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Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond ‘The King and I

by Leslie Smith Dow

Originally published by Pottersfield Press, Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1991

Copyright 1991 Leslie Smith Dow

Published with the support of the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture, and the Canada Council

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Anna Leonowens was rather small with a stately appearance, and everyone listened when she spoke in her beautiful voice. Piercing brown eyes looked out from a face whose complexion had been ruined by the climate of the Orient, and she wore her wavy grey hair parted in the middle, brushed upward and coiled into a pretzel on the top of her head, usually held in place with a silver comb.She always wore a ring with an uncut emerald given to her by one of King Mongkuts wives, Lay Son Klin, and [a] tiger-claw brooch made from two of the tigers claws set in fine engraved gold from the tiger which her husband had shot just before his death. After the heat of the Far East, she minded the cold in the big drafty rooms of the Halifax houses of the last century, and usually sat with a black shawl around her shoulders. Her daughter Avis kept asking: Are you warm enough, Mama?

—Phyllis R. Blakeley, “Anna of Siam in Canada,in The Atlantic Advocate, Jan., 1967.

Piecing together the life of Anna Leonowens has taken some detective work, some psychoanalysis, a good deal of reflection and sometimes, just plain intuition. There seemed to be something missing from the story of her life as I knew it, and I turned it over and over in my mind, searching for a hidden spring or some sort of code that would help me unravel the mystery of Anna. But there was none.

Gradually though, after poring over her writings, her behaviour and the attitudes of her contemporaries. I began to see a clearer picture. Her past began to fill in, although I felt many times that I was painting by numbers, without the benefit of the numbers. Even after I had read everything I could get my hands on which referred to this most interesting woman, it seemed that somehow something wasnt quite right. Descriptions of her life were either too pat or too condemning. I found no less than four writers who had demolished her reputation and branded her a fake.

Such descriptions seemed to me eminently unfair. She was creative with the truth, to be sure, but not a fake. It is clear that she sought to keep certain elements of her background secret. Diligent research has served only to render the details of her life as she related it even more ambiguous. On the other hand, tantalizing fragments of another existence materialize when her own accounts are disregarded, and the pieces of what seems to have been a secret life begin to fall into place.

Depending upon whom one chooses to believe, Anna Leonowens must have been among the most accomplished, fearless and adventurous of Victorian ladiesor a complete fraud who covered up her ignoble origins by inventing and exaggerating at will simply to sell copies of her books. Her story of a proper English governess confronting the monstrous Oriental monarch seems a trifle overdone. Even the most accommodating readers have had to make some effort to suspend their disbelief that an English governess could not only rise to become the right hand of the powerful and erudite King of Thailand, but to teach a man who spent 27 contemplative years as a Buddhist monk a thing or two about compassion. The truth, as with most things, lies in the boggy ground somewhere between the conflicting descriptions of Anna as a Victorian human rights crusader along the lines of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Anna as a kind of benign Mata Hari of literature.

Yet a chance conversation with an acquaintance several years ago shed a little light into Annas magisterial behaviour around the Thai King, the prime minister and his entourage. The woman (who Ill call Catherine) was English by birth, and had trained as a proper British nanny, in the true Mary Poppins style. She had worked for wealthy families internationally, including a long stint in Saudi Arabia. There, as nanny to the children of a large and prominent family, she had been responsible for virtually every facet of their material lives. She was given free rein to purchase furnishings for the nursery, to choose the childrens clothing and provide suitable toys; her budget was unlimited, and her taste unquestioned. Innocently, I asked Catherine if she had been well-treated. The small woman before me, clad in jeans and a sweater, drew herself into an erect, formal posture. I could envision her as a proper matron in a starched uniformcap, apron and allas she said, in a rather sharp voice, You do not allow yourself to be treated badly.This, I think, had been precisely Annas strategy in standing up for herself.

