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Besides these there are profits on trade; customs; a tax on fruit-trees; a land-tax; the corvées; a poll-tax on the Chinese; and tributes.
The king is both a monopolist and a trader. To some commodities, such as tin, ivory, cardamums, eagle-wood, sapan-wood, gamboge, esculent swallows-nests, and the eggs of the green turtle, he claims an exclusive right; in others, such as sugar and pepper, he exercises an arbitrary influence to obtain as much as he desires at his own price; while with respect to most other commodities he is content with a tax or contribution. With respect to imports, when a vessel arrives, the officers of government select a large share of the most vendible part of the cargo, and put their own price upon it. No private merchant, under penalty of a heavy fine or severe corporeal punishment, is allowed to make an offer for the goods till the agents of the court are satisfied. A large portion, and often the whole of the export cargo, is supplied to the foreign merchant upon the same principle. The officers of government purchase the commodities at a low rate, and sell them to the exporter at an arbitrary value.* The resident Chinese alone, from their numbers and influence, have overcome this difficulty, and of course are carrying on an extensive and valuable trade. The natives have almost as much dread of the sea as the ancient Persians, and probably would not, if they could with advantage, enter into foreign speculations. Meanwhile this arbitrary commercial interference of the government has been the great and indeed only serious obstacle to the European trade in Siam; for the duties are by no means heavy, the country abounds in productions suitable for foreign trade, and property is sufficiently secure.
The conscription and corvées form not only the heaviest tax on the people, but the most considerable branch of the royal revenue. Estimated even at a very low rate in money, it would amount to £1,200,000 per annum; but this is rather an index of the waste committed by employing these forced sources than of the value realised. The composition paid by the Chinese is supposed to produce above £25,000. The whole public revenue amounts to somewhat above £3,000,000 sterling, of which about £550,000 is paid in money, or in produce easily convertible into money, an inconsiderable and paltry sum for an extensive and fertile country possessing such natural facilities for internal intercourse, and so favourably situated for external trade. Presuming that these calculations, which were made by the British ambassador in 1823, and have been approved by subsequent visitors, are pretty near the truth, they prove, however, that a very great advance has been made in public wealth since the embassy of Loubere, who estimates the royal revenue in money at £83,000. This must be attributed to the long tranquillity which has prevailed since the expulsion of the Burmans, and to the great influx of enterprising and industrious Chinese settlers which has taken place in consequence of the privileges then conferred on them.
The Siamese government has in general no distinct fiscal establishment. The commercial department, and the charge of the customs and monopolies, are under the care of a minister called the Phra-Klang, but the subordinate agents are the same who conduct all other parts of the administration ; and in the more distant provinces, the viceroys seem to act on their own responsibility in these matters, remitting the revenue collected to the capital. As a remuneration for their trouble they receive a tithe of the amount, and the services of a certain number of conscripts.
* It is said that the present king declines these commercial speculations.
The income and expenditure of the government are said to be nearly balanced, so that the public treasury seldom contains more than £30,000 in native currency, a few Spanish dollars, and some Chinese silver ingots ready for coinage.
There are three royal seals, and great importance is attached to them. That employed in correspondence with foreign powers bears the figure of a lion. The second, used in home affairs of importance, has a human figure holding a lotus flower. The third, in request for all daily current business, bears a lotus flower only. The banner of the kingdom is a white elephant on a crimson field.
Next to the government and civil administration, the dominant religion of Siam claims our attention as exercising an important influence on the condition of the people. Buddhism, or Boodhism, is nearly universal in the regions lying between Bengal and Cochin-China; and it is certainly an unpromising fact, with reference to this faith, that none of the nations professing it has ever attained a primary rank either in arts or arms, or produced individuals known to the world as legislators, writers, warriors, or founders of new sects. The Buddhism of farther India appears to be nearly identical with that of Ceylon, whence it is supposed to have been derived; but it differs materially from that of Tartary, Hindostan, Anam, China, and Japan. Its leading doctrine everywhere is the metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls. It teaches that all nature is not only animated but sentient; and therefore in lopping off the branch of a tree, there is the same disturbance given to the general life as in the amputation of a limb of the human body. The Buddhists believe the material world, as well as the spiritual, to have existed from eternity, and to be destined to immortality. All soul or spirit is of the same nature, whether dwelling in the corporeal frame of man, or beast, or vegetable; and its condemnation to this frame of matter is its sorrow and its curse, the highest felicity being a state of disembodiment or repose. They suppose that after undergoing & sufficient number of transmigrations, and exhibiting the prescriptive virtues in each state, the souls of the good are received into a succession of heavens, and at length admitted to that state in which they will never again be subject either to birth or death, and in which they are emancipated from the cares and passions incident to all other conditions of existence. This repose is usually called Ni-ri-pan, probably a corruption of the Pali word which signifies all extinguished.” On the other hand, though they believe in many regions of punishment besides this world, yet the hell which constitutes the eternal torment of the wicked consists in enduring never-ending transmigrations, without ever arriving at Ni-ri-pan.
