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Siam, "the land of the White Elephant" or the country of the Muang Thai (the Free), is situated in the south-eastern corner of Asia, lying between 4° and 21° north lat. and 97° and 106° east long. It is bounded on the north by Tong-king and the southern states of Burma, on the east by Annam and Cambodia, on the south by the Gulf of Siam and the Malay Peninsula, and on the west by the Indian Ocean, and thus forms a buffer state between French and British possessions. From north to south Siam measures in length some 1130 and in breadth some 508 miles, covering an area of some 242,580 square miles, about the size of Spain and Portugal, and is divided into 41 provinces. Its population is estimated to be between six and nine million inhabitants, of whom a third are Siamese, a quarter Chinese or of Chinese descent, whilst the rest is made up of Burmese, Cambodians, Laotines, Malays, Pegus, Tamils, and Europeans. The Siamese are described as a polite, hospitable, obliging, light-hearted, pleasure and feast-loving people, as clever gold and silversmiths, possessing great taste for art and skill as painters, decorators, and carvers in wood, stone, plaster, and mosaic. They are, however, not fond of work nor is it necessary for them to be so, for they have few wants for housing and food, fire and clothing, and mother earth has endowed them with a perpetual summer and a fertile soil, yielding rich harvests of rice and pepper, whilst the mountains abound in teak and yellow wood, box and ebony, sapan and padoo. The chief commerce is in silk, which is carried on along the Menam River and its numerous affluents and canals. The state religion is Buddhism, which, according to the earliest annals, was introduced as far back as 638. With perhaps the exception of Tibet, there is no country in the East where Buddhism is so intensely interwoven with the life of a nation from the king to the lowest subject, and where the talapoins or bonzes play such an important rôle in the national life, so that every male subject, the king and the crown prince not excepted, has to live in a Buddhist monastery and join the ranks of the talapoins for a short period. Up to a few years ago these Buddhist monasteries were the only establishments for education, which were restricted to the male population. Though Buddhism is the acknowledged religion of the state and towards it the Government allows some $20,000,000 yearly, all other religious creeds are granted full liberty of worship, nor does any one incur disabilities on account of his religious beliefs. The king, being the highest "supporter of the doctrine", stands at the head of the religion and appoints all religious dignitaries, from the four Somdet Phra Chow Rajagana (archpriests) downwards.

Little is known about the early history of the country. It was first called Siam by the Portuguese (1511) and other nations who came into contact with it. Before Ayuthia or Yuthia was established as the capital (1350), the country was divided into a number of separate principalities bound together by race, language, religion, and customs. A continual migration from the north to the south took place till in 1350 a branch of the Thai race established itself at Ayuthia. The history of Siam as a dominant power begins with Phra-Chao Utong Somdetch Pra Rama Tibaudi I (1351-71) and it was ruled by thirty-four kings (1351-1767) belonging to three different dynasties. During the inroads of the Burmese (1767-82), Ayuthia was destroyed and the new Siamese capital was established at Bangkok, "the Venice of the East". As early as 1511 the Portuguese made a commercial treaty with Siam and subsequently the Japanese, the Dutch, and the British entered into commercial relations with it. But the present flourishing commercial condition only dates from 1851, when King Mongkut opened Siam to Europeans and to European trade, favoured European factories, and made himself acquainted with Western civilization. After his death in 1868, his eldest son, Chulalongkorn (d. 1910), succeeded as the fortieth ruler of Siam, and during a reign of forty-two years showed himself one of the greatest and most farseeing princes who ever sat on an Asiatic throne, a king of European education and manners, to whose energy and initiative Siam owes much of her prosperity, railways, telegraphs, army (20,000 men), navy (37 ships, 15,000 men), and education for both sexes. Siam has so far been able to maintain her national independence, owing to the rivalry of England and France. The latter has tried ever since the days of Louis XIV to obtain a footing in Siam and has actually gained large concessions of territory by the treaties of 1891, 1893, 1904, and 1907, nor has England lacked her share (1909).

