Chairman of the Britain-Australia Society Lincolnshire Branch

‘A Suitable Sailor’

The weeping sore of the American Revolution was the source of a troubled time for 18th Century England.   Political and commercial considerations aside, it had deprived the Mother Country of a repository that for a century had received a thousand transported English criminals a year.

Meanwhile in London the Industrial Revolution had swollen the city’s slums, as men came, hopeful but unsuccessful in the quest for work.  Crime increased exponentially.  Gaols were dirty, overcrowded and disease ridden.   London was becoming a dangerous place to live.

A solution was necessary.

On the 18th Marc 1786, the Lord Mayor and the Corporation of London petitioned the King.  The problem had already been considered earlier and in 1779.  A parliamentary committee had sought the advice of Sir Joseph Banks, the distinguished naturalist and President of the Royal Society who had accompanied Captain James Cook to New South Wales.  In essence, his response was “Botany Bay” as an appropriate destination for the convicted criminals.

Lord Sydney, Secretary of State for the Home Department decided to act.

New South Wales was proclaimed a Crown Colony and Captain Arthur Phillip RN was appointed its first governor, with instructions to form a penal colony there and a secondary settlement at Norfolk Island lest it prove strategically attractive to Dutch or French interests.

Why Captain Phillip?  Who was he and what was his task to become?

Born in London in the ward of Bread Street, he was the son of Elizabeth and her second husband, Jacob Phillip, a German teacher of foreign languages, of Jewish extraction and from Frankfurt.  She had been widowed by the death of her first husband, a Royal Navy Captain and kinsman of Lord Pembroke.

Arthur Phillip had joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman after a mercantile apprenticeship.  Ever correct and courteous and of unquestionable integrity, he had a reservation about him which discouraged intimacy.  Intelligent and perceptive, his career progression had been steady but pedestrian, as ability and the favourable regard of superiors gradually enabled him to climb the promotion ladder, but the opportunity fo outshine his peers did not come his way.  However, during a four-year team of service with the Portuguese Navy during Portugal’s war with Spain he was said to be its most able captain and was considered honest, obedient, self-sacrificing, and brave.  During this interval he also had experience in the transport of felons to Brazil, which imbued him with a life long distaste for slavery.

In between active service, he spent prolonged periods on half pay, farming at Lyndhurst, Hampshire where his friend and neighbour was Sir George Rose, Treasurer to the Navy.

The method of his selection as Governor of New South Wales still remains a mystery.

Certainly, the First See Lord did not want him but later concurred.  Phillip’s detractors suggested that he had been pestering the authorities for preferment and had been offered the post to silence him.

Secretary to the Navy, Nepean liked him and Phillip, fluent in several languages had achieved some useful intelligence gathering for him in France.

Well placed individuals, popular with the appointers, almost certainly found little appeal in ferrying a group of criminals half way around the world to an unknown continent south of the equator to form a penal colony.

But Arthur Phillip could see beyond the penal colony concept and was to write:

“I do not doubt that this country will be the most valuable acquisition Great Britain has ever made”,
a view he was to hold throughout all the subsequent hardships reverses and adversities he was to face during his establishment of the settlement.

The most widely accepted theory is that the appointment was finally made on the advice of Phillip’s neighbour Rose who saw him as a reliable, steadfast, and safe officer with a knowledge of farming.

Certainly there was pressure on Lord Sydney to make an appointment and his decision was either opportunistic or he did actually perceive Phillip’s qualities and therefore merits some credit for a sound decision in his selection of this suitable sailor.

It was Phillip’s task to arrange all necessary logistic preparation for the successful transportation of the first group of convicts together with support staff, their maintenance and sustenance during the long sea voyage and their settlement after arrival in the wholly unknown territory of New South Wales.  He was worried by the potential health problems associated with a long sea voyage for a cohort who had never been to see.   They had been fettered and confined, lacked personal hygiene, at best unhealthy, at worst sick, fed on a poor diet and about to be dislocated from all they had ever known.

