Chulalongkorn’s Incense Burner
Next to the Chinese House, which is a real eye-catcher, you can find the only authentically Asian object in the Sanssouci park: a rather insconpicuous incense burner from Siam, what is today Thailand. It was offered as a present to the German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1897 by Siam’s emperor Chulalongkorn.
Chulalongkorn had sent his son to study in Germany and his father was accompanying him while pursuing a European trip for diplomatic purposes. Siam was indeed one of the only states in South East Asia that had retained its independence. This was mostly thanks to Chulalongkorn’s investment in modernization and technology and his intelligent diplomacy. It comprised the territories of today’s Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
To promote the legitimacy of his power, Chulalongkorn traveled from Italy to Switzerland, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Denmark and Britain before arriving in Potsdam on 26th August 1897. Here, he assisted to military parades and an experiment of wireless telegraph. The Siamese Emperor was however disappointed when Kaiser Wilhelm II refused to express his official support to Siam’s independence. This burner is a material token of a call for friendship. But it also reminds that Siam’s sovereignty over its territory was threatened by foreign invasion.
France had already annexed Cambodia in 1867. In 1893, the French government renewed their aggressive behavior towards Siam and started a war. Unable to push the occupant away, Chulalongkorn was forced to cede what is today known as Laos. But this was not enough to satiate the colonial aspirations of the French. In 1904, their military pressure compelled Siam to give up two other provinces and expanded its territory of Indochina.
Text by Yann Le Gall