Saturday, 25 January 2014

Arthur Phillip, Father of Australia



Australians, especially those from my birthplace of Sydney, have been willing to accept Elizabeth Macquarie’s portrayal of her husband Governor Lachlan Macquarie as ‘The Father of Australia’ remarkably uncritically. Others think the title belongs to the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who travelled with Captain James Cook. It prompts the question - have we completely forgotten Arthur Phillip?

Back in 1791 another woman said that our first Governor, Arthur Phillip, ‘may be justly called, like the Monarch of Great Britain, ‘The Father of his People’. His admirer was Mary Ann Parker, an adventurous and enterprising wife accompanying her husband Captain John Parker of HMS Gorgon on a supply run, bringing stores from England to Sydney. During his lifetime Phillip was described in Whitehall’s corridors of power as ‘the father of N.S. Wales’.

Something about that man, and what he did, continues to resonate in the informed mind.

Until the mid-nineties my own mind was uninformed. Very little Australian history was taught in my days at school, and Phillip’s name as leader of the First Fleet and his role as ‘claimant’ of our land for Britain was about the extent of my knowledge. I snapped to attention in recognising Phillip as a true hero during research for my books about two of our founding settlers, the convicts 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' and 'Paul Bushell, Second Fleeter'.

Today we understand that outstanding achievement does not happen by itself, but is the product of being in the right place at the right time in history, with 10,000 hours of practice behind you. When Phillip’s commission as leader of the expedition to New South Wales was signed by the King on 12 October 1786, his life experiences equipped him admirably for the task ahead.

Not that most people could see Phillip’s worth then – or give him due credit later. However he had quietly made his mark with Evan Nepean of the Home Office. He’d also impressed the Portuguese when on loan as a naval captain for this ally of Britain during the mid-1770s, earning for himself a reputation as ‘an officer of education and principle, theoretically sound and practically competent, honest, even-tempered, respectful, truthful, very brave and not obsequious but willing to stand his ground for what he believed in’. That assessment said it all. Phillip was different.

Phillip began his First Fleet work in England in 1786 with a planning and organising role. Months of bureaucratic wrangling ensued before the eleven little ships of the First Fleet weighed anchor and the epic journey into the virtual unknown began. The ‘Birth of Australia’ plaque on the seawall at Portsmouth, near the narrow entrance to the harbour, marks the spot out in the channel where this remarkable voyage commenced.

Unveiled by Queen Elizabeth on Australia Day two hundred years later, the plaque names Phillip as leader and states the date when the ships arrived in Sydney Cove.

The ‘chain link’ memorial, a few metres away, ‘Commemorates the Sailing from Spithead on the 13 May 1787 of the First Fleet Conveying Settlers to Australia. A Great Nation was Born’.

It brings a tear to your eye. What other country in the world can so clearly pinpoint its starting point as a modern nation? And such a hazardous start. The journey after leaving Cape Town was through virtually uncharted waters. No-one knew what the seafarers would find at their destination, should they arrive safely.

Skipping over the miracle of the almost trouble-free voyage to the other side of the planet, with very little loss of life, itself a tribute to Phillip’s naval and leadership genius, around 1,500 newcomers arrived in Botany Bay in mid January 1788, at the height of summer, with fresh water in short supply.


Phillip discovered the jewel of Sydney Harbour a few miles to the north and on 26 January 1788 he relocated everyone to Sydney Cove, his choice for a permanent settlement. As at that date, the flimsy shelters of the Aborigines were the only man-made structures in existence on the vast landmass of the continent of Australia. So began today’s magnificent city of Sydney, where the Opera House on the left and the Harbour Bridge on the right now flank the eastern and western headlands of Sydney Cove.


Phillip’s work over the next five years is the stuff of legend. Australian colonisation was unique in world history, with three obvious points of difference:

·         its settlers came further than any colonising fleet in history
·         it began as a gigantic open-air gaol
·         recognisable agriculture did not exist here

It is the third point, often overlooked, which is truly astonishing. When the colonists arrived in the Americas, in Africa and in Asia, there was already an established if primitive agriculture, a practice of tilling the soil and harvesting crops, sometimes extending back for thousands of years. To work out how to survive in unfamiliar surroundings, the incoming settlers in other places only needed to copy the local inhabitants. The Puritans on the Mayflower even found two English-speaking Indians to guide them when they reached America. 

