Rh Hon Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke PC LLD
(former British High Commissioner to Australia)
It is a privilege to be asked to deliver this address before such a distinguished company and in such an historic setting. Until my connection with Australia began over a decade ago, I had never heard of Arthur Phillip, and it seems I am not alone.
Lachlan Macquarrie yes, the Fifth Governor of New South Wales, I knew about. As a youngster I travelled to the Island of Mull off the West Coast of Scotland and wondered at the Australian flags flying at the ferry terminal, I have watched the sun set over Ulva, Macquarrie’s birthplace, but the First Governor I knew nothing of.
Indeed the true impact of Phillip as founding father of modern Australia really only came home to me when that redoubtable woman, HE Marie Bashir, the present Governor of New South Wales, refused me entry to Government House until I had paid my respects at the portrait of Governor Phillip that hangs in the hallway.
This man who took the Great South Land and forged it into an embryonic nation, doubted if anyone recognised his talents because he lacked influential contacts.
In today’s parlance, he was no “A” lister, and there is some evidence that his life long lack of confidence in the measure of respect others had for him was not paranoia. He did not move in the right circles and could be undermined and overlooked.
This man had the political acumen to name places in the new colony after his masters in Government, not least of whom was Home Secretary Lord Sydney, yet failed to name any place after himself. He allowed himself to be traduced and overlooked, yet had a host of skills without which the fledging New South Wales would have foundered.
Phillip went to the orphan school in Greenwich meant for the sons of British sailors, but he was no orphan. His father was a German language teacher later described as a Steward, an occupation of some distinction.
It looks as though his mother got him a place at the school because her first husband had been a mariner. Now if that doesn’t lead to a crisis of confidence, what would?
The sailor became a gentleman farmer after his marriage to an older widow, from whom he was to separate in the less than forgiving times of the late 18th Century.
Dismissed by Lord Howe in a letter to Lord Sydney of the 3 September 1786 in withering terms:
“I cannot say the little knowledge I have of Captain Phillip would have lead me to select him for a service of this complicated nature.”Yet, Arthur Phillip was to prove a Governor of exceptional understanding and skill, courageous enough to make it clear that slavery would not be permitted in this new Colony on his watch, and modern enough in his thinking to know that convicts would only arrive to give their labour if they were kept free from the dreaded scurvy and allowed access to fresh air.
Uniquely, Phillip, in the service of the Portuguese, to whom he became more of a hero than with his own compatriots, had already experience of establishing a convict colony.
The story of his life leaves more questions than answers. He is frequently referred to as obscure, secretive and earnest. But it is clear that e spent most of his life worried about where his next job might come from.
He spent some time in France, allegedly as a spy but his portrait suggests he was no James Bond, what he did have was considerable aptitude as a linguist.
Yet all of these contradictions built on the undoubted skills he brought to the role initially of leading the First Fleet to Australia. He then went on to establishing a colony in New South Wales that was ,in a comparatively short period of time ,to transform many of the flotsam and jetsam of His Majesty’s prisons into successful entrepreneurs with some pretensions to style.
Working on the land following his first marriage was to teach Phillip the value of sound husbandry, and he was an early environmentalist, forbidding the felling of trees on either bank of the Tank Stream, thereby safeguarding the water of life for the new colony.
He encouraged his surgeon, John White, to seek out indigenous plants that could provide native medicine, almost two centuries before the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies established research programme in Australia to examine the effectiveness of the cures developed by the Aborigines.
As he prepared for his adventure, revolution was in the air. The French and the Americans were to change the pattern of history. My own National Bard Robert Burns was writing of the Rights of Man, and even of Women, and the campaign against slavery was dividing polite society.
Phillip had seen slavery at first hand in the American colonies, his abhorrance was undisguised. He made it clear that the natives of this new Colony were to be treated with respect and he would punish whomsoever acted otherwise, freeman or convict alike.
Yet he had no compunction in sending raiding parties out to capture Aborigines, and it was in that way that he came to meet Bennelong, who was to become friend and companion and with whom he would swap names. He took Bennelong with him back to England where he was presented at Court, but he also introduced the charismatic Aborigine to strong drink, which was to be his undoing.
