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Bernard Henry Bourdillon

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Sir Bernard Henry Bourdillon

Sir Bernard Henry Bourdillon by Bassano. 3 October 1932.
Governor of Nigeria
In office
1 November 1935 – 1943
Preceded bySir Donald Charles Cameron
Succeeded bySir Arthur Richards
Governor of Uganda
In office
Preceded bySir William Frederick Gowers
Succeeded bySir Philip Euen Mitchell
Acting Governor of British Ceylon
In office
11 February 1931 – 11 April 1931
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byHerbert Stanley
Succeeded byGraeme Thomson
Personal details
Born3 December 1883
Burnie, Tasmania
Died6 February 1948 (1948-02-07) (aged 64)
St Saviour, Jersey

Sir Bernard Henry Bourdillon GCMG KBE (1883–1948) was a British colonial administrator who was Governor of Uganda (1932–1935) and of Nigeria (1935–1943).

Early years

Bourdillon was born on 3 December 1883 at Burnie, Tasmania.[1] He grew up in England and South Africa, and was educated at Tonbridge School in Tonbridge, Kent.[2][3] He attended St John's College, Oxford, graduating in 1906. In 1908 he entered the Indian Civil Service.[2] He married Violet Grace Billinghurst in November 1909.[1] In 1935 Violet was described as "the perfect Governor's wife".[4] His three sons, Bernard Godwin Bourdillon, Henry Townsend Bourdillon and Patrick Imbert Bourdillon attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford and they all followed their father into the Colonial Service. Bernard Godwin Bourdillon, Assistant Chief Secretary to Palestine, was later killed in the King David Hotel bombing in 1946.

In 1913 Bourdillon was appointed Under-Secretary to the Government of the United Provinces. In 1915 he was made Registrar of the High Court of Allahabad. While in India he earned a reputation as a linguist.[2] During the First World War, Bourdillon joined the army as a temporary Second Lieutenant in 1917, and was posted to Iraq in 1918.[2] He rose to the rank of Major, and during the Iraq insurrection of 1919 he was mentioned in despatches.[3] Bourdillon left the army in 1919 to join the Iraq civil administration, and was appointed Political Secretary to the High Commissioner of Iraq in 1921. From 1924 to 1929 he was Counsellor. Between 1925 and 1926 he was High Commissioner with Plenipotentiary Powers in the negotiations over the 1926 Anglo-Iraq treaty.[2]

Colonial service

Bourdillon transferred to the Colonial Civil Service in 1929 to take the post of Colonial Secretary of Ceylon, serving in this role until 1932 and twice acting as Governor of Ceylon. Whilst in Ceylon he served as President of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1931.[5]

In 1932 he was appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Uganda. In 1935 he was made Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Nigeria, holding the post until he retired in 1943.[2] Sir Bernard Bourdillon was aligned with the reforming trend in colonial policy, and rapidly gained the respect and friendship of the educated elite of Nigeria. On 1 February 1938 he met with the Nigerian Youth Movement to hear their complaints about the way in which the European Cocoa Pool agreement was limiting competition. When asked to take a neutral position in the dispute he refused, saying he supported the African position. A few days later the Colonial Office announced a commission of inquiry and soon after the pool was suspended. Nnamdi Azikiwe's West African Pilot was full of praise for Bourdillon. He continued to remain on close terms with Nigerian opinion leaders throughout his term.[6]

Britain was wary about getting drawn into permanent expenses with the colonies, and would advance loans only if the colonial government guaranteed to cover interest charges or repay the investment. This inhibited the poorer colonies from requesting support for development schemes. In 1939 Bourdillon wrote to the Secretary of State concerning the economic development of the African colonies. After describing how little had been spent on development and giving the reasons, he asked that the British government "should accept responsibility for financing the operations of the agricultural, forestry, geological survey, veterinary and co-operative departments" under a ten-year programme.[7]