But in the thin soils and sandstone country of the Sydney region, very different conditions confronted our first European settlers, few of whom had been farmers back in England. Faced with a totally alien environment in every way you could think of, the new settlers had to work out how to survive for themselves, lessons which engrained themselves into our national psyche. ‘Sink or swim’ became the maxim, physically and psychologically.

Australia’s history of European settlement provides the perfect case study of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wherein the most basic level of need is for survival - food, water, shelter and clothing. It fell to Phillip to overcome the huge and unexpected challenges of this task. These are well-documented in other accounts of Sydney’s beginnings as a small, remote encampment perched on the edge of a gigantic wilderness.

More isolated than even subsequent explorers of the Antarctic and space, cut off for a longer period and without any means of communication with their former world, and facing starvation, Sydney’s depressed residents were saved by the ‘indomitable courage, prophetic vision, forbearance, faith, inspiration and wisdom’ of their leader.

So say the moving tributes to Arthur Phillip in the City of London, where he was born in 1738, and in Bath, where he died in 1814. The marble memorials inside the famous Bow Bells church (St Mary Le Bow on Cheapside) and inside Bath Abbey both carry these words.

Phillip had more power than any other British Governor had ever before been granted. He used it wisely, but many blamed Phillip for their woes. Six months after the First Fleet reached Sydney, the marine Captain James Campbell wrote home about ‘this vile country’ and said of Phillip: ‘I may safely say that from the greatest Rascal among the Convicts, to his next in Command, some Toad Eater and Tale-bearer excepted, there is not a man but what dispises him. Is it not most extraordinary how such a man as this could have got himself talked of as he was at home'.

The passage of time leads to a more objective view by historians. Marines such as Campbell were badly served by the poor leadership skills of their own commanding officer, Robert Ross, but the historian Alan Atkinson avers that Campbell’s comments did not apply to the convicts:
'apart from a little ‘sauciness’ here and there, the Governor never seems to have received any abuse to his face from any man or woman in the settlement. The courts were very busy punishing insolence and false rumours among the convicts, but no one of the subject people was ever accused of casting any slur on the Governor. Among the poor and unlettered, he seems to have been awesome even at a distance'.
Recognising that his task was formidable, on the day his commission was read Phillip harangued the convicts, his observations being that many were idle and incorrigible and ‘nothing but severity’ would encourage them to adopt the way of life he now expected them to follow. Today we might describe this as a boot camp operated on the tough love principle, yet the convicts apparently respected Phillip for it, despite the occasional floggings and hangings that people took in their stride in the late eighteenth century.

However, portraying the entire convict class as ignorant, unskilled, lazy, ne’er-do-wells of greedy or dishonest character is clearly inappropriate. If that had been the case, the settlement of Sydney Cove would have failed.

Phillip clearly brought out the best in many men, especially the convicts of the First Fleet, trained by him for two and a half years before any further convict arrivals. During HMS Gorgon’s brief stopover in Sydney in 1791 the aforesaid Mrs Parker wrote of Phillip: ‘the Convict, who has forsaken the crimes that sent him to this country, looks up to him with reverence, and enjoys the reward of his industry in peace and thankfulness’. In writing about some troublesome convict behavior in January 1792, the colony's chief legal officer David Collins said ‘To the credit of the convicts who came out in the first fleet, it must be remarked, that none of them were concerned in these offences; and of them it was said the new comers stood in so much dread, that they never were admitted to any share in their confidence’.

From the start of settlement Phillip encouraged marriages to protect the women and foster the development of stable family units. Given the imbalance of female and male convicts, it had always been intended that native women from the Pacific Islands be persuaded to join the settlement on a voluntary basis. Phillip quickly realised that conditions were far too primitive and vulnerable for them, and he strongly urged that more women from home be sent, for ‘to send for women from the Islands, in our present situation, would answer no other purpose than that of bringing them to pine away in misery’. The multi-cultural society he had envisaged back in England did not significantly come to pass until the gold rush era of the 1850s.

