- By Henk Keers © 2003
- A royal cat from Siam, myth or reality?
The almost cult-like Siamese cat is for many a source of inspiration and for authors a grateful subject to fill books or magazines with. Sometimes based on historical facts or a reflection of a personal opinion, sometimes made up, fables or just a nice story. In line with this tradition I would like to make my contribution.
Looking for the origin of the Siamese
In her book, the Siamese Cat (1934), Phyllis Wade suggested that the Siamese originated in Egypt. She bases this theory on the large number of mummified cats found there. The bonstructure of these cats would be like that of the Siamese. She supports this claim with the fact that during the reign of Cleopatra (69-30 BC) the trade between Egypt and Asia was very intensive. This trade would have brought the Siamese from Egypt to Siam. We now know that the bone structure of the mummified cats is rampant throughout the world. That does not mean that it may well be possible that Siamese cats were seen in Egypt.
If we base ourselves on the fact of today we have to presume that the Siamese cat is a century-old breed that originates in the ancient Siam, the present Thailand. Proof for that can be found in the capital Bangkok. In the National library there are manuscripts describing the foundation of Ayutthaya (1350-1767), which was the capital for 417 years. The most well-known manuscripts in the cat world are the Cat Book Poems (1350-1767) and the Smud Khoi (1868-1910). A picture book with in it cats that strongly resemble a Siamese as we know it today, cats with a light body and dark extremities. Besides that the Siamese are also described in Sanskrit, but strangely enough there is no mention of the striking characteristic of the blue eyes. One would expect that this unique feature, especially for Asians, would be described poetically. On the contrary, red eyes are mentioned. This may refer to the albino characteristics inextricably connected with the Siamese. Albinos have a light blue eye colour with a reddish glow.
Besides pictures of the Siamese the Smud Khoi also gives illustrations of other Siamese cats. Of the 23 kinds pictured in the Smud Khoi only 4 can be found in the present day streets of Bangkok. The most well-known is the Korat or Sri Sawad which originates from the province of Nakon Ratchasima. In Thailand they are better known as Meaw See Dok Lao, or Meaw Maled. They have a heart shaped head and are coloured a silverish blue. The eyes vary from light green to yellow. The Thai believe that this cat brings luck and is well looked after and respected. A second kind is the WI-CH-AN-MAAD (pronounced as wicheen mas) This has the characteristics if the cat we call Siamese. They have the dark points and lighter bodies and light blue eyes. The third cat is the Supalak, or Thong Daeng, a cat with brown copperish fur and yellow eyes with a green iris. All features match the sable Burmese. Finally we have the Khao Manee or Khao Plod. A white cat with one green and one blue eye, also called odd-eye. The Smud Khoi divides the cats into two groups. 17 kinds are luck bringers and six are unlucky. The cat we call Siamese belongs to the luck bringers and is described as follows: “The upper part of the mouth, the tail, all four legs and ears are all coloured black. The eyes are reddish gold. The WI-CH-AN-MAAD has a white fur”.
Funny is that we also see a cat which strongly resembles the bi-colour, the Gow Theem (9 spots). Remarkable is that all cats in the pictures have long, whip-like tails. It is generally known that the many of the first Siamese had kinks in their tails, stronger even we still have them today. Wankee, the first UK Champion had a kinked tail. It is a well-known phenomenon in Asian cats. Charles Darwin even mentioned it in his writings.
The maker of the Smud Khoi was a high placed priest, Somdej Phra Buddhacharn Buddhasamahathera. King Rama V ordered him to paint all Siamese cats. As far as we can check the name Siamese was invented by the Europeans and related to the country of origin.
Relation of the Siamese with the king of Siam
King Rama V (Chakri Dynasty 1853-1910), also known as King Chulalongkorn alias Phra Chula Chomklao Chaoyuhua, was born in Bangkok on 20 September 1853 and crowned on 1 October 1868. Because of his education he was very much oriented on the Western culture and was also named the king of modernization. His western look on the world was not strange. Who does not know the story of Anna and the king of Siam. Early 1860, Anna Leonowens accepted an invitation of king Monkut, the father of Chulalongkorn, to teach his children the English language and manners. Her influence must have bin tremendous on the young king. Rama V was so popular that a cult around the man arose. In this cult the stories about the Siamese cat possibly fit. Rama V reigned for a period of 42 years On old pedigrees of Siamese cats we regularly find names like Rama and Chulalongkorn. There is no evidence that Rama V as some claim had Siamese cat breeding as a hobby.
