The term governor general or governor-general refers to a vice-regal representative of a Monarch in an independent realm or a major colonial circonscription. A governor general is a governor of high rank, or a principal governor ranking above "ordinary" governors.

Current uses

Today, the title governor general is used in the independent Commonwealth realms (those Commonwealth countries which share the British monarch, presently Queen Elizabeth II, as head of state), with the exception of the United Kingdom, which does not have a Governor-General, being the Sovereign's home realm.

In modern usage, the term "governor general" originated in those British colonies which became self-governing Dominions within the British Empire (examples are Australia, Canada and New Zealand). With the exception of New Zealand, each of the previously constituent colonies of these federated colonies already had a Governor, and the Crown's representative to the federated Dominion was therefore given the superior title of Governor-General. New Zealand was granted Dominion status in 1907, but as it had never been a federal state there was no pressing need to change the gubernatorial title. It was not until 28 June 1917 that Earl of Liverpool was appointed the first Governor-General of New Zealand. Another non-federal state, Newfoundland, was a Dominion for 16 years with the Kings's representative retaining the title of Governor throughout this time.

Since the 1950s, the title governor general has been given to all representatives of the sovereign in independent Commonwealth realms. In these cases, the former office of colonial governor was altered (sometimes for the same incumbent) to become governor general upon independence, as the nature of the office became an entirely independent constitutional representative of the monarch rather than a symbol of previous colonial rule. In these countries the governor general acts as the Monarch's representative, performing the ceremonial and constitutional functions of a Head of State.

The only other nation which uses the governor general designation is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which of course has no connection with either the British (or any other) monarchy or the Commonwealth. In Iran, the provincial authority is headed by a governor general (Persian: استاندار ostāndār), who is appointed by the Minister of the Interior.

British colonialism and the governor general

Until the 1920s, Governors-General were British subjects, appointed on the advice of the British Government, who acted as agents of the British Government in each Dominion, as well as being representatives of the monarch. As such they notionally held the prerogative powers of the monarch, and also held the executive power of the country to which they were assigned. The Governor-General could be instructed by the Colonial Secretary on the exercise of some of his functions and duties, such as the use or withholding of the Royal Assent from legislation; history shows many examples of Governors-General using their prerogative and executive powers. The monarch (in fact the government) could overrule any Governor-General, though this could often be cumbersome, due to remoteness of the territories from London.

The Governor-General was also the head of the armed forces in his or her territory and, because of the Governor-General's control of the military, the post was as much a military appointment as a civil one. Indeed, until the late 20th century, the Governor-General's official attire was the court dress, Windsor uniform or other military uniform.

In some colonies, the title of the royal representative was never Governor-General. The King's representative in New Zealand, for instance, was simply titled Governor (earlier even Lieutenant-Governor, as in Canadian provinces, still lower in rank) until after the country became a Dominion.

Modern Commonwealth

Independent Commonwealth realms

Following the Imperial Conference, and subsequent issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1926, the role and responsibilities of the Governor-General began to shift, reflecting the increased independence of the Dominions. As the sovereign came to be regarded as monarch of each territory independently, and, as such, advised only by the ministers of each country in regard to said country's national affairs (as opposed to a single British monarch ruling all the Dominions as a conglomerate and advised only by an imperial parliament), so too did the Governor-General become a direct representative of the national monarch only, who no longer answered to the British government. These concepts were entrenched in legislation with the enactment of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, and governmental relations with the United Kingdom were placed in the hands of a British High Commissioner in each country.

In other words, the political reality of a self governing dominion within the British Empire with a governor-general answerable to the sovereign of Great Britain became clear. British interference in the dominion was not acceptable and independent country status was clearly displayed. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were clearly not controlled by the United Kingdom. The monarch of these countries (Elizabeth II) is in law Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia, Queen of New Zealand and only acts on the advice of the ministers in each country and is in no way influenced by the British government. The monarch appoints a governor-general as a personal representative only on the advice of the Prime Minister of the realm. The Governor-General of Canada is appointed by the Queen of Canada on the advice of the Canadian Prime Minister. The Governor-General of Australia is appointed by the Queen of Australia on the advice of the Australian Prime Minister and the Governor-General of New Zealand is appointed by the Queen of New Zealand on the advice of the New Zealand Prime Minister. There is no legal relationship between any realm that acknowledges Elizabeth II as their monarch. They are all completely independent from one another.

Today, therefore, in former British colonies which are now independent Commonwealth realms, the Governor-General is constitutionally the representative of the monarch in his or her state, and may exercise the reserve powers of the monarch according to their own constitutional authority. The Governor-General, however, is still appointed by the monarch, and takes an oath of allegiance to the monarch of their own country. Executive authority is also vested in the monarch, though it can be placed with the Governor-General on behalf of the sovereign of the independent realm. Letters of Credence or Letters of Recall are now sometimes received or issued in the name of the monarch, though in some countries, such as Canada and Australia, the Letters of Credence and Recall are issued in the name of the Governor-General alone.

