Admiral Phillip/Chapter 15

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'Whenever I want a thing well done in a distant part of the world, when I want a man with a good head, a good heart, lots of pluck and plenty of common sense, I always send for a captain of the Navy.'

Lord Palmerston, when Minister for Foreign Affairs, is alleged to have more than once used these words in the Council Chamber, and English ministers were apparently of this opinion long before his time, for during the first dozen years of Australian colonisation three naval commanders—Phillip, Hunter and King — were at different periods appointed to govern the distant colony.

If, in Palmerston's day, the shade of Lord Sydney ever lingered near his old chair at the council-table, one can imagine an approving whisper, 'Hear, hear! my appointment of Phillip proved that long ago.'

Before coming to the date when Phillip began to pack up what few worldly goods his four years' service in New South Wales had left him, there is one act of his administration which cannot be overlooked—that is the manner in which he regulated the disposal of Crown lands.

The Land Laws of New South Wales are now in such a condition that an eminent Queen's Counsel has said, with truth, that no man living can safely undertake to interpret their meaning.

That 'good head' with 'plenty of common sense,' which Palmerston extols as qualifications found in sea-captains, enabled Phillip, in dealing with the land, to form a sound theory and to put it into practice; and from Phillip's time to the present the theory has been much the same, but in its practical application common sense has long since departed, and a confused jungle of land legislation has grown up in its place.

Phillip's 'Instructions' when he left England empowered him to issue land grants to emancipated convicts. He very soon found that the country would never be settled without free colonists of the farming class, and his despatches continually urged upon the Home Government the necessity of offering some inducement to such people to come out. No notice was taken of these representations, but he was, by an additional set of 'Instructions' sent out in the Second Fleet, empowered to offer Crown lands as an inducement to the non-commissioned officers and men of the military force to remain in the colony after their term of service had expired.

Phillip knew very well how land should be granted, for, six months after his arrival, he wrote to Lord Sydney as follows:—

'Farmers and people used to the cultivation of lands, if sent out (and without which agriculture will make but very slow progress), must be supported by Government for two or three years, and have the labour of a certain number of convicts to assist them for that time, after which they may be able to support themselves, and to take the convicts sent out at the expense which Government is put to for their transportation; but then, I presume, none should be sent whose sentence is for a less term than fourteen years. A yearly fine is to be paid for the lands granted, after the fifth year; the fine to be in grain, and in proportion to the crop: and this, I hope, would be the only tax laid on the crops: giving the church lands in the room of tythes. The sending out settlers who will be interested in the labour of the convicts, and in the cultivation of the country, appears to me to be absolutely necessary. Lands granted to officers or settlers will, I presume, be on condition of a certain proportion of the lands so granted being cultivated or cleared within a certain time, and which time and quantity can only be determined by the nature of the ground and situation of the lands: and, in that case, when lands are granted to officers, the garrison must be sufficient for the service of the place, and to permit such officers occasionally to be absent at the lands they are to cultivate, and for a certain time: they likewise must be allowed convicts, who must be maintained at the expence of the Crown. Your Lordship will be pleased to consider this opinion as given in obedience to orders, on a subject which requires more consideration than I can give at present, and at a time when I have only a very superficial knowledge of the country for a few miles around.'

Here, then, was outlined the assignment system, and the plan of granting land on condition that it was turned to a good use. Of course it is not pretended that Phillip originated these ideas, but that he had studied the subject sufficiently to be able to make the suggestions is remarkable enough in a man whose life had been spent on board ship—and on board ship over a hundred years ago!

The conditions on which he was empowered to grant land were, as Phillip saw, impossible of fulfilment, and he gave settlers inducements in the way of provisions and labour in excess of his instructions, a step on his part which his superiors never questioned. The Government, curiously enough, at first made no provision for granting land to commissioned officers, and as a result the land lent them by Phillip to cultivate brought in only small returns, since those to whom it was lent could take but a languid interest in such temporary ownership. When the case was represented to the Home Office, permission was granted, but the despatch reached the colony after Phillip left it. With the granting of authority to assign land to officers began the growth of the abuses of the privilege, for in the case of commissioned officers no limit was assigned in the 'Instructions' as to the maximum grant which the Governor might make. Yet Phillip foresaw the necessity for restriction, and a few months before he left the colony he wrote:—

'Experience has also pointed out many inconveniences attending the receiving men as settlers who only look to the convenience of the present moment. With some the sole object in becoming settlers is that of being their own masters, and with others the object is to raise as much money as will pay their passage to England, and then assign their lands to those who take them with the same view. There are many of this description at Norfolk Island; … but, as they have not received their grants, the necessary steps will be taken to prevent this imposition by removing some from the island, and by granting leases of only five or seven years to others, for one or two of these people have attempted to dispose of their grounds as soon as their huts were built, and they had received that assistance which had been promised them.'

