Phraya Vasuthep: The Good Danish Soldier of Fortune

Major General Gustav Schau – known in Thailand as Phraya Vasuthep – started in 1897 building up the Royal Thai Provincial Gendarmerie – an elite military police force under Interior Minister Prince Damrong Rajanuphab. When the Danish officer retired in 1915 this force had secured law and order in all corners of the Kingdom of Siam.

In 1889 the Chinese in Bangkok involved themselves in gang wars. The fighting  for ‘territory’  and power between rival Secret Societies continued for many days and became a nuisance and disturbed the order of the whole town. Dealing with this became the first of many occasions where Gustav Schau, Captain of The Royal Guard, had to show firmness and loyalty to his masters, the King and Prince Damrong. He was ordered to intervene with as much force as necessary.

full_news_8073Commodore Richelieu brought 400 marines and Captain Schau 300 soldiers; they closed in on Sampeng (Chinatown) and attacked.
“The Thais attacked the populations as lions…..Any Chinese who offered resistance was killed. Many jumped into the canals and were shot in the water”, writes the contemporary Danish officer Walter Christmas Moller in his account of the incident.
“Hundreds of people were arrested, some then beheaded, some flogged and then released. Those arrested were bunched two to five by knotting their long pigtails together and then taken to Richelieus arsenal” (Kaarsted p. 41, Christmas p. 147, my transl.).

A family wiped out
Denmark lost the final war to the Prussians in 1864 and that had a thorough impact on the Danish society as a whole. Also mentally the country was in a state of depression and the army stripped of any glory, no longer a place to pursue a brilliant career. Many emigrated, especially from Nord-Schleswig, now German soil. Some captains, ships and seamen from there ended up in Bangkok and were registered in Consul Koebkes big protocol.

Gustav Schaus father, Major Ernst Frederik Schau, lost his five brothers in the wars of 1848-50, during the years thereafter and in 1864, all of them were officers. Finally he himself fell at Dybboel, 18th of April 1864, 38 years old. His mother lived as a widow until 1899. Gustav remained a bachelor all his life, no children known.
Born in 1859 the boy was sent to the respected boarding school ‘Soroe Akademi’ in 1869. According to the protocols from there his academic achievements were not brilliant, maybe no wonder with such a background, but his two years older brother Valdemar, also ‘Soraner’, later became lawyer and finally judge of The Supreme Court in Copenhagen.
Gustav left school in April 1876 and went to the army as infantryman.  With the rank of Second-lieutenant he was demobilized late in 1884 and sailed directly out to Siam.
When the young naval lieutenant Andreas Richelieu arrived in Thailand 1875 he was equipped with a recommendation from the Danish king (read article Scandasia Magazine, Febr. 2010); an understanding between the Siamese and the Danish Royal House was emerging. Later, some young Siamese royals got their military training in Denmark. Danish officers were more or less handpicked for jobs in Siam with governmental blessing. Not so for Gustav Schau. According to the sources he simply showed up in Bangkok as a private person and asked for a job.

The road to success
There is a popular version or myth of how the Second-Lieutenant of the Danish infantry got a job. Prince Damrong, at that time Commander of The Royal Body Guard, claimed that one day early in 1885, after the parade, a young and tall, blond youth dressed in civil clothes, introduced himself and his military credentials there and then – and asked for an assignment in the Siamese Army. Prince Damrong was, according to his own statement, most impressed by the young man and hired him on the spot; to be enlisted in the guard as instructor and drill master. Nevertheless the archives show, that Schau was first employed by Commodore Richelieu as lieutenant in the marine infantry. After a short period he was then transferred to the army, specifically The Royal Body Guard as it was named.



Schau remained an officer of the army all his time in Siam, whereas his successor and other Danish officers were enrolled ‘only’ in the gendarmerie. He established a close relationship with Prince Damrong and was promoted, first to captain and then major. In this position he was in charge of drilling and also chief of the school for non-commissioned officers. Finally he was appointed General Quarter Master.
In all his tasks he showed a highly developed organizational talent and a not so common appetite for work. It was therefore no coincidence or a result of patronage that he, in 1897, was asked to form and implement a police force in Bangkok and a provincial gendarmerie. He accepted to create the gendarmerie but not the police force; from a tactical point of view that was maybe an unwise decision.