It was not until I made a chance visit to Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario (which would have been in use around the time young Anna was growing up in India) that I was able to unlock some of the mystery surrounding Annas early life. She grew up in an Anglo-Indian military family, one whose domestic arrangements could only be described as squalid, a fact that hit home forcefully as I peppered the patient staff with questions about living conditions of army families in the colonies, including India. The stigma attached to being an “army rat”, as such children were then, called was enormous, particularly for a girl. The chances of escaping a life following the drum were almost nil. Unless a particularly bright females could get on teaching at the regimental school, or nursing in the infirmary, she would almost certainly be forced, through sheer economic necessity, to marry a much older soldier some time between her thirteenth and fifteenth birthdays.

Knowing these facts provided me with a motive for Annas inventive vagueness about her past. It also partly explained her sudden appointment as royal governess. The seemingly inexperienced widow had likely been picked as a youngster to assist in the schoolroom of the army barracks. By the time she was 18, it would be reasonable to expect that she already had several yearsteaching under her belt, and in some tough classrooms. This could explain why she had not already been married off. Drawing on her teaching experience and fortified by her ambition and intelligence, Anna invented an appropriate background for her new life as a proper Victorian lady, much the same as famed explorer-journalist Henry Morton Stanley fabricated his. Her forceful personality and resilience helped her make the transition to a new life that would have been impossible for most other young women in her social situation. But that, surely, is beside the point. What is important is her gumption; she did what was necessary to achieve the sort of life upon which she had set her sights. Her marriage to Thomas Leon (or Lean) Owens was a happy one, though their time in Australia fraught with hardships which began before they even disembarked from their ship. His death in Penang devastated her and left her nearly penniless. These events, though, shaped her into the formidable and famous woman she would become.

There are no hard and fast answers about Annas life. There are few details which can be verified beyond the shadow of a doubt and the sketchiness of many events in her life is partially due to the unfortunate habit of journalists past and present of simply copying what had previously been written about her.

Why, I wondered, was it so impossible for her critics to praise in a woman the very qualities they applauded in male adventurers such as Stanley? At the time only a scant amount of independent research had actually been conducted into Annas life, and consequently, errors in fact had mushroomed into widely-accepted legend.

The real Anna, possessed of such formidable talent and courage, was much more than an English governess at the Siamese court: she was a brilliant storyteller and lecturer, an accomplished journalist and celebrated author, an Oriental scholar and linguist, an adventurer and social activist. Unfortunately, by the time she died in 1915 in Montreal, Annas adventures, and her marvellous talents, had been nearly forgotten.

In 1944, inspired by Annas books, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, and Siamese Harem Life, Margaret Landon published her own re-written and highly-coloured version of Annas life. It caused a sensation, comparable only to the publication of the original books in 1870 and 1872. Anna and the King of Siam made its debut near the end of the turmoil of World War II, this glimpse into a fantastic, exotic land and lifestyle was a welcome respite for millions. In a short time, the book was reprinted 13 times. Readers Digest even came out with a condensed version. Landons book was published in Sweden, Spain and Thailand and 12 other countries; there were armed services and juvenile editions.

By 1951, Rodgers and Hammerstein had made Annas Siamese excursion into a musical about a splendid, wicked oriental court,which continues to be revived to great success. Twentieth Century-Fox movie studios wasted no time in turning it into a movie, which has also been remade starring actors Jodi Foster and Chow Yun-fat. The tale was described on the back cover of the 1956 abridged pocket edition as a charming true storyand as one of the best-loved books and plays of our time.The late actor Yul Brynner, who played King Maha Mongkut in both versions with scowling magnetismaccording to a Time magazine review, became forever associated with the role. Times critic also commented that, This battle of sexes, collision of races and conflict of ideas, this spectacle of king learning to govern from a governess, is sometimes touching, and far less insipid than the usual musicomedy romance.In 1989, the musical was revived with former ballet star Rudolph Nureyev in the lead, another icon playing icon.

