Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Anna Leonowens: A Heroine Ahead of her time (But NOT for the Reasons you think...)

Hello, hello! It's been a while (about a year, actually!), and I suppose it's about time this little blog gets a new post :) 
I am sure that many of you are familiar with the character of Anna Leonowens from Rogers and Hammerstein's classic musical, The King & I. You might also be aware of the fact that many of the characters in The King and I are based on historical figures, including Anna Leonowens, herself. You may even be familiar with her memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and Romance of the Harem (1872).  It has, however, been  increasingly brought to the forefront that Anna Leonowens was not the woman we have come to believe her to be, and that the character of "Miss Anna" is, in reality, nothing more than an invention of the even more fascinating, actual-flesh-and-blood woman.

Generally, this is what we see in our heads when we think about this lady:

Or this:

Or (as soon as K&I opens on Broadway later this year) this:

When, in reality, Anna Leonowens (or Leon Owens) looked like this:

One could argue that this woman does not look altogether 100% Caucasian, a fact that could have been extremely problematic during that time period. The truth of the matter is that Anna Leonowens was not who she claimed to be, and that the aristocratic, Welsh-born widow of the illustrious "Major" Leonowens, who entered the harem of the "tyrannical" King Mongkut of Siam as a teacher to his wives and children, and single-handedly thrust the backward culture of the eastern country forward towards the democratic 20th century, was, in reality, the widow of a civilian clerk by the name of Thomas Leon Owens. 

She was also of mixed Indian/English heritage. 

Intrigued?  Here are some fast facts that debunk the entire story-line of The King and I:

Anna Leonowens was the Welsh-born daughter of an aristocratic and high-ranking military official.

Anna Leonowens was the daughter of a English-born cabinet maker, who moved to Bombay, India, and became a low-ranking commissioned-officer for the Bombay Native Infantry. Her father died three months before she was born, and her mother, who, by all accounts was of Indian descent, remarried an Irish officer almost immediately after her first husbands death. Anna left home at the age of 18, marrying later that year, and completely cut ties with her family. It was then that she began covering up her mixed-race origins, claiming to have been born in Wales to Welsh parents.

Anna Leonowens married Captian Thomas Leonowens of the British Army, who died of sunstroke during a tiger hunt.

Anna Leonowens married her childhood sweetheart, an oftentimes unemployed clerk by the name of Thomas Leon Owens, who died in 1859 of "apoplexy" after eleven years of a marriage fraught with financial struggle.

Anna Leonowens was employed by the tyrannical, backwards-thinking King Mongkut of Siam, who ruled the country, his palace, and his harem with an iron fist.

As much as I (and the many young girls who gasped at the sight of Yul Brynner ripping his robe off in the film) have come to associate the above image with the king of Siam, King Mongkut actually looked like this:

He also spent 27 years of his life as a Buddhist monk before ascending to the throne, and was, by all accounts, a gentle and forward-thinking ruler.

King Mongkut was barbaric to his wives, who were treated as property.  One of his young concubines, the Burmese Tuptim, was savagely tortured and executed when it was found that she had fallen in love with a young monk.

Though the thought of a harem is not something most of us with our 21st century sensibilities will find palatable, I read somewhere (forgot where) that Mongkut's harem of 32 wives and concubines enjoyed a certain level of autonomy.  In fact, as part of the agreement upon entering the harem (again, forgot where I read this), each of his wives and concubines were given the freedom to leave when they wished.

As for Tuptim, IF she really, historically was from Burma, then (though they were still very much a patriarchal Asian society at the time) she enjoyed much more freedom than what was depicted by Anna Leonowens.  Burmese women had rights that were not typical for women in other parts of Asia during that time, including the right to inherit and own property, as well as the freedom to engage in busines, trade and commerce (though not as many as we'd hope actually did, due to conflicts with some religious beliefs.  Hey, baby-steps.). That said, being forced into sexual slavery seems a bit unlikely, and if she wanted to leave the harem, as per the agreement upon entering, she was free to do so.  In my research (guess who has had to audition for the part of Tuptim in The King & I a BAGAGILLIONZILLION times?)  I found a 2001 interview of one of Mongkut's great-grand-daughters, Vudhichalerm Vudhijaya (who is still living somewhere in California ), and she said that, as a former monk, it would have been against Mongkut's Buddhist principles to torture and execute his concubines, and that, in fact, Tuptim was actually one of the 36 wives of Mongkut's son, Chulalongkorn, and was also Vudhijaya's grandmother.  Chulalonghorn later went on to become the next King of Siam, and continued his father's work during his reign.

Anna Leonowens was instrumental in the many reforms that Mongkut made, which paved the way for Siam to become a more modern society, and a player on the world stage.

Mongkut had begun implementing these reforms long before he met Anna Leonowens, and had encouraged diplomacy in working with the west from the beginning of his reign. 

