The story of the overthrow of the Konbaung Dynasty by the British in the late nineteenth century is a complex one, but a simplified explanation of the events of that time were published in an historical novel that British author, F. Tennyson Jesse, published in (I think) 1930 called The Lacquer Lady.

The main character in The Lacquer Lady is Fanny Maroni, a half-Burmese/half-Italian young woman who ends up working for Queen Supayalat, falls in love with a French engineer in Mandalay, and this leads to a lot of intrigue that eventually leads the British to decide to conquer what remained of Burma at that time (the plot is too detailed to explain here).

Thibaw

Fanny Maroni is based on an actual historical figure – Mattie Calogreedy, a half-Greek/half-Burmese woman who was born in Mandalay and who became a maid of honor for Queen Supayalat, and yes, who fell in love with a French engineer.

Whether or not this relationship led to a lot of intrigue that eventually led the British to attack is not an issue that I’m all that interested in. What I find more interesting is simply the fact that there was a hapa (i.e., “mixed blood”) woman in the palace in Mandalay.

marie-vannier

A while ago I found some pictures of a half-French/half-Vietnamese woman by the name of Marie Vannier who accompanied an official Nguyễn Dynasty delegation to France in 1863. So at roughly the same time that Mattie Calogreedy was at the Burmese court, Marie Vannier had some kind of connection to the Vietnamese court.

anna_leonowens

And then there was Anna Leonowens, the Englishwoman who served as a tutor at the Siamese court in the 1860s. Leonowens was born in India, and some people have speculated that her mother may have been Indian.

Hence, at these three courts in mainland Southeast Asia there were hapa women. What does that mean? Why were they there? I think that this is a topic that would be fascinating to research further.

carnal knowledge

A lot of research has been done in the past two decades that demonstrates that there was never a clear dichotomy between “the colonizers” and “the colonized” during the period of colonial rule, as both groups were very heterogeneous.

I would argue that the existence of Mattie Calogreedy, Anna Leonowens and Marie Vannier at the Burmese, Siamese and Vietnamese courts prior to the colonial period suggests that this was the case before colonial rule was fully established as well. As such, (perhaps people have written about this and I simply haven’t read it but. . .) understanding the presence and roles of Europeans and European hapas in these societies and these courts in the period prior to colonial (or “semi-colonial” in the case of Siam) rule can probably give us a clearer sense of how heterogeneous pre-colonial courts were, and this in turn can perhaps give us a clearer sense of how colonial conquest was as complex a phenomenon as colonial rule was.