2 October 2013
There are both parallels and differences between James Cook and Arthur Phillip – in their naval careers and in their relationship to Australia.
To start with, both emerged from humble origins. And both, sensing the opportunities that lay ahead, joined the Royal Navy in 1755 on the eve of the Seven Years War. Cook, who was ten years older than Phillip, signed up as an able seaman in June. Phillip, who was a boy of seventeen, quit his apprenticeship on an Arctic whaling ship and was entered in the muster book of the Buckingham as one of the ‘servants’ of Captain Michael Everitt in October.
Phillip was in good company, as Captain Everitt’s other servants included his own sons Robert and George and two young boys who seem to have been relatives of Vice-Admiral Temple West. He was thrown promptly into action in May 1756 when a dozen ships of the line from the Western Squadron were sent to Minorca under the command of Admiral Byng to relieve the British residents and the garrison, who had been overrun by the French. This was a famous action which ultimately led to the execution of Byng – an event that understandably mystified the French philosopher Voltaire.
During the battle the Buckingham was one of two British ships of the line that were exposed to the most intense French fire. Boys like Phillip were usually the powder monkeys during such engagements – crouching, flinching and hauling the gunpowder cartridges from the magazines to the gun crews, amid the horror and darkness of the gun deck, where everyone was blackened and the air was so completely filled with smoke that no one could see two yards in front of him.
Cook also quickly saw action, being involved in some preliminary skirmishing in late 1755 before the war commenced and then subsequently participating in North America at the siege of Quebec City and at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. He did not become a commissioned officer during the war but progressed from able seaman to master’s mate to boatswain before obtaining his certificate and serving for several years as the master of the aptly named Pembroke, a 60-gun fourth-rate ship of the line that was launched in 1757.
Phillip followed a more traditional path for a young man destined to become a commissioned naval officer. In 1759 at the age of 21, he was appointed as a midshipman, and two years later, during service in the West Indies, as a fourth lieutenant. This conformed precisely to the minimum requirements of the Admiralty, which specified that a candidate for commissioned rank had to have had six years’ service at sea, including two as a midshipman. It seems likely that Phillip’s smooth early progress owed much to his patron, Captain Michael Everitt. Cook had no equivalent assistance.
After their service in the Seven Years War, the careers of Cook and Phillip took quite different trajectories. Phillip returned from the war with a lieutenant’s share of the fabulous prize of Havana, the princely sum of £138; like so many others he came to a vibrant and expensive London on half pay; in his case he solved the problem by marrying an exceedingly rich widow; lived for a while as a gentleman farmer in Hampshire; separated from his wife after six years; went to live in Flanders for most of the next five years where, one newspaper reported, he made enough money to repay his estranged wife what he had spent of her fortune; and then from 1774 to 1778 was engaged as a captain in the Portuguese navy in South America, where he achieved remarkable distinction and success and left with a glowing testimonial from the Portuguese Viceroy in Brazil that significantly enhanced his future career.
In the same period from the end of the Seven Years War to 1779, Cook started and finished his illustrious career as a cartographer and navigator. As is well known, it commenced along the rocky coastline of Newfoundland and was followed by his three famous voyages around the world, in connection with which he achieved commissioned officer status – first as a lieutenant when he took command of the Endeavour in 1768, then as master and commander in 1771 and finally as post captain in 1775. It ended with his death in 1779 in Hawaii at the age of fifty.
While Cook’s career came to a premature end at the age of fifty, Phillip’s career had, by that stage of his life, reached new heights. In October 1788 when he celebrated his fiftieth birthday, he was the Governor of New South Wales on a salary of £1,000 per annum. This was the same level of remuneration as that received by each of the Lords of the Admiralty, except the First Lord; it was double that received by Evan Nepean, the Under-Secretary of one of the most important state departments in the most powerful country in the world at that time and it was a multiple of that ordinarily paid to captains of ships of the line.
Phillip had arrived in New South Wales after undertaking a prodigious expedition in command of eleven ships. Nothing like it had been done before. He had led his band of naval and civilian officers, seamen, marines and a smattering of wives, together with a ‘cargo’ of almost 800 prisoners, including about 30 babies, toddlers and young children, and many hundreds of animals, on a quest to build a new society in an alien land, on virgin terrain. It was an absurdly ambitious manifestation of the optimism that marked the Enlightenment.
