Sallyanne Atkinson AO

Special Representative for Queensland (South East Asia)

I should really like to have called this address Arthur Phillip:  the Great Australian Enigma.  But unfortunately I can’t.  An enigma causes curiosity and puzzlement, neither of which are sentiments that Australians have for Arthur Phillip.  That is an enigma.  To me it is enigmatic that so few people in Australia know anything very much about the man who was the founder of the nation as we know it, let alone admire and respect him.

So it’s a great pleasure and honour to have been asked to present this address today and I congratulate the Britain-Australia Bicentennial Trust for the way in which they have honoured the memory of a neglected hero.  I follow in the footsteps of a distinguished group, all with impressive academic qualifications.  The collected speeches represent the greatest body of evaluation of the life and work of Phillip.  Taken severally, they are the closest we have to any form of analytical debate on his contribution to Australia.  With some exceptions, most of what has been written in the past has been straight historical documentation.

My qualifications are neither distinguished nor academic.  But I am passionately devoted to Arthur and to having Australians of this and future generations know and understand the man who really founded Australia.

I’m an ordinary Australian and I’ve been asked to give the Address today because for the last few years I’ve been researching and collecting material to write his personal story and in doing so to give him the recognition he deserves among other ordinary Australians.

As Australians we should admire an amazing achievement, undertaken without heroics and without the recognition of his peers.  We should salute a man who put his stamp on Australia, who set the tone for the country we know today and gave it many of its special characteristics.

He was spoken highly of, and publicly, by such eminent persons as Lord Nelson, the Queen of Portugal, Sir Joseph Banks and Lord St. Vincent.  Since then, others such as Lord Avon, better known as Sir Anthony Eden, have described him as one of the most eminent men of the eighteenth century.

Few Australians know much about him.  I asked a group of my children’s friends, thirty-somethings, university-educated.  After a pause, one of them said “Wasn’t he the bloke that put up the flag on Australia Day?”  An older Australian in Brazil, where I’ve just been, more than 200 years after Arthur, said he had not known that Phillip spent four years there, nor much else about him:  “At Adelaide High, they taught us really useful things like Hamlet’s soliloquies and the fact that King Harold got shot in the eye with a bloody arrow”.

I became interested while living in France and having the usual heightened expatriate interest in one’s own country, I found a book in the Embassy library on Arthur Phillip, written in the ‘30s and still one of the few.  I was fascinated by his story, but even more fascinated that I didn’t really know it.

So what did Arthur Phillip do?  His most astonishing feat was to have taken 11 small sailing ships with more than 1000 reluctant passengers and crew on a voyage of 15,000 miles that none had undertaken before, to a country where no-one had ever been.  It was a case of taking the unwanted, the unhealthy, the unwilling and unskilled to the completely unknown.

It’s often been said that it was the 18th century equivalent of a journey to the moon.  No Englishman had been to Botany Bay since Cook 18 years before and he was only there a matter of days.

At the end of the voyage, all the ships were together and safe (and of course there were no modern communications) and only 32 deaths, with none from scurvy – that dreaded disease of the seas.

And as a colonial experiment – a transplant of people from one side of the world to the other – it was to succeed as few others had, or have.

So why has he never been appropriately recognised?  There are lots of reasons… some to do with this country and his own time, others to do with Australia and ours.

Arthur Phillip lacked glamour, then and now.  As so frequently with public recognition and honour, it’s all a matter of timing and good PR.

Arthur’s timing, in terms of being properly appreciated, was not good.  Apart from the fact that a colony of convicts in New South Wales was not the stuff of heroic stories, there was a lot else happening at the time.  The year of settlement, 1788, was the year that George III went mad, the next year saw the fall of the Bastille and the French Revolution, a major distraction for a country so close.  There was political upheaval at home.  For the rest of his life, there were big happenings abroad…  Nelson’s naval victories, the land battles against Napoleon.

In terms of sea adventurers, there were more exciting and glamorous figures… James Cook and Horatio Nelson, for example.

