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.

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.

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 French 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.

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.

Phillip was desperate to have his entire fleet of eleven ships out of Botany Bay, away from prying French eyes and safely anchored in Sydney Cove deep inside Port Jackson. Despite very strong winds blowing across Botany Bay creating very rough seas, Phillip ordered the whole fleet to get under weigh.

Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth described in his journal 25 January 1788 that all ships were raising their anchors to try and leave the Bay but could not due to the wild weather.

The next day, 26 January 1788, the much reduced wind permitted the two French ships to enter the Bay and drop anchor by 10 am. The remaining British ships cleared the bay with difficulty.

A French Corvette
A French Corvette

“We were obliged to work out of the Bay & with the utmost difficulty & danger with many hairbredth escapes, got out of the Harbour’s mouth about 3 o’Clock p.m. The Charlotte was once in the most imminent danger of being on the Rocks. The Friendship & Prince of Wales who could not keep in stays came foul of each other, & the Friendship carried away her Jib Boom. The Prince of Wales had her New Mainsail and mast topmost staysail rent in pieces by the Friendships yard… all agreed it was next to a Miracle that some of the Ships were not lost, the danger was so very great.”

The bulk of the fleet reached Port Jackson and dropped anchor in Sydney Cove early in the evening.