Dr Neil Chalmers, Director
The Natural History Museum
Today we remember the historic day of which Admiral Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney Cove. This remarkable event took place on 26th January 1788, 107 years ago, and it signified not only the end of a formidable voyage across the world, but also the beginning of a new episode in history.
We can look back today and recognise what Phillip and the first fleet achieved, but I wonder if, at the time, King George III and his ministers had any inkling of what was ultimately going to flow from the voyage of a modest fleet consisting of two armed ships, HMS Sirius and Supply, together with three storeships and six transports carrying about 1500 men and women, most of them convicts. Phillip was to take the fleet half way round the world, via Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope with such success that virtually all of the party arrived safely and in good health.
Arthur Phillip was clearly a practical and very gifted man, as well as being immensely experienced as a sailor. He had joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 16, had sailed the world, and had captained ships in both the British and the Portuguese navies. All of this must have stood him in very good stead on the voyage to Australia. But in addition to all of this, his political skills were sufficient to persuade sceptical politicians and officials of the day to stock the fleet to his satisfaction and to grant him very substantial legal powers as Governor of the new colony. A man of his resourcefulness would do well as a Director of a National Museum today!
Once the fleet had landed at Sydney Cove and the early back-breaking work of setting up the colony had begun, Arthur Phillip showed a combination of toughness and fairness that did much to ensure the success of the venture. While punishing those who continued with their lives of crime, and while rewarding those who showed signs of turning over a new leaf, Phillip showed no inclination to spare himself from the hardships of the day. In the early days he often slept on the floor of a hut, and ate rations that were issued to sailors and convicts alike. Some of his fellow officers were less than enthusiastic when Phillip imposed these egalitarian practices on them as well, seeing it as damaging to their self-esteem as well as to their comfort. One of them grumbled to a colleague “Could I possibly have imagined that I was to be served with, for instance, no more butter than any of the convicts… I most certainly would not have left England without supplying myself with that article.”
When Phillip sailed to Australia, he was, of course, following in the steps of Captain Cook, who had landed in New South Wales less than twenty years earlier, on his first voyage around the world on the Endeavour. Cook was accompanied on the voyage by two eminent Fellows of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, and Daniel Solander, for the voyage had been instigated by The Royal Society as a scientific expedition to observe the passage of the planet Venus over the disk of the sun.
Banks was wealthy and very influential, as well as being a keen natural historian, and Solander was keeper of the natural history collections at the British Museum. (The departments housing these collections subsequently became The Natural History Museum at South Kensington). Banks and Solander together provided a rich account of the wildlife that they found. Indeed, they were so impressed by the abundance and diversity of unknown plants that they named the place where they landed Botany Bay. Cook had mapped the coast of New South Wales as he went, and it was as a result of his reports that Phillip was instructed to make Botany Bay his destination. When he arrived there, Phillip quickly realised that it was unsuitable for settlement, and began the search which, just over a week later, resulted in the landing on Sydney Cove.
As I have said, Phillip was a practical navy man and he certainly would not have claimed to be a natural historian. Nevertheless, he clearly recognised the importance of a sound knowledge of animals and plants for the success of the colony. He had also spent several years farming land in the New Forest, and this experience had obviously shaped his planning as he prepared the first fleet for its long voyage across the oceans of the world. Phillip determined to take with him not only live cattle, to form the foundation of breeding herds in Australia, and grain for the production of crops, but “such fruit trees and cuttings that will bear removing… as likewise roots that will bear keeping that length of time out of the ground.”
Wherever the first fleet put in to port on its way to Australia, Phillip collected new plants avidly in the hope that they would be of use once they had arrived. He wrote to Banks from Rio de Janeiro saying that he had collected most of what he could find in Brazil that he thought would flourish in Botany Bay, including “coffee, cotton, indigo, vine, orange coco, jambo or pomona rosa and the cochineal.” He collected with such enthusiasm that when the fleet left the Cape of Good Hope, the horticulturist Francis Masson, who was present at the time, wrote to Banks “The Fleet left us yesterday all in good health; besides cattle and stock of all sorts they have taken trees, plants and seeds of every sort which the season would admit. Indeed, Governor Phillip’s cabin was like a small greenhouse…”.