But for all the attention they garnered, the books (beginning with Annas own), the musical and the movie did not shed much light on the real Thailand, nor on the real Anna. The idea of a king, and especially an erudite monk-scholar, learning to govern from a governesswas absurd and offensive. Annas formidable adversary(that he was her employer seems to have been forgotten) was hailed in his lifetime as Thailands wisest ruler long before she arrived. The original book created an unfavourable stir in Thailand, where kings were (and still are) treated with the reverence their status as divinities demands. The book was banned in Thailand for a time, though copies are no longer prohibited.

Annas Adventures in the New World

Several years after Annas death, a descendant of King Maha Mongkut came close to the truth when he said Anna had spiced up the events in her book to help support her family. She did indeed know how to spin a tale. By the time she reached New York in the fall of 1867, after six years in the Siamese court, she had hatched a plan. The death of King Maha Mongkut the following year cleared the way, in Annas mind at least, for her to publicly divulge her fantastical story.

But public preoccupation with her experiences in Siam was to overshadow all of her subsequent accomplishments. No one remembers that she went on to become an acclaimed lecturer and writer, as well as an effective and diligent social activist. Yet the story of her life has rarely been deemed worthy of more than a few columns in an occasional Canadian magazine or newspaper. Despite her aggressive philanthropy in Halifax and Montreal, the Anna Leonowens Gallery is the only institution in Canada that bears her name.

The tale of Anna and the King of Siam is almost as well-known around the globe as Anne of Green Gables. While Lucy Maud Montgomerys name is synonymous with her creation, the same cannot be said about Ann Harriet Emma Edwards Leonowens, who spent forty years of her life in Canada, all the while carefully guarding the truth about herself from everyone, even her own family. She was eloquent and intelligent enough not to betray to any curious journalist the details that might lead to a thorough investigation of what was, in her own mind, a decidedly unsavoury background. Even now, she remains the only person the know the full story; she left no diary to record her real, inner thoughts.

Out of necessity what follows here is the product of my best abilities to reconstruct and interpret the life of Anna Leonowens with an open but admittedly sympathetic mind. Even so, I fear her finished portrait may still prove to be painted more in the style of the Impressionists than the Realists. As Don Akenson remarked so insightfully in his biography, At Face Value: The Life and Times of Eliza McCormack/John White, “we can either go back to stark, face-grinding biographies (which in their selection and arrangement of facts are fictive, but in an unconscious and unexamined manner) or we can try to get inside our subjects mind—and in so doing accept the fact that biography, like many other forms of historical investigation, demands an energetic, self-conscious exercise of imagination.”

There is no one view of the life, or lives, of this remarkable lady, only degrees of interpretation. Doubtless, further details confirming, denying or clarifying Annas past will come to light. Perhaps further interest will be sparked by the conclusions of this volume. My fondest hope is that through this book, Anna will once again be remembered.


Thais refer to King Maha Mongkut (which Anna shortened to King Mongkut) as Rama IV. The ruler now popularly known as King Mongkut reigned later.

Throughout this volume I have tried to consistently use the names Thai and Thailand (Muang Thai,the Thai name for the country, means kingdom of the free) in place of Siamese and Siam, except where reference has been made in this way in other texts. As Anna Leonowens explained in her book, Siamese Harem Life, these latter terms come from the Malaysian word “sagum,” meaning the brown race,which is considered derogatory by Thais.

Anna Leonowens was born Ann Harriet Emma Edwards yet she gave her name as Anna Harriet Crawford. Her husbands name was Thomas Leon Owens and she referred to him as Leon. The couple began to use the surname Leonowens in Australia, a fact revealed by new research. Essentially, I have used the name Leon Owens for early references to Annas husband, and the hybrid name Leonowens for the period of her life beginning with her widowhood.


I am indebted to many people for their assistance and faith in the preparation of this book. The financial assistance of the Canada Council was crucial to the completion of this project and the encouragement and support of the Explorations staff was gratefully received.

Thanks are owed Joan Fairlie, Annas great-granddaughter, Dr Thomas Fyshe, her great-grandson and Jonathan Fyshe, her great-great-grandson for telling me all they knew about their ancestor. To Phra Maha Wallo Suswad of Wat Parinayaok, Bangkok for discussions about Theravada Buddhism and interesting conversations about Anna and King Maha Mongkut.

