Arthur Phillip

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Arthur Phillip
October 11, 1738 – August 31, 1814
Arthur Phillip - Project Gutenberg eText 12992.jpg
Arthur Phillip
Place of birth Flag of England London, England
Place of death Flag of England Bath, England
Allegiance Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg Kingdom of Great Britain
Service/branch Royal Navy
Rank Admiral
Battles/wars Seven Years' War
Other work Governor of New South Wales

Admiral Arthur Phillip RN (October 11, 1738 – August 31, 1814) was a British naval officer and colonial administrator. Phillip was appointed Governor of New South Wales, the first European colony on the Australian continent, and was the founder of the site which is now the city of Sydney. Given that the enterprise to establish the colony in the Southern Continent was under-funded, and would take place at a great distance from home, its success depended on strong and competent leadership. The enterprise, however, of founding a penal colony lacked glamour, so leading such a venture may not have had wide appeal. On the other hand, the British wanted to frustrate French ambition in the Pacific Ocean and knew that a man of the caliber of Phillip was needed. He had already served with distinction during the Seven Years War as well as in the Portuguese navy against Spain. The task of establishing the settlement proved to be a demanding one, as the settlers often faced starvation. Phillip, however, succeeded, and in doing so laid the foundation of what today is the nation state of Australia. He tried to develop cordial relations with the Aborigines, and started the policy of emancipation of convicts so that they could contribute to consolidating the colony. Many convicts had committed minor offenses motivated by hunger or by social need.

Today, Australians are proud that their nation was built by men and women who worked hard, who were promoted or emancipated due to merit, not privilege of birth. The egalitarian spirit of Australia has it origins in the pioneer settlement over which Governor Phillip presided.

Early life and naval career

Arthur Phillip was born in Fulham, in 1738, the son of Jacob Phillip, a German-born language teacher, and his English wife, Elizabeth Breach, who had remarried after the death of her previous husband, a Royal Navy captain. Phillip was educated at the school of the Greenwich Hospital and at the age of 13 was apprenticed to the merchant navy.

Phillip joined the Royal Navy at fifteen, and saw action at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in the Mediterranean at the Battle of Minorca in 1756. In 1762, he was promoted to Lieutenant, but was placed on half pay when the Seven Years War ended in 1763. During this period he married, and farmed in Lyndhurst, Hampshire.

In 1774, Phillip joined the Portuguese Navy as a captain, serving in the war against Spain. While with the Portuguese, Phillip conveyed a fleet of convict ships from Portugal to Brazil, with a very low death rate, and this may have been the reason for the surprise choice of Phillip to lead the expedition to Sydney. In 1778, England was again at war, and Phillip was recalled to active service, and in 1779, obtained his first command, the Basilisk. He was promoted to captain in 1781, and was given command of the Europe, but in 1784, he was back on half pay.

Governor of New South Wales

Did you know?
Arthur Phillip was the first governor of New South Wales, the first colony in Australia

In October 1786, Phillip was appointed captain of HMS Sirius and named Governor-designate of New South Wales, the proposed British penal colony on the east coast of Australia, by Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary. His choice may have been strongly influenced by George Rose, Under-Secretary of the Treasury and a neighbor of Phillip's in Hampshire, who would have known of Phillip's farming experience. Not an apparently glamorous commission, a competent leader was nevertheless necessary if the project of creating a colony from scratch was to succeed. French interest, too, in the area represented a challenge that Britain wanted to neutralize by taking possession of at least part of the Southern Continent before they were beaten to it by France.

Phillip had a very difficult time assembling the fleet which was to make the eight-month sea voyage to Australia. Everything a new colony might need had to be taken, since Phillip had no real idea of what he might find when he got there. There were few funds available for equipping the expedition. His suggestion that people with experience in farming, building, and crafts be included was rejected. Most of the 1778 convicts were petty thieves from the London slums. Phillip was accompanied by a contingent of marines and a handful of other officers who were to administer the colony.

The First Fleet, of 11 ships, set sail on May 13, 1787. The leading ship reached Botany Bay on January 18, 1788.[1] Phillip soon decided that this site, chosen on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks, who had accompanied James Cook in 1770, was not suitable, since it offered no secure anchorage and had no reliable water source. After some exploration Phillip decided to go on to Port Jackson, and on January 26, the marines and convicts were landed at Sydney Cove, which Phillip named after Lord Sydney.

