Gerolamo Emilio Gerini (Phra Sarasana Balkand) a fascinating cultural journey


Dott. Luciano G. Gerini S.S.M.



Gerolamo Emili o Gerini was born in Cisano sul Neva, now in the province of Savona province, at that time in Genoa’s one, on March the first 1860.

Cisano sul Neva is still now a little village, and at the time it depended mainly on olive growing and the consequent production of olive oil, which gave the inhabitants a certain income and many were, in comparison with the average of rural Italy of that time, the middle-class families.

The father of Gerolamo Emilio, Prof. Carlo Gerini graduated in Chemistry and Sciences at Turin’s University, then he taught Oenology in the same atheneum and after he became Dean at the Agricultural Institute of Sondrio, a little town in Piedmont where he lived, with his family, for the most part of the year.

Gerolamo Emilio, the first of six children, attended the primary and intermediate school in Albenga, a little town near Cisano sul Neva, and then the high school of Sondrio. When he was 14 years old, for his goods marks, he got a scholarship to Modena’s Royal Military Academy, one of the best Military Colleges in Europe.

He was a clever student and his rank granted him exemption from the college fees. Highly versed in sciences and in the study of foreign languages he had a real talent for technical drawing and cartography that drove him to enroll for a surveyor’s diploma examination.

In 1879, almost at the same time he was commissioned as under lieutenant by the Royal Military Academy of Modena and received the land surveyor’s diploma from the Ministry of Education, and enrolled in the 13 th Infantry Regiment “Pinerolo” stationed at Perugia, the wonderful Umbrian town that he, would remember forever with love, and in which he made friends with whom he corresponded for life.

We still don’t know how and when, for the first time, he heard about the far-off Kingdom of Siam.It’s true that in those years Italy started closer relationships with this fascinating Country, where, the wise and enlightened King Mongkut, succeeded by his son Chulalongkorn, who straight away showed to be abreast of his father’s fame, opened his Country to the European Culture and the enlivening stream of new scientific thought then intensely flowing.

At the end of March 1881 the Italian royal yacht “Vettor Pisani” cast its anchor in Bangkok’s harbour, carrying the Duke of Genoa, later on King of Italy, paying a visit to the King of Siam.

Was that the occasion for the coming of Gerolamo Gerini? Or, as tradition says, he, having been informed that Siam’s Army was searching for European instructors, required and obtained permission to apply for that job?

It is certain that in the same March 1881, Gerini, just only twenty one, with his lieutenant rank and his land surveyor diploma, settled in Bangkok.

He joined Siam’s Royal Army as sword instructor of the Royal Guards, with two other Italian young officers who, later on, for different reasons, left the Army but not Siam, where one became a painter and the other a civil engineer.

The Italian officers were in the group of the young but influential Captain Phra Nai Wai, who, later on, become General Chao Phya Surasakdi Montri, a close advisor to King Chulalongkorn. He kept a fine memory of Gerini and remembered him in his memoirs, written more than fifty years after our story.

In the Krom Thahan Nah, the department of Nai Wai, whose quarters became the first Siamese public buildings to be electric powered, thanks to his natural gift of foreign languages, which gave him yet a fluency in English and France, and with the help of one of the most popular figures among the Europeans then in Bangkok, the missionary and publisher Reverend Smith, Gerini soon learned the Thai language that he would use as his own second language.

After a couple of years we find him as personal secretary of H.O. Maha Mala, Minister of The North, uncle of the reigning Maha Chakri Chulalongkorn.

In carrying out this assignment Gerini traveled widely in different Siamese provinces so becoming aware of the Thai customs and traditions, learnt the history and the culture of the Country being fascinated by them.

Since his cultural approach was a very friendly and open one; he looked at the Oriental reality not with the eyes of a colonizer or putting himself on the pedestal of a supposed supremacy of the Western culture, but instead, being fascinated by diversity, he looked for and very often found, contact points and meaningful parallels between his own culture, from which he certainly didn’t abdicate, and the one of the Country in which he lived and learned to love.

