HISTORY: by Warren ReedNews Weekly
Horatio Nelson, Arthur Phillip and the birth of Australia
, November 23, 2013
Warren Reed spent 10 years as an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), serving in Asia and the Middle East. This article is based on the Trafalgar Day Address that he delivered on October 16, 2013, to a meeting in Adelaide of the Seven Seas Club of Australia Inc.
When we think of Nelson as a British naval hero two centuries ago, Napoleonic France looms large. It was a combined French-Spanish force that Nelson thrashed at Trafalgar in 1805.
British admiral, by George Baxter
(National Portrait Gallery, London).
But another strategic success preceded that. It was The Battle of the Nile — more correctly, perhaps, the Battle of Abukir Bay — in August, 1798, when Nelson demolished much of Napoleon’s fleet at anchor to the west of the Nile Delta. Napoleon himself was 80 miles inland at the Delta town of Tanta to the southeast.
It is said that one of history’s most heart-rending displays of temper occurred when a French messenger arrived to inform Napoleon of the result of Nelson’s daring attack. The enormous loss incurred included Napoleon’s precious flagship, the 120-gun L’Orient, which went to the bottom in a colossal explosion triggered off by the British bombardment. Bear in mind that the Victory, a first-rate ship with more than 100 guns, carried 35 tons of gunpowder, which gives some idea of how massive the explosion was.
Dashed were Napoleon’s hopes of breaking the British stranglehold on Gibraltar — that fortress-harbour that was key to the inland sea of the Mediterranean — giving the French unrestricted access to the land route across Egypt to the Red Sea and ultimately to Britain’s prized possession of India.
Why was Nelson the winner in both of these engagements?
It wasn’t just clever tactics. There was something much greater in the man that we might examine. While the crews of Napoleon’s vessels at Abukir were, against orders, frolicking onshore, many wildly drunk, Nelson’s were on high alert.
The admiral had scoured the Mediterranean to no avail searching for Napoleon and his fleet when instinct told him the only place left was the coast of Egypt. He sent ahead a fast, man-
oeuvrable but cautious cutter, and it was this vessel that first spotted the French fleet at anchor. Undetected by the French, the cutter returned to report on its find. Nelson, true to style, conferred with his captains, who returned to their ships and readied their crews for battle, especially their gunners.
The rest is history, and what a great story it is.
In two sharp blows, Nelson dismantled any pretence France had as a naval power, leaving Britain as the undisputed ruler of the seas. Thereafter, Napoleon was forced to fight on land. As we know, he won many of the ensuing battles, though he grossly over-extended himself by invading Russia in 1812. He was finally removed from the European power equation in 1815 at Waterloo.
Nelson’s contribution to this was massive.
But what sort of person was he? Above all else, he was a man with an abiding love of the sea and an intimate knowledge of it. He had a practice of consulting with, and delegating to, his officers that was largely alien to his French and later Spanish counterparts.
Moreover, he knew his ships and their men, not just from the top down but also from the bottom up. He was willing to strip off his uniform and silk stockings and venture down into the bowels of a vessel with crewmen who had reported a significant leak. It wasn’t Nelson’s raunchy and unorthodox — for the times — relationship with Emma Hamilton that earned him the respect of his men.
In 1799, Nelson himself, looking back, wrote of his time in both the Merchant Service and the Royal Navy and a saying then constant with the seamen: Aft the most honour, forward the better man! “So deep was the prejudice rooted,” he wrote, “and what pains were taken to instil this erroneous principle in a young mind.” As Ernle Bradford puts it in his work, Nelson: The Essential Hero, “What [he] knew by sympathy and instinct, what indeed Drake had known centuries before — that the man before the mast had his own rights every whit as much as the gentlemen aft — was not to be understood by the Admiralty until serious trouble forced their unwilling eyes to contemplate the reality of the sailor’s life.”
Rather, it was his sense of humility and self-knowledge. In most aspects of his life Nelson was a disciplined man, an attribute he brought from his upbringing, when he learnt that disciplined behaviour minimised any waste of energy and maximised the chance of achieving one’s goal. This was reflected in every aspect of his naval career, whether as a tactician, as a man who would defy orders from above when he recognised an opportunity that had to be taken, or when he went to inordinate lengths to fight for wages his men were owed but which the system denied them.
This was a side of Nelson’s character that endeared him to his men, though not always to those in positions of authority. Throughout most of his career he displayed an innate capability that those around him quickly recognised and which led to his promotion to Post Captain — meaning he was capable of being in charge of a ship of over 20 guns — at the remarkably early age of 20.
