Chaloke Komarakul-na-Nagara: First of the Few

Chaloke Komarakul-na-Nagara (insert) faces RWG Holdsworth (stroke) and GA Ellison (7) while coxing Oxford in practice for the 1933 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race.

16 January 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a forgotten pioneer.

Chaloke Komarakul-na-Nagara, Oxford’s cox in the 1933 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, was almost certainly the first person of colour to compete in the event. He was born into a wealthy family in Siam (today’s Thailand) in 1909. “Komarakul-na-Nagara” is one of the family names of descendants of an historic ruler of the south of Siam. In later years, Chaloke styled himself “Chaloke Komarakul” and I will refer to him hereafter as “Komarakul.”

William Robertson, Oxford 1861, from Australia (left) was the first “foreign” rowing Blue (although white colonials were often regarded as British). American JE Peabody, Cambridge 1873 (right), was the first non-colonial foreign rowing Blue.

Throughout the era of Western Imperialism in Asia, Siam, through the diplomatic brilliance of successive rulers, was the only nation in the region not to be colonised by foreign powers (although it often proved the lesser of two evils to compromise and make territorial, trade and legal concessions in unequal treaties). 

The reigns of absolute monarchs Mongkut (King Rama 4th) and Chulalongkorn (King Rama 5th) between 1851 and 1910 were characterised by the so-called modernisation of Siam, the hope being that the adoption of Western science, technology and institutions within a unified state would give the country credibility in the eyes of the British, France and Dutch and avoid colonisation by them. However, there was clearly a risk that these foreign imports would be harmful to Siamese identity and political stability.

Siam in 1900, surrounded by European empire builders. Siam is now Thailand; French Indo China is now Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia; British Raj is now Myanmar (Burma); British Malaya is now Malaysia. Siam was a convenient buffer between British and French claimed territories. Credit: Shuuranattha “Caphtaain” Ashvajayajita / Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

King Mongkut spoke English and his son and successor, King Chulalongkorn, had in part a Western education some of which came from a British governess, Anna Leonowens. Her influence was greatly fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s 1944 book, Anna and the King of Siam.The 1956 film musical of the book (The King and I with Yul Brynner as Mongkut) is banned in Thailand as it is seen as false, disrespectful and patronising. Perceived insults against the Thai Royal Family are even today treated as very serious criminal offences in Thailand punishable by jail terms of three to fifteen years, more for multiple offences.

Chulalongkorn’s successor, Vajiravudh (King Rama 6th), who reigned between 1910 and 1925, continued the reforms of his predecessors. He had spent nine years in Britain, attending Britain’s military officer training college, Sandhurst, and then studying law and history at Christ Church, Oxford. His brother and successor, Prajadhipok (King Rama 7th), was educated at Eton, went onto officer training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and was commissioned into the British Army in 1913. He wanted to serve with the British military in the First World War, 1914-18, but was ordered home by King Vajiravudh.

Thus, it was normal that Komarakul, like many of the growing bureaucratic class in Siam, should have been sent to Britain for his schooling.

Top: The then Prince Vajiravudh (King, 1910 – 1925) pictured standing far left with other members of the dining club, The Bullingdon, in Christ Church, Oxford, in 1900. Bottom: The then Prince Prajadhipok (King, 1925 – 1935) with his boarding house at Eton, sitting front row, third from the left, c.1906.

The British press of the 1930s regularly referred to Komarakul as a Prince. The unpublished memoirs of Adrian Stokes (OUBC 1951 and 1952) say that Komarakul was the cousin of a famous Siamese racing driver of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Prince Bira, whose father was King Mongkut’s 45th child. Siamese Kings had many wives with the result that Mongkut had 39 sons and 43 daughters, and his successor and 5th son, King Chulalongkorn, had 32 sons and 44 daughters. Thus, there was no shortage of Royal cousins and Princes and Princesses in Siam.

Some of Komarakul’s cousins.
Prince Bira, properly Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh, (1914-1985) shown here in 1937, was a glamorous international figure educated at Eton who became an accomplished sculptor, a Formula One racing driver with a twenty-year career, and a four-time Olympic sailor. Some have called him “Thailand’s greatest sportsman.”

