Captain John Bush, 1819-1905

by

Derick Garnier

 

John Bush was born in England in the reign of King George III and died in Thailand in the reign of King Edward VII.  For almost fifty years he lived in Siam and served two Siamese kings: King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn.  He captained their royal yachts; he served as the royally-appointed Harbour Master of the busy port of Bangkok for thirty years; and in his spare moments he managed the highly-successful Bangkok Dock Company.  Small wonder that he was honoured with a Siamese knighthood and given the title of “Admiral” by a grateful sovereign.  His grave in the Protestant Cemetery is marked by a fine obelisk with an inscription composed by King Chulalongkorn himself.

Captain BushJohn Bush arrived in Bangkok, with his wife, in 1857, just a year after the Siamese had signed a treaty with the British opening their ports to foreign trade.  The French and American envoys were swift to follow, eager to extract similar concessions for trade. Commerce flourished and soon the port of Bangkok was crowded with ships from many nations.

King Mongkut could see he had need of a Westerner who could control this jumble of shipping and he turned to Captain John Bush for help.  Bush accepted, urged on by the British consul, Sir John Schomburgk, and was confirmed in office with the royal title of Luang Wisoot Sakoradit Chao Ta.  For the next thirty years, Captain John Bush was Harbour Master of one of the busiest ports in the Far East.

The Siamese did not merely offer berths to foreign merchant ships; they designed and built their own ships; full-rigged merchant vessels and small, experimental steam ships; and they needed experienced men to sail them.  None was more experienced than Captain Bush and both King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn called for his services many times.  There were then no roads in Thailand (and very few in Bangkok), so Captain Bush was required to take the King up to Bang Pa In by boat and, in 1868, down to Hua Wan (south of Hua Hinh) at the head of a great flotilla of ships from many countries to view the total eclipse of the sun, which King Mongkut had calculated could best be seen there.

King Mongkut had been the first Siamese king to travel widely in his domain; his son, King Chulalongkorn, was the first sovereign to travel overseas.  In 1871 he made one of his first trips abroad – to India.  And Captain Bush was given the honour of captaining the king’s own vessel, the steamship “Bangkok”.  In this position he would have met many important officials in the British colonial government.  Two years later he was again called upon to captain the king’s ship, this time to Ang Hin (a small seaside village north of Pattaya) where King Chulalongkorn was thinking of building a palace.

But piloting a large ship in those shallow waters was a skillful business, and even Captain Bush sometimes made mistakes.  With a king on board, this could be embarrassing.  On the way upstream towards Ayutthaya, the Chao Phya River broadens out suddenly into a gloomy patch of water known as Lan Tae.  Treacherous winds sweep across the water and can blow a ship off course.  Just such a wind struck the royal yacht Pratinang Waesatree and blew her on to a hidden sandbank, where she stuck fast.    The king had to be transferred to an escorting paddle steamer, leaving Captain Bush behind to free the royal yacht.

Worse was to follow.  In 1890 the now rather-elderly Admiral was summoned to take command once again of the royal yacht and sail his sovereign down to Malaysia.  But by ill-fortune she hit some rocks and, eventually, sank.  Bush was so mortified by his mistake, and perhaps afraid of the consequences, that he went down to stay with his daughter in Singapore and handed over all his property in Bangkok to her. 

He had a residence at the mouth of Klong Padung Krung Kasem which was spacious enough to house the Italian embassy when it arrived to sign a trade treaty.  He had another property on the banks of the Sathorn canal, where many of the early arrivals settled.  He was principal shareholder and director of the Bangkok Dock Company, for which he bought the plot of the old Protestant chapel from the Borneo Company.  He also built himself a retirement home beside the sea at Ang Hin. He died worth 1,240,000 Baht, a goodly sum when you could build a house for 10,000 Baht and a church for 50,000 Baht.

When Captain and Mrs. Bush arrived in 1857, Bangkok consisted of the walled royal city and very little else.  There were no roads, there was no wheeled traffic and there were very few houses on dry land.  Most people lived in floating houses moored to the river bank. To get about, across the marshes of what is today ‘Bangkok’, one had to use a boat.  So when King Mongkut began to enlarge the city, principally by having Klong Padung Krung Kasem dug and a new city wall erected, and a 2-mile stretch of roadway, ‘New Road’, paved with bricks, Captain Bush was among the first westerners to buy plots of land.

He was obviously a well-known and popular local figure.  His portrait shows him to have been, as Anna Leonowens described him, “a cheery Englishman, with a round, ruddy, rousing face”.  He was very good to Anna and her little son, Louis.  He took them both in on their first night in Bangkok and later did them many acts of kindness.  From his seaside house at Ang Hin, he played host to Siamese schoolboys from Assumption College.  He also welcomed foreigners sailing in the waters off Paknam, providing good food and drink, bathing and entertaining reminiscences.  He was a grand old sea dog and visitors were pleased to read out extracts from the weekly edition of the “Times” when cataract caused his eyes to grow too dim.


He had at least six children by two wives.  His first wife, Elizabeth (Lawson) died here in 1866.  One of their sons succeeded his father as Harbour Master of the port of Bangkok.  John Bush then married a lady known as “Mae Plian”; she may well have been a ‘Mon’.  They were much more inclined to marry westerners than Thai girls were and made excellent spouses.  Indeed King Mongkut’s own first, and much loved, wife was a Mon lady.  John Bush and Mae Plian had two children, Victor and Victoria.  Victor fought as a British soldier in the First World War and was killed.  His sister, Victoria, married and went to live in California. 
Her son, William, came back to Bangkok in 1986 to look for his Thai relatives and visit the old family home in Captain Bush Lane; first occupied by ‘Admiral Sir’ John Bush who had come to Thailand one hundred and fifty years before.