Siamese outside Siam
In 1868 the father of Rama V, King Monkut, invited some influential westerners to look at the eclipse that would be best visible in Siam the year. Among them was the colonel, Sir Harry Ord (Governor of Singapore), the ambassador of the United States and a large group of French and other European scientists. History tellers however tell us that long before that foreigners visited Siam. In 1511 the rulers of Ayutthaya received a diplomatic party of Portuguese. They were the first Europeans to enter Siam. As usual followed by the Dutch who took the trade from the Portuguese and this not without the use of some force in 1592. Important networks were established with Japan, the English, the French and The Hague. I would not be surprised at all if because of this relation there were Siamese cats in Europe and even our country. But we cannot find any evidence of this. When the Siamese first set foot outside Siam cannot be established with any certainty.
Siamese in Europe
In old Siam cats were not kept in the almost cult-like way we do now. Cats were there for a purpose, usually catching mice. That they populated houses, numerous palaces and temples of the Thai empire is self-evident. During the Middle-Ages cats were disliked in general. The very influential Church only preached of hell and damnation and carried out its frustrations on the humble human being and the cat During the reign of the British queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) cats were openly burnt on the stakes for heresy. For one reason or another cats were suspected to have relationships with women accused of witchcraft. Besides there was a widespread belief that witches could turn themselves into cats. Cats were thus regarded as descendants of the devil.
In 1793 the German scientist Simon Pallas describes a fitting image of a Siamese observed in Middle Russia. He wrote: “cats with a light brown chestnut body colour, darker on the sides and belly. The cats have a black line running from the nose, around the eyes to the forehead, while ears, legs and tail are completely black. If we presume that the origins of the Siamese are thousands of miles more to the south in Siam we can presume that Siamese were common in Thailand and probably ended up in Russia via trade routes. As far as I know there are no descriptions of Siamese elsewhere and they could only be found in Asia.
Contrary to her predecessor the British queen Victoria (1837-1901) gave a giant boost to the popularity of the pedigreed cat and the Siamese in particular. She adopted a few of the earliest imports herself. Queen Elizabeth II, the present queen, got a sealpoint kitten for her wedding day, which listened to the name of Corsham Royal Boy. Prince Michael of Kent also owns a Sealpoint Siamese.
Purebred Siamese Siam
Some are of the opinion that there was an intentional breeding program of the Siamese in old Siam. I am of the opinion that there wasn’t an organized breeding scheme there. A cat is not monogamous, on the contrary even. The word ‘Cattery’ as we know it today still had to be invented, let alone that breeding specimen were kept apart. The Siamese populated the cities and villages of Siam freely with all other breeds without looking at things such as purity or background. This is something which elevated to reality only much later by man and especially the cat breeder. One can still find Siamese in Thailand. In several traveling stories one can fully enjoy Siamese with unclear colours, patterns, cross-eyed and having a kinked tail.
Is the Siamese a royal cat?
There are strong indications that this is not the case, certainly not during the reign of king Rama V. In several sources is described how he had 9 Khao Manees and liked them so much that he ordered his son Chumporn Khetudomsak to breed with them. If king Rama V indeed gave the consul general of England a Siamese for a present then between you and me he was tricked. This knowledge makes the fairy-tale of the Siamese a lot less attractive.
Although of later date this exchange of correspondence is also interesting in this respect. In a letter to Sidney W France Mr A.N.M. Garry of Minehead Somerset writes: My wife and I are real cat fanciers and spent most our life on Borneo. I feel compelled to send you some corrections in the field of Siam and the cats living there. When I visited Siam in 1930, I was told that apart from the Malay cat, a bobtail like house cat common in Asia, and matings of those with other cats, two kinds of Siamese can be seen. The first as those we can see in England nowadays but with a slightly different colour, more brown-black than seal. The second of which they say that they are only seen in the palaces of the royal family, had the body colour of the first but without the points. Knowing the king personally from my student’s time at Eton, I received special permission to have a look at the palaces in Bangkok. I saw one or two of these royal cats there. As well as I can remember they looked like I just described to you.
