HOME G.E GERINI

 

Foreword, Siam and Its Productions, Arts, and Manufactures (1911)

 

 Is to be twenty years old and a lieutenant a good start for an adventurous and successful life? In 1881, it was-at least for Gerolamo Emilio Gerini. Born on 1 March 1860 in Cisano sul Neva, a village on the Italian Riviera about fifty-five miles from Genoa, he graduated from Modena's military academy in 1878. He then went on to fulfill his duty by serving two years in "Pinerolo," the 13th Infantry Regiment, in the wonderful central Italian town of Perugia.

Those were exciting years for Italy: the country had been freed and was united, thanks to volunteers and to the unknown but tough army of the little Kingdom of Sardinia. It had reached its natural borders, almost the same as today's, after defeating powerful enemies like Austria-Hungary and France. The new country had large-scale ambitions, looking toward Africa for offshore expansion, but the young lieutenant from the Riviera was aim­ing even higher and even further afield. When and why he heard about Siam for the first time is unknown, but news of it certainly impressed him, particularly when he learned that the Royal Army was looking for Euro­pean officers to improve its military education. He believed that this would be the opportunity of his life, and, indeed, it was.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, King Mongkut (Rama IV) had opened up his country to the streams of Western civilization, and, when the great King died, his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V) enthusiastically rushed the old and free country toward modernization. In 1885, after a five-year stay, Gerini could proudly write in The Siam Weekly Advertiser that "among the countries of the Far East which are most inclined to receive the boons of Western civilization, and which are animated by a progressive spirit to prosecute the path on which our old world strove for centuries, for the sake of that ideal of perfection which it longs for. . . we must by right inscribe Siam second in order only to Japan, her sister of the Yellow Sea."

But let us return to the eve of 1881, just in time to bid farewell to the young Italian officer, who, betting on his youth, his luck, and a few letters of introduction, is leaving Genoa for a month's voyage to the unknown Far East. We know little of his first years in Thailand, but, surely, he won his bet. He joined the Siamese Army as a lieutenant and was soon able to speak and write Thai and, within a few years, Laotian, Malay, and Chi­nese. From 1882 to 1886, he was secretary to Maha Mala, Minister of the North and'an uncle of the King. In 1887, as captain, he was in charge of training cadets at the Royal Cadets' School-today the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. He later became its director, remaining in that position until his departure from Siam in 1906.

On leaving Gerini a captain, we find him again, around 1890, a Major, the Director of the Royal Cadets' School, the General Director of Military Education, and awarded the title Luang, the first degree in the Siamese peerage, in which he was later named Phra. At the time, he had the Siamese name of Luang Sarasasana Balakhandh and at about this time began his literary efforts. Indeed, his facility in languages had led to his translating several handbooks for the Royal Cadets' School and to writing a cycling manual for the army (Cakrayana-niti, Bangkok, 1899).

But his real interests lay elsewhere. He liked the Thai people and the country, and was fond of its customs, history, religion, language, and ar­chaeology. He was a pioneer and a renowned student in the latter field. In1892, he published A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the "Thet Maha Chat" Ceremony (Maha-Jati Desana); in 1894, his The Art of War, Military Organization, Weapons, and Political Maxims of the Ancient Hindus appeared in Siamese; and 1895 saw the publication of "Chulakanta-mangala, " or the Tonsure Ceremony, as performed in Siam. He was a regular contributor to The Bangkok Times from 1888 under the alias Ausonius and to The Siam Free Press in a series of articles entitled "Up River Guide" under the alias Hesper, as well as the editor of Yuddhakosa, a monthly military review. He also contributed to the Asiatic Quarterly Review, writing for it "Trial by Ordeal in Siam and the Siamese Law of Ordeals" (April and JulyI895), "Shan and Siam," (January 1898), and "Shan and Siam, A Few More Explanations" (January 1899), and the series "Siam's Intercourse with China-Seventh to Nineteenth Centuries" (October 1900, January and April 1901, January, April, and October 1902). In July 1902, the King appointed him to attend the first International Con­gress of Orientalists at Hanoi at which he spoke on the Review.

