Seadog who steered a colony

by: Lyndon Megarrity – The Australian, Arts – September 21, 2013

ARTHUR Phillip’s claim to fame largely rests on his work as governor of NSW between 1788 and 1792. As the administrator of a remote penal settlement, Phillip (1738-1814) has been recognised by historians for his firm but fair management of convicts, along with his sincere, if sometimes clumsy, attempts to foster good relations with the indigenous people of Port Jackson

Indeed, Phillip has come to embody the early narrative of European settlement. Nevertheless, biographers have great trouble trying to get a picture of the “real” Phillip because most of what we know about the man is based on official rather than private correspondence. Outside his governorship, the paper trail for his naval career and personal life is depressingly limited.

Some Phillip biographers, such as George Lewis (Louis) Becke and Walter Jeffery (1899) and Derek Parker (2009), have focused primarily on Phillip’s NSW experience, the one period where we have adequate historical data on which to draw substantial conclusions. Michael Pembroke’s Arthur Phillip is more ambitious, attempting to fill in the biographical gaps with detailed historical information about the circumstances and conditions Phillip would have encountered as an 18th-century Briton and mariner.

In the main, this approach works well. In carefully crafted prose, the reader is taken on a vivid factual journey aboard the whaling ships and naval vessels that would have been typical of those experienced by Phillip, and we are left in no doubt that the future governor’s toughness and self-discipline was shaped by his time at sea. There are enough descriptions of sailing and ship management to satisfy the most ardent armchair seadog, yet Pembroke balances this with a strong emphasis on the human impact of the events he is describing. Occasionally, however, the author’s enthusiasm for explaining aspects of Georgian culture and seafaring slows the pace of the book.

Echoing the views of distinguished historians such as Geoffrey Blainey, Pembroke believes the evidence of Phillip and others points to the conclusion that the European settlement of Australia was established for wider strategic and commercial purposes than just providing a “convict dumping ground”.

For example, Phillip described his governing role as “serving my country and serving the cause of humanity”. There was something idealistic about imperial plans to give NSW land to well-behaved convicts to assist with their reform. It was, perhaps, the beginning of that great theme in Australian history: the belief that, despite all evidence to the contrary, relatively arid Australia could become a land of righteous small-scale farmers.

The overall image of Phillip that emerges from this book is that of a career-minded naval officer, hungry for recognition and rewards. A capable manager of men and ships, he was well enough regarded by the British government to be appointed governor of New South Wales. In this role, he displayed evidence of being a sensitive, benign ruler: during times of debilitating shortages, all members under Phillip’s command, right up to the governor, received the same reductions in rations.

The author notes the governor’s genuine efforts to befriend local Aborigines but there were strong tensions and misunderstandings between the “new” and traditional owners. In reprisal for the death of his gamekeeper, for example, Phillip ordered troops to bring back the heads of 10 indigenous men and to capture two prisoners. According to his own account, marine officer Watkin Tench persuaded Phillip to alter the order so the troops would capture six men (to be subsequently punished by hanging or temporary exile) or, if that was not possible, to shoot six. The reprisal expedition was a total failure, however.

Pembroke plays down this incident, implying that it was merely a “show of force” designed to “reassure the convicts and to impress the Aborigines”. This notion of an official charade is highly contentious. It is reasonable to assume Phillip was capable of initiating such drastic measures in an attempt to achieve social order on his terms: his exposure to 18th-century naval discipline and his need as leader to appear authoritative in his own fiefdom point to such a conclusion.

Arthur Phillip is a beautifully presented book that pays appropriate acknowledgment to the primary and secondary sources it has consulted. A series of maps might have made Phillip’s journeys more accessible to the reader but, otherwise, this is a measured and entertaining study of the life and times of Australia’s first European governor.

Lyndon Megarrity is a Queensland-based historian.

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‘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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