The letters to his father and his friends are full of accounts, often very accurate, of what he saw, of the daily life of courtiers and folks who he met, through whom shines his interest, his willingness to understand, his sharing. Very seldom we can find hints of the uneasiness he certainly experienced (he suffered from both malaria and yellow fever), on the contrary he depicted Bangkok climate as “healthy, the healthiest of Asia’s South-East”.

He was indignant when, the European press, published incorrect or unlikely news on Siam, its customs, its history: he wrote long letters, often published, to Italian or other European newspapers giving specifications, making points clear to restore a correct perspective of the events.

At the death of Maha Mala, in 1886, he witnessed the complicated funeral rites, culminating in the cremation, rites that, for a Royal Family’s figure, often lasted months, and some times more than a year.

His willingness to bear witness and to make the peculiar elements of the Thai culture known to the World, drove him to write a long essay, later on edited as a book, on that ceremony.

It was not the first time he wrote articles for newspapers or magazines but, it is in this first complex work that we can find his flare for the research showed us by the parallels and affinities he found with other burial rites both of ancient Western and Eastern culture and by pregnant notes on the common ideas that lay behind different cultures which span from pan-European to Egyptian to Induistic ones.

Back in the Royal Army he then became an instructor in the Royal Cadets’ School, which became later on the Royal Military Academy (now Royal Chulachomklao University) of which Gerolamo Gerini became the General Director. He rose gradually and was given different ranks until he became Colonel under the Thai name of Phra Sarasana Balkand.

At the same time his free-lance journalist role also continued, and we can find his articles (also under the pen names of Ausonius or Hesper) in the Bangkok Times, The Free Bangkok Press, the Secolo d’Italia, the Illustrazione Italiana, and, of course on the Yddakosa, the Thai Royal Army’ magazine founded and directed by him and of whom he was always one of the principal contributors.

His literary production was abundant, most in English and Thai and, unfortunately almost never translated or collected together.

In 1892 he was given the honor, seldom granted to a foreigner, to take part in the tonsure ceremony of H.R.H. Maha Chakri Vajiravudh, who later became Rama VI.

That interesting experience provided Gerini with a starting point for his “Chulakantamangala The Tonsure Ceremony as performed in Siam” which was published in 1895 and re-edited by the Siam Society in 1975.

About this work let me quote a sentence of the Introductory Note written by the Publication Committee of the Siam Society for that edition:

“To our mind his best work which is still unsurpassed even in Thai scholarly studies [...] the research was done in such depth and with such exactitude that only minor mistakes could be detected by contemporary scholars. Indeed nobody else could have written a better book. Phya Anumanrajadhon, under his well-known Thai pen-name, Sathirakoses, wrote four volumes on Thai Customs, and he left out only one ceremony - the Tonsure Ceremony - since he felt that he could not match the oldest savant”

In 1893, the year of the Paknam Incident, and during the consequent troubles, he was in charge of the Army troops in defense of Bangkok and the Throne Hall.

Both some mine prospecting Crown and the collaboration with James MacCarthy, who drew the first precise maps of North Siam, show him again “in the field” and drove him to deepen one of his interests: archaeological researches on which he wrote many articles and contributions to the bulletins of the Royal Asiatic Society and Royal Geographical Society of which he was a member.

Bofore continuing we think it’s right to note that, as Gerolamo Gerini himself would write in his most important work, even if Siam was a Country with well established worldwide relations, it was, nonetheless a remote country: for coming to Bangkok from Europe a sea journey of twenty five days was required, from Marseille or Genoa to Singapore, and five day more from Singapore to Bangkok by mail boat. Even if it was open to a stream of Western culture, at the time, there were neither libraries nor Universities. Certainly Gerolamo Gerini, graced by his good introduction to the Court’s circles, had certainly the opportunity to be admitted to some important private libraries like the Maha Mala’s or Prince Dewawongsee’s. But, if he was able to find important, even precious, writings and local, Thai and Chinese chronicles there, for the recent scientific works or for the ancient Western chronicles written by travelers and missionaries he was always obliged to refer to libraries and booksellers very far from him.

