GOVERNOR ARTHUR PHILLIP
Commander Arthur Phillip was a naturally cautious man, and having risen to the top of the naval hierarchy from its lowliest position (ht had begun as ship's boy), he was well-practised in presenting a controlled image in public and on the page. His personal journal has been lost, but one would suspect that it would not have been very personal. His style for all sessions and purposes was clear, concise and conscientiously free from flourishes or affect which, given the mass of necessary communications and the scant time he had to write them, was a sensible decision. Nearly all his writings from Sydney come to us at second hand as selections from his official dispatches made by John Hunter, who drew on Phillip's official correspondence for the 'narrative' he incorporated into his An Historical Journal of Events at Sydney and at Sea 1787-1792, which appeared in 1793, or by the publisher's scribes back in London who put together the rather more crisply titled The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay to catch the market in 1789. It is clear from a comparison of their versions with Phillip's extant dispatches that his scribes had sufficient respect both for the man and for official documents to follow the contours of the original texts closely. It is therefore possible to map the attention given particular topics and so to discover Phillip's hierachy of concerns.
We see more of Phillip the man of action in the account of a lay outsider. Arthur Bowes Smyth, surgeon to the Lady Penrhyn, hired only for the voyage out, and as a landsman a nervous observer, though Phillip was a hasty sailor. he noted in 10 December 1787, after Hunter had taken over the Sirius and the command of the rest of the fleet while Phillip hurried on ahead with the four fastest vessels, that the remaining seven ships kept together well, 'as Capt. Hunter does not carry such a press of sail as the Commodore used to do'. Bowes Smyth was also distinctly disaffected when Phillip insisted on moving the whole fleet out of botany Bay to Port Jackson on a day when the wind was up. (Phillip probably decided to overlook weather conditions and make a dash for the more favoured harbour after the astonishing arrival at Botany Bay of two ships, the Bousoule and the Astrolabe, comprising an official French expedition under the command of Comte Jean de La Perouse.) The British ships only got out of the bay with the 'utmost difficulty a danger wt many hairbreadth escapes' and quite a lot of bumping into each other 'with everyone blaming the rashness of the Governor in insisting upon the fleets working out in such weather, & all agreed it was next to a Miracle that some of the Ships were not lost'.
Bowes Smyth was also a touch sardonic regarding Phillip's onshore performance. He gave a full account of the governor's formal reading of his commission, embellished with bands and marching and the processing of colours, and then the gentlemen gathered at the centre, with the convicts around them sitting on the ground and the soldiery forming an outer circle. Listening to the commission, Bowes Smyth judged it to be 'a more unlimit4ed one than was ever before granted to any Governor under the British Crown', Phillip being accorded 'full power and authority' to do whatever he needed to, with no requirement to take any counsel of anyone.
Bowes Smyth reports that the governor proceeded to outline his regimen. Phillip was admirably direct. He warned the convicts that he had reason to think most of them incorrigible, and that his discipline would be accordingly stern: that anyone attempting to get into the women's tents at night would be fired on, that if they did not work they would be let starve; that given their situation any stealing of 'the most trifling Article of Stock or Provisions' would be punished by death. Then came a gentler conclusion: they would not be cruelly worked, and 'every individual shd. contributed his Share to render himself and community at large happy and comfortable as soon as the nature of the settlement would permit it'. It was, given the circumstances, as encouraging a harangue as could be expected. but Bowes Smyth swiftly realised the governor's court would be exclusively an officers' club, noting crossly that only officers were invited to the governor's club, noting crossly that only officers were invited to the governor's tent for supper while he and the other free men come from England were left to fend for themselves.
