After World War I, the Limbin prince was allowed to return to Burma and his extensive family settled in Rangoon. Small and exquisite, with a will of steel, Princess Ma Lat was a free spirit whom nobody liked to counter. It was clear she would marry whom she chose.
Herbert Bellamy grew up in Victoria. He gained entrance to study medicine at Melbourne University, but preferred to roam the bush, making money from wins in sprint races, organising boxing bouts and training racehorses. A fixture on an Asian horseracing circuit between Bombay, Calcutta and Batavia (now Jakarta), as both breeder and bookmaker, he moved to Rangoon on the suggestion of the Sultan of Johore.
Ma Lat liked the races and went to place a bet with Bellamy. The attraction was instant.
In his 1938 book Trials in Burma the colonial judge and author Maurice Collis wrote about a call from Ma Lat in 1928. “She sat on the sofa, a beautiful woman, in a blue silk skirt and a jacket of white lawn, her complexion corn-coloured, her eyes large and brilliant, and with exquisite hands.” She asked him to wed her and Bellamy.
The marriage took place on 18 October at 4.48pm, a time fixed as auspicious by an astrologer. Collis privately thought it a social disgrace for her to marry a colonial book-maker. “The occasion seemed to be strange and disturbing,” he recalled. “Had the rape of Mandalay ended in this?”
June Rose was born in 1932, the only child of the marriage, and began an idyllic childhood between the two cultures of her parents. “At home we spoke Burmese – not the Burmese that ordinary Burmese speak, but court Burmese. I grew up speaking that, and English, and Hindi,” she told me in 2009. “I lived on one side very Buddhist. We never wore our shoes upstairs. The food for the monks was prepared first thing every morning. When it came time for the festivals, my father would disappear hunting. From his side, we had Christmas trees, we had Easter bunnies; I rode, and I shot. What Buddhist shoots?”
June Rose was very close to her father, who set up bamboo hurdles for her in the yard, told her yarns about his time in the Australian bush and read her Henry Lawson’s poems. “I can tell you everything about Kalgoorlie, the Southern Cross; I can tell you about the half-bald cockatoo in the pub in whose cup people would pour beer, and when the parrot was sloshed he’d say: ‘Give me another feather and I’ll fly.’”
When she was nine, this idyll ended. Japanese bombers hit Rangoon in February 1942 and along with most other expats the Bellamy family fled to India ahead of the invasion. They settled in Allahabad, the sleepy North Indian city at the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, where an aunt, one of the Limbin prince’s other daughters, was living while her husband, an Indian maharajah, spent time in the local jail along with other pro-independence figures including Jawarharlal Nehru.
June Rose went along when her aunt visited her husband. “My uncle was in one cell, and there was water on the floor with the fan blowing on the water to keep cool. Four doors down was Nehru,” she recalled. “When I saw the film Gandhi I had to see it again. The first time I cried all the way through.”
When she was 14, the family returned to a wrecked and bombed Rangoon. Her father went into semi-retirement in the British-built hill station of Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin) outside Mandalay, where he ran a few horses, disappeared to his hunting lodge in the forests and collected rare orchids.
June Rose grew into a noted beauty. The English travel writer Norman Lewis met the Bellamy family at a party in Maymyo, and in his 1955 book, Golden Earth, said June Rose “allied to the graceful beauty of the Burmese a quite European vivacity.” And she was practical: “When the family were about to leave, in an elderly and ailing British car, June Rose showed much skill in locating a short in the wiring, and much tomboyish energy in winding the starting handle until the engine fired.”
Winning an essay competition, June Rose was given a three-month tour of the United States as a prize, and flourished on what passed for the social circuit in the fragile yet hopeful fifteen years following Burma’s independence in 1946.
She was a contender for a role in the war movie The Purple Plain, as the young Burmese nurse who gives a suicidal pilot (played by Gregory Peck) an interest in life, but said she pulled out during the shooting in Ceylon. “It was so Hollywood, it was ridiculous; it was an insult to anything that had to do with Burma,” she said. “When the film did come to Burma there was a big hue and cry. Things in the pagoda, things a Buddhist would never do.”
