He went to a land down under

I was reminded (that is to say, informed) by an Antipodean colleague that today is Australia Day. To commemorate the occasion, I feel I should talk for a moment about a gentleman by the name of Arthur Phillip.

Phillip was a naval officer, born in the glamorous suburb of Fulham. He’s not particularly well-known in Britain, but it’s thanks to him that Sydney even exists.


First, a little background on Sydney. When Britain claimed Australia, narrowly beating the French, they weren’t entirely sure what do with it. There were vague notions of growing timber or ropemaking, but all this was largely speculation at the time. To Captain Cook’s crew, when they first came upon the continent in 1770, there were few points of comparison with Britain. The plants, the animals, the climate and the people were all radically different to those found in Georgian England. No further expeditions were made to the continent until 1787, when the First Fleet set out to colonise the place. Yes, that’s right, none of those first colonists had a damn clue what they were setting out to do.

As is now well known, the British government did find a use for the continent, namely as a prison. Crime in Britain was rampant, with the Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution bringing social unrest. In overcrowded London, even hanging was little deterrent. Prisons were packed out, miserable and disease-ridden. Policing was undertaken by an inadequate force of Bow Street Runners and the criminal gangs themselves, giving rise to widespread corruption. In 1776, Britain had lost its American colonies, their favoured dumping ground for convicts. 

The situation was little helped by the belief in a “criminal class,” namely the idea that certain people were inherently troublesome and there was no point trying to reform them. This theory had the happy consequence for its adherents that they didn’t have to understand or sympathise with the poor because, morally speaking, there was no point – the good ones were good, the bad ‘uns were bad.

So Australia seemed like a great idea. I mean, what better way to deal with the unrehabilitable than to pack them off literally as far as possible? The practicalities of how they should live when they got there were a secondary concern. If you cannot do the time, sir, you should not do the crime.

This is where Arthur Phillip comes in. Now, Phillip was a competent naval officer. Nothing special. No kind of hero. Had things worked out a little differently, he’d no doubt have continued in his post, leading an uneventful life before retiring to Hampshire. However, he had two useful points. Firstly, he had experience of handling convicts back in Portugal. And secondly, he owned a farm in Lyndhurst. This, to the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, made him just the man to lead the First Fleet.

As it happened, Sydney was right. Phillip, unusually among colonial leaders, was a practical man, not after wealth or glory. He took his new post very seriously, intending that Sydney Harbour should not simply be some kind of human landfill, but a self-sustaining colony. To that end, he took a great deal of interest in the composition of his First Fleet. He carefully considered the question of what they would need, and who they would need, demanding convicts with experience in agriculture. He didn’t get them – remember that the government’s aim was just to get rid of the scum, anything thereafter was out of their hands.

Nevertheless, he made the best of a bad situation. If he believed in the concept of a criminal class, he certainly didn’t act like it. Prisoners who behaved well were given positions of authority and the privileges that went with it. Life was not easy, food shortages and sickness being commonplace in this new land. Even Phillip’s own officers weren’t always on his side, feeling resentful at, as they saw it, being effectively prisoners themselves. Many had served in America, and felt that this was their punishment. Nevertheless, as we now know, Phillip steered the colony through those difficult early years, and came out triumphant.

One point that I find rather interesting is his treatment of the natives. I’ve written about the First Anglo-Powhatan War in these pages before, which was what occurred in America when the British colonists at Jamestown decided to “negotiate” with the Powhatan tribe nearby – namely, a bloody, futile and wholly unnecessary conflict lasting for years. Phillip was rather saner about the whole thing. He knew they were a small group in an unfamiliar land, heavily outnumbered by the Iora tribe around them, and so endeavoured to reach a peaceful coexistence with them. Killing an Aborigine was a capital offence under his regime, a source of resentment among convicts and officers alike. Perhaps no incident better illustrates Phillip’s diplomacy than one in which, due to a misunderstanding, he was speared through the shoulder by a tribesman. Standard British colonial policy was to basically go out and kill a few blacks  for that sort of thing, but Phillip – despite the severity of the injury, ordered that no action be taken.

Phillip remained in charge of the colony until 1792, when he returned to England. He died in 1814, after falling out of a wheelchair and from there out of a window. I suppose when you’ve basically founded a colony under dreadful conditions, you’ve got to top it off with a remarkable death.



Filed under 18th century, Crime, Geography, History, Notable Londoners, Only loosely about London, Politics, Regency

2 responses to “He went to a land down under

  1. Pingback: Salem Particulars | London Particulars

  2. Pingback: Mack the Knife – the true story | London Particulars

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