Seadog who steered a colony

Arthur Phillip: Sailor Mer­ce­nary Gover­nor Spy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lyn­don Me­gar­rity Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

By Michael Pem­broke Hardie Grant Books, 354pp, $45 (HB)

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 gov­ern- ing 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.

Por­trait of Arthur Phillip (1786) by Fran­cis Wheat­ley

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.