Published as “The Liberalism of Richard Bourke”, Quadrant, October 2018, and reproduced here in slightly edited form.
David Kemp’s account of Australian liberalism is exceedingly interesting. He has put heart and soul into the first volume, The Land of Dreams, How Australians Won Their Freedom 1788-1860, part of a projected series of five books. Nowhere are his judicious insights more apparent than in his account of Sir Richard Bourke (1777-1855), NSW Governor from 1831 to 1837, whom Kemp rightly identifies as an important champion, defender, and instigator of freedoms in the formation of the nation that became the Commonwealth of Australia.
The range of assessments of Bourke’s character, impact, deficiencies, and achievements is one of the more interesting features of Australian historiography. There are five particularly appealing tracts.
First, J.W. Metcalf’s spirited essay, “Governor Bourke – Or, The Lion and the Wolves” in the Royal Australian Historical Society’s Journal and Proceedings (1944) which opined: “Machiavelli asserted of men in general that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, craven, covetous. This may not be true of all men in general… but it is difficult on the evidence to say it was not true in New South Wales, in the 1830s of the faction, clique or oligarchy that worked against Bourke, and of many of those whose conditions he sought to improve.” This puts Metcalf in the school that sees Bourke as the heroic, good Governor.
Then there is Hazel King’s biography, Richard Bourke (1971), which was the first work that took account of private papers of Sir Richard, now in the Mitchell Library. She thought that despite the difficulties he experienced as Governor – conflicts between the Christian denominations, between the free settlers and the emancipated, between the liberals and conservatives, and between supporters of transportation and its opponents –his efforts were consistent and “directed to the same end: the formation of a united community, an informed electorate, and the rule of law, not imposed by force from above, but upheld by the general will and consent of the majority. Perhaps the memory of his aspirations was his greatest legacy of New South Wales.” Her careful approach is surprisingly subdued in evaluating Bourke. Perhaps she saw too many missteps tempering his accomplishments.
Third is Professor ALG Shaw’s pamphlet-polemic, Heroes and Villains in History: Governors Darling and Bourke in New South Wales (1965), which argues that Bourke was not as wholly liberal and humane as portrayed in some of the more uncritical accounts, and that Governor Darling, Governor, 1825-1831, his predecessor, was not the rigid, reactionary tyrant of popular lore.
A more detailed critique is Max Waugh’s book, Forgotten Hero. Richard Bourke, Irish-born Governor of New South Wales, 1831-1837 (2005), which valiantly argues that Bourke was the “leading social reformer in nineteenth-century New South Wales.” This too belongs to the Bourke-as-hero genre.
Finally there is Frank Bongiorno’s Chapter on Bourke in a book on The Governors of New South Wales 1788-2010 (2009), which concluded that Bourke “believed that he should not be hemmed in on every side by the self-interested obstruction of others. Richard Bourke’s growing inflexibility in dealing with his local opponents was not a personal quirk, but came out of a larger understanding of his role, as a Christian ruler within the British Empire, to bring regularity, order and civilisation to a colonial wilderness.”
To these five suggestive portraits can now be added Kemp’s discussion.
Interestingly, the publication of this new work coincides with the restoration – completed in early October 2018 – of Bourke’s statue outside Sydney’s Mitchell Library, the first major monument to a living figure in the colony – more on which later.
Bourke was an interesting man. Of Anglo-Irish extraction, of mixed Catholic and Protestant heritage, he was a military officer, landed proprietor, administrator, prominent Whig, and man of action. Born in Ireland in 1777, he graduated in Arts at Oxford when 21 and then commenced training for the bar. But he soon abandoned the law for the army, joining in 1795 the Grenadier Guards. He was made lieutenant and captain in 1799; major in 1805; lieutenant-colonel, 1806; colonel, 1814; major-general in 1825; lieutenant-general in early 1837, and general in 1851.
He served under the Duke of York upon the Expedition to Holland in 1799. In battles in Helder he was severely wounded, shot through his jaw. (This injury permanently limited Bourke’s ability to project his voice). Later he served as Quartermaster General in South America, and in 1807 was engaged in the siege and storming of Montevideo in Uruguay. At Buenos Aires, he was Adjutant-General. Next he was appointed Assistant Quartermaster-General of Wellington’s army in Spain. As he knew Spanish, he became liaison officer with the Spanish Army.