He was clearly intrigued by Aboriginal culture and language, but failed to recognise that for thousands of years the natives of this colony he was attempting to settle, had been used to taking their food from the land and the sea.
The Governor was to cause great offence by punishing those caught “stealing” the wild food that they had seen as their birthright for centuries, and that was to cause him the most serious injury he was to experience and could have led to a deadly rift in the new Colony.
Lured to Broken Bay by a lump of whale meat sent by Bennelong, who had previously gone walkabout, Phillip impetuously decided to go to find his friend.
With four muskets and a pistol, he sailed to their reunion.
When he landed he set out with just one unarmed seaman and called out for Bennelong who showed up full of questions about all his friends in Sydney.
Philip uncorked a bottle of wine he had brought and Bennelong raised his glass in toast to “The King”. He then introduced the Governor to a “stout, corpulent native” called Willemering. On the ground lay a long spear, Phillip asked if he could have it, but Bennelong picked it up and moved it closer to Willemering, giving the Governor instead a throwing stick.
What Phillip did not know was that Willemering was a “punishment man” . The time had come for Phillip to be punished for his slights to the natives of the new Colony. The fish and the game taken, the failure to seek permission to camp, the stolen weaponry and nets, the damaged canoes, the random shooting of natives, the small pox and the other Western diseases that had been visited on the native people.
It was time to make the Governor pay for the misbehaviour of his “tribe”, but in the scale of justice, it was determined that he should not pay with his life. He had treated the natives with respect.
As Phillip moved towards Willemering, he threw his own knife on the ground, but Willemering lifted the spear and threw it at the Governor. The spear
went into Phillip’s right shoulder and ran through his body, coming out in his back.
Such was the skill of Willemering, that no vital organ was struck, but Phillip was left with a 12 foot spear sticking from his body. He was lifted to a boat and taken seven miles across the harbour in a dreadful state with blood pouring everywhere, a journey that reportedly took 2 hours.
His life was saved by a young surgeon, William Balmain who was in his twenties and regarded as willing to pick a fight with anyone, but he skilfully removed the spear, probably without any anaesthesia,and saved the life of Arthur Philip to the relief of his men. Small wonder that one of Sydney’s more glamorous suburbs bears his name.
Now Balmain was a Scot, a bit of a cliché actually, a surgeon with a curmudgenly nature. Another Scot, John Hunter, a man Phillip would rely on as no other, would become the Second Governor. A sensible, Presbyterian man, Hunter was to save all who sought to build the new community from certain famine and death by circumnavigating the globe to bring supplies from Cape Town.
If Balmain and Hunter were men who provided life saving service to Arthur Phillip, one Scot was to become the bane of his life.
Major Robert Ross, the Lieutenant Governor, was a Scot of a different hue. Many found him impossible to get on with, and Ross was to do his utmost to destabilise Phillip. He hated Australia, described it as “nature in reverse” and he hated Phillips secretive nature. One man in his command described Ross as “without exception the most disagreeable commanding officer I ever knew”.
He was to second guess and undermine Phillip and even went so far as to send letters back to the Admiralty complaining about the conduct of the Governor, shaking even further the fragile self confidence of Phillip.
As Phillip tried to establish a farming community at Parramatta, anxious to find out if a skilled farmer could live off the land, Ross and his small band of followers mocked these efforts. The Lieutenant Governor hated New South Wales with a passion, saying: “I do not scruple to pronounce that there is not a worse country that what we have seen of this”.
Yet Phillip was to come upon the young Cornish convict James Ruse who was a farmer and laid claim to being the first man to put his foot on the east coast of NSW when he carried Lieutenant Johnston onto the shore of Botany Bay.
Phillip, although not certain Ruse had completed his sentence, gave him a grant of 30 acres and convict help to clear the riverbank near Parramatta.
And it was this faith that Philip showed in Ruse that was to turn Ross’s negativity on its head and to start the process that was to establish the reputation Australia has earned as a place that despite unique circumstances, is fruitful.