Nor was he impressed by Phillip's on-shore discipline. Within a month of disembarkation he thought the convicts out of control and already carving out their own territory, the men being 'ready to seize on any Sailors and shore who are walking near the Women's Camp, bet them most unmercifully, & desire them to go on board'. (Sailors had used their opportunity to establish alliances with some of the convict women on the long voyage out.) He also thought the 'justice' dealt out in the governor's courts was no justice at all. A marine who got in among the convict women and bashed a girl who had been his lover ('a most infamous hussy', splutters Bowes Smyth) was given a hundred lashes with a hundred more to come, while a convict who had struck a sentry received a mere one hundred and fifty. His comment: 'Thje severity shewn to the marines and Lenity to the Convicts has already excited great murmurings & discontent among the Corps & where it will end, unless some other plan is adopted, time will discover.' He was even more outraged when Phillip ordered a naval steward who had bought 'an animal of the squirrel kind' from a convict and paid him in rum to suffer one hundred lashes, reduced to fifty when 'several gentlemen' urged greater leniency. (The steward had bought the 'squirrel', presumably a possum, on an officer's behalf; trade with convicts was forbidden.) he had no complaint about the death sentence imposed on three convicts found guilty of stealing bread, pork and other provisions, or the three hundred lashes awarded a fourth man who had been their accomplice. In the event only one of the three died, being hanged before the assembled convicts on 26 February. The two others were twice granted a stay of execution for twenty-four hours, and finally reprieved once more, which might seem to us a purely sadistic display of power, but which was intended to impress its victims with the mercy lurking within the terrible justice of the Crown. The two men were condemned to be 'transported' yet again when somewhere could be found to send the, and another convict who had stolen food and wine in the interim was granted his life only if he would take on the hideous role of public executioner.
All this and more, within a month of landing, Bowes Smyth's agitated cluckings give us some sense of the challenges Phillip faced in bringing each level of this unruly new society to hear and to heed his words. Phillip's own correspondence is notably smoother, largely having to do with the anxious business of housekeeping and the balancing of eroding provisions against reducing rations. Phillip was also the patriarch of an expanding community managing his officers, sustaining the morale of the soldiery in a hardship post, struggling to restore the health of diseased and ailing convicts and then to get useful work out of them, and then, when he was able, finding new land, establishing new settlements. Given the urgency and the consequence of all these concerns, the energy Phillip expended on his relationship with the Australians is to one's mind remarkable. One has come to think him close to visionary in his obstinate dream of integrating these newly discovered people into the British polity.
Phillip had arrived burdened with an armful of instructions on how to handle natives. As early as 1769, when Cook's Endeavour was about to embark on its voyage, the Earl of Morton, President of the royal society, presented Cook with a list of 'hints' for dealings with native peoples met along the way. The hints have the whiff of the candle about them; of pleasurable hours spent in desk-bound exploration. Beautifully clear principles were enunciated. The shedding of native blood was prohibited as 'a crime of the highest nature', these people being equal in the eyes of their Maker to 'the most Polished European'. Nor could they be de4prived of their land without consent. Moreover, they could justly resist invaders whom 'they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country, whether the apprehension be well or ill founded'.
Morton realised that this last principle might be difficult to maintain, given that the British would have to get water and fresh food where they could. How to communicate the innocence of their intentions? We watch is imagination take fire as he wrestles with this delightful problem:
Amicable signs may be made which they could not possibly mistake - Such as holding up a jug, turning it bottom upwards, to shew them it was empty, then applying it to the lips in the attitude of drinking, (or) opening the mouth wide, putting the fingers towards it, and then making the motion of chewing, would sufficiently demonstrate a want of food.
A question arises. Will the chewing always be understood to mean, 'We want to eat?' Might it not, under certain circumstances and in certain company, mean,. 'We want to eat you'? But Morton does not falter, and proceeds smoothly to the next phase. Music, but only music of a soothing kind, should be employed. The natives should not be alarmed 'with the report of Guns, Drums, or even a trumpet', but rather 'be entertained near the Shore with a soft Air'. Thus, with savage breast calmed, a landing could be effected and a few trinkets ('particularly looking glasses') laid upon the shore. The newcomers would then tactfully withdraw to a small distance to observe the locals' response before a second landing was attempted. Furthermore, 'Should they in a hostile manner oppose a landing, and kill some men in the attempt, even this would hardly justify firing among them.'
