Sermon given at a Service to Dedicate a Memorial to Admiral Arthur Phillip

9 July 2014 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Elizabeth Beckford was 70 years old and her crime was stealing 12lb of Gloucester cheese. She was not the oldest. Dorothy Handland, a dealer in rags and old clothes, was 82. They were among 180 women, most of them young, like Elizabeth Powley. She was 22 and had raided a neighbour’s kitchen for some bacon, flour and raisins and 24 ounces of butter valued at 12 pence. The youngest was John Hudson, a chimney sweep, aged nine, condemned to seven years’ transportation for theft. These four were among well over 700 convicts on board six transport ships, part of the First Fleet, accompanied by two naval escorts and three store-ships, that set sail from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN. Over a thousand people were part of the fleet.

Around 60,000 convicts had been transported to the north American colonies but after the war of independence, the government looked elsewhere. Captain James Cook had identified Botany Bay as an ideal place for a settlement. Arthur Phillip, who had significant experience as a commander in the Royal Navy and in South America, was chosen to command the First Fleet and to establish the penal colony. Phillip had been born, the son of a language teacher who had come to London from Frankfurt, in the parish of All Hallows in the City of London and been enrolled on the establishment of poor boys in the Greenwich school for the sons of seamen. His ability and discipline were such that he rose through his own merits.

Between 1788 and 1868 some 164,000 convicts were transported to various parts of Australia aboard 806 ships. By the time the last ship arrived in Western Australia it was apparent that the standard of living in the various colonies was such that to be transported there would, beyond the loss of relations and familiar environments, be no punishment but rather an advantage in life, as many families were to decide after the Second World War. But that is to get ahead of the story. It was in New South Wales that it all began.

Conditions on board the First Fleet cannot have been entirely easy for the convicts, whose sentence was, from our perspective, inordinately harsh, and who had been kept in barely human confinement before embarkation. And yet, Arthur Phillip worked to preserve life and decency on board. He had prepared well since his appointment in October 1786. He planned to offer the convicts the prospect of reformation and a new independent life. He also intended to make good relations with the Aboriginals. In this he was in advance of most opinion at the time. His humanity is revealed in his allowing the convicts on to the deck to breathe fresh air and the fact that only a little over 40 of their number died during the voyage of more than 250 days.

Establishing the colony was no easy task. One of the Marine officers despaired saying of the mile upon mile of bush land that ‘in all the world there is not a worse country. All is so very barren and forbidding that it may with truth be said that here nature is reversed and is nearly worn out.’ The colony survived for its first year largely on rations. But within four years of the First Fleet arriving in Botany Bay the colony was self-supporting. Today the Fellowship of First Fleeters has identified over 8000 people in 136 families descending from 191 individual First Fleet Ancestors.

We have today dedicated a memorial to Admiral Arthur Phillip Royal Navy in the centre of the Nave, near the graves of Thomas Cochrane and David Livingstone, each of whom in his own way left a distinct mark in the 19th century. Their memory lives on. Not far from this new memorial are the grave and memorial of Isaac Newton whose influence in the 17th and 18th centuries and every century since has been profound.

Arthur Phillip’s memorial signifies not only his remarkable leadership and achievement but also the importance of the ‘successful and highly regarded nation’ he founded and its strong ties of history, governance, relationship and affection with the United Kingdom.

Our first lesson spoke of the hope of unity and peace between nations, the prophet Isaiah’s tremendous vision of peoples not divided but living together in peace and harmony.

In the second lesson we heard of the storm and tempest that threatened to engulf Jesus’ disciples. ‘They came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?’

We celebrate today the human spirit at its most courageous, a reflection of the Spirit that was in Christ, the image of the invisible God. And in our celebration and in recalling the work of a brave and resourceful man, we give thanks to God for his amazing gift in human beings of life and light, of humanity at its best. May it be an encouragement to us in all that we are given to think and do! Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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