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Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu as Entrepreneur

When the Admiral left Siam in 1902 it was onboard the Royal Yacht ‘Maha Chakri’ bound for Singapore, from where he would sail to Europe with one of the regular shipping lines. The direct EAC route Bangkok, Europe, Copenhagen had not yet been established. King Chulalongkorn and many members of the Royal family accompanied him to Singapore as a sign of friendship. We can also suppose that Richelieu, as he so very often did, also served as the captain of the ship. He had been the Royal Yacht captain for many years and sailed extensively with the King, especially during the seasons of inspection.

On arriving in Denmark with his wife and children, Richelieu first rented, then bought Kokkedal Castle in North Zealand. From other sources we learn that his personal annual income was higher than the ten leading financiers in the country—combined, and they were definitely not poor people. He was one of the richest men in Denmark.

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How had it been possible for him to accumulate such wealth during his years in Siam? There are many and ambiguous answers.

On a general level they can be named: Commissions, ‘Corruption’ and Concessions.

On a more personal level: Hard work, loyalty, political flair and language skills. Richelieu taught himself Siamese during his first command in the navy; he furthermore learned the elaborate language spoken at court. He was a visionary and saw the options and opportunities during this ‘Nation-building’ period in Siam.

With a partner H.N. Andersen founded a business in Bangkok in 1884, Andersen & Co. (later EAC). The company owned The Oriental Hotel and soon thereafter established the ‘Oriental Provision Store’. In 1878 Richelieu was appointed Captain of the Royal Yacht ‘Vesatri’, and in 1887 made Superintendent of The Marine Forces. In this capacity he was the purchaser of all goods and commodities for the forces and also for the Royal Yacht. It seems that Oriental Provision Store became the main provider of all goods and commodities for the forces and also for the Royal Yacht. They were punctual with deliverances, which was especially important regarding supplies for the new yacht of 2,500 tons, ‘Maha Chakri’ delivered in 1892, and sailed to Siam from Scotland by H.N. Andersen and Captain Guldberg; Andersen did not have a Certificate for International navigation.

In the book ‘Admiralen, Kongen & Kaptajnen,’ A. Eggers-Lura (1998), former Manager of EAC, discusses the belief that Richelieu, with a probability amounting to certainty, drew a personal commission of around 5% on top of the deliveries to the Marine Forces and Court from Andersen & Co., even though it is known that Richelieu always sought acceptance of delivery agreements from his supervisor Prince Chao Sais. For reasons understood there doesn’t exist any written references, e.g. in memoirs, to these deals. Nevertheless, the money involved must have been enormous, taking alone the lavish lifestyle of the Court, and his responsibilities while onboard the Royal Yacht, into consideration.

Introducing the Western moral concept of Corruption into this ‘Nation-building’ period in Siam would be meaningless. Clear and transparent transactions are most desirable in modern societies. Instead, the concept of ‘One good turn deserves another’ reigned in Siam, and to some extent still does. The system was built on family relations, both Chinese and Siamese, discretion and trust.

To give an example of things as they then were and the way things were done, it can be mentioned that king Chulalongkorn in 1891 sent Richelieu as his envoy on a private diplomatic mission to France, Denmark and, most importantly, to Russia. The Siamese group was headed by the King’s brother Prince Damrong. During Richelieu’s absence, H.N. Andersen was appointed acting Superintendent of the Marine forces. Now he was the purchaser and the provider. Practical it may have been, but even then maybe a trifle unorthodox. However, there was no law regulating such matters, and the absolute Monarch King Chulalongkorn was in the know concerning what happened in the foreign companies. Bangkok was not a big place in those days.

The Concessions were the deep wells of wealth from which the King could draw the money needed for the modernization of Siam, as well as to cover the costs of his travels and private building enterprises, such as, for example, the Summer Palaces in Bang-Pa-In. You can say that the King sold the teak forests of the country to raise capital for modernization. Foreign companies, including EAC, paid highly for concession plots of forest land where they could log the trees in millions. No thought seems to have been given to the fact that it takes at least 50 years for a teak tree to mature.

Richelieu also acquired concessions, but all within the field of urban development. The first was a company concession to build and run a private 21 kilometer railway between Paknam (Samut Prakan Province) at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and Bangkok. At a certain stage, the project became short of funds, but the King invested around 172,000 Baht and became a shareholder. The line was strategically important, as shown by the ‘Paknam Incident’ in 1893 (Article 1). It was inaugurated in July 1891 and was soon a success. Richelieu headed the company, which continued to run all the years up to 1959. After World War II it became a tramline.

The second was the first electric tramline opened 1894 under Danish ownership; Richelieu was the leading figure in the company. W. Fleuron Jacobsen was hired as manager and proved to be a very competent daily leader. The line ran 7, later 18 kilometers, from The Royal Palace to the harbor around Klong Toey. It was inaugurated by the king. Richelieu must really have had a partiality for rails, because when he got back to Denmark he started and controlled a private railway line between Copenhagen and Slangerup in North Zealand.

The most important concession was the Siam Electric Company Ltd., obtained in the year 1898-99. The company had the sole rights to deliver electricity to the capital, with at that time around 400,000 inhabitants. The concession was given for 50 years. SEC was founded by a consortium with G. M. Glueckstadt, Landmandsbanken (Farmers Bank), in Copenhagen as chairman, Richelieu as managing director and engineer Aage Westenholz as manager. The company was extremely profitable. Setting up of an electricity company in Bangkok had been tried earlier, but the attempts had failed. It is due entirely to Richelieu’s determination, networking and business flair that he was the one who succeeded. In 1912, the majority of the stocks were sold to Belgian interests. We do not know exactly how many shares Richelieu himself possessed.

It has not been possible to estimate the turnover and profits of these concessions, but a quite frank advertisement in a leading Danish daily from August 7th 1907 (this from Eggers-Lura (1998)) throws some light on the matter. Siam Electricity Company advertised an opening for a traffic manager to be stationed in Bangkok. In the text is mentioned that the tram line and the electricity plant combined generated a profit of 1,200,000 Danish Crowns—a gold mine in 1907.

After returning to Denmark, the Admiral engaged himself in many sorts of business at a high level; he was, of course, a member of the board of Directors EAC, Chairman of the board of directors Landmandsbanken, Chairman of B&W shipyard, DFDS shipping, etc.

Defeat came late to Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu, but when it came the blow hit hard and darkened the last 10 years of this proud man’s life. He died in 1932 at the age of 80 years. Landmandsbanken collapsed in 1922, and in 1923 Richelieu was convicted of gross negligence and fined 4,000 Danish crowns by the Supreme Court.

Through all the years Richelieu maintained friendships with the Siamese. King Chulalongkorn visited him while in Denmark and his close friend Prince Damrong paid his last visit in 1930.

Andreas Richelieu always stayed in the realm of big business, unlike some of his contemporaries such as, for example, the Carlsberg brewer Carl Jacobsen, who founded both an art museum and foundations for art and culture. Maybe that’s why the Admiral is not anchored in the public mind and remains a strange bird in the aviary.

Read also the first article in this series:
Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu: The Admiral Who Went Ashore

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