The Siamese do not believe in any one supreme God, nor can they comprehend our refined notions of an infinite and immaterial spirit. They attribute to every soul a human form and material organisation, though so subtle as to elude the sight and touch : in short, their highest idea of disembodied spirits seems nearly to correspond with the manes and shades of the Greeks and Romans, and these are the objects of their worship. Buddh appears to be the generic term for an incarnation of Deity; but it probably once was a proper name. There have been four Buddhs in this world, of whom the last was Gaudama, the great object of veneration, who is, some thousands of years hence, to be superseded by another called Areemadayeh.. This Gaudama was the son of a king, and had lived in innumerable states, in which he attained immense merit before this his last birth. At his death, which occurred 2380 years ago, he desired that his image and relics should be worshipped, and that temples should be erected to his memory till the appearance of the next Buddh. He then entered into eternal rest.
The Siamese look on all prosperity as the reward of some previous virtue, and on all adversity as the punishment of particular sin ; accordingly a large portion of the veneration attaching to the person of the king is derived from the presumption that the bare fact of his occupying this exalted position is irrefragable evidence of the superior merit acquired by his soul in former conditions of existence, and is indicative of a most advanced state of migration towards Ni-ri-pan. They believe, however, in no Supreme Judge who estimates this merit or demerit, and appoints the corresponding recompense : it is considered to follow in the way of natural cause and effect.
The leading principles of Buddhism involve theoretically an abhorrence of the shedding of blood. Yet it does not appear that this peculiarity has had any great influence in elevating or humanising the character of its votaries; and it is worth remarking, that the history of the Cingalese, the Burmans, the Peguans, and the Siamese, abounds in records of cruelty; in a word, that in no other countries of Asia is human life held so cheap. This at first sight may seem unaccountable; but when we examine matters more closely, it will appear but a striking exemplification of the principle which it would be well if even Christian theologians always kept in view that to raise the standard of rectitude too high in theory ever tends to the confounding of right and wrong in practice. To murder a man is sinful, according to the faith of Buddha; but to tread on an insect, or to kill a venomous reptile, is also murder : nay, to reap the waving fields of grain is to commit hundreds of murders every hour of the harvest. To obey strictly and uniformly is found impossible to men having to go through the ordinary business of life; and therefore all attempt at obedience is foregone. The mode of evading the consequences of transgression will appear on an inquiry into the nature and uses of the sacerdotal order.
The priests of Siam are called Talapoins; and every man must devote some part of his life to the sacred office, the usual time for embracing it being about fourteen years of age. They live together in what may be termed convents or monasteries, consisting of one or more rows of isolated dwellings within the enclosure of a temple. The whole establishment is called a Wata, and may include from ten to several hundred priests. There are no monastic institutions appropriated to females ; but aged women are permitted to retire to the watas, where a range of dwellings is allotted to them. These recluses are dressed in white, and perform various menial offices about the establishment.
When they first enter the sacerdotal order, the talapoins are denominated Nens, or Novitiates, and are promoted to higher ranks according to their learning and standing. · One, two, or three nens are lodged with each maturer priest, and perform menial offices for him; and some become aged men without either renouncing or more fully embracing the priestly office. Every convent is under the direction of a superior, whom we may call an abbot; and the larger ones have a dignitary analogous to a prior. Above all is the san-krat, or high-priest, who is appointed by the king, and always lives within the walls of the palace. To this person unbounded honour is paid, and no talapoin can be ordained without licence from him ; but beyond this he has no temporal or spiritual authority. Indeed it may be remarked that there exists no organised system of subordination and discipline among the priests of Gaudama in Siam, except the deference which every talapoin owes to the superior of his convent. They would be too powerful à body for a despotic government, if organised so as to be capable of united counsel and action.