Ruse was later to move to the Hawksbury, the faith Phillip showed in him was justified as he granted him livestock and created the bedrock for Australian agriculture.
But Robbie Ross was not to be appeased.
No doubt it did not help that Ross was Lieutenant Governor in name only, were Phillips to die, John Hunter would succeed.
He was, frankly, the Deputy from hell and it is hard to understand why Phillip put up with it. He sent him off to colonise Norfolk Island, but the man seemed to be obsessed with undermining his commanding officer. But Phillip, though always composed, must have felt the barbs and the insubordination.
It would have done little to ease the paranoia about his lack of influence and the fear of future unemployment that so characterises every description of Phillip.
It must have been with a mixture of relief and fear about what calumny Ross would spread on his return to England that Phillip took his leave of Ross.
This man who so hated the natural wonders of Australia, sailed back to England on the Gorgon accompanied by assorted kangaroos, possums and “every curiosity which the country produced “
Yet Phillip was no coward in his dealings with people. He was not afraid to challenge the values of the day.
Unusually for the time he had formally separated from his first wife Margaret, and in later years, with his continuous fear of poverty, worry that he would be left with her debts , a reason he used to claim a return to England to check on his affairs. Yet when she did die, she was to leave him unencumbered financially.
There is evidence he enjoyed a pretty face, one young woman was regularly invited to dinner and was the only guest ever who did not have to bring her own bread. Even poor John Hunter, at a dinner in his honour after his valiant trip to Cape Town, had to bring his own bread!
Biographers also indulge in a bit of speculation about Phillips relationship with Dorothea Brookes his housekeeper.
Near the end of his time in Sydney, Phillp’s health was in such a bad way he must have wondered if he would see England again. He also bemoaned his misfortune at being so far away when there was a career and reputation to be made in joining in the fight with republican France.
His dearest wish was to validate his honour as an officer. That he had achieved that, as well as putting his mark on the settlement of this new Continent, was beyond his comprehension. But he could never be confident his masters fully appreciated him.
Phillip was to plant on the shores of Australia an insistence on the supremacy of law and a sense of community that on his arrival must have seemed an impossible dream.
As well as authority, he created an atmosphere that for those distant times, created an equality that was not to be found on these islands. Convict and free man had to work together or survival would have been so much harder.
When Phillip left Sydney, he craved recognition in his homeland, yet it was the generations to follow these convicts and soldiers who would hold his name as a hero. What he started endures to this day.
He had been dead many years when his mission was to come full circle when on the 25th April 1915, the sons of Australia, stock of convict and freeman alike , landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, answering the call of a British Prime Minister to come to the aid of the homeland.
There was no bunting or celebration for Phillp’s return to England, he has to defend and explain his actions in the Colony around Whitehall and beyond.
Within a few months he was back on half pay, although he was soon to be given a handsome pension of £500. He had the means now to live as a gentleman and repair to Bath where he could concentrate on recovering his health.
As his health improved, he was to meet at the Bath Circulating Library, Isabella Whitehead the 45 year old daughter of a Northern cotton and linen merchant, they were to marry and the marriage was, to all accounts a happy one. A story worthy of Jane Austen.
Still though, he continued to bemoan his lack of connections, the absence of a patron who would campaign for his advancement. He was just another competent captain.
In February 1808 he suffered a stroke, then another, and the demon of ambition departed. He lived another 6 years before a final stroke and he is buried in the Churchyard of St Nicholas at Bathampron.
It is a sad story that one who had achieved so much and made such a significant a part on history should have been so tortured by his lack of recognition.
Now though, the ghost of Arthur Phillip will soon be able to rest easy. Thanks to the vision of a few dedicated people, next year, to mark the bicentenary of the death of Arthur Phillip, he is at last to be commemorated with a plaque in Westminster Abbey, not in some dull corner, but right in the centre of the Abbey. In Bath too, there is to be a memorial near to 19 Bennett Street where he ended his days.
It was a long time coming, but at last, Admiral Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales, the father of Modern Australia, will be recognised by his own folk for the hero and visionary that he was.
May he Rest in Peace.