treaty shall be enforced by the Consul, with the co-operation of the Siamese authorities; and they, the said authorities and Consul, shall be enabled to introduce any further regulations which may be found necessary, in order to give effect to the objects of this Treaty.
All fines and penalties inflicted for infraction of the provisions and regulations of this Treaty shall be paid to the Siamese Government.
Until the British Consul shall arrive at Bangkok, and enter upon his functions, the consignees of British vessels shall be at liberty to settle with the Siamese authorities all questions relating to their trade.
The British Government and its subjects will be allowed free and equal participation in any privileges that may have been, or may hereafter be, granted by the Siamese Government to the Government or subjects of any other nation.
After the lapse of 10 years from the date of the ratification of this Treaty, upon the desire of either the Siamese or British Governments, and on 12 months' notice given by either party, the present and such portions of the Treaty of 1826 as remain unrevoked by this Treaty, together with the Tariff and Regulations hereunto annexed, or those that may hereafter be introduced, shall be subject to revision by Commissioners appointed on both sides for this purpose, who will be empowered to decide on and insert therein such amendments as experience shall prove to be desirable.
This Treaty, executed in Siamese and English, both versions having the same meaning and intention, and the ratifications thereof having been previously exchanged, shall take effect from the 6th day of April, in the year 1856 of the Christian era, corresponding to the 1st day of the 5th month of the 1218th year of the Siamese Civil era.
In witness whereof, the above-named Plenipotentiaries have signed and sealed the present Treaty, in quadruplicate, at Bangkok, on the 18th day of April, in the year 1855 of the Christian era, corresponding to the 2nd day of the 6th month of the 1217th year of the Siamese Civil era.
(Signatures and Seals of the 5 Siamese Plenipotentiaries)
(L.S.) John Bowring
Regulations under Article IX of the Treaty
General Regulations under which British Trade is to be conducted in Siam
The master of every English ship coming to Bangkok to trade, must either before or after entering the river, as may be found convenient, report the arrival of his vessel at the Custom-House at Paknam, together with the number of his crew and guns, and the port from whence he comes. Upon anchoring his vessel at Paknam, he will deliver into the custody of the Custom-House officers all his guns and ammunitions and a Custom-House officer will then be appointed to the vessel, and will proceed in her to Bangkok.
A vessel passing Paknam without discharging her guns and ammunitions as directed in the foregoing regulation, will be sent back to Paknam to comply with its provisions, and will be fined 800 ticals for having so disobeyed. After delivery of her guns and ammunitions she will be permitted to return to Bangkok to trade.
When a British vessel shall have cast anchor at Bangkok, the master, unless a Sunday should intervene, will, within 24 hours after arrival, proceed to the British Consulate, and deposit there his ships's papers, bills og lading &c., together with a true manifest of his import cargo; and upon the Consul's reporting these particulars to the Custom-House, permission to break bulk will at once be given by the latter.
For neglecting so to report his arrival, or for presenting a false manifest, the master will subject himself, in each instance, to a penalty of 400 ticals; but he will be allowed to correct, within 24 hours after delivery of it to the Consul, any mistake he may discover in his manifest, without incurring the above-mentioned penalty.
A British vessel breaking bulk and commencing to discharge before due permission shall be obtained, or smuggling, either when in the river or outside the bar, shall be subject to the penalty of 800 ticals, and confiscation of the goods so smuggled or discharged.
As soon as a British vessel shall have discharged her cargo, and completed her outward lading, paid all her duties, and delivered a true manifest of her outward cargo to the British Consul, a Siamese port-clearance shall be granted her on application from the Consul, who, in the absence of any legal impediment to her departure, will then return to the master his ship's papers, and allow the vessel to leave. A Custom-House officer will accompany the vessel to Paknam; and on arriving there she will be inspected by the Custom-House officers of that station, and will receive from them the guns and ammunition previously delivered into their charge
Her Britannic Majesty's Plenipotentiary having no knowledge of the Siamese language, the Siamese Government have agreed that the English text of these Regulations, together with the Treaty of which they form a portion, and the Tariff hereunto annexed, shall be accepted as conveying in every respect their true meaning and intention.
(Signatures and Seals of the 5 Siamese Plenipotentiaries)
(L.S.) John Bowring
Tariff under Article VIII of the Treaty
Tariff of Export and Inland Duties to be levied on Articles of Trade
The undermentioned Articles shall be entirely free from Inland or other Taxes, on production or transit, and shall pay Export Duty as follows:
The undermentioned Articles being subject to the Inland or Transit Duties herein named, and which shall not be increased, shall be exempt from Export Duty:
All goods or produce unenumerated in this Tariff shall be free of Export Duty, and shall only be subject to one Inland or Transit Duty, not exceeding the rate now paid.
(Signatures and Seals of the 5 Siamese Plenipotentiaries)
(L.S.) John Bowring
Annotated by Aloysius Ng