Louis T. Leonowens, 1856 – 1919

by

Derick Garnier

 

His mother was Anna, who was to become famous after being depicted as the governess in the musical “The King and I”. His father was Thomas Leon Owens a pay clerk in the British army in India. But Thomas Owens soon died, leaving two fatherless children and a young widow, marooned in India without work or money. Bravely, Anna went to Singapore and opened a small school, teaching English. From there, she was invited to go to Bangkok and teach English to the young children of King Mongkut. This changed the lives of mother and son. Anna used her experiences to write her best-selling book, “a Governess at the court of Siam”. Louis returned when he was grown-up and used his friendship with the young King Chulalongkorn, to become a teak trader. From these humble beginnings Louis rose to become one of the richest foreigners in Thailand; known to all and admired by most. He left the bulk of his fortune to Thai charities. 

 

Louis LeonowensLike so many successful people, Louis’ life seems to have been governed by chance. While Anna was in Singapore, teaching English in her little school, an agent of the King of Thailand, King Mongkut, was looking for a foreigner who could teach English to the little princes and princesses. The king had laboured to learn English for himself, there were no teachers, and indeed only five people in Thailand could speak the language. The King was determined that his children should be able to speak fluently to the foreigners who were flocking to his country now that he had opened it to foreign trade.

 

So Anna’s name was put forward, terms were agreed and on 15 March 1862 Anna arrived in Bangkok by boat and in the dark with her 6 year old son, Louis and a large Newfoundland dog.  They were met by the Prime Minister in a state barge and soon installed in a house near the Grand Palace.

 

As a little boy in Bangkok, Louis enjoyed himself enormously.  Sometimes he went to Anna’s class and would stand on a chair beside his mother, mimicking her voice and gestures as she taught the little princes and princesses.  King Mongkut took him on the royal yacht to Ayutthaya and later to distant Nakorn Prathom. He gave him a toy sword and gun and “a beautiful boat with which I row Mama to the Palace.” King Mongkut even had him to dinner to meet the new American consul who later wrote that the King “seemed to regard this bright boy as an adopted son”.  Even the austere Chief Minister, Chao Phya Sri Suryawong, told Anna's doctor that he would adopt Louis himself if Anna were to die.  Anna overheard the remark, and promptly recovered.

After she had taught the royal children for more than five years, Anna felt it was time to return home to a milder climate; she had been ten years in the tropics and needed to recuperate.  She took Louis to a boarding school in Ireland and herself went to America to see her daughter, Avis, and to write up her experiences at the Siamese Court and find a publisher.

All went well for Louis at his Irish school, until he was accused of something he had not done, so he ran away, somehow crossed the Atlantic and turned up at his mother’s house on Staten Island.  He was not quite fifteen years old! He had to find work as his mother was too poor to support him. For the next three years he tried one job after another and then decided to emigrate to Australia.  He disappeared and for months Anna heard nothing.  Then the news came that Louis had reached Australia and was trekking 600 miles north to the gold fields.  Most of the prospectors were rough Irish immigrants and were controlled, with difficulty, by the mine’s own police force.  Louis was six feet tall and strong, and was at once recruited into the force.  He stuck it for four years and then became a stockhand.  But this job did not satisfy him either and eventually he took ship for Bangkok and his childhood friend, Chulalongkorn, now King of Siam.

It is not quite clear how the two met, but it is said that the King spotted Louis in a crowd (not difficult as he was 6 foot tall) and called out “Hello, Louis, do you want a job?”  The King needed to form a royal guard to protect his person and to parade on ceremonial occasions, and Louis would be just the person to train and lead this first Siamese cavalry brigade.   The King asked Louis to go back to Australia and buy large Australian ‘walers’ to form a cavalry brigade.   But after this was done, there was little to attract Louis, until the King asked him to lead a raggle-taggle troop of soldiers up to the North East to protect a party of surveyors who were plotting the boundary between Siam and the French colony of Laos.  Their other duty was to find and destroy marauding bands of Chinese ‘Haw’ who were burning villages and murdering their inhabitants.  Two Europeans went with Louis, James McCarthy, a brilliant and doughty surveyor borrowed from the Survey of India and George Bush, the 21 year old son of the British Harbour Master. It was a gruelling journey as there were no roads; it took them 15 days to reach Saraburi, through dense malarial forest where tigers still roamed, and another fortnight to reach Nong Khai. The Haw fled before them on their ponies.  Eventually the party reached Luang Prabang, following a trail of burned out villages and terrified refugees.  Here Louis left his troops, having chased the Haw out of Siam and returned to Bangkok, where a bride awaited him.

She was the beautiful Caroline Knox, the half-Mon daughter of the British consul, J.G.Knox.  The couple was much in love and soon Caroline had a son, Thomas George.  Louis resigned from royal service and in 1884 became an agent for the Borneo Company, stationed at Raheng (Tak) and Paknampo (Nakorn Sawan).  The four main rivers of northern Thailand meet at this point, to form the Chao Phraya, and it was along these rivers that all the teak logs from the forests of Siam were floated down.  Here Louis corralled all the Borneo Company’s timber, bought logs from other companies, lashed them all together in huge rafts, and then sent the whole lot down stream to Bangkok.  He also discovered a new forest of teak trees and was granted a lease to manage it by his friend, King Chulalongkorn; the first such license granted to anyone.

