Mr Daniel Foley MSc FCMI FRSA

Past Chief Superintendent, Metropolitan Police

Why Australia? Why Phillip?

On 3 September 1786 Lord Howe, the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his fellow Cabinet member Lord Sydney, ‘The little knowledge I have of Captain Phillip would not have led me to select him for a service of this complicated nature.’1 Howe was arguably the finest fighting officer at the time so what induced the Home Secretary to go against his advice and select Phillip for the overt task of taking 750 convicts and over 200 marines to a land never before settled by any Europeans? To answer that question we must first examine the motives of another remarkable Englishman, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. By so doing we shall better understand the reasons for the selection of Phillip and beyond that to the decision to colonise Australia.

     The ‘convict dumping’ theory about the settlement of Australia seems both obvious and overwhelming at first sight.2  But it is too easy to make that assessment against the domestic circumstances that prevailed in England at that time, and such explanations do not take account of the economic and political difficulties faced by the younger Pitt on coming to power in December 1783. Nor does it acknowledge the intense diplomatic and commercial rivalry that existed between the European powers at the time.
     It is true that Pitt was exasperated at the lack of initiative by the local authorities up and down the country in dealing with the prison problem that had been growing since transportation had ceased to North America after the American Revolution. Over the previous ten years various Acts of Parliament had allowed for the building of penitentiaries to deal with the convict problem but nothing had been done by way of actually building them. This was hardly surprising, as the costs would then have fallen to the local authorities. Instead, the various towns and cities continually petitioned government for the removal of convicted felons from their jurisdiction; a resumption of the old and cheap solution of transportation was what they sought.3 Sydney had made a number of hapless attempts to rid the country of convicts by sending them to West Africa and Honduras, even a failed attempt to get them taken to America again. And Pitt had been severely embarrassed when the Opposition challenged Sydney’s attempt to get the King to sign an Order in Council in March 1785 stating that the Gambia was to be the place for transporting convicts. But convicts were far from being Pitt’s most pressing problem.
     For when Pitt had agreed to take office nearly three years previously he had inherited three major problems – forming a viable administration, getting the nation’s finances back on an even keel, and concluding trade negotiations with Britain’s major European rivals after the late war with America. By 1786 he was able to give this latter aspect his full attention.
     Pitt had inherited an appalling financial situation. The National Debt had almost doubled over the previous ten years from £128 million to just under £243 million. The annual charge on the Debt was costing the country just over £9 million per annum out of an annual government income of just under £13 million. The country was very close to bankruptcy, not helped by the cost of the armed forces, which cost close to £13 million in the late war. There were also some £14 million in Navy bills and Ordnance debentures outstanding for short-term redemption. Exports declined by 12% in the previous ten years and the value of government stocks had gone down by more than 17%, reflecting declining confidence. Pitt must have felt in a Catch-22 situation. He had to pay an annual charge to service the annual deficit, which in turn increased the annual debt on which the annual charge had to be paid. If he could not reverse the process he would be unable to tackle any domestic or foreign issue and his administration would fall.4
     In order to resolve the financial problems at home he needed to cut expenditure while at the same time raising taxes to make good the shortfall. He believed that one of the answers lay in a sinking fund, from which the deficit could be gradually redeemed. But a sinking fund requires an annual surplus from revenue. A surplus requires economy in government and, still more, a higher yield from taxes. Effective taxes require a healthy economy. A healthy economy, for Britain, rested largely on overseas trade.5 Pitt knew that huge profits could be made from trade with India and China, which might fill the Treasury coffers.
     However, others also had their eyes on this prize. In 1786 Britain was faced with trading competition in the Far East from three major areas: the French, the Spanish and the Americans. The French sought to control the sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean and beyond; the Spanish deployed their silver purchasing power in the Far East; and, the newly independent Americans, no longer constrained by the Navigation Acts, were pushing into the Pacific and China. By far the greatest threat was from the French. Ever since their losses in the Seven Years War from 1756 to1763 France had never renounced her ambitions to recover power in the Orient and in 1785 the French revived their East India Company and set about subverting British alliances in the Far East. Neither country could afford to go to war again.
