On 29th August 1926 Rasmus Havmoeller wrote in his diary about his first tiger (in my translation):
“We followed the tracks of the buffalo and after some time we realized that we had a competitor, the distinct tracks of a mature tigers paw showed in the tracks of the buffalo. It followed too; but since I so often have seen tiger tracks without seeing His Majesty himself, I didn’t think much about it….then there, to the left, almost covered by bushes, not 12 meters from us, the tiger lay crouching. The tail mowed, that’s why we noticed it. Now it got up, stared at us for a second and sneaked away with fast cat like movements. It showed its broadside and I fired. The animal disappeared, silence for a moment, then a trembling in the ground, as a buffalo galloping away, then silence again”.
The tiger’s skin is still to be found in Havmøller’s ‘Siamese Collection’ in Ebeltoft, Denmark; more about that later.
Between Now and Then
Here we are, Rasmus Havmøller’s son Palle and I, sitting in the silent arcades of Thailand Cultural Center a Sunday in April 2012. The musicians from the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra are arriving one by one with their instruments, rehearsal. They played with success last night, but none of us can rest on our laurels, as we shall learn.
We are talking about old days, about Palles father Rasmus Havmoeller who died in December 1940, when Palle was 1 year old. In a malaria fewer he waded out in the shallow waters of the bay of Ebeltoft and drowned. We talk about his mother, Boon Sri, the strong woman of the Mon people, who stayed on at Egsmark Strand, Ebeltoft and raised the two daughters and three sons. How the conditions during World War II became very difficult indeed for the family and how Palle helped when his mother worked in the moor, turning the peats so they could dry.
The odd academic
Rasmus was born in 1890, son of the old and established Thygesen Havmoeller family in Ebeltoft and on Djursland, landowners and fishermen. He was a bright boy, outstanding compared to his peers, but it must have been beyond imagination in the family that he, for example, should pursue an academic career.
He started his first fauna collection as a very young boy, the collection ‘instinct’ never left him. Rasmus got the well esteemed education as forest ranger -also because of his profound interest in nature.
His education took place in various manor houses in Denmark and Sweden, included was hunting skills and Rasmus proved to be a very good shot.
He then passed a governmental Tropical Forest Course with honors and was hired by EAC as Forest Assistant; in 1914 he sailed to Siam, to Bandon in the southern part of the country where EAC also had a concession, not teak but hardwood for sleepers.
Fortune favors the Brave
The young man of outdoor life and nature really experienced a change in environment; from the somewhat frugal and sparse nature around Ebeltoft to the overwhelming, for a city dweller almost frightening, richness of all things growing – especially in the still existing tropical forests of Siam. Rasmus had all the preconditions to take Siam in and he did. We know that he had a good time, working, hunting; with Boon Sri collecting items and adding trophies for his rapidly growing collection – and being with friends. He was known as one of the best big game hunters in Siam and often mentioned in the hunting notes of Bangkok Times. – Very many oranges in his turban. Danish friends from those days were many and they were loyal and kept contact with the family even after Rasmus died.
In 1920 there was money to build the villa ‘Bakkehuset’, facing the bay in Egsmark. The house became the domicile when the family returned to Denmark for good in 1933. It seems that Rasmus Havmoeller only visited Egsmark once, in 1920, but he undoubtedly trusted his brother who actually build the house.
The work in Siam continued and it seems that there were always jobs to find, big game to hunt and items to collect. During this period he started to work as mining engineer and got a part in a tin mine. The mine seemed to be quite lucrative for a period, then came 1929. His last job was as travelling representative for Siam Cement Plc. 1929-33.
The Great Depression, time to leave
In late October 1929 the American Stock Market on Wall Street crashed and triggered a 10 year long economic and political world crisis and depression. As seen before Siam was not hit immediately, but when realities reached the Bay of Siam the punch became double hard, also since the country had been mismanaged for years, especially during the reign of Rama VI. The coffers, all controlled by the court, were absolutely empty and the middle class came under severe strain. Then the price of commodities, such as rice and many locally mined minerals such as tin started to fall sharply.
The political situation in Siam deteriorated further, culminating in the so-called ‘Revolution of 1932’, when the Absolute Monarchy was finally abolished. Ministers and civil servants of Royal blood were arrested. King Rama VII later went into exile in Great Britain.
For many years the sentiment towards ‘the foreigners’ had been growing in Siam, this animosity was seemingly supported by the King. And in a troubled situation the highest in the land will always look for scapegoats. It was time also for Rasmus and Boon Sri to leave; they were not protected by one of the major foreign trading houses. During these years very few Danes arrived in the country.
Later in 1933 the numerous camphor boxes with what was left of the collections, gathered through all the years, were shipped. A small cash fortune was furthermore secured and brought to Denmark.
A big part of the collection was given to The National Museum in Bangkok. The Parliament of Siam enforced ‘The Act about Antiquities’, only in 1934. But already in the days of the Absolute Monarchy dating back to King Chulalongkorn, we know it was forbidden to take especially religious (e.g. Buddha images) items out of the country. Hunting for elephants and their tusks were also forbidden. I could imagine that ‘authorities’ took their toll of the collection. I dare to doubt whether they are to be found at the shelves in the museum or went somewhere else. Maybe the donation is the reason why the collection in Ebeltoft is carried by artifacts, arts and crafts plus magnificent representatives of the zoological world.
