the British Government decided in August 1786 to found a colony in
Phillip was recruited to the small fleet commanded by the Irishman, Robert McDouall, which had been formed to defend Brazil's maritime frontier by Martinho de Mello e Castro, Portugal's Minister for the Colonies and the Navy. Phillip had attained the rank of lieutenant in the British Navy during the Seven Years War, and on entering the Portuguese service in January 1775 was given the rank of capitão de mar e guerra.
Upon arrival in Rio de Janeiro he was given command of a 26 gun frigate, the NossaSenhora do Pilar, and in September 1775 was sent to the frontier settlement of Colônia do Sacramento on the Rio de la Plata. Colônia was then under close blockade by Spanish forces, although Spain and Portugal had been formally at peace since the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. Colônia had been captured by Spanish forces in October 1762 but, although a Portuguese attempt to re-take it in January 1763 had been rebuffed, diplomatic considerations had caused it to be restored to Portugal under the peace treaty. On this voyage, Phillip in the Pilar transported a consignment of degredados (convicts sentenced to forced labour) and some troops. During the voyage a severe epidemic of sickness broke out, and Phillip was forced to call upon the degredados for help to save the ship (the troops having refused assistance). In return, he promised to recommend an alleviation of their sentences, which was done after the Pilar arrived safely at Colônia. There, the garrison troops were taken on board, and the Pilar sailed back to Rio de Janeiro. A change in policy then caused the same troops to be sent back to Colônia in the Pilar, which arrived there for the second time in mid-December 1775. From then until his recall in November 1776, except for the period from the beginning of January to mid-April 1776 when he was sent to cruise off the Rio de la Plata estuary, Phillip remained on station at Colônia as commodore, for most of that time with only his own ship to command.
The Spanish had fitted out a number of sloops as guardacostas, to harry and capture Brazilian fishing and trading vessels sailing to Colônia. Phillip saw it as his duty to act vigorously to keep off the guardacostas, even though the Governor of the praça, Francisco José da Rocha, feared that this might provoke the Spanish land forces to attack in retaliation. Phillip, however, did not hesitate to fire on the Spanish vessels when they refused to salute the Portuguese flag, and the risk paid off as the guardacostas were from then on more circumspect toward the Portuguese shipping, causing some easing of the blockade. Phillip's conduct at Colônia was praised by the Viceroy, the Marquis de Lavradio, in a report on the officers of the fleet written on 22 October 1777: "When at Colonia, with only his own Frigate, he made the Spanish respect that Praça as they ought to".
Lavradio received a message dated 18 November 1776 from Phillip, advising that the praça badly needed provisions and armed corvettes, stating that his ship was the only war vessel there. He added, "I do not speak to Yr.Excy. of the danger to the ships which come to this praça from the Spanish GuardaCostas, which are always going around, nor of the force which would be needed in this River if War breaks out, which Yr.Excy. knows better than I can say."
The war of which Phillip spoke broke out in earnest as a result of Portugal's re-capture of the vila of Rio Grande in April 1776 from the Spanish forces which had captured it during the Seven Years War. An aroused Spain organized a fleet of over 100 ships under the command of Admiral Casa Tilly, to convey an army of 10,000 men under the command of Pedro de Cevallos from Cadiz, with the object of capturing the island of Santa Catarina and all the coast south of it to the Rio de la Plata. The captured territory was to be added to the territory ruled from Buenos Aires, and Cevallos was appointed first Viceroy of the enlarged province. To meet this threat, Lavradio ordered McDouall to concentrate his fleet of nine warships, including Phillip's Pilar, to defend Santa Catarina. When Casa Tilly's armada arrived off the island on 17 February 1777, McDouall declined to engage it. At a council of war McDouall called to discuss whether to attack the Spanish fleet or not, six of his captains supported his decision not to engage, while Phillip and José de Mello preferred to attack. The majority carried the day, and the flotilla retired to Rio de Janeiro, leaving Santa Catarina and its capital, Desterro, to be taken by Casa Tilly and Cevallos. Although this preserved the squadron for action under more favourable circumstances, Lavradio was exasperated by what he regarded as McDouall's cowardly conduct, and by contrast was favourably impressed with Phillip's aggressive attitude. In his report on officers of the fleet of 22 October 1777, Lavradio wrote of Phillip: "When the Fleet sailed from Santa Catarina upon receiving news of the Spanish Fleet he made every effort to induce the Chief to attack the enemy; and finding that he did not do so, he wrote a private letter to him imploring him, for the sake of his own honour and that of the Nation, not to refrain from attacking them".
