Governor Arthur Phillip: British Spy? (Part 1)

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Was Governor Arthur Phillip a ‘British secret agent’? (Part 1)

The selection of Arthur Phillip as the first governor of the colony in New South Wales 1788 was a careful consideration by the British Government. Phillip had served in the British Navy all his life and had a wide experience in all its aspects, in particular the management of people, both civilian and military. In his youth he served in the merchant fleet hunting whales in the North Sea and traded with countries on the Mediterranean seaboard. His father was a linguist and taught him German, French, Spanish and Portuguese. He married Charlott Denison in 1763 at the age of 25 and lived on a rural property in the New Forest where he acquired many farming skills which were to be of benefit in later years.

A portrait of Governor Arthur Phillip
A portrait of Governor Arthur Phillip

In the same year that James Cook was mapping the eastern coast of New South Wales (1770), Phillip was living in France under secret orders to determine any war preparations. Phillip stayed in France for four years and joined the Portuguese Navy, with the approval of the British Navy on the outbreak of war with Spain in 1774. He rose to the rank of Master and Commander with recommendations from the Portuguese Queen during the next six years. Evan Nepean recruited Phillip to go to France and investigate their fleet preparations in 1784. This has been revealed through a document in the Colonial Secretary’s Secret Service Ledger.

Payment to Arthur Phillip of £150 ‘to enable Captain Phillip to undertake a journey to Toulon and other parts of France for the purpose of ascertaining the Naval Force, and stores in the arsenals’.

Can you imagine the scene? A highly trained British naval man, fluent in French, quietly recording all the activities of very busy seaports. Britain and France were officially at peace at this time yet neither nation believed the situation would last and used the time to strengthen their forces.

Two ships, L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, were fitted out and sailed from Brest during this time and no doubt Phillip would have learnt of their mission led by La Perouse to explore the South Pacific Ocean.

Reference: Arthur Phillip 1738-1814, Alan Frost

This story is continued in the next article.

Trevor Patrick is a local historian of the north-west of Sydney, Australia. His latest book, In Search of the Pennant Hills, recounts some of these stories (and others) in more detail.