Governor Arthur Phillip (11 Oct 1738 – 31 Aug 1814)
It is an honour and privilege as an Australian Naval Officer to be here for today’s Commemoration Service on the 284th anniversary of the birth of Admiral Arthur Phillip. He was a great British champion who had an exemplary naval career not only with the Royal Navy, but also with the Portuguese Navy, where he gave an excellent account of himself as a ship’s captain, commander of ships and leader of men. However, he is most well-known (particularly in Australia) for being the First Governor and founder of the colony of New South Wales, a colony that later laid the foundations for the creation of the present-day nation of Australia, my country, some 120 years later.
As a boy (about your age) Arthur Phillip went to sea on British naval vessel for a number of years before being accepted at the age of 13 years into the Greenwich Naval Seaman’s College, located by the River Thames in London. The Headmaster there, in a school report, praised young Arthur for his ‘diplomacy and mildness’, and for being ‘reasonable, business-like in…. everything he undertakes, always seeking perfection’. A very good report for a budding naval officer and founder of the future young country of Australia.
After school and at the age of 15, Arthur was apprenticed in the Merchant Navy, and sailed aboard the whaling ship, Fortune, based in Greenland and in its surrounding waters. With the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War against France two years later, Arthur joined the Royal Navy as a young midshipman and served with distinction during the various campaigns of that war.
Many years later, by now a Navy Commander, Arthur Phillip was loaned to the Portuguese Navy, as a senior officer and commanded one of their frigates. Portugal was England’s first foreign ally – a good friend. The Portuguese Navy also reported highly on Arthur Phillip. They found him to be ‘most honourable and meritorious’ and praised his judgement, integrity, honesty, tact and bravery. They wrote that he was an officer of education and principle.
But with the Portuguese Navy, Arthur Phillip saw slavery and its impact on the lives of the slaves during his voyages to South America. This experience affected him terribly such that he vowed to be a strong advocate against slavery for the rest of his life. Significantly, one of his first orders as Governor of NSW was that there would be no slavery in the colony. And as history has shown there wasn’t.
With Britain again at war with France, Arthur Phillip was called back from Portugal and re-entered the Royal Navy where he was given command of HMS Basilisk, the first of a number of ship commands that he had in the years that followed. These ship commands saw him travel to Europe, South America and the Pacific Ocean where he quickly gained the reputation of being a strong and compassionate leader with extensive overseas experience. For this reason Arthur was selected by the Admiralty to lead a flotilla of eleven ships, called the ‘First Fleet’, to transport soldiers and convicts from England to Australia to establish the colony of NSW.
This ‘First Fleet’ of eleven small ships sailed in convoy from Portsmouth to Australia in 1787. It was an astonishing journey, half way around the world. No engines, just sail and wind power, carrying some 240 marines (with a few wives and children), about 760 convicts, 180 of them women, staff – over a thousand people in all – and, crucially, supplies. They laid plans for establishing the new settlement, but knew not what they really were to face in the way of obstacles. Many people think that voyage, of eight months and over 15,000 kilometres, was the equivalent for the eighteenth century, of a journey to the moon. No wonder this great Englishman is a revered in both of our countries.
The ‘First Fleet’ arrived in Botany Bay on Australia’s east coast in January 1788, but the site was not suitable to start a colony as the soil was poor, there was no safe place to anchor the ships and there was no drinking water available. Arthur then sailed the Fleet north and they landed in Port Jackson on 26 January. He found that this site was excellent saying that “without exception this is the finest harbour in the World”….. this landing spot was to become the birthplace of the city of Sydney and the day Arthur landed, 26 January, would become Australia’s national day, which we call ‘Australia Day’.
To establish the colony Arthur had the King’s Commission, given to him by King George the Third, which gave him authority as the Governor over all people in the colony. Under that authority, he was bound to create a viable colony and importantly he was tasked to treat the Aboriginal people in Australia, the original inhabitants, kindly and well. This he did. At the end of his nearly five years in establishing the settlement that gave birth to modern Australia, he took an Aboriginal friend back to England with him, to meet the King. Even during the occasional dispute between the local tribe, the Eora, and the settlers, convicts, servicemen, wives and officials, he insisted on fairness and decent treatment. Once, an angry elder member of the Eora tribe, threw a spear at Governor Phillip, which went right through his shoulder. Arthur Phillip forbade his officers and men from taking any revenge or action. Later, the spearhead was successfully removed from Arthur’s shoulder by Doctor William Balmain – after whom a modern suburb of Sydney is named.
I do hope that you have been on a school or family visit to Bath to see, in the small north garden of the Assembly Rooms, in Bennet Street, just across from the house where, as a full Admiral, Arthur and his wife Isabella, lived in retirement, a wonderful memorial tribute to Arthur Phillip, which includes an armillary sphere and globe. You can turn the globe, and trace Arthur Phillip’s voyage. If you are clever enough, and if the sun is shining, you can tell the time on the armillary in Bath and Sydney.
Australia and Great Britain have a great deal in common, a great deal we share. As just one example, I and some of my colleagues in the Royal Australian Navy have served in the Royal Navy, and British Royal Navy people serve in the Australian Navy, on exchange. Of the many things we share in common is the life and historic achievements of this remarkable man, buried in this church and commemorated in this Service, Governor and Admiral, Arthur Phillip – an Anglo-Australian hero.