“We were all once migrants” – Arthur Phillip, Founder of modern Australia

Address by Michael Pembroke – St James Church, King Street, Sydney

31 August 2014

Arthur Phillip was an Admiral when he died in Bath on this day 200 years ago – no longer a Governor and long since a Captain. He was born in October 1738 on the eve of yet another war with Spain, and died as the Napoleonic Wars were coming to a close. His life was long by the standards of Georgian England – almost 76 years. And it was full – he voyaged further than any but a handful of his contemporaries.

Many moving commemorative events have taken place in Britain and Australia in recent months to celebrate Phillip’s life and achievements. Today’s service is the culmination, and in some ways, the most poignant.

The first service was Westminster Abbey where a plaque carved from Sydney sandstone was dedicated by the Dean of the Abbey. A wreath was laid by the Duke of Edinburgh, who sang – with great gusto – those immortal words from the naval hymn ‘Oh hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the Sea!’. Another wreath with patriotic yellow and green colouring, was laid by representatives of the First Fleet Association.

The plaque is located in a prominent and central position in the Abbey’s nave, just beyond the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. As you enter through the Great West Door and proceed towards the chancel, you soon come across it. The plaque’s wording states ‘First Governor of New South Wales and founder of modern Australia’. A charming image of a kangaroo appears at the base of the plaque.

The great and the good, and many others besides, came to pay tribute to Phillip. Our own much loved Governor was there, and the Governor of Victoria. So were the Attorneys General and High Commissioners of both countries. Lord May, the Australian physicist who became President of the Royal Society and Chief Scientist to the British Government was there. So was Baroness Gardiner of Parkes, the only Australian woman in the House of Lords – she took her title from ‘Parkes’ in the central west of New South Wales. Lord Carrington, who is about the same age as the Duke of Edinburgh, also paid his respects to Phillip. His great offices have included High Commissioner in Canberra in the 1950s and he told us how he used to ride his horse to the office, across the site of the new Parliament House.

The memorial to Phillip in Westminster Abbey is not the only British monument in his honour. The earliest was erected in 1932 at St Mildred’s Church in Bread Street in the City of London, the small lane off Cheapside, behind St Paul’s Cathedral, where Phillip was born and baptised. In May 1941 during the blitz, St Mildred’s was destroyed by German bombing, but the bronze bust of Phillip was found intact in the rubble, rescued and moved around the corner to the church of St Mary-le-Bow. This is the ancient church whose Bow Bells are famous because their acoustic reach is said to define whether or not you are a Cockney. For some time it has been known as ‘the Australian church in London’ and an annual service in Phillip’s honour is conducted there each January.

There are several other British memorials, not the least of which is the tablet at Bath Abbey which was erected by the Australian Government in time for the 150th anniversary in 1938 of the founding of the colony. This memorial is proudly surmounted by an Australian flag and its wording states that the success of the first settlement was due to Phillip’s ‘indomitable courage, prophetic vision, forbearance, faith, inspiration and wisdom’.

Phillip’s significance was acknowledged earlier in Australia. As part of the centenary celebrations in 1888, the visionary Sir Henry Parkes commissioned the huge statue that stands just inside the Royal Botanic Gardens opposite the State Library. Phillip is facing towards the Heads at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, the same majestic portal through which he first came, not initially, in a tall ship, but in a longboat rowed by seamen on 21 January 1788. The men in this advance party were the first ever white men to enter what Phillip described as the ‘finest harbour in the world’. They were awed by its beauty, and recorded their observations in their journals.

By the time Phillip left, less than five years later, a new European society, built from absolutely nothing, had begun to thrive. Phillip thought the colony would one day become, to use his own words, ‘the Empire of the East’ and ‘the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made’. His optimism was justified but the little settlement only survived in its first years because of his personal qualities and the leadership that he demonstrated.

By 1788, Phillip was an experienced naval officer who had seen much of the world, commanded men in peace and at war, and was well known and respected in Whitehall. He was cerebral, persistent and painstaking. Most significantly for the evolution of this country’s future values, he was egalitarian, and he possessed that wonderful Enlightenment quality of humanity. Few could have achieved what he did. In his first Australian winter, he wrote from Sydney Cove that he was serving his country and ‘the cause of humanity’. And from the outset, he ensured that the colony was administered as a civil society built on fairness, but subject to the rule of law; not as a mere penal colony governed by military law, let alone simply as a gulag or dumping ground.

There are many examples of Phillip’s forward thinking in relation to this new society. Let me give you three:

  1. In an age when slavery underpinned the prosperity of every one of the world’s colonial powers, as well as that of the newly independent United States of America, Phillip would not countenance its introduction. He had experienced first hand Portuguese slavery in Brazil and Dutch slavery at the Cape of Good Hope. And he well knew the dominant role that British commercial interests played in the Atlantic slave trade. In outlining the kind of society that he envisioned for this country, he wrote at his desk in London in the autumn of 1786: ‘There can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves’;
  2. As to the Aborigines, his intention was to treat them as equals, writing, once again in London before the fleet sailed, that ‘any man who takes the life of a Native, will be put on his trial as if he had killed one of the Garrison’. Phillip’s official instructions, I should remind you – because they are often ignored – required him to ‘conciliate the affections of the Aborigines’; to encourage everyone to ‘live in amity and kindness’ with them; and to punish those who should ‘wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations’. There were difficulties in the implementation of course, and the Aborigines were undoubtedly dispossessed, but these were the objectives;
  3. As to the convicts, he was lenient – surprisingly so – while being correspondingly harsh on any marines and seamen who transgressed. He even allowed – against all the rules of the day – two convicts to sue a ship’s captain for the theft of their goods. Some Englishmen thought that Phillip favoured the convicts. Others found his egalitarianism baffling and unsettling.

It is fitting that this year, scholarships be inaugurated in Phillip’s name, and that he be remembered in this beautiful church designed by Francis Greenway, at a service conducted in the presence of the 37th Governor of New South Wales. Phillip was Greenway’s ‘friend and patron’. It was he who recommended Greenway to Macquarie, who rapidly emancipated Greenway and bestowed many commissions on him. The rest is history.

In truth, all of us in this land of droughts and flooding rains are indebted to Arthur Phillip. Save for our indigenous brothers and sisters, we were all once migrants. We owe more to Phillip than most of us can possibly realise. He was not just the founder of modern Australia, he set the tone for the generous, liberal and fair minded society that we have become.

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