Sir Roger Carrick KCMG LVO
Former High Commissioner to Australia
“Governor Phillip is a good Man, remember me kindly to him”
- Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson to his wife,
17th April 1798
We are met to do honour to an Englishman whom, very much later, a former Prime Minister of this country, Sir Anthony Eden called “one of the most eminent men of the eighteenth century”, and whom the last Premier of New South Wales, Robert Carr, reportedly described as the “greatest ever Australian”.
The Naval and diplomatic appointment of Captain Arthur Phillip Royal Navy as Commander of the First Fleet and Governor-Designate of New South Wales was made in 1786, the day after Arthur Phillip became forty-eight. Phillip was not the nation’s obvious choice. His origins were lowly. His appearance was unprepossessing. He had begun his career with no good connections, which were vital then. He did earn some friendship and a little patronage, but he had then no great reputation for leadership. His appointment was much disputed.
Then there was the job. Arthur Phillip planned to be, and was, a humane Governor who ran an enlightened regime; but even he would have been surprised when he learned of the more strident criticism in London of the transportation of convicts to Australia. One Alexander Dalrymple in his ‘Serious Admonition to the Public on the intended Thief Colony at Botany Bay’ wrote that felons were now to be “their own masters in a temperate climate, where they have every object of comfort for ambition before them”.
And the Whitehall Post (Arthur Phillip must have read it) put it in verse:
Go to an island to take special charge,
Much warmer than Britain, and ten times as large;
No custom-house duty, no freightage to pay,
And tax-free they’ll live when at Botany Bay.
What bigotry! What ignorance ! Some may think the media of today no better ! But then, as one of Australia’s greatest historians (and a former Convenor of the Cook Society in Victoria), Geoffrey Blainey, has explained, in the eighteenth century, Australia was more remote than the Himalayas or central Siberia.
We Brits persist in our attachment to distant diplomatic appointments. In the early 1900’s Hilaire Belloc wrote a poem [Lord Lundy] whose last six lines I found inscribed as a precept and guide on my office wall when, sometime in the second half of the last century, I took up the post in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of Deputy Head of Personnel responsible for appointments. Those lines of Belloc read:
"Sir! You have disappointed us!
We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared;
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is! . . . My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!"
The St Mary Le Bow addresses have told us of Phillip’s humble origins, his study at the Greenwich Naval Seamen’s College, his apprenticeship aboard a whaler based in Greenland, his joining the Royal Navy at 15 as a Midshipman, his service with the notorious Admiral Byng, his naval espionage work, his secondment to the Portuguese Navy, his vast maritime experience, his time on half pay as a farmer in Hampshire. All this contributed to the forming of this man for his Command and his Governorship, his finest and historic task.
Arthur Phillip had been commended by his Greenwich Headmaster for his “diplomacy” and for being “businesslike in … all he undertakes, always seeking perfection”. By the 1780’s, Phillip had learned much, from long and close experience, including that salient fact of colonial and international diplomacy: the devil lies in the detail. Phillip’s extensive international and maritime experience had also taught him some practical politics, useful in his battle against Whitehall to secure for his Fleet the best available provisions, and orders.
In 1787, the year the MCC founded its headquarters at Lord’s Cricket Ground, Captain Arthur Phillip kept the First Fleet anchored at Spithead for two months while he argued in great detail with the Admiralty, the Home Office and the Treasury to ensure the Fleet was properly equipped and that he would have sufficient powers; that his civil commission had the Great Seal; and that he would be plenipotentiary, fully empowered - in that for example he could establish Courts Martial. That was unprecedented for a Royal Navy Captain in these circumstances. Once armed - with these powers, with his masterly seamanship, with his wise and extensive provisioning, including of limes, lemons and vegetables to ensure healthy and clean ships (a lesson he had learned in the West Indies), and with Kendall’s chronometer, Phillip led the fleet of eleven ships in an unprecedented voyage beyond the outer limits of the scientific and technical knowledge of the day. This was the very best of professional leadership, appropriate disciplines, and management.
With the Portuguese Phillip had seen slavery; and he hated it. His first law in Australia was to give effect to his words “there will never be any slavery in this land”. Britain’s oldest allies, the Portuguese, were the first to make land grants to convicts - after Arthur Phillip requested them to do so. Here was a fine, self-made man, well equipped with seamanship, administration, five or six foreign languages, sound judgement, devotion to duty, real courage, high ideals, far-sighted values, resolve, commitment, faith – and vision for the future. Arthur Phillip should have been the nation’s obvious choice.
