Professor Carl Bridge

Head of The Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College

We are gathered here today in the parish of his birth to honour and remember the character and achievement of Arthur Phillip, the founder of Sydney and New South Wales and, by extension, of modern Australia.  This month and year also marks the centenary of Australian Federation, of the inauguration of the present Australian constitution on 1 January 1901, under which the six British colonies on the Australian continent became one nation.  Arthur Phillip’s remarkable achievement was to lay the sound and deeply English foundations of a free society in Australia.  What happened in 1901 was a natural next logical development.  Arthur Phillip’s legacy, and that of the constitution-makers of 1901, are both central to the political and constitutional traditions that make contemporary Australia one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies.

To link Phillip and 1901 may seem paradoxical.  After all, wasn’t Phillip appointed by George III to run Britain’s largest open-air jail, where British convicts would be dumped literally on the other side of the world, as far out of sight and mind as was possible?  Wasn’t early New South Wales an eighteenth century gulag, ruled by fear of the lash and worse?  Surely jails and democracies are at opposite ends of the constitutional spectrum?  The convict folk memory has lasted into present-day Britain.  We Australians are still disappointed if, on arriving here for the first time, we are not asked by jesting locals to show them our ankles and wrists for signs of the manacles we wore at home. 

To resolve this jail-democracy paradox we need to know something of Arthur Phillip and the intellectual world in which he moved – that of Enlightenment Europe.

Arthur Phillip was a self-made gentleman.  He was born in 1738, the son of Jacob Phillip, a German immigrant who was a language teacher, and his English wife, Elizabeth Herbert.  Young Arthur was baptised just around the corner from here in All Hallows, Bread Street, a church demolished in 1878.  When Phillip was still a boy his father died while serving in the navy as a ship’s clerk and Phillip was admitted aged 12 to the Charity School at the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, where he learnt the sea officer’s curriculum of writing, mathematics, navigation and drawing.  A poor lad, intelligent but without connections, he was apprenticed to a whaler in the Greenland fisher which in the off-season worked in the coastal trade from Holland to Italy.  He picked up new skills and languages as he went.  It was a sort of eighteenth century marine version of today’s backpacker experience.

After two years he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman and saw action in the Mediterranean and the West Indies, gaining the patronage of Augustus Hervey, the future Earl of Bristol.  Beached after the Seven Year’s War, Phillip married a rich Cheapside cloth trader’s widow seventeen years his senior and lived the life of a gentleman farmer in the New Forest.  But the marriage broke down after five years, and, after a spell cloth trading and occasional naval espionage in France, he accepted a post as a captain in the Portuguese Navy and operated successfully for some years against the Spanish in the River Plate.

By the 1780s he was back in the Royal Navy engaged in intelligence gathering and other ‘discreet’ operations in France, South America, India and South Africa.  This work was for his new patron, the spymaster and naval strategist Evan Nepean.  It was Nepean who engineered Phillip’s promotion to Vice-Admiral and his appointment by Home Secretary Lord Sydney, as Governor of the projected penal colony at Botany Bay.

Now aged 48, Phillip was the ideal man for the job.  He had seen colonies large and small in the West Indies, Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope and Madras.  He had commanded in battle.  He understood the wiles of Britain’s colonial rivals, the Spanish, Dutch, and most important, the French.  Above all, like Lord Sydney, he was a man of the Enlightenment.

The new penal colony was to be founded at a critical time in history.  The American Revolution had just happened and the French Revolution was imminent.  The ‘Rights of Man’ were being asserted and both slavery and aristocratic privilege were under challenge.  Lord Sydney wanted a colony where young offenders could be sent for a second start in life.  The new philosophy, with which Phillip was in complete accord, argued that all men were potentially morally equal.  Such states of existence as slavery or criminality were not inherent from birth, but socially conditioned, and therefore, mutable.  New South Wales would not only act as a projection of British power in this newly-discovered region of the globe, but it would be a social and political experiment in rendering criminals useful and law-abiding.  The convicts would become new men in a new world.

In South America and the Caribbean, Phillip had seen slave societies based on fear and he loathed them.  He saw slaves broken on the wheel in the Cape and left to rot as an example to their fellows.  In New South Wales he wished to avoid executions, planning instead to exile some wrongdoers on islands, leaving them to fend for themselves, as he was to do on the aptly named Pinchgut in Sydney Harbour.  Or, he would leave murderers and sodomites in New Zealand to be dealt with by the warlike Maoris; a sentence fortunately he never had occasion to impose.  But it was mainly by positive reinforcement that he planned to achieve his purpose.  By means of pardons, land grants, responsibility, marriage and earned kindnesses.  In Phillip’s New South Wales men would be permitted to determine their own destinies.

Phillip also strove to live in amity with the Aborigines and largely succeeded.  This was due not only to his enlightened attitudes, but also famously to the accident that he lacked his upper right incisor, which happened to indicate initiation among the local tribesmen.  He took two of his Aboriginal friends – Bennelong and Yemmarrawannie – back to England with him, where Bennelong met the King.

