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Charles Dunford Rowley (1906–1985)

by K. S. Inglis

This article was published:

Charles Dunford Rowley (1906-1985), scholar, teacher, administrator and Aboriginal rights advocate, was born on 13 October 1906 at Rylstone, New South Wales, eldest of seven children of New South Wales-born parents George Charles Rowley, mounted constable, and his wife Mary Ann, née Dunford.  Charles grew up in country towns of central New South Wales; he attended bush schools at Windeyer and Dunedoo, then Mudgee and Cowra High schools; at Cowra he was in the first group to sit for the Leaving certificate.  Enrolling at the University of Sydney in 1923, he graduated (BA, 1926; MA, 1939) with first-class honours in English and history in his first degree; he also gained first-class honours for his Masters thesis.  Among the lecturers he remembered with affection were G. Arnold Wood and, with particular gratitude, James Bruce.  He also played first-grade rugby league and boxed; a broken nose was a lifelong badge of his dedication to hard sport.  In 1928-38 he taught in State secondary schools.  On 22 December 1934 at the Presbyterian Church, Norman Park, Brisbane, he married Irene Janet Klingner, a stenographer.  They were a devoted couple.

In 1938 Rowley was appointed a lecturer at Sydney Teachers’ College.  On 17 February 1942 he joined the Citizen Military Forces and was commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force on 23 July.  An officer in the army education scheme (Australian Army Education Service from October 1943), New Guinea Force, he rose to lieutenant colonel and was mentioned in despatches.  His AIF appointment terminated on 15 January 1946.  Three decades later, while working in Papua New Guinea, he recalled climbing a hill above Port Moresby in 1942 with educational material for soldiers in a machine-gun pit as they awaited likely Japanese invaders.

After holding senior positions in 1946-49 at the Australian Universities Commission, Rowley moved in 1949 to the Commonwealth Office of Education.  In 1950-64 he was principal of the Australian School of Pacific Administration at Mosman, Sydney, a place of applied scholarship for apprenticed or fully-fledged administrators in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.  As the politicians were permanently uncertain about the nature of ASOPA, Rowley remained temporary principal for fourteen years.

Rowley’s own thinking about the Territory went into two books.  The Australians in German New Guinea 1914-1921 (1958) was a critique of Australians’ behaviour as trustees for the League of Nations; The New Guinea Villager (1965) was the first study of the combined territories of Papua and New Guinea to put at its centre not the colonisers but the people colonised.  In plain language, he drew on history, anthropology and political science, and years of discussion at ASOPA, to portray the subjects, to ask perceptive questions about the motives and performance of their Australian custodians, and to speculate constructively about future mixtures of modernity and tradition.  Another fruit of the ASOPA years was The Lotus and the Dynamo: A Traveller in Changing South-East Asia (1960), written after visits to six countries in that region as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization adviser on adult and workers’ education.

In 1957 the Commonwealth Department of Territories extended ASOPA’s brief to include the training of officials in the Northern Territory.  Rowley visited the United States of America and Canada in 1959 to study policies towards Indians, Eskimos and Hawaiians.  He was impressed with the USA’s Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 that, as he learned, 'made possible the vesting in Indian corporations of the tribal reserves'.  His first publication on Aboriginal policy was 'Aborigines and Other Australians', in Oceania (June 1962); he proposed the establishment of corporate Aboriginal bodies with which White Australians could negotiate about land.

Accepting in 1964 a three-year appointment to the Social Science Research Council of Australia, Canberra, Rowley was the director of a project to study Aborigines in Australian society.  He commissioned volumes on many subjects and wrote the first three, whose titles are stark:  The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971).  The books delivered a vivid and hitherto little-known history of the encounters between Aborigines and non-Aborigines, a masterly survey of present relations, and a body of shrewd and humane advice.  They constitute perhaps the most valuable gift of social science to Australia, and they helped to determine the agenda of the Whitlam government.  When a grateful Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, which his sponsor the SSRCA had become in 1971, invited the author to reflect on the project in a 1972 lecture, Rowley chose the title 'From Humbug to Politics'.