Shortly after establishing the settlement at Port Jackson, on February 15, 1788, Phillip sent Lieutenant Philip Gidley King with 8 free men and a number of convicts to establish the second British colony in the Pacific at Norfolk Island. This was partly in response to a perceived threat of losing Norfolk Island to the French and partly to establish an alternative food source for the new colony.

The early days of the settlement were chaotic and difficult. With limited supplies, the cultivation of food was imperative, but the soils around Sydney were poor, the climate was unfamiliar, and moreover very few of the convicts had any knowledge of agriculture. Farming tools were scarce and the convicts were unwilling farm laborers. The colony was on the verge of outright starvation for an extended period. The marines, poorly disciplined themselves in many cases, were not interested in convict discipline. Almost at once, therefore, Phillip had to appoint overseers from among the ranks of the convicts to get the others working. This was the beginning of the process of convict emancipation, which was to culminate in the reforms of Lachlan Macquarie after 1811.

Phillip showed in other ways that he recognized that New South Wales could not be run simply as a prison camp. Lord Sydney, often criticized as an ineffectual incompetent, had made one fundamental decision about the settlement that was to influence it from the start. Instead of just establishing it as a military prison, he provided for a civil administration, with courts of law. Two convicts, Henry and Susannah Kable, sought to sue Duncan Sinclair, the captain of Alexander, for stealing their possessions during the voyage. Convicts in Britain had no right to sue, and Sinclair had boasted that he could not be sued by them. Someone in Government obviously had a quiet word in Kable's ear, as when the court met and Sinclair challenged the prosecution on the ground that the Kables were felons, the court required him to prove it. As all the convict records had been left behind in England, he could not do so, and the court ordered the captain to make restitution. Phillip had said before leaving England: "In a new country there will be no slavery and hence no slaves," and he meant what he said. Nevertheless, Phillip believed in discipline, and floggings and hangings were commonplace, although Philip commuted many death sentences.

Phillip also had to adopt a policy towards the Eora Aboriginal people, who lived around the waters of Sydney Harbor. Phillip ordered that they must be well-treated, and that anyone killing Aboriginal people would be hanged. Phillip befriended an Eora man called Bennelong, and later took him to England. On the beach at Manly, a misunderstanding arose and Phillip was speared in the shoulder: But he ordered his men not to retaliate. Phillip went some way towards winning the trust of the Eora, although the settlers were at all times treated extremely warily. Soon, smallpox and other European-introduced epidemics ravaged the Eora population. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to achieve a real peace between the Aborigines and the settlers. No regard was given at the time to the fact that Australia was literally stolen off its inhabitants, nor to the legal basis of settlement. Later, the fiction developed that Australia was "no one's land" (terra nullius) because the Aborigines had no concept of owning the land. In fact, their sense of a bond with the land was so strong that they saw it as owning them, rather than vice versa.

The Governor's main problem was with his own military officers, who wanted large grants of land, which Phillip had not been authorized to grant. The officers were expected to grow food, but they considered this beneath them. As a result, scurvy broke out, and in October 1788, Phillip had to send Sirius to Cape Town for supplies, and strict rationing was introduced, with thefts of food punished by hanging.

Stabilizing the colony

By 1790, the situation had stabilized. The population of about 2,000 was adequately housed and fresh food was being grown. Phillip assigned a convict, James Ruse, land at Rose Hill (now Parramatta) to establish proper farming, and when Ruse succeeded he received the first land grant in the colony. Other convicts followed his example. Sirius was wrecked in March 1790, at the satellite settlement of Norfolk Island, depriving Phillip of vital supplies. In June 1790, the Second Fleet arrived with hundreds more convicts, most of them too sick to work.

Statue of Arthur Phillip in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney.

By December 1790, Phillip was ready to return to England, but the colony had largely been forgotten in London and no instructions reached him, so he carried on. In 1791, he was advised that the government would send out two convoys of convicts annually, plus adequate supplies. But in July, when the vessels of the Third Fleet began to arrive, with 2,000 more convicts, food again ran short, and he had to send a ship to Calcutta for supplies.

By 1792, the colony was well-established, though Sydney remained an unplanned huddle of wooden huts and tents. The whaling industry was established, ships were visiting Sydney to trade, and convicts whose sentences had expired were taking up farming. John Macarthur and other officers were importing sheep and beginning to grow wool. The colony was still very short of skilled farmers, craftsmen, and tradesmen, and the convicts continued to work as little as possible, even though they were working mainly to grow their own food.

