Sunday, 26 January 2014

Arthur Phillip, the Spirit of Australia Day

There are many reasons why Australia is unique. One is knowing its exact starting date as a modern civilisation, on 26 January 1788. Australia Day celebrates that date. We are fortunate that a remarkable leader, Arthur Phillip, was in charge during the foundation period. Without him, the First Fleet venture might have failed and been abandoned.

To quickly summarise the events of that time - under Phillip's command, the First Fleet of eleven small ships left Portsmouth, England on 13 May 1787, headed for the unknown on the opposite side of the world. Eight months later the Fleet reached Botany Bay, all the ships arriving between 18 and 20 January 1788.

Disappointed with what he found in Botany Bay, Phillip did not give the order to unload. With several officers, he explored northwards and discovered Port Jackson, which he described as 'the finest harbour in the world'. The picture of the entrance to the harbour is taken from North Head. Today's city skyline is visible in the distance but the Bridge and the Opera House are obscured by the intervening headland. On the left, and just out of sight to the south, is the entrance to Botany Bay.

Immediately inside the harbour and behind the opposite headland (South Head) is Camp Cove (pictured below), where Phillip and his fellow officers obeyed their instructions and claimed the colony for the British Crown. The date on the small white plaque affixed to the monument is 21 January 1788.

Phillip returned to Botany Bay and on 26 January 1788 he moved the First Fleet to Sydney Cove, today flanked by the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge (picture taken from McMahons Pt). European settlement of this vast continent was underway. Phillip oversaw its mighty birth pangs, with a vision for this country and faith in its future. 

It has slipped from our consciousness that recognition of this date has been part of our history since those earliest days. The historian Alan Atkinson describes that date poetically as ‘the beginning of a story, the raising of a curtain. Phillip himself thought so as early as 1790 when the anniversary of the ‘Day of Landing’ was marked for the first time by the flying of the flag’.

Each anniversary since then has continued the story. In 1791, ‘Our colours were hoisted in the redoubt, in commemoration of the day on which formal possession was taken of this cove three years before’. At that stage, all would have given thanks for having survived.

In 1793, not long after Phillip departed, Grose may have sanctioned a small celebration – ‘On Saturday the 26th, the rice being expended, the convicts received three pounds of flour, and the civil and military one pound of flour in addition to the former allowance.’

For years after Phillip’s departure the NSW Corps dominated life in the colony, culminating in Australia’s only coup d’état, on 26 January 1808. Any celebrations that day had little to do with respect for the date and everything to do with John Macarthur’s sense of triumph over his hated adversary, Governor Bligh.

The date regained its more traditional significance after Phillip’s death at his home in Bath on 31 August 1814. The news was reported in the briefest of terms in the English press and did not become widely known in Sydney until an article was published in the Sydney Gazette on 1 April 1815:
To this Gentleman the Colony of New South Wales owes its original establishment in 1788 ; and in taking a retrospect of the arduous duties of such an undertaking, the many difficulties he had to struggle with, and the perils to which he was exposed, it will be only rendering a just tribute to his memory to remark, that Governor Phillip manifested during the period of his administration much fortitude, zeal, and integrity; and that to the wisdom of his early regulations and undefatigable exertions, the present flourishing state of the settlement bears most honorable and ample testimony. Governor Phillip died in the 77th year of his age.
The residents of Sydney took note. Although their goal proved too ambitious, in December 1816 the committee of subscribers to the colony’s first bank, the Bank of New South Wales, were working hard towards the commencement of operations on 26 January 1817 as a mark of ‘our respect for the primitive establishment of a British Colony on the Shores of Australia’. (Note their use of the term Australia - a year later Governor Macquarie began his own advocacy for it.)

Others shared a desire to mark the natal day of the colony. In 1817 the anniversary fell on a Sunday, but next day the prosperous Third Fleet emancipist and inaugural postmaster, Isaac Nichols, hosted a dinner party of about forty people, at which loyal toasts were drunk and a special verse was composed and sung to the tune of ‘Rule Britannia’, the chorus line being ‘Rise Australia’. The Sydney Gazette makes no specific mention of which loyal toasts were drunk, but early emancipist settlers like Nichols and his friends had been in Australia with Phillip, and could compare his approach with the disasters which came later. Nichols’ dinner party became a regular event and was the first documented example of many similar celebrations by ordinary citizens in the years to come.

Macquarie’s task and his struggles obviously caused him to reflect a great deal on his role as governor, and the role of previous governors – especially the first. Even as early as June 1810 he included a toast to ‘Governor Phillip – the Founder of this Colony’ in the celebrations for the King’s Birthday.

In 1818, Macquarie formalised and institutionalised the emancipist sentiments of 1817 and proclaimed that 26 January 1818 be a public holiday to celebrate ‘Foundation Day’, the thirtieth anniversary of ‘the Landing of Governor Phillip in New South Wales and of the Establishment of this Colony … and as a just Tribute to the Memory of that highly respectable and meritorious Officer’.

