Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Phillip establishes a settlement (just)

Far from being able to fall back on his aides in the initial trying years, Phillip had to struggle against widespread defeatism and occasional opposition.[1] The attitude of the marine officers and especially Major Ross[2] affected their men and possibly the convicts who had least cause of any to feel content with their lot. The officers, construing their duties as being primarily military, caused Phillip much difficulty. They refused to help in supervising the activities of the convicts even though, through the oversight of the British authorities, few suitable persons were available and they objected to having to sit on the Criminal Court.

Officers decline the least interference with the convicts, unless when they are immediately employed for their (the officers) own conveniency...they did not suppose that they were sent out to do more than garrison duty, and these gentlemen...think the being obliged to sit as members of the Criminal Court as hardship...[3]

Their discontent was heightened by the fact that unlike emancipists they were denied free grants of land and lacked the opportunity to secure any of the advantages traditionally associated with colonial service. Ross made matters worse by his high-handed actions, such as the arrest of five of his officers that created friction in the mess and prompted Lieutenant Ralph Clark[4] to describe him as ‘the most disagreeable commanding officer I ever knew’.[5] Although at first on reasonable terms with Phillip, Ross soon became quarrelsome, acting both as a focus of discontent and a major irritant. He supported and encouraged his fellow officers in their conflicts with Phillip, engaged in clashes of his own, and complained of the governor’s actions to the Home Office. Phillip for his part was anxious in the interests of the community as a whole to avoid friction between the civil and military authorities and endeavoured to placate Ross, but without effect.[6] In the end he solved the problem by ordering Ross to Norfolk Island on 5 March 1790 to replace Philip Gidley King, the commandant there, whom he had previously decided to send to England to report personally on the establishment.

Partly to counter this attitude, in his dispatches Phillip highlighted favourable developments and concealed the personal doubts that he experienced from time to time. Not the least of his accomplishments was to help to keep faith in the venture alive in official circles in London and provide the optimism as well as the leadership without which morale in NSW itself might have crumbled completely.[7] Phillip’s enthusiasm is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that during his five year term of office the colony assumed a shape that was not in accord with his wishes. Instead of the free settlers whom he sought to encourage with grants of from ‘five hundred to one thousand acres’ and the assistance of ‘not less than twenty men’ maintained at government expense for two years, only convicts arrived. This was not surprising. When the Home Office finally dispatched Instructions to Phillip in August 1789 authorising him to give grants to migrants it was on terms far less generous than he had contemplated. People leaving England lacked any real incentive to come to NSW and preferred the more accessible parts of the empire untainted by the stigma of convictism. Only thirteen free settlers left for Sydney in the first five years and none of these landed until after Phillip’s departure.[8] The governor had expected several advantages to flow from the presence of settlers. Besides forming the basis for the kind of settlement he hoped would emerge, he thought they would also prove of practical value for the penal standpoint by assisting in administration and convict control, by employing the prisoners and by setting an example for them to follow. Inspired by the profit motive, they would quickly make the settlement self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs. Their failure to materialise forced Phillip to depend on methods which he would have preferred to drop and that further increased his problems.[9]

Between 1788 and 1792 about 3,546 male and 766 female convicts were landed at Port Jackson and handed over by the contractors to the governor, who faced the task of deciding how their sentences were to be served. Anxious to keep costs low the British government insisted that they be disposed of in such a way as to involve the Treasury in a minimum of expenditure. Previously, in the American colonies, settlers had taken them into employment, but in the absence of private employers in New South Wales most convicts remained in government hands throughout the first five years and Phillip found himself responsible for directing their energies. The task was not made easier by the characteristics of the convicts themselves and many were unfit subjects for an experiment in colonisation. Not unnaturally they resented being wrenched from their homeland and taken to a harsh, hostile and uncivilised land. Phillip found them lazy and anxious to escape work by any means possible. Few were skilled artisans[10] or knew anything of agriculture and each of the fleets that arrived up to 1792 contained a high proportion of aged and sick who were unfit for work. [11] Worst of all was the Second Fleet that arrived in June 1790 after losing more than a quarter of its ‘passengers’ en route through sickness. Phillip’s reports on the unscrupulous behaviour of the private contractors helped to produce improvements, but not until after the Third Fleet had arrived bearing convicts whose physical condition appalled him once more.

