The profound legacy of Thailand’s first newspaper, The Bangkok Recorder

Thailand's first newspaper The Bangkok Recorder – a little-read and short-lived publication founded by an American Christian missionary in the mid-19th century – is barely remembered today, but it left a profound mark on Thai society

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May 26, 2021
The profound legacy of Thailand’s first newspaper, The Bangkok Recorder

Stall after stall, a diverse selection of books are laid out at the National Book Fair, hosted each year at Bangkok’s Queen Sirikit Center. The smell of musty old artefacts mixed with the chemical aroma of new prints fills the air at this mecca for book lovers, where people search for special deals, unusual titles and the latest offerings from their favourite publishers. 

Back in 2016, Mark Hollow, a British expat living in Bangkok of nearly 10 years, was among the crowds in search of a Thai language book. Browsing around the selection of older books available at the fair, Mark came across a 1994 facsimile volume of the Bangkok Recorder, originally published a century and a half earlier in July 1844.

Mark had heard of the Recorder, the first modern newspaper produced in Thailand, founded and run by the eccentric American missionary Dr Dan Beach Bradley. He knew of Bradley’s medical and missionary work, but couldn’t find much information about his publication online. 

“[The newspaper] wasn’t necessarily well-received by the Thai people and there weren’t a lot of subscribers to the newspaper. But, it was interesting to see [Bradley’s] attempts to introduce different topics in Thailand at the time,” Hollow told the Globe

“I thought it would be great to get it online as a web page. A way that it can be searched so people can look for different topics in different news articles. I was surprised it hadn’t been done before.”

The Bangkok Recorder taught Thais how to be involved with political discourse – what are the tools available

With this, the Digital Bangkok Recorder project started, digitising the newspaper over the course of four years – a modest legacy for the short-lived, little-read, but highly influential publication. While few will have heard of the now-defunct Recorder, its controversial founder has been credited with everything from bringing modern printing technology that kickstarted newspaper publishing in the kingdom, to the standardisation of Thai script through his work with the journal.

Parkpume Vanichaka, an independent researcher in Thailand who has studied the newspaper during his PhD at Waseda University, sees an even grander legacy for the journal – one of strengthening free speech and political debate in Thailand’s public sphere. 

“[The Bangkok Recorder] taught Thais how to be involved with political discourse – what are the tools available,” said Parkpume. “And with modern printing technology, the information was able to spread information for society to know.”

Thailand’s printing and press history is closely tied to Christian missionaries such as Bradley. The first instance of printing in Thai script with a modern, movable type press was in 1819 in Serampore, India by Ann Hasseltine Judson, an American missionary. Later, the types from Serampore were used in Singapore by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM), where it was picked up by Bradley during his voyage to Bangkok.

“Although Christian missionaries did not invent the printing of Thai script, they played a crucial role in bringing the technology to Siam and in establishing the first printing presses there,” said Jana Igunma, a curator for the Thai, Lao, and Cambodian collection at the British Library.

Bradley printed the original Recorder using technology produced in 1836 by the ABCFM. Jana explained the creation of modern newspapers would not have been possible with older printing methods used in Thailand like woodblock printing, engraving or lithography due to the amount of time involved in producing copies.

The Bangkok Recorder clearly was the first medium in Siam that allowed the speedy distribution of news in [printed] form. Since it also included essays, stories, anecdotes etc. it also promoted ‘reading for pleasure,’” she said. 

“On the other side, there was great interest of Thai kings, Rama IV and Rama V, to modernise administration, education and society, and policy makers of the time were certainly keen to use the printing technology to speed up modernisation processes.” 

Arriving in the kingdom in the 18th century, Bradley was an American Protestant widely recognised as a pioneer missionary who, on top of his legacy in the printing world, is credited with helping to advance modern medicine, notably through translating medical texts and being involved in a smallpox inoculation campaign in Thailand. 

Bradley left Boston in 1834, travelling to Thailand, then known as Siam, via Singapore. He arrived in 1835, by which time the country was under the reign of King Nangklao (Rama III), a devout Buddhist with a deep suspicion of the West. 

For Parkpume, the journey of the Recorder was closely tied to Bradley’s own personal voyage as a missionary in Thailand. 

“When Bradley came into Thailand, his expertise in modern medicine drew attention amongst members of the Siamese elite,” said Parkpume. “Therefore, the first edition of the Bangkok Recorder started with scientific content.” 

The first edition of the paper was the first of its kind in Thailand. In its earliest iteration, the Recorder was published with a focus on Western science and technology and ran for just one year between 1844-45, stopping abruptly for no given reason. 

Roughly 20 years later in 1865, Bradley rebooted the publication under the just slightly different title of The Bangkok Recorder. By that time, Siam had transitioned to the rule of King Mongkut, who was more pro-Western and – feeling the pressure of Western expansionism across Southeast Asia – more compromising. Within that broader social context, the second run of the Recorder focused more on political affairs. 

Parkpume says this outlook, underpinned with a national strategy of avoiding conflict that could jeopardise the country’s independence, created a special environment for foreigners within Siam at the time. 

“There was extraordinary freedom for foreigners. Under these circumstances, Bradley was able to air his political perspectives in the Bangkok Recorder with relative freedom,” Parkpume said.  

