CONSIDERABLE MARITIME EXPERTISE was applied to save Britain from epidemic petty crime. Lord Howe at the Admiralty had written to Lord Sydney at the Home Office on 3 September 1786: “I cannot say the little knowledge I have of Captain Phillip would have led me to select him for a service of this complicated nature.” But Sydney liked and admired professional officers like Phillip, whom he rightly considered the journeymen of Empire. And then, this was a completely novel enterprise for the Crown, an unprecedented penal and society-making experiment. Being commodore not of two or three but of a flotilla of eleven ships, as well as captain-general of vast and unvisited territories, and gaoler-in-chief in the netherworld, was a massive role for which normal naval service could only dimly prepare anyone. Even so, Phillip—this obscurely gifted, secretive, and earnest man—was, as he had been all his life, anxious for employment, and harboured enough respect for his own gifts to take on the immediate challenge offered by a convict fleet.
Arthur Phillip began his seafaring apprenticeship in 1753 in the squalid, grease-laden, profane atmosphere of the whaler Fortune, a 210ton vessel built for the Greenland whale fishery. In winter, Fortune travelled to the Mediterranean to take part in the trade in herrings and oranges. But just after Phillip's seventeenth birthday, war was declared between France and Britain. During the conflict, later to be called the Seven Years' War, he experienced the violence of cannonry in an inconclusive battle to save the British-garrisoned island of Minorca. Later, as a young officer off Havana in 1761, he survived both Spanish artillery and a wet season which, with its armoury of malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and the usual typhus fevers spread by lice and rats, killed 7,000 sailors and soldiers.
These experiences all prepared Phillip for further elevation within the officer class. It was just as well, since he lacked powerful connections. His character in his early twenties combined a dry humour with reserve, efficiency, and intellectual hunger. To temper a tendency to be authoritarian, he possessed common sense, was not fast to anger, and lacked the raucousness and rambunctiousness of other sailors.
On 19 July 1763, Lieutenant Phillip married Margaret Denison, the widow of a glove and wine merchant and fifteen to sixteen years older than he was. In separate portraits painted about then, he appears as a florid, cultivated-looking young man, and she a conventionally handsome woman with rather birdlike eyes. Whatever Arthur Phillip's sexual tendencies, he does not seem to have been a young man aflame with passion. The couple lived in Hampton Court for two years, but then went to rusticate at Lyndhurst in the New Forest in Dorset, on Margaret's estate of 22 acres, named Vernals. Phillip ran their property as a dairy farm, kept horses, and grew fruit and vegetables. But after a number of severe winters in the country, “some circumstances occurred” which led to a formal indenture of separation, signed by the couple in April 1769. It stated that they had “lately lived separate and apart.”
Phillip began to spend time in France as an agent—or spy—for the Home Office or Admiralty. With his gift for languages and his German colouration he was good at his work, but it was an ungrateful business and Phillip felt he needed to accelerate his naval career.
The Portuguese Secretary of State for Marine Affairs and the Colonies approached Admiral Augustus Hervey asking for help in a fight with Spain on the Atlantic coast of South America. A disputed area known as the Debatable Lands ran northward from the estuary of the River Plate, and was claimed both by Portuguese Brazil and Spanish Argentina. As token of their claim, the Portuguese had created their own colony at the Plate, across the estuary from Buenos Aires and west of Montevideo, and named it Colonia do Sacramento. They needed an experienced captain to help them defend it. Hervey recommended Lieutenant Phillip to his Portuguese friends. In Lisbon, Phillip oversaw the business of fitting out his command, the Nossa Senhora de Belém, on the banks of the Tagus River, and quickly added Portuguese to the French and German he could already speak.
Phillip got on well with the Portuguese Viceroy in Rio de Janeiro, Marquis de Lavradio, and fought effectively against the Spanish. Lavradio had already reported to the Portuguese court that Phillip's health was delicate but that he never complained, “except when he had nothing special to do for the Royal Service.” It was true that many of Phillip's illnesses were associated with a kind of ardent waiting for action to occur, or else with circumstances in which he conducted dangerous work out of the direct gaze of the Admiralty. Ambition was his most restless appetite. Lavradio's opinion of him gives one of the most extended discourses on his character that we have: “One of the officers of the most distinct merit that the Queen has in her service in the Navy…. As regards his disposition, he is some what distressful; but as he is an officer of education and principle, he gives way to reason, and does not, before doing so, fall into those exaggerated and unbearable excesses of temper which the majority of his fellow countrymen do … an officer of great truth and very brave; and is no flatterer, saying what he thinks, but without temper or want of respect.” Phillip emerged from the Spanish-Portuguese War as a markedly solitary and self-sufficient man, awaiting only public recognition to complete him.
In 1779, the Treaty of San Ildefonso made the Debatable Lands largely Spanish. Phillip resigned his now futile Portuguese commission to seek fresh employment in the Royal Navy fighting the American War. After a stint as commander of a fireship, in 1781 the Admiralty at last gave him a better command, the frigate Ariadne. But in the river Elbe, when he was escorting transports of Hanoverian recruits for the British army, the onset of river ice forced him ingloriously to run his vessel into the mud of the Hamburg harbourside. It was not until the end of the following March that the Ariadne was able to leave.
