Voyage of destiny

Reviewer: STEPHEN WILKS – The Sydney Morning Herald, Entertainment – October 5, 2013

Judging books by their blurbs is even trickier than getting exercised about their covers. I wondered at first what a plug from BBC correspondent Andrew Marr could credibly do for this new biography of the first governor of the motley little colony of NSW. A possible riposte arises from Arthur Phillip’s time at Port Jackson having accounted for barely five years of a nearly 76-year life dedicated to serving Britain’s navy and empire across the globe. Marr has written knowledgably enough about the world history that forms the fuller backdrop to this primal figure in Australia’s past.

So don’t be shocked that Phillip’s sojourn in infant Sydney accounts for a mere 22 pages of this 354-page book. But Marr is wrong about one thing – this is not a story never before told. Pembroke, a NSW Supreme Court justice, acknowledges the two best previous Phillip biographers, George Mackaness and Alan Frost.

Even these two were frustrated by a lack of sources on Phillip’s early life. A precious exception is a school report portraying teenage Phillip as a budding perfectionist who was “nervously active, unassuming, reasonable, business-like”. Most biographers, including Pembroke, resort to reconstructing the worlds Phillip inhabited of Georgian London, the Royal Navy in its glory days, and the town of Bath he retired to.

Phillip was born in London in 1738 into modest circumstances. His father was German, it seems. Phillip’s long career says much about the Royal Navy as meritocracy, yet also shows the importance of getting lucky with patrons. It appears that a naval relative of his mother took him on as a captain’s servant aged all of nine, making little Arthur quite literally a child of the sea.

Phillip could easily have become a fine fighting sailor, but seemed fated to miss out. In this age of battles, his only big set-piece was at Minorca in 1756, the engagement for which Admiral Byng was notoriously executed for not properly engaging the enemy. Earnest young Phillip was not one of Byng’s sympathisers.

His pre-NSW career might have been more creditable than stellar, but the book’s subtitle references some singular twists. Phillip served with the Portuguese navy in South America against the Spanish. He wasn’t a commonplace mercenary. He learnt Portuguese, drew charts for his real masters in London and cultivated the Portuguese viceroy in Brazil – all very handy later on when the First Fleet stopped at Rio on the way to Botany Bay. It’s also long been known he was one of the small army of spies infesting the sea ports of the time. Phillip’s language skills, tact and perhaps his slightly foreign appearance had him more than once lurking around French naval bases.

Robert Hughes’ portrayal in The Fatal Shore of early Australia as a continental Devil’s Island is now widely rejected. Rightly so, but the contrasting interpretation of Phillip as an archetypal Enlightenment man has become so dominant you would think he was really Voltaire in naval drag. Don’t forget he was trained as a naval autocrat capable, if provoked, of presiding over public executions. Still, the Portuguese viceroy was impressed by his intelligence and honesty. It would be nice to know what reading took him beyond the practical education provided by the Royal Navy. Pembroke is almost certainly correct to go along with the disputed ideas of Frost and others that the founding of NSW was a move in the geo-strategic great game among the European powers. (But he conspicuously doesn’t run with Frost’s high regard for the officials who organised the First Fleet.) Far from being a dump for unwanted convicts, we are also told that the plan for Botany Bay reflected “extraordinary idealism”.

Prime evidence is the injunction to grant land to freed convicts, a basis for a lasting civil society. Phillip resisted the appeals of troglodyte officers, notably Major Ross of the marines, and at least tried to treat the Aborigines civilly. Possibly, he was thoughtful enough to feel restrained by his immense powers. He dreamt of the colony becoming “the Empire of the East”. Phillip also faithfully followed instructions about establishing civil institutions. This made for a very odd penal colony indeed, in which two convicts successfully sued over the theft of their property. This attracted huge resentment but powerfully signalled the inclusive society Phillip was building. He mightn’t be as intellectually deep or enigmatic as some have suggested, but Frost rightly concluded that Phillip nurtured a renewed European culture based on equality, not birth. He has as good a claim as anyone to be the founder of modern Australia.

When he left the left the colony in December 1792, exhausted and ill, Phillip was accompanied by the Aborigines Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie, soon to be rather grotesquely paraded in European finery. Phillip stuck with the navy, but was now old for a sea captain – Nelson was 20 years younger. He described running NSW as the most difficult thing he had done. Yet memories of Sydney don’t seem to have dominated his later life.

Pembroke has not so much a distinctive style as a lawyer’s precision and regard for evidence, not traits to be taken for granted nowadays. He has a great interest in the formalities of Phillip’s life, helped by the survival of legal records. This fluent and workmanlike book mightn’t be ground-breaking, but there can never be enough intelligent works on Australian history for the wider public. May many people read it and Justice Pembroke produce more like it.

NSW could so easily have starved or degenerated into a brutal jail of no wider social significance. Phillip’s reputation stands accordingly high. What if the temperamental William Bligh had been the first governor, instead of the fourth? Young Australia could have done so very much worse than Captain Arthur Phillip, RN.

Stephen Wilks lives in Canberra and is a freelance writer.

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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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