1904 was another very important year in Gerini's career. He became a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, published "A Trip to the Ancient Ruins of Kamboja" (Asiatic Quarterly Review, April 1904), and, most important of all, under the high patronage of the Crown Prince (later King Vajiravudh or Rama VI), along with Dr Frankfurter, A. Cecil Carter, and other students of Siamese life and history, founded the Siam Society. He served as its vice-president, and on leaving Siam became an honorary member. In that same year of 1904, his "Archaeology, A Synoptical Sketch," appeared in The Kingdom of Siam 1904, edited by A. Cecil Carter for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (New York and London). 1905 saw his "On Siamese Proverbs and Idiomatic Expressions" and "Historical Retrospect of Junkceylon Island," on the now world fa­mous Phuket Island, appear in the Journal of the Siam Society. He also

wrote articles in Siamese for Dvi-panya, a journal under the direction of the Crown Prince, on subjects such as the relations between ancient Siam and Java, archaeology, and the history and monuments of Cambodia. By this time Gerini had been promoted to the rank of colonel.

And then came 1906. Requiring treatment for the after-effects of ma­laria, Colonel Gerini, above all, needed a radical change of climate. At a farewell dinner for him given on 3 March 1906 at the Oriental Hotel by members of the Council of the Siam Society, its 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" (from Michael Smithies' 1988 preface to The Kingdom of Siam 1904).

So he was back in Europe and in Italy, but always in the service of his King. After a little rest to recover in the healthy climate of his native Riviera, he undertook a long journey in Old Europe, going to Austria, Denmark, ­where he represented Siam at an important archaeological congress in 1908, and Germany. In the latter country he visited Krupp's factories, presumably on behalf of the Ministry of Defense to purchase new weap­ons for the army. In 1909, the Royal Asiatic Society of London published his long due Researches on the Ptolemaic Geography of Eastern Asia (Further India and Indo-Malay Archipelago). Work on this monumen­tal study of East Asian geography and the genesis and concordance of present place-names and those Ptolemy cited had begun in 1897. It re­mains one of the most complete and richest sources of historical and geo­graphical, or better still historico-geographical, information about those coun­tries.

In 1911, with the Turin International Exhibition scheduled to open, Colo­nel Gerini was entrusted with the preparation and direction of the Siamese pavilion and its exhibits. He engaged the skilled Italian architects Tamagno and Rigotti, who had already worked with him and Gollo in Siam. They created a wonderful wooden pavilion on the River Po, in the shape of the ancient royal palaces of Bangkok. It became one of the Exhibition's most interesting and appreciated sites for Gerini had arranged an exhaustive and charming display on Siam, from its ancient history to archaeological re­search, from agriculture to handicrafts, from mining to fishery, from the royal family and court portraits to snapshots of various ethnic groups. The exhibit also included furnishings, temple statues, vestments and vessels, sidearms, minerals, coins, stamps, maps, and landscapes.

In collaboration with other skilled writers, among whom figured the Crown Prince himself with a really fine presentation of Thai theatre, Gerini com­piled an accurate exhibit catalogue, rich in explanations, appendices, and useful notes. Its completeness and precision, the wide range of its argu­ments, and the historical introduction to each section along with the ex­haustive information presented the reader an enchanting and fully detailed panorama of Siamese life. Today it remains a fundamental tool for any student of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Thailand. Unfortu­nately, this was the last duty he performed in His Majesty's service: Gerolamo Ernilio Gerini died in Turin on 11 October 1913.

The young Italian lieutenant, who had bet on his good luck and skill, accepted and won the cultural challenge of being a European-born soldier in the service of Rama V. Along the way, he had become a colonel in the Siamese Army and had been awarded the most important decorations awarded by Siam, Italy, France, and Germany, but what he was certainly most proud of was to be recognized world over as a savant and scholar. Thus was the story of the life, work, and activities of my granduncle, as far as my efforts can go to reconstruct them in their remarkable fullness. Un­fortunately, his memory as one of the many accomplished and sometimes astonishing Italian personalities of those bygone days who made no small contribution to the development of modern-day Thailand was for long al­most lost, both in Thailand and in Italy. It is thus, for me, an occasion of great emotion, a sort of a first goal reached, to see this book reprinted, and for this I am deeply grateful to White Lotus Press. My greatest hope is to see others soon follow and that in reading them we will recover, along with the fascinating flavor of those times, the spirit of friendship, of keenness, and faith in progress that inspired the men who made them what they were.

 

Dr Luciano G. Gerini

Cisano sul Neva, September 1999