Birthday: November 5, 1831
Died At Age: 83
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Also Known As: Ann Hariett Emma Edwards
Born Country: India
Born in: Ahmednagar, India
Famous as: Writer, Educator
Spouse/Ex-: Thomas Leon (or Lane/Lean) Owens
father: Thomas Edwards
mother: Mary Ann Glascott
siblings: Eliza Julia Edwards
children: Avis Annie Leonowens, Louis T. Leonowens
Died on: January 19, 1915
place of death: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Anna Leonowens was a British travel writer, governess, educator and social activist. She was employed by King Mongkut of Siam, for teaching his children, which included his son Prince Chulalongkorn, who succeeded him. Anna Leonowens was born and raised in India. She later married Thomas Leon Owens, who worked as a clerk. They went to Australia, where they spent several years. Later, in Malaysia, her husband passed away due to stroke. Thereafter, Anna moved to Singapore, and operated a school till 1862. Eventually she received an invitation from King Mongkut, to serve as a tutor to his children. She agreed, and therefore, she became a part of the royal household in Bangkok. She not only instructed Mongkut’s children, but was also his advisor regarding relations to the West. Later, she also lived in the US, Canada and Germany. During the later years of her life, she worked as a lecturer and a suffragist. Throughout her life, she became quite well-known for her memoirs such as ‘The English Governess at the Siamese Court’, which revolved around her experiences in Siam (known today as Thailand). Her adventures in Siam was also fictionalized in the novel ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, a best-seller by Margaret Landon.
Childhood & Early Life
Anna Leonowens was born on 5 November 1831, in Ahmednagar, situated in Bombay Presidency, in India. Her father was Sergeant Thomas Edwards, a non-commissioned officer working in the Corps of Sappers and Miners, of the East India Company. Her mother’s name was Mary Anne Glasscott. Sergeant Thomas Edwards passed away three months before Anna was born.
Shortly after, her mother married Patrick Donohoe, who was an Irish Catholic corporal of the Royal Engineers. They family used to relocate a lot due to the nature of her stepfather’s job. Anna Leonowens didn’t have a good relationship with her stepfather, and according to her, he had also pressured her to marry a man much older to her.
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Marriage & Widowhood
Anna Leonowens fell in love with Thomas Leon Owens, an Irish Protestant from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, who went to India with the 28th Regiment of Foot. Though the relationship was opposed by her mother and stepfather, they eventually got married on 25th December 1849. The next year, she gave birth to their daughter Selina, who died after 17 months.
Shortly after, the young couple, moved to Australia via Singapore. They were accompanied by her uncle W.V. Glasscott. During the journey, she gave birth to a son whom was also named Thomas. He died after some time, after which they had another daughter Avis Annie. They also had another son named Louis. After spending some time in Australia, they sailed to Singapore, and then to Penang, Malaysia. Thomas began working as a hotel keeper, but after some time, he passed away due to stroke.
Life at Siam
Anna Leonowens soon returned to Singapore, and in order to support her surviving children, she took up teaching again, and opened a school for the British officers in Singapore. Though it wasn’t very successful financially, she began earning reputation as an educator. She was soon offered to become a teacher to the wives, concubines and children of Mongkut, King of Siam, known today as Thailand.
Leonowens succeeded Dan Beach Bradley, an American missionary, who was a teacher at the Siamese court. She served at the court for almost six years. She also became a language secretary to the king, as well as an advisor on relations to the West. Though her position had great respect as well as political influence, she didn’t like her work much, as she was not satisfied with the terms and conditions.
In 1868, she was on leave to England, due to her health, and was also negotiating a return to the court on better terms, when King Mongkut passed away. Though Leonowens and her son were mentioned in his will, they didn’t receive a legacy. Prince Chulalongkorn became the new monarch, at only the age of fifteen. Though he didn’t invite Leonowens to resume her post, he sent her a letter of thanks, and they also continued to correspond for several years.
After Anna Leonowens left Siam, she wrote two books titled ‘The English Governess at the Siamese Court’, which was published in 1870, and ‘The Romance of the Harem’ in 1872 . According to Mongkut’s biographer Abbot Low Moffat, her accounts of her life at the court were not only exaggerated, but she also misrepresented the king as a cruel tyrant. Later scholars also found that she had falsified several other details regarding her life.
During the latter years of her life, she was in the US, Canada, as well as Germany. She was a lecturer of multiple subjects/languages including Sanskrit. She also co-founded the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Nova Scotia, Canada.
She passed away on 19th January 1915, at the age of 83, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Her life in Siam inspired the best-selling book ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, by Margaret Landon.
A series was also aired in 1972 named ‘Anna and the King’, though it was cancelled after a short time, due to lack of popularity.