Sir Richard Bourke, Governor at the Cape

Richard Bourke, Governor at the Cape 1826-1828General Sir Richard Bourke, KCB (4 May 1777 – 12 August 1855), Irish-born Governor of New South Wales, 1831-1837.

As a lifelong Whig (Liberal), he encouraged the emancipation of convicts and helped bring forward the ending of transportation. In this, he faced strong opposition from the military/conservative establishment and its press. He approved a new settlement on the Yarra River, and named it Melbourne in honour of the current British Prime Minister.

Early life and career

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Bourke was educated at Westminster and read law at Christ Church, Oxford. He was a cousin of Edmund Burke and spent school and university holidays at Burke's home, and acquired some influential friends. He joined the British Army as an ensign in the Grenadier Guards on 22 November 1798, serving in the Netherlands with the Duke of York before a posting in South America in 1807 where he participated in the siege and storming of Montevideo. He was promoted major-general in 1821. He retired from the army after the Peninsular War to live on his Irish estate but eventually sought Government office to increase his income.

He was appointed to the Cape Colony in 1826 and was promoted to Lieutenant-Governor of the Eastern District of the Cape of Good Hope, acting as Governor for both eastern and Western Districts until 1828. Under Bourke's governorship, much was done to reform the old, mercantilist system of government inherited from the Dutch East India Company at the Cape.

In 1828 he issued Ordinance 50, which now allowed Hottentots to move freely without carrying passes and in law had equal status with the Whites and could also acquire ownership of land. Hottentots could acquire land. The Ordinance was not going to repealed without the consent of the British government. The result of this law was shortage of labour as well as robbery, especially round the Hottentot settlement on the Kat River.

Bourke was an avowed Whig. In November 1830 the Whigs won government in a climate of reform. Bourke was appointed to succeed Sir Ralph Darling as Governor of New South Wales in 1831.

Bourke proved to be an able, if controversial, Governor. In most of his efforts he faced entrenched opposition from the local conservatives: the 'exclusive' faction in the Legislative Council, and the Colonial Secretary Alexander Mcleay and the Colonial Treasurer Campbell Riddell. The newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald always opposed him. (The exclusives were hostile to the participation of ex-convicts ('emancipists') in civil life and hence were opposed to changes which moved the colony from military to civil governance.) Bourke described himself as being 'pretty much in the situation that Earl Grey would find himself in if all members of his Cabinet were Ultra Tories and he could neither turn them out nor leave them'.

Bourke had authority from the Colonial Office to extend trial by jury and substitute civil for military juries in criminal cases. He managed this despite fierce opposition from the legislature, and his 1833 bill for the extension of juries was only passed with his casting vote and with conservative amendments.

Appalled by the excessive punishments doled out to convicts, Bourke initiated 'The Magistrates Act', which simplified existing regulations and limited the sentence a magistrate could pass to fifty lashes (previously there was no such limit). The bill was passed by the Legislature because Bourke presented evidence that magistrates were exceeding their powers and passing illegal sentences, in part because regulations were complex and confusing. However, furious magistrates and employers petitioned the crown against this interference with their legal rights, fearing that a reduction in punishments would cease to provide enough deterrence to the convicts, and this issue was exploited by his opponents.

In 1835, Bourke issued a proclamation through the Colonial Office, implementing the doctrine of terra nullius by proclaiming that Indigenous Australians could not sell or assign land, nor could an individual person acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown.

Bourke continued to create controversy within the colony by combating the inhumane treatment handed out to convicts, including limiting the number of convicts each employer was allowed to seventy, as well as granting rights to freed convicts, such as allowing the acquisition of property and service on juries. It has been argued that the abolition of convict transportation to Australia in 1840 can be attributable to the actions of Bourke.

Bourke abolished the distinction of the Anglican Church as the state church of New South Wales, declaring each religious community on equal footing before the law. He also increased spending on education and attempted to set up a system of national non-denomination schools. He was credited as the first governor to publish satisfactory accounts of public receipts and expenditure.

In 1837, the year of his promotion to lieutenant-general, he named the town of Melbourne after Viscount Melbourne the UK Prime Minister.

Bourke Street in Melbourne's central business district and the town of Bourke, New South Wales were named after him, in turn. The County of Bourke, Victoria, which includes Melbourne, and Bourke County, New South Wales were also named after him.

There is a statue of Bourke outside the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney which records his accomplishments as Governor in florid detail.

Bourke was promoted to general in 1851. He died at his residence Thornfleld, in county Limerick, Ireland on Sunday 12 August 1855[3] and is buried in Castleconnell.

(information derived from


sir richard bourke, governor at the cape

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