The Gendarmerie
‘The Royal Siamese Gendarmerie’ was then officially established as a provincial military police force. The man behind the construction was the now Minister of the Interior, same Prince Damrong. The idea was to create a ‘Flying Corps’ of elite gendarmes lead by Danish officers and with garrisons spread around in the unruly country.  Of course the construction in itself was politically sensitive. I know of no other country where it, over time, was accepted that foreigners were in control of an armed corps of say 9.000 men with power over life and death. Furthermore, the ambition among the leading figures in Siam was to create a nation state led by educated Siamese from the ‘patrician’ families or from the royal family itself; thereby they in fact undermined the position of the corps they had founded. After King Chulalongkorn’s  (Rama V) death the process was fuelled by strong nationalistic sentiments.

Prince Damrong (1862 – 1943) was a half brother of King Chulalongkorn and his nearest allied. Through more than 30 years he influenced directly the course of the country. Also his ultimate goal was to create a unified nation state anchored around the throne and the absolute monarchy. Next to the Siamese themselves, Siam was back then a patchwork of Chinese immigrants, tribes and more or less independent fiefdoms. Lawlessness reigned; no police existed in the provinces. Main problems were cattle- and timber theft, murders and robberies carried out by gangs of highwaymen controlling whole towns and provinces, making commuting and trade almost impossible. Furthermore massive illegal opium trade, although this was a government monopoly. Life came at an extremely cheap price.
The Grand Palace had to show that it was the only executive power in control everywhere. In 1894 Damrong was appointed to the key post as Minister of the Interior; over some years he modernized the provincial administrative system and the governors lost their autonomy, now taking orders directly from Bangkok. The Prince was a loyal friend and master for Gustav Schau. The Prince was in high esteem both among friends and foes, both for being a strong willed but also modest and highly intelligent man. He was very often ‘The doer’ in implementing the King’s programs.
Schau started with 250 men and one station. When he had built up the corps to his and Prince Damrongs satisfaction, it consisted of around 9.500 gendarmes, Siamese and Danish officers, deployed at 400 stations and sub-stations. There is no need to go into the structure and daily work of the corps. Erik Seidenfaden has described this in his book, worth reading for all Nordic people in Thailand.
Seidenfaden is quite frank in giving his views on also daily Siamese life, culture and behavior. The reader can then judge whether anything has changed!
But Gustav Schau had found his niche in life. He became most respected for his organizational talents, insight, fairness and restless energy. Many local Siamese non-commissioned officers had a portrait of him hanging in their private homes. Schau never spared himself; he often went on, also unexpected, inspections – on foot, on horseback or by the gendarmerie river steamer. The stations were often placed at riverbanks and there was a saying: ‘Always keep good order, suddenly Phraya Vasuthiep will turn round the corner’.
A Phraya is a high nobleman’s title and Vasuthiep means ‘The one who possess the power of the God Vishnu’.
In 1909 came the final promotion to major-general and since he was also the director-general of the administration, he had a good grip on his organization, which, on its peak, really was an elite corps bringing order about, so that it became possible to live in peace and travel without the risk of being killed by highwaymen, robbed of money and belongings, or have your cattle stolen.

When king Chulalongkorn died in 1910 the pressure on the foreigners in Siam started to mount. Many of the King’s sons had received military or civil education in Europe; they were most eager to take over. Prince Damrong meanwhile did not find the time ripe and persuaded Schau to stay on for some more years.

The personal tensions between the Danish officers and Siamese officials grew. The governors for example were often of royal blood and disliked the foreigners. This was according to various sources also because of different attitudes towards the privates in the army and the population as such. The Siamese officers and governors were feared, branded arrogant and mostly incompetent. The Danes were accused of being too cordial or ‘democratic’ towards ordinary people.
In 1915 Prince Damrong was forced out of office and Gustav Schau wisely resigned. His last comments to Erik Seidenfaden were: “When I’m gone the gendarmerie will be radically transformed. All what I have built up these 18 years, will be torn down. My work has been all in vain” (my translation).
The Danish officers stayed on under a new leader and restricted conditions until 1926, when they were all laid off without further notice. Maybe the Danish participation in the whole project should have been brought to an end with Major-General Schaus departure.

Back in Copenhagen and with a reasonable pension from the government of Siam, Schau was appointed member of the board of Directors of EAC. With his knowledge and experience he was worth his seat but he can hardly have invested a fortune; during his time in Siam he had obtained no concessions at had not participated in the various businesses, but the gendarmerie had been most important for EAC. The gendarmes and the Danish officers were providing the necessary peace and stability, to secure operations in as far a place as Phrae and secure a river transport line of more than 850 kilometers.

Besides being a Siamese nobleman, Gustav Schau was bestowed with numerous Danish and Siamese Royal orders and decorations. He died in 1919, 60 years old.


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