In 1825, at the age of 48, he was appointed Lieutenant-General of the eastern province of Cape Colony in what is now South Africa, and between 1826 and 1828 served as the colony’s Acting Governor. His papers on that period are at Rhodes House at Oxford. Modern historians see him as a practical and humane man, trying to respect the different races and the vexed issues of a divided settler society. Hazel King commented that in the Cape Colony “uncodified laws were confused, the courts were uncertain in operation, and many administrative officials were inefficient, inadequately paid and corrupt.” Exhausted after his tenure, Bourke sought retirement, returning to his estates in Ireland. There Bourke contemplated editing some works of Edmund Burke, his distant relative, with whom he used to spend his university vacations. But this was deferred with the prospect of a new appointment in a warmer climate, something he hoped might improve the frail health of his wife, Elizabeth (sadly, she died at Parramatta in 1832). The election in 1830 of a Whig government in London, led by Earl Grey, Prime Minister, 1830-34, paved the way to Bourke’s appointment as Governor of NSW, replacing the unpopular Darling. Bourke arrived at Sydney Cove in early December 1831.
During his six-year-tenure Bourke provoked controversy. At the outset of Bourke’s administration he manifested much of the vigour, firmness, and consequence so conspicuous in Governor Macquarie, Governor, 1810-21. Yet he also found a divided colony characterised by fierce disputes between colonial leaders. A measured approach to justice, openness to experiments in decision making, culture and education were all part of Bourke’s approach to governing.
In 1831 the NSW Legislative Council consisted of 14 members (seven official and seven non-official), all appointed by the British government, and presided over by the Governor. This was largely unsatisfactory to the growing colony; during Bourke’s rule there was agitation for representative government. The Governor was frustrated by the mild to unremitting hostility of most of the Councillors. In December 1833 Bourke wrote to The Hon. Edward Stanley, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, about “the evil of legislating for the whole community by means of a Council composed of one party.” Bourke privately 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 opened the proceedings of the Legislative Council to the press and public.
Soon after his arrival an entirely new system with regard to the alienation of Crown land was introduced by Bourke. The Governor was no longer authorised to make grants of land, except for schools, churches, glebes, or other public purposes, and Crown land was sold at public auction. This method of disposing of lands created revenue which, in 1836, reached around £132,000, part of which was earmarked for the promotion of free immigration from the United Kingdom. In the last year of Governor Bourke’s stay in the colony, monies from the land fund, were applied to an agency in England for the promotion of immigration to New South Wales (NSW). Naturally, a provision of this kind made immigration prospects look more encouraging than before. During that last year of Bourke’s administration, 2,000 assisted, mostly skilled, immigrants supplemented others finding their way to the colony. Overall, the population increased from 51,000 in 1831 to over 85,000 in 1837.
Finding opposition to civil juries at his first Council meeting, Bourke cajoled, charmed, and pursued change. By 1833 he succeeded with the extension of trial by jury, and with replacing military juries with civil juries in criminal cases. A point of contention was the question of whether convicts who had served their sentences (emancipists) should be eligible to act as Jurors and also to be able to own property. The exclusives, as the leaders of the free settlers saw themselves, found intolerable the idea of men free of convict taint being tried by ex-convicts.
Bourke was not alone in pressing reform and a spirit of enlightened compromise. Francis Forbes, NSW Chief Justice, 1823-1837, was an important ally. Kemp quotes Bourke’s letter to lawyer magistrate Roger Therry: “If I had any success in removing abuses and opening the way for a better course of government in the Colony, to the assistance I received from Forbes I am mainly indebted.”
An ongoing question, related to the colony’s origin, as Kemp pithily puts matters, “…was its moral condition such that it could govern itself effectively?”
Improving the deplorable treatment of convicts assigned to the service of private employers, some of whom acted as if they owned their assigned servants, body and soul, was another challenge. To stop patronage and favouritism, Bourke placed the assigning of convicts in the control of a board. He also recommended to the British government that assignment be abolished.
A Magistrates Act, formally, The Offenders Punishment and Summary Jurisdiction Act (Act 3 William IV C. 3) assented to in 1832, which established the Courts of Petty Sessions, curbed the powers of magistrates, restricted the use of the lash, and provided for the protection of convicts as well as for their punishment. This earned for Bourke the enmity of many of the magistrates, some of whom doubled as employers, benefitting from the assignment of conflict labour. They regarded his limiting a punishment to 50 lashes as sentimental humanitarianism.
One of his early acts was to separately publish the Government Gazette, thereby ending the mode of exclusively conferring on one of the private newspapers the privilege and profits of publishing the notifications and advertisements of the various public departments.
During Bourke’s time, and with his approbation, the Patriotic Association, headed by liberal reformer, businessman and entrepreneur, W.C. Wentworth, was organised, to agitate against transportation of convicts to NSW. Their first success was not gained until 1840, when the UK government announced that transportation to NSW would cease, although convicts would continue to be sent to Western Australia, until 1868.
Bourke also approved the reintroduction of theatrical performances and attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish government schools and elective government.
