Professor Brian Matthews, Head of Centre

The Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies

Imagine you are on a shore which just now is a strip of deserted white sand and an empty arc of blue water but which, in a few days time, will lose its centuries old aboriginal name and be known as Sydney Cove.  It is, let us say, the early afternoon of January 21, 1788, cloudless and hot.  Around you, the bush crowds down to the coast, dense, green and anonymous.  Occasionally, a distant Currawong’s piercing whistle or the Kookaburra’s wheezy chortle or a sudden rush of wings among branches drift out from the gloomy barricade of trees to join the sound of breezes freshening and dying and the irresistible rhythmic surge and crash of the sea.  But despite the natural sounds, there is, overall, an impression of immense and alien silence: you cannot help a shiver of apprehension as you stand there dwarfed by the weird melancholy of the Australian bush.  You cannot help wondering how anyone could feel comfortable in this understated, somehow sinister landscape.  But you are about to find out, because even as you stand pondering, while shade edges across the beach and fish begin jumping in the channels offshore, three boats are gliding cautiously through the heads: the white man has arrived and everything is about to change…

On that afternoon of 21 January 1788 – Captain General and Governor-in-Chief, Arthur Phillip, accompanied by Captain John Hunter and other officers and men, sailed into what he immediately described as the finest harbour in the world.  The Fleet had already anchored some days earlier in Botany Bay, as dictated by his instructions, but Phillip had very quickly seen that if offered none of the advantages he had been led to believe when receiving his London briefings.  And so he had set off with three boats for Broken Bay to find a better and a more fitting site for the first antipodean footprint of Empire and almost immediately they had come upon the entrance to Port Jackson.  The next day – 22nd January – Phillip explored the various inlets of the harbour and, choosing the one with the best supply of spring water, that same beach on which you have just been standing, he named it Sydney Cove. 

In the cool of the evening on the 23rd he returned to Botany Bay and, over the next three days, brought the whole Fleet to Sydney Cove where, on the afternoon of 26th January, the flag was raised, a salute was fired, the men on shore gave three cheers and the crew on the Supply, at anchor nearby, returned the salutation like an echo.  Thus, with a tiny ceremonial commotion on a splinter of the east cost, marooned in the enormity of the southern oceans, Europe arrived officially in the Great South Land.

Phillip and his motley party had come to a land of fable and fantasy.  William Dampier, looking with a jaundiced eye on the west coast at the beginning of the 18th century, had pronounced it barren, dry and inhospitable; yet he maintained his faith in a fabulous New Holland with fruits, spice, drugs and minerals somewhere further East.  Taking Dampier’s hint, Daniel Defoe invented an alluring, mysterious and exotic South Land for his fictional account entitled “A New Voyage Round the World” for his famous contemporary, Jonathan Swift, returns again and again to the known facts and that fantastic speculations about a great south land in his famous “Gulliver’s Travels”.  In fact, Swift locates Lilliput in Lake Torrens, South Australia, so his navigation was a little bit out, but the important point was that he deliberately chose New Holland as a place in which he knew he could claim amazing sights, wonders and marvels and he knew his readers would expect such exotica in any account of the strange antipodes. 

So, when Phillip returned to Sydney Cove with the Fleet from Botany Bay, he was leading a group of people who, though not generally well educated, were nevertheless aware that they had entered what was, to white eyes at least, the strangest of all parts of the globe; they were ‘upside down at the bottom of the world’; imprisoned on one side by an unscalable range of mountains, on the other by turbulent and vast oceans; they would come upon solitary trees burning furiously and mysteriously in the middle of a deserted landscape; they would find that “no wood in (their new) country, though sawed ever so thin, and dried ever so well, (would) float”, the local fauna were so bizarre as to defy description, the seasons were utterly out of kilter, the forests faceless, trackless and fairy tale-like in their gloom and menace; storms were violent and unpredictable, the earth hard, the ants voracious, the flies unmentionable.