Komarakul was sent to England in 1920 aged 11 to continue his education. His secondary education was at St Paul’s, Hammersmith, but he did not seem to take part in serious aquatics at the famous rowing school, only taking up coxing on arrival at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1929, earning a place in the College First VIII in his first year. 

The institutions that educated Komarakul: St Paul’s School, Hammersmith, and Magdalen College, Oxford.

Possibly, serious involvement in other sports had kept the then 55kg Komarakul from the river at school. The Northampton Mercury of 27 November 1931 reported on a rugby match between Kettering and Magdalen College: “The College were severely handicapped by the loss of C. Komarakul-na-Nagara who had been playing a fine game at fly-half, and who was kicked on the jaw towards the end of the first half.” The Magdalen archive has a team photograph of the solid looking college rugby fifteen for 1931-32 that includes the diminutive Komarakul.   

The Daily Mirror of 1 February 1933 reported that Komarakul was a boxer, “one of the leading lightweights at Oxford”. The Daily News of 21 March 1933 confirmed that he was “an expert boxer and adept at several other games.” Years later, the Esher News and Mail of 11 January 1952 reported that a former St Paul’s fly-half, Komarakul-na-Nagara, had organised a rugby match between a St Paul’s alumni team (“Old Paulines”) and a touring team from Thailand (“very fast but light”). It added that Komarakul had gained Half Blue for boxing while at university.

The Magdalen College First VIII of 1930. Spot the early attempt at Photoshop. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford.

In Upon The Elysian Stream: 150 Years of Magdalen College Boat Club, Oxford (2008), Mark Blandford-Baker wrote: “the successes of (1932) on the Isis are unrivalled in the club’s history”. It was Komarakul who steered these victories, he was the cox when Magdalen went Head of the River in both of Oxford’s intra-university annual bump races, Torpids and Summer Eights, and also when they won 1st Clinker Eight in the Tideway Head of the River Race. 

With quotes from the Magdalen College Boat Club Captain’s records, a 1993 history of MCBC, Roger Hutchins’, Well Rowed, Magdalen!”: A History of Magdalen College Boat Club, 1859-1993 said of the five-day Summer Eights (aka Eights Week) of 1932:

Eights Week was full of excitement. On the first night the (Magdalen) Eight bumped (University College)… On the second night: “We got off to a good start at 40 (strokes per minute) and were three quarters of a length off BNC (Brasenose College – who started one-and-a-half lengths up) after a minute, and half a length in the Gut (quarter of the way into the 1800m course). We spurted to a quarter of a length up the Greener and bumped BNC at the crossing, thus going Head of the River. Komarakul steered beautifully all the way.” Komarakul Nagara, or “Koma” as he was known at Oxford, coxed the Blue Boat the following year. He was an enthusiastic MCBC supporter for many years afterwards when he was in the Thai Embassy in London, and was at the boat-house in 1953 when Magdalen went Head twenty-one years later.

On the third, fourth and fifth nights Magdalen rowed over comfortably. But, on the last night, there was drama. “Tonight BNC gave us our best race since we went Head. In order to get extra speed over the first three minutes and to take advantage of our comparative slowness off the start, they used a set of shorter oars (11’10”) with 6.5 inch blades. They went off at a phenomenal rate of 44 compared to our 39. They came up very rapidly and got within eight feet of us… However, we gained a little in the Gut by Komarakul’s steering, and by dint of keeping good length and rhythm we began to draw away…”

Magdalen’s 1932 Summer Eights Head Crew.

Mark Blandford-Baker:

Koma… was one of only five Magdalen men to have been Head of both Torpids and Eights in the same year… He would be a loyal supporter of MCBC for many years, often bringing a case of champagne up for Eights Week in his Rolls Royce.

Magdalen’s 1932 Head crew, including Komarakul, entered the Ladies Plate at Henley that year but lost on the first day, 29 June, to Bedford School by three-quarters of a length. 

The Oxford Trial Eights at Henley, December 1932. Komarakul is on the right wearing a white “Trials” cap.

