the king and I


Anna Leonowens was the tutor of the King of Thailand. She was born in India as Anna Edwards. She was of mixed Indian and British descent. Her father was a non-c0mmissioned officer in the army.

Anna  Edwards married Mr Leon-Owens. She later merged the double barrel surname into a single name: Leonowens. The couple had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. Her husband was a clerk and not an army officer as she claimed. They moved to Australia.

She and her husband decided to move to Penang, Malaysia. However, on the voyage her her husband died of apoplexy. Malayisa was then British. Unfortunately, she was widowed at an early age. She then shifted too Singapore when she opened a school. Schooling was in some respects very informal back then. Anyone could call themselves a teacher and open a school. There were few is any inspections and regulations. School discipline on the other hand was severe. Caning was the norm for minor transgressions or simply getting the answer wrong. The Siamese consul asked her whether she would be willing to move to Siam to open a school for King Mongkut’s many wives, concubines and progeny.

Several Christian missionaries had tried to teach the children of the Siamese Royal Household. None had met with much success. Mrs Leonowens sent her daughter Avis to the UK.

Anna moved to Siam (Thailand) in 1862 with her little son Louis. It was an exceptionally audacious thing for a single woman to do. She spoke no Thai and extremely few people there spoke English. Slavery was still legal there and the death penalty was awarded for trifling offences. She vividly described her arrival in a book entitled The English Governess at the Siamese Court.  She wrote about her arrival, ”   I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing ; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil ; and presently the welcome face shines boldly out, glad, glorious, beautiful, and aureoled with flaming hues of orange, fringed with amber and gold, wherefrom flossy webs of color float wide through the sky, paling as they go. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime ;   ”

Anna Leonowens was a brave woman but perhaps a meddler. When a servant was sentenced to be flagellated she intervened. ”Going straight up to the judge, I told him that if a single lash was laid upon the old man’s back (which was bared as I spoke), he should suffer tenfold, for I would immediately lay the matter before the British Consul.   ” Her moral courage saved the man a whipping but was resented by man. Who would Britishers have taken to a Siamese woman interfering in their judicial system?

Over the years she mastered the Thai language. This is quite a feat considering she started well into adulthood. Thai is tonal and is incredibly tricky for those who speak no kindred language.

Anna founded a school in the palace to teach members of the Royal Family.  King Mongkut himself received her on her first day in the palace. She has a typical 19th century Britisher’s axiom that all things European were more desirable. Here is what she had to say about the future of Siamese education: ”  Though a vain people, they are neither bigoted nor shallow ; and I think the day is not far off when the enlightening influences applied to them, and accepted through their willingness, not only to receive in- struction from Europeans, but even to adopt in a measure their customs and their habits of thought, will raise them to the rank of a superior nation.   ” 

The King of Siam entreated his sons and daughters to do their best at Anna’s school. This is what he said to them as it opened:   ” Dear children, as this is to be an English school, you will have to learn and observe the English modes of salutation, address, conversation, and etiquette ; and each and every one of you shall be at liberty to sit in my presence, unless it be your own pleasure not to do so.”      Parents with tutors today would do well to emulate these instructions when exhorting them to obey their tutors.

Mrs Leonowens had to teach children who knew no English whatsoever. She had trouble chasing away the many servants who accompanied each child to the classroom and made a lot of racket. Then the lessons began in earnest, ”         It was not long before my scholars Avere ranged in chairs around the long table, with Webster’s far-famed spelhng-books before them, repeating audibly after me the letters of the alphabet. While I stood at one end of the table, my little Louis at the other, mounted on a chair, the better to command his division, mimicked me with a fidelity of tone and manner very quaint and charming. Patiently his small finger pointed out to his class the characters so strange to them, and not yet perfectly familiar to himself.              ”

Mrs Leonowens came to have deep understanding of and respect for the Buddhist faith. This is the religion of the majority of the people of Thailand (then called Siam).

Princes and princesses certainly were not spoiled in Siam at the time. ”  A very stern thing is life to the children of royalty in Siam. To watch and be silent, when it has most need of confidence and freedom, —a horrible necessity for a child ! ” Mrs Leonowens were able to persuade His Majesty the King to soften this regimen.

Mrs Leonowens recalled with satisfaction the headway made by the heir apparent,”  He was attentive to his studies, serene, and gentle, invariably affectionate to his old aunt and his younger brothers, and for the poor ever sympathetic, with a warm, generous heart. He pursued his studies assiduously, and seemed to overcome the difficulties and obstacles he en- countered in the course of them with a resolution that gained strength as his mind gained ideas. As often as he effectually accomplished something, he indulged in ecstasies of rejoicing over the new thought, that was an inspiring discovery to him of his actual poverty of knowledge, his possibilities of intellectual opulence.     ”

Mrs Leonowens was treated with great deference and was accommodated opulently. She did her best to persuade the monarchy to reform. She also acted as an interpreter for His Majesty. In 1868 she went on a trip back to the United Kingdom for the first time in many years. She was seeking to return to Siam on a better salary. King Mongkut found her tiresome. He was not used to opinionated women. Whilst Mrs Leonowens was away the king died. His son succeeded him. King Chulalongkorn was a former pupil. The 15 year old king wrote to her that her services had been warmly appreciated. Pointedly, he did not invite her back.

Mrs Leonowens moved to the United States. There she opened a school for girls on Staten Island. She turned her hand to writing. That is where she published her celebrated account of time at the royal court. Some have suggested she invented some of the most colourful episodes. Her book made some disobliging comments about her erstwhile employers. She expressed strong disapproval of concubinage. She claimed credit for beginning the abolition of servitude in Thailand. It was not fully outlawed until 1915.

Mrs Leonowens later moved to Canada and ran a school there. She distinguished herself by calling for votes for women. This was far from a fashionable cause at the time.

The English Governess at the Siamese Court is an enthralling read. It is written with Victorian verbosity but is never turgid. It is a very closely observed insight into 19th century Thailand. There is not a single bland sentence in it. Her book is certainly self-serving. She comes across as a valiant campaigner for human rights. It  was just the sort of thing to appeal to puritans and Occidental supremacists. Some of the book is of doubtful veracity. Her claim that a concubine was executed for adultery is hotly disputed. She was certainly willing to tell an untruth when it was to her advantage. She claimed to have been born in Caernarvon, UK when she was born in India. She carefully concealed her Indian ancestry. She said her husband was an army officer because this was more estimable than a clerk.

She also delved into fiction. Her autobiography (The English Governess at the Siamese Court) earned her celebrity status. She went on a lucrative lecture tour of the United States. Her son Louis returned to Thailand as an adult. He served as an officer in the Thai cavalry.

Mrs Leonowens died in Canada in 1915.

Her life was mythologised in a 1940s novel The King and I. This was turned into a Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. It has since been made into films. It is not faithful to the true story.


About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

One response »

  1. Amazing film yul bryner playing the king an all time classic, in fact I just treated my wife to a showing at the Edinburgh playhouse last week to see the king and I, it was very good my first ever time at the playhouse in fact i think i enjoyed it more than she did lol.

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