With regard to free settlers there is on record a quaint correspondence between a Quaker named John Sutton and the Home Department. Sutton thus wrote to Under-Secretary King:—

'Friend King,—Thou being so busy, it is not likely I can see thee to-day. Have inclos'd a paper similar to that given to Evan Nepean, only it is more specific. I hope thou will give it a proper sanction, and it will obveate any future disapointments. And if it be agreable to let me have any terms to carry persons, or provisions live or dead, I believe I can do it as low and more beneficial to the colony than it has hitherto been done. I will call in two or three days for thy opinion.'

Nothing came of Sutton's proposal, which was that he should be given land-grants, free passages, tools, and all the rest of it, for a party of Quaker emigrants; but in February 1793, the Bellona arrived in the colony with five men who were given a grant of land near Parramatta, which was appropriately named Liberty Plains. These five men were the first batch of bona-fide emigrants—the advance guard of that great army of colonists who have made Australia what it is.

Previously to 1791—although Dampier saw whales in Australian waters—no one appears to have thought that a whale or seal fishery could be founded there. But Phillip in a despatch, written in November 1791 to Secretary Stephens, commented upon the great number of 'spermaceti whales' that had been observed upon the coast, which gave him reason to hope that a whale fishery might be established at some port in the colony. Melville, the master of the transport Britannia, before alluded to in these pages, had seen such vast numbers of whales after doubling the south-west cape of Van Diemen's Land, that after disembarking his cargo of convicts he asked Phillip to expedite his ship's departure in order that he might cruise in search of them. Phillip gave him every assistance, and Melville, who was a shrewd man, got away as quietly as possible, but the object of his haste soon leaked out, and the Britannia was quickly followed by four other transports — the Matilda, William and Ann, Salamander and Mary Ann. Fifteen days later Melville returned to Sydney, and reported that although he had seen great numbers of whales the bad weather prevented his lowering his boats except upon rare occasions. However, the Britannia and the William and Ann between them had killed seven; but a heavy south-east gale coming on they saved but one fish each. The Mary Ann soon followed them back, her coppers having been 'washed down' in the gale. She, with the Matilda, had gone southward in search of seals and had seen no whales, and when they were returning to Sydney, the latter vessel put in to Jervis Bay to stop a leak. Phillip was pleased to learn from her master that it possessed 'an exceedingly good anchorage, and room for the largest ship to work in or out with great safety.'

From that time, Phillip, though disappointed at the result of the transports' first cruise, took a deep interest in forwarding the whaling industry. He doubtless did not realise that one reason for the want of success that attended the first venture was the lack of knowledge on the part of the masters of the transports. None of them, probably, knew anything of the migratory habits of the cetacean tribe in the Southern Seas, nor the difference between the highly valuable 'sperm,' 'right' and 'humpback' whale, and the dangerous and unassailable 'finback.' But experience was soon to be gained, and, in March 1792, Phillip again wrote home, expressing this opinion:—

'The information given in my former letters respecting the prospect there was of establishing a spermacetic whale fishery on this coast was drawn from the accounts I received of the great number of fish which had been seen by two of the whalers. None of those ships remained out but for a very short time; but when the Britannia sailed, the master of that vessel told me he intended to remain three months on the coast, in order to give it a fair trial, that he had no doubt of seeing fish, but feared the currents. From some information which I have received since that ship sailed, I fear that the fur trade on the north-west coast of America, and the trade amongst the islands, is too great an object to those who are employed in the fishery ever to admit their giving this coast a fair trial, and apprehend that all the ships have left it. Should a fishery ever be established on this coast, and which I should suppose likely to answer as well as the one which has been established many years in the Brazil (at Sta Catharina and Rio de Janeiro), I think it would be found to answer best if carried on in small vessels, as it is from Rio de Janeiro; and with respect to the currents, I believe they are neither more frequent nor stronger than what they are on the Brazil coast.'

This was the beginning of South Pacific whaling, which, now practically extinct, for the first half century of Australian colonisation was only second in importance to the wool trade in the commercial history of the colonies.

In April 1790, King had carried home this modestly-worded and characteristically unselfish request from Phillip, in a private letter to Lord Sydney:—

'As the settlement is now fixed, whenever His Majesty's service permits, I shall be glad to return to England, where I have reason to suppose my private affairs may make my presence necessary; but which I do not ask in any publick letters, nor should I mention a desire of leaving this country at this moment, but that more than a year must pass before it can possibly take place, and I make no doubt but that every inconvenience now felt in this colony will be done away before this letter reaches your Lordship. I am sorry to say that nine-tenths of us merit every little inconveniency we now feel.'