Louis was fortunate both in his friends and in his timing.  The trade in teak had existed for many years, but it was all sold to other nearby Asian countries, and for a modest profit.  Now, in 1882 just as Louis entered the business, news came that a young Danish sea captain had just sold his cargo of teak at Liverpool for a profit of 100%.  The teak trade was transformed into a wild scramble for timber, resembling the gold rush.  A British judge declared that “All timber transactions north of Paknampo(Nakorn Sawan) …..appear to possess a savour of the Spanish Main.”  And the biggest buccaneer of them all was Louis Leonowens himself.

The Borneo Company built him a huge teak house at Tak, and he built another for his wife and son in Bangkok. It was one of the finest and grandest brick houses in the city. He also set out to make his fortune.  And this, over the next 20 years he assuredly did.  In 1889 he was promoted to the post of “Northern Superintendant” for the Borneo Company, in effect in charge of all the teak operations of the Company.  Later, he switched to the Bombay Burmah Company who had gained experience in teak forests in Burma and introduced improved methods of working the forests.  He also acquired for himself the lease of forests near Lampang.  He opened a general store in Bangkok and another in Chiengmai.  He bought a lease on the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and went into partnership in the new company, Louis T. Leonowens Ltd.

Meanwhile, his wife, Caroline had become desperately ill in Bangkok and Louis arrived only just before she died (1893).  He took their two children back to England, where he met his mother, Anna, after an interval of 20 years.  Happily, they paraded along the sea-front at Margate, Louis dressed in a light-grey suit with a scarlet cummerbund, and carrying a gold-topped cane.  Then Anna took the two young children off to Canada, to be brought up by Louis’ sister, with her own six children.

Louis returned to Bangkok and went to his house, near the Oriental.  It was closed and empty and his servants had left.   It is said that Louis then went to the Oriental hotel to drown his sorrows and ended up by buying the lease of the hotel and, later, appointing his own manager.  (It had just been rebuilt and was fitted with electric light in every room.) 

Eventually he recovered his spirits sufficiently to return to Chiengmai and take up his job as agent for the Borneo Company in the teak forests of Northern Thailand.  He was also trading in teak on his own account with the Burmese and using the money he made there to buy goods to bring to Thailand and sell in his store in Chiengmai. The Company grew tired of this and decided to sack him – but Louis knew what was coming, and resigned first.  Unfortunately for the Borneo company, many of the leases for forest lands, which were granted by the owners, the local (Lao) chiefs, were granted to Louis T. Leonowens in person.  So when he left, the leases to cut teak in the forests, were abrogated too.  It is also said that when the Company looked in the Chiengmai office safe, they found that most of the money had been removed – by Louis on a hand-cart.

In 1898, Louis signed an agreement with BBTC (the Bombay Burma Teak Company) by which he would give up his trade in teak from forests along the Salween river, in return for an annual payment of £1,500.  But this agreement was for six years only.  To sign it, Louis travelled overland from Chiengmai to Rangoon. There he hired a caravan of mules, loaded them with Burmese goods and drove them back over the hills to sell his purchases in his Chiengmai store. 

But Louis needed to get back into the teak trade.  He moved to Lampang and leased forests from the local chiefs.  He also married again; Reta Maclaughlan, a pretty blue-eyed twenty-year old, just returned from school in Australia.  They met at the St. Andrew’s Day ball and fell in love – even though Louis was forty three.  Bravely, she went back with him to Lampang – and took to it at once.  The people, the wild animals in the forest, the flowers, antique pottery, temple architecture, everything seemed to please her.  She threw open their house to old residents and newcomers alike.  With Louis, she helped to start a Gymkhana Club in Lampang and organized polo, tennis and even a pig race.

But dark clouds were gathering, and in 1902 the Shan tribesmen rebelled against the government in Bangkok who were now taxing them severely.  The Shans attacked the little town of Phrae and then advanced on Lampang.  Louis moved at once to lead the foreigners in defending the town.  He urged the few foreign women into a special bullet-proof room in the Borneo Co. compound; organised the men to build V-shaped barriers across all the roads into town; and threw all the money down a well in his compound.  The Shans were halted by the teak-wood barricade and driven off by musket fire from the few Siamese troops in the town.  The tide had been turned and from now on the Shans were in retreat and life returned, slowly, to normal.  But it took months for Louis and his men to retrieve all the teak logs and the elephants which had been dispersed by the rising.

From now on, Louis and Reta spent less and less time in the north.  In 1904 they went back to England, and Louis went on to Canada to see his two children by his first wife, whom he had not seen for 11 years.  He returned to England the next year to incorporate his business interests with others in the Louis T. Leonowens Company.  (The Giant Swing, near the Grand Palace, was erected by the company in his memory with timbers from the Company estates: it is over 120 feet high.)

Louis and Reta were spending more time in England and visited Thailand for the last time in 1914.  After this the First World War made travel impossible, and Louis died in 1919 in the ‘flu pandemic.  Reta lived on until 1936 and left the bulk of Louis’ fortune to Thai charities