Will this piece of Thai history find its way back?
The golden robe (front and back) once belonging to Vice Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu.
King Chulalongkorn's Royal Cypher Medal, with the words `We will perpetuate the family lineage for posterity'. Details of the gold embroidery with marine motifs. Vice Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu, who became Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Navy.
A robe of heavily embroidered gold threads lay in a state of suspended existence in Denmark. But like Sleeping Beauty waking up from a 100 year sleep, it has recently been roused from its bed of silver paper and, wrapped in white linen, hidden away in the hushed security of a bank vault.
And this is no ordinary robe. The heavily embroidered, loose open style with intricate hem and cuffs is typical of those of those worn by members of the royal Siamese court of old, reflected today in the simplified graduation gowns worn at Chulalongkorn University commencement ceremonies. The filigree gold and silver threads that still shimmer despite their antiquity have a story to tell if you look closely enough. The intricate floral and vine patterns are interspersed with marine motifs - anchors, ship's wheels - that provide a clue to its original owner: Vice Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu.
It was in April of 1875 that Lt Richelieu arrived in Bangkok, bearing a private letter from King Christian IX of Denmark. An officer in the Danish Navy, he had come to offer his services to King Chulalongkorn during the height of European colonial expansion into Southeast Asia, a crucial period in Siamese history.
He was appointed chief of the naval inspection ship, the Regent, which patrolled the Bay of Bengal. In 1877, he had become commander of HMS Siam Mongkut, and by the following year he had been titled Luang Cholayuth Yothin and appointed chief commander of HMS Vesatri.
In this same year, as chief of the Naval Arsenal, he was also put in charge of a new unit, the Marines, which had been created to handle the newly imported Gatling guns.
Within the next decade, Richelieu's status grew, and his title elevated from Luang to Phra and later Phraya.
Vice Admiral Richelieu (front row second right) welcomes Prince Damrong Rajanubhab (centre) to his residence in Kokkedel, Denmark, in 1930.
He played an increasingly significant role in the Royal Thai Navy. Eighteen ninety-three was a year that is etched in every Thai history book. Known as the Gunboat Crisis of Rattanakosin Era 112, the French sent gunboats to block the Chao Phraya River estuary. In his book of 1895 titled The Peoples and Politics of the Far East, British MP and journalist Sir Henry Norman, who had travelled extensively in the region, noted that the Thai navy was at a significant disadvantage due to the lack of experience of its personnel and its smaller fleet. He noted the presence of two or three foreign officers, among whom was Phraya Cholayuth Yothin, or Richelieu. Henry noted that Richelieu had suggested using HMS Maha Chakri to attack the French fleet, since it was the Royal Thai Navy's most modern and fastest vessel, but this particular ship was berthed at the Grand Palace landing for the king's personal use only. It was equipped with state of the art guns which, unfortunately, none of the local officers knew how to use. Had the HMS Maha Chakri been deployed, suggests Norman, things might have been different. As it was, Siam had to cede its Lao territory to the French.
Richelieu was to go on to become the first and only foreign commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Navy, from January 16, 1900 to January 29, 1901.
He also served the king in various other capacities, acting as the king's adjudant general. In 1883 he accompanied two royal princes to Europe for education in Denmark, during which trip he also negotiated the purchase of ships for the navy as well as ammunition. On this same trip he is said to have bought generators and lamps to be installed at the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the first time the palace was fitted with electric lighting. In 1897, during King Chulalongkorn's first visit to Europe, Queen Saovabha was installed as Regent, with Richelieu as one of her advisers.
In 1898, he accompanied Crown Prince Maha Vajiravudh on visits to the Russian tzar and tzarina (the Danish Princess Dagmar), to the king of Sweden and to the king of Denmark while attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in England.
Richelieu was often in the entourage of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab and Prince Devawongse, who held the positions equivalent to the Minister of Interior and Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively. With these two princes he developed a particularly strong and lifelong friendship. Prince Damrong subsequently visited Richelieu in Denmark several times, the last time in 1930, two years before Richelieu's death.
When Wat Benjamabopit was being built in 1901, he oversaw the shipment of the presiding Buddha image (copied from that in Phitsanulok) to be installed in the chapel. His name appears at the foot of the Buddha image together with that of King Chulalongkorn.
For his services to the king, and after he was elevated to the rank of vice admiral in 1902, he was awarded the Ratanaporn Medal Rama V, or the King Chulalongkorn Royal Cypher Medal (Rama V), prior to his return to Denmark at the end of a long and eventful time in the service of the king of Siam.
With this decoration came the gold robe which was to be worn on all formal ceremonial occasions as a full dress robe. According to the book Phra Phusa Song Nai Rajasamnak Siam (Royal Robes in the Court of Siam), written by historian Paothong Thongchua and published by BankThai, the tradition of the robe can be traced back to the Ayutthaya period as a ceremonial court costume adapted from the Persians and Indians.
The close friendship he retained with the king and members of the royal family can be seen in a description of the touching farewell given to Richelieu when he retired from the royal court in 1902, as recounted by his grandson, Allan Aage Hastrup, 76, who is now in possession of the robe.
"When my grandfather left Siam, the king, queen, Prince Damrong and a lot of other princes and royals followed him to Singapore. At the Governor's Palace dinner, grandfather sat next to the king, and the king said in his speech how much he appreciated him, how sorry he was to see him leave, and how he hoped he would soon come and visit. He also gave him a beautiful silver plate, covered with diamonds showing his coat of arms ... at the same time the king gave him the title of 'Admiral en Suite' and a pension. This was on February 24, on grandfather's 50th birthday!
"The next day, at 9am at the Maha Chakri, everybody was on deck when the king came out from his cabin. The king then asked my grandfather to appoint his successor as commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Navy, and to give the Seal of the Navy to the one he found the most important after the king himself. Grandfather gave it to the only full-blooded brother of the king, Prince Bhanurangsi Savangwongse, who was also the minister of the War Cabinet."
When King Chulalongkorn undertook a second visit to Denmark in 1907, he made a point of visiting his old friend of 28 years, V Adm Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu. Photographs from the period show a mature vice admiral constantly in the presence of the King during his Denmark visit.
Richelieu married his half-cousin, Dagmar Lousie Lerche, in 1892 and had five children, three of whom were known to have been born in Siam in 1892, 1894 and 1897.
The youngest of these three - Agnes Ingeborg du Plessis de Richelieu, known as Abi - inherited the robe from her father, and she in turn passed it down to her only son, Allan Aage Hastrup.
Despite its sentimental value, Hastrup feels that the robe should be returned to its place of origin, Thailand, a sentiment that is echoed by the auction house, Bruun Rasmussen, in Denmark, which is planning to exhibit the robe in Bangkok at the end of the year. It is hoped that a Thai buyer will be found for this magnificent robe, and if possible, it will make its way back into the Royal Thai Court, its place of birth.