Sunday, April 15, 2012

Governor of Queensland takes the road from Diamantina to Roma

The Governor of Queensland Penelope Wensley AC was in Roma and Mitchell this weekend and I caught up with her at engagements in both towns. The Governor met flood victims in both towns though her visit was organised off the back of an art gallery exhibition opening in Roma last night. The Governor is patron of 120 organisations one of which is Royal Queensland Art Society. Brisbane husband and wife artist team Joan and Len Cooper are holding the exhibition in Roma as they also celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and invited the Governor and her husband Stuart McCosker to attend. They accepted the invitation.

I sent one of my journalists to catch up with the Governor at the meet-up of Roma flood victims and I later met her at the art opening. She spoke at length at the opening and well used to boring speeches I was expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised then by a touching, humorous and well considered speech that I know she spent considerable effort researching and putting together.

Governor Wensley noted that Roma was celebrating its sesquicentenary this year. Founded on the site of three pubs in 1862, it is 150 years old later this year. It was one of the first towns to be gazetted after Queensland separated from NSW and the town gained its name from the wife of Queensland’s first Governor Lady Diamantina Bowen (nee Roma). And it was clear from Governor Wensley’s speech it was Bowen’s wife she identified most with, not Queensland’s first Governor.

The young Contessa Diamantina di Roma was born on the Greek Ionian island of Zante near Corfu in 1833. Corfu had briefly passed through French hands during the Napoleonic era but by the time of Roma’s birth, her aristocratic Venetian family ruled the island in the name of Britain. Her mother was Contessa Orsola, née di Balsamo and her father Conte Giorgio-Candiano Roma was president of the Ionian Senate and known to Queen Victoria who appointed him a poet laureate.

George Ferguson Bowen was a protestant Irishman educated at Oxford and briefly in the Navy. He was appointed chief secretary to the government of the Ionian Islands in 1854 where he mixed in the same circles as Diamantina. They married in April 1856 and they stayed on Corfu until 1859. It was that year that Queensland broke free from NSW and Bowen was called by his country to serve as first Governor. Lady Bowen was about to head to unfamiliar territory but made immediately welcome by 4000 people on the docks of Brisbane waving British and Greek flags.

Following their arrival, the colony of Queensland was officially declared on Saturday, 10 December 1859. Two days later there was a function for the new Governor and his wife at the Botanic Gardens. Bowen would remain Governor of Queensland for eight years, an interventionist Governor who was sometimes popular and sometimes unpopular. He had debts to deal with after NSW closed down all its Queensland bank accounts and he had to create a civil service from scratch. It didn’t help his politicians were naive. Robert Herbert was just 28 when he became Queensland’s first premier and had arrived here as Bowen’s private secretary.

But Queensland would thrive as would the Bowens. Without the demands of office, Diamantina was extremely popular. Governor Wensley said despite her privileged upbringing in Greece, Lady Bowen loved the very different landscape of Queensland. She felt instantly at home in the climate and brought a sense of nobility and grace lacking in the young rough and tumble colony. Three of her six children were born in Brisbane. She was active in social welfare and became patron of many charitable societies. Her daughter, also Diamantina, would marry a Queensland grazier. Bowen and his wife would later serve in New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius and Hong Kong before retiring to Britain.

There were 23 more governors of Queensland that followed Bowen before Wensley took over in July 2008. A distinguished diplomat she was appointed to the position after her predecessor Quentin Bryce was promoted to Governor-General of Australia. Penelope Wensley was a country girl born in Toowoomba in 1946. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1968 - the only woman selected in an intake of 19.

Wensley has a stellar diplomatic career at postings across the world including following in Bowen’s footsteps as Consul-General in Hong Kong. She was involved in putting together the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention to combat Drought and Desertification. She is keenly interested humanitarian and human rights issues, women’s rights, and environmental and sustainable development. When she told Roma and Mitchell flood victims this weekend she would act as an advocate for them with the new State Government, it was difficult not to believe her. Just like Lady Diamantina Roma Bowen would have done.

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