The Truth about Anna

The Truth about Anna[1]


The King and I is one of Hollywood’s most successful musicals. The story is set in the 1800s in Siam, as it was called then. It revolved around the king and his many children (from his harem) and this upper class English governess, Anna.


The Rogers and Hammerstein musical was the end point of earlier movies and books about Anna.  These were based on the biography written by Margaret Langdon who with husband Kenneth were missionaries in Thailand after Anna’s time there.  Margaret Langdon wrote her biography, mostly based on Anna’s two romanticised books about her unusual life in the walled compound of the harem with these many children and the irascible king.


There is only one problem.  Anna was not a high class Englishwoman.  Anna was actually the child of an Indian woman in Bombay and a very poor, low ranking English soldier.  She was, however, prodigiously clever and managed to educate herself and learn Sanskrit, as well as English.  As was the custom she was married off at 13 to a low class English soldier like her father, who was killed in military service in India.  In late teens she married another Englishman, a civil servant in Bombay, who also died.


Anna Leonowens, as she now called herself, now in early 20s took herself and children to Singapore where she passed herself off as a high class Englishwoman, accent and all, where she started a school for children of wealthy expats.  So began the myth of Anna.[2] Soon she applied for and won a job with the elderly and irascible king of Siam to educate his dozens of children.  This she did for about 5 years.


Then she visited England – for the first time – and then migrated to the US, per favour of US missionaries she had come to know in Bangkok.  There she wrote her misleading books about herself as a high-class English governess to the king.  Then she joined the lecture circuit in the US and so the story and her fame spread – her version of it.  Eventually, she retired in Canada where she became a revered figure, famous for her advocacy of education.


Then along came Margaret Langdon, followed by the movies climaxed by the staging of the King and I on Broadway followed by the blockbuster movie.


This version of Anna’s life is what is believed.  Kenneth Langdon on returning from missionary service joined the State Department and became the bureau chief for Thailand.  Much of the US’s positive relationship with Thailand over the decades can be traced back to the influence of the Langdons – Margaret for her glowing story of Anna and Kenneth for his good offices in the State Department.


But it is a myth.  There was an Anna and she was a governess to the king of Siam but she was a low-class mixed breed Anglo-Indian woman.  She was very bright and ingenious and did much good.  But the thing that made her fabulous with the Americans and the world – her classy background – simply was not true.  She passed herself off as someone she wasn’t and the mythmakers were deceived and blindly ran with her story.


There are many who think Jesus passed himself off as something and someone he wasn’t and that others created the myth that we find in the NT, and that subsequently launched Christianity.


How would you answer this?


Not, I suggest, by simply saying ‘I believe the Bible because it’s God’s true word’.  They would say back to you that the texts you depend on are mythical.

I think you would have to argue your case historically.


[1] Susan Morgan, Bombay Anna (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[2]English low class circus performer Archie Leach decided to become debonair west coast American Cary Grant, and did!