Arthur Phillip was born almost exactly 10 years after Cook and almost exactly 20 years before Nelson (their birthdays were all within a month of each other:  September 29; October 11; and October 27 – almost the same star sign) but was never to be the legend in his own lifetime that they were.

Both were good self-promoters.  Cook was a star of the drawing rooms of London and Nelson was a great letter writer, sometimes 16 a day, keeping everyone who mattered informed of what he was doing.  Phillip wrote few personal letters and his quiet, unassuming personality did not make him a social asset.

Cook and Nelson both had good career deaths, dying young and dramatically.  Phillip lived till he was 75 and the most interesting thing about his death was the rumour he had wheeled himself out of the upstairs window of his house in Bath.  It’s hard to believe a man in a wheelchair could accidentally fall…..

By then, he was just another retired admiral living among the retired folk of Bath and it’s not surprising that only a handful of people attended his funeral.

But he had had a most interesting life, more interesting than that of most great naval heroes and a life of extraordinary relevance to and importance for Australia.

As his contemporary Edward Fortescue, wrote in 1789, “I do think God Almighty made Phillip on purpose for this place, for never did man know better what to do or with more determination to see it done and yet if they will let him he will make them all very happy.”

For believers in fate and destiny, its fanciful to imagine what would have been the result if either Cook or Nelson had been sent to govern New South Wales.

Arthur Phillip was born and bred a Londoner, near here, within the sound of the Bow Bells.  He grew up around the docks, among the seamen coming and going on the ships that crowded the Thames.  He went to school at Greenwich.

So he could relate to the Londoners who made up the greatest percentage of convicts on the First Fleet:  he had known their types as a boy.  (Cook, of course, was a Yorkshireman and Nelson came from Norfolk.)

He became a farmer after the Seven Years War when he was stood down on half pay, and lived as a country gentleman in Hampshire.  So the London boy learned about growing crops and raising animals, useful knowledge later on.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about his life at this time, certainly to me, was that he married, at the age of 24, a lady who was 41.  It’s frustrating not to know more about their personal relationship… she was a widow, was she worldly and sophisticated?  Had his years at sea made him old for his age, or less discerning?  What we do know was that she was wealthy, she had drawn up a sort of 18th century pre-nuptial agreement and when they separated later he carefully paid back any of her money he had spent.

He was not to marry again, nor to be in any recognised relationship, for another 30 years after he had returned from Sydney.

Other experiences that were to have a major impact on his governorship were his years as a spy in France and Belgium and his four-year stint in Brazil.

Arthur Phillip’s father was Jewish-German and a teacher of languages.  We know that Arthur spoke at least four languages – English, German, French and later Portuguese.  We can assume that his more cultured home life and love of learning set him apart from his peers.

This reserve and dark Continental looks made him an ideal espionage candidate.  But importantly, as a spy, he would have reported directly to the highest echelons at the Admiralty and Home Office and had direct contact with men like Nepean and Sydney who had influence on his later career.  Espionage requires a secretive nature which led some of his officers to complain that he neither consulted nor shared information.

I believe his years in Brazil were a seminal experience.  Portugal had asked for British naval officers to help in their continuing sea battles with the Spanish in South America.

Phillip was one of these and he served with distinction and eventual Royal commendation.  It was the closest he got to glory and swashbuckling adventure. 

But importantly he became close friends with Lavradio, the Viceroy, and spent much time in his palace in Rio.  So Phillip would have watched a governor at work and in a city that was uniquely similar to the one he would found with its harbour and lush vegetation.  The layout of early Sydney was remarkably similar to that of Rio de Janeiro, a classic maritime city.

Years later when he took his 11 ships through Rio he was welcomed by the authorities and given provisions… unlike Cook some years before who had been turned away.

I return to the question why Arthur Phillip isn’t honoured more in Australia?

By all measures he was an extraordinary human being.  Or perhaps, more importantly he was an ordinary human being doing extraordinary things.