A serious crisis occurred in 1790 after the wreck of the supply ship Guardian off the Cape of Good Hope; although the situation eased in 1791, it remained uncertain and even when the full ration could be issued.[12] Under such conditions the health of the convicts deteriorated and they found prolonged manual labour difficult. Faced with a lack of suitable personnel to act as supervisors Phillip selected superintendents from among the better-behaved convicts, placed them under the few free men in the settlement, ex-marines, a few from the ships’ crews, and some whose sentences had expired. He encouraged gardening.[13] He had dispatched a party to Norfolk Island under Philip Gidley King within a month of his arrival, and constantly reinforced it when he found that the island was more fertile than the land around Sydney.[14] He exercised great care in distributing rations and insisted on equality for all regardless of their standing. The governor based his actions on no particular set of beliefs except a broad humanitarianism. By nature self-sacrificing he was not prepared to inflict greater suffering on others than on himself and he felt that gradations in the ration were unfair in time of scarcity. Phillip’s measures helped to keep the settlement alive in its early years. By 1791, only 213 acres were under crop and the number of farm animals amounted to only 126 head, for some of the cattle brought out had strayed, while others had died or been slaughtered. The building programme, by contrast, had advanced more satisfactorily, resulting in the erection of dwelling places for the governor, the officers, the convicts and some of the troops, together with several store-houses. Having completed these and other essential tasks Phillip was able to give more attention to farming. The area cultivated by government labour expanded much more rapidly after 1791 and by October 1792 some 1,017 acres were under crop on the public domain; although livestock was still scarce important advances had been made towards the attainment of self-sufficiency in grain. The community was still vitally dependent on overseas supplies for most of its needs, but no longer was survival thought to be impossible.

In 1791 the marines were replaced by the New South Wales Corps.[15] In the light of later events this may appear unfortunate, but Phillip’s relations with the Corps, though marked by occasional disagreement, were reasonably pleasant, partly because its officers had not then acquired the economic interests that led to conflict with later governors.[16] Effective discipline was a vital necessity in an isolated community where convicts far outnumbered their gaolers and where it was impracticable to segregate them behind bars. Phillip housed the convicts in a series of huts so arranged that they could be policed at night; but the watch of necessity had to be drawn mainly from among the better convicts, and this caused further trouble with the marines who complained bitterly on the odd occasion when a convict policeman detected one of their number breaking the law. Offences committed within the colony were, if only minor, tried by the magistrates, or when more serious by the Civil and Criminal Courts. Phillip sat on neither bench, but he was able within limits to determine their composition and to vary their sentences, thereby influencing the course of justice.[17] Before leaving England he had stated his opposition to the death penalty save for murder and sodomy, which crimes he felt best punished by handing guilty persons over to be eaten by ‘the natives of New Zealand’. This harsh sentence was never imposed, but there were some executions, particularly for the theft of food in time of scarcity.[18] More usual was the lash, then a standard punishment in the army and navy, or committal to a gaol-gang.[19]

Phillip’s second Commission dated 2 April 1787 had given him the power of granting land to approved persons, defined in his first Instructions as former convicts. The British government was anxious to encourage people of this kind to remain at Port Jackson and for this reason offered them small plots of land and full maintenance during the early months of operations. The Home Office also indicated its willingness to make grants to the non-commissioned officers and privates of the marines who might elect to remain after completing a tour of duty, and to any migrants who might arrive. Phillip was ordered to examine the soil, report on its quality and suggest terms on which it might be alienated. Without fully waiting for his advice, however, the secretary of state dispatched on 22 August 1789 fresh Instructions on the granting of land. The only residents not permitted to own land were the civil staff and military officers, whose pleas for this concession were not satisfied until after Phillip had departed. The governor himself had viewed their requests with no great enthusiasm. While willing to allow them to grow foodstuff in time of shortage or run livestock on plots of crown land he was not happy at the thought of their becoming property owners. He feared their attention might be distracted from their duties. He realised that they would wish to employ convicts, and these he thought might be left too much to their own devices. Shortly before leaving England he stressed that insufficient convicts were available to make it possible for the officers’ likely demands to be met. Phillip was also reserved in his attitude towards the issuing of land grants to emancipists, for he rightly felt that many would never succeed at farming.

On 11 December 1792 Phillip sailed for England in the Atlantic to seek medical attention for a pain in his side that caused him constant suffering.[20] His work in New South Wales has been widely commended and, given the circumstances under which he was obliged to operate, it is difficult to see how he could have accomplished more than he did. Many of his hopes, including those for the encouragement of whaling off the coast which he recommended very strongly, were not realised.[21] Despite these frustrations he retained his optimism, displaying a resilience and sense of duty that carried him through periods of great difficulty and physical pain. However, he left when two developments loomed that were to dismantle much of his work. One consequence of the discovery of the settlement by overseas merchants was that increasingly they brought cargoes including liquor for sale. This may have given regularity to the supplies brought to the colony but Phillip recognised the dangers of permitting the convicts to obtain spirits. The one occasion, in October 1792, when he allowed it to be sold to the other residents confirmed his fears, for there was widespread drunkenness and disturbance.[22] The episode was not repeated but, had he stayed much longer, it is doubtful Phillip could have countered the many problems that were to arise from the liquor trade. Similarly his departure preceded by only two months the arrival from London of orders allowing civil and military officers to own land[23], an event that provided these men with an opportunity to promote their interests and heightened the possibility of their conflict with a governor anxious to favour no single element in the community. It was perhaps fortunate that Phillip was unable to follow his original intention of returning to Port Jackson once his health was restored, but medical advice compelled him formally to resign on 23 July 1793.[24]


[1] Egan, Jack, Buried alive: Sydney 1788-1792: eyewitness accounts of the making of a nation, (Allen & Unwin), 1999 contains valuable accounts from the early years of settlement.