'Then, at last, comes the crucial qualifier: 'till every other gentle method had been tried'. In the last resort, the landing must be effected whether the natives resisted or not. Why? Because the expeditions' aims were scientific, and therefore virtuous. The British could land, even in the face of resistance. They could trade. All they could not do was to occupy the land without consent. Thee is something disarming about these solemn lessons to mannerly imperialism, but as we would expect the 'hints' proved somewhat wanting as guides to action. Cook's first landing in New Zealand ended with his men withdrawing to their ship leaving their gifts of nails and beads on the corpse of a chief pierced through the heart by a musket shot. Cook already knew something the noble deskman did not: a lot of 'savages' enjoyed fighting. His New Zealand experiences were only some among many initially peaceable counters which had swirled into violence: as he coolly observed of the chief-killing episode, 'Had I thought that they would have made the least resistance I would not have come near them, but as they did not I was not to stand still and suffer either my self or those who were with me to be knocked on the head.' For once, Joseph Banks agreed with him. He thought the Maori were shockingly eager to fight, almost making a game of it: 'They always attacked, though seldom seeming to mean more than to provoke us to show them what we were able to do in this case. By many trials we found that good usage and fair words would not avail the least with them, nor would they be convinced by the noise of our firearms alone that they were superior to theirs.' The only thing to do was to fire to wound, because 'as soon as they had felt the smart of even a load of small shot and had time allow4ed them to recollect themselves from the effects of their artificial courage...they were sensible of our generosity in not taking the advantage of our superiority'. For Banks gunfire, not music, was th way to the savage heart.
Official instructions, however utopian, have a longer life than the stories drawn from hard experience. governor Phillip brought a determination verging on obstinacy to the business of persuading the local population to friendship; a determination rare, possibly unique, in the gruff annals of imperialism. He pursued Morton's strategies from refusing to use guns, even at the cost of taking casualties, down to the detail of the ribbons and looking-glasses. (It is true that he also resorted to kidnap to convey his benevolent intentions, but that rough way to useful intercourse predates Columbus.) In a letter probably written in the July of that first hectic year of 1788 he gave the following detailed observations on the local inhabitants. (The capitals might imply pomposity to us, but not to a contemporary):
The Natives are far more numerous than expected, I reckon from fourteen to sixteen hundred in this Harbour, Broken Bay, and Botany Bay, and once (we fell in with) Two hundred and twelve Men in one part... The Women are constantly employed in the Canoes where I have seen them big with Child, and with very young Infants at their Breasts, they seem less fond of ornaments than the men. And I have (never?) seen them with their hair Ornamented with the Teeth of Dogs(...) etc. as the Hair of the Men is frequently Ornamented.
I have reason to thank that the Men do not want personal Courage (,) they readily place a confidence and appear to be a friendly and inoffensive people unless made Angry and which the mot trifling circumstance does at times. Three convicts have been killed by them in the Woods and I have no doubt but that the convicts were the (aggressors?).
They...are fond of any very Soft Musick, and will attend to singing any of the Words which they very readily repeat. But I know very little at present of the people. They never come into the Camp, and I have had few hours to seek them out. There are several roots which they Eat, and I have seen the Bones of the Kangaroo and flying Squirrel at the entrance to their huts, but Fish is their principal support which on these Shores is very scarce and I believe many of them are Starving.
Contrast this with Darwin's dismissive diagnoses regarding the Tierra del Fuegian 'savages' a mere fifty years later, Phillip grants no gulf in nature. We are still in the dawn of the world, with friendship between unlike peoples of blossoming hope - given the universality of reason and local good will. Phillip was further disarmed by his first meeting with Australians, when his calm, weaponless advance and the off4ring of gifts led to the consummation of hand meting hand in The Handshake, to him a universal pledge of peace and friendship. (That same experiment could turn out differently. the historian Greg Dening tells a story of a British officer who was powerfully offended when another native on another beach grasped his extended hand, turned it over to see if it had anything in it - and then let it drop. The Britisher crossly concluded that these were an unpleasantly avaricious people.)
Phillip's serene account of the Australians' response to the British presence is obliquely confirmed by the gleeful descriptions George Worgan provided his brother in a letter written a month later. Worgan told of a string of meetings with locals whom he described as behaving like excited children at a Christmas party, holding out their hands for their presents, laughing heartily, jumping 'extravagantly', and whooping with pleasure as they examined the clothes, hats and hair off the newcomers. They also allowed themselves to be tricked out in 'different coloured Papers, and Fools' - Caps which pleased them mightily'. Even allowing for Worgan's determined jocularity these still look like astonishingly amiable meetings, incorporating startling hand-on intimacies. Worgan describes 'a Fellow' picking up a quill and 'trying to poke it through my Nose and two or three other Gentlemen's', as he checked to see whether their nasal septums were pierced or not, and then giving up and 'shewing Us that he could not wear it in his own, and shaking his head'.
