In ‘The Danish Geographical Journal, Vol. 1 1877’, there is an article about Siam, modern written and without all the usual prejudices of that time. It starts:
“When I landed in Bangkok, I immediately went to where all Danes go when they arrive, knowing that they will be well received; namely to our fellow countryman Consul Købke. He has been living in Siam for 18 years and has been Danish Consul for ten, he is a loyal friend of all his countrymen, and it is undoubtedly because of him that we are more numerous here than all other Europeans combined”
Young Andreas Richelieu, 23 years, Lieutenant Captain in the King of Siam’s Navy, later Commander in Chief and Vice Admiral.
Throughout the years stubs and articles have been written about Frederik Købke. The problem is, that the newer ones tend to build on the words from the older ones – adding a bit of flavor here and a dash of spice there but no references; therefore we get a picture of the Consul as ‘the black sheep’ of his family – which was certainly not the case.
This article will concentrate on facts, mostly taken from original documents, such as the fragile Consulate protocol, stored in the cellars of The National Archives in Copenhagen. Hence, since ScandAsia Magazine is an open www source, we can expect future writings and articles to be more balanced.
But no doubt, Frederik Carl Christian Købke was a man of a big caliber who liked to do things in style. In the year 1878 for example, two elephants, Eng and Chang, knocked the gate of the newly opened Copenhagen Zoo; a gift from the Consul and his then 76 years old mother, widow and ship-owner Mette Marie Købke, born Bruun, of the strong willed and sharp minded Bruun dynasty in Fredericia.
Frederik Carl Christian Købke was born in Fredericia in 1837 and had his childhood there, in the straight and right angled streets behind the ramparts; a planned and neat town of defense, indeed a contrast to the chaotic and dirty mangrove town, just waterways and a big kraal, but maybe that’s why he liked it. Frederiks father N.C. Købke was Lieutenant-Colonel of the Engineers, he died in 1849. His mother Mette Marie, born in 1798 died as late as 1888 in Copenhagen. The Bruun family owned the biggest general store in Fredericia, warehouses, a small fleet of tall-ships sailing on Kiel and Lubeck, a tobacco factory and later a cloth factory in Bruunshaab near Viborg. Among the more spectacular assets can be mentioned three churches near Fredericia, one of them, Egeskov, functioned as the family burial place. Still, a little brick laid family ‘Teahouse’ is there to be seen.
Frederik went sailing in an early age; Richelieu and many others did the same. It was the way out for those boys who couldn’t sit still, but not necessarily black sheep at all.
We next meet him in Bangkok, 22 years old and first mate on a British schooner. It is noted that he should have failed in getting Danish Navigation Certificate; maybe so, but I suppose he then passed British examinations, that was common and most likely, since for example Lloyd’s of London would not insure ships and cargo sailed by non-qualified crew.
So he then registered to Consul Mason in the newly opened Danish Consulate 26.07. 1860.
King Mongkut, Rama IV, opened Siam up in 1855. Before that, the country had been as closed as Japan and also isolated up there by the bottom of the Siam bay, far from the trading routes. The king made a trade and friendship treaty with Great Britain that year, allowing foreigners to settle and establish businesses. In 1858 a similar treaty was made between Siam and Denmark. Købke was one of the first to settle down, more followed and immediately after the Danish defeat to the Prussians in 1864, Danish ship-owners and captains from the lost provinces, for example from Åbenrå, Sønderborg and Flensborg relocated and made Bangkok their base and registered at the consulate.
The establishment of a Consulate was a must. The treaties stated that the home countries should continue to carry the jurisdiction over their subjects. Siam had no judges and no courts; in principle it was up to the sovereign to negotiate disputes and decide the faith of people, often misdeeds were met with draconic punishment such as beheading. The Consul therefore had real authority; he was a judge, marriage registrar and policeman, settled disputes between the Danes, between Danes and other parties, foreign or local. The rulings were to be followed, he could fine his countrymen, eventually deport them home. Furthermore the consulate registered arrivals and departures, birth and deaths, marriages and other private affairs. The most important commercial task was maybe to keep the ‘Ship list’ updated. In this was registered all Danish ships calling on Bangkok.
During these early years Købke served as captain on Chinese owned Siamese bark ships. The Chinese merchants in Bangkok owned many ships; they imported porcelain and various kinds of kitchen wares and utensils from mainly Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Købke fathered a son with a Siamese spouse, he was named Christian. The British colonialists wrinkled their nose over those who ‘went native’, so their own affairs were kept discrete and Victorian double standard. Frederik Købke, ahead of his time, just stood by his choices and deeds -so much for immorality.