I hope that the Siamese government will soon relinquish all doubts regarding America and will accept and respect it as a leading country. I will try to provide detailed information on America, as you have asked me to do

The newspaper’s political coverage often featured stories about the US, with articles ranging from current events to general information such as that on geography and demographics. At the time of publication in 1865, the US had just gone through its Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. 

In the US’ chaotic post-war years, not everyone believed Bradley’s portrayal of the US as a well-ordered exemplar of the liberal order. In July 1865, the Recorder received a letter under the title Doubt on the President of the United States from a reader skeptical of the image Bradley had projected.

Upon receiving the comment, Bradley responded by going on to publish in detail even more information on the US and its system of government.

“I hope that the Siamese government will soon relinquish all doubts regarding America and will accept and respect it as a leading country. I will try to provide detailed information on America, as you have asked me to do,” Bradley wrote in response to the reader’s letter in an article titled Words for Disentangling the Doubt.  

Bradley then followed through by regularly publishing articles about the US constitution, American Civil War, and slavery in the Recorder. Through these stories, the missionary touched on concepts of freedom, equality and political rights. Parkpume says it could be argued the upstart newspaper introduced notions of liberalism to Thailand.

“[Bradley] liked to speak about the merits of the US, often admiring the system there. Bradley had a strong sense of patriotism. He often respected the political system of the US and published it in The Bangkok Recorder,” Parkpume said. “The main readers were Thais, ruling class and wealthy Thais. When they read that, it was not well received.”

By January 1866 the Recorder had 102 subscribers, with the majority of its members coming from the influential Siamese elite. As a Protestant missionary, Bradley often proselytised that Siam would prosper if followed Western models of governance. The content of the Recorder, including critique on the kingdom’s foreign affairs and Bradley’s suggestions on the country’s development, irritated King Mongkut and Siamese nobles. 

Although there was accommodation for foreigners, Bradley being himself made people despise him still,” Parkpume noted. 

In royal letters, King Mongkut aired his dissatisfaction and announced that the Recorder could not be trusted. 

“The royal letter seems to assume that the editor of this newspaper has appointed himself as master of the Bangkok government. I do not consider myself as such,” Bradley responded in an Editor’s Reply in the Recorder’s September 9, 1966 issue.

“I am begging you, Your Majesty, please don’t look down on my work. Most of the published content is truth, I believe. Errors do happen, but only a few. I intend to harm no one.” 

From being cosy with the Siamese elite, the paper closed after its February 1867 issue, soon after losing a lawsuit filed by the French consul to Siam, Gabriel Aubaret, who claimed Bradley had defamed him in an article. 

It was the end of a disjointed era. But though the Recorder had built only a small audience over a short publication time with 48 issues, the newspaper left a lasting mark on Thailand’s press and publishing world, inspiring a new generation of outlets that aired political comments.

This style was foreign at the time and, backed by the power of the printing press, Bradley tried to carve a niche for a Western publication in Siamese society. Today, the newspaper represents the first case resembling a free, independent press in Thailand. 

“What Bradley did was he acted like a privy counselor,” Parkpume said. “He suggested what should be done. The nobility then saw that what he was doing violated his rights. Even if he was a foreigner, he shouldn’t have a right to suggest.” 

Partially in response to printed challenges to its rule, the elite class also took on its own publishing. Following the original Recorder, King Mongkut ordered the government in 1858 to establish its own press and begin printing the Royal Gazette or Rajkitchanubeksa, which still runs today. The Gazette was aimed at responding to issues brought up by foreign newspapers and counter Christian missionary propaganda, including Bradley’s Recorder

“Once the Siamese government realised what can be achieved through printing – mass production and speedy distribution of the written word – great efforts were made to use printing for administration and educational purposes,” Jana said.  

The Recorder would find a regular reader in Thianwan Wannapho, an outspoken advocate for Thai modernisation whose social crusading often attracted the ire of the ruling class. Thianwan, who wrote letters to the Recorder, spoke out against the plight of the poor and the corruption of the rich, backing issues such as the establishment of an elected parliament and the abolition of slavery and polygamy. 

He was eventually convicted of royal defamation and served a 17-year prison sentence but, after his release, took on a similar role as Bradley by starting a newspaper of his own in 1899. Thianwan’s publication, Tulwipak Pojanakit, often covered issues concerning freedom and equality and ran until 1906.

Today, flicking through the digital archive of the Recorder, the spelling choices reveal the true age of the text, despite its transformation from hand-carved typeface to an Arial font on a white background of a blogging platform.

“The language is quite archaic,” Hollow said. Though the digital archive makes the newspaper available in text format, the spelling still makes it difficult for users to search the digital archive.  

“At that time, there wasn’t any standardised spelling within Thailand. It was Dr. Bradley who first published a monolingual dictionary in Thailand,” he added. 

Once the newspaper began in print, the need for standardisation of Thai language followed. 

“Indeed, after the introduction of printing in Thailand we see increased adherence to spelling rules and use of tonal marks even in Thai handwritten manuscripts,” said Jana.

Beyond the linguistic and technological advancements brought on by this pugnacious newspaper, the legacy of and ideas introduced by Bradley through the Bangkok Recorder live on today – perhaps even in the youth-led street protests currently challenging the political establishment.  

“The way that Bradley argued in favour of a free press implied that people had a right to participate in the administration of government,” said Parkpume. “However, this thought was far ahead of Siamese thinking at that time.” 

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