By Linda Hedrick
Yul Brynner made a career out of playing a Thai king who danced the polka. For many people this was, and sadly is, their knowledge and impression of Thailand. The King and I was one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's outstanding theatrical successes during the "golden age" of musical theater. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were initially reluctant to pursue the project proposed by a theatrical attorney seeking a vehicle for client Gertrude Lawrence, a veteran leading lady. But they agreed to write the musical based on a 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon.
Margaret Landon was a writer who became intrigued with a woman named Anna Leonowens and her memoirs of her five years in Siam teaching the king's wives and children English. Landon took these memoirs, then embellished them with details from other sources.
Although it was denounced and banned in Thailand (known as Siam until 1939) until recently, it was a bestseller in 1944 and was translated into dozens of languages. This image of Anna became symbolic of the Victorian female traveller. Landon sold the musical play rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1950.
Anna Leonowens was born Anna Harriette Edwards in Ahmadnagar, India in 1831. Her father was a British sergeant, and her mother was half-British and half-Indian. Anna was apparently an Anglophile and resented her Indian lineage, so she invented a more preferable one: She claimed she had been born a Crawford in Caernarfon, Wales, to a captain and his British wife. In reality, her father died just before her birth, and her mother had remarried. Her stepfather was an Irish corporal and Anna grew up in an army barracks where blankets served as walls separating families. She completely estranged herself from her family as an adult, including her sister in whom she was disappointed for marrying a British civil servant who was also Anglo-Indian. (As a side note, her sister's grandson was William Henry Pratt, better known as the actor Boris Karloff.)
When Anna was a teenager she moved with her mother and stepfather to Aden. From there her tutor (and perhaps his wife - accounts vary) took her to Egypt and Palestine, apparently on recognition of her facility with languages and to further her education. The family moved back to India in 1849, and she quickly married civilian clerk Thomas Leon Owens over her parents' objection. (She later changed their last name to Leonowens, perhaps thinking it sounded more distinctive.)
The newlyweds made their way to Australia via Singapore, eventually arriving in Perth. There Anna tried to open a school for girls with no success. Eventually the family, all opportunities exhausted, moved to Penang, Malaysia, where Thomas got a job as a hotel keeper. He died of apoplexy. With two children to support, Anna moved to Singapore and opened a school for the children of British officers. Although this wasn't a successful endeavor, it did serve to establish her reputation as an educator.
In 1862, the Siamese Consul in Singapore offered her a position teaching the 39 wives and concubines, and 82 children of King Mongkut of Siam. The King wanted them to have a modern Western education and he wanted the curriculum based on scientific secular lines, and not the Christian-based curriculum previously attempted by missionaries' wives. Anna served as a teacher and then language secretary for King Mongkut. She was respected and had some political clout, but ultimately was dissatisfied with the terms and conditions of her contract.
Anna went to England, and was in negotiation for a new contract when King Mongkut died in 1868. His heir, the 15-year-old King Chulalongkorn, wrote her a letter of thanks but did not renew her contract. They maintained written communication for years as part of their amicable relationship; the King later even granted her son, Louis, a commission of captain in the Royal Cavalry. Later Anna was to claim credit for some of the changes King Chulalongkorn implemented.
Anna opened a school for girls on Staten Island, New York in 1869. She also began writing travel articles for Atlantic Monthly. Her articles were collected into two volumes of memoirs - The English Governess at the Siamese Court (published in 1870), and Romance of the Harem (published in 1873). These brought her fame but at the same time she was charged with sensationalism. The books are still controversial in Thailand. Her writings are very critical of court life and show an exaggerated view of her influence and position. She was a feminist, and this colored her depiction of Siamese culture, especially the harem. A lot of court gossip was included in her "memoirs", and she claimed that concubine Tuptim was tortured and executed.
Anna became a lecturer in the U.S., and was in literary circles which included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1880, she began teaching at a new prep school in Manhattan while continuing to travel and write. When her married daughter moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, she accompanied her and taught her grandchildren. She was one of the founders of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (originally the Victoria School of Art and Design, founded in 1887 and named in honor of Queen Victoria). She died in 1915, at the age of 83, in Montréal. Her son, Louis, founded a successful trading company that still operates in Thailand today; The Louis T. Leonowens Co. Ltd. is a leading exporter of Malayan hardwoods.
This whole Anna/King of Siam industry has shaped the concept of an Eastern kingdom much in need of Western influence and civilization. The Siam depicted is inferior and even silly - the King is a barbarian who wises up and even learns the polka from a Western woman (an inferior human even in Western viewpoints at that time). No wonder that The King and I was even banned in neighboring India as inaccurate and insulting.
In 1960, King Bhumibol, the present king and great-grandson of Mongkut, on a visit to the U.S. stated that the representation of Mongkut was 90% exaggerated. In 1985, the ambassador from Thailand also communicated his disapproval that Siam had been depicted as a whole as childish and inferior. Mongkut's great-granddaughter, Princess Vudhichalerm Vudhijaya, in 2001 gave an interview where she explained that Mongkut was a monk for 27 years before becoming king, and therefore it would have been against his Buddhist principles to torture and execute his concubine, Tuptim. In fact, Tuptim was her grandmother and one of the 36 wives of Chulalongkorn.
Indeed Mongkut led an interesting life. For political reasons he was passed over initially for the kingship, and became a monk as was typical for Siamese men. As a monk he initiated many changes to Buddhism as it was practiced in Siam. He also discovered Western knowledge and studied English and Latin. He became close friends with Vicar Pallegoix of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bangkok, and even invited him to deliver his Christian sermons to his fellow monks. He is famously quoted for observing, "What you teach people to do is admirable but what you teach them to believe is foolish." Additionally he improved women's rights in Siam, including releasing a great number of concubines so that they could marry. He banned forced marriages and the selling of wives to pay debts. Obviously the employment of a British teacher was evidence of his own interest in modernization; it was not a result of her influence.
Anna claimed credit for many of these reforms, and also of ones that Chulalongkorn made, such as no longer requiring prostration before a royal person. Although she claimed to be a governess, hence crediting herself with teaching everyone Western knowledge, she was primarily an English teacher. In the play and her second book she states she witnessed the king throwing wives into a dungeon. Since the watery soil of the region would not even support basements, much less dungeons, this is a fabrication. There is also no mention of the public torturing that she claims in any other accounts, foreign or domestic. It is telling that she was not part of the ex-pat circle of British consular officials and merchants even though her position at court was respectable; this speaks volumes of her lack of importance.
Anna Leonowens was adept at self-promotion and invented a more preferable background for herself - born in Wales with a middle-class upbringing - and denied her Indian heritage. She even altered her last name to make it better fit the person she imagined herself to be. While all of this reflects a person shamed and chagrined at her own circumstances, what is inexcusable is the harm she has done to Thai culture with her transformation of facts into fantasy. The popularity of her books and the books about her, as well as the play, movie, and television show based on The King and I have become an industry that illustrates the Western attitude of superiority over other cultures. It is time that this ridiculous, farcical story was laid to rest.
(Posted on Cerebral Boinkfest. Presented here by permission of the author. Images courtesy of Wikipedia.)