Thanks are also due to Maud Rosinski, who brought Victorian Halifax alive for me and to Marjory Whitelaw who led me to her. Prof. Harold Pearse of NSCAD for trusting me to give credit where credit was due for his painstaking research. The staff of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia especially Lois Kernaghan Yorke, Garry Shutlak and Margaret Campbell. The interpretive guides at Fort Henry, Kingston and the Halifax Citadel. Staff at McGill University Archives and rare book department. British researcher J. D. Parry for unearthing valuable details from British parish registers and the records of the East India Company. Philanthropist Dr. Lawrence Lande for meeting with me and sharing his recollections of, and details of, his artistic partnership with Annas granddaughter, Avis Fysheas well as bestowing on me one of their hand-produced volumes. Friends who sheltered me in Halifax and those who helped in Montreal. Pottersfield Press publisher Lesley Choyce for the great enthusiasm with which he took this leap of faith, and for his generosity in allowing me to publish this volume as an electronic book.

Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to use the following material: The Halifax Herald Ltd. for allowing me to quote freely from its various newspapers past and present; the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization for use of the title The King and I;Bank of Nova Scotia archives for the Fyshe Letterbook and The Scotiabank Story by Joseph Schull and Douglas J. Gibson, MacMillan of Canada (Toronto, 1982); Bechett, Heinz and Richard Gombrich, eds. The World of Buddhism, Facts on File Publications (New York, 1984); Blakeley, Phyllis R. Anna of Siam in Canadain The Atlantic Advocate, Jan. 1967, vol. 57, no. 4, pp 41-45; the Public Archives of Nova Scotia for use of the Blakeley Collection; minute and record books of the Victoria School of Art and Design, the Halifax Local Council of Women and the Halifax Ladies College, as well as photographs of Anna Leonowens, Thomas Fyshe Sr. and Thomas Fyshe Jr. and historic locations in Halifax; Buckler, William E., ed. Prose of the Victorian Period, Houghton Mifflin Co. (Boston, 1958); Burns, H. D. “Thomas Fyshe, 1845-1911” in Canadian Banker, Autumn, 1951; Collard, Edgar Andrew, “When Anna Came to Canada,in the Montreal Gazette, Jan. 27, 1979; The Private Capital by Sandra Gwynn (used by permission of McClelland and Stewart, Toronto); Jumsai, M. L. Manich, King Mongkut and Sir John Bowring, Chalermnit (Bangkok, 1970); Keay, Julia, With Passport and Parasol; The Adventures of Seven Victorian Ladies, BBC Books (London, 1989); Landon, Margaret, Anna and the King of Siam, Pocket Books of Canada Ltd. Cardinal abaridged ed. (Montreal, 1956); MacNaughton, John. “Mrs. Leonowens,” orig. published The University Magazine, McGill University, 1915; rpt. Essays and Addresses, no. 19, pp 286-311 (permission granted by McGill University Archives); New York Times, Jan 24-Feb.10, 1888; Time magazine, New Musical in Manhattan,Apr. 9, 1951; Akenson, Don, At Face Value: The Life and Times of Eliza McCormack/John White, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 1990; Abrams, Donaldson, Smith et al eds., Rudyard Kiplings Verse, Definitive Edition, The Ladies, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.; Beecher Stowe, Harriet, Uncle Toms Cabin, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. and Saturday Night magazine. Material reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co. from Thailand: The New Siam by Virginia Thompson, Copyright 1941 by International Secretariat, Institute of Pacific Relations, renewed copyright 1968 by Mrs. Virginia Adloff.


The Secret Life of Anna


The woman the world would come to know as Mrs. Anna Harriet Leonowens was brought into the world on a tiny cot at the back of a stifling hot East India Company barracks on Nov. 6, 1831 in Ahmednugger, India.[1] It was no accident that this squalid corner was where the second daughter of Thomas and Mary Anne Edwards made her first frown: it was home.

