Anna Leonowens

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Robert Harris (1849–1919): Portrait of Anna H. Leonowens (detail) Oil on canvas, 76.2 × 60 cm. Confederation Center Art Gallery, Charlottetown

Anna Harriette Leonowens (born November 6, 1831 in Ahmednagar , India as Ann Hariett Emma Edwards , † January 19, 1915 in Montreal , Canada ) was a British-Indian teacher and writer.

Anna Leonowens became famous for her books and stories in English about her five-year stay from 1862 to 1867 in Siam (now Thailand ), where she was called to look after the approximately fifty children of the King of Siam, King Mongkut (Rama IV) to teach. Her story was based on the biographical novel Anna and the King of Siam ( "Anna and the King of Siam") by Margaret Landon from 1944, known as Broadway - musical The King and I ( "The King and I") adapted and was filmed several times.

Later she worked in the USA and Canada as a lecturer, expert on the Orient, women's rights activist and lecturer in Sanskrit .

Origin and youth

Anna Leonowens was born in 1831 in Ahmednagar , which was part of the Presidency of Bombay of British India at the time and is located in what is now the state of Maharashtra . Her maiden name was Edwards, the first names Ann Hariett Emma were entered in the baptismal register. Her father was the carpenter and sergeant from Middlesex for the Sappers and Miners of the Bombay Army Thomas Edwards, her mother was the Anglo-Indian Mary Ann Glascott, daughter of an officer in the Bombay Army and his presumably local partner. Anna had an older sister, Eliza. Her father died three months before Anna was born. Leonowens later deliberately gave false information about their origin. She gave her maiden name as Crawford, while Edwards was her mother's maiden name, and claimed to come from Caernarfon (Wales). With this fake history of origin, she probably wanted to cover up her partly non-European origins, which at the time was viewed as inferior. Her first name was Harriett (e) and not Anna.

Shortly after Anna was born, the mother remarried: Patrick Donohoe, a Catholic Irish, then a corporal in the pioneer troop, later an engineer in the service of the Office for Public Works. The Donohoe family moved with the stepfather's regiment several times within western India, from around 1841 they lived in Deesa ( Gujarat ), at that time an important garrison town of the British East India Company . Anna attended a girls' school run by the Bombay Education Society in Byculla (now a district of Mumbai ), which mainly educated "multiracial" children of British soldiers whose fathers had died or were absent. Her own statement that she attended boarding school in Wales and only came to India at the age of 15, a supposedly “foreign country”, is highly implausible.

From December 1845, Thomas Leon Owens, a Protestant from Ireland, was also stationed in Deesa for two years as the paymaster's secretary in the 28th regiment. He was well educated, kept up-to-date on social issues, took a stance on them, and at times questioned authorities. Anna fell in love with him. Her stepfather initially rejected the relationship, possibly because he viewed Leon Owens as unreliable and wanted to marry his stepdaughter to a more promising provider. At the end of 1847 Donohoe was transferred to the British colony of Aden as deputy public works supervisor . It is uncertain whether Anna and the rest of the family accompanied him there or stayed in India. From 1849 at the latest, the family lived permanently in Pune (today's state of Maharashtra).

Anna and Thomas Leon Owens were married on December 25, 1849 in the Anglican Church of Pune. Her stepfather seems to have finally come to terms with the relationship between the two, in any case the marriage certificate is also signed by him. This contradicts Anna's own account that the stepfather, whom she describes as a “domestic tyrant”, would have bitterly refused the connection and cut off all contact. However, surviving letters document that she later paid longer visits to the family in Pune. Thomas added his middle and surname to LeonOwens at the wedding and wrote it as Leonowens from 1853 at the latest .

Even before their wedding, which they said did not take place until 1851, Leonowens claims to have traveled through Egypt and the Middle East for three years with the Orientalist Reverend George Percy Badger and his wife. This journey is considered an invention by more recent biographies. Leonowens probably had heard or read reports of Badger's travels, with whom she might be acquainted. Your Persian knowledge can be simply explained by the fact that in the 1840s Persian still the lingua franca in Pune was.

