Famous for being famous – Anna Harriette Leonowens

by Leonard H. Le Blanc III

If Constantine Phaulkon is the most famous (or completely notorious, at least definitely the most controversial, depending on your viewpoint) “farang” to ever reside in the Kingdom (Roger Crutchley excepted), then Anna Leonowens easily qualifies as the most famous (or completely notorious, at least definitely the most controversial) woman to ever live in the Kingdom. Throughout her life she completely “re-invented” herself more times than Madonna and Kim Kardashian put together. But she always lived by the motto (as we always say in Hollywood): “There is no such thing as bad publicity (unless you are Woody Allen, Mel Gibson or Bill Cosby).” In retrospect, and by all accounts, she lived a most convoluted, sometimes fascinating, life that still, if somewhat surprisingly at this late date, negatively affects Thailand today. (This woman will simply not go away from Thai history! And no one can get rid of her!) It is also completely ironic to note that the one person who did more than anyone else to publicise the Kingdom of Thailand throughout world history did it all wrong: mainly by using gross misrepresentations, made up lies, wild exaggerations, total inventions and legal libel against the country just to make a living. But she achieved a backhanded immortality in doing so.

Anna Harriette Leonowens was born Ann Hariett Emma Edwards in 1831 in Ahmednagar, India. From her earliest childhood days to when she first showed up in Bangkok in 1862 as an English teacher for the Court of King Mongkut (King Rama IV) and afterwards, it would take whole volumes (or libraries) written by forensic genealogists and the most dedicated historians to cover all of it. The problem is Anna Leonowens quickly realised that because she was of Anglo-Indian ancestry, that if that fact were known to the local British inhabitants, it would gravely hinder her and her children’s future prospects in life. This was due to the very rigid British social caste rules and inflexible societal customs against mixed-ancestry people. So she put in a tremendous effort to completely disguise or hide her origins in an effort to simply live a decent life and ensure that she and her children had greater opportunities to succeed in the face of any social ostracisation.

Although Anna Leonowens is also enshrined in Hollywood film lore, she also can lay claim to being related to another Hollywood icon: Boris Karloff her great-nephew, the original Frankenstein monster actor and subsequent horror master of the genre. In 1845, her younger sister, Eliza, married James Millard in India. Their daughter, also named Eliza, married an Edward Pratt in 1864 in India. They later returned to London where they had a son born in 1887. His name was Edward. Edward Pratt, Jr. took the stage name Boris Karloff in 1912 and made cinema history in the 1930s by playing Frankenstein, The Mummy and other iconic screen characters for decades. He had a long, successful career in film, radio, TV and print media.

Anna married a British Army paymaster’s clerk named Thomas Leon Owens on Christmas Day 1849 in Poona, India. On their marriage certificate, Thomas merged his second and last names to ‘LeonOwens’ or later spelled ‘Leonowens’. In 1852, the couple emigrated to Perth, Australia with Anna’s uncle, W. V. Glasscott for work. Anna took up teaching. The couple stayed until 1857 when they abruptly left for Singapore then later moved to Penang. But her husband died in May 1859, so Anna returned to Singapore as an impoverished widow. She completely reinvented herself as a Welsh born widow of a British Army major and started teaching again by opening a school for children of British Army officers. Then stroke of fortune struck in 1862 when a job offer suddenly appeared to teach in Bangkok.

Cinematography. Vintage tape on the wooden table

One might think that Anna Leonowens was King Mongkut’s (King Rama IV) first choice for an English tutor for his young wives and children. Actually she came along later in the process. In the late 1850s King Mongkut decreed that his young wives and young princesses should start to learn English. He was the first Thai monarch to speak English and he wanted his royal family to learn the language so he could converse with them. Three wives of British missionaries were then employed as teachers. However they only used Christian books printed in Thai and insisted their students read them, no doubt along with some heavy Christian proselytising in English thrown into the bargain. No other English or Thai textbooks were used. Finally King Mongkut ended the lessons, no doubt in some exasperation. Several years later he directed his counsel in Singapore to find a suitable English teacher. One lady was found and recommended as a qualified candidate, Anna Leonowens. King Mongkut was very specific in his letter of invitation to Anna Leonowens in he did not wish her to use religious texts or introduce religion into her English language lessons.

Anna sent her daughter to school in England and took her son, Louis, to Bangkok. She served as a teacher and later as a language secretary at the royal court for six years until 1867. From all reports she was unhappy both at court and in Bangkok. Although she was welcomed by the American missionaries in social circles in Thailand, the British socially ostracised her for whatever reason. Anna was in England on leave when King Mongkut suddenly died in 1868. The new monarch, King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) sent her a warm letter of congratulations and thanked her for her services, she was not invited back.

In 1869, Anna was in New York City running a girl’s school. She wrote two highly erroneous, self-serving memoirs about her time at the royal court in 1870 entitled “The English Governess at the Siamese Court” and 1873 entitled “Romance of the Harem”. They were immediately literary sensations but also highly controversial as they were filled with wild fabrications and sheer inventions where she proclaimed she was a governess to the royal princes and princesses and there was a dungeon in the Grand Palace. But her literary lectures were very popular, so she began to run in good company with other literary luminaries on the lecture circuit. Her bank account fattened. In 1874 her son Louis had accumulated some debts, so he fled the U.S. for parts unknown. Since he and his mother grew estranged she did not see him for 19 years. In the summer of 1878 Anna was teaching Sanskrit at Amherst College in Massachusetts. That same year her daughter was wed to a Scottish banker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Anna moved there and used that as her base of operations while she periodically globe trotted until 1897. In 1880 she was back in New York City teaching and in the public eye once again. In 1881 she went to Russia and other European countries. She kept up with a stream of travel articles and books. She was considered an Orientalist expert by then. She returned to Nova Scotia to live until 1888 and then moved to Germany with her daughter and her family to live until 1893. At one point she met King Chulalongkorn who upbraided her for her completely false written portrayal of his father, King Mongkut, in her two books. Anna replied that her portrait of his father was an honest one.

En route to Canada she bumped into her son, Louis, who has returned to Thailand to seek his fortune. He was a successful teak trader and was named an officer of the Thai calvary. Since he was widower he dropped his two children off to his mother and returned to Thailand. Anna was back in Germany until 1901 with her granddaughter also named Anna. That year she moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada and lectured at McGill University until 1909. She died on 19 January 1915 and was interred in the Mount Royal Cemetery.

Anna Leonowens would have no doubt remained a minor historical footnote from the time of her death, but fate intervened once again. An author named Margaret Landon wrote a worldwide, best selling novel entitled “Anna and the King of Siam” in 1944. It was a fictionalised look at Anna Leonowens at the royal count with an abolitionist theme that proved to be a hit with American audiences at the time. That book became the basis of the 1946 dramatic movie “Anna and the King of Siam” starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. This material proved to be irresistible for Rogers and Hammerstein who created the “King and I”, a long-running Broadway musical play in 1951. In 1956, the play was filmed with the same title that starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. The musical film version has proven to be both equally very enduring and completely wrong as far as the participants have been portrayed.

Anna Leonowens remains a minor historical figure, but she has had an outsized negative influence that unfortunately cannot be erased or forgotten.

Did you like this article? Become a Patron and help us bring you great content in the future!

You may also like