     As time progressed so did French ambitions. In late 1784 they overran the Portuguese slaving ports in Angola,6 and they also controlled the islands of Madagascar, Mauritius and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. On the Indian sub-continent Pondicherry has been returned to France. There was an uneasy and unwritten understanding between Britain and France on the size of the naval force to be stationed in India. But Britain suspected that France was breaking the rules by sending warships, armés en flutes (i.e. with guns removed from their lower decks and then converted to carry cargo) to West Africa and the East Indies. That meant that the normal sea routes across the Indian Ocean and through the Malay Archipelago were fraught with danger. Their security required a naval force that Britain could ill afford at the time, spread over a vast area.7
     The French also threatened in the Malay Archipelago with their increasing influence over the Dutch, who controlled the spice trade. Sir James Harris, Britain’s ambassador in The Hague, was writing almost daily to Carmarthen on the deteriorating situation in Holland, whereby the French were supporting, with money and arms, the Patriot party there, with the intention of overthrowing the Dutch monarchy. At the end of 1785 Harris reported that the French were bringing pressure to bear on the Dutch to persuade them to hand over to the French military control of the Dutch eastern settlements. This would enable a permanent French force to be stationed in Cape Town, then Dutch territory, and give them virtual control of all sea routes to India and China. Early in 1786 Harris informed the government that the French were warning the Dutch that there was likely to be a complete rupture between the British and French in Asia very shortly and that it was absolutely necessary that Britain increased her naval and military forces in the east.8 In early September Harris wrote, ‘France will, without waiting for any requisition from the Hague, throw troops into the Dutch settlements in the East Indies; and under pretence of defending them, appropriate them to herself.’9  What Pitt required in the East then, was a person skilled in naval warfare, with espionage capabilities, preferably able to converse with the French and the Dutch, with the added capability of being able to make decisions under pressure.
     Britain managed to persuade the Dutch that provided they did not give way to the French then Britain would not interfere with the Dutch spice trade in the East Indies. But as this concession also meant that East-Indiamen would be prevented from sailing through the Malay Archipelago to China, except by way of the Strait of Malacca, an alternative route was required.10  In the event of a serious rift with the Dutch only the eastern passage and those routes that passed to the south of Australia would henceforth be both available, being the quickest and safest. New South Wales therefore came back into the picture.
     It had first been mentioned as a desirable place to settle by Joseph Banks in 1779 when giving evidence to the Committee reviewing transportation, the preferred way of dealing with convicts if they were not to be hanged. Banks’s evidence had changed little when he subsequently gave evidence to a later Committee in 1785, only this time his ideas were supported by others.  The 1785 Committee was essentially a committee of merchants, who not only understood the problems of settlement in faraway places but also the great returns that could accrue from success. In fact they had debated at some length the general costs and needs of sending an expedition to Botany Bay to establish a settlement there.11
     At first Government felt that such an adventure was too costly with little opportunity for any return in the first few years, but Pitt’s solution was that if they could get merchants interested there was an opportunity for profits for all. It would work like this. The merchants would benefit if convicts were used as ballast on the outward journey. The government would obtain a carrier for the convicts at little cost to the administration. And, if a return cargo could be brought back from China or India both the merchants and government would benefit from the profits. This was a bit like the public private partnership so topical today. China tea was the lure and would provide sufficient income to solve Pitt’s major budgetary problem.12
     The Pitt Government was also extremely concerned about another French expedition. In 1785 Pitt was warned that the French had equipped an expedition under the command of an extremely able sailor, the Comte de la Pérouse. One of La Pérouse’s objectives was the assessment of places for the improvement of trade and commerce with France in the Pacific region in areas previously undiscovered or settled as well as an assessment of all the places that Cook had visited. There were even reports from Paris that La Pérouse was to establish a small convict settlement in New Zealand for the exploitation of timber resources.13 If Britain was to secure the alternative sea route then there clearly needed to be an establishment of some kind in the region to counter-act the French. Pitt realised the opportunity that now presented itself. A settlement could be formed with convicts, helping to solve the problem of French incursion in the Far East, pose a useful method of watching the Dutch from their rear, and if successful, would also provide useful intelligence in the region. Most important, a safe alternate route to China would be established. With these factors in their minds, the Cabinet made the decision to colonise Botany Bay on Saturday 19 August 1786.14
     Whether it became a trading settlement in the true form did not matter at that stage. With the French closing the sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean; the threatened Franco-Dutch agreement on established settlements in the Malay Archipelago; and the increased traffic in Spanish and American commerce across the Pacific to the Philippines, Government thinking was directed towards protection of Britain’s trade routes. A port of call, manned by troops, which would offer refuge in the case of war and an opportunity for increased intelligence of foreign trade manoeuvres in the region at times of peace, was considered essential. It also offered the possibility of a large static army or navy in the region should hostilities start up again. Pitt decided to use the convicts for this end.
