‘In November [1784] Henry Dundas, possibly Pitt’s closest advisor, warned that ‘India is the first quarter to be attacked, we must never lose sight of keeping such a force there as well be sufficient to baffle or surprise’. Dundas, cited Michael Pembroke, Arthur Phillip Sailor Mercenary Governor Spy, Hardie Grant Books, Victoria, 2013

Until quite recently it was generally held that Captain Arthur Phillip RN was ‘plucked from obscurity’ to command the First Fleet’. But like ‘amity and kindness’, Australia’s foundation myth – benign colonisation – ‘U.K. Privy Council [11] Cooper V Stuart [1889] New South Wales…peacefully annexed’ – nothing could be further from the truth.

‘New Holland is a blind then, when we want to add to the military strength of India…I need not enlarge on the benefit of stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales’. Anon, Historical Records of Australia

Key to the success of the ‘First Fleet’ was laid a decade earlier during Arthur Phillip’s four (4) year sojourn in Brazil. Seconded to the Portuguese Navy, fluent in Portuguese and based in Rio de Janeiro, Phillip established good relations with Viceroy Lavradio.

When in August 1787 the fleet en-route to Botany Bay put into Rio for supplies Phillip found Marquess Vasconcelos, Lavradio’s successor,  held him in high regard. In the race for New Holland Vasconcelos’s support proved vital to Britain’s victory over France.

The win on the cusp of ‘the greatest event of the late eighteenth century’ – the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – February 1793 to June 1815 guaranteed Britain domination of alternate sea routes to India with its ample supply of saltpetre one of the world’s most sought after natural resources in time of war. See: Britain By A Short Half-Head Arthur Phillip and Jean Francois La Perouse

During Lord Sydney’s time as secretary of state, the Home Office was a clearing house. Its jurisdiction included overseeing of naval officers involved in trade regulation, secret service and special projects. As a result Sydney crossed paths with three men who left their mark on history – Horotio Nelson, William Bligh and Arthur Phillip. Lord Sydney [the life and times of Tommy Townshend] Andrew Tink, 2011.

‘Evan Nepean received ‘an astonishing promotion’ when Lord Shelburne appointed him as under-secretary of state to the Home Office during which time he began to specalize in intelligence’ Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory.

Arthur Phillip and Evan Nepean, a naval officer turned politician, had known each other since the early 1770s serving together during the American War of Independence.

When Phillip joined Britain’s Secret Service his ‘spy’ payments were made through Nepean under-secretary to Lord Sydney the then Home Secretary.

Trade and territorial expansion depended on naval dominance. As England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Dutch jockeyed for position the Admiralty urgently needed intelligence on the disposition and ordnance of the French Navy. 

1773 – France: To that end Phillip spent all of 1773 in France spying and reporting his observations to the Admiralty. Arthur Phillip lived in a world of intrigue; ‘his [Phillip’s ] failure to invite the French commander [La Perouse] there [Sydney Cove] reflect some fear that he might be known as a spy.’ Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip 1783-1814 His Voyaging See: Arthur Phillip The Spy Who Never Came In From The Cold

1783 – Britain: A decade later, in 1783, Britain lost the American War (1775-83). With defeat went her thirteen (13) colonies; North and South Carolina, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Britain’s defeat was in no small part due to France’s support of General George Washington’s Patriot home-spun militia. Particularly galling to England was the French Admiral de Grasse’s 1781 trouncing of a Royal Navy squadron.

‘The peace to which Phillip returned in April 1784 was brittle and precarious. Anglo-French relations continued to be marked by mutual distrust and the administration in Whitehall remained wary. The immediate cause for British concern was France’s apparent designs on India and the East’. Michael Pembroke. ibid.

Post war the Home Office was charged with finding a place of exile for approximately 10,000 criminals sentenced ‘for transportation to America’.  Held-over during the eight (8) years of conflict they filled England’s gaols and prisons hulks, old decaying decommissioned ships moored along the Thames River.

The ‘insanitary and overcrowded’ hulks, close to the heart of teeming London were not only a source of deadly diseases, should prisoners escape they would present a menace to law and order.

When Edmund  Burke’s passionate representations in the House of Commons finally put an end to the drip-feed of convicts to Africa government, principally on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks who had accompanied James Cook on the Endeavour voyage in 1770, decided on far-off New Holland, now Australia, as a place of permanent exile. See:  Africa: In and Out of Africa

1786 – 18 August: ‘According to the accounts given by the late Captain Cook His Majesty has thought it advisable to fix on Botany Bay situated on the coast of New South Wales’. Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. 1

1786 – August, Brazil: When informed of his selection to command a large expeditionary force of eleven (11) vessels into the Pacific and Southern Oceans Arthur Phillip was ‘in the Brazils’ keeping track of Jean-Francois La Perouse. The Frenchman with two (2) ships La Boussole and  L’Astrolabe was already on the high seas and making for New Holland,

‘We reposing especial trust and confidence in your loyalty, and experience in military affairs, do, by these presents, constitute and appoint you to be said governor of our territory called New South Wales…from the Northern extremity of the coast called Cape York…to the Southern extremity…South Cape.

