The Danish Legacy in Bangkok

The Danish legacy in Bangkok dates back to the reign of King Rama IV (1851 - 1868). Save for one prominent landmark, there's little to remind a visitor of the early Danish presence. However it took an event in April 2008 to trigger a search on the contribution of the early Danish pioneers in Bangkok.

On 26 April 2008, HM Queen Margrethe of Denmark celebrated her 68th birthday. The Royal Danish Embassy in Bangkok commemorated the occasion with a grand function which also marked 150 years of diplomatic relations between the two kingdoms.

Unlike relations with Britain and France, Danish relations with Thailand were not soured by colonial ambitions. The Danes came as friends and many contributed their services to the kingdom. In reviewing Danish Thai relations, three prominent Danes come to mind.

In 1865 during the reign of King Rama IV, two Danish sea captains started a hotel on the Chao Phraya River to cater for seafarers and traders after a long journey from Europe. The history of this hotel turned a new page with the arrival in 1786 of another Danish mariner, H.N. Andersen.

Andersen stayed on in Bangkok, started a trading company Andersen & Co in 1884 and then bought over the hotel in 1889. That humble hotel is the world renowned Oriental Bangkok today.

Andersen & Co went on be become the East Asiatic Co in 1897 and Bangkok became the company's first overseas branch office.
The company was granted the teak concession and rice exports from Thailand.

Today, EAC has grown to an international company dealing in processed food, industrial chemicals and moving and relocation services, with a listing on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange. The old East Asiatic Co building next to the Oriental is still there.

Danish mariners also made their mark in naval warfare. In 1875 a young Danish naval officer arrived in Bangkok, with a letter from King Christian IX of Denmark. Lt Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu had come to offer his services to King Rama V at a time when Britain and France were aggressively pursuing their colonial ambitions.

De Richelieu served in the Royal Thai Navy in various capacities and saw action during the 1893 French naval blockade of the Chao Phraya and bombardment of Bangkok as part of their territorial demands.

The third prominent Dane, a civil engineer, came to Bangkok in 1885. Svend Aage Westenholz started his career in Bangkok managing a horse tram service. As a former Danish artillery officer, he volunteered for the Thai army together with other Danes in Bangkok during the crisis in 1893.

A year later, Westenholz took over management of the Siam Electric Co Ltd which supplied power to Bangkok and provided an electric tramway service for the city.

The Paknam line, a rail link from Bangkok to the Chao Phraya estuary, was a Belgian-Danish joint venture. This railway carried goods between the ocean going ships anchored at the Chao Phraya estuary and Bangkok. All that remains of this railway today is the road literally called "skirting the old Paknam line".

In 1906 Westenholz started United Plantations which is one of the largest plantation groups in Malaysia today with plantations in Indonesia as well.

The Danish support for the Thais in the conflict with France prompted an angry French demand that the Danes be dismissed (New York Times, August 1893). The demand was ignored. Richelieu went on to become the first and only foreign commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Navy, from 1900 - 1901.

Before he left Thailand in 1902 after 27 years of service, Richelieu was promoted to Vice-Admiral. King Rama V honoured him with the Most Illustrious Order of Chula Chom Klao and an embroidered golden robe.

Richelieu's grandson Allan Aage Hastrup eventually inherited the robe and reportedly put it up for auction in 2007 with a potential buyer waiting in the wings.

However, 106 years later, that magnificent robe found its way back to Bangkok, courtesy of the Royal Danish Embassy, Bangkok. It was on display on the evening of 26 April 2008 at HM Queen Margrethe's birthday celebrations fittingly held at the Royal Ballroom, the Oriental Bangkok.

The Danish legacy has come home. But will it stay home?