It was hoped that the convicts would be improved and reformed; that the men would become peasant farmers and the women would raise children; and that the land would be settled and cultivated. These goals were influenced by a utopian ideal of a simple rural society, without money or slaves, where the convict men and women would receive land grants and be reborn through hard physical labour and subsistence farming. The settlement was not intended merely to be the callous ‘dumping ground’ that some, including the late Robert Hughes, have suggested.
Phillip had studied Cook’s charts but he did not follow his routes. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he planned to run down the 40th parallel of latitude. This was the most direct route to Van Diemen’s Land but it was effectively uncharted beyond the islands of St Paul and Amsterdam in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean. Cook had travelled further south on his second and third voyages, closer to the Antarctic land mass but this was not feasible or prudent for Phillip, given the unwieldy number of ships under his command and the nature of his cargo. The Dutch used St Paul and Amsterdam as marker points before turning north for Java and Bantam, but there were no regular east-bound shipping routes beyond them. Phillip’s trusted lieutenant, Gidley King, reflected the uncertainty of the fleet’s navigation when he noted in his journal that their situation was perilous ‘as no ship ever ran in this parallel of latitude before, so far to the Eastward’.
The Admiralty knew that Phillip would need every assistance in the Southern Ocean and in the far reaches of the Southern Indian Ocean. For that reason, and as a measure of the significance of the expedition, Phillip was entrusted with Cook’s chronometer. This was ‘K1’ named after Mr Kendall, the very one taken by Cook on his second and third voyages.
This rare jewel of timekeeping was one of the Admiralty’s most valuable possessions. The use of a chronometer did not become widespread for many years and was not standard issue until the 1840s. Cook called K1 his ‘trusty friend’ and ‘never failing guide’ but Phillip was less confident. At sea he caused constant cross checks to be carried out, whenever possible comparing the chronometer’s readings with the results obtained by the lunar distance method, which required celestial observation and trigonometrical calculation. The differences between the ‘timekeeper’ and the ‘lunars’ were a constant subject of consideration. And there were many disparities – a fact that was usually attributed to the fault of the chronometer rather than any error in the arithmetic of the young gentleman who carried out the calculations.
In January 1788 Phillip found Botany Bay just where Cook’s chart said it should be, at latitude 33.59ºS. He had almost, but not quite, reached the end of a voyage that was unprecedented in length, complexity and responsibility. Unfortunately the bay’s open, exposed and waterless situation did not impress him. In fact, even before the fleet left Portsmouth, something about Cook’s chart, or the overly rapturous descriptions of Sir Joseph Banks, had caused him to doubt the suitability of Botany Bay as the seat of settlement.
Travelling north was Phillip’s genius. Three leagues further north at Port Jackson he unlocked the finest harbour in the world, one that encouraged him to think that the new colony would be ‘the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made’. The irony is that in 1770 Cook had simply sailed past and did not enter. He had no idea what lay beyond the soaring sandstone cliffs that mark the entrance to the harbour. The first white man in the history of the world to do so was Phillip, on 21 January 1788, in a longboat rowed by a few seamen.
As everyone knows, Cook died a gruesome death in February 1779 when his body was hacked and dismembered by native Hawaiians. Eventually, when some of his bones were returned, they were placed in a coffin that was consigned to the sea in a naval funeral at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Two hundred years after his death, a memorial to Cook was unveiled in the south cloister of Westminster Abbey. It was 1979.
Phillip by contrast enjoyed a subdued old age in Bath and died quietly in 1814. His funeral and burial took place in the medieval church of St. Nicholas in Bathampton, outside Bath. He had risen by seniority to the rank of Admiral of the Blue, more senior even than Nelson had been at Trafalgar. In 2014, two hundred years after Phillip’s death, a tablet in his honour will be laid on the floor of the nave of Westminster Abbey near the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
What remarkable temporal symmetry! And how fitting that Australia’s first European ‘discoverer’ (Cook) and her ‘founder’ (Phillip) will soon both be recognised at Westminster in the same venerable abbey.