Imagine that first night: as the long summer’s day of January 26th 1788, gradually faded and the luminous warm dark enveloped the hapless group of settlers in their makeshift tents and shelters; imagine the truly immense blackness, lit only by stars ranged across the huge skies in patterns they had never before seen or heard of; listen in your head to the cavernous silence broken only by wild and alien sounds drifting out of the bush, imagine the desolation of the sea’s long and ceaseless hissing on that unknown shore; think of the next day when first light dashed all dreams of home with the sight of unfamiliar trees, expanses of sunbrowned hillsides and the indifferent blue of sea and sky.  It is almost impossible for us now to realise the sheer panic, the welling-up scream of utter terror that this transplantation to the edge of the earth would have engendered in most of Phillip’s little band, apart from those so desperate as not to care.

And this potentially terrifying effect was the key to one of Phillip’s most important yet least definable tasks; to endow the expedition as quickly as possible with a sense of normality, to ward off the oppressive and terrifying feeling that they were at the mercy of a fantastic place and uncanny forces.  He was the right man for that job because he had an unerring ability to appreciate the importance of the ordinary and the routine in peoples’ lives and in social situations.  He went about the establishment of the settlement with a notable lack of pomp and fuss.

On the King’s birthday, he went through a whole day of celebrations carefully concealing the pain from a spear wound so as not to spoil anyone’s pleasure.  Gradually his own matter-of-factness, his refusal to be overwhelmed by their isolation, his unbreachable calm, rubbed off on the nervous soldiery and the recalcitrant or terrified convicts.  In the days following the January 26th ceremony, land was cleared, tents pitched, Phillip’s portable Government House was set up, stores were landed and, on Sunday 3rd February, the Reverend Richard Johnson
preached the first sermons from the shelter of a huge eucalypt, taking as his text psalm 116, Verse 12: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?” – a query that no doubt struck most of the convict congregation as at best unanswerable, at worst redundant!  A week later, Johnson joined in holy matrimony fourteen couples who had taken to heart Phillip’s rather Pauline advice to the convicts to marry.  Almost without noticing it, the lonely settlement was establishing a sort of normality – and this was above all Phillip’s doing, even down to encouraging the marriages: it was his task and achievement to blunt the terror of the new with the power of his own humanity, his eye for the importance of the ordinary, his genius for establishing routine …

When Phillip left for England in December 1792, his greatest success was perhaps taken for granted: certainly the ordered buildings, the emerging plan of streets, the surviving economy, were to his credit.  But jut as important, though not so visible, was the sense people had that they now lived not in a rough outpost clinging to survival at the ends of the earth, but in a genuine society, with refinements, cultural pleasures, creativity.  In short, they had come to terms with their new land and attained something that mere buildings and roads could not necessarily guarantee – the beginnings of what we call a way of life: and Phillip had shown them, by his own unspectacular but firm example, how that was done.

Phillip was a seafaring man: when he set sail for home in 1792 from one of the greatest adventures that those times had to offer, it was with lingering memories of the warm southern winds, the hot blue skies, the impassive wall of never-changing green forest; the wide, half-known antipodean oceans, and with his ears, like Jonah’s, ‘still multitudinously murmuring of the sea’.  How could anyone settle to the old ways after such far-flung exploits.  Many failed to.  Captain James Cook, returning after his epic voyages to the possibility of a pension, could not face such a humdrum fate and set off again only to meet his destiny and a fatal spear in the Sandwich Isles.  But Phillip, characteristically, resumed his old life, serving with distinction in the navy, retiring to Bath and embarking on another different adventure: remarriage.

The only unconventional feature of Phillip’s low key return was that he brought with him two Aborigines, Bennilong and Yemmerrawanie, both of whom had become very attached to him.  Despite their devotion, Phillip would have rated as a failure his ambitious but flawed plan to befriend, care for and bring the benefits of civilisation to the Australian Aborigines.  In five short years, and beginning from a position of such ignorance of the land and its people, that task had been impossible.  It would therefore be a genuine consolation to him to know now (and it gives even greater point to this important commemoration) that, in the 206th year after his lonely and fateful landfall, the Mabo Judgement of the High Court of Australia on Native Land Title, and the legislation it has recently engendered, have paved the way for a historic reconciliation between Aborigines and whites.  In a way, that could be regarded as the overdue completion of Phillip’s modest aspirations for the new society at the bottom of the world.