At diplomatic functions where the Governor-General is present, the visiting diplomat or head of state toasts "The King" or "The Queen" of the relevant realm, not the Governor-General, with any reference to the Governor-General being subsidiary in later toasts if featuring at all, and will involve a toast to them by name, not office. (E.g., "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," not "Her Excellency, the Governor-General." Sometimes a toast might be made using name and office, e.g., "Governor-General Smith.")

Except in rare cases, the Governor-General only acts in accordance with constitutional convention and upon the advice of the national Prime Minister. The Governor-General is still the local representative of the sovereign, and performs the same duties as they carried out historically, though their role is almost purely ceremonial. Rare and controversial exceptions occurred in 1926, when Canadian Governor General Lord Byng refused Prime Minister Mackenzie King's request for a dissolution of parliament; and in 1975, when the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. In principle, the Crown could overrule a Governor-General, but this has not happened in modern times.

The term de facto head of state, though having no constitutional status, has been used informally in Commonwealth realms to describe the role of a governor-general.

The Governor-General is usually a person with a distinguished record of public service, often a retired politician, judge or military commander; but some countries have also appointed prominent sporting figures, academics, members of the clergy, philanthropists, or figures from the news media to the office. The Governor-General is formally appointed by the Monarch, following the specific request of the Prime Minister of the country concerned; Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are the only realms that elect their Governors-General, in both cases by a parliamentary vote.

Traditionally, the Governor-General's official attire was military uniform, but this practice been abandoned except on occasions when it is appropriate to be worn. In South Africa, the Governors-General of the Union nominated by the Afrikaner Nationalist government chose not to wear uniform on any occasion. Most Governors-General continue to wear appropriate medals on their clothing when required.

The Governor-General's official residence is usually called Government House. The Governor-General of the Irish Free State resided in the then Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park, Dublin, but the government of Éamon de Valera sought to downgrade the office, and the last Governor-General, Domhnall Ua Buachalla, did not reside there. The office was abolished there in 1936.

In most Commonwealth realms, the flag of the Governor-General has been the standard pattern of a blue field with the Royal Crest (a lion standing on a crown) above a scroll with the name of the jurisdiction. In Canada, however, this was replaced with a crowned lion clasping a maple leaf. In the Solomon Islands, the scroll was replaced with a two-headed frigate bird motif, while in Fiji, the former Governor-General's flag featured a whale's tooth.

Governors-General are accorded the style of His/Her Excellency. This style is also extended to their spouses, whether female or male (for an example of the latter, see Jean-Daniel Lafond).

In former colonies which are now Commonwealth republics, the Governor-General and Monarch have been replaced by an elected or appointed (sometimes non-executive) Head of State.


Until the 1920s, the Governors-General were British, and appointed on the advice of the British Government.

Following the changes to the structure of the Commonwealth in the late 1920s, in 1929, the Australian Prime Minister James Scullin established the right of a Dominion Prime Minister to advise the Monarch directly on the appointment of a Governor-General, by insisting that his choice (Sir Isaac Isaacs, an Australian) prevail over the recommendation of the British Government. The convention was gradually established throughout the Commonwealth that the Governor-General would be a citizen of the country concerned, and would be appointed on the advice of the government of that country, with no input from the British Government. Since 1931 as each former Dominion has patriated its constitution from the UK, the convention has become law—no government of any realm can advise the Monarch on any matter pertaining to another realm, including the appointment of a Governor-General; today a country's Governor-General is appointed by the Sovereign based solely on the advice of the prime minister of the country concerned.

Commonwealth countries with governors general

Commonwealth realm From
Antigua and Barbuda 1981 Website
Australia 1901 Website
Bahamas 1973 Website
Barbados 1966 Website
Belize 1981 Website
Canada 1867 Website
Grenada 1974
Jamaica 1962 Website
New Zealand 1917 Website
Papua New Guinea 1975
Saint Kitts and Nevis 1983
Saint Lucia 1979 Website
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 1979 Website
Solomon Islands 1978
Tuvalu 1978
Clicking on the country above will take you the relevant Governor-General article.

Other attributes

Different realms have different constitutional arrangements governing who acts in place of the Governor-General in the event of his or her death, resignation, or incapacity.

  • In Australia, the senior state governor is usually delegated as "Administrator of the Commonwealth" to perform the necessary official functions, pending a decision by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister of Australia about a permanent replacement as Governor-General. The Administrator has usually been the senior Governor of the Australian states. Each state governor holds what is known as a dormant commission.
  • In Canada, Jamaica, and New Zealand, it is the Chief Justice.
  • In Papua New Guinea, it is the Speaker of the House.
  • Many Caribbean countries have a specific office of "Deputy Governor-General".

Former British colonies

The title has been used in many British colonial entities that either no longer exist or are now independent countries.

In the Americas

In Asia

In Africa

Former Commonwealth realms

Most Commonwealth countries that are now republics, with the President as head of state, were originally Commonwealth realms, with Governors-General. Some became parliamentary republics, like India, where the presidency is a ceremonial post, similar that of the British monarch, while others, like Ghana, adopted a presidential system like the United States. Australia held a referendum on becoming a parliamentary republic in 1999, but this was rejected.

