Professor Sir Ghillean Prance FRS, Director,
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
I am delighted to have been invited here today by the Britain-Australia Bicentennial Trust to give this year’s Admiral Arthur Phillip address. I must say that I was quite surprised by the invitation because I have had rather little connection with Australia and the name of Admiral Phillip was but a vague recollection from school geography classes! However, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to find out more about this great man. Also the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which I direct, has had a long history of contact with Australia and Australian science so in that capacity it is most appropriate for me to be here.
I spent the early part of my career leading a series of botanical expeditions to Amazonia. I have often been asked by the press about what was the greatest adventure or what disasters occurred on my expeditions. Indeed a few things that could be so termed, such as capsized canoes in rapids, or one of my field helpers falling out of a tree from considerable height, have happened to me. But, unlike many writers who seem to go on expeditions to court the disasters they can write about to make a good story, I have always replied that a good expedition with a serious purpose tries to avoid disasters. It is a sign of a good leader when things go smoothly and as planned. Someone who, in 1787, could command a fleet of eleven ships with more than 2500 people on board, including many convicts, and take it half way round the world without a single death is indeed an expedition leader to be admired. And that was partly because of good scientific knowledge about which plants to use to avoid scurvy. I also noted that the voyage touched Brazil when Phillip’s fleet stopped at Rio de Janeiro. With his previous experience working for the government of Portugal Phillip would have been very welcome in Rio. His task as leader was not an easy one, for his passengers included many convicts who at one time plotted to seize the Scarborough and escape. Admiral Phillip proved to be an excellent expedition leader both at sea and on land when his party arrived in Australia and he set up the new colony. It is no easy job to keep control of a group of people when food is in short supply and until their agriculture was well established the whole settlement was on half rations. I noted with admiration that Phillip shared in all the privations himself. The mark of a fine and worthy leader.
As someone who has carried out a lot of ethnobotanical research amongst various tribes of Amazonian Indians, I found another aspect of Admiral Phillip with which I can closely empathise, he made a great effort to get on well with the natives and stood up for their interests. This in spite of once being wounded by a spear when he was on a visit to Chief Bennilong. Like the famous Marshall Rondon of Brazil who set up the Indian Protection Service on the basis that one should die rather than defend oneself against a native attack, Phillip allowed no retaliation. As a result the Chief later sent his apologies for the attack and a fruitful relationship was set up. Some of the useful medicinal plants for the colony came from the natives. Still today at Kew and in many other places we are using local knowledge to assist with the search for new cures.
The first de facto Director of Kew was Sir Joseph Banks when he was the horticultural advisor to King George III. Banks spent many years building up the botanical collections at what was later to become the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Since Banks was the naturalist on Captain Cook’s first voyage (1768-1771), the connection between Kew and Australia had already begun before Admiral Phillip’s time in Australia from 1788 to 1792. At one time half of the flock of Merino sheep that were later introduced to Australia were grazing at Kew, the rest were at Banks’ home in Osterley. I could say a lot more about Joseph Banks and the way in which he inspired both Kew and the Natural History Museum to take an interest in Australia, but you have heard much about that in previous addresses by Sir Robert May and by Dr. Chalmers. This early connection with Australia led one of my predecessors, Sir Joseph Hooker to write a Flora of Tasmania which published between 1855 and 1860. Another botanist intimately linked with Kew was Hooker’s collaborator George Bentham who wrote the seven volume Flora australiensis issued between 1863 and 1878. This was prepared with much assistance and correspondence with the famous Anglo-German-Australian botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Although Bentham stressed that he, not Mueller, was the author: The Flora australiensis “is entirely and exclusively mine, with the assistance indeed, but not the co-operation of Baron von Mueller”. “A joint work was impossible where consultation was prevented by the great distance which separated us”.
Phillip was neither a scientist nor a naturalist but he was obviously aware of the importance of plants to the success of his mission. He took with him to Australia seeds to establish cereal crops and vegetables as well as cuttings of various fruit trees. He also gathered living plants wherever the ships landed en route to Australia. For example, he took coffee, cotton, vines and some ornamental plants from Brazil. As a result, after a short time of deprivation which was only to be expected, the colony became self-sufficient in food before Phillip returned to Britain. It is apparent that he was involved in the transport of plants in both directions.
I have checked our archives at Kew and it is obvious that Admiral Phillip supplied Kew with plants. We have two entries in the inwards books in our archives which mention Phillip. The first entry is dated 7th June 1793 and refers to 82 boxes and tubs from Botany Bay, brought to England on HMS Atlantic, as a present from Governor Phillip. The second entry is a week later dated 18th June 1793 and refers to a parcel of seeds for Sir Joseph Banks with 80 packes of seed from Botany Bay brought home by Governor Phillip. There is also reference to a letter from Phillip to Banks, dated 3rd December 1791, in which he despatched plants and seeds by HMS Gorgon. These records show that Phillip both despatched plants from Australia during his residence there and brought them back with him, on his return to Britain, specimens for both Kew and for Sir Joseph Banks. This was the period when Banks was at the height of his acquisitive activities for the King’s royal garden at Kew.