The first historical record of an attempt to introduce Christianity we owe to John Peter Maffei who states that about 1550 a French Franciscan, Bonferre, hearing of the great kingdom of the Peguans and the Siamese in the East, went on a Portuguese ship from Goa to Cosme (Peguan), where for three years he preached the Gospel, but without any result. In 1552 St. Francis Xavier, writing from Sancian to his friend Diego Pereira, expressed his desire to go to Siam, but his death on 2 December, 1552, prevented him. In 1553 several Portuguese ships landed in Siam, and at the request of the king three hundred Portuguese soldiers entered his service. In the following year two Dominicans, Fathers Hieronymus of the Cross and Sebastian de Cantù, joined them as chaplains. In a short time they established three parishes at Ayuthia with some fifteen hundred converted Siamese. Both missionaries, however, were murdered by the pagans (1569), and were replaced by Fathers Lopez Cardoso, John Madeira, Alphonsus Ximenes, Louis Fonseca (martyred in 1600), and John Maldonatus (d. 1598). In 1606 the Jesuit Balthasar de Sequeira at the request of the Portuguese merchant Tristan Golayo, and in 1624 Father Julius Cesar Margico, came to Ayuthia and gained the favour of the king. A subsequent persecution, however, stopped the propagation of the Faith and no missionary entered till Siam was made a vicariate Apostolic by Alexander VII on 22 August, 1662. Soon after, Mgr Pierre de la Motte-Lambert, Vicar-Apostolic of Cochin China, arrived at Ayuthia, accompanied by Fathers De Bourges and Deydier. In 1664 he was joined by Mgr Pallu, Vicar Apostolic of Tong King. Siam, in those days the rendezvous of all commercial enterprise in the East, gave shelter to several hundred Annamite and Japanese Christians who had been expelled or lived there as voluntary exiles on account of persecutions at home. Some Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits, Franciscans, and Augustinians had the spiritual care of their countrymen in Siam. Mgr Pallu, on his return to Rome (1665), obtained a Brief from Clement IX (4 July, 1669), by which the Vicariate of Siam was entrusted to the newly-founded Society of Foreign Missions of Paris. In 1673 Father Laneau was consecrated titular Bishop of Metellopolis and first Vicar Apostolic of Siam, and ever since Siam has been under the spiritual care of the Society of Foreign Missions. King Phra-Naraï (1657-83?) gave the Catholic missionaries a hearty welcome, and made them a gift of land for a church, a mission-house, and a seminary (St. Joseph's colony). Through the influence of the Greek or Venetian, Constantine Phaulcon, prime minister to King Phra-Naraï, the latter sent a diplomatic embassy to Louis XIV in 1684. The French king returned the compliment by sending M. de Chaumont, accompanied by some Jesuits under Fathers de Fontenay and Tachard. On 10 December, 1685, King Phra-Naraï signed a treaty at Louvo with France, wherein he allowed the Catholic missionaries to preach the Gospel throughout Siam, exempted his Catholic subjects from work on Sunday, and appointed a special mandarin to settle disputes between Christians and pagans. But after the departure of M. De Chaumont, a Siamese mandarin, Phra-phret-racha, got up a revolution, the prime minister was murdered, King Phra-Naraï deposed, Mgr Laneau and several missionaries were taken prisoners and ill-treated, and the Christians were persecuted.

When in 1690 peace and order were restored, Bishop Laneau resumed work till his death in 1696. His successor, Bishop Louis of Cice (1700-27), was able to continue it in peace. But after his death the rest of the century is but the history of persecutions (those of 1729, 1755, 1764 are the most notable), either by local mandarins or Burmese invaders, though the kings remained more or less favourable to the missionaries and to Bishops Texier de Kerlay and de Lolière-Puycontat (1755). During the inroads of the Burmese the Siamese king even appealed to Bishop Brigot for help against the common foe, who sacked and burned the Catholic stations and colleges and imprisoned both the bishop and the missionaries. In 1769 Father Corre resumed the missions in Siam and thus paved the way for the new vicar Apostolic, Mgr Lebon (1772-80). But a fresh persecution in 1775 forced him to leave the kingdom, and both his successors, Bishops Condé and Garnault, were unable to do much. During the Burmese wars the Christians were reduced from 12,000 to 1000, while Bishop Florens was left in charge with only seven native priests. It was only in 1826 and 1830 that a fresh supply of European missionaries arrived, among them Fathers Bouchot, Barbe, Bruguière, Vachal, Grandjean, Pallegoix, Courvezy, etc. In 1834 the last was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Siam, and the missions began to revive. Under him Siam numbered 6590 Catholics 11 European and 7 native priests. His successor, Bishop Pallegoix (1840-62), author of "Déscription du royaume Thai ou Siam" and "Dictionnaire siamois-latin-français-anglais" (30,000 words), was one of the most distinguished vicars Apostolic of Siam, the best Siamese scholar, and a missionary among the Laotines. He induced Napoleon III to renew the French alliance with Siam and to send an embassy under M. de Montigny to Siam in 1856. On 8 July, 1856, King Mongkut signed a political-commercial treaty with France, by which the privileges granted to the Catholic missionaries by Phra-Naraï in the seventeenth century were renewed. The bishop was highly esteemed by the king, who personally assisted at his funeral and accepted from the missionaries as a token of friendship the bishop's ring. Thanks to the broad-mindedness of Kings Mongkut (1851-68) and Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), the Catholic Church in Siam has enjoyed peace under Pallegoix's successors, Bishops Dupont (1862-72) and Vey (1875-1909). Owing to the complications between France and Siam, in 1894, the missionaries had to endure the ill-will of local mandarins, though the minister of foreign affairs promised that no harm would be done to the missionaries and their work on account of the French invasion. Though the mission in Laos, commenced in 1876, formally opened in 1883, and erected into a vicariate Apostolic on 4 May, 1899, is now separated from Siam, the Catholic missions have made great progress during the last thirty-five years. While in 1875 there were in Siam 11,000 Catholics 17 European and 7 native priests, and 30 churches, these are now (1911), 23,000 Catholics 42 European and 13 native priests, 38 catechists, 50 central stations, 55 churches and chapels, 12 Brothers of St. Gabriel, 103 sisters (Holy Infant Jesus, St. Paul of Chartres, Lovers of the Cross), 50 elementary schools with over 3000 pupils, 15 orphanages with 314 inmates, 3 agricultural schools, 1 seminary with 62 students, 1 college with 400 boys, and a pensionnat with 220 girls, under the jurisdiction of Mgr René Mary Joseph Perros de Guewenheim, titular Bishop of Zaora, appointed 17 September, 1909.


CARTER, The King of Siam (New York and London, 1904); HESSE WARTEGG, Siam (Leipzig, 1899); PALLEGOIX, Description du royaume Thai ou Siam (Beaune, 1853); PIOLETT, Les Missions Catholiques françaises au XIX siècle, II (Paris, s. d.); LAUNAY, Hist. Général de la Société des Missions Etrangères (3 vols., Paris, 1894).

About this page

APA citation. Spitz, M. (1912). Siam. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Spitz, Maternus. "Siam." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Bobie Jo M. Bilz.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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