He continues his letter: In those days it was strictly prohibited to export the type I described first (the pointed Siamese) with the exception of neutered cats. As already so many had been exported export was prohibited on the punishment of being banned. The second type could not be obtained at all. They had never been seen even outside the palaces of the royal family. Had unlimited quantities of Siamese been exported and thus the population dwindled?
That the English Siamese looked different from their Siam counterparts type-wise in the thirties is obvious given the flourishing cat-fancy. Mr. Garry, however, states that the cats in the palaces did not have points. We have to assume that the Siamese in those days did not have royal status. I know however from correspondence with people who are close to the present king Rama IX (Bhumibol) that he used to own a Siamese but nowadays only has dogs for a pet. I was promised a picture but I have not received that so far.
Looking for Consul General Sir Owen Gould
When writing this article I realized that this man was the founder of our present cat fancy and for the Siamese cult in particular. It surprised me that I could not find any other relevant information about him, only the well-known stories which everybody took for the truth. Research in the archives of the British embassy in Bangkok gave the following results.
The name Owen Gould is unknown but one did find Mr Edward Blencowe Gould, he was vice consul in Bangkok at that time.
Extract from the archives of the British embassy.
Mr Gould, Edward Blencowe, (1847-1916)
Born August 9, 1847. Passed exams and appointed junior interpreter in Siam, January 20, 1868. Promoted to 2nd assistant, June 1, 1872 and 1st assistant May 1 1878. In the position of Vice consul in Bangkok at several occasions in 1878, 1878, 18880, 1883 and 1884. Promoted to H.M. Vice consul for the provinces of Chiengmai, Lakon and Lampoonchi, residence in Ciengmai, December 7, 1883. Promoted to Consul in Siam November 27, 1885. Charged with the Charge d’Affaires from June 8 until September 28 1886 and from may 1887 till November 24 1889. Transferred to Port Saïd on August 13 1891. Appointed Consul with the title of Consul General, for the city and port of Alexandria, November 1 1897. (Egypt). Retired November 3 1909, died 16 November 1916. Hobbies, shooting and fishing. Address 7 Alfred Place West, London SW. Clubs: Conservative.
Start of the Cat fancy
What we know for certain is that the English were the first enthusiasts for the Siamese. The earliest known imports took place somewhere around 1870. We cannot find any registration of these Siamese other than from a catalogue from the Crystal palace from 1871 written by the Godfather of the catfancy, Harrison Weir who founded and was its first President of the National Cat Club in which he mentions two Siamese.
The story of the Siamese of today starts in 1884 with the vice consul from Bangkok who brought two Siamese called Pho and Mia to England and gave them to his sister, Lilian Gould-Veley, as a present. Harrison Weir was so impressed by these animals that he wrote the “Points of Excellence” in 1892, so that the Siamese could be judged using that description on shows. With the foundation of the Siamese Cat Club in 1902 these “Points of Excellence” were changed to the “Standard of Points”. This is the standard and guide for the breeder of Siamese.
Besides Miss Forrestier-Walker and Dorothy Nevill Lillian Gould-Veley was one of the first western Siamese breeders. In a letter Lillian Gould-Veley wrote that her brother brought the two from Siam and that he had bought at least one of the two for a small sum from a street vendor. In her book Mary Dunnill points to a quotation of Lillian Gould-Veley that Mia had cost her brother 3 Baht. That he got the other one from the king of Siam can be strongly doubted. No evidence for this has ever been found for this. One can assume that the terms “Royal gift” and “Royal cat” were a form of journalistic license and enthusiasm and from there developed into the myth of the Siamese.
The Struggle for type
When we look carefully at the illustrations of the Smud Khoi we see the Siamese portrayed as a slender long and especially elegant cat with a long whip-like tail. However everything may have gone in the past, the career of the Siamese is certainly one to be looked at. No purebred cat has been so popular. No other cat has left its mark on the development of the numerous breeds that we can admire today. Its historical luggage is unparalleled and unequalled. That alone makes the Siamese, even if unintentional, to the most important cat ever.
