Beyond  /  Retrieval

George Washington at the Siamese Court

Ross Bullen explores the curious case of Prince George Washington, a 19th-century Siamese prince.
Prince Wichaichan, also known as Prince George Washington
Wikimedia Commons

In October of 1856, readers of the New York Daily Times were eager for news from Siam. In the 1850s, most Americans would only be familiar with the Southeast Asian nation now known as Thailand through its most famous citizens, Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins”, who had been living in the United States. since 1830. But the Kingdom of Siam itself — its geography, its government, its culture — was a total mystery. However, a new treaty between Siam and the United States, negotiated in 1856 by Townsend Harris, the first US Consul General in Japan, kindled a public interest in all things Siamese. In an article titled “From Siam”, the Times’ correspondent does not hesitate to dampen the public’s enthusiasm. “The importance of a commercial treaty with such a people has been and will be overrated in the United States”, he writes. “The present prospects of Siam are not flattering”. Seemingly without any sense of irony, the author of “From Siam” criticizes the widespread practice of slavery in Siam, and states his belief that “The kingdom is in a state of unrest . . . which may end in a civil war”.

If the Times’ correspondent failed to see the shared potential for civil unrest in both his own country and Siam, other points of comparison between Siam and the United States were harder to ignore. The author reports that

we had a Siamese Prince to visit our ship a short time since, who went by the proud name of ‘Prince GEORGE WASHINGTON.’ During George’s rambles around the ship, if any of his inferior subjects came in his way, they would sprawl themselves out instanter far down and wriggle themselves out of the way like a worm.

A Siamese prince, demanding that his “inferior subjects” prostrate themselves before him, and adopting the name of the United States’ first president, was too odd a figure to ignore; indeed, descriptions of Prince George Washington would become a regular feature of American writing about Siam from the mid-1850s to the turn of the century. But who was this unusually named prince? And what did the Americans who wrote and read about him think he could teach them about Siam? Or about America?