In 1954 she married Mario Postiglione, a young Italian doctor working on malaria prevention with the World Health Organisation. Seven months after the birth of the first of their two sons, Mario was kidnapped by Burmese communists.
“They were all well-educated – former students,” June Rose said. “We have nothing against you or him,’ they said, ‘and how is your royal mother and your son? We want the world to know the government has no control of the country. We need the money to buy the arms. Too bad it’s your husband.’ After we got him back, the UN told us to get out of Burma.”
June Rose went with Mario to WHO postings in Damascus, Geneva and Manila. From the Philippines, she was able to fly back to Rangoon to be with her father when he died, in 1963.
The couple eventually divorced and June Rose stayed in Italy raising their two boys, Michele and Maurizio.
In 1977 she learned that her mother Ma Lat was gravely ill after a stroke. But by then, Burma had become isolated and suspicious. The army chief, General Ne Win, had seized power in 1962, driven out the most educated civilians, and stepped up frontier wars against the many ethnic minorities. June Rose had known his wife, Katie, and cabled him for help. Ne Win helped but by then Ma Lat had died. A year later Ne Win was a widower, and got in touch on a visit to Europe. Eventually he proposed.
She went to Rangoon in 1978, and they were married in a simple ceremony, she being Ne Win’s fourth successive wife.
Highly superstitious and fascinated by Burma’s history, the general must have thought marriage to June Rose would be advantageous. “I was a sort of lollipop for the people,” she said. “Whatever average people say about me or my Anglo half, the family name is still very important in Burma, the royalty, the Limbin.”
On her part, June Rose told me, she had the idea of somehow doing some good for the country. But Ne Win was barely in control of his regime by that point, she said.
The marriage ended after just five months. June Rose wouldn’t go into the cause of the final rupture. One rumour was that Ne Win was entertaining one of his wartime Japanese mentors, who was by then working for a trading company, when June Rose mentioned the worsening state of Burma’s economy. June Rose laughed at another popular rumour, that Ne Win suspected she was a western spy.
She did confirm that it ended when Ne Win threw an ashtray at her. June Rose left the next day, seen off by Ne Win’s daughter, Sanda (later jailed for corruption by Ne Win’s successors), and a guard of honour as she flew out in what was then Burma’s only passenger plane certified for international routes. Word of the marriage breakdown had not spread. Ne Win had gone up country. She felt lucky to get out.
“I left Burma with a definite feeling of failure,” June Rose told me. “Because I had failed my people. Because they did put their trust in me when I arrived. And this was one of the things that was not liked. But I would rather I left as a failure than to be connected with the ruling people. Those who had trusted in me, those who believed in me can say she left, but she left rather than not be able to do anything. In Italian, they say un peccato di orgoglio; in English, a sin of pride. Because I thought I could do something which others had not done. And that’s a very bad sin.”
She settled back in Florence, into a house in an old artisanal quarter where she started the Associazione Culturale Arte e Gastronomia Orientale, teaching both Italian and Asian cooking, living in an apartment upstairs.
Ne Win was deposed by the military junta after it quelled a student uprising in Rangoon in 1988 by massacring thousands of demonstrators. He spent his last years under house arrest, and when he died in 2002 he was buried the same day with no ceremony in an unmarked grave.
June Rose kept up a Burma connection through a charity that put Burmese students through medical school and sent money to a village hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Her younger son had died in a car accident, but his son Alex was close to her. Together they went to Burma and found the grave of her grandfather, the Limbin prince, in a monastery. At 5am, when the earth’s energy is said to be at its peak, they paid homage by serving the morning meal to the ten abbots and 120 monks.
Still outwardly strong, she died suddenly on December 1 at home in Florence, in mid-telephone call with a friend. Her surviving son Michele says he was sure her New Year message would have said: “We are at the end of the worst, therefore at the beginning of the best.”
Hamish McDonald was the Asia-Pacific Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He has been a foreign correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New Delhi and Beijing and has twice won Walkley Awards, and had a report on Burma read into the record of the US Congress. He is the author of books on Indonesia and India, and was made an inaugural Fellow of the Australian Institute of Inernational Affairs in 2008.