The First Fleet sailed 15,063 nautical miles to Botany Bay. Eleven years earlier, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, and the Endeavour’s crew had seen Botany Bay at what is normally the wettest time of the year. They saw large areas of coarse grass. They cut hay. They later came to the understandable but mistaken conclusion that they had seen the land at its driest and drabbest. I agree with Geoffrey Blainey that if the science of the day had allowed them to understand the infertility of the soil and the extreme summer heat, Captain Cook’s and Joseph Banks’s reports might well have rejected Botany Bay.
Had they rejected Botany Bay, some historians believe that there would have been no First Fleet and no colony founded in 1788. I respectfully take another view: that if Endeavour had continued her voyage north up the east coast, still with no promising anchorage to recommend, Captain James Cook would have done much more than merely to note and name the entrance to Port Jackson: he would have explored it, found and warmly recommended what Arthur Phillip was to name Sydney Harbour; the First Fleet would have sailed straight there; and England of the day would never have heard of Botany Bay.
At all events, on arrival in Botany Bay at a different time of the year, how right, intelligent and quick it was of Phillip to seek by water a deeper harbour by a more promising location for the effort to build a new colony. And how very much greater were the difficulties that faced Governor Phillip, his companions, staff and the convicts than any one in England could have realised.
The long, hard slog for Phillip, from 1788 to 1792, was epic. Crops were sown early in the first year. Some failed - because, as Phillip well knew, they had had to be planted at the wrong season. Consequently there were seriously short rations, of which a staple was a meagre portion of salt pork and rice. The best account of the First Fleet voyage and the first years of the new colony are to be found, in my view, in the writings of a Royal Marine Officer of Governor Phillip’s party, Captain Watkin Tench. Of the rations, he wrote:
“The pork and rice had been brought with us from England. The pork had been salted between three and four years, and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged within it. We soon left off boiling the pork, as it had become so old and dry, that it shrunk one half in its dimensions when so dressed. Our usual method of cooking it was to cut off the daily morsel, and toast it on a fork before the fire, catching the drops which fell on a slice of bread, or in a saucer of rice.”
Governor Phillip shared in the meagre rations and other austerity measures himself. A few people died of hunger. Tough times breed crime, dissent and rebellion. There was a little of that in the first and second years, and Phillip dealt with it firmly and fairly. Some Royal Marine Officers were hanged for stealing food. The deterrent effect must have been considerable.
Governor Phillip laboured hard and thoughtfully to better the conditions of life in the Settlement. He explored - and found the fresh water rivers Hawkesbury and Nepean. He led experiments in growing and in hunting food. Kangaroo was found to be “most excellent eating”. This I warmly confirm: we used to serve it sometimes in Australia, after a very good English dry white wine with the preceding course, and a fine South Australian Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with the kangaroo, which was grilled and accompanied by a sauce made from marmalade, or fresh blackcurrant. Brit and Aussie guests alike were surprised, but well satisfied.
Governor Phillip sent expeditions to Norfolk Island, where, as well as spruce pines for Royal Naval masts and spars and flax for canvas and cordage, edible seabirds (Mutton Birds) and other food were found. Arthur Phillip sent convicts there - not for punishment, but, as the more objective historians conclude, for better nourishment, and to enable the rations to be shared among fewer people remaining in the Settlement. The Royal Navy Frigate Guardian was despatched from London with half her guns removed to make room for the massive re-supplies Phillip had successfully sought. In the southern seas, an iceberg put paid to that relief. Phillip despatched ships to buy supplies in China, and Java. These were unpredictable missions: only some succeeded.
In this state of deprivation, imagine the huge task of leadership of a disparately composed Settlement, embryo colony. The Governor had been so wise to insist on those plenipotentiary powers, which amounted to a kind of autocracy. He used the powers with great care and humanity, meticulously and fairly, as ever; but also with a vision of the future whose foundation he was building so determinedly.
By the second year of the Settlement, relations with the aboriginals had developed. Some friendships had been made. Some difficult passages, largely of misunderstanding, had resulted in injury, including to Governor Arthur Phillip. But altogether, as with so much else, slow - grindingly slow - progress was being made.
Imagine, then, the gubernatorial leadership which allowed, even ordered, the following to happen in that second year, on 4th June 1789. Watkin Tench again:
“The anniversary of His Majesty’s birth-day was celebrated, as heretofore, at the Government-House, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his Excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am not ashamed to confess, that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict-hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of sixty persons, of various descriptions, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit, and received the praises of the audience: a prologue and an epilogue, written by one of the performers, were also spoken on the occasion; which, although not worth inserting here, contained some tolerable allusions to the situation of the parties, and the novelty of a stage-representation in New South Wales”.
