Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy

Arthur Phillip
Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy
Michael Pembroke
Hardi Grant Books   354pp   £20

Arthur Phillip, white Australia’s founding father, is an English Enlightenment hero that England has never been enlightened enough to honour. This fine biography illuminates the astonishing achievements of a man poorly born, sent to sea aged nine, who later achieved physical and moral miracles in transporting and governing the settlement of convicts and marines in New South Wales.

The book chronicles Phillip’s extraordinary career trajectory, from a midshipman to a captain under Nelson, and how he advanced his status by marrying wealthy widows, how he daringly spied on French naval planning and was then loaned to the Portuguese to help the war against Spain and to map the coast of South America. He initially retired at 49 to become a gentleman farmer near the Hampshire estate of the colonial secretary, who prevailed upon him to undertake the task of turning ‘villains into villagers’ in a virtually unknown far-off country.

Pembroke sets the story against the culture and fashion of Georgian society and ends with Phillip’s second, genteel retirement in Regency Bath. But the strength and novelty of this work lies in its presentation of Phillip’s philosophy, so far ahead of its time in its passionate and pragmatic egalitarianism. It was an idealism well suited to a project which was not just a cynical exercise in finding a dumping ground for convicts after America slammed its doors, but was conceived with genuine hope that it might achieve some reformation of the human spirit.

Phillip was recruited to lead the First Fleet in 1786 and he accepted because it would mean ‘serving my country and serving the cause of humanity’. He refused to set sail until his ships were properly provisioned and, while waiting, he drafted the first law for a place that only he believed would ever become a nation: ‘There can be no slavery in a free land, and hence no slaves’ (this was 20 years before abolition in Britain in 1807). His expert seamanship on the perilous, eight month, 12,000 mile voyage, with little loss of life, and his wisdom and care in combating scurvy (he insisted that convicts have daily exercise and oranges) prevented the fate that befell the disease-ridden Second Fleet.

During the famine in the early days of the settlement he shared even his own rations equally with the convicts and his insistence that they be treated fairly set a standard for enlightened governance.

Too many popular historians and films have depicted the settlement as a callous exercise in prison cleansing, but Pembroke brings out the idealism that infused Phillip and his mentors. Aboriginals still regard him as the leader of an invasion, although, surely, they were lucky. For his part, Phillip punished marines who ill-treated Aborigines. Alas, his moral vision did not long survive after his departure in 1792.

Michael Pembroke’s day job is that of Supreme Court judge in Sydney and he writes with a judicious attention to the evidence of idealism attending the founding of New South Wales. Phillip embodied that idealism and had the qualities of common sense, care, courage and experience of the sea, of agriculture and of survival against the odds, necessary for idealistic ventures to be realised.

Both Britain and Australia have overlooked the heroism of Arthur Phillip, perhaps because there were a lot of naval heroes at the time, or because his father was a Jew, or because Australia was no big deal when he died. He is buried in Bathampton, although quite where is not clear – a recent examination could not locate his coffin (quite literally, the church has lost the plot). His residence in Bath was allowed to run down and all reminders of his home life were effaced. Now a blue plaque erroneously describes him as ‘the first Governor of Australia’. However, finally, this April, almost exactly two hundred years after his death, a ledger stone to Arthur Phillip is to be laid down in Westminster Abbey. This book demonstrates the many reasons why he deserves this belated recognition.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is author of Dreaming Too Loud: Reflections on a Race Apart (Random House, 2013).

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