Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bourke, Richard (1777-1855)

BOURKE, Sir RICHARD (1777–1855), colonial governor, was the only son of John Bourke of Dromsally, a relation of Edmund Burke, and was born in Dublin on 4 May 1777. He was originally educated for the bar, and was more than twenty-one when he was gazetted an ensign in the 1st or Grenadier guards on 22 Nov. 1798. He served in the expedition to the Helder, when he was shot through the jaws at the battle of Bergen, and was promoted lieutenant and captain on 25 Nov. 1799. As quartermaster-general he served with Auchmuty's force at Monte Video, and on the conclusion of the campaign was put on half-pay. In 1808 he was posted to the staff of the army in Portugal as assistant quartermaster-general, and on account of his knowledge of Spanish was sent by Sir Arthur Wellesley to the headquarters of Don Gregorio Cuesta, the commander-in-chief of the Spanish army. From 30 May to 28 June 1809 he fulfilled his difficult mission to Wellesley's entire satisfaction, and then for some unexplained reason resigned his post on the staff and returned to England. He was again sent, on account of his knowledge of Spanish, on a detached mission to Galicia in 1812. He was gazetted an assistant quartermaster-general, and stationed at Corunna, whence he sent up provisions and ammunition to the front, and acted in general as military resident in Galicia. At the conclusion of the war he was promoted colonel and made a C.B. He was promoted major-general in 1821, and was lieutenant-governor of the eastern district of the Cape of Good Hope from 1825 to 1828, when he returned to England. In 1829 he edited, with Lord Fitzwilliam, the ‘Correspondence’ of Edmund Burke, whom he had often visited at Beaconsfield in his own younger days. In 1831 he was appointed governor of New South Wales in succession to General Darling.

When Bourke arrived he found the colony divided into two parties. The emancipists, or freed convicts, had been encouraged by General Macquarie to believe that the colony existed for them alone; while, on the other hand, Brisbane and Darling had been entirely governed by the wealthy emigrants and poor adventurers, and given all power to the party of the exclusivists or pure merinos. General Darling had behaved injudiciously, and had got into much trouble. Bourke at once took up a position of absolute impartiality to both parties. He freed the press at once from all restrictions; and though himself foully abused, he would not use his position to interfere. Still more important was his encouragement of emigration. Under his influence a regular scheme of emigration was established, evidence was taken in Australia and issued in England by the first Emigration Society, which was established in London in 1833, and means were provided for bringing over emigrants by selling the land in the colony at a minimum price. He succeeded in carrying what is known as Sir Richard Bourke's Church Act. Bourke's impartiality made him popular, and he became still more so by his travels throughout the inhabited part of his vice-kingdom. He was made a K.C.B. in 1835. He resigned his governorship on 6 Dec. 1837, after six years of office, on being reprimanded by the secretary of state on account of his dismissal of a Mr. Riddell from the executive council. The sorrow at his departure was genuine, and money was at once raised to erect a statue to him. ‘He was the most popular governor who ever presided over the colonial affairs’ (Braim, History of New South Wales, i. 275).

On returning home to Ireland Bourke spent nearly twenty years at his country seat, Thornfield, near Limerick. He was promoted lieutenant-general, and appointed colonel of the 64th regiment in 1837, served the office of high sheriff of the county of Limerick in 1839, and was promoted general in 1851. He died suddenly, at the age of seventy-eight, at Thornfield, on 13 Aug. 1855.

[Gent. Mag. 1855, p. 428; Royal Military Calendar. For his Australian government consult Braim's History of New South Wales, from its Settlement to the Close of 1844, 2 vols. 1846; Lang's Historical and Statistical Account of the Colony of New South Wales, from the Foundation of the Colony to the Present Day, 1834, 1837, 1852, 1875; Flanagan's History of New South Wales, 2 vols. 1862.]

H. M. S.