Cornell University Press

Trais Pearson on the Politics of Death in Siam

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By the 1890s, Siam (Thailand) was the last holdout against European imperialism in Southeast Asia. But the kingdom’s exceptional status came with a substantial caveat: Bangkok, its bustling capital, was a port city that was subject to many of the same legal and fiscal constraints as other colonial treaty ports. Sovereign Necropolis offers new insight into turn-of-the-century Thai history by disinterring the forgotten stories of those who died “unnatural deaths” during this period and the work of the Siamese state to assert their rights in a pluralistic legal arena.

In this Q&A, we ask author Trais Pearson some questions about the research for his book and the handling of the dead in semi-colonial Siam.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Among the colorful characters in the book, the British barrister E.B. Michell (1843–1926) stands out. A champion boxer, rower, and expert on falconry, Michell somehow wound up practicing law before the British Consular Court in Bangkok. He also took up the essential challenge of translating British law into the Thai language. In fact, he published an English-Siamese dictionary (1892) that includes some of this work. When I returned to the U.S. to write up my dissertation, I was surprised to find a book that was once owned by Michell in Cornell University’s library collection! The Siam Directory for 1892 bears Michell’s name inside the cover and his annotations on Thai law in the back matter. 

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

Parts of the book are based on archival documents dealing with compensatory payments for accidental injury and death. A legal mind would have recognized—and perhaps dismissed—them as typical products of tort law. I did not have a background in law, so I took a more labor-intensive, inductive approach. I saw Siamese and European parties speaking two different languages (literally and figuratively), as they grappled with fundamental social and cultural problems: questions about fault, liability, and the value of a human life. My lack of legal training forced me to confront these questions in much the same way as the historical actors themselves.

3. How do you wish you could change your field of study?

At its best, history is a promiscuous affair, borrowing insights and methods from other disciplines and using contemporary problems as a guide to pose new questions about the past. This is the force behind the exciting work being done in the history of capitalism and environmental history, for example. There is incredible potential in harnessing this energy in the history of science, technology, medicine, and law as well. We tend to cede too much ground to scholars in interdisciplinary fields who level the charge that “historians are afraid of theory.” We should be prepared to defend the value of deeply contextual and situated forms of knowledge against the lure of abstraction and universality.

Trais Pearson is an independent scholar. His work has appeared in journals including Modern Asian Studies and Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

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