Phillip, reading these scenes not with Worgan's irony but for the trusting good will he thought he saw demonstrated, was confirmed in his chosen policy. That policy and his personal example would keep the British and the local men on sufficiently peaceful terms for as long as they were under his eye. But he could not control attitudes. He is a paragraph from Worgan, again to his brother, on what he really thought about the new people, beginning with his estimation of the charms of their women.
'It must be merely from the Curiosity, the see how they would behave... that one would be induced to touch one of Them, for they are Ugly to Disgust, in their countenances and stink of Fish-Oil and Smoke, most sweetly.' They are shapely enough; he allows that if some of them were cleaned up they might excite lust 'even in the frigid breast of a philosopher', but in their natural state the fish-oil and soot would keep more than philosophers away. He concludes: 'To sum up the Qualities Personal and mental... they appear to be an Active, Volatile, Unoffending, Happy, Merry, Funny, Laughing, Good-natured, Nasty Dirty, race of human Creatures as ever lived in a state of Savageness.' (Worgan's italics throughout.) He knew these people to be 'savages', and therefore creatures utterly unlike himself.
Pragmatic David Collins recognised the fish oil to be a sensible protection against both the ferocious local mosquitoes and the cold. Nonetheless he acknowledged that 'the oil, together with the perspiration from their bodies, produces, in hot weather, a most horrible stench' (the British had made landfall in late January, on the brink of the hottest month). He recorded he had seen some natives 'with the entrails of fish frying in the burning sun upon their heads, until the oil ran down over their foreheads'. Later we will see that the first thing the British did with their kidnap victims was to dump them in a tub, crop their hair and give them a thorough scrubbing before stuffing them into shirts, trousers and jackets. We can't know what the victims thought about any of this, only that they were terrified. It is also likely that the Australians found the stink of unwashed British flesh seating in unwashed woollen clothing in Sydney heat at least as repellent, but in such encounters it is the literate who do all the complaining.
Less contemptuous and more curious observers than Worgan, and less complacent ones than Phillip, could be baffled as to Australian intentions. Surgeon John White had this to say about an unexpected and potentially dangerous encounter with 'about three hundred natives' at Botany Bay on 1 June:
This was the greatest number of the natives we had ever seen together since our coming among them. What could be the cause of their assembling in such great numbers gave rise to a variety of conjectures. some thought they w3ere going to war among themselves. Others conjectured that some of them had been concerned in the murder of our men, notwithstanding we did not met with the smallest trace to countenance such an opinion, and that, fearing we should revenge it, they had formed this convention in order to defend themselves against us. Others imagined that the assemblage might be occasioned by a burial, a marriage, or some religious meeting.
'A burial, a marriage, or some religious meeting' - or perhaps a preparation for war. It was certainly a deeply uncanny situation. It is against this background of casual contempt and intelligent anxiety that we have to locate Phillip's determined optimism. From the beginning, a remarkably, he recognised the Australians' wants and expressions to be as powerfully felt as his own, and as we will see he acknowledged some conflicts. But he also remained persuaded of something not at all evident: that in time the Australians would inevitably come to recognise the benefits of the British presence among them, not only in material matters, but in the unique, incomparable gift of British law.
First, for things material, Phillip:
It is undeniably certain that to teach the shivering savage how to clothe his body, and to shelter himself completely from the cold and wet, and to put into the hands of men, ready to perish one half of the year with hunger, the means of procuring constant and abundant provision, must confer upon them benefits of the highest value and importance.
Phillip did not regard this conviction as prior and ideological, but as the fruits of observation. He had watched these people suffer hunger when fish supplies dropped off in colder weather. He noted the meagerness of their vegetables resources, and how long and painfully the women laboured to collect and prepare them. He watched them in bad weather, and knew they suffered. While they have not made any attempt towards clothing themselves, they are by no means insensible to the cold, and appear very much to dislike the rain. During a shower they have been observed to cover their heads with pieces of bark, and to shiver exceedingly.'[ His response was typically direct. He decided that the moment he established good contact with these poor cold savages he would introduce them to the benefits of clothing. He therefore requested the immediate dispatch from England of 'a supply of frocks and jackets to distribute amount them', urging that the garments he made long and loose 'so they would be useful to both men and women'.