The ships and fleets that Nelson commanded were soon imbued with this sense of discipline. He was a man who knew what he was doing, and his men understood that only too well. This was reflected in his endless gunnery practice while at sea and the healthy competitiveness he nurtured among his gun crews that gave them a rate of fire on their two-ton 32-pounders that exceeded that of any other navy. An efficient gun crew could get off three rounds in little more than three minutes. A tour nowadays of the cramped lower gun-decks on the Victory in Portsmouth provides some sense of the massive achievement this was. Nelson knew that self-discipline was a far greater force, coupled with incentive, than its hierarchical counterpart imposed from the top down.
The trust that Nelson inspired is illustrated in a little-known fact: he was often in command of both naval and land-based forces at the same time. A case in point relates to Jamaica, which was vitally important to Britain at the time. It was rumoured that a French invasion was imminent, backed up by an army of 25,000 men. The British had a meagre force of 7,000. At the express request of British military and naval commanders in Jamaica, Nelson was given command of the vital batteries of Fort Charles in Port Royal, the capital. Not many naval captains inspire that sort of trust. During his career, Nelson was appointed a colonel of the Marines, and later a brigadier, both being honorary commands in reward for his distinguished services ashore.
The First Fleet
To appreciate the broader circle of Nelson’s life, let us follow the French theme through to the establishment of the settlement in Sydney in 1788. Oddly, we have Napoleon to thank indirectly for the fact that we’re English-speaking rather than French-speaking.
The primary reason for the First Fleet being dispatched to New South Wales was strategic: to create a naval base in the Western Pacific to thwart any attempt by France to exert power in the region and to claim Terra Australis for itself.
Captain Arthur Phillip,
1786 portrait by Francis Wheatley
(National Portrait Gallery, London).
To understand this is to appreciate why Captain Arthur Phillip was chosen to lead what was a very bold mission. Indeed, there are numerous similarities between Phillip and Nelson, and also with James Cook.
Phillip, though sadly far less well-known than these two compatriots, also knew his men, knew his ships and had an abiding love of the sea and a detailed knowledge of it. As Michael Pembroke points out in his recent book, Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy, “If a captain were humane and successful, he generated trust and respect, even love, and men would follow him loyally from ship to ship.” Like Nelson, Phillip understood this.
He was a British naval intelligence spy of both note and experience.
This revealing fact, unknown to most Australians, was first highlighted by Alan Frost, emeritus professor of history at La Trobe University, in his carefully researched work, The First Fleet: The Real Story, which preceded Pembroke’s excellent study by some years.
As a boy, Phillip (1738-1814), was educated at Greenwich Hospital School for the sons of poor seamen, and in his youth sailed on whaling voyages to the Arctic Ocean and on trading voyages to the Mediterranean. He joined the Royal Navy in 1755, and in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) saw battle in the Mediterranean and the West Indies.
In September, 1769, Phillip obtained permission from the Admiralty to go to northern France “for the benefit of his health”. Given that he and the Home Office later used this reason as a blind, it is probable that this marked the beginning of his career as a spy. In 1770, at the time of a crisis over the Falkland Islands, occasioned by Britain’s establishment of a settlement on those remote islands claimed by Spain, he joined the HMS Egmont as 4th lieutenant. He left this ship the following year and remained on half-pay until 1775. In these years, however, he spent two more extended periods in France. Indeed, throughout his career he was repeatedly engaged to spy on naval preparations on the Continent.
At the end of 1774, with the encouragement of his naval superiors, together with a number of other junior British officers, Phillip joined the Portuguese Navy, serving in Brazilian waters for four years. Portugal was Britain’s oldest ally in Europe, and from time to time the Admiralty helped out the much smaller Portuguese Navy. This gave Phillip the opportunity to gather information on harbours and fortifications, particularly in the Spanish colonies. With Britain’s American possessions having rebelled in 1776 and France having taken their side, Phillip returned to England in 1778 and was immediately appointed 1st lieutenant of the HMS Alexander, a 74-gun line-of-battle ship.
Promotion to post-captain of the 24-gun frigate HMS Ariadne came in 1781. In 1783, in command of the 64-gun HMS Europe, he sailed as part of a squadron intended to attack Spanish settlements in South America. A storm, however, ravaged the ships in the Bay of Biscay and all of the captains except Phillip were forced back. Phillip, though, made his way via Rio de Janeiro to India, where he linked up with another British squadron. He eventually returned to England in 1784 via the Cape of Good Hope.