Phillip can hardly have failed to be aware of the great upsurge in interest in natural history within Britain in the latter part of the 18th century. He knew Banks and corresponded with him regularly both before, during and after the voyage. He regularly sent him animals and plants for identification that he had collected in New South Wales. Other figures important in the field of natural history were prominent at the time. In particular, Sir Hans Sloane had used his personal collection of natural history objects to form the natural history collections of the
British Museum which was founded in 1753. The great Swedish biologist Linnaeus had developed the modern system for scientifically naming and classifying plants and animals and Phillip occasionally used some of the new names. Phillip might also have had a naval interest in Linnaeus, for it is rumoured, though with how much truth it is difficult to say, that when Linnaeus died, Banks persuaded a wealthy English naturalist to buy Linnaeus’ collections of books and specimens. It is said that the King of Sweden sent a warship in pursuit of the vessel that took the specimens to England but that the English ship was faster, and that the collections safely reached English shores. Whether this anecdote is true or not, the collections acted as a catalyst for the formation of the Linnean Society in 1788, and indeed are to this day to be found in the premises of the Society in Piccadilly.
Finally, Gilbert White published “The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne” in 1788 – the year in which the first fleet set sail, and White noted that natural history was now so popular that “even bishops… in order to recommend themselves study botany.”
All of this background knowledge and interest in natural history stood Arthur Phillip in good stead. When he arrived and had cleared land he set about planting crops and breeding cattle. It was not easy, since much of the grain had been damaged by excessive heat on the journey and by insect attack, and many of the plants withered and died. Phillip must have rued the fact that he had not persuaded Francis Masson to sail with him. As time passed, however, Phillip found better agricultural land at the head of the harbour, in the area that we know as Parramatta, and galvanised the colonists into co-operation. He allocated them plots of land and insisted that the only fruits and vegetables that they would get in future would come from crops that they had grown themselves. Phillip also encouraged his surgeon general, John White, to seek out local plants that could provide food or medicines.
Despite the hardships of the time, Phillip had time to enjoy and indeed be amazed at the wonderful wildlife -–so much of it completely new to these British voyagers. He collected animals and plants and sent them back to Banks in England. He took the precaution of warning Banks in a letter that he was sending a stuffed kangaroo, and that he should prepare Lady Banks for the sight lest she be unduly alarmed. Indeed by 1792, Phillip had four tame kangaroos that slept by the fire in his kitchen, and had collected a wide variety of animals and plants, including several marsupials, as well as the emu and the black swan – all of them extraordinary to British eyes. He also obtained drawings of many of the plants and animals he came across.
We are fortunate that our records of these early days in New South Wales include some lovely works of art. A midshipman on board HMS Sirius, called George Raper, made a fine set of 72 drawings, which are now housed in The Natural History Museum. They depict nautical views of landfalls and harbour entrances of places passed or visited during the outward voyage to Botany Bay natural history objects and scenery. Most were made in New South Wales and some at Norfolk Island where the Sirius was later wrecked, stranding her crew for eleven months. If you look at Raper’s drawing of a kangaroo you can capture some of the astonishment that he, Governor Phillip, and the entire party must have felt on seeing one for the first time. Good artist though Raper was, the picture is not quite right – the eyes are too big and the neck is too long. It is almost as though Raper could not believe his eyes as he drew.
Another accomplished artist, Thomas Watling, arrived with a later fleet in 1792. He drew mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, shells, insects and plants with such accuracy that his drawings subsequently played an important part in their formal scientific description and naming. Watling’s gift for copying what he saw had earlier in his career landed him in trouble, for he was convicted in 1789 for forging banknotes. He transportation to Australia proved to be both his punishment and posterity’s reward.
When Arthur Phillip finally sailed for England from Sydney Cove on 11th December 1792, he had laid the foundations for a successful settlement, and the years that followed were to show the fruits of his hard work. We do not have a record of whether his cabin looked like a greenhouse on his return journey, although we know that he took with him an assortment of animals and plants, timber, rocks and drawings. Perhaps they reminded him of the natural beauty of the country where he had just spent five memorable years of his life.