Colonialism and Gender

Anna Leonowens, from The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870)

Born in India in 1834, Anna Leonowens was sent to England for her education at the age of six. Her father, an army sergeant, was later killed; her mother didn't return for her until she was fifteen. After resisting her stepfather's attempt to marry her to a much older man, she ultimately married an army clerk with whom she moved to Singapore. He died, leaving her impoverished, with a young daughter and son. She first started a school for the children of British officers in Singapore, which failed; she then took the position in the Siamese court that was the subject of her first book. She stayed at the Siamese court for five years, from 1862 to 1867. She moved to Canada, where she was involved in education and in women's issues, where she died in 1914.

 

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To be free to make a stunning din is a Siamese woman's idea of perfect enjoyment. Hardly were we installed in our apartments when, with a pell-mell rush and screams of laughter, the ladies of his Excellency's private Utah >> note 1 reconnoitred us in force. Crowding in through the half-open door, they scrambled for me with eager curiosity, all trying at once to embrace me boisterously, and promiscuously chattering in shrill Siamese, — a bedlam of parrots; while I endeavored to make myself impartially agreeable in the language of signs and glances. Nearly all were young; and in symmetry of form, delicacy of feature, and fairness of complexion, decidedly superior to the Malay women I had been accustomed to. Most of them might have been positively attractive, but for their ingeniously ugly mode of clipping the hair and blackening the teeth.

The youngest were mere children, hardly more than fourteen years old. All were arrayed in rich materials, though the fashion did not differ from that of their slaves, numbers of whom were prostrate in the rooms and passages. My apartments were ablaze with their crimson, blue, orange, and purple, their ornaments of gold, their rings and brilliants, and their jeweled boxes. Two or three of the younger girls satisfied my Western ideas of beauty, with their clear, mellow, olive complexions, and their almond-shaped eyes, so dark yet glowing. Those among them who were really old were simply hideous and repulsive. One wretched crone shuffled through the noisy throng with an air of authority, and pointing to Boy lying in my lap, >> note 2 cried, "Moolay, moolay!" "Beautiful, beautiful!" The familiar Malay word fell pleasantly on my ear, and I was delighted to find some one through whom I might possibly control the disorderly bevy around me. I addressed her in Malay. Instantly my visitors were silent, and waiting in attitudes of eager attention.

She told me she was one of the many custodians of the harem. She was a native of Quedah; and "some sixty years ago," she and her sister, together with other young Malay girls, were captured while working in the fields by a party of Siamese adventurers. They were brought to Siam and sold as slaves. At first she mourned miserably for her home and parents. But while she was yet young and attractive she became a favorite of the late Somdetch Ong Yai, father of her present lord, and bore him two sons, just as "moolay, moolay" as my own darling. But they were dead. (Here, with the end of her soiled silk scarf she furtively wiped a tear from her face, no longer ugly.) And her gracious lord was dead also; it was he who gave her this beautiful gold betelbox.

"But how is it that you are still a slave?" I asked.

"I am old and ugly and childless: and therefore, to be trusted by my dead lord's son, the beneficent prince, upon whose head be blessings," — clasping her withered hands, and turning toward that part of the palace where, no doubt, he was enjoying a "beneficent" nap.

"And now it is my privilege to watch and guard these favored ones, that they see no man but their lord."

The repulsive uncomeliness of this woman had been wrought by oppression out of that which must have been beautiful once; for the spirit of beauty came back to her for a moment, with the passing memories that brought her long-lost treasures with them. In the brutal tragedy of a slave's experience, — a female slave in the harem of an Asian despot, — the native angle in her had been bruised, mutilated, defaced, deformed, but not quite obliterated.


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