The spirit of the institution is to live on alms; to keep themselves from the sins of the laity; and to atone for the transgressions of those who bestow alms upon them. They do not eat in common, and one may not share with a brother what he receives; but they are hospitable to strangers, and each keeps two beds besides his own for the accommodation of travellers. Instead of going more than half naked, like the laity of every rank and degree, the talapoins are always fully and respectably dressed in robes of yellow silk or cotton, after the same fashion as the Buddhist priests of Ava and Ceylon. The naked and close-shaved head is sheltered by a small screen held over it with the hand. The scrip to receive alms is an iron basin covered with red cloth, and slung over the left shoulder. An hour before breakfast is appointed for the sacerdotal begging. The priest presents himself at each door and waits a few minutes. He can receive nothing but food ready dressed, or clothing, and he must not condescend to thank the donor. If he receives nothing, he passes on in silence; but this is seldom
To deliver discourses to the people, to consecrate idols, to assist at funerals and other ceremonies, are the more occasional duties of the talapoins, for which they are generally paid in' money by those who avail themselves of their services, and many of them thus become rich. They are held in the highest veneration, and are relieved from all bodily labour by the secular officers and the novitiates belonging to the watas. Secular persons, whatever be their rank, must make obeisance to them, and they do not return the salutation : even parents must bow down to their children who have entered the priesthood. The talapoins cannot be punished for any offence by the secular arm unless first degraded; and they are exempt from all taxation, especially the conscription, which is the heaviest of all. Still the monotony of their lives, the loss of the society of their relatives and friends, the rigid celibacy and exclusion from all temporal occupation and aggrandisement, soon appears too dear a rate of purchase for these honours and immunities; so that by far the greater number return to the body of the people after a few years, or even a few months, which any one may do without reproach; while the more aged and resident priests are almost exclusively such as, from disappointment in the world, have assumed the sacerdotal habit a second time, and are not allowed to quit it.
The Siamese hierarchy has no effect whatever in restraining or balancing the despotism of the sovereign, but, on the contrary, tends rather to its stability and support. The king himself is the real head of the national religion, the talapoins having neither rank nor endowments independent of his will
. They are not a hereditary order, which would attach them with jealousy to the interests of their own body; nor have they any powerful tie to unite them to those of the people : so that they are for the most part ready to use their spiritual weapons to enforce obedience to the will of the monarch, and to strengthen and aggravate his despotic authority.
The Buddhists of Siam admit proselytes of all ranks and nations without discrimination, and are even vain of making converts; but they have not zeal enough to exert themselves strenuously for this purpose; still less are they disposed to persecute any for their religious opinions. Their moral code is comprehended in five negative precepts :
1. Do not kill anything. This extends to animals, plants, seeds; and reduces the holy to eating fruit, which is considered not to have life, but to be that offspring of the living plant which, when quite ripe, may be removed without occasioning pain. The stone or kernel, however, must not be eaten. To break a branch off a living tree would hurt a soul, but they use it for timber or fuel when severed; so also even the talapoins make no scruple of eating animal food, asking no questions about who committed the murder. To make any incision whence blood would flow is deemed a greater sin than to take away life without bloodshed.
2. Do not steal.
3. Commit no impurity. Celibacy is the only holy condition, and marriage sinful.
4. Lie not. The civil law upholds this precept by leaving the liar in the hands of the person he deceives, to receive the punishment of the bastinado. Yet falsehood is frightfully prevalent.
5. Drink no intoxicating liquor. This not only forbids drinking to inebriation, but using in any degree that which, taken to excess, would produce this effect.
The breach of any of these commandments is deemed sinful in the laity as well as in the priests. But the business of seculars is to sin, and of the talapoins not only to be holy themselves, but by their holiness to expiate the sins of the people. The priests make no scruple of causing others to sin for their convenience. They may not boil rice, because it is a seed which would be killed in the process, but they make the novitiates and secular servants boil, and they eat. As for the laity, they must sin continually, and their expiation is to give food and clothing to the talapoins, who maintain holiness in their stead. The Siamese are surprised that Christians invite all persons equally to virtue : this would be impossible according to their code; and when they are informed in what Christian sanctity consists,