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Anna Leonowens

From Women in European History

A Critical Biography by Sandra Park based on:

The Real Anna from [1]

Leonowens, Anna. The English Governess at the Siamese Court. London: Folio Society, 1980.

Anna Leonowens is widely known through the musical, The King and I and its Hollywood adaptation, Anna and the King. Both inaccurately portray Anna as the fair-skinned, English lady who arrives in Siam to be a governess, captures the heart of the King, and catalyzes the modernization of Siam. Recently, Anna has emerged as a controversial figure, both in the history of Europe, as well as in the history of Siam. Many scholars have directed criticism against her for making an “inventive career of profit-making stories about Thailand”[1] and for her controversial portrayal of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851-1866). On the surface, her accounts of Siam do tend to be veiled with prejudice. However, research on her background and more attentive reading of ‘‘’The English Governess at the Siamese Court’’’ give another dimension of Anna. Despite criticisms, Anna was not racially, culturally, or even religiously ignorant when she arrived in Siam. Her upbringing in India molded her into a multicultural and multi-lingual woman with knowledge of Eastern religions. When Anna Leonowens came to Siam in 1862, she was not a sheltered lady from England but a strong-willed widow from India, driven by her Christian faith and a strong sense of self-preservation. By presenting herself as an English lady, she received respect and special privileges from fellow Englishmen and the "colonized" peoples. As much as she tried to conceal her Indian ancestry, it was probably her experience inter-mingling with different races and religions during her life in India which allowed her to live in a country that was so far removed from English civilization with self-sufficiency. However, her deceit about her background does not necessarily mean her recollections are untrustworthy[2]. The English Governess should not be read as a historical document but rather as a literary projection of a voice from a 19th century British woman who perceived herself as a significant factor in the shaping of modern Siam.

A London musical's romantic portrayal of Anna's relationship with King Mongkut. Starring Daniel Dae Kim and Maria Friedman. From [2]

Critical Biography


Anna's Identity Uncovered

Anna's autobiography oddly begins with her arrival at Siam. She purposely omitted her background and early life to re-invent her identity as a thoroughly English lady, not an offspring of a poor British soldier stationed in India and an Anglo-Indian orphan. In the introduction to Bombay Anna, Morgan includes an excerpt from Anna's unfinished autobiography of her background that she began for her grandchildren. In this short writing, Anna claims an ancient Welsh heritage and an English early education among many other things pertaining to her upbringing. In reality, Anna was born on November 26, 1831 in Ahmednuggar, India to Thomas Edwards, who died three months after her birth, and Mary Anne Glascott, a young orphaned woman of English and Indian descent. Her father was never alive during her lifetime because he died before her birth. Six weeks after the death of her father, Anna's mother married Patrick Donohoe and relocated to Poona in Bombay, ten years later. Anna lived in Poona from 1842 to 1849, until she wedded Thomas Leonowens on Christmas Day of 1849 when Anna just turned eighteen.

When she arrived in Siam in 1862, Anna was a middle-class woman of biracial heritage who was widowed at the age of twenty-eight with two young children to provide for. Given her circumstances, masking her inferior background socially and economically elevated her status in 19th century British society. By presenting herself as an English aristocrat, Anna became a member of the "colonizing" race and not the "colonized." This would be advantageous when seeking employment (especially at a royal court) and when interacting with British colonialists, as well as the indigenous population of the colonies since they would regard her with higher esteem and associate her with authority.

Given the circumstances, it would be unjust to view Anna and to read her writings with contempt because she was dishonest with her background and heritage. Especially in genre of autobiographies, what Anna leaves out is just as significant as what she chooses to include because it helps us know the social context in which she lived and wrote. In omitting specific sections in her published writings, Anna avoided social stigma attached to biracial descendants that abounded during the 19th century colonial period.

