Dr R J B Knight, Director, Collections Division,

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Two hundred and five years ago today Captain Arthur Phillip in the Sirius, and some of his storeships and transports, were anchored inside the great harbour at Port Jackson.  By 26th January all the Fleet were safely in.  But I want to take you some fourteen months further back, to the last days of November 1786 when Phillip and the Sirius were not far from this spot.  If you close your eyes (metaphorically) and imagine that you were sitting in this church at that time, a few minutes walk would take you along Cheapside, down Lombard Street, then Gracechurch Street to one of the River stairs below the old London Bridge.  You would take a wherry and the tide would take you, your waterman steering a careful course downriver through the tiers of ships and barges, bustling and busy, unloading every type of cargo (for it was a time of great growth and prosperity); you would slip past the Tower, past the equally busy wharves and shipbuilding yards of Rotherhithe, Limehouse and Wapping on both sides of the River, then to Deptford, past the storehouses and chimneys of the Naval Victualling Yard and then to His Majesty’s dockyard.

In the middle of the River there is moored a modest, bluff-bowed vessel 100 feet long of 512 tons – not much bigger, as someone once remarked, than the Manley ferry.  An armed storeship built for seakeeping, not for speed; though she has eighteen small guns, she does not look particularly warlike.  Clambering aboard, you would notice the large number of stores being stowed by her crew; stooping, you would walk in to the main cabin where you would see an unimposing naval officer, Arthur Phillip surrounded by papers, talking earnestly with his captain and second-in-command, John Hunter.  A third naval man, Lieutenant George Teer, the Agent for Transport in the River Thames, would also be there.  They would be talking of the fitting out and storing of the Sirius, its tender the Supply – three times smaller than the Sirius – and the nine transports and storeships which would accompany them to Botany Bay.

I give you this brief picture because it contains an essential element of the success of the First Fleet – a point to which I will return.

I thought today that we would remember only some detailed facets of Admiral Arthur Phillip, for you have in your service sheets an admirable short sketch of the whole of his life.  It is quite a story; the biography by Alan Frost runs to over three hundred pages.  Few naval officers had as long and a fascinating career as he had at a time when the life of a naval officer was ever varied.  With humble origins and without powerful friends, and stuck at the rank of lieutenant for many years, he had by now become known to a number of powerful people through his secret service activities – still, incidentally, not entirely unravelled by Alan Frost.  A great strength which he was to call upon in the next few years was his remarkable self-sufficiency, which had been further developed by years away from England in the Portuguese navy; this service, too, especially his time in South America, gave him a wider and wiser view of mankind.  Once at sea, his fairmindedness engendered a high degree of loyalty from both officers and men.  From this rich experience came his crucial five years of wise governance – and, indeed, ethical vision – of the infant colony in New South Wales, which brought it through difficult times of great privation, when it so easily could have failed. 

All these judgements have, of course, the advantages of hindsight.  But how was Phillip chosen for this task, then, from a navy which had other able officers, many of whom, since it was peacetime, would have been glad of such a command?  The First Lord of the Admiralty, Admiral Lord Howe, responsible for such appointments, was against it: ‘I cannot say’, he wrote, ‘the little knowledge I have of Captain Phillip would have led me to select him for the service of this complicated nature’.  Howe was perhaps the most distinguished naval officer of the day, and not a man to cross.  In fact, Phillip owed his appointment to Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary, whose responsibility it was to find a solution to the problem of the convicts.  Of particular value to Arthur Phillip was his friendship with the Under-Secretary of State, Evan Nepean.  It was unusual for a First Lord of the Admiralty to give way in such matters and it was particularly unusual for Howe to give way.  But Howe knew that William Pitt, the Prime Minister, was in favour of Phillip as well.  A further twist to these bureaucratic politics was the Controller of the Navy Board, Sir Charles Middleton, was not on speaking terms with Lord Howe, so that anyone whom Howe opposed would automatically have his support.  This was particularly important since the Navy Board was responsible for the dockyards and for the fitting out of this expedition.

The practical effect of this position was that Phillip had an enormous say over the fitting out and storing of the Fleet.  The relationship of the commander of an eighteenth-century naval ship with the Navy Board and the Dockyards had long been one of friction.  Phillip had no such problem.  He was able to pile on request after request and as the weeks went past Lieutenant Teer and the dockyard officers had to cope.  By early December 1786, so many of the laboriously established rules were being broken that the Navy Board wrote to Teer to say ‘If there appears to you any good ground for the additions or alteration proposed by Captain Phillip, you are to give directions accordingly without waiting our further orders’ – a surrender of control almost without precedent.