One of the most frequent items that we can find in his correspondence copies are long lists of books, both new editions and rare texts, sometimes real rarities, that all his life long he collected not for collection sake but for looking up and studying them, and he collected, indeed a very important library, the tool of his work which was donated by his family to the Istituto Orientale of the University of Naples, to be at every scholars disposal.

By then, his prevalent interest was for the history and the archaeology of Siam and that made for him, as for all the scholars of the same field, a problem: historical-archaeological and ethnologic research needs accurate geographical references, but, unfortunately, each culture developed its own system of co-ordinates, different from each other, hardly comparable and even more difficult to coordinate with the contemporary ones.

That drove to the need for a coordinates system universally comprehensible and better able to appreciate the interactions between the different cultures from the Chinese to the Indian from the Arabic to the Greco-Roman ones that all, Gerolamo Gerini was sure, had an influence on the development of the Siamo-Malese area : in short the drawing of a map that would be fairly superimposable on a contemporary one, which allows placing rivers, mountains, sites, cities, harbors, known by the ancient chronicles in an intelligible “unicum”.

In the Western culture the oldest description, with the consequent map, of the region is found in Ptolemy’s Geography, which however, at the end of the 19 th century was still considered, at least for the extra-Gangetic region and so just for the region of Gerini’s interest, untrustworthy even if not a figment of pure imagination.

Not having well developed archaeological research and scientifically tested checks, actually the most used method, for identifying the sites mentioned by Ptolemy with real sites in the area East of the river Gange, was mainly based on the affinities, assonances, or possible translations of their names or the ones they may have had in the 100 A .C., which method led to few results, in any case highly questionable.

On the other hand the cartographic check, on the basis of the corrected formulas of Ptolemy’ coordinates then in use, far from throwing light on it, led to absolutely unacceptable results, and was the reason for the spread of untrustworthy judgements on, at least that part of Ptolemy’s Geography, that was, on the contrary, generally and self-evidently used for the intra-Gangetic regions.

It was thought that, in Ptolemy’s age, western travelers and sailors never had reached the lands of the Gulf of Siam, not to mention China.

Gerini, had a sound respect for ancient chroniclers and thought it impossible that the Alessandrine, so accurate for the other regions, dealing with the Golden Cherosonesus had trusted visionary travelers, decided to desert the interpretative way followed up to now and to find a new path relying on sound scientific basis.

He was persuaded that the map portrayed by Ptolemy’s data (is still not known if Ptolemy himself drew maps according to the indications provided by his Geography and enclosed them in it or, if the maps shown in the ancient editions of his work are later drawn upon his coordinates by his editors, or even if they are copies of those possible originals by him) was affected by a basic fault not due to ignorance or inaccuracy but to an ideological emendation of data performed by Claudius Tolomeus himself: the “Sinus Magnus”, now the Gulf of Siam, starting from his inner point is bended definitely to South, instead of granting it its actual westward course. Ptolomy should have done it in order to have his data agree with the belief, widespread at his time, that “Sinae” must stretch out in the sea as Africa and India does and that its outermost tip nearly joins the India’s one.

To tell the truth it was known that also in other works, one among all his cosmography, Claudius Tolomeus arranged mathematical data available to him in order to preserve the ideological perfection of his construction and he was not the first nor the last among ancient scientists (and may be not only ancient ones) to do so.

Based on that idea Gerini looked with a new eye to Ptolomy’s data and, starting from that revolutionary assumption (the one of rotating the easter coast of Sinus Magnus, that is of Sinae, drawn on Ptolemy’s data, backwards east by almost 40 degrees) found out that many of the sites described by him become plausible and even comparable with modern maps. But, of course, so clever an idea, even if it could gratify him personally, couldn’t be accepted by his strict, even meticulous, scientific temper.

After a few years of analysis, calculations and on the basis of research, in 1895 he was eventually able to identify, behind any doubt, the “Akadra” of Ptolemy with the today “Hatien” and he got, at least, a second standing point for his work, the first being, the meridian of Gange’s estuary, that was the outmost eastern limit of Ptolemy’s Geography for which the rightness of the correction tables, then in use, was unanimously acknowledged.