Anna in Siam (1862-1867)

Anna as a Governess

“To Mrs. A. H. Leonowens: Madam: We are in good pleasure that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religions. Believe me Your faithfully, S.S.P.P. Maha Mongkut”[3]

In the spring of 1862, Anna and her son Louis arrived in Bankok to take her position as the royal governess to the king's children and wives.[4] Her older daughter, Avis, was sent to England for schooling. Although the King officially warned Anna against any evangelical endeavors, much of her Christian zeal seeped into her daily work and interactions with her pupils and superiors. Despite Mongkut’s precaution against any missionary efforts, her autobiography implies that she used subtle tactics to acquaint those who exhibited any inclination towards Christian morals and behavior with Christianity. One of her concluding remarks in her chapter reflecting on her retirement from the court exudes missionary zeal: “But ah! If any germ of love and truth fell from my heart into the heart of even the meanest of those wives and concubines and children…I did not labour in vain among them.”[5] By establishing her position as a supporter of Christian evangelism and a religious woman, she addressed the suspicions of her peers on her activities as a single woman in the Siamese court, especially in the harem. This religious position is very common in captivity narratives and personal accounts written by traveling women to reassure the men that their virtues have not been tarnished by living among heathens. (See Elizabeth Marsh and Mary Rowlandson)

Anna and Religion

Anna worked as a governess in Siam during a period when Christian missionaries held condescending attitudes towards the cultures and religious practices of the people they were tryign to convert[6] While 19th century missionaries viewed any non-Christian practices as an abomination, contemporary missionary movements have realized the efficiency and practicality of reasonable accommodations of native beliefs and customs. Anna’s writings on her life in the East appear to embrace both of these ideas. She viewed spirituality through a self-constructed religious hierarchy, with Christianity doubtlessly above all. While many of her contemporary Christians would not have even acknowledged a hierarchy, Christianity being the only religion for spiritual and physical salvation, Anna admires Islam for its piety, praises Buddhism for its enlightened teachings, but condemns paganism for its idols. However, her portrayals of these three branches of religion are not always consistent or coherent with her prevailing views.

Her descriptions of Moonshee, her Persian teacher, abound with admiration of his pious devotion to one God. She often uses Moonshee as a contrasting image to barbarity of the pagan Premier and his officials. Anna’s warm language in her depiction of Moonshee and Islam reflects her understanding of world religions but it also reveals her discomfort in a “pagan” land. Islam being the closest kin of Christianity, Anna senses security and familiarity when she observes the “faithful and philosophic Moslem.”[7] Somewhere between Islam and paganism in Anna’s ladder falls Buddhism. Throughout her book, Anna wrestles with herself on whether to acknowledge Buddhism as a semblance of monotheism or an erroneous pagan religion. At first, Anna believed that Mongkut’s decision to remain a devout Buddhist instead of accepting Christianity symbolized his dilemma “between truth and delusion, between light and darkness, [and] between life and death”[8] However, the more she observes and studies the theology and doctrines of Buddhism, she is ultimately swayed by her conviction that “no one of respectable intelligence will question that there have been, in all ages, individual pagans who, by the simplicity of their doctrine and the purity or their practice, have approached very nearly to the perfection of the Christian grace”[9] Buddhism is still considered subordinate to Christianity but Anna elevates the “spirit of the religion of the Buddhists”[10] above paganism. Furthermore, she argues that ignorance and the desire to condemn cause Christians to “deny that there are influences in the religions of the East to render their followers wiser, nobler, purer”[11] This statement directly contradicts the traditional world view of 19th century Christian missionaries who 'preferred to observe [Buddhism] from the standpoint and in the attitude of an antagonist, rather than of an inquierer.'[12]

Anna’s first years in Siam were marked with haughty resistance of the local culture and religion, placing Christianity above all else, but as she spent more time among the Siamese people, she began to question and challenge preconceived prejudices and defends Buddhism. Although governed by the idea of Christian superiority, Anna Leonowens proved herself to be an exceptionally tolerant and progressive figure regarding Eastern cultures and religions.

Anna and British Imperialism

Especially during European colonial expansion in the 19th century, “missionaries often preceded and prepared the ground for direct colonial incursion into a region and ‘were a powerful force in defining the imperial project in the nineteenth century’”[13] Anna Leonowens took advantage of her gender and her position as a royal governess to manipulate her access to the king to promote not only British but her own anti-slavery interests in the Siamese court. The "imperial harem of Nang Harm, the city of Veiled Women," is symbolic for the Kingdom of Siam, which was the "only country in Southeast Asia never to have fallen under European domination"[14] Her "attack on an institution that was integral to the political system of Siam"[15] can thus be analyzed as having an imperialistic motive. However, it is also important to give credit for her personal conviction against slavery, to which she compares the harem, and to note that she lived in Siam during the same time the U.S. fought a civil war over slavery. (See Additional Background Material for Anna Leonowens)

