Damrong Rajanubhab was a Siamese prince, born in 1862 to the king, Mongkut or Rama IV, and one of his concubines. He was Mongkut's 57th child. He is remembered as a reformer of Siam's education and provincial administration, a historian and archaeologist, and a leading intellectual of his day.
Damrong was educated in the Grand Palace in Bangkok at a school established by his brother, Chulalongkorn, who became king in 1868. Damrong was part of the younger cohort of a coterie of very capable and intelligent brothers who redefined the Thai kingdom into a more modern idiom, and he stood out even from this illustrious group. In recognition of his lifetime achievements, in 1962 Damrong was posthumously named one of the world's most distinguished persons in history and archaeology by UNESCO. Indeed, it is difficult to read much on the history of Siam without coming across Damrong's name or a reference to one of his many scholarly articles.
Active in his brother's government from an early age, he began in the 1880s to take on the administration of newly established schools and helped organize a modern army. He was made deputy commander-in-chief of the army in 1887 and director of the Department of Education. In 1891 Chulalongkorn sent him on a tour of Europe to learn about education systems; he was expected to be appointed as Minister of Education of the newly reorganized Ministry, formed in 1892, but instead he was named Minister of the Interior and charged with overhauling provincial administration. He created a new centralized system of provincial administration, dividing the kingdom into 18 monthon (provinces), which were subdivided into regions, districts and villages, all under the control of the central government in Bangkok. The antiquated feudal system in the outer provinces was gradually replaced by a centralized administration, with key offices occupied by well-educated men, often those who had been sent on King's Scholarships to study abroad. Under his leadership the Ministry of Interior became immensely powerful, and this remains true today: whoever assumes the role of Minister of the Interior enjoy s a great deal of power in the modern Thai nation-state.
Damrong resigned his ministry post in 1915 and set about establishing what eventually became the National Museum and the National Library, which today has a building to hold all his books and papers. He was an early patron of the Siam Society. During this period of his life he wrote extensively on Thai history, literature, customs, and arts, and has thus come to be revered as the father of Thai history, the Thai being fond, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of benevolent paternalistic figures. Damrong's approach to Thai history was to focus on the study of ruling elites, particularly kings; the Krom Phraya Damrong School, as it has come to be known, is the dominant school of Thai historiography today.
After the 1932 coup which ended the absolute monarchy, Damrong went into exile in Penang, Malaysia, where he lived until his death in 1943.
Varadis Palace, former home of Damrong, is maintained as a museum, and is worth a visit. Like a few of the older palaces that are open to the public in Bangkok, entering the grounds of Varadis Palace can provide the tired traveller with a welcome respite from the heat, bustle, and pollution of the city. The house contains original Chinese and Victorian Thai style furnishings, family photographs and a collection of Damrong’s personal items. Adjacent to the house is the Damrong Memorial Library, which houses interesting collections of old books, historical photographs and period costumes.