During these frustrating months, Phillip placed great reliance in Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, a sturdy young man of undistinguished background, a draper's son who served him not only in the Ariadne, but also in his later command, the Europe, and eventually in the great convict fleet. When that same year the Admiralty appointed Phillip captain of the Europe, a sixty-four-gun, 600-man battleship, he was at last commander of a ship of the British battle line. He took Lieutenant Philip Gidley King aboard with him, and his clerk, a most eccentric man named Harry Brewer.
The American bosun on Europe, Edward Spain, would later write an ironic memoir of his time serving with Phillip, and of the relationship between Phillip and Harry Brewer. Brewer was an unmarried seaman of no particular rank, or else he could be counted at more than fifty years of age as the oldest midshipman in the Royal Navy. Brewer had for some years skillfully copied Phillip's diaries and journals for him, and worked up his watch lists and quarter bills. But Spain did not quite approve of the association between Harry and Arthur Phillip, remarking mysteriously that “our captain was at that time in slender circumstances … and as they both [Phillip and Brewer] rowed in the one boat, no doubt they had their own reasons for wishing to make the voyage together.” Whatever else “they both rowed in the one boat” might have meant, Spain certainly implied they were short of cash.
Bosun Spain was rather fascinated with Harry. He had some gift for architecture, said Spain, “was bred a house carpenter, he was clerk at some great concern in the building line.” His coarse features and contracted brow “bespoke him a man sour'd by disappointment.” Harry usually wore a rough-textured blue coat, a wool hat “cocked with three sixpenny nails, a tolerable waistcoat, a pair of corduroy breeches, a purser's shirt not of the cleanest.”
At Cape Verde Islands, said Spain, Phillip “was perfectly at home for he spoke Portuguese fluent and could shrug his shoulders with the best of them.” Spain would give us an insight into the only sexual infatuation
Phillip would ever be accused of. The Europe put into the mid-Atlantic island of St. Helena, found four British sailors and their women stranded there, and allowed them to travel on board. “But don't imagine that it was out of any partiality to any of them, except one, which one he had a sneaking kindness for and had he given permission to her alone the reason would have been obvious to the officers and the ship's company.” Her name was Deborah Brooks and Phillip's association with her would run a considerable time. She had eloped from England with a ship's bosun, Thomas Brooks, and for whatever reason they and the other sailors and women had turned up on St. Helena, waiting to be employed on a passing British ship. Spain seemed to see Thomas Brooks as a threat, and believed Phillip was trying to get rid of him, and to put Deborah's husband in his place. Deborah Brooks and her husband would also join Phillip on his ultimate journey to penal New South Wales.
During his naval career Phillip had got to know Evan Nepean, a Cornish ship's purser aboard the Victory in 1779–80. The son of a Plymouth shipwright, in 1782 Nepean found himself by raw talent elevated to Undersecretary of State in the Home Office. Nepean was responsible not only for prisons, but for espionage in France and Spain. It was as one of Evan Nepean's spies in the 1780s that Arthur Phillip, after his return from Madras on Europe, became known to Lord Sydney. Though Britain was not at war with France, something like a cold war persisted between the two nations. Late in 1784 Nepean called on Phillip to journey to Toulon and other ports “for the purpose of ascertaining the naval force, and stores in the arsenals.”
In some roundabout way, this secret service, combined with Phillip's record as a “discreet officer,” a captain in both the Royal Navy and for the Portuguese, could explain why the Admiralty and Home Office thought him adaptable enough to be the first governor of Britain's convict-colony-to-be. Phillip does not seem to have hesitated in accepting this appointment, even though many officers might have thought it potentially dangerous and unrewarding to voyage with a mass of felons to the far side of the globe.
The document that set out the raison d'ëtre for the penal experiment, The Heads of a Plan, was prepared for the Lord Commissioners of the Treasury and others in Whitehall by Evan Nepean. It concentrated on the business of transportation to New South Wales rather than on any commercial benefit arising from the new place. New South Wales, it declared, was “a country which, by the fertility and salubrity of the climate, connected with the remoteness of its situation (from whence it is hardly possible for persons to return without permission), seems peculiarly adapted.” The Headsdealt with the process of transportation, the taking on board of two companies of marines to form a military establishment, the provision of rations, and the collection of supplies and livestock en route at Rio and the Cape of Good Hope. Towards the end of this Plan,Nepean raised the issue of financial and strategic benefits which might arise from the New Zealand flax plant and the tall trees on Norfolk Island, an island Cook had discovered a thousand miles out in the Pacific from Botany Bay, where a proportion of the convicts were to be settled. And since timbers for masts and flax for sails were essential to a naval power, the idea that they might be supplied from the South Pacific would have appealed to Treasury and Admiralty officials. “Considerable advantage will arise from the cultivation of the New Zealand hemp or flax plant in the new intended settlement, the supply of which would be of great consequence to us as a naval power.”
Was this commercial thought tacked onto the penal plan, or was it the real purpose of the whole operation? It doesn't seem likely. The document declares itself at its opening sentence: “Heads of a plan for effectually disposing of convicts.” And if the proposed penal settlement in the southwest Pacific were to become a trading post, it would violate the chartered monopoly of the East India Company, and upset the company's trade with Canton and in India. The East India Company's principal, Francis Baring, would quite early complain of “the serpent we are nursing at Botany Bay.”
It seemed that His Majesty's government desired New South Wales far more as a prison than as a great port, or as an opening for British trade. Phillip was thus, in the strictest penal sense, to be a governor, and not an apostle of British commerce.