Mongkut desired to have Siam remain a self-governing nation while encouraging modernization to put his court on par with European powers. He succeeded in modernizing Siam partly through the education of the royal children, especially the Crown Prince. Employing Anna as a governess to educate the women and children in the 'English language, science, and literature'[16] was one way to faciliate this. Mongkut realized that his ancient country would need time and leadership to adapt and embrace modernization. Therefore, he sought to begin by giving his family a Western education that was supplementary to traditional teachings, as he had been taught, so that the younger generation would carry out the modernization that he initiated. His efforts were well invested in Prince Chulalongkorn, who is remembered for his progressive achievements during his reign.

Anna’s influence on Siamese politics was minimal but her position at court served as a connection for British imperialists and missionaries. Anna’s unique and rare entry into the royal court as an English governess can be viewed both as an instrument of expanding British imperial interests in Siam and as a tool for Mongkut’s resistance of Western imperialism by giving English education to the royal family through Anna- thus striking a compromise by modernizing Siam through adopting Western customs in order to appeal to the world as a progressive nation, giving Siam a leverage to fend off patronizing advances from Western powers. His decision to hire Anna must have had two main motives. First, he probably believed that a woman would be more suitable to teach his children and his wives, rather than a male teacher going in and out of the harem. Second, by having a Western governess teach within the palace, he could better monitor what his children were being taught as opposed to sending his sons abroad.

Involvement in the Bradley-Aubaret Affair of 1866-1867

The late 19th century saw an “intense rivalry between Great Britian and France for supremacy in Indo-China.”[17] French-Catholic missionaries came to Siam as early as the 17th century but Louis XIV’s plot to establish control over the Siamese government permanently estranged Thai-French relations[18], though Mongkut signed a commerce treaty in 1856[19]. The British, however, began to send skilled, competent diplomats throughout the 19th century and gained the favor of the Siamese government. Unlike the French, who continuously harassed Siam to exert more imperial influence in the realm while refusing to accommodate and respect Thai customs, Britain’s “foreign policy in southeastern Asia was based on the existence of an independent Thailand.”[20] The British wanted an Thailand to be a buffer zone between French Indochina and British imperial pursuits in Malaya and Burma.[21] Although American missionaries who were peacefully residing in Siam were not usually involved in the power struggle between Britain and France, Dr. Dan Beach Bradley was accused by the French of being "anti-French, anti-Catholic, and a dupe of Mrs. Leonowens and the British Consul."[22] Bradley was an American Protestant Missionary who was a former teacher of Mongkut and introduced many modern medical practices in Siam. Although his diary contained anti-French sentiment, he was not anti-Catholic. Whether Anna’s entanglement in the Bradley-Aubaret Affair was minimal or considerable is still debated, especially between Briggs and Lord who published opposing reports of the trial. Her alliance with Bradley supported Britain against France since Britain and the U.S. wanted Thailand to be a strong, independent nation in order to resist French imperial aggression.[23] Anna's support of Britain would further solidify her persona as an English aristocrat.

The Bradley-Aubaret Affair was instigated by Bradley’s publication of a secret Thai treaty recognizing French claims in Cambodia and another publication reporting that Gabriel Aubaret, a French envoy, had demanded the foreign minister to be removed from office and had used physical force against a Siamese official.[24] In 1866, Aubaret filed a lawsuit against Bradley for libel. Recent research shows conflicting convictions of Anna Leonowens’ participation in the affair. Briggs strongly suggests that Anna was responsible for delivering the secret document to Bradley because she also worked as Mongkut’s personal translator for his correspondence with Europeans.[25]However, this accusation further suggests a personal relationship between Anna and Mongkut, which was never true because they solely maintained a professional relationship. Furthermore, he points out that Anna “seems to have been an important part of the British propaganda system,”[26] rendering her anti-Aubaret and tainting her personal account of Aubaret’s conduct with the Siamese official with prejudice. While Anna did hold anti-French views and was close to Bradley, Lord counters Briggs’ accusations by doubting Anna’s access to a document as critical and secretive as the treaty. Furthermore, he adds the unlikelihood of Anna revealing the treaty to Bradley “knowing it would jeopardize her position at the Thai court”[27] Three points make Lord's argument more convincing: Anna was not wealthy so she relied heavily on her income from the Siamese government, she was preparing to retire by 1866, and it seems very unlikely that she could have gained access to such documents.

