An Imperial Story: Anton Payer

In 1883 the director of the Habsburg Empire’s cabinet office, Adolf Braun, received a long letter from famed Siam researcher and expert, Anton Payer. At first glance, it seems like a regular curriculum vitae, of which Braun had seen many in his days serving Emperor Francis Joseph I. The director of the cabinet office was used to dealing with the Empire’s loyal subjects and their efforts to gain his support in order to for example get a specific position in the state apparatus. Such is the fate of a powerful gatekeeper. But this letter was different than the usual pleas for employment with a government department, University or the Emperor’s court.

A Foreigner in a Foreign Land

Anton Payer was born in 1853 in Carinthia. He studied in Vienna and became a teacher in the subjects physics and maths. He didn’t linger around in Vienna for too long and set off for Hamburg in 1876 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Prior he was infected with typhus and after receiving an unknown terrifying message, he left Vienna. He remained disappointed with his home when it came to individual opportunities and decided to seek his fortune in foreign lands. In the same year, he traveled to Bangkok, Siam’s capital.

Lacking the proper language skills, even a little rusty with his English, Payer struggled to find employment that suited his education. He joined a German merchant house as a simple clerk.  After improving his English, he applied for a position with the state of Siam as a surveyor at the gold mines of Kabin. All the while he still struggled to cope not only with the tough working circumstances and the climate but also with his status as a foreigner.

In 1877 an opportunity arose for Payer when the Habsburg Emperor Francis Joseph sent a gift to the King of Siam. It included fine photographies of the 1873 world fair in Vienna and a letter, ornated with exquisite calligraphy elements. To return the favor and show his gratitude, the King of Siam wanted to send the Habsburg Emperor a precious Kri, an old royal Siamese dagger, and also a letter decorated with calligraphic ornaments. Unfortunately, there was nobody at the King’s court educated in European calligraphy. The King’s chamberlain informed Payer, who he had become friends with, about the King’s desire, and so the Austrian offered his humble services. He facilitated the calligraphic ornaments and presented them to the King, who was pleased with the Payer’s work. As a token of gratitude for his services, he received a golden notebook with the King’s effigy and signature on it. Shortly afterward, Payer was transferred to the royal private chancellery, where he started his work as an assistant, writing all letters that had to be sent to Europe.

Despite his rise to a position close to the King of Siam, one problem remained. Payer was still considered a foreigner. He did not have a thorough knowledge of the land’s language, customs, and culture, which effectively halted any further advancement in the state apparatus. Although he did try to learn as much as possible on his own, he encountered tremendous difficulties doing so. Most people of Siam remained very withdrawn and cautious towards the Austrian. They feared, that he, like many other Europeans before, would ridicule their culture and way of life. Payer notes that this is true about many other Europeans who came to Siam before him: a lot of foreigners laugh at that which they don’t understand. The people of Siam were simply afraid of sharing more details about themselves and their land with potentially dangerous foreigners. Eventually, Payer realized that he would not be able to learn enough on his own, let alone fit into the Siamese society under those circumstances. If he wanted to truly understand and become part of Siam, he concluded, he had to go through the same education every child of Siam went through. He became a Samanera, a young novice at a Buddhist monastery.


It was not without opposition that he got accepted into a Buddhist monastery. Only when the King’s chamberlain’s former teacher took Payer under his wing as his new novice, he was able to completely pursue his desire to gain more knowledge about Siam. He also did not fail to mention that this was only possible due to the incredible tolerance of Buddhism.
More than 2 years Payer spent in the Buddhist monastery, learning the Siamese language, about literature, history, culture, customs, and laws. He also received an education in Pali, the old Buddhist language. Due to the very strict way of life in the monastery, he studied about 16 to 18 hours every day. Beyond the walls of the monastery, he would have never been able to engage and master such a vast amount of knowledge. This also had the positive effect that the Siamese people took notice of his serious ambitions and the strict way of life he had adopted. Consequently, he gained their respect and trust. Payer then learned from and with the best teachers about Siam, which turned him into one of the most important Siam experts of the time.

Return to the Empire

In 1880 the King of Siam ordered Payer to conclude his studies and return into state service. After his thorough education, mastering the language and customs of Siam, the Austrian was assigned as a translator to various duties. First, he worked with the former Chamberlain, now Colonel Commander of the newly formed Siamese army. They were tasked with creating a modern army organization. With Payer on board, this organization strictly followed the Austrian example, after he had translated the Austrian k. k. service regulations into Siamese. The King of Siam once again expressed his complete satisfaction towards Payer and the service regulations were implemented. The second big task was a translation and adapted implementation of the Austrian primary school law and norms. The King was once again pleased.

In 1882 Payer received message of his fathers passing. He returned to Europe, to Klagenfurt, in 1883, in order to take care of what was left of his family: his sisters and his mother. The King of Siam had granted him time off and a royal gift of 5.000 florins. In the year of Payers return, his mother eventually passed away too. With only the age of 29, he reported an incredible career to the director of the Habsburg Empire’s cabinet office, with highs and lows. But it seems like there remained one major doubt in Payer’s mind. Back in Siam, a lot of people, mostly enviers and enemies (as called by Payer himself), doubted his loyalty to the Habsburg Empire and Emperor Francis Joseph. How could the Emperor tolerate him serving another monarch?
For Payer, this was never a contradiction. The truth was that his services in Siam not only brought him more esteem than he could have ever gained in Europe, it also recreated the state of Siam after the Austrian example. Subsequently, the King’s actions resembled more and more the actions of the gracious Emperor Francis Joseph. All of these actions, Payer did in the name of his Empire and his Emperor.

Still, it was difficult for Payer to silence his critics, at least their voices kept gnawing at his mind. He apparently felt the need to dedicate his work to the Emperor. He did so by presenting several valuables to Francis Joseph in 1883, including a collection of very rare Siamese books and dresses as well as the complete plans and records of the city of Lophabury (today’s Lopburi). The historical relevance of Lophabury was its role as the first city to welcome a European delegation.  It was sent to Siam by Lous XIV during the 17th century. Those valuable items are still part of several collections with today’s Austrian republic.

The Tragic End of an Imperial Story

The life of Anton Payer up to this day reads like a spectacular novel set in an imperial world. It is an imperial story that shows it’s fascinating connections to foreign lands like Siam. Payer counts as one, if not the most important Siam experts of the 19th century. When he returned to Europe in 1883, he was only 29 years old. Still, he was able to tell the story of a man who had lived a long, eventful life. Unfortunately, his life and his story would end in the same year his mother had already passed away.

In October 1883, Anton Payer took his own life.

The letter he wrote to Braun is amongst one of his last.

Payer’s gifts to the Emperor signify a final act in his imperial story. A traveler who worked for another King remodeled his state after the image of his Empire, all in order to make a difference under the flag of his Emperor. That his affiliation to the Habsburg Empire was not merely a label, but a crucial identification, despite the lack of individual possibilities back home, is proven by his efforts to transport an Austrian role model to Siam. Not only the military or primary schools but also the King seemed, through the eyes of Payer, adopt certain traits of Emperor Francis Joseph. Ultimately, his story would end after proving his loyalty by symbolically presenting those culturally invaluable gifts to Francis Joseph, as a final service to the Habsburg Empire and his Emperor.

Feature image: Tris T7, ประวัติศาสตร์ไทย History of Thailand CC BY 3.0

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