Meanwhile Rowley had embarked on another career, as professor of political studies at the University of Papua New Guinea.  Aged 61 when appointed in 1968, he was by far the oldest professor at that young institution—a tribute to his singular fitness for the job.  Some of his students would very soon be among the politicians and administrators of a new nation state.  In Australian Bureaucracy and Niuginian Politics (1969) he warned that 'The student of politics is not necessarily the successful politician, although this has been a common assumption. The proper function of political studies is rather to promote an intellectual community politically aware and critical of government'.  In 1970 he planned and ran a seminar on the politics of Melanesia that engaged emerging leaders from Papua New Guinea and its neighbours in the most sustained discussion of national politics the region had known.  Young and old, Indigenous and expatriate, Black and White, conservative and radical, scholarly and activist, the speakers created a timely ferment of ideas in the wake of the declaration by Gough Whitlam that Papua New Guinea would be independent by 1975.  This seminar was a landmark in the intellectual history of decolonisation. The convenor made his own quiet and tenacious contribution to that process by resisting, successfully, an edict from Canberra, which forbade all public servants in the Territory from participating.  His booklet, The Politics of Educational Planning in Developing Countries (1971), was published by UNESCO in good time to be read by his students.

In 1969 Rowley had travelled to the west of New Guinea (named Irian Barat by its Indonesian occupiers) to observe 'Acts of Self Determination', which purported to be discovering whether people did or did not want to remain under Indonesian rule.  He reported a 'strange series of demonstrations' choreographed by the occupiers, with an inevitable outcome:  'the Indonesians, ironically, are faced with the dilemmas of colonial administration—at the end of the colonial era'.

Returning to Canberra in 1974, Rowley served for five years as executive-director of ASSA.  His recommendations, made in the 1970-71 publications, had included the incorporation of Aboriginal communities as a means to advance their interests, in particular the transfer to the corporation of land, houses and other buildings.  In 1975 he was appointed by the Federal Labor government chairman of a new Aboriginal Land Fund Commission authorised to buy pastoral properties for Aboriginal people to develop.  The Fraser government reduced the commission’s budget year by year until it was abolished in 1980.  One close observer admired the chairman’s mastery of every brief, his shrewdness in dealing with politicians, Aborigines and leaseholders, and his seemingly limitless amiability.

A keen advocate of reconciliation and restitution and a member of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, Rowley wrote two books for general readers.  In A Matter of Justice (1978) he reproached the Fraser government for not sustaining the commitment to land rights affirmed by its predecessor.  Recovery: The Politics of Aboriginal Reform (published posthumously in 1986) lamented the Hawke government’s procrastination and equivocation on the issue.  Half-seriously, Rowley had suggested to the publisher the title 'Amazing Disgrace'.  He wrote Recovery as a visiting fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, from where he could see the land that a great-grandfather had farmed not long after the first interracial encounter beside the Molonglo River.  Rowley remained hopeful, imagining possibilities for Aboriginal autonomy in a continent whose White people, unlike those of Papua New Guinea, would not go away, and whose Indigenous people still had 'some business together which is not the business of other citizens'.

The University of Sydney had conferred on Rowley in 1974 a D.Litt. based on his published works.  In 1983 he was awarded an honorary LL.D by the Australian National University and, in 1985, posthumously, an honorary Ph.D. by the University of Papua New Guinea.  The dying recipient was gratified to know that the honour was coming.  A nomination for admission to the Order of Australia was unaccountably rejected in 1979.

Survived by his wife and their son, Rowley died on 18 September 1985 in Canberra and was cremated.  Tough in body and mind, with a countryman’s drawl and alertness to the importance of land, he was learned and wise, modest and fearless and universally trusted.  Nobody in his lifetime contributed more usefully to the search for policies delivering justice and well-being to Indigenous Australians.

Select Bibliography

  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Annual Report, 1986, p 44
  • Aboriginal History, 1986
  • Oceania, vol 56, no 3, March 1986, p 215
  • Canberra Times, 19 September 1985, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1985, p 18
  • private information
  • personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. S. Inglis, 'Rowley, Charles Dunford (1906–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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