For more on women and imperialism, seeMary Kingsley

Life After Siam (1867-1914)

King Chualongkorn the Great, former pupil of Anna and close friend of Louis Leonowens from [3]

King Mongkut died from malaria a year after Anna’s retirement and his son, Chulalongkorn, succeeded him on the throne and built “on the foundations laid by his scholarly father, bringing Siam into the twentieth century complete with all the appurtenances of a modern state, including independence, which it still enjoys.”[28] In fairness to Anna, "the long and productive reign of this notable monarch owed something to his childhood training by the English governess"[29]. Anna's son Louis, who lived with her during her employment in Siam, became a close friend to Chulalongkorn and was appointed Master of the Royal Horse. Louis Leonowens had a prosperous career as a trader in Siam and founded a firm that still operates today [30]

Living in India, Singapore, Australia, and Siam apparently did not satisfy Anna's fondness for traveling. After retiring from the Siamese court in 1867, she “traveled and lectured in the United States, wrote and published her books on Siam (and the one on India much later), and died in 1914 in Montreal.”[31] During the years between her life in the U.S. and her death, she also worked as an active feminist in Canada, traveled to Russia, and briefly lived in Germany before her death in 1914, the year World War I broke out.


In the context of imperialism, Anna's very presence can be viewed as an imperialistic intrusion into the ancient yet independent Siam, as well as a tool advantageously acquired by Mongkut to aid in his efforts to modernize his country. Her continuous writings and publications after her retirement from Siam are testaments to her desire to assert her own agenda in a male-dominated society, whether it was the British colonies or Siam. Anna Leonowens’ ethnic and socio-economic background diversifies the common pool of 19th century Victorian women travel writers. Her unusual yet distinguished life on the periphery of what was common is critical to the understanding of European women’s history because she broadens the range of ways European women reacted and adapted to changing circumstances in a given time period and set of conditions. Furthermore, the "sheer range of experiences"[32] that chart Anna's life from birth to death renders her a valuable witness and participant in world history. Her presence during critical moments of various nations' history contributes to the collection of first-hand accounts, rendering us more capable of understanding how European women abroad reconciled imperial motives and their own personal values.

Reference List

  1. Donald C. Lord, "Missionaries, Thai, and Diplomats," The Pacific Historical Review 35 (1966): 426.
  2. Susan Morgan, Bombay Anna, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 7.
  3. Anna Leonowens, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, (Great Britain: Trubner & Co., 1870), 10
  4. Morgan, Bombay Anna, 88.
  5. Leonowens, The English Governess, 210.
  6. Erik Cohen, "The Missionary as Strange: A Phenomenological Analysis of Christian Missionaries' Encounter with the Folk Religions of Thailand," Review of Religious Research 31 (1990): 340.
  7. Leonowens, The English Governess, 34.
  8. Ibid., 57.
  9. Ibid., 145.
  10. Ibid., 144.
  11. Ibid., 145.
  12. Brown, 601.
  13. Susan Brown, "Alternatives to the Missionary Position: Anna Leonowens as Victorian Travel Writer," Feminist Studies 21 (1995): 588.
  14. Ibid., 589.
  15. Ibid., 599.
  16. Leonowens, The English Governess, 19.
  17. Lawrence Palmer Briggs, "The Aubaret Versus Bradley Case at Bankok 1866-1867," The Far Eastern Quarterly 6 (1946): 262.
  18. Lord, "Missionaries," 413.
  19. Briggs, "The Aubaret," 262.
  20. Lord, "Missionaries," 430.
  21. Ibid., 418.
  22. Briggs, "The Aubaret," 265.
  23. Lord, "Missionaries," 431.
  24. Ibid., 424-425.
  25. Ibid., 426.
  26. Briggs, 246.
  27. Lord, 426.
  28. Ibid., 17.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Morgan, Bombay Anna, 7-8.

Annotated Bibliography for Anna Leonowens

Additional Background Material for Anna Leonowens

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