Our founding father

Reviewed by Justin Owen – The Spectator – January 25, 2014

Founding fathers of proud nations are venerated. From an early age, children learn about their achievements and sacrifices. A King Kong-sized statue will often abound the founding city. The nation downs tools and enjoys public holidays in their honour. Worthy recognition by a grateful nation.

Not so Australia. Captain Arthur Phillip — first governor of NSW and founder extraordinaire of the settlement that was to become our great nation of Australia — has endured such vague disinterest from our historians, scholars and political leaders that it is simply extraordinary. Yes, there have been the occasional biography — such as the pre-World War Two work of George Mackaness — but this sort of examination was the exception rather than the rule.

It is no accident that in such a collective torpor, Australia Day — and our general interest in the epic story of the life of Arthur Phillip — sank into the mire. Even nearly 50 years ago, broadsheets like Brisbane’s Courier-Mail editorialised that 26 January was ‘The Day We Forget’, noting ‘It was Australia Day yesterday. Did anyone notice?… Probably not, for Australians seldom do… Year after year the nation is chided for its disinterest… and year after year the response is a kind of mass shrug.’ It is no surprise that both the federal and the NSW parliaments had each abolished the electorates named after Phillip by the 1990s.

Enter Michael Pembroke and his important and eminently readable contribution to our national story. And what timing: this year marks 200 years since Phillip’s death.

Pembroke is not your average biographer. A justice of the Supreme Court of NSW, Pembroke has had a stellar career as a silk at the Sydney Bar in commercial law. His previous book Trees of History & Romance: Essays From a Mount Wilson Garden delved into the history, mythology and botany of the various tree species growing on his Blue Mountains property. In Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy, his Honour has effortlessly demonstrated his considerable literary flair and research skills, bringing to all the enthusiasm of a direct descendant of First Fleeters to what is an immense but worthy task.

For Pembroke, the establishment of New South Wales was a veritable British Enlightenment social experiment. It had a deeply profound and positive impact upon the future development of the settlement, from colony in 1788 to independent nation in 1901. The evidence of Phillip’s high-minded idealism during his six-year reign as Governor is fascinating. Even prior to the First Fleet’s departure, Phillip was already contemplating that the future of the new settlement lay not in simply providing a dumping ground for one-punch ferals and criminals but to become ‘the Empire of the East’.

Even in his early days at Port Jackson, says Penbroke, Phillip had in mind ‘the colony’s capacity for the improvement of the human condition.’ Indeed, in his early correspondence home to Home Secretary Lord Sydney, he stated that he saw himself as Governor ‘serving my country and serving the cause of humanity’. He opposed the introduction of slavery to the settlement. With the local Aborigines, Phillip was known for his pronouncement that ‘Any man who takes the life of a Native, will be put on trial as if he’d kill’d one of the Garrison. This appears to me not only just, but good policy.’ As Pembroke writes, Phillip’s Enlightenment-era benevolent approach ‘assumed the best, not the worst.’

He happily granted land to freed convicts — 30 acres for single men, 50 if you were married — on the basis of building a new Utopian society, which he conceived would become ‘Albion’, the ancient synonym for Britain. To use that distinctly Australian praise, he was a good bloke with the right temperament to open the innings for modern-day Australia. It’s fair to say his influence has had a lasting impact on our nation.

By shining a light on his life both before and since settlement, Pembroke helps us understand Phillip as the founder of Australia. At age 12, his educators prepared him for a life of service to the Royal Navy, and were already providing their young charge with a couple of pints of beer a day (including a refreshing half a pint at breakfast). They were also noting his ‘diplomacy [and] mildness’ and his desire for ‘perfection’. As Pembroke notes, these traits would become apparent through Phillip’s life.

We also learn that prior to his departure for NSW Phillip was a mercenary serving in the Portuguese navy (at the behest of his Whitehall masters) in Brazil. He was also a British secret agent in France. The multilingual and subtle Phillip was stunningly successful in both roles.

Phillip’s first wife, a 41-year-old widow, had a personal wealth, which would be worth today about £200 million. The marriage, complete with a prenuptial to protect his wife’s fortune, lasted only six years and the honourable Phillip ensured he repaid his estranged wife all of what he had spent of her wealth.

What also is evident is that Phillip is a man of humble origins, who was promoted to the some of the very highest positions of responsibility and service. He reached positions in the Royal Navy that even exceeded the venerable Horatio Nelson on merit and continued to exhibit humility once he had arrived there. A fine example of the egalitarianism that the nation he founded today celebrates.

Placing this extraordinary individual and his colossal legacy at the heart of our national celebrations every 26 January would ensure Australia Day is more than just a day off. It also challenges the annual Fairfax bleating editorial that it’s time to change the flag and the usual bickering over who should have received the gong for Australian of the Year.

Pembroke’s masterful and absorbing biography provides all the evidence we need to at long last elevate Arthur Phillip to his rightful pre-eminent position in our national consciousness. Sam Kekovich can finally toss that lamb chop aside. The real way to celebrate Australia Day this year is to read this book.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 25 January 2014 Aus

The online version may be found here: www.spectator.co.uk/australia/australia-books/9123271/our-founding-father/

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About Michael Pembroke

‘The colour and dash of Arthur Phillip’s extraordinary life, lived in amazing times in every corner of the world, is told just brilliantly in Michael Pembroke’s utterly absorbing book, designed to become a classic of Imperial literature.’
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