During his years as Captain, it seems that he had no problems regarding commands, cargo and crew – no shipwrecks, no accidents reported; although the China route from Bangkok to Shanghai was demanding and extreme in the season of the typhoons. It is furthermore known, that Købke got well acquainted with King Mongkut, we have no documents, but they shared interest and knowledge regarding astronomy and navigation. Bangkok in those days was a small place indeed and the king much occupied with gaining western knowledge –when he could find the time. He was blessed with 35 wives and 82 children. Købke could not have sailed on China without a profound knowledge of astronomic navigation, the use of the sextant etc. The King later successfully calculated when and where in Siam an eclipse of the sun would occur.
We also know that Frederik Købke, at a certain point was appointed Royal Inspector of the newly erected Custom Authority. Furthermore appointed agent for the insurance network, Lloyd’s of London, a most prestigious position.
In 1865 Købke went on leave to Denmark. He again met his cousin, Bolette , two years younger than him, and now a young woman; they had known each other since childhood. They got married in Copenhagen 10.09. 1865 and thereafter started the long sea-journey to Siam. They arrived early January 1866, still the pleasant part of the year.
After half a year Bolette died from dysentery, this atrocious decease which took so many of the foreigners and Siamese alike. The story tells that the whole Danish Colony followed her to her grave at The Protestant Graveyard, Charoen Krung Road Soi 72/5. The mourners, although tough seamen, all wept and cried, she had been loved for her spirits and wonderful use of the Danish language, she made them remember home, mothers, sisters and other loved ones.
All what is left now is a flat, light grey, marble tombstone on hers and her husband’s burial place. The inscription says:
Hereunder rest the dust of
THORA BOLETTE MARIE KØBKE
19/12 1839 in Vrå, dead 27/6 1866 in Bangkok.
She was a good woman and a lovable wife
In 1868 Frederik Købke was appointed Royal Danish Consul, a position he kept until 1879-80.
Sitting in the medieval rooms of The National Archives, reading his notes and memoranda is a strange experience; you are taken back to the early town in the mangroves and to the river and the sea. The protocol is fragile and with spots, yellowed. You read about life but more often about death. The town in the stinking mangrove swamp was utterly unhealthy in those days, there are many notes regarding death of this and that person, mainly from cholera or dysentery, but Købke’s handwriting remains firm, distinct and easy read.
A note catches the eyes: Martha Sørensen. Born the 12/4 1876 on the Sea, baptized in Bangkok 4/5 1876, dead the 1/8 1877, buried at The Protestant Graveyard, daughter of Captain Sørensen’s wife O.M.S.J. born Petersen. Registered in the Danish Consulate in Bangkok the 7/5 1876. But there were also the marriages and the naming ceremonies. Many children were given the middle name ‘Købke’.
In December 1869 the 162 kilometers long Suez Canal was opened for traffic. The canal was the precondition for the tremendous growth and development in trade, traffic and cooperation between The Far East and Europe. The first Danish steamer ‘H.C. Ørsted’ passed in 1872. Also Købke’s Shipping Company flourished these years. He traded mostly on Java, Singapore and Hong Kong.
In the articles written about Købke there are some open ends and mistakes about his tall-ships, especially the bark ‘Absalon’ of 201 tons and bark ‘Esbern Snare’ of 381 tons; impressing deep sea ships in those days. In ‘Danmarks Handelsflåde 1873’ [The Danish Merchant Marine 1873] we read that the two ships are owned by ‘widow, Madam Mette Marie Købke of Copenhagen’ and registered there. Consul Købke is the fully responsible operator. No black sheep! Other of his ships must have been registered in Bangkok, if at all, he may also have chartered. This cannot be traced. We only know for sure, that he had steam tug boats (for towing out the sailing ships) and a house boat with which he made pleasure tours up the river.
Visitors came to Bangkok. Captain Sølling of the old big bark ‘Århus’ had to stay for a fortnight, waiting for higher tides. Loaded the ship could not pass the banks at the mouth of the river. He was the guest of Købke on a 3 days tour in Købkes house boat; they sailed up the river to Bang Pa-In and beyond.
One day Sølling and other captains were invited for a tour in the Consuls pony chaise. The occasion was the cremation of the bones of a dead princess, sister to the king. The pyre was fired in front of the palace, where Charoum Krung Road starts; the usual festivities followed. From a distance the captain heard, to his astonishment, that a horn orchestra played Danish music. The baffled Sølling asked whether this was to honor the Consul. Købke replied; “No, but I have obtained music from Copenhagen, and the Siamese find that it sounds better than their own”. After some waiting the king arrived with his entourage, and when that happened the orchestra played the Danish King’s official and most pompous hymn ‘King Christian stood by the mast so high’. Maybe a trifle misplaced or a black joke by the esteemed Consul. Finally gifts were given out to the audience. Sølling got a nice little silver box, although it later showed to be made of brass. On departure from the festivities they listened to the tunes of: “And will you then just let the hen alone”, a spicy popular song from Tivoli. Sølling, who much later wrote his memoires, was a trustworthy and most respected old salt. Later in life Envoy to the British Government regarding fishing rights in the North Sea.