And again in 1791 he wrote to Lord Grenville, in March and November:—

'It is not without concern that I find myself obliged to request His Majesty's permission to return to England. A complaint in the side, and from which, in more than two years, I have been seldom free, has impaired my health, and at times puts it out of my power to attend to the charge with which His Majesty has been pleased to honor me in the manner I wish and the state of the colony requires. The settlement is now so fully established that the great labour may be said to be past; and it has, Sir, been attained under every possible disadvantage, though it is not in that situation in which I should wish to leave it, for it is not independent for the necessaries of life; and, as I feel myself greatly interested in the good of a colony with the establishing of which I have been honored, and to which I should wish to return, if the cause which now obliges me to desire permission to leave it should be removed by the voyage, or by the assistance I may find in London, I therefore only request leave of absence from the government.' …

'I am honoured with your Lordship's letter of the 19th of February, in answer to mine to Lord Sydney, and beg leave to assure your Lordship that I should not hesitate a moment in giving up my private affairs to the public service; but from a complaint which so very frequently puts it out of my power to use that exercise which my situation requires, and the present state of this colony, in which I believe every doubt respecting its future independency as to the necessaries of life is fully done away, I am induced to request permission to resign the government that I may return to England in hopes of finding that relief which this country does not afford.'

The only reply he received to these letters was the following paragraph of a despatch, dated May 1792, from Dundas, then at the head of the Home Office, who wrote:—

'I cannot conclude this letter without assuring you how much I lament that the ill state of your health deprives His Majesty of your further services in the government of New South Wales, and I have only to hope that, on quitting the settlement, you will have the satisfaction of leaving it in a thriving and prosperous situation.'

This was so obscure that Phillip cannot be blamed for not understanding it, as he writes in the following October:—

'You are. Sir, pleased to express your regret at my being obliged to return to England on account of my health, and I feel much satisfaction from the manner in which that circumstance is mentioned.

'How far that part of your letter to which the above alludes may have been intended to convey to me His Majesty's permission to return, I am doubtful, and although I am inclined to think it has been written with that intention, and feel how necessary it is for me to give up, at least for a time, the charge of this government, which is very far from what I wish to do at the moment the colony is approaching to that state in which I have so long and anxiously wished to see it; still, Sir, I fear there is a possibility of its being expected that I should remain until permission to quit the government is more fully and clearly expressed; and as there appears to be a wish that I should remain in this country some time longer, I shall wait the arrival of the next ships.'

And at the same time he wrote to Nepean:—

'The manner in which Mr Dundas speaks of my leaving this country is very handsome; but I do not well understand that part of his letter. I fear that it may have been supposed I would remain until His Majesty's permission was clearly expressed; and I should be sorry, after all my labours, to have it said on my return that I was not expected. The ship which was to follow the Royal Admiral will, I hope, clear up the doubt, and not only leave me at liberty to quit the government, but also put the means of doing it in my power, otherwise I do not see how I am to get home after the Atlantic has sailed, unless it is by the way of China or the north-west coast of America, neither of which would be very agreeable to a man going in search of health.'

And Collins tells us that in October 'The month closed with a circumstance that excited no small degree of concern in the settlement: Governor Phillip signified a determination of quitting his government and returning to England in the Atlantic. To this he was induced by perceiving that his health hourly grew worse, and hoping that a change of air might contribute to his recovery.'

On the 11th December 1792, Phillip embarked for England. Among his last acts before leaving was to increase the weekly ration at Sydney, and to send some stores to Norfolk Island. Says Collins:—

'His Excellency had always attended to this little colony with a parental care; often declaring that from the peculiarity of its situation he would rather that want should be felt in his own Government than in that dependency; and as they would be generally eight or ten weeks later than this colony in receiving their supplies, by reason of the time which the ships necessarily required to refit after coming in from sea, he purposed furnishing them with a proportion of provisions for three months longer than the provisions in store at this place would last: and His Excellency took leave of that settlement, by completing, as fully as he was able, this design.

'He was now about taking leave of his own Government. The accommodations for His Excellency and the officers who were going home in the Atlantic being completed, the detachment of marines under the command of Lieutenant Poulden embarked on the 5th, and at six o'clock in the evening of Monday the 10th, Governor Phillip quitted the charge with which he had been entrusted by his Sovereign, and in the execution of which he had manifested a zeal and perseverance that alone could have enabled him to surmount the natural and artificial obstacles which the country and its inhabitants had thrown in his way.'