Freethought Almanac

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August 18: Superstition Eclipsed

King of Siam's Eclipse (1868):
Churches and Eclipses

King Mongkut

It was on this date, August 18, 1868, that a total solar eclipse, called the King of Siam's Eclipse, Saros Series 133, was seen in what is now Thailand. This was during the reign of the very same King Mongkut who figures in the book by Anna Leonowens, describing her adventures teaching at the court in Siam – which was subsequently became The King and I.

King Mongkut spent 27 years as a monk – which gave him the leisure to study Latin and English, which in turn enabled him to read texts on science, geography, history, mathematics and astronomy – and emerged as a king with a reformist mission. One of these was to take the "mission" out of the missionaries and confine them to teaching useful things. He once complained, "It is not pleasant to us if the school mistress much morely endeavour to convert the scholars to Christianity than teaching language, literature, etc., like the American missionaries here."

Another of King Mongkut's reforms was to slay superstition about the cosmos, which was indigenous not only to Siamese culture, but also festered in Christian Europe. As Andrew D. White describes it in his classic Warfare of Science with Theology,

Out of the ancient world had come a mass of beliefs regarding comets, meteors, and eclipses; all these were held to be signs displayed from heaven for the warning of mankind. ... Eclipses were ... supposed to express the distress of Nature at earthly calamities. ... In one of the Christian legends clustering about the crucifixion, darkness overspread the earth from the sixth to the ninth hour. Neither the silence regarding it of the only evangelist who claims to have been present, nor the fact that observers like Seneca and Pliny, who... failed to note any such darkness even in Judea, have availed to shake faith in an account so true to the highest poetic instincts of humanity.

The second-century ecclesiastic, Tertullian, thought eclipses were evidence of God's wrath against unbelievers. In an 1552 sermon, Bishop Hugh Latimer spoke of eclipses and rings around the sun foretelling the end of the world. The clergyman Increase Mather perpetuated the myth of eclipses as signs of God's displeasure; yet his son, Cotton Mather, the notorious witch-hater, was remarkably skeptical about attributing divine disfavor to the simple passage of the moon between the earth and the sun.

Anna Leonowens

King Mongkut got the teacher he asked for, a woman without such superstitions. As he wrote to Anna, "You will do your best endeavour for knowledge of English language, science and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity." Anna agreed, as she was not strongly religious – and was a feminist and abolitionist, as well. Her host was endeavoring to be a Renaissance man and this amateur astronomer-king predicted the August 18 eclipse over Siam. Moreover, he calculated the best place from which to view it (a platform in the marshlands of Khao Sam Roi Yot) and invited astronomers from England and nearby Asian countries to observe. Anna had left Siam in July 1867.

On 18 August 1868 the King and his guests waited impatiently under overcast skies. The King's astrologers, like their Christian counterparts, had predicted dire consequences from the eclipse. Just as the eclipse was starting, the clouds parted and all eyes were on the skies – properly protected, of course. They didn't see God, but they did see a wonder of Nature. And for six minutes and 47 seconds the sun was obscured. The local people let off fireworks and banged drums and gongs to frighten off the eclipse demon Rahu.

Solar eclipse

The eclipse passed without incident – except that nearly everyone was bitten by mosquitoes, and many of them developed malaria. The astronomer-king Mongkut died of the disease on his 64th birthday. If this was divine disfavor, God's aim was askew: the kingdom of Siam survived to become the modern nation of Thailand. So progress against superstition was not eclipsed!

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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