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Anna Leonowens
"The King and I"

If you are a fan of theatre, you may know the play The King and I. Anna Leonowens was the lady who came from England to teach King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand)'s wives and children. This is banned in Thailand due to its portrayal of the King and the Thai people.


Issues such as slavery and the King having multiple wives did not sit well with Anna, who was struggling to fit into a totally different culture. The popular theatre was actually based on a book written by an American called Margaret Landon and made into a musical by Oscar Hammerstein II. It is a great musical, but it is banned in Thailand, which is a bit of a given to those who know Thailand as it involves the Royal Family, which Hollywood, being Hollywood, has not touched with much sensitivity. Thailand has very strict lèse-majesté laws for present and previous members of the Royal Family. The book and musical are rightly banned in Thailand for reasons I will get into later.

Anna seems to be a bit of a liar, to say the least. She knocked 3 years of her age off and made out to be a highly educated, fully English lady from a distinguished family when in reality she seems to have been a half-Indian who was broke in Maylia.

How did that happen? Anna's father was a sergeant in the East India Company. When Anna was four, she was sent to England to be educated. Anna ran away years later when her dad tried to marry her to a much older man.

Anna then met a man and moved to Australia for several years. She then had two children and moved to Malaysia (also a British colony at the time) to teach English with her husband.

Sadly, her father died on duty, and her husband died of a stroke.

With no money, two children, and being widowed, it's not surprising Anna told a few porkies (lies).

Seemingly in a lot of trouble, she must have been over the moon when the Thai King invited her to teach the royal family in Siam.

What makes this story more interesting is that Anna Leonowens was alive between 1831 and 1915, so imagine being a lady who travelled through India, England, Australia, Malaysia, and Siam during the imperial days of the British emperor and spent time with the Thai royal family. The environment she lived in—what a life this woman had!

Thailand often protests about the inaccuracies of the book and musical; Anna's role in the musical is greatly exaggerated. Don't worry, Thailand, you're not alone; take it from me, a Brit who is also villainized by Hollywood! Do you think the Independence War is shown as people committing treason? Does it show Americans wanting to take lots of native land, but the British government said no, as the prime motivation? Does it show the revolutionaries being worried about slavery coming to an end if they stayed British? Does it show the natives and slaves siding with the Brits in the name of freedom?

Does it show the Americans or the British as freedom fighters? I argue that it was the latter!

No, they show the Brits as the bad guys. And fair play to you for sticking to your guns. Thailand, as many people in Britain now believe the USA's version of events due to American propaganda on UK TV. There are even films that portray British victories in World War II as American.

Disney is the worst for this; they are extremely culturally insensitive, so basically, you are not alone, my Thai friends.

So back in Thailand, King Mongkut was a very clever king in reality; he realised the imperial powers were surrounding him and saw times were changing rapidly, so to survive imperialism, he had to westernise Siam more. Westerners often said King Mongkut was extraordinarily lively and very excited when hearing new ideas. King Mongkut was a Buddhist monk before becoming king, and he went on to form the modern version of Buddhism in Thailand today.

The King had 39 wives and 82 children, so he definitely was no longer a monk, but despite how it may sound, King Mongkut also improved women's rights in Siam. He released a large number of royal concubines to find their husbands, in contrast to how his story has been dramatized. He banned forced marriages of all kinds and the selling of your wife to pay off a debt. Modern angry wake warriors and self-proclaimed modern feminists will say that wasn't good enough! But they didn't live in 19th-century Thailand, did they? That was a huge step.

Another series called Anna and the King went even further in suggesting the King and Anna had a romantic relationship, which is nonsense. Those of us who are familiar with Hollywood are probably surprised this didn't happen earlier, but to a country like Thailand, which has great sensitivity around the royal family, it is deeply offensive.

But once again, nothing surprising to me, who both understands the disrespect of Hollywood and is a monarchist. It is about as accurate as the film Braveheart, suggesting William Wallace had a romance with the sweet French princess Isabella of France, who in reality was 4 years old at the time of William Wallace and was far from sweet. Isabella was a total psychopath who, in reality, enjoyed watching prisoners get tortured. She was a horrible, even evil, person.

Anyway, back to Thailand. Thai slaves in the 19th century were mostly voluntary slaves. Does that sound weird? Slaves in Thailand had massive debts to pay and were able to buy their freedom through enslavement. People who owned slaves were subject to strict laws for the fair treatment of their slaves, and they were badly punished if they did not stick to them. Many people visiting Siam were said to have been impressed that the slaves were treated better than the servants in the West. It is still not good, but they were treated far better than African or Slavic slaves in Arabic nations or the Americas.

King Mongkut put the wheels in motion to change Siam into a modern country, and his son, King Chulalongkorn, went the full sha bang.

With the total abolishment of slavery and the building of modern sewage and water systems as well as railways, he saw the benefits the Industrial Revolution had brought to Britain and used them to his advantage.

If Hollywood is to be believed, that was due to Anna Leonowen's influence, and who knows, maybe she had some, but it is more likely that King Chulalongkorn was a very smart king, and rather than fight back against colonialism, he created a Thailand that could coexist with colonialism, making Thailand one of the very few countries that wasn't colonised.

King Mongkut and his son, King Chulalongkorn, are greatly admired in Thailand today for the changes they made that greatly improved the lives of many Thai people.

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