Australian Embassy

Remarks at the Vivian Bowden memorial, Muntok

Commemoration Services for Radji Beach, Bangka Island

Gary Quinlan – Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia

16 February, 2021


Terima kasih Michael (Noyce) and thank you and the Friends of Bangka Island and other supporters.

The execution of Vivian Gordon Bowden by the Japanese occupying forces on 17 February 1942 – the day after the shocking massacres on Radji Beach – was another savage event.

Vivian, accompanied by two other Australian diplomats – J. P. Quinn, whose son John, a former Australian Ambassador, joins us today; and A. N. Wootton – had escaped Singapore by small boat on 14 February, the day before the surrender to the Japanese.

Vivian’s grandson Charles, also a former diplomat, has just been able to join us this morning. His father Ivor – Vivian’s son – another former distinguished Australian Ambassador, is with us in spirit, but is unable to join us because of his age; he is now 95.

The fall of Singapore, which had been seen by Australians as the mainstay of the nation’s defence against the Japanese, was a deep shock.

Over eighteen hundred young Australian defenders were killed. And over fifteen thousand were captured.  Five thousand of those died.

The bombing of Darwin – over three hundred attacks – began four days after Singapore.  As Prime Minister Curtin said;

The battle for Singapore is over. The battle for Australia has begun.

Vivian was one of the very first pioneers of an Australian diplomatic presence in our region – or in fact anywhere.

In 1935 he was appointed Australian Trade Commissioner to China – having been a businessman in East Asia since 1921.  Japan invaded China in 1937.

In September 1941 he was appointed Australian diplomatic Representative in Singapore. He warned Canberra quickly of the inadequacy of Singapore’s defences, particularly its lack of air defence. As he evacuated the day before surrender he telegraphed his last message to Canberra:

Our work completed.  We will telegraph from another place at present unknown.

That unknown place became Muntok, Bangka Island in the then Dutch East Indies.

Intercepted by Japanese patrol boats, his motor launch, the Mary Rose, trying to reach Palembang, was escorted to Bangka Island.

Held captive in the Muntok cinema hall, he was beaten, forced to dig his own shallow grave, and executed at the edge of it. His two fellow Australians survived and were interned in Sumatra for the duration of the war.

Vivian was the only Australian diplomat to die on duty during World War II.  And remains the only one to have been killed – in his case, executed – in conflict.

This was a man deeply immersed in the culture of East Asia.

A man who served valiantly in France during World War I.

A man who spent much of his own youth with his family in Japan, schooled in Yokohama.

Who spoke fluent Japanese. 

Who during his service in China published two novels.

I will shortly read a poem he wrote on leaving Yokohama – which he loved – to attend boarding school in Australia.

I want to thank Pak Fakhrizal and his Museum team and Pak Agung and the West Bangka Regency Government and the West Bangka Tourism Department for their devotion in maintaining Vivian’s memorial and the panel on his life in the museum.  And the people of Muntok for their wonderful empathy and support over so many years.

The Embassy in Jakarta will continue to honor Vivian though the Vivian Gordon Bowden Education Prize given annually to one female and one male student at Universitas Bangka Belitung to help fund their studies.

At this time of COVID-19, we are reminded dramatically of the random unpredictability of life. COVID-19 has not spared the people of Muntok and this part of Indonesia. And I know we all share our sorrow at the loss of life in this brutal pandemic. 

Vivian wrote the following poem – called ‘Home’ –  in 1900 at age 16 as he left Yokohama. It is the voice of a very thoughtful, sensitive young man.


There is a land that I call "home", far off in old Japan:
The land of lotus blossoms, the maple and the fan;
The land of cryptomeria pines, beneath whose fragrant shade
The old red lacquer temples doze, while generations fade.

A land of lakes and rippling streams, where rainbow colours blend,
Where snow-clad Fuji sits and waits until the world shall end.
Would that I might return once more, ere my life's sands are run:
Land of the Gold Chrysanthemum! Land of the Rising Sun!

To hear the old familiar sounds, —the ceaseless temple drum,
The clatter, clatter of the dogs as people go and come.
To wander once again about the temple's sacred grounds,
And hear once more the old bronze bell, as fleeted hours it sounds.

But 'tis too late, —my day is past; Japan I'll see no more;
I can but dream of what I called my home in days of yore.
The mind must now replace the eyes, their visions it must see,
For though I am now far from home, my thoughts lie o'er the sea.

V G Bowden
Summer 1900