It is most interesting to note that Danes were at the forefront of the modernisation of Bangkok. The British, Chinese and other nationalities were busy transforming the country through trade, concessions and commerce, but several residents here from Denmark helped to develop the infrastructure and transportation systems that really laid the early foundations of the city, most notably with the electric trolly car system, hotel construction. electricity generation, and road building. Here are stories of two of the most noteworthy Danes of fame!
Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu
Admiral de Richelieu was born in Loit, Denmark on 24 February 1852. He was descended from a very prominent and extensive European family connected to Danish nobility. In 1875, de Richelieu arrived in Bangkok with the letter of introduction by King Christian IX of Denmark. He was an ambitious young Danish naval officer eager to serve in his new home. King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) appointed him as the captain of the royal yacht where he served in that position for a number of decades. Because King Rama V spent a lot of time on his yacht travelling around Thailand and all over SE Asia, he and de Richelieu spent a lot of time together onboard becoming very close friends. King Rama V trusted the young naval officer to keep him out of ‘shoal waters’ (or serious trouble afloat as we say in the Navy) and he did. King Rama V appointed de Richelieu to a number of increasingly important positions in the Royal Thai Navy.
The short Franco-Siamese War found de Richelieu in command of the military forces at the Phra Chulachomklao Fortress during the Paknam Incident of 13 July 1893. That action ended the war. On 16 January 1900, de Richelieu became the first and only foreign born commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Navy when he was appointed an Admiral and Minister of the Navy. He served until 29 January 1901. In appreciation for his outstanding services to the nation, he was granted the Thai noble title Phraya Chonlayutthayothin (Thai: พระยาชลยุทธโยธินทร์).
He finally returned to Denmark in 1902 having contracted malaria. The day de Richelieu departed, King Rama V and members of the Royal Family saw him off to Singapore on board the Royal Yacht “Maha Chakri” as a sign of their true friendship. He became a prominent businessman later chairing three out of the four largest companies in Denmark. He died in 1932 and is buried in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Jennie Neilson (her last name is spelled Nielson on her gravestone) was born in Aalborg, Denmark on 18 September 1849. As a young woman she emigrated to the United States and lived there for a few decades. In October 1884 (the Neilson-Hays Library website lists 1881 as the year she emigrated), Jennie came to Thailand as a protestant missionary. She later married Doctor Thomas Heyward Hays, an American physician, who became the Chief of the Royal Thai Navy Hospital.
About 1900, Jennie became very heavily involved in the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association. That circulating library was founded by thirteen American and British ladies in 1869. Until that same year, when the Suez Canal was opened, it could take up to six months for mail and books to arrive in the Kingdom. These ladies wanted to contribute to the betterment of the foreigners who lived in Bangkok as the cultural amenities and other diversions were in short supply. Books were considered precious commodities, to be treasured, read and re-read then loaned to others. It was a modest start staffed by only volunteers. The modest lending library had a peripatetic existence. always moving to whatever rent free building or home (or even a chapel) would have them. By 1897 the library was open every day of the week except Sundays with a paid librarian in residence.
It was clear by 1914 a permanent home was needed. A plot of land on Surawong Road was purchased. Jennie served as the library president three times and was closely involved with the effort to secure a reliable place for the collections as a mainstay supporter. Jennie unexpectedly passed away on 26 April 1920, perhaps from cholera. In an effort to honour his late wife’s cherished memory, Dr. Hays built The Neilson-Hays Library in her memory. He commissioned an elegant new library building in her name as a permanent memorial. It opened on 26 June 1922.