Phillip, unlike some of his compatriots, acknowledged the sensibilities might differ between t he races. he noted, for example one Australian's disgust at the smell of salt park lingering on his fingers after he had touched a piece. He thought such differences to be trivial and ephemeral, and that civilising savages would be easy because, as rational beings, they would readily recognise the superiority of British material and moral arrangements. Like most of us, Phillip believed his home culture to be universally advantageous and desirable. Furthermore, he believed it to be universally applicable and therefore transportable, that it could flourish in any clime. The irony of this vision, given the total British dependence on imported supplies and their near-starvation in a milieu where Australians had survived for millennia, quite escaped him. One doubts it escaped the Australians.
Every Britisher thought their superiority manifest in their possessions, especially their manufactured goods - clothing, guns, tools - but also what Tench calls 'boys'; the baubles brought to charm and disarm the natives. All of the officers and some of the men had brought stocks of such objects to barter for native artefacts, which were enjoying a vogue at home since the voyages of the great, good, and martyred Captain Cook. The model for pacification through trade had been established in Tahiti, that terrestrial Paradise. There Cook had seen an earth so spontaneously productive that 'in the article of food those people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our forefathers; scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweet of their brow, benevolent nature hath not only supply'd them with necessarys but with abundance of superfluities'. The human population also seemed blessed with superfluities of physical grace and natural intelligence. Immediately recognising the desirability of European goods, they leapt into enthusiastic trade, happily exchanging warm female fles and wondrous variety of fresh foods for European products, especially iron nails. (the British ships, surreptitiously denailed, were soon in anger of falling apart.)
The responsiveness of these delightful savages had given their new trading partners a reassuring illusion of the 'naturalness' of trans-cultural understanding. The sturdiness of Tahitians' appetite for British goods -'red and yellow cloth, some tomahawks, axes, knives, scissors, skirts, jacket, etc.' - together with the convenience of a 'king' ready to accept the personal reward of 'a mantle and some other articles of dress decorated with red feathers, together with six muskets and some ammunition', meant that as early as 1801 such items could be shipped to Tahiti from infant Sydney in full confidence that they would be exchanged for the pork the British hungered for.
After such encounters with village-dwelling agriculturalists long familiar with the benefit of trade, naked nomads - lacking pigs, fruits and kings, and cautiously frugal with their women - had to come as something of a disappointment, even to men uncorrupted by the mellow exchanges of Tahiti. These people did not covet the trinkets the British waggled at them. They seemed to lack a proper passion for novelties. Gifts of ribbons and neck-cloths were accepted, worn for a day, then hung on a bush and forgotten. They seemed also to regard most British foods as inedible. Nor did these natives have an 'abundance of superfluities' of their own available for exchange: it quickly became clear that every one of their hand-crafted multi-purpose possessions was essential fo he daily business of surviving, and was duly cherished. they coveted only those British products which replicated the functions of their own tools, like metal hatchets, or fishhooks. Tench himself, engaging in his first day of serious trading, found that a man whose spear he wanted would part with it only in exchange for a hatchet, and Tench had to have himself rowed all the way back to Sydney from the northern shore of the harbour to get him one.
the British should have paid more attention to the experiences of their predecessors. A hundred years before Cook, William Dampier visited the north-western coast of Australia and met some of the inhabitants. He did not stay long - not more than two months - but that was time enough to identify some disturbing characteristics of these particular natives. he could define them only by the negatives of all the things they did not have: no clothes, no houses, no beds, no gods; no sheep, no poultry, no cultivated foods. And no decorum, either: they lived, he said, in heaps, twenty or thirty men, women and children piled together, sharing what they ate and eating what they could find. They were, in his opinion, 'the miserablest People in the World'.
However, despite all the negatives they seemed amiable enough, and with his experience of the docile workers of the islands behind him, Dampier thought they might as well be put to useful work. this is what happened next:
We had found some Wells of Water here and intended to carry 2 or 3 barrels of it aboard. But as it was somewhat troublesome to carry it to the Canoes, we thought to have got these Men to carry it for us. And therefore we gave them some old Clothes to one, a pair of old Breeche4s; to another, a ragged Shirt, to the third, a Jacket that was scarce worth owning, which would have been very acceptable in some of the places where we had been... We put them on them, thinking that this finery would have brought them to work heartily for us. And having filled our Water in small long Barrels, about six Gallons in each... we brought our new Servants to the Wells, and put a barrel on each of their shoulders for them to carry to the Canoe.