Publishing transparent, public accounts, publicly acquitting for taxes raised and expended, were important fiscal and budgetary reforms. Kemp notes that: “Bourke’s action was… in line with the recommendations of Sir Henry Parnell in his book, On Financial Reform, a third edition of which was published in February 1831.”
A crowning act of his administration was the establishment of religious equality throughout the colony by the general Church Act (1836), which continued in force till 1862, when State-aid to religion was abolished – something in the schools which was not re-instated until a century later. In 1833 out of a total of £21,000, all but £1400 went to the Church of England; only £800 to Roman Catholics and £600 to Presbyterians. Bourke passed the Church Act which ensured equal government assistance for of religious denominations, dissolved the Church and School corporation, and placed all denominations on an equal footing.
Of this work the Catholic Roger Therry wrote: “To [Bourke] New South Wales owes the initiative of the religious freedom she enjoys. And, if New South Wales be but true to her own interests she will preserve the boon he [provided].” To certain critics, however, as Kemp puts matters: “So far as the political and religious conservatives were concerned, liberalism was not just ‘soft’ on popery. It was for change and reform in almost everything.” Bourke also endeavoured to introduce the Irish national system of non-denominational education which the Home authorities approved. But public opinion was not ready to accept such a change, and this had to wait until after Bourke had gone.
One of his most important decisions was to take possession of the territory of Victoria as a dependency of NSW. Certain adventurers from Van Diemen’s Land laid claim to vast tracts of Victoria, under pretence of having purchased it from the indigenous owners. But Bourke quashed their claims. Thus the world was saved from Batmania, as John Batman, rogue and adventurer, wanted to call the first settlement. Instead, Bourke named the small town after the then Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Kemp notes that: “… in 1835, [Bourke] acted swiftly to proclaim the treaty invalid and, with Colonial office permission, sent Captain William Lonsdale to Port Phillip to establish a civil administration and protect the Aborigines.” One might note that the doctrine of all the lands belonging to the Crown, later called terra nullius, was intended to protect the Aboriginal population. Bourke later established there, in October, 1836, a regular government. To friends after one visit, Bourke impishly remarked that he had bestowed Whig names to some places, including roads and other landmarks of the emerging settlement.
Bourke nominated Mr Roger Therry to the office of Chairman of the Court of Quarter Sessions, which office fell vacant at the end of 1835, but his nomination fell afoul of the magistrates, in whose hands the appointment rested. They were incensed at the Governor because of the passing of the the legislation which related to the manner of dealing with convicts. They refused to agree to Therry’s nomination and induced the Colonial Treasurer, Mr. C.D. Riddell, to become a candidate for the office. Riddell was elected, but the Governor refused to sanction the appointment, believing Riddell dishonest and disloyal in his dealings with him, and struck Riddell’s name off the list of members of the Executive Council. This led to a standoff. Riddell appealed to the Secretary of State, and the Governor, having been instructed by the home authorities to reinstate Mr. Riddell, decided instead to resign.
Upon Bourke’s departure from Sydney on 10 December 1837, a large crowd of well-wishers gathered and ran along the shores, cheering him farewell. The next day, the Sydney Monitor newspaper stated:
After heaping on our late Governor almost every insult, which insolence and malice could suggest, we find that our Tory contemporaries have been constrained by the public sympathy so strongly expressed on His Excellency’s departure, to make a few hypocritical concessions in favour of the man they have vilified during the last five years.
The Sydney Herald, a conservative foe, had sneeringly described Bourke as the friend of the “shirtless and shoeless”, metonymy for the poor, emancipated members of the colony. The liberal Sydney Monitor thundered that: “shirtless and shoeless they would certainly have been, had not their own honest industry provided them with these necessaries. But it is better, even to be shirtless and shoeless, than clothed in purple, if that purple have been bought with public plunder.”
The Sydney Gazette contended that a “Governor cannot be the friend, at the same time, both of the Emigrants and Convicts.” Again, the Sydney Monitor protested:
We aver, not only that he may, but that he OUGHT; and that every Governor who is the friend of one of these classes only ought to be treated as Governor Bligh was treated, by the very same party who have now worried Governor Bourke out of the Colony. For Bligh was the firm friend of the little Settlers; he set his face against the rum-selling officers of the 102nd Regiment, who were then the only shop keepers of the Colony; and for this they deposed him. Our Tories would have done the same by Governor Bourke, had the troops been under their command, as they were under the command of the military shop-keepers of the year 1807.
