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Captain Arthur Phillip

Captain Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales

Arthur Phillip (1738-1814) was a British naval officer and colonial administrator. Phillip was appointed Governor of New South Wales, the first European colony on the Australian continent, and was the founder of the city of Sydney. 

Captain Phillip and the First Fleet

After the loss of the colonies in North America, the English Government needed a new place to send its convicts. On the advice of Joseph Banks, Botany Bay was chosen as the site for a settlement, and a fleet of 11 ships under the command of  Captain Arthur Phillip left England in May 1787. After travelling first to Rio and then Capetown, the fleet sailed eastward, passing around Tasmania in December, and on up the east coast of Australia.

Botany Bay, January 1788

On 18 January 1788 the Supply, scouting ahead of the First Fleet, entered Botany Bay and anchored on the northern side of the Bay, 'that the Ships which were following might not miss the harbour.' By 20 January all 11 ships were in Botany Bay.

Looking for a source of fresh water, Phillip explored the foreshores, including going 6 miles (10 km) up the Cooks River, through country that he found low and boggy, with no appearance of fresh water. Phillip found that the best situation offered [for settlement] was near Point Sutherland where there was a small run of good water but the ground near it was spongy and the ships could not approach this part of the Bay.

He decided to explore Port Jackson to the north, the entrance to which was marked on Cook's chart. In the meantime he ordered Major Ross to have the land cleared on Point Sutherland, in case he did not find a better harbour. Three days were spent clearing before Phillip returned and the fleet re-embarked for the much more suitable Port Jackson.

Surgeon White wrote: Although the spot fixed for the town was the most eligible that could be chosen, yet I think it would never have answered, the ground around it being sandy, poor and swampy, and but very indifferently supplied with water. The fine meadows talked of in Captain Cook's voyage I could never see, though I took some pains to find them out.

There were other denigrators of Cook and Banks' glowing descriptions of the countryside. 'We had passed through the country, which the discoverers of Botany Bay extol as some of the finest meadows in the world. These meadows, instead of grass, are covered with high coarse rushes, growing in a rotten spungy bog, into which we were plunged knee-deep at every step', reported Captain Watkin Tench in December 1790, after his unsuccessful excursion south of the Cooks River near Muddy Creek.

While the location of the good land that Cook and Banks described has remained a mystery ever since, there is no doubt that there were extensive swamps in the lower Cooks Valley.

Were Cook's landscape descriptions naïve?

Cook and Banks both consistently reported that the soils around Botany Bay were in general sandy. Cook's well-quoted descriptions - 'diversified with woods, Lawns and Marshes, and woods are free from under wood' - are likely to have been accurate comments on the appearance of the mosaic of swamp, sedgeland and sclerophyll woodland that would have occurred on the sandy country immediately around Botany Bay. Such areas may have appeared superficially as grassy, particularly if they had been burned several years before. References to a quantity of good grass that grows in tufts could have been sedges or coarse grasses such as Cymbopogon refractus.

Cook's comments appear to be considered and objective, but perhaps there was a touch of landscape romance. After all he was a seaman in a completely new land! Perhaps it was the readers who naively assumed that attractive landscape would be productive landscape.

The poor sandy soils were restricted to the coastal areas of Sydney. Better soils for agriculture were found later by the settlers on the shale soils farther west, at Parramatta, well beyond where Cook was able to go.

We would like to acknowledge the Cadigal people of the Eora Nation within Sydney and pay our respect to Elders past, present and future.