     Pitt’s attention then turned to the man required to set up such a settlement. Ignoring the advice of the First Sea Lord, Lord Howe, he preferred the advice of two of the Permanent Secretaries that he regularly dealt with – Evan Nepean and George Rose. They informed him that there was a naval captain humane in character with experience in warfare and command in battle. A man used to making difficult decisions, alone and under pressing circumstances. He had intimate knowledge of the American Colonies, West Indies, Brazil and India having sailed to each on several occasions. He knew what resources were available at the various entrepôts at the Canaries, Rio de Janeiro, and Cape Town and was known to the traders at those places. From an enforced stay in Cape Town in 1783 he had seen how the local slaves could be used to good effect building warehouses, cutting timber, hauling water, preparing farmland, and carrying out general domestic duties. He had farmed in the New Forest and had knowledge of planting and cultivation. He had spied for Britain against the Spanish, French, Portuguese and Americans and was capable of understanding and reporting on new countries from a cartographical and military viewpoint. He knew how to transport slaves, having seen the process when seconded to the Portuguese navy and while serving in the West Indies and abhorred the practice, believing that men benefited from working their own land for the better good of the community. That knowledge would help in the transportation of convicts who he believed should be treated humanely and given every opportunity for reform. As a naval captain he had instilled discipline in his crews and administered punishment when necessary. He understood the difficulty of long sea voyages, especially with regard to scurvy and rationing. He knew about whaling and fishing having served his apprenticeship in the Greenland fisheries, a useful attribute as Pitt had just persuaded the East India Company to open the southern Pacific Ocean to British whaling fleets, and fully expected them to call at any new settlement. Finally, Pitt was informed that he was a man capable of detailed conversation in six languages, English, German, Dutch, Portuguese, French and Spanish. This remarkable man was Arthur Phillip. Was there a better man in all England to undertake what Pitt proposed?
     The new settlement was expected to be run at minimum cost to government and to be self-sufficient within three years. Free settlements had been tried before, most noticeably in the American Colonies, and the British Government was currently undertaking a Northern Hemisphere version with free men - the American Loyalists in Canada. But a convict workforce is a malleable thing; it can be controlled in whatever way is necessary for survival, and the heavy work required to lay the foundations of a new settlement can be constructed under close supervision. The new settlement would not pose any threat to any of the established industries either; in fact, they would require the output from English manufactures to exist.
     Immediately upon his arrival in Australia Phillip made the assessment that Botany Bay was unsuitable and moved the fleet to Port Jackson, a much safer haven. He quickly set the convicts to work, saw pits were dug and trees felled. Tents were erected which would serve as a makeshift hospital until a more substantial building could be erected, an immediate necessity as scurvy had broken out. In order to achieve some of the objectives that he set himself Phillip used the marines that had previous experience in certain trades, like sawyers, carpenters, farmers, and bricklayers. He emancipated certain convicts who showed a willingness to work hard, allowing marriage and giving grants of land. In one of his first despatches Phillip wrote, ‘This country will prove the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made.’15
     Within nine months he had six acres of wheat, eight acres of barley and six acres of other grain under cultivation. Most of the initial work was completed and Phillip felt able to make a request to Sydney for free settlers to be sent out. Phillip was aware of the liaisons that had developed on the long voyage out and knew that in time the children of those liaisons would grow into free settlers. If they chose to stay then Government would have no choice but to let them. In 1789 Phillip received instructions from William Grenville, the new Home Secretary, that in each town sufficient land was to be set aside for the ‘erection of fortifications and barracks, or for other military or naval services, and more particularly for the building of a town hall, and such public edifices as you deem necessary.’16 Additional space was also to be allotted for a church and school.
     Phillip was realising Pitt’s ambition. Not a pure convict settlement but in the makings of towns, a completely new colony with the ability to trade both throughout Australia and around the Pacific region. The trade would itself attract other commodities essential for survival, like clothing and agricultural hardware. Ships calling at Port Jackson would need to be careened, refitted, and repaired. Britain would be able to take her wares to Australia and then sell them on, much as they had done in America. Returning ships would be able to call at either China or India and bring back the trade goods Pitt needed to refill the coffers of the Treasury.
     In February 1792 Phillip reported that New South Wales, with the help of the satellite at Norfolk Island, had reached self-sufficiency. Under his direction crops were being grown in abundance, livestock were producing the meat, milk and materials necessary for survival, freed convicts were producing their own crops and trade had commenced, in the first instance with the whaling fleets. Now Pitt caused 3,870 silver dollars to be sent out together with the frame of a ship. Trading could commence in earnest.