Travel and teaching in Australia and Asia

During their marriage, Anna Leonowens gave birth to a total of four children, only two of whom survived, the daughter Avis (1854-1902) and the son Louis (1856-1919). Contrary to what she said, Thomas was not a successful officer (she retrospectively "awarded" him the rank of major ), but had difficulties in keeping a professional position. This forced the family to move frequently. They left India in November 1852 and lived in Perth ( Western Australia ) until 1855 , where Thomas worked in the British Commissariat, while Anna opened a "School for Young Women" at the end of 1853. They then lived in the Lynton prison colony 300 miles to the north. In 1857 they moved to Singapore , from 1858 they lived in Penang (then part of the British Straits Settlements , now Malaysia), where Thomas Leonowens ran a hotel. He died of a stroke around 1859. Anna traveled back to Singapore with her children, where she assumed her new identity as a native of Welsh and the widow of a major. There she set up a small school with the help of friends.

Photograph by Anna Leonowens (approx. 1862), next to her son Louis

In February 1862 the Siamese King Mongkut invited them to teach his children and those of the courtiers the English language. She spontaneously accepted the offer and traveled to Bangkok . While Louis was with her, she sent the then 7-year-old Avis to boarding school in London and did not see her again for six years. During her stay in Siam, she taught English to the king's children. She began her service on April 3, 1862. Possibly she also helped the king at times in answering correspondence in English. She stayed in Siam until July 1867.

Later life in North America and Germany

After spending five years in Siam, Anna Leonowens traveled to the United States, where she settled in the New York borough of Staten Island , taught at a girls' school and wrote her books. From 1872 she gave lectures in Boston at the invitation of the writer Annie Adams Fields and went on her first lecture tour of the USA from 1872–73. Leonowens became a recognized expert on the Orient. In the summer of 1878 she gave a Sanskrit course at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

She then moved to her daughter Avis in Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia , where her son-in-law Thomas Fyshe worked in a managerial position at the Bank of Nova Scotia . On behalf of The Youth's Companion magazine , Leonovens traveled through Russia in 1881 and wrote a number of articles about it. Her son Louis meanwhile went back to Siam, where he served as an officer in the cavalry and founded a trading company for teak that still exists today. Anna Leonowens founded a literary circle and a Shakespeare club in Halifax . She also founded the Victoria School of Art and Design in 1887 , now known as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). From 1888 to 1893 she lived with her daughter and her grandchildren in Kassel in what was then the Prussian province of Hessen-Nassau . After 19 years of separation, she met her son Louis again in London and - after the death of his wife Caroline (daughter of a Siamese and a British diplomat) - took his children into her care.

After returning to Canada, Leon Owens was in 1895 the first chair of the Women's Suffrage Association (Association for Women's Suffrage ) in Halifax. In 1897 she traveled to Europe again with her granddaughter Anna Fyshe. Until 1901 she studied Sanskrit and classical Indian literature as a guest student at the University of Leipzig with the indologist Ernst Windisch , while her granddaughter completed piano training at the Conservatory of Music . Thereafter, Leonowens taught as a lecturer in Sanskrit at McGill University in Montreal . She gave her last lecture at the age of 78.

Tomb of Anna Leonowens in the Mont-Royal cemetery in Montreal

Leonowens is buried in the Mont-Royal Cemetery in Montreal. She is the great-aunt of the actor Boris Karloff .

Travel reports

After her return from Siam, Leonowens wrote articles about her life and work at the royal court and wrote her successful memoir, The English Governess at the Siamese Court , in 1870 , which was followed in 1873 by the story Romance of the Harem .

Leonowen's critics criticized historical inaccuracies, embellishments, an exaggerated representation of their own role and an emphatically feminist-critical view of life at the Siamese court. Historical facts, some obvious errors and divergent reports from other foreigners present in Siam at the same time refute many of their statements today. Historians believe that the teacher exaggerated her own abilities and vilified the king as a fool, when in reality she hardly came into contact with him.

Even the title of her memoirs is unsuitable because she was not employed as a governess (educator), which would have meant comprehensive care for the princes and princesses, but exclusively as an English language teacher. Although she claims to be fluent in Thai, the examples given in her notes are completely incomprehensible. Mongkut's son and successor, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V.) , is said to have complained personally to Leonowens at a meeting in London in 1897, according to her granddaughter Anna Fyshe, why she had written such a "malicious" book that made his father "extremely ridiculous" stand there and expose him to the mockery of the world. Leonowens insisted that her notes be truthful.

