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Don’t touch the Royals: the absurd death of the Queen of Siam in the 19th Century

4 min read

Life is known to have a common destiny for everyone: death. There have been, throughout history, really lot of famous people who died in the most absurd ways, and there is an entire catalog of unbelievable deaths of royal people. For istance Henry I, who was king of England from 1100 until 1135: he died a rather bizarre death, supposedly caused by a meal of lamprey eels, at the age of 67. Or another European king, Alexander of Greece, whowas just 27 when he died in 1920. He was taking a stroll in his summer palace near Athens when a monkey attacked his German Shepherd, Fritz. The monkey hurt his leg as well as biting him all over his body, the wounds became infected and less than a month later the king was pronounced dead.
However, one of the most hard-to-believe such stories is of Sunandha Kumariratana, the young queen of Siam (present-day Thailand).

The refined kingdom of Siam was governed, at the end of the 19th century, by a reflected king who continued the work of modernization of the country started by his father. Unfortunately, neither of the two sovereigns thought of abolishing an ancient law which was the indirect cause of the death of the young queen.
King Chulalongkorn, known in the west as Rama V and known for introducing some progressive reforms within his kingdom like abolishing slavery, had four wives, all his half sisters, as was customary in the Siamese court. The “first” of the wives, the official consort, was just Queen Sunandha Kumariratana, very loved by her husband, to whom she had given a daughter, Princess Kannabhorn Bejaratana.

On that unfortunate day of May 1880, when the queen was not yet twenty and the princess not even two, a crowd of servants and family guards escorted mother and daughter to the the royal family’s bountiful Bang Pa-In summer residence, outside of Bangkok. The palace was across the Chao Phraya River, the large waterway that flows through the capital. The law evidently provided that no one could get on a boat with the queen, who was pregnant, and the princess.
Thus, mother and daughter were escorted to a separate boat which was dragged by a bigger boat to carry them over the river. However, the royal vessel capsized in strong currents and both were plunged into the water, and none of their entourage proceeded to help them. Supposedly everyone followed the lead of the main guard, who did not assist them or urge anyone else to help the drowning royals. All three died, while their attendants just stood and watched.
The incredible stillness with which so many people witnessed the drowning of a pregnant girl and her daughter is explained by the strict observance of an old and rigid Siamese law that did not allow any ordinary person to touch a member of the royal family. The penalty was death.

Royal Crematorium, 1881

Besides the law, any desire to help save the life of the queen could have been explained by a rooted superstitious belief as well: allegedly, saving a person who was drowning in the river was associated with misfortune. If someone offered help to the person meant meddling with the spirits who lived in the water. According to these beliefs, the one that saved would have been “taken”, sooner or later, instead of the saved one.
After this absurd incident, where three lives could have been easily spared with a little help, King Chulalongkorn proceeded to imprison the attendant who did not give any orders to attempt a rescue: the poor servant was punished precisely for sticking too scrupulously to the laws of his king.
On the other hand, the king greatly grieved the death of his spouse, who is said to be the one he loved the best of all. The funerary procession that was accordingly arranged for the queen was possibly the most expensive funeral in the history of this Asian kingdom and the King built two buildings to be burnt during the cremation ceremony. The bodies of the two royal victims were embalmed and seated on golden thrones inside the main crematorium, surrounded by precious objects and royal signs. Only on March 9, 1881, the king began funeral ceremonies, which lasted for twelve days.
In the backyard of the in the summer palace that the young queen was reaching on that unfortunate spring day, he placed a memorial to Sunandha Kumariratana and the children, a reminder of the unbelievable (and tragic) circumstances that ended their lives all too soon.

Statue at Bang Pa-In Palace.
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