Professor Sir Robert May FRS Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of Office of Science and Technology
I am delighted that the Britain-Australia Bicentennial Trust has invited me here to make this year’s Admiral Arthur Phillip Address. I think perhaps the reason for the invitation is two-fold – because I am Australian, and because I am a scientist. It is in the latter capacity that I make the following remarks, offering a scientist’s perspective on Admiral Phillip’s achievements and singular legacy.
Science is at the very core of Australia’s history. Cook’s first voyage of 1768-1771 was primarily in response to the Royal Society of London’s request for observations of the transit of venus across the disk of the sun, from a location in the Southern Pacific, and only secondarily as a voyage of exploration of the Ocean itself. No-one can deny the significance of science in Australian colonial heritage(1). The early history of the continent is profoundly entwined with the quest for scientific knowledge. Five years before Cook’s voyage, in 1763, a Fellow of the Royal Society, one Thomas Hornsby, recorded a view which echoes in contemporary discussions about the contradictory claims of directed versus blue-skies research: “how far it may be an object of attention to a commercial nation to make a settlement in the great Pacific Ocean… is not my business to enquire. Such enterprises if speedily undertaken, might fortunately give an advantageous position to the astronomer”(2).
Landing less than 20 years before Arthur Phillip, Captain Cook (himself a Fellow of the Royal Society) was accompanied by two other Fellows of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. Banks was a keen naturalist, as was Solander who went on to become the Keeper of the natural history collections at the British Museum. We know that Banks, described as “a Gentleman of large fortune… well versed in natural history”(3) took with him the leading edge scientific instruments of his time, including “a fine library of natural history… all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing… a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom to a great depth… many cases of bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes, to preserve animals in spirits… (and) several sorts of salts to surround the seeds”.
The success of the voyage of the Endeavour in discovering and cataloguing an abundant diversity of hitherto unknown flora is rather charmingly reflected in the naming of “Botany Bay”. Cook was further to roll forward the boundaries of scientific knowledge, mapping the as-yet uncharted coastline with instruments at the forefront of contemporary technological knowledge.
Phillip himself was not a natural historian, but, with an inquiring mind, recognised the value of a sound knowledge of plants and animals for the initial and continuing success of the colony. The expedition ships carried live cattle for a planned breeding programme on arrival, and grain for establishing crops. In addition, cuttings were transported of various fruit-bearing trees in the hope that the new land would prove fertile ground. Phillip encouraged his Surgeon to locate indigenous plants which might be used for medicinal purposes. Plants of all descriptions were assiduously collected wherever the ships landed on route to the Southern Land, including coffee, cotton and vines from Brazil. Many of these plants so carefully carried across the globe withered in the extreme heat, or were attacked by unknown species of insects. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to under-estimate Phillip’s continuing battle to establish a self-sufficient, thriving colony. Yet this is what he achieved.
Phillip’s knowledge of agricultural science, and of the importance of diet and hygiene, was to be one of his major contributions to life in the colony. Fresh fruit and vegetables were served regularly to all on board ships under his command. Unusually, no deaths from scurvy were recorded on the historic voyage to the “Great South Land”. Diet and good agricultural practices were key to the success of the colony and, in a concept perhaps familiar to us today, the allocation of measured plots of land encouraged convicts and sailors alike to become “stakeholders” in their own economy. Phillip’s appreciation of the symbiotic relationship of the environment and the nascent colony is shown in the passing of a law which prohibited the felling of trees on either side of the Tank Stream, thereby protecting both the natural environment and the main water supply for the colonists. Contemporary interest in the natural history of Australia is abundantly reflected in Phillip’s account of the First Settlement, published (and a best seller) in 1789(4). It abounds with illustrations of the new and curious animals and plants, many looking quaint to a modern eye (the kangaroos looks like a giant rat standing on its hind legs).