Through this hectic period – the First Fleet was prepared in only ten weeks – Phillip displayed a political patience and skill which he had learnt through his career, and he played the strength of his political relationship with Sydney and Nepean to its full advantage.  He had gone through life with few advantages, and when he had one he knew how to play it.  In many ways, Phillip had won much of the success of the First Fleet before he embarked at the Mother Bank at Spithead in May 1787; the vignette of the three officers on board Sirius at Deptford, which I gave at the start of my address, was critical to the foundation of Australia.

It is true that there followed a two-month period of delay whilst the Fleet gathered at Spithead, during which time there was serious sickness amongst both marines and convicts.  Though there were some stores yet unprovided, most of the problems lay in providing Phillip with the necessary orders and powers for his unique commission.  Phillip knew, however, meticulous and experienced as he was, that he could not leave without the necessary powers to maintain his authority.  He spent much of March 1787 trying to get an answer out of the Admiralty about his position when he reached New South Wales.  Nor was the Home Office any quicker; his civil commission for his governorship did not receive the Great Seal until late April.  Finally, it was not until 11th May that he was able to acknowledge receipt of his warrant to appoint courts martial, which as a captain, not on a specific foreign station, was against precedent at law and normally only given to a commander-in-chief of a specified station.  This was his ultimate authority and it is unsurprising that he left immediately he had this document in his hands.

I have gone into these details to remind you that these complexities and tension existed then – as they do now- and that character is needed to succeed on the details in order to succeed in the whole.  But the real test of Phillip’s leadership and character was now to come.  I cannot but believe that the lonely weeks across the Southern Ocean, leading eleven tiny ships across a scarcely charted seas, carrying fifteen hundred men and women, must have represented a peak of responsibility which comes to few men.  For this was a journey which was at the edge of knowledge and technology.  James Cook had only ten years before charted the coasts which was the goal of the fleet.  Apart from the considerable experience of the naval officers and masters of the transports, the expedition was accompanied by a specialist navigator, William Dawes, while the Board of Longitude issued Phillip with the best instruments it could muster – instruments which could hardly have been matched by any other country.  Kendall’s first chronometer, which had served Cook so well, gave Phillip the longitude readings without which the fleet could hardly have made such a successful landfall.  Indeed, the requirement of this navigational knowledge and the resources to put together such a seaworthy fleet, needing such a multiplicity of stores, makes it unlikely that any other European power could have mounted such an expedition at this time.

No-one should underestimate the achievement of getting the First Fleet to Australia two hundred and five years ago.  Yet we do so.  Modern communications make us take these things for granted.  We reach unthinkingly for Australian wine or New Zealand apples in the supermarket.  Five flights in a 747 would take twenty-four hours what it took Phillip and resources of the British government and navy two years to achieve.

It could have gone so wrong.  Subsequent convict fleets arrived with much sickness and death, and it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that the government’s later lack of supervision meant that they were trying to transport the convicts on the cheap, once the bridgehead had been established.  On human level, one only has to look at the sorry story of William Bligh, who was appointed to the Bounty only months after Phillip had left Spithead.  His subsequent career, both at sea, and as Governor of New South Wales, demonstrated graphically how a flawed and unbalanced character could wreak havoc.

Arthur Phillip’s essential achievement was to ensure that there were well-found ships, good victuals, accurate navigation, effective discipline and clear objectives.  Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore called it ‘one of the great sea voyages in English history’.  The sense of wonder to the eighteenth-century mind is more clearly seen in the opinion of the Captain of Marines in the Fleet, David Collins:

Thus, under the blessing of God, was happily completed, in eight months and one week a voyage which, before it was undertaken, the mind hardly ventured to contemplate ……..  We had sailed five thousand and twenty-one leagues; had touched at the American and African continents; and had at last rested within a few days sail of the antipodes of our native country, without meeting any accident in a fleet of eleven sail, nine of which were merchantmen that had never before sailed in that distant and imperfectly explored ocean.

1 Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip 1738-1814; his voyaging (Melbourne 1987).
2 Public Record Office, CO 201/2, Howe to Sydney, 3 September 1789.
3 David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. (London 1718).