For once, I differ from Watkin Tench. I do think the prologue is “worth inserting here”. For me, it illustrates the unquenchable sense of humour of expatriate Brits in trouble; the spirit Arthur Phillip engendered in the young Settlement; the spirit that would underlie and overlay the construction and development of the colony; and the spirit that persists to this day in modern Australia. It is a cheerily sardonic, ‘can do’ spirit. It mocks both authority and self.
So let me read you the brief “Prologue for the Opening of the Playhouse at Sydney, New South Wales, Australia”; spoken by a convict before His Excellency Governor Phillip:
From distant climes, o'er wide-spread seas we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum;
True patriots all; for be it understood
We left our country for our country's good.
No private views disgraced our generous zeal,
What urged our travels was our country's weal;
And none will doubt but that our emigration
Has prov’d most useful to the English nation.
Why was Arthur Phillip not more honoured by the English nation in his own time? In the late eighteenth century, England had a lust for heroes; but for men of action and success in battle - as witness that greatest of such heroes in the decade following Phillip’s return to England, Admiral Lord Nelson. Unlike Nelson, Phillip had no instinct for self-promotion or the spin side of politics. And the painstaking construction of a convict-based colony as remote as New South Wales was hardly news. Unlike others, Governor Phillip named nothing in Australia after himself. (He named much after his London chiefs - and he did name Bennelong after his Aboriginal protégé. Bennelong is now the point on which stands the Sydney Opera House, and is the electoral constituency of Prime Minister John Howard.) Arthur Phillip was a visionary but essentially low key administrator and Governor. Advancement in the Royal Navy was surely an ambition of his, and he would have been more than gratified by his eventual promotion to Admiral. But he neither sought, nor expected, nor probably even thought of, wider recognition.
Australia’s debt to Governor Phillip is immense, and is widely known and acknowledged there throughout society to be so. Geographical naming and commemorative stamps and coins apart, and as but one other example, today his statue, an extensive and fine monument to his successful pioneering efforts, overlooks Sydney Harbour, with Phillip Tower behind it.
The British debt to Arthur Phillip is also immense, though he is less well known in this country. He spent his retirement in the City of Bath. It was the Commonwealth of Australia who erected a handsome memorial to him, as “Founder and First Governor of Australia”, on the high interior north wall of Bath Abbey. That memorial was dedicated in a Service in 1937, and bears the Australian flag. The City of London ensured that there is a most interesting monument to Phillip, originally outside the Church of St Mildred, Bread Street, and now rebuilt in Watling Street, a short walk both from here and from Phillip’s birthplace in Bread Street. Based on a 1786 portrait now in Australia, the bronze memorial bust of 1932, also erected originally in St Mildred’s is now, following the bombing of St Mildred’s in 1941, here on the west wall in this Church of St Mary Le Bow. At St Nicholas Bathampton, Arthur Phillip’s grave was restored, and a surround built to make a small but impressive chapel with Australian materials - and with monies from the New South Wales Government.
Our British debt is to a man who overcame unforeseen, unprecedented and extraordinary difficulties; and who founded, managed and began the sure development of a colony which, in time, as Phillip soberly predicted to Lord Sydney (and as Dr Alwyn reminded us last year) would prove “the most valuable acquisition Great Britain has ever made”. On the foundations Arthur Phillip laid, his colony, logically and sensibly, via economic, legislative, exploratory and constitutional developments, became a united continent, independent, a Federation, a Commonwealth, a justly proud nation.
How right it is, then, that Arthur Phillip is annually commemorated: in a London church Service, originally at St Mildred’s and now here at St Mary Le Bow, and in a City Livery Hall; at a Service at St Nicholas Bathampton; and in the Guildhall in Bath. How right of the West Country Branch of the Britain-Australia Society and the generous donors to have added late last year a second plaque to the wall of Arthur Phillip’s house in Bath. The first mural tablet, placed in 1899 by the Corporation of Bath, simply says:
The new 2005 plaque reads:
First Governor of Australia
For me, and I hope for you, Arthur Phillip is a quiet hero of the Royal Navy; of practical diplomacy; of Australia; and of the United Kingdom.
It is accurate, I believe, to describe the ally Great Britain has today in Modern Australia as still one of this nation’s most valuable assets. I believe it is right and proper, as we do today, to acknowledge, to honour and to pay tribute to Governor and Admiral Arthur Phillip, Founder of Modern Australia, for his extraordinary, selfless and successful endeavours - and for his inspiring, enduring and priceless legacy.
Here, then, to conclude, are four of Joseph Addison’s lines from Cato, which could have been written of Arthur Phillip:
“Unbounded courage and compassion joined,
Tempering each other in the Governor’s [the victor’s] mind,
Alternately proclaim him good and great,
And make the hero and the man complete.“