Bourdillion divided the south of Nigeria into Eastern and Western provinces in 1939.[8] In the early days in Nigeria the British had governed the north of Nigeria indirectly, through the traditional rulers of the Muslim emirates, and had kept the region somewhat isolated from the outside world. There was perhaps a subconscious view that the feudal society was not ready for the full impact of modern civilization. Sir Bernard Bourdillon decided that this was not a viable policy. In February 1942 he visited the leading Emirs and gave his opinion that they should not say "We will not have the southerners interfering in our affairs" but instead should say "we ought to have at least an equal say with the southerners in advising the Governor as the affairs of the whole country". The emirs accepted this advice.[9]

Bourdillon recognized that the northerners were handicapped in comparison to the southerners by their lack of education and lack of English. Rather than simply expand the Legislative Council to include more northerners, he explored the idea of Regional Councils with a Central Council in Lagos that would review their findings. However, he saw these councils as strictly advisory in nature, saying "a benevolent autocracy is the form of government best suited to a people who are educationally backward and whose religion inculcates a blind obedience to authority".[9] This view of the non-political nature of the regional councils helped alleviate concerns that the proposed federal system would cause antagonism between state and federal authorities. Bourdillon raised the question of whether Nigeria should be further subdivided into more than three regions. Some officials thought that the Tiv and Idoma divisions and most of Kabba province should be detached from the north. Some were in favour of more regions, each more homogenous ethnically, in a similar arrangement to that followed in East Africa. No further changes were made before Sir Bernard retired, handing over to Sir Arthur Richards.[8]

He is credited as an adviser on the film Sanders of the River.

Later years

After retirement Bourdillon continued to serve on the Colonial Economic and Development Council. He became treasurer and then chairman of the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association. In 1946, his son, Bernard, who was working in Palestine, was killed in the King David Hotel bombing. He was a director of Barclays Bank (Dominion, Colonial and Overseas), and of Barclays Overseas Development Corporation. He died on 6 February 1948 at St Saviour, Jersey, aged 64.[1]

The upmarket and exclusive Bourdillon road in Ikoyi, Lagos, is named after him.


Bourdillon was elevated to the GCMG and the KBE before his death. He was made a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and an honorary fellow of St John's College, Oxford.[2]


  • The Future of the Colonial Empire. London: S.C.M. Press. 1945.


  1. ^ a b c "Bernard Henry BOURDILLON". Meredith of Herefordshire. Retrieved 1 September 2011.[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Papers of Sir Bernard Henry Bourdillon". Bodleian Library. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
  3. ^ a b David E. Omissi (1990). Air power and colonial control: the Royal Air Force, 1919–1939. Manchester University Press ND. p. 238. ISBN 0-7190-2960-0.
  4. ^ RD Pearce (April 1983). "Violet Bourdillon: Colonial Governor's Wife". African Affairs. 82 (327). JSTOR 721407.
  5. ^ "Past Presidents". Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
  6. ^ Robert D. King; Robin W. Kilson; William Roger Louis (1999). The statecraft of British imperialism: essays in honour of Wm. Roger Louis. Routledge. pp. 148–151. ISBN 0-7146-4827-2.
  7. ^ Peter Duignan; Lewis H. Gann (1975). Colonialism in Africa, 1870–1960: The economics of colonialism. CUP Archive. p. 114. ISBN 0-521-08641-8.
  8. ^ a b Eme O. Awa (1964). Federal government in Nigeria. University of California Press. pp. 16–17.
  9. ^ a b Kalu Ezera (1964). Constitutional developments in Nigeria: an analytical study of Nigeria's constitution-making developments and the historical and political factors that affected constitutional change. University Press. pp. 64–65.
Government offices
Preceded by
Herbert Stanley
Governor of British Ceylon

Succeeded by
Graeme Thomson
Preceded by
Donald Charles Cameron
Governor of Nigeria
Succeeded by
Arthur Richards
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Bernard Henry Bourdillon
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