An Italian at King Rama V's Service

                                                                                    Dott. Luciano Gerolamo Gerini

             Gerolamo Emilio Gerini was born in I860 [1] on March the 1st at Cisano sul Neva, a little village on the Italian Riviera, about 55 miles from Genoa. Graduated from the Military Academy of Modena in 1878 {or 1879} with an A degree. At that time, he served for two years in the 13rd Infantry Regiment at Pinerolo, a little town near Turin.

            Those were, for Italy, roaring years. The Country had become free and united thanks to volunteers [2]   and to the unknown, but tough, army of the little Kingdom of Sardinia. It had reached its natural borders, almost the same as now, after defeating big enemies, like Austria-Hungary and France, and was now thinking on a large scale and looking towards Africa for offshore expansion. But, our young lieutenant was aiming even higher and further.

            We don't exactly know when and why, for the first time, he heard about Siam {that was a main hole in his life story before coming to Siam} but it's sure that the news impressed him, particularly when he learned that the King of Siam was looking for European officers in order to improve military education. He believed this could be the opportunity of his life and it was indeed.

            In the second half of the 19th  century King Mongkut  (Rama IV) had opened his Country to Western civilization and, when that great king died, his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V) enthusiastically continued a rush to modernization that, in 1885, after five years stay, caused Gerini to proudly write in The Siam Weekly Advertiser: "Among the countries of the Far East which are most inclined to receive the benefits of Western civilization, and which are animated by a progressive spirit to prosecute on the path on which our old world strove for centuries, for the sake of that ideal of perfection for [...] we must by right inscribe Siam second in order only to Japan, her sister of the Yellow Sea. [3]

            But let me come back to 1880 {now I know that he reached Siam in 1881], just in time to say good bye to our young Italian lieutenant who, betting on his youth, his luck and a few letters of introduction, left Genoa {or Marseille} for more than one month's sail to the unknown Far East.

            We know very little of his first years in Thailand, but, for sure, he won his bet.

            He certainly joined the Siam Army as lieutenant and was soon able to speak and write in Thai and, in a few years, to learn Laotian, Malay and Chinese. In 1881 an accident almost destroyed his career just at its start. Shortly after he joined the Army, he was asked whether he was able to produce dynamite, Europeans were then deemed nearly omniscient. Gerini simply wrote to a firm in Singapore and ordered the explosive but, hoping, to avoid problems in shipping and going through customs, he arranged to have the cases boarded and shipped as "maccheroni" Alas! that was not yet an internationally known word and a suspicious and dull Chinese customs officer wanted to have a look at those unknown goods. He very nearly to stirred up an enormous blast, by handling cases and candles improperly, if it had it not been for the prompt and providential intervention of Gerini. Someone who disliked European officers and the consideration King Chulalongkorn had for them, reported the accident, taking care to present it as the evidence of a plot for blowing up the Royal Palace.

            The consequences where extremely serious: the Defense Minister was fired, Gerini and the purser of the ship were arrested. Only later, thanks to the English Ambassador, were all misunderstandings cleared up and Gerini re-obtained the King's confidence that he was able to maintain and increase during the years to come. [4]

In 1882, with some other Italian officers [5] , he was in charge of training the Siam Army, and in particular the Royal Guard.