Anna never admitted to her humble origins. She always maintained her father was an officer, despite the absence of documents to support her claim. In fact, baptismal and marriage records show her father and stepfather were both enlisted men, who had signed on for an indefinite term in the private army maintained by the East India Company. Such service normally lasted 21 years, if the soldier survived. Many recruits succumbed, victims of disease, malnutrition and poor living conditions and low morale in the best of times, or struck down by more tangible enemies in times of war.

Anna was mostly silent about her origins, only hinting at an upper-class existence marred from time to time by tragedy. It was well she resisted the temptation to invent too much, for her depiction of herself as a young girl fresh from school[2] was the approach which she rightly calculated would win her the greatest sympathy. In her later incarnation as an author, it was an approach which also won her many fans. In her autobiographical third book, Life and Travel in India, Anna recounted how she marvelled, as her boat entered the harbour, at the wonders of Bombay. She noted she later spent one or two years in Puna with her family, where her stepfather was connected with the engineer or public works department at the military station….”[3] This claim, however, is not borne out by any military records. Anna avoided stating outright the claim later made by Margaret Landon in Anna and the King of Siam that she was born and educated in Carnaervon, Wales, preferring to let her readers come to their own conclusions.

It seems more plausible to assume her childhood was spent in the fecund confines of an Indian barracks. Only a screen divided the familys cramped back corner from the raucous noises of upwards of two dozen men eating, drinking, gambling, undressing and sleeping.[4] Little Anna and her elder sister, Eliza Julia (born April 26, 1830) would have had a good view of the incessant activity from their pallets underneath their parents cot.[5]

Later in life, Anna refused to talk about her stepfather, Patrick Donohoe, and could provide few details about her natural father, Thomas Edwards. What she did reveal she had made up. Military records show Thomas Edwards, a brown-haired, grey-eyed former cabinetmaker from Middlesex, England, joined an East India Company infantry regiment on April 6, 1823. After three years of good conduct and hard work, he was granted leave to marry. Four years later (and having survived seven years of service in India) he had risen to the ran of sergeant. But life in the Orient was hot and hard. In August or September of 1831, Thomas Edwards died.

His death left Annas mother, Marry Anne Glasscott Edwards, in dire straits. For one thing, she was six monthspregnant. For another thing, she, Eliza and her unborn child (Anna) would be stricken off the strength in another six months And that would mean no more rations, even if they were only boiled beef and hard bread, and no more free accommodation inside the garrison. The army could make arrangements for certain families to receive passage to England, but it was unlikely to transport Mary Anne, who had been born in India and never even seen that green and pleasant land.

Although it was not unheard of for able-bodied army widows to receive marriage proposals even before their husbands funeral service had ended, Mary Anne held out for the full six months before resigning herself to the inevitable. On Jan. 9, 1832 she married Patrick Donohoe, just three months after Anna was born. Once again, the family set up housekeeping in the back corner of the stifling barracks. Life had scarcely changed.

Born in Bengal, India to Anne Glasscott and her husband, John, an artillery gunner, Mary Anne was no stranger to the privations of army life. There is no record of the marriage of John Glasscott to Anne, but soldiers routinely took common-law wives for the duration of their postings despite strict punishments meted out for contravening army regulations.[6] Only six out of every 100 enlisted men were allowed to marry[7] although officers obtained the required permission more frequently. While legally married soldiers received an extra half-ration for their wives and a quarter ration for each of their children, soldiers with common-law wives and families received nothing.

Soldierswives had to be more than equal to the tough lives they had chosen. They were encouraged to supplement their husbandsmeagre wages by doing the regiments wash, and a bride was often chosen for her hardiness as much as anything else. The soldiers respected and feared their female camp followers, who fought and won their own battles with tongues or fists.