The point of this post is not to demonize Anna Leonowens, or to paint her as a conniving, Becky-Sharp-esque climber.  In fact I think that she is an incredibly compelling character, who, at the root of it all, was quite simply born into every disadvantage she could possibly have been born into at that time.  The disadvantage of being a woman in a world where men truly were the rulers and keepers of all.  The disadvantage of being born "ethnic" into an Imperialist society.  The disadvantage of, not only being born and marrying into a working-class life, but in the end, being left alone to raise two children by herself.  What else could she have done?  I think that the myth of Anna Leonowens is a product of an enterprising woman, who did what she needed to do in order to survive.  In the end, her daughter married well, and her son became an ACTUAL high-ranking military official, continuing to work and foster a relationship with Chulalongkorn into the 20th century, and eventually became a successful businessman and diplomat  (his company, L.T. Leonowens Ltd, is still the leading exporter of Malayan hardwoods).  Anna Leonowens set out to make a better life for herself and most importantly, for her children. Against all odds, she absolutely did just that.  She won. 

Oh, and Boris Karloff was her sister's grandson :)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Return of the King

First entry on this blog. I know that history blogs tend to fall into the niche category, and very few people tend to take history personally. I do.  It may seem a bit extreme, but I can't help but feel that the more I learn about the characters we read about in the history books, the more connected I feel to the world as a whole. I begin to grasp the why's of everything, and my hope in writing this blog goes beyond merely educating people about the past, in strictly clinical terms. I want everyone to understand the human side of history. That these lessons we are taught in the classroom are stories about people who we could easily have known, and that they are not just lessons we learn in school.  Where we stand now is a direct result of these stories. They are where we came from.  They are our stories, as well :)

This past September, 2012, a corpse was found buried in the ruins of what was once the choir-loft of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, England, which had since been turned into a municipal car-park. The corpse, with its hands tied from behind, had suffered injuries that seemed to correlate with blows dealt on the battlefield, and also seemed to have had suffered mutilation post-mortem.  Most curious, however, was the curvature of the corpse's spine - scoliosis, as we know it today.  A warrior killed in battle, buried in disgrace in Leicester, with signs of a slight physical deformity.  Could this man be Richard III?  The horrendous butcher immortalized by William Shakespeare, who murdered his brothers and nephews in his single-minded quest to become King of England?  It was quite a winter of discontent for me, as I waited, breath baited, for the results of the DNA test (though all anthropological evidence pointed to positive findings).  Finally, on February 4th, it was confirmed that the remains found were, indeed, a match with that of Canadian-born Michael Ibsen, a direct descendant of Richard III's eldest sister, Anne of York!!   So why has this particular subject matter become such an obsession for me?

Let us start at the beginning by exploring what we know, or at least what has been accepted as common knowledge through the centuries.  The majority of todays population's  knowledge of Richard III, in all likelihood, comes from the play written by William Shakespeare, a playwright and actor who received patronage from both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, the granddaughter and great-grandson, respectively, of Henry Tudor.  Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, was the very man
who defeated Richard III on August 22nd of 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, where the latter apparently received the aforementioned wounds.  For those who have no experience with the piece, Shakespeare's Richard is more monster than man.  Amoral, murderous, with a physical countenance that mirrors the blackness in his soul.  Often characterized as hunch-backed, with a withered arm, many Richards (and all that I have seen) have been portrayed by actors around 50-years-old, if not older.  For many, if not most, this is the picture that comes to mind when the name Richard III is spoken.

However, thankfully, we are all slowly becoming more and more aware of how true the statement "History is written by the victors" is, and that in order to get a clearer picture of what the reality of the situation was, one must look at the physical evidence and contemporary accounts.When I say
contemporary accounts, I mean accounts that are contemporary with the history in question.  This being said, the account Mr. Shakespeare wrote was clearly not contemporary with the time-period in which Richard III reigned (Shakespeare's Richard III was written in 1592, one-hundred-and-seven years after the Battle of Bosworth).

First let us clear up the physical discrepancies.  Richard III was thirty-two-years old when he died.  As lovely as Sir Ian Mckellen is, and as powerful as his portrayal of Richard in the 1995 film adaptation of the play may have been, if one were to cast on the basis of true historical accuracy, this would not be the way to go. I single out this particular performance, because it is one that is accessible to the general public, and because McKellen in '95 was representative of the type and age-range of actors who are typically cast in the part. In addition, Richard III is also often portrayed as physically broken, more so than Sir Ian had portrayed in '95.  Though contemporary accounts do note that he was shorter in stature, and that one shoulder was slightly higher than the other (which would correlate with the scoliosis found on the remains from Greyfriars), the monstrous portrait of the the crooked hunchback with a club-arm did not arise until after Henry Tudor's ascent to the throne.  There were also descriptions of him from his youth that painted the face of a handsome young man, though not so handsome as his predecessor and older brother, Edward IV.  In addition, Richard III, or Dickon of York as he was also styled during his younger warrior days, was renowned for his prowess with the battle-axe.  If he had been nearly so misshapen as often times portrayed, the likelihood of this would be nil.