A particularly venomous attack was in an anonymous thirty-one page pamphlet, attributed to Livingston Mitchell, son of the famous Surveyor-General, excoriating Bourke and a host of colonial personalities. Circulated in early 1855, this was titled “To Bourke’s Statue This Appropriate Effusion of Unprofitable Brass is Unceremoniously Dedicated by Ichneumon Anxious to Instruct His Grandmothers in the Inductive Science of Sucking Eggs.” Animosities died hard in NSW.
Like all of his predecessors Bourke found that he could not please everybody, and for taking measures with respect to the assignment and treatment of convicts he particularly gave offence to certain classes who, to show their displeasure and gratify something like revenge, lauded the character of Governor Darling, and endeavoured to collect the necessary funds to erect a monument to Darling’s memory; but that movement came to nothing.
On the announcement of his departure, Bourke’s champions decided to raise money (eventually around £4,000) for his monument through public subscription. As the colony did not have the foundry or skills available for casting a bronze sculpture, in 1838 Bourke’s son in London commissioned Edward Hodges Baily to create the work. He was the same sculptor who formed the Nelson Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Delays followed, occasioned by demands for further funds to complete. Baily was first declared bankrupt in 1831 and again in 1838, the year he was formally commissioned for the Bourke work. Living in impecunious circumstances Baily relied on financial assistance from the Royal Academy as well as commissioned projects. Four years after commissioning, the work was completed.
On Monday 11 April 1842, the sculpture was unveiled in Sydney by Governor Gipps in front of huge crowds, on a day made a public holiday for the occasion.
Quoted in full in Kemp’s book is the inscription engraved in bronze, accompanying the Sir Richard Bourke statue, perhaps the longest dedication of any Australian statue. This read, with its mix of English and Americanised words:
THIS STATUE OF LIEUTENANT GENERAL SIR RICHARD BOURKE, K.C.B.
Is erected by the people of New South Wales to record his able honest and benevolent administration from 1831 to 1837.
Selected for the government at a period of singular difficulty,
His judgement, urbanity and firmness justified the choice.
Comprehending at once the vast resources
Peculiar to this colony,
He applied them, for the first time, systematically to its benefit.
He voluntarily divested himself of the prodigious influence
Arising from the assignment of penal labour, and enacted
Just and salutary laws for the amelioration of penal discipline.
He was the first governor who published satisfactory accounts
Of the public receipts and expenditure,
Without oppression or detriment to any interest,
He raised the revenue to a vast amount and from its surplus,
Realized extensive plans of immigration.
He established religious equality on a just and firm basis,
And sought to provide for all, without distinction of sect,
A sound and adequate system of national education.
He constructed various public works of permanent utility.
He founded the flourishing settlement of Port Phillip,
And threw open the unlimited wilds of Australia
To pastoral enterprize.
He established savings banks, and was the patron of
The first Mechanic`s Institute. He created an equitable tribunal
For determining upon claims to grants of lands.
He was the warm friend of the liberty of press. He extended
Trial by jury after its almost total suspension for many years.
By these, and numerous other measures,
For the moral, religious, and general improvement of all classes,
He raised the colony to unexampled prosperity,
And retired amid the reverent and affectionate regret
Of the people, having won their confidence by his integrity,
Their gratitude by his services, their admiration by his public talents,
And their esteem by his private worth.
Probably primarily written by Wentworth and Therry, the inscription is a declaration of liberty, counsel for what it means to be a liberal, past and present. Integrity, respect for all persons, a concept of citizenship, celebration of education and cultural flourishing, the rule of law, transparency and moderation, all apply to the ringing declaration at Bourke’s statue.
Originally mounted on a huge plinth, the statue originally looked over the Botanical Gardens, but in 1925 was relocated to its current location in front of the Mitchell Library.
Although the governorship of NSW was Bourke’s last public office, there were still things to do in semi-busy retirement on his estate, Thornfield, County Limerick, Ireland. With Earl Fitzwilliam, a distant relative of Wentworth, Sir Richard edited in four volumes Correspondence of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke (1844). In the Preface to the first volume a footnote states that:
Sir Richard Bourke is distantly related to the family of Edmund Burke, and having been at school and college in England during the last eight years of the latter’s life, passed his vacations and what spare time he could command, in his kinsman’s house. He has thus been enabled from his own observation, and the traditions of Beconsfield [where Burke lived], to supply such portion of Burke’s personal history as is to be found in the notes to these letters. Indeed the volumes of letters have numerous notes that only a close observer would know on Burke, his family, and times.
Finally, it might be said of Bourke’s battles in NSW he was in an impossible position, made mistakes, and his record is not entirely unblemished, but also that his time in the colony illustrates that it is sometimes better to usefully fail than to be boringly safe.
Note on Publication:
The author, co-founder & chair of Willow Technology Corporation and EG Funds Management, acknowledges helpful editorial suggestions from Catherine Harding and Damian Grace.