And you are to observe and follow such orders and directions from time to time as you shall receive from us, or any other your superior officer according to the rules and disciplines of war’. Instructions, King George III to Captain Arthur Phillip RN, 12 October 1786.

The ‘First Fleet’ was a, two-for-the-price-of-one, venture. England felt compelled to get to New Holland before France her traditional enemy who had a substantial military presence in India.

Government to that end implemented a traditional blend criminals ‘too evil to remain within the kingdom’ as soldiers.

‘In writing of the recruitment of criminals into armed forces, Stephen Conway observed. ‘It was still found necessary periodically to clear both the putrid and congested gaols and the equally overcrowded and insanitary hulks’. Conway, cited, Alan Frost, Botany Bay Mirages, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994

Phillip returned to England where he received a multitude of formal instructions relating to the invasion of New Holland.

1786 – 12 October, London: The first of these, issued ‘according to the rule and disciplines of war’ on 12 October 1786, laid out the Crown’s unequivocal intentions regarding the island continent of New Holland.


‘Since Sir George Young, an admiral who was intensely interested in the proposal to send the first fleet to New South Wales, did not know even in 1788 that Norfolk Island was part of the design, it seems clear that only a few men in the inner circle of government knew the exact purposes of the settlement; Eden [William Eden – later Lord Auckland] was probably not in that secretive circle. Professor Geoffrey Blainey, Gotham City, The Founding of Australia, The argument about Australia’s origins, ed. Jed Martin, 1978.

 Phillip’s secret pre-emptive mission; gain territory to secure Britain’s strategic supremacy over the South Pacific and Southern oceans, was known to very few government officials.

The ‘exact purposes of the settlement‘ remained with Dundas, Hawkesbury and Mulgrave, the powerful politicians of Prime Minister Pitt’s ‘secretive inner circle of government’.

‘In British eyes it [First Fleet] has been seen, if it has been noticed at all, as a small, peacetime convoy, which founded a colony; it is overshadowed by greater events of the late eighteenth century’. Roger Knight, The First Fleet, Studies from Terra Australia to Australia, ed. John Hardy and Alan Frost, 1989

Arthur Phillip and Evan Nepean began a remarkably successful subterfuge. The invasion of New Holland ‘ IF…NOTICED AT ALL’ remains hidden in plain sight.

‘Parallel to and dependent upon, the Anglo-French duel for command of the sea went their struggle for overseas bases and colonies; here too, the culminating point in a century-long race was reached, with Britain emerging in 1815 with a position so strengthened that she appeared to be the only real colonial power in the world’. Paul Kennedy, the Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Fontanta Press, 3rd ed. London, 1976

Below is a brief extract from a ‘mission accomplished’ letter sent from New South Wales to Evan Nepean, informing Whitehall ‘that [with New Holland] an empire has been founded in the south, which time will render much superior to that…lost in the west’.

Phillip and Evan Nepean, who can best be described as Phillip’s handler, sought to future proof the authenticity of any communication between them. They chose a code name that reflected the ambitions of another master-mariner and master-spy and mirrored the ambitions of an English monarch of an earlier time. See: Arthur Phillip – Trade and the Defence of Trade

‘I have taken this method because I wish to be unknown no person…shall ever know whence this proceeds, and I give my honor not a hint of it shall ever transpire…It is much to the credit of those in office [Pitt administration] that an empire has been founded in the south, which time will render much superior to that which their predecessors [North administration] have lost in the west’. Anon. Historical Records of Australia.


‘The short term consequence [loss of America] were less dramatic than many expected. Though Britain’s eclipse as a world power was confidently predicted her economic recovery was swift and the colonial development of Australia, New Zealand, India and part of Africa went some way to compensating for the loss of the first British Empire’. J.A. Cannon, Emeritus Professor of Modern History, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, cited Oxford Companion to British History.

A battalion of combatants 570 convicts, 245 marines all ‘rationed as troops serving in the West Indies’ were distributed on the fleet’s  six (6) transports – Alexander, Friendship, Prince of Wales, Charlotte, Scarborough and Lady Penrhyn .

Together with 200 Royal Navy personnel on the king’s ships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply they represent a formidable invasion force. Captain-General Governor Arthur Phillip RN succeeded ‘according to the rules and disciplines of war’.

In Australia and Britain the ‘First Fleet’ continues to be sold; ‘as a small, peacetime convoy’.










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