This expedition was to become known as “The First Fleet”.  The eleven ships that completed the journey from Portsmouth to Botany Bay in eight months and one day arrived on 18th January 1788.  The complement included 750 convicts, accompanied by sailors, marines, officials, wives and children. The supply of food and water enjoyed by the First Fleet was good in quantity and quality, replenished at ports of call and superior to supplies normally served to merchant seamen of the day.   As such, the mortality rate was low, despite overcrowding and scurvy was non-existent.

A different picture was experienced by those aboard the Second and Third Fleets where many transportees were dead on arrival, others sick, disabled and moribund.  The officers of the First Fleet unreservedly attributed the success of the voyage to the quality of victualling and seamanship of their captain.

Phillip found Botany Bay totally unsuitable for permanent settlement.  Beyond Port Jackson he found what he quite rightly described as the “finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail on the line may ride in perfect safety”.  Within the harbour was a cove with a good stream of water, which he named “Sydney Cove” – the site of the first settlement.

On the 26th January 1778 the Union Flag was unfurled, toasts were drunk and a volley fired – a celebration and a message for the Comte de la Perouse, the French explorer who had arrived two days earlier on a voyage of discovery.   The 26th January is now celebrated as Australia’s National Day.

On the 12th February 1788 Phillip appointed Lieutenant Philip Gidley King as first commandant of Norfolk Island and two days later King left with a party of twenty including fifteen convicts.  The soil there was to prove fertile and supplies grown there helped during recurrent food shortages that bedevilled the mainland.

Phillip’s worries had commenced.

A seemingly endless list of problems hampered his efforts to feed his charges – theft and death of livestock, infestation of meat stores with maggots, poor quality of soil, the need to clear the land of trees, seeds not germinating, the seasons upside down.  The weather was capricious the workforce had few with farming experience.  The agricultural tools sent from England hopelessly inadequate – they did not even include a plough.  The chief surgeon was caustic in his comments that no sheets or blankets had been provided for his hospital.  Phillip sent innumerable dispatches to England outlining his problems.  In particular he emphasised the need for convicts and free settlers with agricultural experience.

At the end of the first year there was no resupply from England.  Lord Sydney did not reply.  Phillip sent HMS Sirius to the Cape for provisions but it was wrecked on Norfolk Island. HMS Supply managed to reach Batavia where the Dutch, after much haggling, reluctantly provided the necessary provisions at significantly inflated prices.   The arrival of the Second Fleet did little to alleviate the problem.  Everyone was on equally strict rations including the governor who did not subscribe to the theory that the privilege or rank meant a greater share – a concept most unpopular with the marines.  Scurvy and other deficiency disease were inevitable.

Recalling his vision for the reform of emancipated convicts, Phillip decided that the solution lay in granting them land to farm with the assistance of convicts still serving their time.  James Ruse and his wife were the first to be given uncleared land at Rose Hill, later to be called Paramatta, and within a year there was a pleasing productivity.  Share farming had begun among convicts and grants of land were given to former sailors.  Phillip, ever conscientious and thorough, took the trouble himself to personally select land for applicants close to water, protection, markets and supplies and to insert protective clauses in the title deeds.

Difficulty was inevitably experienced with fraternisation between male and female convicts, sailors and marines.

The convicts were idle, incompetent or inexperienced in farming techniques despite Phillip’s request for the inclusion of some with farming experience.

At least a building programme was implemented, and Sydney began to take shape.

It was intended that the role of the marines accompanying the First Fleet was to protect the settlement and to preserve good order amongst the convicts.  The officer commanding the marines, Major Robert Ross who was also Lieutenant Governor and a Vice Admiralty judge insisted on garrison duties only.   As the marines declined to help, overseers of work parties had to be appointed from within the ranks of the convicts.  A consequence of this situation was keen resentment on the part of the marines if challenged by the overseers if found out of bounds at night, especially if caught in the female convicts quarters.

Initially, the relationship between Ross and Phillip was cordial enough but the marine came to hate New South Wales with a passion – “here is Nature reversed upon itself.”  His officers were unhappy, quarrelsome and discontented.  “Take my word for it, there is not a man in this place but that wishes to return.”  At one stage he had five of his officers under Court Marshal at one time and he fought a dual at another.  Fortunately no one was injured.

Another significant cause of discontent among the marine officers was their exclusion from grants of land, whilst such perquisites were available to the other ranks, sailors and freed convicts.  This was subsequently redressed.

