Bourke, General Sir Richard

At a Glance:

General, Soldier, Governer of New South Wales



Bird names: 1

Regions studied:

Southern Europe, Mediterranean, East Africa

Sir Richard Bourke by Martin Archer Shee. [link]

Content note: this profile contains discussion of IMPERIALISM and settler colonialism.

The Bird:

Bourke’s Parrot (Neopsephotus bourkii)

Bourke’s Parrot by Greg Hume [link]

The Name:

A frequent argument made against renaming these species is that “we shouldn’t judge these people by modern standards”, to which point General Sir Richard Bourke (1777-1855) provides an interesting case study.

The Irish born officer and Governor of New South Wales was in many ways very progressive. While he was acting governor of Cape Colony (South Africa) he would introduced Ordinance 50 which ended restrictions upon the Khoe people, allowing them far greater freedom of movement, work and land ownership. He also prohibited the indiscriminate retaliation against raiders along the borders of the colony in an effort to bring peace to the area.

He would however go on to greater fame as Governor of New South Wales where he implemented further progressive reforms. There he consolidated laws to prevent magistrates passing illegal sentences on criminals, gave (Christian) religions equal status under the law, increased funding to education and contributed towards ending transportation – the practice of sending criminals to Australia as punishment.

But, for all of these worthy causes, he still has to be considered for his other actions and the broader context of his life. Even before all this, his story is one rooted in colonialism; as a soldier he was involved in British Colonial Wars in the storming of Montevideo and an expedition against Buenos Aires. Even though many of his policies were startlingly progressive for their time, he was still present there as part of a Colonial Government. Even his efforts to make peace along the colony borders were specifically because he hoped it would then allow Christian missionaries to convert the indigenous people of the area.

However, perhaps the single most cruel act he commited was enacting “terra nullius” in New South Wales. In essence, it retroactively stripped Indigenous peoples of any right to their own land by declaring that prior to the British claiming it, it had belonged to no one, and ownership to any part of it now could only come by distribution by the British Crown. This ruling would stand until 1992, when the High Court of Australia would overturn it in Mabo vs Queensland (no 2). The particular piece of land that had caused this decision would go on to become the site of Melbourne.

In essence, Bourke is a reminder that even at it’s most seemingly benevolant and progressive, colonialism is inherently an insidious system that takes from and disadvantages Native peoples in favour of the invader. For all the positive changes he made, it does not exonerate him of his disenfranchisment of Indigenous peoples over a considerable portion of a continent.

Alex Holt


Governer Bourke’s Proclamation of Terra Nullius (1835) [link]

Australian Dictionary of Biography – Bourke, Sir Richard [link] – South Africa: British Occupation of the Cape [link]