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Governor Arthur Phillip

Any review of the men involved with the First Fleet must commence with some brief observations of the leader.

Arthur Phillip was an unexpected choice for such an expedition. Some doubt surrounds the decision; he had little influence at The Admiralty, had achieved little which might distinguish him from dozens of other senior officers in the service and was not a noted global explorer or navigator. He did however, have experience of convicts from service in the Portuguese navy and, through marriage, found himself learning agricultural husbandry. In the words of Lord Howe, writing to Lord Sydney, “I cannot say the little knowledge I have of Captain Arthur Phillip would have led me to select him for service of this nature”.

Fortunately for the expedition and the future Australia, the decision taken was a sound one. Phillip proved to be a man of initiative and humanity; qualities that he would require in large measure in New Holland.

Arthur Phillip was born in 1738 in London, the son of Jacob Phillip, a language teacher who came from Frankfurt, and Elizabeth, nee Breach. He attended the Greenwich school for the sons of seamen and was apprenticed to the Merchant Navy, graduating in 1755, after two years at sea. He transferred to the Royal Navy and was promoted to lieutenant in 1762 before being retired in 1763 when the Seven Years War ended.

Phillip spent the next 15 years farming in Hampshire, returning to the sea during the Spanish-Portuguese war when he served with the Portuguese navy from 1774 to 1778. During the American War of Independence in 1778, he returned to the English navy and became a post captain in 1781. After the war, Phillip was doing survey work for the British Admiralty when he was appointed as first governor of New South Wales in October 1786. He had risen in the navy by his own effort at a time when patronage was the norm, and was considered reliable and trustworthy. His knowledge of farming may have also influenced the decision.

Unlike the British authorities, he was seized by a great vision of a new British outpost to be established in the southern seas. He wanted free settlement encouraged and proposed to try to reform the convicts and to treat Aborigines kindly, establishing harmonious relations with them.

He also had good understanding of administrative detail and considerable foresight. He understood the difficulties involved in transporting men and women from England to an unknown land on the other side of the world and lobbied for sufficient equipment, food and clothing to enable a safe passage.

Other instructions advised Phillip about managing the convicts, granting and cultivating the land, and exploring the country. The Aborigines’ lives and livelihoods were to be protected and friendly relations with them encouraged, but the Instructions make no mention of protecting or even recognising their lands. It was assumed that Australia was terra nullius, that is, land belonging to no one. This assumption shaped land law and occupation for more than 200 years.

Although they were instructed to establish themselves at Botany Bay, Phillip was separately authorised to choose any other appropriate neighbouring territory. When the last vessel left for England in November 1788, a quantity of clay from Sydney was consigned to Josiah Wedgwood on the suggestion of Sir Joseph Banks, and from this first export the Wedgwood Sydney medallions were made.

A fleet of 11 ships with Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the settlement, in charge of 160 marines and 729 convicts, weighed anchor in Portsmouth, England, on May 13, 1787, and reached Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788. Finding it too barren, sandy, and shallow for permanent settlement, (fresh water was inadequate and the anchorages were too open in the wide bays) Phillip investigated the next inlet to the north. There, spreading its fingers of deep water into sheltered sandstone promontories, he found “one of the finest harbours in the world, in which a thousand sail on the line might ride in the most perfect security.” The harbour, which had been discovered and named by Cook earlier, was Port Jackson; now better known as Sydney Harbour. Sydney takes its name from Lord Thomas Townshend Sydney, the British home secretary to whom Governor Phillip reported. Phillip’s First Fleet was unloaded 8 miles (13 kilometres) from the heads in what is now know as Sydney Cove on Jan. 26, 1788, now celebrated as Australia Day.

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