     Phillip had achieved what he had been asked to do. The Government had sought the best way possible to deal with the criminals in England. The funds had just not been available to take the more enlightened approach and incarcerate them in penitentiaries. Government had turned again to transportation. However, unlike America, the population that might have used the convict labour was not present in New South Wales. Government therefore set out to employ the labour itself. The experiment with that form of convict use, on the hulks, had steadily improved and was seen as a benefit to the Government. Phillip was aware that he needed to be cautious with funds and turn the colony into a self-sufficient settlement as soon as practicable. Phillip quickly came to realise that he had little option but to reward good work and offer convicts the opportunity to contribute to the settlement in a number of meaningful ways. The fewer requests he made of Government the happier Government would be.
     Strategically Phillip also achieved what Government wanted. Perhaps it was luck that brought the whole Fleet to Botany Bay as rapidly as it did, but it was enough to warn the French that the British Government meant serious business in that area of the globe. With the arrival of La Pérouse so soon after the First Fleet, Phillip would have known that so large a settlement would have been reported by him to his French masters on his return. This was a colony that could provide troops in any war in the East thus controlling the French, Dutch, Spanish and Americans. In New South Wales Arthur Phillip established a society and began a new settlement that eventually took a life of its own. That was the intention. In that way commerce could be developed, profits could be made, national issues could be addressed, and a far-sighted foreign policy begun. Neither Pitt nor Phillip were to know that a generation of war would intervene before the Australian experiment would come to full fruition. But that is another story.
1 Howe to Sydney, 3 September 1786, CO 201/2, f.31
2 E.C.K. Gonner, ‘The settlement of Australia’ in English Historical Review, Vol. 3, 1888, pp.625-643; Manning Clark, A History of Australia, (Melbourne University Press, 1962) Vol. 1, pp.59-72; A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts and Colonies, (Melbourne University Press, 1966) pp. 21-57. A very good collection of the main arguments may be found in Ged Martin, The Founding of Australia: the argument about Australia’s Origins, (Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1978)
3 See for example the second report of the Bunbury Committee presented to the House of Commons on 1 April 1779, JHC, vol. 37, pp.306-315; and, the two reports of the Beauchamp Committee presented to the House of Commons on 9 May and 28 July 1785, JHC, vol. 40, pp.954-9 and 1161-4.
4 Eric J. Evans, William Pitt the Younger (London, 1999), p.17; J. Ehrman, op. cit., p.157
5 Ehrman, op. cit., p.158
6 Douglas Wheeler and René Pélissier, Angola (London, 1971), p.47
7 Frost, Convicts, esp. Chapter 5
8 H.T. Fry, ‘”Cathay and the way thither”: the background to Botany Bay’ in Historical Studies, Vol. 14, pp. 497-510
9 Ibid. See also Earl of Malmesbury, Diaries and Correspondence of James Harris, First Earl of Malmesbury (London, 1844) and Oscar Browning, The Political memoranda of Francis, 5th Duke of Leeds (London, 1884)
10 ‘Considerations on the subject of a treaty between Great Britain and Holland, relative to the interests in India’, Melville Papers, Mss 1068, National Library of Scotland.
11 JHC, vol. 37, pp.306-315; JHC, vol. 40, pp.954-9 and 1161-4.
12 Hoh-Cheung and Lorna Mui, ‘The Commutation Act and the Tea Trade in Britain’ in Economic History Review, vol. 16 (Dec. 1963) pp. 234-253
13 L. A. Milet-Mureau, (ed.) A Voyage Round the World Performed in the Years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788, by the Boussole and Astrolabe under the command of J. F. G. de la PÉROUSE, 3 vols, London, Robinson (1799) Vol. 1, pp. 29-41
14 A draft of the letter is in HO 35/7 with the date backdated from 21st to 18th August. Another letter, signed by Sydney, is to be found in T/639:2176, ff.142-6. In this instance the letter is dated 18th August, with no backdating or corrections. There is some dispute over the date of this letter. Historians have taken the letter as being dated 18th August 1786. However, the covering envelope has been clearly overwritten altering the date it was received in the Treasury from 21st to 18th August, and read the same day. In addition to the letter there were six enclosures.
15 HRA, p.51, Phillip to Sydney, 9 July 1788. He wrote in a similar vein to the Marquis of Lansdowne (see Mitchell Library Mss 7241)
16 HRA, p.127, Grenville to Phillip, 22 August 1789