On December 10, it will mark 154 years since Lady Diamantina Bowen arrived in Queensland. Lady Bowen was the wife of Queensland’s first governor, Sir George Bowen, whose history and surname we looked at in Brisbane Suburbs That Could Be Used as Boys Names.
Lady Bowen was born in the beautiful Ionian Islands of Greece as the Contessa Diamantina di Roma, one of a large aristocratic family descended from Venetians who had occupied the Ionian Islands for centuries as part of the Republic of Venice. Diamantina’s father was President of the Ionian Senate, and had been appointed Poet Laureate of the islands by Queen Victoria, as the Ionian Islands were then a British Protectorate.
Diamantina grew up in a privileged world, was well-educated, and familiar with government, politics and diplomacy. She was described as pretty, slender and graceful, with an attractiveness which came from her expression rather than her features. She was softly-spoken, and had a slight accent when speaking in English; in private, she spoke Italian. Despite their Italian origins, the di Roma family were members of the Greek Orthodox faith.
Diamantina married Sir George Bowen, government secretary to the islands, in 1856, and came to Brisbane three years later with her husband and baby daughter. The Bowens were met by a crowd of 4000 people, waving both the Union Jack and the Greek flag in welcome. Brisbane was enormously excited by their arrival, and there was a 21-gun salute, triumphal arch, fireworks, and days and days of speeches, proclamations, and general celebrations in their honour.
One of the ladies who presented Diamantina with a bouquet described her as a “beautiful Greek fairy princess … stepped out of a poetry book”. The poor fairy princess had endured agonising sea sickness to get there, and being pregnant, possibly morning sickness as well; it must have been an ordeal for her to stand there in the heat and humidity through all the official events.
Brisbane itself must have been something of a culture shock to Diamantina, because although it was a prosperous and thriving community, it was also a pioneering one, and would have seemed rough and dusty, with lumpy roads, and an unreliable water supply.
However, Lady Bowen fulfilled her duties as Queensland’s first lady admirably. She became a celebrated hostess, and her balls and dinner parties were the highlight of the social scene. She held a weekly salon, and her graciousness is credited with raising the general tone of Brisbane society.
Diamantina was an accomplished pianist and singer, and her interest in music led to her to become a patroness of the arts. When their official residence was ready, the Bowens had an elegant and spacious sandstone mansion to entertain in. Diamantina personally supervised the layout of the grounds, and assisted with the development of the surrounding Royal Botanic Gardens.
Diamantina was also a tireless worker for charity. She started the first Sunday School for children, and helped found the Lady Bowen Lying-In Hospital, Brisbane’s first maternity hospital, and forerunner to the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital. She was also a patron of an orphanage, and of a hospital for the incurably ill. At a time marked by religious bias, Lady Bowen befriended the Sisters of Mercy, and became a patroness of their fund-raising efforts.
Diamantina was greatly admired in Brisbane, and became a great favourite. She was dignified without being aloof, and reserved without being cold, but most of all kind-hearted and compassionate, with a genuine desire to be accessible. I suspect it was because of his wife that Sir George was asked to stay on a further two years after his term of office ended.
When the Bowens finally left after eight years, 120 of Brisbane’s married women presented Diamantina with a diamond necklace, and 120 of its single women gave her a gold bracelet studded with emeralds. Diamantina must have made several close personal connections in Brisbane, because we are told that she wept bitterly as she left, becoming so distraught that she had to be carried to the ship to New Zealand, where Sir George had been appointed governor-general.
Diamantina had many namesakes in Queensland – not only Roma Street and Lady Bowen Park in Brisbane, but the town of Roma, the Diamantina River, and Diamantina Island are just a few that come to mind.
Diamantina returned to Australia when Sir George became governor of Victoria. Now in her mid-life, Diamantina’s manner had become impressively regal, and she was seen as exotic, fascinating, and elegant. A Melbourne gossip columnist noted her dazzling black eyes, flawless creamy complexion, and lovely figure. She inspired awe and respect, but never again did she seem quite so loved as she had been in Queensland, where she was a figure of poetry and romance.
Diamantina is a variation of the Greek name Diamanto, meaning “diamond”. The name is used in both Greece and Italy, and can be pronounced dee-uh-man-TEE-nuh or dy-uh-man-TEE-nuh. The obvious nicknames are Di, Dee and Tina, although Diamond, Mandy and Monti seem possible as well. Lady Bowen’s eldest daughter had Diamantina as her middle name, and she went by Nina, which appeals to me most of all.
Diamantina is a pretty and elaborate girl’s name which belonged to one of the most charming ladies to grace our shores. Diamantina was a heroine to the Greek community in Queensland, and this could be a Greek heritage choice, or a Queensland heritage choice. If the name Diamond seems too hard or crude, Diamantina may seem softer and more elegant.
(Picture shows the governor’s official residence, now Old Government House, in the grounds of Queensland University of Technology, where it is used for functions)