The first imported Siamese were all cats from free and uncontrolled matings. When nature runs its course there is always something like the common denominator, the average of something. Not until man interfered and selections were made based on looks certain characteristics were emphasized. Type and colour became more uniform. Because of this slowly a certain type of Siamese arose ore rather an ideal of a Siamese.
Nowadays we distinguish three types: the traditional, the classic and the modern type. As far as the traditional type is concerned people often think that this is the original type of Siamese. Nothing is further from the truth. Because when man interferes in a breed through selection there is no such thing as an original. The Classic type is by far the most prevalent. The modern Siamese meets the present standard most and that’s why the always score highest on shows. There will always be different types. The gene pool of the Siamese is so varied that having a universal Siamese seems almost impossible. On the other hand, this is what makes breeding so attractive. It is always a surprise what comes out. Talent, knowledge, the right cats, circumstances and mother nature eventually decide whether you breed a world winner or a housecat.
Having different types is nothing new. In the beginning of breeding Siamese there were different types. There were the long-tail types and the short-tail types. Until 1949 these names were also used in Fife. Mrs Lillian Veley wrote about two types of Siamese, the “Applehead” with the rounder head and the “Slim-line” with the marten face.
Another pioneer, Mrs Carew Cox, breeder and judge, remarked: “There seem to be two types of Siamese, the compact, short bodied (cobby) short legs and round head and next to that the type with its long body and ditto head”. (Simpson 1903)
Another description from Mrs Robinson, she imported Ch. Wankee (1895) from Hongkong: “Among the Royals we find two types, one type is smallish with a long face, white silken smooth coat, deep-blue eyes, who will turn darker with age. This type is often an imported cat or born from imported parents. The other type has a rounder head and is heavier, fatter and bigger, has a less smooth coat and light-blue eyes. These cats do not darken so easy with age as the other type and usually stem more from generations of cats bred in England”. (Simpson 1903)
Through the ages one can see the Siamese becoming more svelte. When we look at Prestwick Perak, born 30 April 1924, a well-known male bred by Greta Hindley, we can see big differences with eg. Wankee, owner Mrs Robinson, born 28 August 1895 in Hongkong, the first UK Champion. One of the first Uk-bred Siamese, Eve, bred by Mrs Vyvyan became Champion 1901. Her father was Tiam O’Shian III, born 6 September 1894, mother was Polyphema and they were all sealpoints.
I am convinced that in 100 years there will be another type of Siamese, As long as breeders interfere with a breed, it will always develop ad infinitum. That was the case for the past 100 years so why would that stop now? Nothing is so whimsical as man, always a new target, a new challenge, a new colour or possibly worse a new beauty ideal.
In 1886 Mrs Vyvyan imported two Siamese. In a letter to Harrison Weir she wrote: “They are very affectionate and attached to humans. They do not like being left alone and follow us wherever we go. The behave more like you would expect from dogs.” Funny that almost a century later this description still fits. We have changed a lot in the Siamese but the character remained the same.
A Siamese is as it looks, mystical, extravagant and unique. Besides that it is especially devoted, social, dominantly present, curious, enterprising, possessive, greedy and especially a cat of the clock. A Siamese is and does just that little more than any other cat. The Siamese is emotion, an experience you feel deep in your soul. When owner and Siamese both are open to it the will be an intensely close relation which you will never in your life forget.
See more Smud-Khoi pictures
Would you like to know more about the Siamese?
Visit the Siamese pages here
Phyllis Wade, The Siamese Cat,
Mary Dunnill, Siamese Cat Owner's Encyclopedia
Sally Franklin, The Complete Siamese
Hetty Grey-Baker, Your Siamese cat
Vera M. Nelson, Siamese Cat Book
The Bangkok Post
Items collected from the internet
Thanks to Daphne Negus, Martin R. Clutterbuck, Pantibha Chansorn and the British emabassy in Bangkok,
Copyright CST June 2003
Translation: Th.P.J. Bloks
Thank you all for your cooperation