The Personal Decline
Like so many others, just to mention Admiral Richelieu, Rasmus Havmoeller had on certain stage attracted malaria and that seemingly in its most severe form (the form caused by parasites Falciparum). There was no real treatment at that time and without going into details, this malaria crippled the patient’s whole life, since the attacks were frequent and left the person unable to take any care of himself. The malaria followed Rasmus to his death.
Back in Egsmark the elegant ‘Little Siam’ was built for the exhibition. Entrance fee 0.35 Crowns. Rasmus was in attendance, a qualified guide, when the malaria allowed. Later the house was used as guest House and the collection was placed in a building trying to resemble a small Siamese Temple, a Wat. Finally, in 1937, the couple opened a small restaurant in the building. Furthermore Rasmus gave talks and showed slides about Siam. He wanted to go back to Siam where he still had economic interests, but he never did or could. It is also doubtful whether it would have possible to get means of any substance out of that cash strapped country.
After the Germans invaded Denmark 9th of April 1940 the number of tourists to Djursland and Ebeltoft ebbed out. If not for other reasons then because petrol was rationed. As mentioned earlier, Rasmus Havmoeller died in December 1940, 50 years old.
Just south of Bangkok inner city, Chao Phraya River forms a big loop where the river almost meets itself again. On the tiny and low laying land you find an ancient old Mon settlement, Phrae Phradeng. Boon Sri Chaichanapan was born here the 15. of November 1900; she was the daughter of a local leader in the Mon community. Boon Sri ended her life in 1960, near Egsmark Strand, Ebeltoft then Mrs. (=Nang) Boon Sri Havmoeller.
She and Rasmus met around 1916 and lived together ever since. Here, in The Far East, it is imperative not to think of ‘marriage’ the European way. The first mentioning of marriage Registration in Siam is found in, what can be translated as: ‘The Civil and Commercial Code of 1923’, Chapter 5. But registration at some public office was not compulsory. Instead I’m very convinced that Boon and Rasmus went to the temple (as so many of us have done). Here the monks, five or nine, perform the wedding rites, give us their blessings and wish us a happy life together – and that was regarded as fully comprehensive.
However, EAC didn’t accept mixed marriages. Maybe that’s why Rasmus Havmoeller left the Company around 1924. By the end of it, married ‘The Danish way’ they were. This time the Danish Consul-general Hakon Christiansen was in charge of the ceremonies. The wedding took place in O. Paludan-Muellers home in Bangkok. Around 1932-3 the couple had decided to move back to Denmark and Boon Sri for that purpose needed a Danish passport.
And Boon Sri stayed on in Egsmark, year after year. She liked to receive Thai guests so that she could prepare Thai dishes for them. A true highlight was when she, in 1951, received King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid and presented the collection. She never saw Siam/Thailand again and passed away in 1960.
The Siamese Collection in Ebeltoft
For a start, it is a bit misleading to call the collection ‘Siamese’ since very many of the objects are of Danish origin – from Rasmus Havmoellers young years and his later. First and foremost this place is evidence of two life’s lived. We shouldn’t use the traditional museum ‘ruler’ on this exhibition.
But I suppose a Master of Arts will get the shivers when visiting the museum. It would be much against her systematic training and scientific approach. There are many items of beauty and high value; artifacts of all kinds, there are souvenirs, for example the wooden frogs you can buy on every street corner in Thailand year 2012 and there are many sorts of cheap bric-a-brac. Most items are of Siamese origin, but many are Danish. Some from Rasmus’ early days, brilliantly stuffed birds and fish from the bay of Ebeltoft for example. It is beyond doubt that Boon Sri was the collector of the many silver ornaments, domestic and feminine items.
In many modern museums the advanced pedagogical approach almost takes the life out of the exhibition – no surprises, no astonishment left. That is not the case in the ‘Siamese Collection’ in the old Post Court in Ebeltoft, Denmark. Your eye lingers on a recent Buddha image, the big birds, a head of a buffalo, silver- and glassware – even silver ‘Fig leafs’ for small girls are here. They all invite to a closer look and they call the imagination – if you have any left. When bringing children, who are still blessed with fantasy and imagination, please allow them some time in peace here in this Aladdin’s treasury of the Far East and Egsmark Strand.
We brought Liva, four years old. She was most interested, got very big eyes; especially the birds called her attention and she couldn’t help patting them. She remained concentrated for half an hour, a long time for a four years old girl.
Kann Rasmussen, A.(1986) : ’Danske i Siam 1858-1942.
Kaarsted, Tage (1990): ’Admiralen’.
I samlingen ‘Dansk Sømandsliv’: ’Kaptajn Anthon SØLLINGs [1847 – 1925] Optegnelser, Memoirer og Breve’. 0101 1974. Se ogsaa Scandasia April 2011.
Vedsted. Jacob (2012): ’Siamesisk Samling i Ebeltoft – og dens skabere’. (Museum Østjylland). ’My first Tiger’ is quoted from this work’. Originally occurred in: ‘Danmarksposten’ april 1931, p. 67-70.
Wad, Leo (1937): ‘Kalø – Mols – Ebeltoft. Illustreret Fører over Mols og Ebeltoft v/ Kai Elle. Lidt om Djurslands herregaarde’. [Annoncen for Havmoellers restaurant i ’Lille Siam’ findes i denne publikation].
1. Open Google sources are used, especially regarding the financial/political situation global an in Siam, following the crash on Wall Street, October 1929.
2. Pornpan Boonpattanaporn has looked through Siamese/Thai legislation re. Marriages and antiquities.
Photos: Inge Justesen, Draaby, Ebeltoft.