Ross sought every opportunity to obstruct rather than support the governor who responded with his characteristic forbearance and restraint but to no avail.   It merely exacerbated the problem.

Finally Phillip diffused the situation by sending Ross to take charge of the settlement at Norfolk Island.  Ross’s management strategy there was to impose martial law.  The government authorities in London decided to raise a military unit to replace the marines, known as the NSW Corps., which was to have far-reaching effects on the colony after Phillip’s departure.  The marines returned home in 1791 whilst some took their discharge to remain as settlers.

Phillip’s innate respect for humankind enabled him to establish friendly relations with the aboriginal people.  The Europeans were instructed to treat them with respect and not to stress any cultural or intellectual advantage.  Any man guilty of shooting an aboriginal was to be hung.  Nevertheless both groups inevitably invaded each other’s space – the aboriginal view that livestock was common property caused difficulties as did the convicts’ habit of stealing canoes and artefacts.

Phillip himself was always happy in their company, which they in turn recognised.

It was his custom to walk alone and unarmed in their presence and could communicate adequately with them although nearly coming to grief when an elderly confused tribesman speared him in the neck – it missed vital structures and the barb could be seen protruding through his neck.  Phillip kept calm and it was later skilfully removed by Naval Surgeon Balmain.

During Phillip’s tenure as governor, there was never any evidence of what today could be interpreted as racism.  A man of reason in the age of reason, he was scrupulous to maintain racial harmony along the lines of equity.

Had his policies been continued and developed by his successors, the history of the aboriginal people following white settlement may have evolved differently.  On his return to England, he took two aboriginals home with him, one of whom was named Bennelong became somewhat of an identity upon his return and is now commemorated by “Bennelong Point” near the Sydney Opera House.  It is of interest in contemporary times that Australia’s Prime Minister the Hon. John Howard currently serves in the Australian Parliament for the seat of Bennelong.

Today, we recognise certain characteristics as being quintessentially Australian – a sense of fair mindedness and fair play.  The ability for Jack to become as good as his master, the need to own one’s own home, a cynical yet democratic view of authority with the expectation that it will lead and make decisions.  Did these have their origin from Captain Phillip’s first settlement?

Phillip finally went home to England in 1792 for medical treatment after five gruelling years, which had seen a significant deterioration in his health.  He had fulfilled a promise that there would be no slavery in New South Wales.

As a disciplinarian, he was always fair-minded and just.  Although he could deliver punishment where appropriate, by the standards of the day, he was especially humane.  He was uncomfortable with capital punishment.  Convict behaviour improved during his time, crimes against persons were relatively rare, although thieving was always a problem.

His policy of land grants developed self-respect and a sense of purpose in the majority of free convicts who received them.

Phillip was not a popular man and had few intimates.  But he engendered respect and admiration.  This appeared to be sufficient for him and for the day, and allowed him to fulfil the task he set himself.

The European population of New South Wales at his departure was 4221 of whom 3099 were convicts and there were no further near-famines.  His health gradually recovered and he returned to naval service and was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1799 and in 1805 at the age of 67 he had concluded his service at the rank of Admiral.  He retired to Bath happily with his second wife, the first marriage ended in separation.  A frequent visitor was Philip Gidley King.  Still occupied with promoting the interests of New South Wales with government officials.  He died there in 1814.

One can only conclude with the words Alan Searle wrote of Phillip in the Australian Dictionary Biography:  “Steadfast in mind, modest, without self-seeking, Phillip had imagination enough to conceive what the settlement might become, and the common sense to realise what at the moment was possible and expedient.  When almost everyone was complaining, he never himself complained, when all feared disaster, he could still hopefully go on with his work.  Sent out to found a convict settlement, he laid the foundation of a great nation.”

Last month I dined one evening at the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, I gazed through the windows at the incredible picture of Sydney Harbour “Yes indeed Captain Phillip – it could easily take 1000 sail on the line.”

It has been an honour and a privilege today to follow distinguished predecessors who have spoken at this annual commemoration of a truly exceptional, humane, understated and enlightened man.

For New South Wales, for Australia, he was “a suitable sailor”.

His legacy lives on.