Friday, January 27, 2012

Part Three: The Siamese Come to Europe

Although there are legendary accounts of seeing the Siamese cat in Europe as early as the 1700s, the West was officially introduced to the royal breed by Chulangkorn, king of Siam (now Thailand), in 1884. He gave a pair of cats that had been bred in the palace to Sir Owen Gould, British Consul to Thailand, and another pair to French diplomat August Pavie. Six years earlier, the wife of American President Hayes was sent a Siamese cat as a present, but the cat did not survive.

Chulangkorn is considered one of the greatest kings of Siam, and is the one best known in the West, thanks to Margaret Landon's book  Anna and the King of Siam, on which Oscar and Hammerstein based their Broadway play The King and I. His father, King Mongkut, wanted him to have a broad Western education, and being unhappy with the limited teaching of the European missionaries, brought in foreign tutors such as Anna Leonowens. Chulangkorn's reign was characterized by the modernization of Siam, immense government and social reforms, and territorial cessions to the British Empire and French Indochina. As Siam was threatened by Western expansionism, Chulalongkorn lost considerable territory, but managed to save Siam from being colonized. All his reforms, which included the abolition of slavery, were dedicated to Siam’s insurance of survival in the midst of Western colonialism.

Thus, the Siamese cats came to Europe as, in a sense, foreign ambassadors. They were looked on with prejudiced suspicion by some 19th-century Europeans-- “an unnatural, nightmare kind of cat,” one writer said. But the cats quickly won over the continent, helped by the popularity of the annual cat show in London at the Crystal Palace. Three kittens of the pair given to Gould were exhibited by his sister, Mrs. Lilian (Gould) Velvey, at the 17th Crystal Palace Show in October 1885. They were named ‘Duen Ngai,’ ‘Kalohom,’ and ‘Khromata.’

The Crystal Palace cat show had begun in 1871, the brainchild of Harrison Weir, a British illustrator who is known as the father of the cat fancy. Cat fancy today means the business of cat breeding, but Weir truly "fancied" cats. He insisted on including categories of ordinary cats in the show. He was also involved in early breeding programs. His cat book can be read online.

Photographs show that the Siamese cats had round heads and thick, muscular bodies, looking much closer to the "Applehead" Siamese than the modern breed.

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