Thailand and the United States, 1818‒2018

In the early 1800s, American merchants were looking to increase trade beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Despite cultural differences and geographical distances, Siam and the United States saw a friend in each other.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej meets with President Johnson in the Oval Office King Bhumibol Adulyadej meets with President Johnson in the Oval Office (1967)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

In this Expedition, we’ll explore that friendship.

Early Contact

Initial contact between the two nations was made in 1818, when an American expedition to Siam established the first treaty between the U.S. and an Asian nation.

Later, special agent Edmund Roberts was tasked by President Andrew Jackson with visiting the major empires and kingdoms of Asia to seek trade agreements on behalf of the U.S. This was the first diplomatic mission of its kind for the young nation.

Sailing on the USS Peacock, Roberts arrived in the Gulf of Siam in February 1833 with the mission of negotiating a treaty of friendship and commerce.

“View of the City of Bangkok,” 1822

Known to Thais as Krung Thep (City of Angels), Bangkok became the capital of Siam in 1782, during the rule of King Rama I, the founder of the Chakri dynasty. In 1822, when this engraving was made, the population was 50,000 or less. 

The First Contact (1822)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

In 2016, the population was estimated at well over 9 million.

Dit Bunnag Letter to President James Monroe

This letter from Siamese nobleman Dit Bunnag (1768-1855) to President James Monroe (1758-1831) is the earliest known correspondence between the Kingdom of Siam and the U.S. 

Dit Bunnag-Monroe letter Dit Bunnag-Monroe letter (1818)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

It tells of a meeting between a Siamese prince and an American sea captain who had arrived in Bangkok to trade for sugar.

Treaty of Amity and Commerce

During his mission to Siam in 1833, Edmund Roberts worked with Dit Bunnag, then Siam’s minister of foreign affairs and finance, to negotiate a treaty between the diplomats’ 2 nations. .

Treaty of Amity and Commerce (1833)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of Siam and the United States of America was ratified in 1836.

King Mongkut’s Famous Offer of Elephants

Inspired by a conversation Siam’s King Mongkut (1804–1868) had with an American captain about how elephants would be viewed in the United States, the king wrote to President James Buchanan (1791–1868) offering the U.S. a pair of elephants to “increase and multiply in the continent of America.” 

Along with his letter, the king included a pair of elephant tusks so that “the glory and renown of Siam may be promoted.” By the time the letter reached Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was president. The Civil War had begun in the U.S., but Lincoln took the time to reply to the king’s kind offer. 

Lacquered lid with mother of pearl inlay (1876)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

The Elephant in Thai Culture

For many centuries, the elephant has played an important part in the Southeast Asian nation’s culture. The country’s national symbol, the elephant is honoured for its strength and long life. The rare white elephant is a symbol of royalty and appeared on the Siamese flag from 1855-1916.

King Mongkut to President James Buchanan

The letter from King Mongkut to President Buchanan is dated 14 February 1861. The round seal includes an image of Airavata, the 3-headed “King of the Elephants” of Hindu mythology.

The Famous Offer of Elephants (2018-03-17)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

President Abraham Lincoln to King Mongkut

In 1862, President Lincoln politely declined the king’s offer. He thought the U.S. climate would not “favor the multiplication of the elephant.” King Mongkut’s generous offer and President Lincoln’s kind reply reflect the friendly spirit that existed between the two nations from an early time.

Early Gifts

From the earliest days of contact between Thailand and the U.S., the two nations have exchanged gifts, a concrete expression of the desire to have friendly and peaceful relations. 

When Edmund Roberts travelled to Siam in 1833, gifts from the U.S. president to the Siamese king didn’t make it onto his ship, and he picked up gifts in China instead. In exchange, the Thais presented a royal gift of rare products from the rainforest.

Today, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has a collection of Thai Royal Gifts to the United States, and some of them can be seen here. 

Gold niello bowl (1856) by สถาบันสมิธโซเนียนQueen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Gold Nielloware Bowl

Nielloware objects have engraved designs filled with a black compound of sulphur with silver, lead, or copper. Following the signing of the Harris Treaty in 1856, King Mongkut presented a set of gold nielloware to U.S. President Franklin Pierce. The gift served as an invitation to the court of Siam.