            In 1884 Gerini, meanwhile promoted to captain, was second in rank at the Royal Cadets' School (today, Bangkok Cadets' School), that, he later directed until his departure from Siam (that's certainly a mistake indeed from 1883 till 1886 he was the secretary' of the uncle of H.M. Minister of Nort, who died in 1886 and of whom I don't know the name (may be you 'll tell it to me). He was back in The Army starting from January the 1st 1887 in that same year he was appointed by King Chulalongkorn to chaperon and give assistance to another interesting young Italian, on a long trip to the Malaysia peninsula, called Angelo Luzzatti. Born in Turin, he was  a mining engineer, almost as old as Gerini who, probably was informed by the same person of the gifted mining situation of Siam, and with the support of Lord Dufferin, then Viceroy of India, undertook the long journey to Siam. During their trip Gerini showed to Ing. Luzzatti a gold mine in Bangtapan whose exploitation he judged quite promising. Luzzatti then returned back to Europe to stir up Rinds for the enterprise, and in 1889, after a public subscription, held in Bangkok first and then in England,  "The Gold Fields of  Siam Ltd.", based in London was set up. Another gifted Italian technician who came to Siam on Gerini's suggestion was Emilio Giovanni Gollo, born in 1873 at Cisano sul Neva, the same birth-village of Gerini. He lived in Siam from 1898 until 1924 becoming Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department. Under his direction roads, railroads, canals, bridges, administrative and industrial buildings and, most important of all, the new Royal Palace, now the seat of Parliament where built. Before leaving Thailand he was awarded, by the King, Phia Silpasastra Soth a title equivalent to the European Marquis. We left Gerini Captain and found him, around 1890, a Major, Director of The Royal Cadets' School, General Director of Military Education of the Kingdom and awarded the title of Hluang, a first degree in the Siamese peerage hierarchy, in which he continued becoming Pra and finally Phia. He had, at the time, the Siamese name of Hluang Sarasasana Balakhandh [6] and just about that time he began his literary production, (during the Paknam troubles, in 1893, he was in charge of a regiment in charge of Bangkok's defence} Indeed his facility in mastering languages, lead him to translate several handbooks for The Royal Cadets School. He also wrote a cycling manual for the Army (Cakrayana-niti Bangkok 1899), but his interests where many. He liked the Thai people and the Country, he was fond of its customs, history, religion, language, archaeology, and discipline. He was, in Siam, a pioneer and, at his time, certainly the most renowned student.

In 1892 he wrote A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the "Thet Maha C'hat" Ceremony (Maha-Jati Desana), (Bangkok 1892); in 1894 The Art of War, Military Organisation, Weapons and Political Maxims of the Ancient Hindus (in Siamese, Bangkok 1894); in 1895 "Chulakanta-mangala" or the Tonsure Ceremony, as performed in Siam (Bangkok 1895).

After having regularly contributed to the Bangkok Times since 1888, under the alias Ausonius, and to the Siam Free Press with a series of articles titled Up River Guide, under the alias Hesper, {it would be of extreme interest to me to find these articles, particulary those titled "Up River Guide"} and being editor of Yuddhakosa a military monthly review, he started  contributing to the 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, Jan. 1901, Apr. 1901, Jan. 1902, Apr. 1902, Oct. 1902)

In 1902 he was appointed by H.M. the King to attend the first International

Congress of Orientalist at Hanoi of which he related in the Asiatic Quarterly Review, Jul. 1902.

1904 was a very important year: he wrote A Trip to the Ancient Ruins of Kamboja (Asiatic Quarterly Review apr. 1904), became a Royal Asiatic Society of Or. Britain's fellow and, most important of all, under the high patronage of the Crown Prince, later King Vachiravudh or Rama VI, he, with Dr. Frankfurter, Mr A. Cecil Carter, M.A., and other skilled students, founded the Siam Society of which he was Vice-President and later, upon his departure from Siam in 1906, an Honorary Member. 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). In 1904 On Siamese Proverbs and Idiomatic Expressions was published in the Journal of Siam Society and in December 1905, Historical Retrospect of Junkceylon Island, which known as Puket Island. By this time Gerini had been promoted to Colonel. He wrote also some articles in Siamese on Dvi-panya, a review directed by H.R.H. the Crown Prince, on the subjects of ancient relations between Siam and Giava, and archaeology, the history and ancient monuments of Cambodia.

In 1906, Colonel Gerini needed to undergo treatment for the aftereffects of malaria and needed a radical change of climate.