Controversy over Dickon of York's ambitions for the throne are the main argument set forth by Tudor propagandists.  At this point I would like to issue a disclaimer.  Though I do not think the black-hearted demon-prince is an altogether accurate portrayal of Richard III, I am also not so easily swayed by an idealized, wronged white-knight portrait.  The Tudors absolutely needed for Richard to be seen by the people as a monster, otherwise their claim to the throne would not have seemed so solid, hence the aggressive smear-campaign.  Whether or not he was guilty of what he was accused, more specifically the murders of his brothers and nephews, we will never really know.  My guess is that much of it was exaggerated, and that he did not murder Edward IV (I find it more interesting to believe the theory that the man died of morbid obesity due to his inactivity and gluttonous tendencies, but that's conjecture for another entry).  However, there is a possibility he did away with his nephews.  Horrible?  Perhaps, but I think in order to see Richard III for who he really was, we need to understand that he was a man of his time.  The mid to late 15th century was a time in which Europe was still struggling to recover from the dark ages.  Though the Renaissance was already in full swing, and worst of the Black Plague was over, England and France were still recovering from the Hundred Years War, and The War of the Roses (Lancaster vs. York for the throne of England) monopolized a great part of the second half of the century, therefore life in general for an individual from a family fighting to maintain power was, well, tumultuous at best.  Richard had been fighting for what he perceived to be his family's God-given right to the throne.  If, after the death of his older brother, he felt that it became his God-given right to become king, and that he would be the best for the job, there were plenty of people in Britain who supported that idea.  Given his background, and that he had already spent much of his life fighting for his family, why would he not fight just as hard to take the throne for himself, if he believed it to be ordained by the divine? Just my two cents ;)

Much of the Tudor smear-campaign against Richard had to do with aaaaaall these murders he allegedly committed in order to take to the crown. There is, however, little mention of how he actually did as a ruler, and you will find, even in his earlier career as Duke of Gloucester, that he was incredibly popular with the people.  His military career during Edward IV's reign was one filled with much praise. It was recorded January 1483 in the Rolls of Parliament that all, including the King, Lords and Commons 'understand and consider that the Duke [of Gloucester], being Warden of the West Marches, by his diligent labours … has subdued a great part of the west borders of Scotland, adjoining England, by the space of thirty miles and more … and has [secured] divers parts thereof to be under the obedience of [the King] to the great surety and ease of the north parts of England'. High praise.  During his own reign, he developed and passed many acts in parliament that would benefit the people of England, which included an anti-corruption act, and a trade-protection act.  He was also a generous patron of Cambridge University's King's College and Queen's College.  Pretty progressive for a guy who was supposed to have been a self-serving psychopath. 

After Richard was crowned King in 1483, a faction of the gentry decided to stage a rebellion, led by Richard's former ally Henry Stafford, placing Lancastrian sympathizer, Henry Tudor on the throne (with plans to have Tudor marry Richards niece, Elizabeth of York, giving him more of a right to accession). This rebellion continued for the next two years of Richard III's reign, until that fateful day, August 22, 1485, when Richard III was killed in battle, his body stripped naked, strapped to a horse, taken to Leicester, and hung on display (allegedly in the collegiate foundation of the Annunciation of Our Lady).  Though, for centuries, there were many stories circulating about what became of his body, the theory that the king was buried in the choir loft of Greyfriars church became an obsession for the Richard III Society in England.  Finally, after years of research, the location of Greyfriars Church was found in Leicester, and, after many requests,  permission was granted for the excavation, which took place in the autumn of 2012.  The body was found on the third week of excavation (a relatively short amount of time), along with the remains of a female (believed to have been that of Ellen Luenor, founder and benefactress of Greyfriars).  The rest, as they say, is history.

So what is next?  The Richard III Society hopes for a complete rehabilitation of the King's reputation.  Hopefully this "rehabilitation" will steer clear of the same kind of sensationalism that the Tudor smear-campaign wreaked on history, though going in the opposite direction, and making a haloed saint out of a man who was just that: a man.  For now, though, let us rejoice in the fact that we have found the man behind the mythical monster.  If the story of Richard III has taught us anything at all, it is that history is, indeed, written by the victors, and that the actual souls who lived, breathed, loved, fought, and died can, and often will get lost in the writing of that history.  I think that this is why I was so drawn to this story.  We all want to be perceived, and in the end remembered for our passion for, love of, and contributions to the world.  If Dickon of York, after all of these centuries, can finally achieve that, I think we all have a fighting chance. 

                                             Richard III facial reconstruction from the remains found in Leicester