At the Governor’s dinner party and ball in 1818, Greenway’s transparency of his former patron Governor Phillip was unveiled. It was suspended at one end of the room in a wreath, supported by two banners, one of which said: ‘In Commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of the Colony of New South Wales, established by Arthur Phillip, whose virtues and talents entitle him to the grateful remembrance of his Country, and to whose arduous exertions the present prosperous state of the Colony may chiefly be ascribed’. Greenway’s transparency was painted on a gauzy fabric using clear pigments and lit from behind to glow like stained glass, and unfortunately such a fragile piece of artwork has not survived.

Celebrating the memory of Arthur Phillip has gone in and out of vogue in the almost two centuries since then. The notion of heroes appears unfashionable among our historians, but paying tribute to Phillip’s achievements on Australia Day would introduce a much-needed genuine hero into our culture, a tall poppy we could admire rather than destroy, as is our wont in this country. Phillip would counter our anti-authoritarian predilection for choosing figures like Ned Kelly as our icons.

Americans honour their outstanding national forefathers like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but we fail to recognise the significance of ours, even one as worthy of regard as Arthur Phillip. My two books on the convict settlers 'Robert Forrester, First Fleeter' and 'Paul Bushell, Second Fleeter' have prompted many ordinary members of the public to tell me that they wished we did more to honour Phillip.

Australians need an element of nobility in our national psyche beyond our present intense, but limited, concept of nobility as soldiers fighting for their country. Anzac Day has developed as a day with much national meaning and reverence. Yet Australia Day should have equal billing as a day shaping our national character, celebrating heroism of a different kind, the fight to build a community and country. Annual pilgrimages to Gallipoli and Ypres as an Australian ‘rite of passage’ could be supplemented by visits to one or more of the relevant 'Phillip sites' in England.

Two are located near his City of London birthplace, the first at St Mary le Bow, Cheapside (see below)

and a second at the corner of Watling Street & New Change, near St Paul's Cathedral (see below).

[Update - in 2014 after this post was written and as part of the Bicentennial commemoration of Phillip's death, he was honoured with a memorial stone (not pictured) set into the floor of Westminster Abbey.]

There is a First Fleet memorial site at Portsmouth Harbour.

Phillip retired to Bath and a plaque (not pictured) has been mounted on the wall of his old home at 19 Bennett Street. [Update - an armillary sphere (not pictured) was installed almost opposite this house in 2014, another Bicentennial event to honour him.] His memorial in Bath Abbey is impressive (see below).

A steady trickle of Australians visit the Australia Chapel inside St Nicholas' Church, Bathampton (near Bath), where he is buried.

The NSW Governor Marie Bashir was such a visitor, on 2 April 2004. She wrote in the visitor’s book ‘It is a privilege and a joy to stand before the grave of our first Governor, Admiral Arthur Phillip. All Australians feel a sense of gratitude for what he was able to accomplish’.

The plethora of books on the subject of the birth of Sydney and modern Australia indicates an abiding interest in this topic among our long-term residents. Newcomers to our shore could easily identify with the Phillip story as well – most of them have come to start a new life here, to build something, and most of them struggle to establish themselves. No matter our birthplace, we could all celebrate his qualities and aspire to emulate his community-building ideas.

Over time, Australians have gradually absorbed the aboriginal idea of the spirit of a place. Qantas promotes itself as the ‘Spirit of Australia’ and we intuitively know what that slogan means. But we are wary of the idea that a person’s spirit might speak to us for centuries, to successive generations, perhaps because a suitable person has never come to mind. I suggest that Phillip lives on in the hearts and souls of thoughtful Australians.

Compared with many other countries and the long march of history, we remain teenagers in our struggle to develop a sense of our national identity and are yet to reach full maturity. Sensitive to the Aboriginal point of view, we have long been ambivalent about what we are actually celebrating on 26 January, which has become a community holiday. We should not forget that the first official public holiday on 26 January was declared in 1818 specifically to acknowledge the achievements and amazing personal qualities of Governor Arthur Phillip, reasons as valid today as they were back then.

We see Citizenship Awards as an indispensable feature of the modern Australia Day – who could be a better example of citizenship for both old and new Australians than Arthur Phillip? Since 1960 the Australian of the Year has been announced on Australia Day, a person recognised for outstanding service to the community – at those ceremonies, do we ever mention Arthur Phillip as a shining example?

It took many years of thinking, training, acceptance of discipline and development of self-discipline to become Arthur Phillip. We celebrate some of these qualities with our sportsmen, but often ignore the attributes in other fields. Adding recognition of Arthur Phillip as an ingredient of today’s Australia Day celebrations should be acceptable nationwide, if presented in the positive way it deserves. With so many Australians running their own businesses and therefore aware of how hard it is to build, and how easy to destroy, the message should not fall on deaf ears.

This year we reach the two hundredth anniversary of the date of Arthur Phillip’s death. My plea is for us to work towards a celebration of what his life still means to us and how relevant his attributes remain today, exemplifying outstanding community leadership and the responsible use of power for the common good.

Let’s introduce the custom of a toast to Arthur Phillip each Australia Day.

End of Part 2.
Yesterday, Part 1: 'Arthur Phillip, Father of Australia'.
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