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John Russell Rowland (1925–1996)

by Alison Broinowski

This article was published online in 2024

John Rowland, 1984 (Alec Bolton)

John Rowland, 1984 (Alec Bolton)

John Russell Rowland (1925–1996), diplomat and poet, was born on 10 February 1925 at Armidale, New South Wales, youngest of three children of New South Wales-born Louis Claude Rowland, grazier and naval reserve officer, and his Queensland-born wife Elsie Jean, née Wright. John was educated by correspondence with the assistance of governesses at Morunda, his family’s pastoral property of 1,200 hectares near Armidale. John attended Lochiel Junior Grammar School, Killara, and was awarded a half-scholarship to enrol at Cranbrook School, Bellevue Hill (1937–41). There he received awards for English, French, divinity, history, and for contributions to the school magazine, and was dux in his final year.

Rowland matriculated at the University of Sydney in 1941, and although other students were enlisting for service in World War II, his parents advised him against military service. Their elder son James, a senior officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, was then a prisoner of war in Germany. John studied languages and history (BA, 1946), then completed his degree in Canberra as one of the second tranche of diplomatic cadets recruited by the Department of External Affairs (1944–45). Thus began a distinguished diplomatic career of almost forty years.

With a penchant for languages, poetry, and art, Rowland did not enjoy the ‘dogsbody work’ in Canberra where cadets ‘shuffled the paper’ (Rowland 1985). His first posting was to Moscow (1946–48) where Australia had established a mission just four years earlier. There he learned Russian, travelled widely, and wrote a lengthy, adventurous, and perceptive account for his department of a journey down the Volga. With intervals in Canberra, his subsequent overseas service included tours in London (1949–52 and 1957–59), and two separate postings in Saigon. There he opened the Australian legation to the Associated States of Indo-China as chargé d’affaires (1952–53), and later observed (1954–55) the early phase of France’s displacement by the United States of America as the principal external power in the south of a newly partitioned Vietnam. During his posting to Washington, DC (1955–57), he married English-born Moira Enid Armstrong, a British diplomat, at St John’s Wood Church of England in London on 18 February 1956. There followed a period in the Europe, Africa, Middle East and Commonwealth branch in Canberra (1959–65), before he was assigned to Moscow as ambassador (1965–68) during a time of uneasy relations between the Soviet Union and the West. He departed just days before the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Though Rowland shared with other members of his family a commitment to serving their country, in his cultural, social, and environmental concerns he had more in common with a first cousin, the poet Judith Wright. Maintaining his literary interests throughout his working life, he would amplify them in retirement. He published and illustrated seven collections of his poems, and translated contemporary Russian poets whose friendship he shared with the Australian writer, Geoffrey Dutton. While as a diplomat Rowland wrote lively and perceptive reports to Canberra, he was privately critical of pointless diplomatic rituals. In a 1965 poem, ‘A Diplomat,’ he described members of his profession as hollow creatures, who observed violence and injustice but failed to prevent them.

Rowland returned to South-East Asia as high commissioner to Malaysia (1969–72). He urged Australians to ‘accept where we live and who our neighbours are’ and recommended more ‘active and understanding diplomacy’ on Australia’s part, extending beyond rhetoric to encompass trade, immigration, investment, and cultural exchange (Rowland 1992, 59). Another posting in Europe followed, when he represented Australia in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Switzerland (1973–74). The last of his ambassadorial assignments was to France and Morocco (1978–82). In a poem from Paris he urged Australians to ‘Burst free!’ from the ‘fist’ of European history and custom, and contribute to Australia’s ‘unshaped future’ (Rowland 1989).

In the estimation of a fellow senior diplomat, Rowland’s subsequent work on Antarctica was ‘the crowning point of his career’ (Anderson 1997). While a visiting fellow at the Australian National University (ANU) (1982–84), he chaired the Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting in Canberra in 1983, and later published an authoritative chapter on the Antarctic legal regime in 1988. Through his advocacy for the continent, he sought to save it—an aspiration honoured when the Australian government was instrumental in having Antarctica declared a natural reserve through the Madrid Protocol in 1991. In a prescient 1994 poem, Rowland observed that Antarctica is ‘where the planet’s health is measured.’ Its unperceived world ‘could change our whole language’ (Rowland 1994, 49). Some older foreign services had diplomats who combined such wide-ranging qualities, and were as conversant with the East as with the West: but for Australia, Rowland set an exceptional example. Another colleague, the diplomat and author Gregory Clark, wrote that ‘He was simply the best diplomat I have known, of any nationality. Gentle, but tough when needed’ (Clark, pers. comm.). Rowland was appointed AO in January 1981.

Having retired in 1984, Rowland applied his diplomatic experience to environmental and social issues. From the holiday home he shared with Moira and their family at Guerilla Bay, New South Wales, he developed practical environmental policy with the Coastwatchers Association Inc., Greenpeace Australia Ltd, and the Conservation Council of the South-East Region and Canberra. In Canberra, he advocated self-government for the Australian Capital Territory, supported the Friends of the ANU Library, and worked to preserve a communal environment in Canberra’s Civic centre. His last public advocacies were to the ACT authorities for better accommodation for people with psychiatric disabilities, and to the Howard government for Aboriginal land rights. He died at Deakin, ACT, on 31 December 1996, and was buried near Dalgety, New South Wales, survived by Moira and their children Andrew, Katherine and Philippa.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, David. ‘Diplomat with a Poet’s Compassion.’ Australian, 8 January 1997, 12
  • Clark, Gregory. Personal communication
  • Gilchrist, Hugh, and David Anderson. ‘A Diplomat and Man of Letters.’ Age (Melbourne), 4 February 1997, B2
  • Rowland, J. R. Granite Country: Poems by J. R. Rowland: with Drawings by the Author. Canberra: Brindabella Press, 1994
  • Rowland, John Russell. Interview by Heather Rusden, 23 May 1992. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Rowland, John Russell. Interview by Ken Henderson, September–October 1985. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Rowland, J. R. Paris–Canberra, 1982: poème. [Paris]: Petite Maison, 1989
  • Rowland, J. R. ‘The Treaty Regime and the Politics of the Consultative Parties.’ In The Antarctic Legal Regime, edited by Christopher C. Joyner and Sudhir K. Chopra, 11–31. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, [1988]
  • Rowland, John. Two Transitions: Indochina 1952–1955, Malaysia 1969–1972. Australians in Asia Series, No. 8. Nathan, Qld: Centre for the Study of Australia–Asia Relations, Griffith University, 1992

Citation details

Alison Broinowski, 'Rowland, John Russell (1925–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 18 May 2024.

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