All dogs have their day, but clouds were gathering. The 18th of September 1873 the American Banking House ‘Jay, Cooke & Company’ collapsed. That was the trigger of a latent world financial and economic crisis (sounds familiar?) that lasted more than eight years. Almost everything came to a standstill, after some delay also in Siam. Not much trade for Købke, not much cargo and in case; very low tariffs or rates. The dominating international Trading House ‘Borneo Company’ in Bangkok had to reef the sails severely.
In April 1875 young Richelieu arrived. He stayed as the house-guest of Købke for a period, presumable until he got his command as shipmaster of HSMS ‘Regent’ bound for Phuket. In fact, Richelieu was the last real sailor to arrive in Siam, after him came mostly landlubbers such as a doctor, bakers, soldiers and a piano tuner!
The crisis sped up the transition in the merchant marine, steam engines took over from sails, faster and more reliable, they could themselves pass the Suez Canal. The captains and tall-ship owners such as Købke stood there as unsurpassed masters of an ancient old sailing tradition – that was suddenly no longer in demand or esteemed. Time took its early toll on the Consul. In a very short span of years he had lived through changes and sorrows enough for more lifetimes.
The most peculiar thing that happened in his later years was the arrival in 1876 of the 26 years old Dr. Sophus Deuntzer. He also stayed in Købkes house until he got himself a consultation established. By character the man was cantankerous, complained and quarreled. At the same time he was characterized as maybe the best doctor in the Far East. Why he came in the first place is a mystery, but he did and stayed on for 30 years – without illnesses.
In his capacity as judge Købke received a complaint from Mr. Knox, a relative of the British Consul General. According to this a servant in Deuntzers household had, with the doctor knowing, stolen a rudder belonging to Mr. Knox’s boat, modified it and installed it on the doctor’s own boat. The man of medicine was therefore ordered to show up at the Consulate a certain day and time. In another case the reputable Captain Benedictsen complained that instead of sending a bill by letter, the doctor showed up in person and also charged for that.
It all ended up in an embarrassing exchange of letters to ‘The High Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ in Copenhagen. Dr. Deuntzer complained that the Consul was often seen drunk during daytime, that he played ‘sjavs’ (cards) in low-key establishments, that his clothing was lacking, his house dirty and so on. The Consul should be relieved from the job.
The complaint letter became known in Bangkok and the Danish colony got furious, Frederik Købke was loved for his loyalty towards all Danes, high and low; he often helped out and often used his own wallet. Our Lieutenant Captain Richelieu in the Royal Siamese Navy took the initiative and wrote a letter of defense on behalf of the entire colony. To this Deuntzer finally replied:
“This is written by people who, regarding manners, are belonging to an utterly low placed class. I am the only Dane here with an academic education and furthermore the one who has the highest income, so I believe my points should be heard”.
That was the last of it. Deuntzer had gone too far; Købke remained as Consul of course, the sailors had won but it was their last victory, after them came the landlubbers and the bureaucrats.
No doubt that Frederik Købke, for all the reasons mentioned, was tired and that things were going downhill also regarding consumption, Captain Sølling mentions the consuls thirst, especially he was fond of Danish Schnapps. The story also tells that he had the contour of his liver tattooed on his skin at the right place, promising himself that it should not grow bigger than that. And then, a man of caliber still. In 1877 he fathered his second son Dan and in 78 he provided, as mentioned, two elephants for Zoo.
Finally it came to an end. It has also been suggested that Købke by the end of the day was laid off, but this was not so.
On the 13th of January 1879 he writes the Ministry, the handwriting still firm and powerful:
“Since I for reasons of illness, by my doctor, have been advised to leave Bangkok for a period, and because I maybe will not come back, I have forwarded the Danish Consular Archive and Seal to Mr. Thomas Knox, Her Britannic Majesty’s political agent and Consul General who has promised, until further notice, to take care of Danish interests. Bringing the High Ministry my thanks for shown good will I allow myself to ask for retirement as Danish Consul here” …..Signed
It dragged out, Købke came back, and nobody had taken up the task, although the Ministry, in a letter dated 31. October, had accepted the resignation. Mr. Clark was appointed but on business travel; asked from Copenhagen Købke states that there is no Vice-consul. On March 1st 1880 he sends his final and last letter to the Ministry containing the vital ship-list for 1879 and a few other documents. Now the handwriting is looser and open, the firmness has gone.
Frederik Carl Christian Købke died from dysentery and liver infection the 27th of October 1881, aged 44.
(All translations from Danish are done by the author.)