Danish Naval Officer Walter Christmas’ sharp eye recorded a very candid picture of Bangkok in the early 1890’s.
The year is 1894 and the place a sleepy Copenhagen inside the ramparts. In the provincial atmosphere of the tiny little country and capital there were not many success stories to write and talk about, but Commodore Andreas Richelieu of The Royal Thai Navy in the faraway, amble rich and exotic Siam was one. The upstart businessman H. N. Andersen another. They both attracted young adventurous Danes – for the Royal Thai Navy and for ‘The Oriental Provision Store’ and ‘Oriental Hotel’ in Bangkok. And these two men were regarded with the highest admiration by the Danish Royal Court and by all those who could go nowhere.
An image punctured
But in that year the publisher F. Hegel [later Gyldendal] gave out a book titled: ‘Et Aar i Siam’, ‘One year in Siam’; the author was Premier-lieutenant of the line in the Royal Danish Marine Walter Christmas. That book punctured the glorifying image of the Danes in Siam, especially Andreas Richelieu and H.N. Andersen. It also punctured the myth of Siam as a country of peace and harmony.
Walter Christmas-Dirckink-Holmfeld was born 1861. He later gave up the two difficult surnames. The family was influential and wealthy, his mother was furthermore out of a noble family. His father was Colonel and had a position as Chamberlain at The Danish Court.
Walter early showed himself as a restless character, a fabulous person and he indeed lived a fabulous life. As a very young man he tried to establish a steam line on The Amazons but failed. The Germans took over. He tried to sell the Danish West Indian Islands. That gave him a lot of trouble and a huge loss.
During World War 1, where Denmark was neutral, he was back in the Marine but also worked as agent for the British MI 5. When that leaked, he was expelled from Denmark, but of course came back with honor, when the British won the war.
Once when he was cash strapped he started to write books for boys, the hero was the young sailor and seaman from Svendborg: Peder Most. The five books he wrote are known by all Danish boys over 60 years of age, the last edition came out in the 1950ties. They were printed in hundreds of thousands.
Paknam and the consequences
Christmas stayed in Siam a little more than one year, around 1893. He fought the battle of Paknam where two French gunboats forced their way up the river to Bangkok, ruining the fortresses, the Siamese ships and escaping a dynamite barricade. [article about Richelieu, Scandasia online March 22, 2010. Westenholz Febr. 6, 2011] As Captain of the Royal Siamese Navy, he commanded the very old battleship ‘Coronation’. About that situation his contemporary H.A. Andersen writes in his book ‘Bao Luang’ (1929):
“What he (Master Candutti)achieved in the Paknam battle was quite heroic. He and the Danish captain Walter Christmas were on board ‘Coronation’, their Siamese crew mutinied, alone the two had to steer, maneuver, take care of the machine and also jump to the deck, adjust the canons and fire them. All this at the same time as they had to keep the crew at bay with their revolvers”. (Candutti was a well known Italian Engineer in the Thai Navy).
Christmas got decorated with a high Siamese order for his bravery. Never a coward he was. Furthermore the Siamese minister wrote him a very impressing Letter of Recommendation. But happy and content he was not, as we can read. Let me bring just two quotations.
Writing without mercy
In ‘One Year in Siam’ there is a complete list of the ships and boats in the Siamese Navy, 14 old, quite small vessels, some provided with brass canons and one bigger armed. Then also the Royal Yacht ‘Maha Chakri, brand new and with brand new canons. Unfortunately the crew didn’t know how to fire them. About the battleships Christmas writes (page 196): “But just a hodge-podge of hopeless ships, useless guns, and incompetent crews, commanded by men who, however stout and resourceful in other fields, for the most part were without knowledge in military skills”.
A contemporary British writer had stamped the Siamese Navy: ‘The Picnic Fleet’. The ships were first and foremost used by the Royal Household to transport the enormous Court, equipment and goods to and from the summer palace in Bang Pa In up the river or to the King’s preferred island in the gulf Koh-Si-Chang in Chonburi Province.
The quotation shows us Christmas’s hand. He writes an elegant and very modern prose. In the book he is often sarcastic, sometimes perfidious; he really masters the art of writing between the lines; the Commodore of the hopeless ships and navy was Andreas Richelieu, who only had an education as sea lieutenant of the reserve.
The Chandler in Command
In the normally peaceful Bangkok there existed a very close relationship between Richelieu as buyer for the Marine and H.N. Andersen, the owner of ‘Oriental Provision Store’. Christmas writes (p. 50): “Nearly all the consumption goods for the Marine are bought by a ship-chandler company in Bangkok at detail prices – and they are high in The Far East. This arrangement is even more strange since the owner of the grocery, in Commodore Richelieus absence, takes over his position in The Marine Department. Hereby the seldom seen ideal relation is seen, that buyer and seller is represented by the same person”.
No name mentioned but everybody knew. Really, the arrangement was a trifle unorthodox both regarding prices and roles, even in The Far East, but I have no doubt that it was known and sanctioned in ‘high places’, Bangkok was a small place then.
Duel on articles
Back in Denmark Christmas was dismissed from the Danish Marine, but later taken back. It has never and nowhere been accepted that an officer of the line in a country suddenly starts to work for another without resigning. But his book and numerous articles worked and harmed both Richelieu and Andersen much. They ‘persuaded’ local Bangkok papers, such as ‘Bangkok Times’ and ‘Siam Free Press’ to write articles confronting Christmas in an extremely harsh way. Copies were sent in numbers to Denmark and found their way to for example ‘Nyborg Avis’. The editor Emil Opffer was a friend of H. N. Andersen and always cash-strapped. The newspaper brought extracts and they were of such a character that they forced Christmas to sue the newspaper for libel and defamation. Opffers lawyer was paid by H.N. Andersen, Christmas’ by Aage Westenholz.
After many an expensive meeting in court it all ended up with a compromise [Kaarsted, Tage: (1994) ‘Admiralen’].
Facts and findings
The really interesting aspect is that it was never possible to get Christmas on the hook for what he wrote in his book. The very many facts he brings stand – and are often verified by British sources. His writing was newer tailor-made to the customer as so many other books and articles about Siam and the Danish activities there, written by various journalists. That is why he is one of the best sources we have regarding this period. Finally also because he is such a brilliant observer – also about subjects where there are no enemies around the corner. Political geography. Buddhist way of life. The house and household, the important cook, the vegetable gardens and orchards. Not to mention The Royal Household, function of government, ceremonies and funerals.
Christmas died 1924 but ‘Et Aar i Siam ‘ is still available from Danish libraries. Easy read, also for Norwegians and Swedes.