Henry Alabaster, 1836- 1884
Henry Alabaster arrived in
Henry Alabaster was a brilliant student. He
won a scholarship to King’s College, later to become London University; he was
elected an Associate of the College and Senior Scholar, and studied
international law, engineering, surveying, construction and botany. He would
use his knowledge of all these subjects when he worked for the King in
developing the new city of Bangkok.
In 1856, there was no city of Bangkok. There was the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha within the huge, white walls. Outside there were a number of Buddhist monasteries scattered about among the trees; and simple wooden houses floating on rafts along the banks of the Chao Phraya river. For the rest there was nothing but palm trees, orchards, paddy fields and empty, waterlogged land. There were no roads, so people travelled about by boat, or were carried if they were very grand. The only Westerners were ships’ captains and missionaries.
The British Consulate had just been built, of wood, on the site of the present General Post Office, just off New Road. All the fittings had to be sent out from England: locks, hinges, door handles and panes of glass; the journey often took six to eight months. Wild life roamed the grounds: 13 varieties of snakes and 27 kinds of butterfly were found in the garden. There was even a consular gaol.
It must have been a depressing scene for the young Henry Alabaster when he arrived as a deputy Consul in 1857. He was only 21 years old. He came as a Student Interpreter and busily set abut learning the language. Interpreters were needed because hardly any Thais spoke English. He soon made friends with Thai scholars and began to study Buddhism. Eventually he wrote a book on the Buddhist faith called “The Wheel of the Law”, published in London in 1871 and widely praised. He became a friend of King Mongkut and was allowed to read in the royal library. In 1868 he led a British contingent of astronomers to Hua Wan, south of Hua Hinh, to view a total eclipse of the sun predicted by King Mongkut, to which the King had invited French astronomers, the Governor of Singapore and many others. At the same time, he was appointed Acting Consul when the Consul was on home leave. He also helped the Thais to survey the land and build roads; indeed he helped in the construction of New Road, one of the first roads to be built out into the country. “Day after day (he) went through the fruit orchards, and rice fields, jumping ditches, wading through mud, surveying the ground to plot out these roads.” (from the ‘Siam Repository’, the local English newspaper)
Eventually, in 1873, the young King Chulalongkorn, invited Alabaster to become his personal adviser. At last he had a chance to use his many skills. He designed and constructed the Gardens at Saranarom Palace as a place for the public to relax and study plants and animals, as was being done by Western countries, at Kew for example. He introduced Catalaya orchids to Thailand. In 1875, he helped to start the Survey Office and trained the first Thai surveyors. Together they plotted the route for a land telegraph cable from Bangkok to Battambang in the then French colony of Cambodia and so to the outside world. He mapped the Gulf of Thailand and administered the first Thai lighthouse. He suggested the employment of James McCarthy who came from the Survey of India to map the frontiers of Thailand where they met the borders of the English colony of Burma and the French colony of Indo-China, and stayed many years. Alabaster also started the first museum in Thailand, inside the Grand Palace. He catalogued the royal library and taught Thai librarians how to classify books. Finally, he started the Post and Telegraph Office, trained the staff and arranged the first postal deliveries.
Perhaps his greatest value to the King was his knowledge of the Colonial Powers and the designs they had on Thai territory. “He came to Thailand to turn her into a colony of the British, but he stayed in Thailand to help prevent her becoming a British colony,” said her grandson. This point did not go unnoticed by the British Foreign Office; “a good for nothing fellow who was dismissed,” they wrote. King Chulalongkorn thought rather differently and asked him to draft royal letters to Western heads of state; he was given the rank of Phya First Class, almost the highest rank ever attained by a foreigner in Thai service. When he died he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery and his grave is marked by the most imposing memorial of them all. It was given by the King himself.
Henry Alabaster died quite suddenly at the early age of 48. His lower jaw became paralyzed and three days later he was dead. He left two families behind him: three sons by his English wife, Palacia; and two by his Thai wife, Perm. Both her sons served in the Thai civil service and both were awarded the same rank of ‘Phya’ as their father. King Rama Vl introduced the use of surnames for Thai families and himself gave this family the name ‘Savetsila’, which in Thai means ‘white stone’, or ‘alabaster’. One of Henry Alabaster’s grandsons was Siddhi Savetsila who had a most distinguished career. He parachuted into Japanese occupied Thailand at the end of the Second World War as a member of the underground Resistance. He rose to the rank of Air Chief Marshall, Foreign Minister and Privy Councillor to the King. The Savetsila family now has many members; a living memorial to that brilliant young Language Student who stepped ashore in Bangkok so many years ago.