The current governments of Barbados and Jamaica while having announced plans to hold referendums on becoming republics (in each case with a non-executive President replacing the Queen as head of state, as occurred in Trinidad and Tobago in 1976), have not proceeded any further. There can be no way of knowing whether the necessary referendums to enable appropriate changes would be approved by voters. In Australia, a referendum to change the country into a republic was soundly defeated in 1999.

In Africa

Zambia and the Seychelles became republics within the Commonwealth on independence.

In the Americas

Dominica became a republic on independence in 1978, with a ceremonial President as head of state.

In Asia

In Europe

Cyprus became a republic on independence.

In Oceania

Other colonial and similar usages



The equivalent word in French is gouverneur général, used in the following colonies:

Furthermore, in Napoleonic Europe successive French Governors-general were appointed by Napoleon I in:

  • the German states of Brandenburg (various other got 'mere' Governors), two incumbents during the 27 October 1806 - 10 December 1808 French occupation
  • Province of Courland under the French occupation (from 1 August 1812, Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and District of Pilten nominally re-established under joint French-Saxon protectorate 8 October 1812 - 20 December 1812) : Jacques David Martin, baron de Campredon (b. 1761 - d. 1837)
  • Parma and Piacenza under occupation, (after a Commissioner) 15 February 1804 - 23 July 1808, later annexed as département under a Prefect of Taro
  • principality of Piombino May 1806 - 1811 : Adolphe Beauvais (d. 1811)
  • annexed Tuscany, two incumbents, over prefects for Arno, Méditerranée [Mediterranean] and Ombrone:
    • May 1808 - 3 March 1809 Jacques François de Boussay, baron de Menou (b. 1750 - d. 1810)
    • 3 March 1809 - 1 February 1814 Elisa Baciocchi Bonaparte (with courtesy style of Grand Duchess of Tuscany) (b. 1777 - d. 1820)
  • the Illyrian provinces (comprising present Croatia, Slovenia and even adjacent parts of Austria and Italy), annexed as part of the French Empire proper, 14 October 1809 - August 1813


From 1691 to 1948 the Dutch appointed a Gouverneur-generaal ("Governor-General") to govern the Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia.

While in the Caribbean, various other titles were used, Curaçao had three Governors-General between 1816 and 1820:

  • 1816–1819 Albert Kikkert
  • 1819–1820 Petrus Bernardus van Starkenborgh
  • 1820 Isaäk Johannes Rammelman Elsevier



The equivalent word in Portuguese is Governador-Geral, but this style was only used in a few major colonies, other colonies lower titles, mainly Governador (Governor) or Captain-major, prevailed

  • In the overseas province of Portuguese India (Estado da Índia, capital Goa) the style was changed repeatedly for another, mostly Viceroy, or a commission
  • In Brazil, after a few Governors, from 1578 till its promotion on 13 Jul 1714 to Viceroyalty
  • in Africa, from 1837 Portugal appointed a Governor-general to govern the colony of Portuguese West Africa (later Angola), and another in Mozambique (Portuguese East Africa); both offices were restyled in full High Commissioner and Governor-general in 1921, and both existed until their 1975 decolonisation.


Other Western usages

  • Governor-General in the Swedish Realm
  • From 1636 to 1815, the Governors-General of Sweden typically were appointed for the Swedish Dominions on the eastern side of the Baltic and in northern Germany, but occasionally also for Scania.
  • From 1809 to 1918 there were Russian Governor-General of Finland in the Grand Duchy of Finland; Governor-Generals of Poland in Congress Poland and in various other Governorates-General.
  • From 1939 to 1944, during the German occupation of Poland, part of the country was designated the General Government and the Nazi official Hans Frank had the title Governor-General (Generalgouverneur für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete).
  • the kingdom of Saxony had a Governor general twice, under Allied control after French emperor Napoleon I's defeat:
    • 28 October 1813 - 8 November 1814 Prince Nikolay Grigorievich Repnin-Volkonsky (Russia) (b. 1778 - d. 1845)
    • 8 November 1814 - 8 June 1815 Eberhard Friedrich Christoph Ludwig, Freiherr von der Recke (Prussia) (b. 1744 - d. 1826)
  • during the occupation of Serbia by Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, the former (Habsburg empire) appointed three consecutive governors-general:
    • 1 January 1916 - July 1916 Johan Ulrich Graf von Salis-Seewis (b. 1862 - d. 1940)
    • July 1916 - October 1918 Adolf Freiherr von Rhemen zu Barensfeld (b. 1855 - d. 1932)
    • October 1918 - 1 November 1918 Herman Freiherr Kövess von Kövessháza (b. 1854 - d. 1924; a former military commander in northern Serbia)

Asian counterparts


In Canada the title "Governor General" is always used unhyphenated. In Australia and New Zealand, the term is always hyphenated.

See also

Sources and references


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