At last he was able to build up a new conversion table of the Ptolemy’s geographical coordinates valid exactly for the extra-gangetic “habitabilis” and applying Ptolemy’s data to this new corrected formula the sites mentioned by the Alessandrine, hypothetical and imaginative that they were become actual and recognizable.

Gerolamo Gerini set out his conclusions in a work, where, he makes explicit his method and stresses, how, using some of Ptolemy’s toponym gives a new sense and they come, at least, to coincide with sites known by ancient Chinese, Arabs and local chronicles.

The work, an article published in the Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society in 1897, was received by the scientific community with great interest but also with some criticisms, one, though indulgent, of Prof. Barth for Gerini’s method as being “clever, even too clever to be always credible”, to other decisively more harsh that his method was simply the demonstration of a preconceived thesis.

This drove Gerini, deeply persuaded of the soundness of his work, because of his researches and because of the positive identification results that he himself and other valuable scholars, were able to reach, by applying his methods, to supplement his first work and to make it so thoroughly scientifically documented as to shelter it from any criticism of inaccuracy or of bias.

That gave birth to the major work of his life “Researches on Ptolomy’s Geography of Eastern Asia” where, in more than one thousand pages of text, tables, appendixes and notes, with two valuable maps, he not only better explains and specifies his method for correcting Ptolemy’s geographical coordinates but, in order to show its correctness, checks more than two hundred and forty names cited by the Alessandrine in the extra-gangetic region showing for each of them the correspondence to geographical entities known by local, Burmese, Malay, Arab, Indian, Chinese chronicles or traveler’s tales.

For each toponym he reconstructed the succeeding, in the time, of the different names and the ones given it by the travelers, ambassadors, sailors or merchants that had the chance to write about or to cite it; he explained the probable reasons that lead Ptolemy to use a certain name, and illustrated the origins of each town, harbor or mart, the alternating of peoples and Kingdoms, the reasons of the growth and fading of their importance. Thanks to his knowledge and to specific research on the places he was even able to stress some orographic changes that in time took place (lengthening of estuaries, silting up of natural landing places a.s.o.)

He also abundantly examined the relations of the ancient western travelers, missionaries, merchants, sailors, from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Holland, showing as their accounts strengthened and bore evidence to the new meaning that he gave to the sites mentioned by Ptolemy

For building his monumental work, that would be published in London in 1909, three years later upon his return to Europe, Gerolamo Gerini put forward all his remarkable cultural resources: his deep knowledge of the history, geography, archeology of the Country, his skill in the meticulous textual research; his unbelievable ability of mastering languages from Greek to Chinese, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Arab, Sanskrit and Pali.

But what, above all, strikes us is the modernity of his scientific approach aimed, as far as possible, to field research, always ready to keep in due consideration any information, from whichever source it came provided that it seemed trustworthy and to discard, under motivation, the ones that appeared highly doubtful, biased or unjustified, even though coming from seemingly authoritative sources; ready to recognize, better to make his readers know his previous mistakes, venial that they were.

And still today are enjoyable the pages where, put aside for a moment the scientific proceeding, he lives again and his readers live with him, on the new map, the travels, the discovery, the encounters, the events of ancient chronicles that he cites, sometime even letting his sense of humor surface and always his deep knowledge of the human heart.

Many are the works of Gerolamo Emilio Gerini that are valuable to be cited: in 1894 The Art of War, Military Organisation, Weapons and Political Maxims of the Ancient Hindus (in Siamese, Bangkok 1894); on the Siam Free Press a series of articles titled Up River Guide, under the alias Hesper; on Asiatic Quarterly Review (Trial by Ordeal in Siam and the Siamese Law of Ordeals, apr. and jul.1895; Shan and Siam, gen. 1898; Shan and Siam a Few more Explanations, gen. 1899; Siam's Intercourse with China - Seventh to Nineteenth Centuries -, oct. 1900, gen. 1901, apr. 1901, gen. 1902, apr. 1902, oct. 1902)