So there they were, appropriately laden. Then came an unexpect4ed difficulty:
...all the signs we could make were to no purpose, for they stood like Statues without motion, and grinned like so many Monkeys, staring one upon another. for these poor Creatures do not seem accustoms to carrying Burdens, and I believe that one of our Ship-boys of ten years old would carry as much as one of them. So we were forced to carry our Water ourselves. they very fairly put the Clothes off again, and laid them down as if Clothes were only for working in. I did not perceive they had any great liking for them at first.
No talent for work, no taste for European clothing, and no admiration for 'anything we had'. We seem to hear the echo of ghostly black laughter rising from the page. this brief encounter set the tone for later ones: Australian incomprehension in the face of European exhortations, an obstinate disinclination to cover European goods, and an absolute refusal to embrace their predestined roles as hewers of wood or, in this case, haulers of water. Nomads have their own ways of managing the world. One thing is clear to us. these radically modest local wants, which led to such confusion over what constituted grounds for legitimate exchange, ensured that in Australia trade could never become the Grand Pacifier it had proved elsewhere.
Phillip had read Dampier. What he seems to have remembered best was Dampier's comment that many of the men were lacking in upper right incisor. He happened to have lost that same tooth himself in some long-ago accident. he did not know how much that would matter, and he did not take the Dampier lesson regarding Australian recalcitrance at all. How could he, given the strength of his convictions regarding 'saving teachability'? Consider this account of an early trans-racial meting at Port Jackson. His strategy of mimed trust and the offer of gifts seemed to be working as well there as it had in botany Bay, so confirming, as he thought, the excellence of his diplomatic technique. (Oddly, it rarely occurred to the British that the Australians might be in communication with each other, with information about the white men running before them. Like imperialists earlier and later, they tended to take each meeting as de novo and 'the natives' as perennially innocent.) At the Port Jackson meeting Phillip was particularly delighted to find a man fascinated by his first sight of an iron pot full of boiling water. Phillip reports:
He... went on with me to examine what was boiling in the pot, and exprest his admiration in a manner that made me believe he intended to profit from what he saw, and which I made him understand he might very easily do by the help of some oyster shells... by these hints, added to his own observation, he would be able to introduce the art of boiling among his countrymen.
The art of boiling introduced to Australia by Phillip's solemn dumb-show. One supposes teachers everywhere tend to overestimate the effectiveness of their teaching, of only to avoid despair. But it was the moral challenge which must enthralled him. Given that these Australians were intelligent beings, capable of reciprocating trust and assessing consequences, they were also capable of being 'civilised' in the fullest (British) sense. Being fully confident that British superiority must have been obvious to all parties, he was able to interpret what wee probably displays of Australian insouciance or tolerant courtesies extended to uncouth strangers as admiring recognitions of superiority. Experience kept confirming his reading, as experience will. Ine example: at the cove he had named Manly to mark his high estimation of the impressive men he met there, a noisy group of Australians who had been 'very troublesome when we were preparing our dinner' quietly subsided when he drew a circle in the sand and gestured that they should stay outside it, so that he and his officers could eat in peace. they sat in silence outside the circle, the British ate. Phillip took this as 'another proof of how tractable these people are, when no injury or insult is offered, and when proper means are used to influence the simplicity of their minds'. That they might have been shocked into silence by the ignorance of these extraordinary guests, who sat down without invitation, and who then gobbled their food with no hint of sharing even between each other, much less with their hosts, did not occur to him. How could it? Phillip knew nothing of nomad protocols of food-sharing.
More damningly, and, as time was to show, most damagingly, he believed these people to be bereft of formal rules to live by, and so confidently assumed that his greatest gift to them would not be British numbers or cooking techniques, desirable as they were, but the gift of British justice mediated by British law. In time he would learn, slowly, painfully, that Australians were rather less teachable than he had thought. It would be on deep disagreements regarding the moral foundation of law that his dreams of enduring reconciliation would founder.