[2] See, for example, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 262-265. See also, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 383-384 for Ross’ instructions dated 2 March 1787.

[3] HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 153.

[4] Hine, Janet D., ‘Clark, Ralph (1762-1794)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 225-226.

[5] Cit, Egan, Jack, Buried alive: Sydney 1788-1792: eyewitness accounts of the making of a nation, p. 76.

[6] This was evident in Phillip to Sydney, 16 May 1788, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, pp. 36-48 detailing the court martial of Joseph Hunt. Phillip stated that he ‘was not informed of the courts being under arrest till the next morning, when he came to inform me, and I used every means in my power to prevent a general court-martial, the inconveniences of which were obvious. Any accommodation being declined...’

[7] For example, Phillip to Sydney, 9 July 1788, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, p. 51, ‘I could have wished to have given your Lordship a more pleasing account of our present situation; and am persuaded I shall have that satisfaction hereafter; nor do I doubt but that value of this country will prove the most valuable acquisition Great colony. Britain ever made; at the same time no country offers less assistance to the first settlers than this does ; nor do I think any country could be more disadvantageously placed with respect to support from the mother country, on which for a few years we must entirely depend.’

[8] HRNSW, Vol. 2, p. 15 lists five who arrived on the Bellona in early February 1793.

[9] The lack of free settlers is a persistent theme in Phillip’s correspondence: see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 153, 177, 191, 207, 299, 347, 470, 534, 557 and 597. Letters from G. Matcham, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 590, 615 indicate that there was some interest in Britain in exploiting the agricultural deficit in the colony but that the response from government was tardy.

[10] There was, for example, a lack of carpenters; see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 146, 183. See also comments in HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, p. 81 about individuals as ‘indifferent carpenters’ and ‘tollerable sawyers’.

[11] The problem of the lack of artisans and farmers identified by Phillip was quickly acknowledged in London and ‘it is advisable that twenty-five of those confined in the hulks...who are likely to be the most useful should be sent out in the ship [Lady Juliana] intended to convey provisions and stores’: see Lord Sydney to the Lords of the Admiralty, 29 April 1789, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 230-231.

[12] The problem of feeding the population at Sydney Cove as persistent until 1792, see HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 173, 223, 299, 326-327, 377, 382, 557, 570, 596, 644, 654.

[13] Gardens were given to marines and convicts: HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 189, 362.

[14] Phillip to Dundas, 4 October 1792, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 661 contained an enclosure with details of land grants. 104 had been made at Norfolk Island and this contrasted with only 66 at Parramatta.

[15] On the establishment of the NSW Corps, see HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 249-251; see also Grenville to Phillip, 24 December 1789, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, pp. 132-133.

[16] Phillip to Sydney, 20 February 1789, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, p. 106 contained the following prophetic statement: ‘When this circumstance is laid before Lord Sydney, I doubt not but his Lordship will see that the civil Government of this colony may be very materially affected by directions of such a nature being given to the commandant of the detachment, and by him carried into execution without the knowledge or consent of the Governor, and which I presume never was intended by Lord Howe.’

[17] Phillip to Sydney, 5 June 1789, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, pp. 107-111.

[18] The number of executions was relatively small; four in 1788 and two in 1789: Phillip to Lord Sydney, 12 February 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 298.

[19] Phillip was given the authority to remit sentences in November 1790, HRA, Series I, Vol. 1, pp. 208-212.

[20] Chief-Surgeon Knox to Sir A. S. Hamond, (one of the Commissioners of the Navy), HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 675; see also, pp. 329-330, 422 and 483 for requests for leave of absence.

[21] For Phillip’s observations on the potential of whaling, see HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 612-613, 665.

[22] Phillip’s initially supported the import of rum; see, Phillip to Dundas, 2 October 1792, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 648, ‘...for it is a bounty which many of the people deserve and to the undeserving it never will be given...’

[23] Grose to Dundas 16 February 1793, HRNSW, Vol. 2, p. 15. See also Dundas’ instruction concerning land grants in his letter to Grose, 30 June 1793, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 50-51.

[24] Phillip to Dundas, 23 July 1793, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 59-60.

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