In 1902 he was appointed by H.M. the King Chulalongkorn to attend the first International Congress of Orientalist at Hanoi of which he related in the Asiatic Quarterly Review, jul. 1902; in 1904 he wrote A Trip to the Ancient Ruins of Kamboja (Asiatic Quarterly Review apr. 1904), in that same year appeared Achaeology, A Synoptical Sketch, as the 15th chapter of the book The Kingdom of Siam, edited by A. Cecil Carter for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (New York and London 1904); on the Journal of Siam Society in December 1905, Historical Retrospect of Junkceylon Island, that is now the world wide known Puket Island; he wrote also some articles in Siamese on Dvi-panya a review directed by H.R.H. the Crown Prince, with such subjects as the ancient relations between Siam and Giava, archaeology, the history and ancient monuments of Cambodia.

But to complete Gerolamo Gerini’s fascinating cultural journey we must, at least, cite two more works, the first one “On Siamese Proverbs and Idiomatic Expressions” published in 1904 in the Journal of Siam Society, and that we hope will be re-published before long, is still today a lovable writing, in which he, collected and ordained the Siamese proverbs, famous sayings, mots d’ésprit, and not only gave the translation and interpretation of them but, above all, he gave them European equivalents, showing, one more time, his deep comprehension of the Thai spirit and culture, loved by him not less that the European ones, and, moreover, reaffirming one of his deep persuasions: that the culture, the popular wisdom or misconceptions, the reactions to stimuli and needs, at whichever latitude or longitude they show up, are comparable and alike and, above all, that they deserve respect and regard.

Maybe this appears to us, or at least it ought to appear to us, quite self-evident and trivial, but it was a concept anything but common among Europeans of his age, that, we must remember, was the one of the highest splendor of colonial Empires and that saw even the young Italy launch herself in offshore ventures of doubtful advisability.

We are glad to remember that Gerini was fiercely contrary to the Eritrea’s venture, against which he set the opportunity of having Italian workers to go in Countries where there was need and place for them and where they would be able to peacefully integrate themselves so becoming a source of progress and improvement for the new Countries as well as earnings for the immigrants and new wealth for their Country of origin.

The last Gerolamo Emilio Gerini’s work we wish to remember here is “Turin 1911".

Turin, in the fiftieth anniversary of the unity of Italy, was scheduled to be the site of an International Exhibition and was doing her best to have a memorable edition. The Kingdom of Siam decided, for the occasion to have his own pavilion to show to the World its great improvements and role of a Country in the forefront of South-East Asia. To carry out the project two committee were appointed: the interior one, presided over H.R.H. The King, himself, and the exterior one, the chairmanship of which was entrusted to Col. Gerini. The pavilion, in a pure Thai style on the bank of river Po, at the Valentino, was one of the most admired and visited of the Exhibitions and, very successful was the exposition of products, handworks, and testimonies of the Siamese culture and daily life housed in it.

That Col. Gerini wanted an even more lasting memory of the exhibition was represented by the catalogue that he himself, almost all wrote. Recently re-edited in Bangkok by White Lotus Press, it is a really interesting work, to which King Vajiravudh himself contributed with an interesting and extensive article on Siamese theatre. The book, with fine illustrations and synoptical tables, gives a full account of the social and cultural panorama and of the technical and industrial level of the Country at the beginning of the new century and it is a text still now essential to the study and understanding of Thailand of the times

Colonel Gerolamo Emilio Gerini was a pioneer in the glorious rank of Italians, which, astride the end of nineteenth and the beginning of twentieth century, deeply marked the developing of the Kingdom of Siam and if, unlike architects, engineers, painters, sculptors, his work does not shows us monumental edifices and admirable works of art, we keep of him, at least, something that better testifies his love for Siam’s culture: The Siam Society, that, in 1904, with two other eminent scholars Dr.H. Frankfurter and Cecyl Carter, and under the High Royal Patronage, he co-founded with the aim to preserve and to spread the Siamese Culture.

These few words of mine have not the conceit to throughly illustrate the figure of my grand-uncle but only to stress the continuous cultural line traced by his life and work and their aim is to drive willing scholars to contribute, to go on researching and deepen the knowledge of his work and the one of his fellow Italians that so much loved Thailand and taught us to love.