Japanese-style damascene sword, satinwood scabbard (1856)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Japanese-style Swords

Japanese-style swords were symbols of power used as regalia in the Siamese court. They show that Siam welcomed some influences from its neighbours, including Japan. This sword, with its satinwood scabbard, was another gift from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce made in 1856.

Silk and Gold Thread Hip Wrapper for Royalty (1876)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Textiles

This textile with metallic threads was woven in an Indian-style but probably made in southern Thailand. The pattern in the centre and the triple borders at each end indicate that it was made for royalty. King Chulalongkorn gave it as a gift to the Smithsonian Institution in 1876.

Two Presidents and a Monarch

Portraits of the Egyptian Pharaohs appear in wall paintings and carvings made in their lifetimes. The royalty of medieval and Renaissance Europe are immortalized in paintings that hang in museums today.

In the United States, the tradition of presidential portraits began with the very first president, and first ladies have their portraits made, too.

Portraits of the Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, can be found in shops, bars, offices and homes, and portraits of former Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn are also popular. Here are 3 portraits of former leaders.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce (1856)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

This portrait of President Franklin Pierce was a gift from the president to King Pinklao. Pierce was the 14th president of the United States. Pinklao became “Second King” to his older brother, King Mongkut, in 1851. Both Pierce and Pinklao were experienced military leaders before they came to power.

Portrait of George Washington (1856)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Portrait of George Washington

This portrait of President George Washington is probably a copy made by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) of an original painting Peale made that has hung in the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House. President Franklin Pierce gave it as a gift to Second King Pinklao in 1856.

Rama V (1868/1910)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Chulalongkorn

This photograph shows Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1853–1910), 9th son of King Mongkut and 5th monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri. Like all the Siamese kings before him, Chulalongkorn strove to prevent Siam from being colonized, in part by maintaining friendly relations with the United States.

Americans Meet Siam

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Americans learned about other cultures by attending world expositions, or fairs. The Kingdom of Siam participated in several famous expositions that celebrated important events in American history.

The exhibitions sent by Siam’s King Chulalongkorn were intended to show the mastery of Siamese artisans and to spur trade interest in his nation’s commodities.

They were also gestures of goodwill that, much like earlier gifts, communicated the mutual esteem between his kingdom and the United States.

The International Exposition 1876 at Philadelphia (1876)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

International Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876

Celebrating the U.S. Centennial, the exposition held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1876, was the first event of its kind in America. Siam’s display included nielloware, textiles, masks, puppets, and musical instruments and provided Americans with a fascinating window to the world of Siam.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois The World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois (1893)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

To the 1893 exposition held in Chicago, Illinois, Siam’s Queen Savang Vadhana sent “a special delegate . . . to learn what educational and industrial advantages are open to women in other countries, so that Siam may adopt such measures as will elevate the condition of her women.”

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition The Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904

The Siamese royal family took an active interest in curating the displays for international expositions. For the 1904 exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, they commissioned a large-scale model temple to serve as exhibition space, briefly transporting visitors to the Buddhist kingdom.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, California The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, California (1915)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915

At the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California, the Siam Pavilion held beautifully ornamented niello and lacquer objects that showed the skill of the Asian nation’s artisans. Everyday objects such as baskets, fish traps, and tools conveyed a sense of daily life.

First Reigning King of Thailand Visits America

King Prajadhipok (Rama VII, 1893-1941) was Thailand’s 7th king and the last of its absolute monarchs—a revolution in 1932 led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

A year before that, in 1931, Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni (1904-1984) became the first reigning monarchs of Thailand to visit the United States.

Though the royal couple had travelled to New York in 1924 as prince and princess, it was their second visit that marked a historic milestone.

TIME, April 20, 1931, Vol 17 No 16 (1931-04-20)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

King of Siam, Defender of the Faith

This edition of Time magazine appeared on 20 April 1931. English and British monarchs have born the title “Defender of the Faith” as heads of the Church of England. Thai monarchs also vow to defend their faith—Buddhism, not Christianity.

First Reigning King of Thailand Visits AmericaQueen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

King, Queen, and . . . Friends

This photograph was taken at Yankee Stadium during the New York leg of King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni’s tour. Standing in the centre of the picture is Babe Ruth, one of the greatest baseball players in history. To the right of the queen is famed aviator Amelia Earhart.