It was a way of life the children learned quickly, as they paraded around in their fathershand-me-down uniforms and their mothersold dresses. But the children were kept busy, and were well-educated by the standards of the time. Six days a week they attended school. On the seventh day, they went to church, and in between times, they helped with chores.

Each morning, as soon as they were old enough, girls helped their mothers scrub out their sleeping area and air their mattresses. After breakfast, they helped clean the garrisons privies before heading to the school room. Attendance was compulsory, and fathers were liable for punishment if their children were truant. For garrison children, learning the arts of reading, writing and arithmetic began at age four.

Anna would have received her early education in a garrison school, considered so superior to private local schools that even officers sent their children. Although her early education would have consisted of large doses of British history, literature and culture, Annas real enthusiasm was piqued by her study of Indias languages and literature, its religions and its history.

But it scarcely mattered what her interests were. Like the other garrison children, Annas schooling officially ended at age 15. While boys were expected to enlist or seek their fortunes elsewhere, the options for girls were sharply reduced. Teaching, nursing or marriage were the only respectable routes open to them. Patrick Donohoe seems to have decided upon the latter course for his stepdaughters, and at age 14, her sister Eliza married 38-year-old Sergeant-Major James Millard on Apr. 24, 1845. The ceremony came just in time, for Eliza celebrated her fifteenth birthday two days later, and would not have been entitled to live within the garrison much longer.

Anna, a witness at the wedding, must have decided then and there she must escape her sisters fate. She had little taste for a marriage of convenience, but unless she secured herself a position as assistant monitor or even assistant schoolmistress, her only other options would be to serve as an army nurse in some disease-infested hospital, or to fend for herself. hiring out as servants was a popular avenue of escape but for girls like Eliza and Anna, it would have been impossible. Their upbringing in an army barracks was widely considered to be fundamentally immoral, and no society woman would knowingly darken her door with that sort of girl.

It was just as well. Annas inherent cleverness, aptitude for teaching and no-nonsense personality would have certainly qualified her to stay on in the classroom. She may well have been taken on as an assistant schoolmistress, and fortuitously been able to avoid marriage for the time being. it is entirely likely that she first attracted the attention of Rev. George Percy Badger in a garrison school.

As regimental chaplain of the East India Company in Puna[8] were Annas family had been transferred, he was required to inspect and supervise the school and the sergeant schoolmaster. It would have been logical and practical for Annas stepfather to urge their union. Anna always maintained he had tried to marry her to a rich merchant twice her age, and her refusal caused a rift within the family that never healed. In fact, the 30-year-old minister would have been exactly twice Annas age.

When it came time for Rev. Badger, a scholarly man with a lively interest in all things Oriental, to go on an extended leave to the Middle East and Egypt, Anna went along. She swore she made the trip with Rev. Badger and his wife, but it is possible Anna herself posed as his wife in order to avoid a scandal.

But the headstrong Anna had already met her man: the young, dynamic Thomas Leon Owens, a clerk in the military pay office, to whom she had become engaged before her trip. Despite her wholehearted devotion to her studies of Egyptian culture, art and architecture (she also learned Persian and Arabic) her platonic feelings toward the Rev. Badger did not change while they were away. Marriage records show that on Christmas Day, 1849, Harriet Edwards and Thomas Leo Owens wed. Notably, Rev. Badger did not officiate. The familys reaction could hardly have been as bad as she later intimated, for Patrick Donohoe attended, as did Eliza and her husband, as did John Donohoe and N.F. Glasscott. The name of Annas mother, Mary Anne, was not on the register, perhaps an indication that her mother, not her stepfather, was the parent who was the more upset about the marriage.

The couple returned to Bombay, where their first child, a daughter named Selena Louise, was born Dec. 10, 1850. Selena died aged 17 months, and was buried May 24, 1852 at Colaba, on the southern end of Bombay Island.