We look back now, in the sure knowledge of the birth of a nation, but may fail to appreciate the privations, doubts and failures which Phillip and his people undoubtedly endured. The experiment, for that is what it was, could so easily have failed. The journey of lonely weeks crossing the great Southern Ocean, leading 11 ships, with 1500 souls on board, was a journey at the edge of that day’s knowledge and technology. We know through the journals of David Collins, the Captain of Marines in The Fleet, that nine of the eleven ships “had never before sailed in that distant and imperfectly explored ocean”(5). Once landfall had been gained, the new land facing the settlers was terrifying in its alien nature. With its heat and storms, its forbidding terrain, its immense black nights and new starts, it must have seemed very far indeed from home and the rule of civilised society. It was a country populated by strange animals and insects. Here was a kind of Eden. Phillip had the task of establishing social routines and maintaining the importance of the ordinary – of building a settlement with ordered street plans and establishing farms.
The framework for sustaining public order in the new colony was the establishment of both civil and criminal courts. Phillip’s even-handedness in dealing with people of all backgrounds (he himself came from humble origins) was perhaps his greatest achievement. His five years of governance of the infant colony of New South Wales was remarkable for its attempts to lay the foundations for friendly and productive contact with the local aborigines. Phillip had become an ardent anti-slaver after a posting to the West Indies. As a humanitarian, the denigration of human life horrified him, and one of his first laws in Australia declared that “there will never be any slavery in this land”. Sometimes his egalitarianism must have been something of a trial of endurance: he often slept on the floor of a hut, and always ate the same rations that were issued to sailors and convicts alike. His attempts to establish relations with the local aborigines were not always successful, but he continued in his approach in the hope that it would eventually bear fruit. On his return to London, five years later, he was accompanied by two aborigines, and he persuaded King George III to sign a treaty acknowledging the indigenous people. The treaty was,
unfortunately, never ratified by Parliament. In recent times, I do not think it fanciful to imagine Phillip regarding with some satisfaction the Mabo Judgement on Native Land Title delivered by the High Court of Australia. This long-awaited Judgement has served to pave the way for a historic recognition of the rights of the original inhabitants of Australia, some 208 years after that first landfall.
So, Phillip was a man of great resourcefulness and vision – talents which would, no doubt, benefit a Chief Scientific Adviser today. What of his legacy?
As an Australian scientist I am pleased to confirm that the future of the bilateral relationship between Australia and the UK remains firmly based in the quest for scientific knowledge. In 1997, a year-long programme of events is planned under the name of “New Images”. This initiative is aimed at celebrating the modern, evolving relationship between our two countries. New Images will encompass a broad spectrum of activity covering all the key aspects of contemporary British and Australian society, including science and technology, trade and investment, education, culture and sport (although I have the chauvinistic feeling that relations are more asymmetric in sporting success than in other areas!) Youth will be the dominant and linking theme.
On looking through the programme of planned events, I was particularly delighted to note that the Anglo-Australian Observatory is planning to hold an interactive exhibition on astronomy. The theme would, I think, have some resonance for Admiral Phillip. Here is something which he would understand as being of continuing importance, and of which, I am sure, he would wholeheartedly approve.
Coming closer to my own professional interests, I note that Australian scientists have built well on the early studies of the continent’s flora and fauna. Australia, through its Environmental Resources Information Network (ERIN) and other initiatives, is pioneering new ways of synoptic codification of information about biological diversity, in ways which facilitate rational planning of conservation and of sustainable development projects. On the other hand, the UK has unrivalled collections – legacies of an imperial past – at the National History Museum, Kew, and elsewhere, supported by exceptional research strength. I take pleasure in the many research collaborations between our two countries – some of which will feature in “New Images” in 1997 – which not only work to preserve our inheritance of biological diversity in Australia and the UK, but which also reach out to help developing countries (all too often rich in biodiversity but poor in economic terms).
In short, I believe Governor Phillip would be pleased to see how Australia and the UK continue to work – sometimes separately, often together – to build in many different ways on the foundation he laid.
1. Roy MacLeod “The Commonwealth of Science” (ANZAAZ and the Scientific Enterprise in Australasia 1888-1988) Ed. Oxford University Press, New York 1988
2. Thomas Hornsby “On the Transit of Venus in 1769” in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London
(1765) as recorded in “The Royal Society and the Voyage of HMS Endeavour 1768-71” by Harold B Carter (Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol.49, No.2 July 1995)
3. Australian Dictionary of Biographers
4. Arthur Phillip “The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, etc”, printed for
John Stockdale, Piccadilly, 1789.
Facsimile edition, State Library of South Australia, 1968.
5. David Collins “An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales – 1798”