In the Oxford Blue Boat Trail Eights run between November 1932 and February 1933, Komarakul seems to have spent most of his time in the “A” Crew. However, in November 1932 WDC Erskine-Crum, the Oxford President, had told the Isis student newspaper that the Siamese cox “Encourages his crew well but is not yet a first-class steersman.” Three months later, however, the Belfast Telegraph reported that he “steered a wonderful course” in training. On the eve of Boat Race Day, The Times rowing correspondent held that “Komarakul-na-Nagara is an exceptionally clever cox and may be worth a great deal in the race” and added that there was “very little” to choose between the two crews.

The Blue Boat pictured in early February 1933.
The “2” man, MH Mosley, with Komarakul wearing his Magdalen cap. While the Magdalen Head crew had rowed with swivel rowlocks, the Oxford crew used fixed pins – as can be seen here.
The 1933 Oxford Crew. Komarakul was the only Magdalen man to get a Rowing Blue between 1929 and 1936.
A Daily Mirror picture taken a week before the race.
On Boat Race Day, 1 April 1933, Cambridge took the lead off the start, Oxford drew level and went up at the Mile Post, Cambridge responded with a long spurt and were one-third of a length ahead at Hammersmith Bridge and extended their lead to two-and-a-quarter by the finish – despite some poor steering by their cox. The Observer held that, “A good crew was beaten by a good crew…” It was little compensation for Oxford suffering their tenth successive loss.

Above: A splendid British Movietone cinema newsreel report on the 1933 Boat Race with a commentary by old Blue, Gully Nickalls, son of Guy.

On graduating three weeks after the Boat Race, the newspapers reported that Komarakul was to return to Siam for the first time in thirteen years. It seems reasonable to speculate that, in spending so many formative years away from home, he may have been more English than Siamese. However, while he may have been a public schoolboy, Oxford student and some sort of aristocrat, he no doubt still experienced the casual racism common in Britain and elsewhere at the time. Obviously, historic reports contain terms and attitudes that are no longer acceptable. The American Time magazine report on the 1933 Boat Race begins with a mild example:

A nut-brown little Siamese in a white cap, hunched in the stern of a fragile racing shell on the Thames, barking shrill orders at eight lusty Britons who thrashed the grimy water with long oars, was the cynosure of 500,000 pairs of eyes for a few minutes one afternoon last week. He, Prince Komarakul-Na-Nagara, was coxswain of the Oxford varsity crew…

Komarakul had inadvertently played up to racial stereotypes when, on the eve of the 1933 Boat Race, he allegedly told the Daily Herald, “Fate has told me that Oxford will win the Boat Race tomorrow.” The paper produced a Kiplingesque response: 

These were the mysterious words yesterday of Komarakul-na-Nagara, Siamese cox of the Oxford crew, who, with his inscrutable face of a cross-legged Buddha, is the mascot of the Dark Blues.

The choice of the diminutive “mascot” for a cox, a vital and unique member of the crew, was particularly insulting.

The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer of 30 March 1933 had the peculiar fear that, when the “remarkably efficient” man from Siam coxed the Oxford crew, it was possible that he could be as “quickly disheartened” as some cricketers from India had supposedly been a year previously. The newspaper seemed to believe that all brown-skinned people could possess the same character faults.
A more positive piece from the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 23 March 1933 calls Komarakul “a popular idol” who had “captivated” spectators during practice resulting in “a train of worshippers following him wherever he goes.”

Komarakul last coxed for Magdalen on 5 July 1933 at Henley when his crew went out in the first round of the Ladies’ Plate, losing to New College, Oxford, by a quarter of a length.

The years following Komarakul’s graduation from Oxford and return home were turbulent ones for Siam. After a short, bloodless revolution in 1932, the country became a constitutional monarchy with suffrage, a constitution and a National Assembly. This coup was in part driven by those educated in the West.

Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939. During the Second World War, 1939-45, the country was initially neutral but, after a five hour-long Japanese invasion in December 1941, the Thai Prime Minister decided to cooperate with the invader’s war efforts as Japan had promised to help it regain its lost territories. Thailand was allowed control of its internal affairs despite the existence of a well-organised, pro-Allied resistance movement that eventually numbered around 90,000 Thai guerrillas. Following the end of the war, Thailand typically, quickly and brilliantly reinvented itself as the bastion of Western defence against communism in Southeast Asia.

Komarakul and his wife probably pictured in the 1940s. Picture: Facebook page “Thanying Aura-amphai Kshemsant Komarakul Na Nagara.”

Komarakul worked for the Thai Ministry of Finance from 1933 until 1969, including eight years as Financial Attaché to the Royal Thai Embassy in London, 1949-1957. For his years of service to the Thai government, he was awarded the Order of the White Elephant and also the Order of the Crown of Thailand, roughly equivalent to Britain’s OBE and CBE.

Komarakul married in 1942 and fathered four children, one son and three daughters. According to the Thai language Facebook page of one of Komarakul’s granddaughters, the woman who would become Chaloke’s wife was a Princess who was the first female royal to study abroad. She had to get the permission of King Prajadhipok (reigned 1925 – 1935) and he was initially reluctant to give consent but eventually agreed that she could go to England when he saw how serious she was about her studies. However, she was told that, should she ever wish to marry a foreigner, the King would forbid it.

During Komarakul’s time at the London Embassy, 1949-1957, he joined London Rowing Club (LRC) and coxed the LRC 2nd VIII in the Thames Cup of 1950 at Henley. By now his weight had increased from his student day’s 55 kg to a forty-one-year-old’s 66 kg. London lost in the first round to the eventual winners, Kent School, USA, by 1 1/4 lengths. As well as LRC, Komarakul’s clubs included Leander, Vincent’s (the Oxford club predominantly for Blues), and the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.

A happy picture taken in Komarakul’s garden during his time based at Thailand’s London Embassy, 1949-1957. His house was a gathering place for Thais in Britain. Komarakul is standing below the house sign “Sunny Days” and is leaning on a deckchair in which his wife is sitting. To his left is Anand Panyarachun, then a student at Cambridge but who would be Thailand’s Prime Minister, 1991-1992. Picture: Facebook page “Thanying Aura-amphai Kshemsant Komarakul Na Nagara.”
Komarakul wearing a London Rowing Club cap (and probably a Leander tie) accompanied by his wife at Henley sometime in the 1950s. Picture: Facebook page “Thanying Aura-amphai Kshemsant Komarakul Na Nagara.”

After his return to Thailand in 1957 following his London Embassy posting, there was little or no organised rowing for Komarakul to be involved in, so he devoted his free time to his other sporting loves: boxing and rugby.

The online archive of the Straits Times, an English language newspaper based in Singapore, has “Chaloke Komarakul” as President of Thailand’s Amateur Boxing Association and as Patron of the Asia Amateur Boxing Federation between at least 1965 and 1968. He was recorded as the assistant secretary of the South East Asian Peninsular Games Organising Committee in 1967. In 1968, he was one of the three founders of the Asian Rugby Football Union and in 1979 was quoted as President of the Thai Rugby Union, a post he probably held for some years.

Magdalen’s records for its pre-1945 students are incomplete and there is no file on Komarakul. The College Record, a printed register of all Magdalen College members, has Komarakul’s name in the obituary section at the end of the 9th issue (1997) with his date of death listed as unknown. Thus, Chaloke Komarakul-na-Nagara must have died sometime between the publication of the 8th and 9th issues of the College Record, that is between 1990 and 1997.

A montage of happy times. Komarakul’s wife died aged 100 in 2010. Pictures: Facebook page “Thanying Aura-amphai Kshemsant Komarakul Na Nagara.”

The delightful pictures of Komarakul and his wife on Facebook document Komarakul’s impeccable dress sense, one befitting any English Gentleman. More importantly, however, it shows a long and happy marriage and a life lived to the full.

Thanks to Dr Emily Jenkins, Assistant Archivist and Records Manager at Magdalen College; Julian Ebsworth, Archivist at London Rowing Club; William O’Chee, Archivist of Brasenose College Boat Club.

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