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Sir Richard Bourke
1777 - 1855


4 May 1777 in Dublin, Ireland
Early Life

Bourke was educated at Westminster and read law at Christ Church, Oxford.

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 and 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 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. 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.

Governor of NSW

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, 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 therefore 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.

With this he was able to void Batman's purchase of land (in Melbourne) from the local aboriginal owners.

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.

He 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, 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.

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


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