Governor Arthur Phillip: British Spy? (Part 2)

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Was Governor Arthur Phillip a ‘British secret agent’? (Part 2)

Arthur Phillip’s entire life was involved with the sea. In 1784 and 1785 he lived in France under secret orders from the Colonial Secretary to find out all he could about the French preparations for war. In August 1785 a scientific expedition under the command of Jean Francois La Perouse set sail to explore the Pacific Ocean. Over the next three years, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe explored Easter Island, Hawaii, Alaska, the western coast of America, China, the Philippines, and Samoa before reaching Australia.

A French corvette
A French corvette

The existence of the French expedition was one factor in the decision to send a fleet of eleven ships to New South Wales to establish a colony at Botany Bay. After eight months at sea it was remarkable that all eleven ships of the First Fleet arrived within a few days of each other.

Governor Arthur Phillip immediately arranged survey teams to find the best location for a settlement. On Wednesday 23 January the Governor decided to move the fleet north to Port Jackson where there was better soil to grow food and fresh water flowed into a sheltered cove. The following day everybody was surprised to see two large ships off the coast and heading for the Bay. The Governor sent the Supply brig out of the Bay despite severe stormy weather to discover their nationality and the crew returned advising they were not English but perhaps French, Spanish or Portuguese. It was decided they must be the French scientific expedition of 1785 which proved correct when they entered the Bay on Sunday morning 26 January after battling strong westerly winds for two days.

Imagine the annoyance of Governor Phillip. He had been given orders to establish a colony in New South Wales with over 1000 persons to give the view to any visitor that Britain had the rights to this land. Before he could even land his people, a French expedition was in view and could easily realise that there was no established settlement.

Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth wrote in his journal 24 January, “Phillip gave orders that no person whatever to be suffered to go on board either of the ships if they came in, as he did not wish to let them know particulars, especially that we were upon the eve of leaving this place and going to Port Jackson.”

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.