The gothic horrors of floggings, chain gangs, rape and violence presented to us in novel and film, bear little resemblance to what actually happened in Australian convict society.  It will surprise many of you to know that convicts had virtually all the rights of ‘free’ men on arrival.  Their punishment was banishment from Britain, no more or less.  Only a small percentage who re-offended were flogged, chain-ganged or sent to places of secondary punishment like Port Arthur.

The rest worked a ten-hour day after which they were permitted to labour on their own accounts.  They sometimes went out on strike.  Any they were also able to take hard taskmasters before the magistrates, and often did so.  The overwhelming majority wore no uniforms or fetters, and were often freed to work their own land.  They became overseers, even jailers and police.  Most were fully free after seven years, and all after fourteen.  Thus from 1800 the convict colony of New South Wales actually had a majority of free men in its population.

All this, was envisaged from the start, and it resolves our apparent paradox.  For Enlightenment thinkers, the jail was always seen as a conduit to freedom.  Eventually emancipists, as ex-convicts were called, became magistrates, lawyers and jurors, some, the inspiration for Dickens’ Abel Magwitch, even became millionaires.  Among convict achievers we remember Ruse, the farmer, Greenway the architect, Redfern the doctor, and in business, Mary Reiby and Samuel Terry, ‘the Botany Bay Rothschild’ – and there were many others.  Arthur Phillip, himself a self-made gentleman, began a highly successful experiment in the rehabilitation of fallen citizens.  Without his wisdom and humanity it might have been otherwise.

To mark the transplanting of British civilisations to the Antipodes, Phillip sent some Sydney clay to the Wedgwood works in Staffordshire, where it was fashioned into medallions.  These showed, in the orotund phrasing of the day, ‘Hope encouraging Art and Labour, under the influence of Peace, to pursue the employments necessary to give security and happiness to an infant settlement’.  Phillip’s dispatches home described the new colony as ‘a most valuable acquisition’ and ‘a Seat of Empire’.  It was also a land of hope.

Phillip returned to Britain in 1792 to find that his long estranged wife had died a year earlier.  In 1794 her married Isabella Whitehead, who it seems Phillip met when they both joined the Bath Circulating Library.  Wealthy and twelve years younger, Isabella was the daughter of a Blackburn cotton king.  This time Phillip’s marriage was a happy one.  In 1814 Arthur Phillip died at his home outside Bath.  He had risen to be an Admiral of the Blue; and I like to fancy that in his case it was New South Wales blue.

After several hard years the new colony found its economic feet, first with whale oil (was this entirely coincidental?), then with wool.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, and the discovery of gold, one Australian colony had become six, and the continent was entirely in British hands.  Phillip’s Enlightenment aspirations now had developed beyond his dreams.

The convict system ended and hundreds of thousands of free settlers, bent on improving themselves, flooded South.  On gold and liberal values they fashioned one of the most open and democratic societies on earth.  The great liberal reforms of manhood and then universal suffrage, the secret (or Australian) ballot, universal ‘secular, compulsory and free’ elementary education, payment of MPs, and other refinements came to the Australian colonies a generation and more before their introduction in the mother country.  By 1900 Australia also had the highest material standard of living prevailing anywhere.

The stage was set for the federation of the six colonies into one nation.  This was done entirely by democratic means and by the colonists themselves.  Most of the key Federation fathers were Australian born - Alfred Deakin, Edmund Barton, John Forrest and Charles Kingston – but they described themselves as independent Australian Britons.  Britain, wisely, simply blessed the result of their deliberations, only making one significant amendment to the act: notably appeals to the Privy Council.  Made by Australians for Australians, the Australian federal constitution is a successful blend of American checks and balances and British responsible government.  It has now stood the test of a century.  When, as is virtually inevitable, Australia becomes a republic, the essence of this constitution will remain.  And the well-springs still, and I expect always will, be British.

In its commonsense, its freedoms, its emphasis on what we call the ‘fair go’, Australia’s society and polity draw deeply on British popular traditions which stretch back through the English Civil War to Magna Carta, though we have often given them our own distinctive antipodean twists.  These common traditions we defended together against tyranny in the two world wars of the twentieth century.  And it is these traditions which underpin our multicultural and devolutionary experiments today.

The ties that bind Britons and Australians are many.  There are the common language, law and political and other institutions.  There are those twenty-two yards over which we periodically do ritual battle at Lords.  There are our young backpackers who flock in their tens of thousands in each direction on constant pilgrimage.  There are the disproportionately huge flows of trade and investment.  There are the ten million Christmas cards each year.

I am sure Arthur Phillip would have approved.  Paraphrased slightly, Dame Mary Gilmore’s poetic eulogy to the convicts applies equally to their first Governor.

 I split the rock;
 I felled the tree;
 The nation is –
 Because of me!

Today, we current Australians and friends of Australia salute Arthur Phillip.  We are still reaping in abundance from the crops that Phillip and his charges so carefully sowed.