The voyage of the First Fleet demonstrated not only his navigational skills but also his leadership capacity.  Sea captains needed to be able to make decisions, take risks.  At sea and in charge, with no communication they were responsible for hundreds of souls for months, even years.  Not all automatically were up to it.  They were responsible for the administrative preparations for the voyage, the stores, the recruitment of men.  Phillip’s naval training showed in his attention to detail, his quiet efficiency his understanding of and care for individuals, and the self-reliance that enabled him to cope when after sailing, three years passed without any word from London.

For Arthur Phillip, responsibility involved the extra burden of managing people who did not want to be there, and not just the convicts.  Few of the officers, sailor and marines who put to sea in the First Fleet did so with enthusiasm and many were downright obstructionist.

As Governor, his obvious difficulties were compounded by lack of support and obstructionism of some of his subordinates.  His Lieutenant Governor, Major Ross, was a constant whinger and writer of letters to the authorities.  One was to the effect that it would be cheaper to put up all the convicts at the best hotels in London than to keep them in New South Wales and he led the complaints against Phillip’s insistence that rations should be equally shared among all.

And yet through it all Phillip continued with patience, perseverance and amazing tolerance, sharing the privations of all, taking out the forays of exploration, showing what we would call hands-on management.

So why don’t we know more about Arthur Phillip and why isn’t he a national hero?

Well, it’s a sad fact of life that sound administration and good management have never been the cause of public adulation.

The most obvious reason is that he founded a convict colony and we have not wanted to be reminded of that.  In recent years descendants of First Fleeters have been proud to be so.  But most of the books written about him were published in the ‘30s.  One exception is Profession Alan Frost’s estimable biography published in 1987.

Another reason, especially evident in the Bicentennial year, was that Phillip’s landing displaced the original inhabitants, the aborigines.  So for some Australians, it was not a cause for celebration.  This is a sensitive and important issue, and far too much of both to be discussed here.

But it should not be ignored.  It was an historical fact that the coming of the British from 1788 led to the change and destruction of the aboriginal way of life.  But Arthur Phillip was a man of his time and for his time he was especially thoughtful and sensitive.  His observations of slavery in Brazil and other places had given him an abhorrence of the ill treatment of native people.

I believe it’s important to place historical events in the context of their times and all aspects of Arthur’s career have rarely been set in the context of his times, an era of tremendous upheaval… technological, intellectual, political, even spiritual.  It was perhaps the most interesting era of the post-Renaissance world.

Arthur was a modest man and named nothing after himself, unlike Governor Macquarie.  So he left nothing with his name on it.  One of the few buildings that did was Australia’s first church built in 1810 and called St. Phillip with two lls.  However, when it was rebuilt in York Street some years later, it was called after the saint… Philip with one l.

Arthur Phillip has never seemed a hero.  He didn’t look like one and he didn’t behave like one.

I believe he would have thought his life a disappointment.  In his naval career, he was what is termed an unlucky officer.  He always seemed to miss out on potential glory, peace broke out at inopportune times; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when there were prizes to be had.

And yet for us, he was the right man in the right place.  If it were not for him, the colony would not have lasted.

When all around him, there were dismal utterings that the colony must fail, when the silence from London was deafening, his alone was the voice of optimism.

And he alone, at least from the records, had the vision to see what might be in the future.  He referred to it as a future Seat of Empire and told Lord Sydney that it would be one of Britain’s most valuable assets, “Time will remove all difficulties.”

His rule, and rule it was, put the stamp on some very Australian characteristics… that curious combination of initiative and individualism with dependency on Government, the spirit of egalitarianism which says all men, if not exactly equal, are certainly as good as each other.

Professor George Mackaness finishes his 1937 book by saying “What was in reality the measure of Phillip’s achievement?  On the eve of the sesquicentenary of the settlement he established, we might most appropriately sum this up in a single short sentence “Arthur Phillip well and truly laid the foundation stone of the Commonwealth of Australia, setting up the rough ashlar which time and energy have chiselled and polished into a noble and enduring edifice”.

And so shall I end too.