REVIEW: Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy by Michael Pembroke (Review by Terry Purcell)

by |October 14, 2013

Click here for more details or to buy Arthur PhillipOne of the many revelations exposed by this important and interesting new book is that the “DNA of Australians” was not created by either God or Darwinian natural selection, but by Captain Arthur Phillip and his superiors in the British Government in the late 1780s.

Having selected Botany Bay as the replacement for their former North American colonies and as the place to transport prisoners from Britain’s overcrowded gaols, they adopted a new Enlightenment era policy which would see New South Wales offer their convict population the opportunity to redeem themselves and become model settlers in a new land.

In choosing Arthur Phillip to help plan and implement this new policy, history shows us that the British Government chose the right man.

Michael Pembroke’s new biography of Phillip, apparently the first full review of his life ever published, should go a long way towards enabling 21st century Australians to appreciate how much we all owe Phillip and his superiors for their wisdom and foresight.

Not only did he successfully lead the biggest and longest fleet transporting convicts through largely uncharted waters ever attempted to that time, but he did so with minimal loss of life due to his policies and practices to protect all concerned from the diseases normally endemic on long sea voyages.

Pembroke’s comprehensive biography explains how Phillip’s seafaring experience starting as a 9 year old and garnered over a long and colourful career in the British Navy, gave him the capacity to undertake and successfully complete the extraordinary task most Australians would have some familiarity with. His job was to build a new secure outpost in the Pacific for the expanding British Empire.Author: Michael Pembroke

Complementing this experience and his gift with a number of languages, was his intimacy with key politicians and sponsors within the Navy hierarchy and the relatively unusual and confidential tasks he undertook for them over many years.  Hence the unusual and intriguing title of this extremely readable yet authoritative biography Arthur Phillip Sailor Mercenary Governor Spy.

Having regards to his lowly birth, it is quite remarkable that Phillip achieved so much and died a very wealthy man living out a long and comfortable retirement in the beautiful town of Bath in an era so well recorded by Jane Austen.

Pembroke’s research and the effort he has put into this book, re-creating for the reader the life and times of Arthur Phillip during his long and adventurous life, is impressive.  It has enabled him to recreate for modern readers a very clear picture not only the political and historic events of the latter half of the 18th century when Britain, France and Spain were almost continually at war, but also of what it meant to be a naval officer during those tumultuous times.  Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s naval series set in the same era might well appreciate this book.

This important book is a long overdue tribute to Arthur Phillip and it deserves to be read by any Australian who has wondered about the source of that part of our national DNA about giving everyone “a fair go” regardless of their origins, station in life or religion – regrettably, something our 21st century politicians seem to have forgotten.

Terry Purcell is a solicitor and was the founding director of the Law Foundation of NSW. He is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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Comments

  • Alice

    February 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    I doubt the story of Arthur Phillip being a spy, as a former Librarian working in Australian history specialist libraries I doubt the accuracy of this work.

  • Jennifer

    May 15, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Just finished this book. Quite readable but the lack of any kind of map or enhancement with archival material, such as watercolours of ships, buildings (the house he built in Sydney Cove), or photographs of today’s memorials to Phillip is such a shame. Also, there is not much detail about his 12 years as Governor of the new colony. No mention of the arrival of the Second or Third Fleets, in fact no mention of any other ships providing a mail service, nor the landing on Norfolk Island.

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