During the next ten years, the family apparently did a good deal of travelling, but it is not clear in what capacity. Thomas was evidently made a Brevet-Major at some point, an honorary military title. Anna said they lived in England and Australia. While in Australia, she gave birth to a second child, who later died in March of 1854. Two more children were born, Avis Annie Connybeare on Oct. 25, 1854 and Louis Thomas Gunnis on Oct. 25, 1855, supposedly in London, England.[9] New research has shown that the second child was born as they reached the coast of Australia; their ship was nearly wrecked and after several days managed to navigate through treacherous reefs to safety. They travelled with Annas uncle William Glasscott to Perth where Thomas and William were employed with the Commissariat; Anna advertised a school for young ladies, though there is no evidence it ever got off the ground. It is here she may have begun to use the name that would make her famous—Mrs. Leonowens.

By 1855, Thomas had become Commissariat Storekeeper at the Lynton convict depot near Port Gregory, 500 miles from Perth. Today Lynton consists of a single substantial farmstead. Nearby stand the empty twostory verandah’d dwelling of the man who owned and named the place, and the mostly ruined buildings that comprised the convict hiring station. For fifteen months Anna held her and her familys bodies and souls together herean achievement mentioned in none of her later writings,observed authors Alfred Habegger and Gerard Foley.[10] It was here, in a small houselittle more than a shack huddled in a dismal landscapethat Annas last child, the spirited Louis, was born.

Thomas was a first-rate clerk and had several temporary appointments besides his job at the commissariat. But the Lynton convict depot was too expensive to keep running as a going concern and the land too bleak; the Leonowens headed back to Perth for a short time. Then, four years after reaching Western Australia, the Leonowenses took passage on the Lady Amherst, a thirtyyearold sailing vessel that had been fitted up for transporting horses and was now bound for Singapore, where it arrived on 30 April.”[10]

One theory puts Leon as a hotel keeper in Penang, Malaysia, with Anna no doubt his trusty, formidable assistant. But in 1858 or 1859, Leon suddenly died, of either a heart attack or heat stroke.[11]

Like her mother 27 years before, Anna unexpectedly found herself in the precarious position of having two small children to raise, and nothing whatever to sustain them. Although her circumstances were only slightly better than her mothers, she appears to have ruled out remarriage entirely, despite several attractive proposals. Marriage may have made her life easier in the short term but it would close forever the door to freedom she saw opening before her.

It is quite possible she may have landed a position as an assistant schoolmistress at the British garrison in Singapore. Her claim to have opened a school for officerschildren is less likely, since the usual practice was for such children to either be sent home to a British boarding school or to attend the regimental school, where standards of education were far and away better than anything commonly available publicly or privately. It is not certain what Anna did to earn a living during the three years following her husbands death, but it can be assumed she taught in some kind of school. Whatever her position, her salary would have been meagre.

But Anna wanted more. In 1862, she got what she wanted. It was the job of a lifetime.


[1]British researcher J.D. Parrys search of East India Company records show Anna was baptised Dec. 6, 181 in Ahmednugger The town has a large fort, built in 1550, where former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was once imprisoned by the British.

[2]Leonowens, Anna. Life and Travels in India, Porter and Coates (Philadelphia, 1884), p. 7.

[3]Ibid, p. 39.

[4]Another enlisted mans family occupied the other back corner of the barracks.

[5]Anna would not have enjoyed the comforts of what passed for a real bed until she left the garrison (normally around age 15). Army children were not issued cots, nor was there any extra space in which to put on. Boys were sometimes allowed to sleep in the cots of absent soldiers, but never girls.

[6]Researcher J.D. Parry failed to turn up a marriage record.

[7]This number varied slightly from regiment to regiment.

[8]In 1817 Puna became the British capital of the Southern Maharashtra region during the monsoon season.

[9]Parry found no record of their births in Britain.

[10] Alfred Habegger and Gerard Foley, “Anna and Thomas Leonowens in Western Australia, 1853‐1857.” Government of Western Australia, Dept. of Culture & the Arts, State Records Office of Western Australia Occasional Papers; Occasional Paper No 1, March 2010.

[11]Anna maintained her husband died in her arms of heatstroke brought on by a vigorous tiger hunt in Singapore.

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