Governor Arthur Phillip RN

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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.

Arthur Phillip was born in 1738 on the eve of war with Spain and died in 1814 as the Napoleonic Wars were coming to an end. His life was long by the standards of Georgian England; and it was full by the standards of Royal Navy officers. He voyaged further than all but a handful of his contemporaries.

Phillip is best known as the founder of modern Australia. In 2014, a plaque commemorating his life and achievements was laid in Westminster Abbey at a service attended by the Duke of Edinburgh. The plaque is located in a prominent and central position in the Abbey’s nave, near the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

Phillip’s origins were humble but he rose to the highest ranks of the Royal Navy. At birth, he was the son of a German migrant; at death, he was an Admiral of the Blue. His only formal education was at the Charity School of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich – a school for poor boys and ‘orphans of the sea’ – and his first seafaring experience was as an apprentice on an Arctic whaling ship.

The turning point came in 1755 when Phillip joined the Royal Navy, in which he served with distinction in the Seven Years War (1756-63), the American Revolutionary Wars (1775-83) and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). In the early 1770s, he also served as a Captain in the Portuguese Navy during its war with Spain in South America. And in the early 1780s, he was entrusted by Evan Nepean, the Under Secretary of the Home Office, with several important missions and special operations, including an epic voyage to the Bay of Bengal followed by a period of espionage in France.

When Phillip received his commission as the first Governor of New South Wales in late 1786, he was an astute choice for the role that destiny presented to him. He was an experienced naval officer and a linguist who spoke English, French, German and Portuguese; he was discreet, intelligent and persistent; he knew Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town; and he was familiar with the winds and currents of the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Most of all, Phillip was egalitarian and possessed that wonderful Enlightenment quality of humanity.

Australians owe more to Arthur Phillip than most of us can possibly realise. He famously wrote that ‘There can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves’ and that ‘any man who takes the life of a Native, will be put on his trial as if he had killed one of the Garrison.’ Few could have achieved what Phillip did. Not only did he bring eleven small ships with a complement of over a thousand men, women and children safely to the other side of the planet, but from inauspicious beginnings, he created a thriving colony – one that was not governed by military law, nor a mere dumping ground, but one that was administered as a civil society built on fairness and the rule of law.

Phillip was not just the founder of modern Australia, he set the tone for the generous, liberal and fair-minded society that we have become.

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