Notoriety through novels, films and musicals

However, Leonowens story did not become internationally known until 1944 through the semi-fictional biographical novel Der König und ich (original title: Anna and the King of Siam ) by the American writer Margaret Landon , who dealt with the life of Leonowens. In addition to the Broadway musical The King and I (1951, with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner ), a total of four film adaptations are based on this book and Leonowen's writings :

All of them describe the child teacher in the position of an educator and governess with an influential relationship with the then king. This contradicts the assessment of the historian Alexander Griswold , who in his biography of King Mongkuts doubts that Leonovens played a greater role in the life of the ruler or his children. The British naturalist WS Bristowe published a first, more critical examination of Leonowen's biography in 1976.

Even today, the Thai government protests against the myth of Leonowens, which was one of the reasons why the film Anna and the King was shot in Malaysia and not in Thailand. Unlike in the three previous films, the producers tried to meet the requirements of the Thai government. Nevertheless, the film suffered the same fate as the musical The King and I from 1956. It is not allowed to be shown in Thailand. This would fulfill the offense of lese majesty , which is threatened with high prison sentences .


  • Anna Harriette Leonowens: The English Governess at the Siamese Court. Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok. 1870; The Project Gutenberg EBook


biographical novel (semi-fictional)
  • Alfred Habegger: Masked. The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 2014
  • Susan Kepner: Anna (and Margaret) and the King of Siam. In: Crossroads. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies , Volume 10, No. 2, 1996, pp. 1-32.
  • Susan Morgan: Bombay Anna. The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess. University of California Press, Berkeley 2008.

Web links


  1. a b Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 417.
  2. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 20.
  3. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 17.
  4. Deborah Cohen: Family Secrets. Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York 2013, p. 32.
  5. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 33.
  6. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 40.
  7. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 36.
  8. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 32, 51.
  9. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 13-14, 42 ff.
  10. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 42.
  11. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 53–54.
  12. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 55–56.
  13. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 57.
  14. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 49-50.
  15. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 75.
  16. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 52.
  17. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 60–71.
  18. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, pp. 54-55.
  19. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 72.
  20. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 105–118.
  21. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 119–129.
  22. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 129-133.
  23. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 133.
  24. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, pp. 1, 70-73.
  25. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 143, 165.
  26. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 171.
  27. ^ Rita K. Gollin: Annie Adams Fields. Woman of Letters. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst / Boston 2002, p. 132.
  28. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 336.
  29. ^ A b c Hao-Han Helen Yang: Authorizing the Self. Race, Religion and the Role of the Scholar in Anna Leonowens' The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) . In: Sue Thomas: Victorian Traffic. Identity, Exchange, Performance. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle 2008, p. 33.
  30. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 186.
  31. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 184.
  32. ^ Anne Innis Dagg: The Feminine Gaze. A Canadian Compendium of Non-Fiction Women Authors and Their Books. Wilfried Laurier University Press, Waterloo (Ontario) 2001, p. 167, entry Leonowens, Anna Harriette Edwards .
  33. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 192.
  34. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 198.
  35. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, p. 202.
  36. ^ Morgan: Bombay Anna. 2008, pp. 53, 203.
  37. Habegger: Masked. 2014, pp. 8, 90.
  38. John Gullick: Adventurous Women in South-East Asia. Six Lives. Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 142.
  39. ^ William Warren: Who Was Anna Leonowens? In: Travelers' Tales Thailand. San Francisco 2002, p. 86.
  40. Habegger: Masked. 2014, p. 354.
  41. ^ AB Griswold: King Mongkut of Siam. Asia Society, New York 1961.
  42. ^ William Warren: Who Was Anna Leonowens? In: Travelers' Tales Thailand. San Francisco 2002, p. 87.
  43. ^ WS Bristowe: Louis and the King of Siam. Chatto & Windus, London 1976, ISBN 0-7011-2164-5 .
  44. Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian: Kings, Country and Constitutions. Thailand's Political Development, 1932-2000. Routledge Shorton, London / New York 2003, ISBN 0-7007-1473-1 , pp. 199-200.
  45. Glen Lewis: Virtual Thailand. The Media and Cultural Politics in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Routledge, 2006, p. 154.