To understand the qualities Phillip possessed that led to his being entrusted with the NSW mission, the following quote from the London St James’s Chronicle of 1787 is revealing:
“Captain Phillip, the commander-in-chief of the expedition to Botany Bay, was several years in the Portuguese service, and obtained no small degree of reputation from the following incident. Being employed about five years since to carry out with him near 400 criminals from Lisbon to the Brazils, during the course of the voyage an epidemical disorder broke out on board his ship, which made such havoc that he had not hands sufficient to navigate her.
“In this dilemma he called up the most spirited of the convicts and told them in a few words his situation, and that if they would assist in conducting the vessel and keep their companions in order, he would represent their behaviour to the Court of Lisbon, and, in short, do all in his power to get their sentence mitigated. This speech had the desired effect. The prisoners acted with fidelity, and brought the ship safe to Rio de Janeiro, where they were delivered into the custody of the garrison; and on Captain Phillip’s return to Lisbon, and representing the meritorious conduct of the convicts, they were not only emancipated from their servitude, but had small portions of land allotted them in that delightful country.”
By the mid-1780s, Phillip had wide experience of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and of a number of the countries that bordered them. He had charted coastlines and harbours and noted their resources. He had made the long voyage out to India, which was the nearest analogy to the journey out to NSW. Through his espionage work, he had shown himself to be the sort of “discreet” officer that Evan Nepean, the Home Secretary, had pointed out in the Heads of Plan for the Sydney settlement would be needed to carry out this challenging and important strategic task.
In stark contrast to the portrayal of the First Fleet by fake historians like the late Robert Hughes, as a shambolic affair, under-prepared, poorly equipped and ill-disciplined, it was in reality meticulously planned. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this is how David Collins, who accompanied Phillip and was his right-hand man after the settlement was established, described the Fleet’s journey out in his outstanding yet relatively unknown work, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, published in London in 1798.
guardship of the First Fleet,
by John Allcott.
Collins wrote: “Thus, under the blessing of God, was happily completed, in eight months and one week, a voyage which, before it was undertaken, the mind hardly dared venture to contemplate, and on which it was impossible to reflect without some apprehensions as to its termination. This fortunate completion of it, however, afforded even to ourselves as much matter of surprise as of general satisfaction; for in the above space of time we had sailed five thousand and twenty-one leagues; had touched at the American and African continents; and had at last rested within a few days’ sail of the antipodes of our native country, without meeting any accident in a fleet of eleven sail, nine of which were merchantmen that had never before sailed in that distant and imperfectly explored ocean: and when it is considered, that there was on board a large body of convicts, many of whom were embarked in a very sickly state, we might be deemed peculiarly fortunate, that of the whole number of all descriptions of persons coming to form the new settlement, only thirty-two had died since their leaving England, among whom were to be included one or two deaths by accident; although previous to our departure it was generally conjectured, that before we should have been a month at sea one of the transports would have been converted into a hospital ship.”
This observation by Collins is brought into sharp focus by another made by Pembroke in his book on Phillip: “Except for ballast, the ships [of that day] were wholly made from materials derived from trees and grass. The hull, masts and spars were of wood; the rigging, rope and cordage of hemp; and the sails of flax.”
As we know, French vessels called into Botany Bay soon after the arrival of the British. Matthew Flinders met up with more in 1802 at Encounter Bay in present-day South Australia, while circumnavigating the continent in HMS Investigator. Napoleonic maps already marked much of the land-mass as French.
In summary, that vital world of the sea in which Phillip displayed extraordinary skill and talent was the same as that in which Horatio Nelson gained fame. To examine the life of one is to hold up a mirror to the other. One departed this world in 1805 having defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet. The other died in relative obscurity in England in 1814. Both men shared the same circle of life and in their own exceptional ways contributed to the world that we inhabit today.
If Nelson hadn’t dealt Napoleon’s navy a serious blow at Abukir Bay and then gone on to destroy the French and Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar — which gave Britain global mastery of the seas for over 100 years — this article would undoubtedly not have been written in English. As one former naval officer and historian noted in an evening talk on Nelson in 2010, “it would have been delivered in French, possibly closing with the words, “Merci et bon nuit, mes amis.”
Warren Reed spent 10 years as an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), serving in Asia and the Middle East, following which he was chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). This article is based on the Trafalgar Day Address that he delivered on October 16, 2013, to a meeting in Adelaide of the Seven Seas Club of Australia Inc.