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A Welsh governess planted the seeds of democracy in distant Siam

Posted in Education, Historical articles, History, Politics on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 762 published on 21st August 1976.

Anna and the King, picture, image, illustration

Anna and the King of Siam by Robert Brook

On the evening of March 15th, 1862, the steamship Chow Phya docked in the crowded harbour at Bangkok, the capital of Siam. The ship’s cargo was unloaded, and the passengers, most of whom were performers in a travelling circus, went ashore. The last to leave the vessel were an anxious-faced young Welsh woman called Anna Leonowens, and her six-year-old son, Louis.

As Mrs. Leonowens waited on the quay, she clutched her bag containing a letter of safe-conduct from the King of Siam, Maha Mongkut. The letter confirmed her new appointment as governess to the monarch’s “beloved royal children.” King Mongkut was a firm admirer of the British way of life, and had written:

“. . . we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children (whom English call inhabitants of benighted land) you will do your best endeavour for knowledge of English language, science and literature . . .”

Although she had lived in the East since she was fifteen, Mrs. Leonowens had not previously visited Siam (or Thailand as it is called today). She knew that in many ways it was a “benighted” country in which women were not treated as equals, and where torture and slavery were commonplace.

Despite this, she had gambled both her own and Louis’s future on the goodwill of a King who was noted for his quick temper, lack of tolerance, and contempt for those weaker than himself.

Anna Leonowens was born in Caernarvon in 1834. Her father, who died when she was six, was an army officer stationed in India. Her mother later re-married, and in 1849 Anna left school in Wales and sailed to join her parents on Poona. Two years later, she married a young officer, Major Thomas Louis Leonowens, but the marriage ended tragically when the major died of sunstroke.

At the age of twenty-five, Anna found herself stranded in a strange country with two young children, Louis and Avis, to bring up. As she had no money, she opened a school for the children of British officers. The school was not a financial success, but its good reputation somehow managed to come to the attention of King Mongkut, who wrote to Anna, offering her employment.

Before leaving for Siam, Anna sent seven-year-old Avis to England to be educated. She thought that Louis was too young to be left on his own, and took him with her to Bangkok. A treaty had recently been signed allowing a British consul to live in the capital, and Anna knew that if she were ever in serious trouble, she could always go to him for help.

Her first concern was to get a private house for Louis and herself. And as she waited on the night of her arrival for the Siamese Prime Minister who had promised to meet her, she resolved that she would not live inside the Royal Palace, and become just one more of the King’s servants.

She impressed this on the Prime Minister when he arrived, but even so, her first “home” was an apartment that came under royal guard. Anna had to wait nearly three weeks before she met King Mongkut, whom she discovered was known to his subjects as the “Lord of Life”. Then one day in April she was taken to the Audience Hall and presented to the monarch, a small, thin man who sat cross-legged in a suit of gold.

After her first meeting with the King, Anna set about learning Siamese. None of the children she was to teach spoke any English, and while she studied the difficult language, she pestered King Mongkut until he provided her with a “brick house” in which she could live “freely without rent.”

At last Anna was ready to start her classes. The royal children were gathered in the Palace temple, and female slaves brought in their pens, pencils, books, and slates. Anna was appalled to see that the slaves were forced to crawl on their knees in deference to the King, who had arrived to observe the first lesson.

The harsh treatment of slaves was something she decided to tackle the King about later. But she was partly satisfied when he told his children they were “at liberty to sit in my presence in your chairs when I come to inspect the school.”

From the beginning Anna found the children friendly and eager to learn. The lessons were looked forward to by teacher and pupils alike, and the only upset came on the day when a geography class was interrupted by the untimely arrival from the temple roof of a “sacred” red snake. Anna kept perfectly still as the snake slithered across the table in full view of the mesmerised students, before it disappeared in the direction of the basement.

After her success with the children, Anna was given greater responsibilities. She helped the King compose the many letters he sent to other rulers, including Queen Victoria and President Lincoln of America. But all the time, nagging at her, was her concern for the condition of the female slaves.

Things came to a head one morning when she was strolling through the narrow alley ways of the city. She came across a wall with a brass door, and wandered curiously inside. She was in a walled garden, in the centre of which was a woman nursing a young child.

It was a charming sight until Anna noticed that the woman was chained by one leg to a stake in the ground. The woman, who was L’Ore, told Anna that she had been born a slave, and could only obtain her freedom by being pardoned. L’Ore had so despaired of this ever happening that she had named her little boy Thuk, which meant Sorrow.

Anna immediately decided to go to court and plead that the woman be set free. At first the judge did not favour Anna’s application, but when she paid a large sum of money into the court, he pronounced that Anna was now the slave’s legal mistress.

The governess then re-visited the garden with a woman blacksmith, who filed through the imprisoning chain. Anna told the overjoyed L’Ore to take Thuk and rejoin her husband. This deed won Anna the nickname of “White Angel”, and she was soon besieged by desperate women who brought their problems to her. On one occasion, she even bought a baby who was being auctioned as a slave, and returned the infant to its distraught mother.

In all, Anna spent five years in Siam. During that time she won the love of the people, and gained the respect of King Mongkut and his son and heir, Prince Chulalongkorn. When she left, the seeds of democracy had been well planted, and in 1872 she was delighted to hear that slavery in Siam had been abolished by her former favourite pupil, who was then King Chulalongkorn.

For the rest of her long and eventful life, Anna lived mainly in North America, where she won fresh fame as a lecturer on Siam and as a journalist.

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