There are two letters from Admiral Phillip in our archives at kew. The first one, addressed to William Forsyth, is dated 23rd August 1790 and also refers to a box of seeds “I shall present to yourself in the course of three weeks if my health permits”. The second labelled Norfolk Island 28th August 1790 is more interesting and is about the period when supplies were short. He first refers to the wreck of supply ships from England and of the Sirius on the island. Fortunately they were able to retrieve the supplies from the wreck of the Sirius. He then sent the supply briggs to Batavia, but realised that they would not have enough supplies until the ships returned. I will now quote directly from his letter because it is a moving story which Governor Phillip recounts.
“Having 3 months provisions on hand and as the ships from England did not arrive at the time expected, I had little hope of relief till the ships arrived from Batavia which was at least seven or eight months. Major Robb immediately told a council of officers, when it was thought proper to go on a short allowance of provisions so as to make it last till the crops of grain would be ripe or a supply arrived. Every person, therefore, was ordered to be served from the store only four pounds of flour, two pints of rice and two and a half pounds of pork per week. This was the 20th March 1790. On 15th May it was thought proper to reduce allowances of provisions still lower when every person received three pounds of flour, one pint of rice and seventeen ounces of pork per week. At which rations continued until 7th August when the ships arrived.
Our situation was not so difficult as it might appear, having plenty of vegetables in our gardens and this in great abundance. In some of my former letters I described a species of bird that burrows in the ground, nearly as large as a teal, with which this island abounds. They are a sea fowl and come on shore about the beginning of March to lay their egg (which is but one at a time) and hatch their young, and when they are able to fly they return to the sea again, the remaining part of the year. These birds were found in such great abundance on a mountain in the middle of the island as is almost incredible. I must own when I hear a person relate what I now declare as a fact I should look on it as one of the romances which travellers often indulge themselves in. From the later end of March till 7th August there were, in a moderate computation, not less than three thousand of these birds brought daily into the town without the least appearance of a decrease in their numbers at the place where they were caught. Within 3 or 4 days before the arrival of the ships, to our relief, when they appeared to decrease… and the people were alarmed fearing the inestimable blessing were going to leave us. But fortunately the ships appeared in sight and that heavy gloom that seemed to hang on every countenance disappeared.”
This true story cannot but remind us of God’s provision of manna and quails to the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai. I wonder what has now become of that species of bird on Norfolk Island. Has it survived or, like so many island birds, has it been hunted to extinction like the dodo?
The city which Admiral Phillip established and named after Secretary of State Viscount Sydney, is now one of the few cities outside Britain to have a Royal Botanic Garden. This garden was established on the beautiful site, overlooking the harbour, where Phillip had first tried to plant the vines which you heard about
in last year’s address. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, is now one of the leading botanic gardens of the world and Kew has had a long and fruitful relationship with it. Just last year the Sydney garden made a great gesture of friendship to Kew by presenting us plants of the recently discovered Wollemi pin (Wollemia nobilis). This is a cone bearing tree that was previously only known from fossils and was thought to be long extinct, but unlike the dinosaurs with which it lived, this species survived. The discovery of this living fossil in a gorge only 160 kilometres distant from Sydney is one of the most interesting and important botanical secrets today. Kew was proud to be the recipient of the first samples of the Wollemi pine to be sent outside Australia, a wonderful sign of the continued good relationship between our two countries. Each year Australia sends a botanical liaison officer to Kew to spend a year with us carrying out research and gathering information for Australian botanists. Dr. Ken Hill, the person who described and named Wollemia, is our current liaison botanist. The spirit of collaboration established so well by Admiral Phillip in the settlement which he founded continues today in so may ways, including in the world of botany. Australia is the only country in the world to have a place named Botany Bay where Phillip was originally told to establish the settlement. Having seen the beautiful natural harbour of Sydney, I am sure that another wise decision which Phillip made was to settle at Port Jackson rather than Botany Bay.
In conclusion, I think that Admiral Phillip would be pleased to see how Australia and Britain continue to collaborate in the field of botany, a field to which he himself made a significant contribution and continued the work started twenty years previously by Sir Joseph Banks. The challenge for us today is to preserve the wonderful array of plants and animals of Australia, and that is one of the fields that brings our two great botanic gardens closer together as we seek to conserve this part of God’s creation that so wonderfully supplied Governor Phillip and his people.