Governor and Lady Bowen: an odd couple in Queensland

Today is Queensland Day, an inoffensive but slightly daft non-holiday that was dreamed up in 1981, during the mad, bad days of the Bjelke-Petersen administration, with its separatist, anti-Canberra agenda.  It celebrates the splitting off of the northern part of New South Wales into a separate colony, Queensland in 1859.

It’s an odd date.  6 June was the day on which Queen Victoria signed the Letters Patent, which are still held in Britain at the National Archives, but given communications at the time, nobody in the Australian colonies knew what Victoria was doing that day.  If we must celebrate the birth of Queensland – and do we really need to? – then surely 10 December makes more sense. This was the day that Governor Bowen arrived in Brisbane, and the new colony was proclaimed. We usually celebrate birthdays, not the date of conception, after all.

Sir George and Lady Bowen, née the Contessa Diamantina di Roma, were as exotic a young couple as ever graced Old Government House.  Sir George was an Anglo-Irishman with a first class classics degree, a fellow of Brasenose College at Oxford.  He took his MA in 1847, then became President of the Greek University of Corfu, where he wrote and studied,  travelled and published widely, including a book on the island of Ithaca proving it was the same place as Homer’s Ithaca.  (Brisbane has a suburb called Ithaca.)

The eastern Mediterranean, then as now, was a politically agitated area, and Bowen was there at a time of dramatic change. He was in Vienna in 1848, when Imperial troops captured the city from revolutionaries and reinstated the Emperor. He travelled through Hungary, Albania and Montenegro, and on to Constantinople (Istanbul), crossing the cultural divides between the Catholic, Greek and Ottoman worlds.

Map of Ionian Islands in English

Map of Ionian Islands in English (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Corfu/Kerkyra is one of the Ionian Islands, which include also Ithaca, Cephalonia/Kefalonia and Zanthe/Zakynthos. In all there are 7 islands in the group to the west of mainland Greece.   While Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire until it achieved independence in 1830,  the Ionian Islands were part of the Venetian Empire – hence their dual names. Their religion was Greek Orthodox, but the language of the ruling Venetian elite was Italian. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, the Venetian empire collapsed, and following the French defeat in 1815, the Ionian islands came under British control.

Then as now, this was a messy, strategically important part of the world, full of international rivalries, cultural boundaries, and religious tensions. And Bowen was an enthusiastic meddler. In 1850 he published The Ionian Islands under British Protection, which criticized the British High Commissioner, and followed this with newspaper and journal articles. Gladstone supported him, and appointed him chief secretary to a new commissioner in 1854.  Bowen was knighted in 1855.

Then, in 1856, Bowen married Diamantina di Roma, a daughter of one of the main local political players, Count Candiano Roma of Zante, the president of the Ionian Senate and a relative of Prince Danilo of Montenegro.  He was 35, she 23.

Bowen was clever and capable, he knew the languages and people, and his criticisms may have been valid, but from the perspective of the British Colonial Office, he was becoming an embarrassment, especially after documents from the Colonial Office found their way into the Daily News in 1858.  His marriage didn’t help either, for it drew him ever closer to one of the contending political factions in Corfu.

In 1859 Bowen was promoted to colonial governor of a brand new colony, as far away from Mediterranean tensions as you could get – Queensland. The technical term, I think, is ‘kicked upstairs’.

English: Lady Diamantina Roma Bowen

English: Lady Diamantina Roma Bowen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It must have been an almighty shock for the cultured and aristocratic Diamantina. When they arrived at the end of 1859, Brisbane had a population of just over 4000, mostly male, mostly working class. It was hot – she wrote to Sir William Macarthur that she found the summers intolerable, but from April onwards, the climate was perfect. It was raw and new – Government House was still being built when they arrived.

The Bowen family spoke Italian at home, though whether this was because it was their preferred language, or to teach their children, or to keep their affairs private from the servants, it’s hard to know. At the time, such behaviour seemed strange, bordering on unpatriotic, in a British colony.

Bowen had a respectable career as colonial governor, moving from Queensland, to New Zealand, to Victoria, to Mauritius, to Hong Kong. They retired to London in 1885, where Diamantina could resume her worship in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Bowen’s dispatches are detailed and erudite – and about 3 times as long as they need to be. I know, I’ve transcribed a few in my time!  I suspect bureaucrats at the Colonial Office groaned when they arrived.

Diamantina also wrote long letters from their various postings back to her family on Zanthe, who kept them safe, a memory of their daughter, sister, aunt, great aunt, who had travelled far away to exotic places – like Brisbane – although it’s not clear that any of the later generations ever read these letters. They would have been written in Italian, not the Florentine Italian of unified Italy, but the antique Veneziano dialect of her childhood. When the islands joined Greece in 1864, Greek became the language of education, so they may not have been able to read them anyway. And certainly no Queenslander read them – though in the 20th century, both Greeks and Italians have come here in great numbers.

The letters remained in the Roma family, through wars and upheavals, until 1953, when a powerful earthquake hit the islands, and they were destroyed. They say that you are a historian if you still feel sad about the fate of the Library of Alexandria. I suppose I must be a Queenslander because I still feel sad about the fate of Diamantina’s letters, too.

Owen Harris, ‘Contessa Diamantina Roma, Lady Bowen’
Bruce Knox, ‘Sir George Ferguson Bowen’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,, accessed 6 June 2013

One response to “Governor and Lady Bowen: an odd couple in Queensland

  1. Pingback: The Ambitions of Jane Franklin | Historians are Past Caring

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