Governor Phillip


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Admiral Arthur Phillip RN is widely acknowledged as one of the great Australians. He was the first Governor of New South Wales, founding the city of Sydney and leading the colonisation of what is now modern Australia as an outstanding military and civilian leader, visionary, humanitarian and defender of the indigenous Eora people.

Born in 1738 in London to a German father and English mother, Phillip was schooled at the Greenwich Hospital School, a charity school for the sons of indigent seafarers focusing on literacy, arithmetic and navigational skills. He left school in 1753 as an apprentice aboard Fortune, a 210-ton whaling boat and enlisted as an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy in 1755. Phillip saw action in the Seven Years’ War and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in recognition of active service in the Battle of Havana.

After a period as a captain in the Portuguese Navy, Phillip was recalled to active service in the British Royal Navy and in 1779 obtained his first command, HMS Basilisk. In 1786, he was appointed captain of HMS Sirius and named Governor-designate of New South Wales.

Having completed the longest and most treacherous journey in the history of mankind, Phillip established the first settlement in Australia. Faced with chaos, an unfamiliar climate, poor discipline and starvation, he appointed overseers from among the ranks of convicts, the start of the process of convict emancipation, and established a civil administration using the English rule of law with “no slavery in a free land”. Phillip protected the indigenous Eora people, ordering their good treatment and punishment of death for their murder. Percival Serle’s Dictionary of Australian Biography writes:
“Steadfast in mind, modest, without self-seeking, Phillip had imagination enough to conceive what the settlement might become, and the common sense to realise 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.”

Phillip retired from the Royal Navy with the rank of Admiral of the Blue and continued to promote the interests of New South Wales with government officials. He died in Bath in1814.

Henry Macbeth-Raeburn, 1936, hand coloured mezzotint, after the original oil painting by Francis Wheatley, 1786.
Museum of Sydney Collection, Sydney Living Museums