Gold Niello bowl with silver trim, stand Gold Niello bowl with silver trim, stand (1931)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Gift for a President

During the state visit, King Prajadhipok met with President Herbert Hoover (1895-1972), to whom the king gave a traditional silver niello bowl with gold trim. Following the visit, Hoover noted that it had “forged more strongly the bonds of traditional friendship uniting Siam and the United States.”

Enamel Portrait of King Prajadhipok, case (1931)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Gift for a First Lady

King Prajadhipok gave this enamel portrait of himself to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. Long before, King Mongkut, had embraced the Western tradition of royal portraiture. Beginning in the reign of King Chulalongkorn, royal portraits commonly featured the king in Western-style military attire.

State Visits to the United States, 1960 and 1967

In 1960, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1927–2016) came to the United States on the first of two state tours.

The king, his queen consort, Sirikit (1932–), and their family spent a month in the U.S. visiting places in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York,Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and... Washington, D.C. 

The American public was fascinated with the young royal family, and newspapers headlined their travels throughout the nation. The highlights of their itinerary included a tour of Disneyland with Walt Disney, and musical collaborations with famous American jazz artists.

Their Majesties with President Dwight D. Eisenhowe (1960)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

A Royal Welcome, 1960

Here, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit are greeted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969). Later they were welcomed by the whole country with a ticker tape parade through Manhattan.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej gifts traditional Thai instruments to the Library of Congress (1960)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Gift of Music

During his first state visit, King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave 10 traditional Thai instruments to the Library of Congress. Included in the gift were cymbals, hand drums, flutes, fiddles, and a zither. The king himself played piano and clarinet, composed songs, and was passionate about American jazz.

The Most Illustrious Order of the Royal House of Chakri (1960)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Illustrious Order of the Royal House of Chakri

King Chulalongkorn established the Most Illustrious Order of the Royal House of Chakri in 1882. During the 1960 state visit, King Bhumibol Adulyadej bestowed the distinction on President Eisenhower, the only U.S. leader to receive it.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej meets with President Johnson in the Oval Office King Bhumibol Adulyadej meets with President Johnson in the Oval Office (1967)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

King and President Confer

King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit made another state visit to the U.S. in 1967. Here the king meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). The year before, Johnson had become the first sitting U.S. chief executive to visit Thailand.

Keeping the Bonds—Gifts Through the Years

From the early 1800s onward, the leaders of Thailand and the United States exchanged gifts. This tradition reflects a human activity that goes back centuries.

Leaders have given and continue to give gifts to show their authority, to welcome other leaders and honour their people and to cement alliances and trade relations between empires and nations.

Often the gifts leaders exchange are examples of the most highly developed arts and crafts of their people. Sometimes they are displays of wealth that may represent power. Here are a few more of the gifts bestowed on the U.S. by Thailand.

“Chantaboon” Woven reed mat with astrological sign of the dog “Chantaboon” Woven reed mat with astrological sign of the dog (1904)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

“Chantaboon” Woven Reed Mat

Objects made of organic materials can be delicate. This woven reed mat given by King Chulalongkorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1904 developed a tear due to the fragility of the century-old plant fibres. Conservation corrected the damage and gave the mat a longer life.

Gold niello 'Turtle (1967)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Gold Niello Turtle and Tray

Thai kings and queens have continued to give nielloware objects as diplomatic gifts. This turtle and tray given by King Bhumibol Adulyadej to the grandson of President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, is whimsical and has a modern flair.

Yan lipao vine woven purse (1979)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Purse Given to First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 1979

Queen Sirikit often gave purses made using traditional techniques to first ladies of the United States. Thai craftspeople had mostly stopped using the vine from which this purse is made, and the queen created workshops specially to keep its use and the difficult method of weaving it alive. 

Star of Siam jacket of Thai silk and silk brocade (1980)Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Star of Siam Jacket of Thai Silk

Thailand has long produced fine textiles, so objects made from cloth have regularly been included among gifts to U.S. presidents and first ladies. This jacket, given to First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1980, is made from Thai silk and silk brocade.

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