"A farewell dinner for Col. Gerini was given on 3 March 1906 at the Oriental Hotel by members of the Council [of the Siam Society], and the President, Dr. Frankfurter, proposed a glowing toast to a fellow savant. Shortly before this, on 31 January 1906, also at the Oriental, Col. Gerini had been made an Honorary Member of the Society at its second annual general meeting. [7]  

So he was back in Europe and in Italy [8] , but he was always at his King's service. After a little rest to recover in the healthy climate of his Riviera, he took a long trip in Old Europe: Austria, Denmark (where he represented Siam in an important Archaeological Congress in 1908 (but, may be, he was in 0slo) and in Germany at the Krupp's Factories where he was on behalf of the Defense Ministry to presumably buy new weapons {he was accompanied by two then distinguished men whose names I don't know but I guess they were two High Dignitaries. I have a few photos of the group including two other Europeans one of whom is probably C.A. Carter}.

Meanwhile, the long due Researches on the Ptolemaic Geography of Eastern Asia (Further India and Indo-Malay Archipelago), London 1909, a monumental  research (more than 1000 pages) on the Eastern Asia geography and the genesis and the concordances of present toponomies and the ones quoted by Ptolemy were published by the Royal Asiatic Society. Even today this is one of the most complete and richest data-base of historical and geographical (or better historicalgeographical) news of those Countries, in which he had been working since 1897. was finally published, by the Royal Asiatic Society.

In 1911 the International Exhibition [9] was in Turin and Colonel Gerini was in charge of preparing the Siamese Pavilion, to directing it and taking care of the exhibitions. He engaged skilled Italian architects like Tamagno and Rigotti, who had already worked in Siam with him and Gollo. They built a wonderful wooden Pavilion, on the river Po, in the shape of the ancient Royal Palaces of Bangkok. It became one of the most interesting and appreciated sites of the Exhibition, in which Gerini had arranged an exhaustive and charming show of the Siamese Country, from his ancient history, to the archaeological researches, from agriculture to handicrafts, from mining to fisheries, from the Royal Family and the Court's portraits to members of the different National groups snapshots and further, furnishings, temples' statues, vestments and vessels, sidearms, minerals, coins, stamps, maps, landscapes. Colonel Gerini compiled also an accurate catalogue of the exposition, rich with explanations and useful notes, which are still regarded as an interesting portrait of Siam of those days.

This was, unfortunately, the last duty at His Majesty's service: Gerolamo Emilio Gerini died on October, 11th, 1913 in Turin. The young Italian lieutenant, who bet on his good luck and skill, accepted and won the cultural challenge to be a European at Rama V's service, becoming, along the way, a Colonel of the Siamese Army, a member of the Royal Court, and awarded the most important decorations by Siam, Italy, France, Germany and, of which he was certainly most proud. My grandfather was credited, all over the world, a savant and a formidable scholar. I am now trying to write the story his life.
















[1] the Same year in which Italy became an united and free Nation.

[2] especially the Red Skirts of Garibaldi.

[3] The Siam Weekly Advertiser October 3. 1885 vol. xvii n. 840 The Bagtaphan Gold Mine Concession by G.E. Gerini

[4] I owe that anecdote to an article of Camillo Ricchiarch that appeared in "Gazzetta del Popolo della Domenica" 6/9/1897. XV no 23

[5] Ferrando (brother of Ing. Ferrando that operated for long yearn to come in the Public Works Ministery),  Magliola-Comi, Pinson

[6] il was a  Siamese custom  to  have different names,  in accordance of different status and to give Siamese names to  the Europeans engaged in the Royal Service.

[7] Introduction of Michael Smithies (pp. ix & x) to the anastatic edition of The Kingdom of Siam 1904, The Siam Society Bangkok 1988.

[8] Only in 1890, for his father's burial, he had been back in Europe.

[9] The same, held every four years, for which the Tour Eiffel was built in Paris and would see the building of the Alomium in Bruxelles.