In late 1792, Phillip, whose health was suffering from the poor diet, at last received permission to leave, and on December 11, 1792, he sailed in the ship Atlantic, taking with him Bennelong and many specimens of plants and animals. The European population of New South Wales at his departure was 4,221, of whom 3,099 were convicts. The early years of the colony had been years of struggle and hardship, but the worst was over, and there were no further famines in New South Wales. Phillip arrived in London, in May 1793. He tendered his formal resignation and was granted a pension of £500 a year.

Later life

Phillip's wife, Margaret, had died in 1792. In 1794, he married Isabella Whitehead, and lived for a time at Bath. His health gradually recovered and in 1796, he went back to sea, holding a series of commands and responsible posts in the wars against the French. In January 1799, he became a Rear-Admiral. In 1805, aged 67, he retired from the Navy with the rank of Admiral of the Blue, and spent most of the rest of his life at Bath. He continued to correspond with friends in New South Wales and to promote the colony's interests with government officials. He died in Bath, in 1814.

The Australia Chapel in St Nicholas Church, Bathampton, near Bath, England. The memorial to the first governor of New South Wales (Arthur Phillip) is on the right hand wall

Phillip was buried in St Nicholas's Church, Bathampton. Forgotten for many years, the grave was discovered in 1897,[2] and the Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, had it restored. A monument to Phillip in Bath Abbey Church was unveiled in 1937. Another was unveiled at St Mildred's Church, Bread St, London, in 1932; that church was destroyed in the London Blitz in 1940, but the principal elements of the monument were re-erected in St Mary-le-Bow at the west end of Watling Street, near Saint Paul's Cathedral, in 1968.[3] There is a statue of him in the Botanic Gardens, Sydney. There is an excellent portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. His name is commemorated in Australia by Port Phillip, Phillip Island (Victoria), Phillip Island (Norfolk Island), the federal electorate of Phillip (1949-1993), the suburb of Phillip in Canberra, and many streets, parks, and schools.

Percival Alan Serle wrote of Phillip in the Dictionary of Australian Biography: "Steadfast in mind, modest, without self seeking, Phillip had imagination enough to conceive what the settlement might become, and the common sense to realize what at the moment was possible and expedient. When almost everyone was complaining he never himself complained, when all feared disaster he could still hopefully go on with his work. He was sent out to found a convict settlement, he laid the foundations of a great dominion."[4]


As the first Governor of New South Wales and founder of the first colony in Australia, Arthur Phillip can be regarded as the founder of Australia. A commission to establish a penal colony, on the one hand, was not glamorous and a much less able man may well have been dispatched to the far side of the world. On the other hand, Britain was also interested in expanding her imperial interests in the region and in frustrating French ambitions. The British authorities knew that a competent leader was needed both to accomplish the difficult task of starting a colony from scratch, and that of protecting British interests. Phillip proved himself to be the right choice, serving as governor with distinction. In some respects, Australia still struggles with at least one of the issues that plagued its first Governor, that of relations with the original population. Their rights were violated by the very act of settlement, and continued to be violated for many years. Aborigines were regarded as barely human by many of the settlers and their heirs. Recognition of their rights took a long time to follow. In 1992, the Mabo ruling of the High Court found in favor of "native title" for the first time.[5]


  1. Arthur Phillip, The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (1789).
  2. Admiral Arthur Phillip's Grave. Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  3. St Mary-le-Bow Britain Express. Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  4. Heads of School pay respects to Admiral Arthur Phillip The Royal Hospital. Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  5. Mabo decision National Museum Australia. Retrieved July 10, 2019.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hunter, John, Arthur Phillip, and Philip Gidley King. An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, Including the Journals of Governors Phillip and King Since the Publication of Phillip's Voyage, with an Abridged Account of the New Discoveries in the South Seas. Christchurch, N.Z.: Kiwi Publications, 2000. ISBN 9781869643249
  • Keneally, Thomas. A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 9780385514590
  • McIntyre, Kenneth Gordon. The Rebello Transcripts: Governor Phillip's Portuguese Prelude. London: Souvenir Press, 1984. ISBN 9780285626034
  • Phillip, Arthur. The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay. Andesite Press, 2015. ISBN 1296696081

External links

All links retrieved August 16, 2023.

Government offices
Preceded by:
Governor of New South Wales
Succeeded by:
John Hunter


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