The enlightened and humanitarian Arthur Phillip was also well ahead of his time in his dealings with the Aborigines – the interaction of a stone-age culture with eighteenth century Europeans could have been much worse, but for Phillip. The Aborigines were never going to keep the continent of Australia for themselves. It was inevitable that people from other places would invade and take over. They were lucky the invading settlers were led by Phillip. As the leader of the ‘landing party’, Phillip should not have to shoulder the blame, personally, for the ultimate fate of the Aborigines. A full reading of his time in New South Wales proves that Phillip involved himself personally in understanding the indigenous population, did his best to limit the damage to them and refused to tolerate their ill-treatment.

While Phillip believed before leaving England that convicts should not mix with free settlers, he also believed in the fair treatment of convicts and ‘that there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves’. Thus the American model was firmly rejected for Australia.

Phillip’s lasting legacy for the new nation was far more positive – egalitarianism. When everyone was facing starvation, Phillip decreed that equal rations would be given to all, regardless of rank. As author Babette Smith notes: ‘In issuing that order, Philip overturned every expectation of the class-ridden society from which the colonists had come, making it clear that the humanity of the most lowly convict was as important as his own’. Australia’s internationally-renowned lawyer Geoffrey Robertson pays tribute to Phillip for the same reason: ‘He was a great humanitarian. He set down a standard of humanity, of compassion, of egalité — equality, that really we Australians can be proud of’.

Phillip also set an example of stoicism, commonly accepted as another traditional Australian ‘trait’, by continuing to govern fairly despite suffering from kidney pain in his side from the start of 1789. In September 1790, at Manly Cove, a severe shoulder wound from a native spear added to his burden of pain. His ill-health prompted the ailing Governor to request leave of absence in March 1791. With no means of departure available until December 1792, he performed his onerous duties in pain for four continuous years.

Arthur Phillip exemplifies the old proverb ‘Facta Non Verba’. Deeds not words. Apart from his official correspondence, Phillip left no words, just his deeds. He did not blow his own trumpet. With the power at his disposal in Sydney, he could have named places after himself but he did not seek immortality, only to do his duty. How many taciturn and inarticulate Australians leading their quiet lives since Phillip have followed the same precept? It is another facet of his legacy to us.

When Phillip sailed away to England in December 1792 his work for the new colony spanned just over six years and much had been achieved, but the little settlement was still in survival mode. The delay in appointing a new Governor left the fragile colony without the protection of a disciplined naval man, and exposed to a disastrous military regime.

During the next three years when Grose and then Paterson held the reins, much of Phillip’s good work was undone and his lofty ideals debauched. Phillip had strictly controlled the availability of alcohol, but after he left it fuelled the chaos. The next three Governors - Hunter, King and Bligh - were unable to deal with the problem, but the rebellion against Bligh at least brought things to a head.

At the time Macquarie took up the reins of governorship in 1810, New South Wales was known to be part of one massive continent, and a few small settlements existed in places beyond the Sydney basin, especially in Tasmania, but exploring and claiming the continent for Britain had to wait. Macquarie was armed with clear orders designed to repair the immense societal damage wrought for nearly twenty years by the NSW Corps. He and his wife seriously addressed the task of being great improvers in the Sydney region, and overseers of limited expansion of settlement beyond the immediate confines of the Sydney basin.

It is true that Macquarie did something more than Phillip by championing the cause of emancipists (not an issue in Phillip’s day) and he left a lasting legacy of public works within the built environment. But where many policy initiatives were concerned, Phillip had already led the way and Macquarie’s interest in the Aborigines did not match Phillip’s efforts.

Even Macquarie’s most spectacular public works have their roots with Phillip. When Francis Greenway arrived as a convict in 1814 to serve a fourteen year sentence for forgery, he carried a letter of introduction from Governor Phillip, who recommended Greenway as an architect of some eminence in England.  Macquarie wrote ‘Feeling a great respect for that excellent man (Phillip), I had pleasure in attending to the first request he ever made of me’ and Greenway was given his ticket-of-leave. His inspired work as Governor Macquarie’s civil architect is rarely linked to Governor Phillip’s foresight.

A bronze bust of Arthur Phillip has been erected at Sydney Cove, near the spot where the first settlers stepped ashore on 26 January 1788. Other memorials exist in Sydney, and around Australia. Places are named after him but, for example, in Melbourne where I've lived for more than twenty six years, few people can tell you why Port Phillip Bay carries that name. Today, far too few Australians recognise the name Arthur Phillip, or know what he did, yet he truly deserves to be regarded as the Father of Australia.

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