Thailand's Railways and
David F. Holm
Debates on the nature of the "New Imperialism" (ca. 1880-1915) often revolve around three questions: the degree of Eurocentric push versus excentric pull, the nature of Eurocentric and excentric forces, and the extent to which they represented a fundamental discontinuity in European political economy. This chapter will adduce evidence from the history of Thailand (or Siam, as it was known until 1939) to discuss the first two issues. For Siam, from the 1880s until World War I, was one of the few countries in Africa or Asia to be subjected to both formal and informal European imperialism, much of which revolved around control of railway construction.
From the 1820s onward, Siam's neighbors fell, one by one, to European military might. After Britain had conquered Lower Burma in 1852, Siam bound itself by a series of treaties with Western nations to lift almost all restrictions from exports and imports and to tax their entry or exit at a minimal rate. Peasants in the Siamese heartland around Bangkok consequently shifted from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture and started paying a larger percentage of their taxes in money rather than in labor services.
Several factors magnified the impact of this change. Domestically, Siam was distracted from 1868 onward by a struggle between the young king, Chulalongkorn, and the aging regents. Not until 1888 was Chulalongkorn