In the many colonies of the British empire, it seems that the rulers of some were known as Governors General and others were officially titled as Viceroys. Was there a practical distinction between the two titles, or are these really two names for the same position?

I'm focusing on the period from AD 1700-1900, or so.

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    A governor general ran a colony, whereas a viceroy is a kind of butterfly. ;P – NotVonKaiser Jun 14 '13 at 15:46
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    I think that there was not much of a practical distinction, it was more a matter of customary titles. Viceroys were sent for India and Ireland, elsewhere they were governors (of all kinds). (But maybe I'm missing something here, so not posting an answer yet). – Felix Goldberg Jun 14 '13 at 15:54

A viceroy is a "vice-king" (roi is French for king). Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II were/are female "kings," (not queens in the usual sense of wife of a king). Dominions held in the name of the king or queen (e.g. Queen Victoria was Empress of India) would be ruled by "Viceroys."

Other colonies were held in the name of GreatBritain, rather than the ruler. The persons in charge of those colonies would then be Governors (General). Only "whole countries" such as India and Ireland, were held in the name of the Crown.

Their functions are basically the same, only the "form" of their "rule" would differ.

  • Sounds logical; do you have a source? – Mark C. Wallace Jun 14 '13 at 18:43
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    @MarkC.Wallace: Here's one. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viceroy – Tom Au Jun 14 '13 at 18:51
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    @TomAu Sources should go into the main post IMHO. – Apoorv Jun 15 '13 at 6:07
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    So why were some held in the name of Britain and some in the name of the ruler? – James Woolfenden Aug 15 '13 at 10:48

In case of India:

From 1773 to 1858, the British administrative head in India was called Governor General and was selected by the Court of Directors of the East India Company, to whom he was responsible. After the 1857 Uprising, the government of India was transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. And "Viceroy" was added to the title of the Governor General and was called as a Viceroy Of India.

Viceroy was appointed by the sovereign on the advice of the British government; the Secretary of State for India, a member of the UK Cabinet, was responsible for instructing him on the exercise of his powers.

After 1858, Viceroy Of India , as a Viceroy, direct representative of the Crown, dealt with the princely states of India, whose relationship was not with the British government, but directly with the monarch. And as a Governor General, govern the British India provinces.

Generally, if there is a dominion status, the administrative head is called only as a Governor General. For example, after India's independence on 15th Aug. 1947, till the India become republic in 1950, she had a dominion status. And in this period, Lord Mountbatten was made Governor General. He remained till 1948 and after him C. Rajagopalachari become the Governor General. The other dominions (Canada, Australia, etc) too have a post named only as a Governor General.


There is no formal difference.

In practice the Lieutenant Governors of the Canadian Provinces and the Governors of the Australian States are viceroys, although the term is not used. Wikipedia

From these two sources I infer that

  • There isn't a formal definition of either term (although if I had access to DeBrett's, I might consult that.)
  • It may be that Governor General's represent an administration, while Viceroy's (or Lord Lieutenant's) represent the crown in a territory that is part of an empire.

The British system wasn't designed; it evolved. They didn't set out to create an empire, and had no idea that they would be so successful. Consequently they developed imperial administration reactively.

If we consult a third source, we get a conflicting view. This one sounds like an analysis by language, rather than by politics. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland is certainly more important than the Governor of Virginia.

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