McDouall's squadron sailed again from Rio de Janeiro on 1 April 1777 with the object of cutting the Spanish supply lines between Santa Catarina and the Rio de la Plata. On 19 April, the San Augustin, a Spanish battleship of 70 guns coming from Montevideo, ran into McDouall's ships off Santa Catarina. José de Mello in the Prazeres and Arthur Phillip in the Pilar led the attack on the San Augustin, despite the superior armament of the Spanish ship, and both were able to score hits. After an all-night chase, the San Augustin at dawn ran into McDouall with all his ships, and after a short action struck her colours. Lavradio was impressed with Phillip's audacity in attacking a 70 gun battleship with his 26 gun frigate, as he recorded in a despatch of 2 June 1777 to Mello e Castro: "Captain Arthur Phillips came up with his Frigate, and was allowed by the enemy to get close, because they thought this vessel was one of their own, as they were unable to convince themselves that a vessel so small and so weak in artillery would venture to attack a 70-gun Ship. It was only when Captain Arthur gave them a broadside that they became aware that the Frigate was ours." The San Augustin was commissioned into the Portuguese Navy as the Santo Agostinho, and command of her was given to Phillip.
The war came to an end in August 1777, when news reached Brazil that the courts of Portugal and Spain had agreed on a truce, which on 1 October was converted into peace by the Treaty of San Ildefonso. The Treaty declared a comprehensive settlement of all territorial disputes between the two monarchies, in both the western and eastern hemispheres. Santa Catarina was returned to Portugal, Portuguese possession of Rio Grande was recognized, and Portugal resigned the claim to Colônia. In order to remove every cause of discord, "even with respect to the dominions in Asia," Portugal ceded to Spain all rights to the Philippines, Marianas and adjacent islands which might have been claimed under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas or the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza.
Spain was prepared to be generous to Portugal because of the looming prospect of war with Britain. Britain's North American colonies had declared their independence on 4 July 1776, and were already receiving secret aid from Spain and France. France declared war on Britain in support of the Americans in July 1778. Phillip learned of this upon his arrival back in Lisbon in August (he had been assigned to the escort of a convoy from Rio de Janeiro), and decided to leave the Portuguese service and return to the British Navy. On 24 August he resigned his commission and a month later took passage for England. He carried a letter from Mello e Castro praising his service, stating that the Queen had been unable to refuse his "admirable resolve" to serve his country, and conveying her wish that he find promotion in the British Navy.
Phillip's confidence for his future in the British Navy would have been increased by his consciousness that besides the letter of recommendation from Mello e Castro he carried with him items of more concrete value. These were the charts of the coasts and ports of Brazil and the Rio de la Plata which he had made or copied during his period of service. It may have been an expectation that he would return from Brazil with such valuable information that led Admiral Augustus Hervey to recommend Phillip for appointment to the Portuguese service in 1774.Hervey, one of the Lords of the Admiralty, had it seems already employed Phillip to spy on French naval facilities. The coasts and ports of Brazil were little known in England at that time, and information concerning them could one day prove useful for Britain. However, Hervey had retired by the time Phillip rejoined the British Navy, and it was necessary for him to obtain a new patron. Spain's entry into the war against Britain in June 1779 opened opportunities for Phillip to put his knowledge of South America to advantage as the British Government took up plans to attack Spain's possessions in that part of the world.
Phillip wrote on 19 July 1780 to the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, offering his services. Sandwich responded positively, for Phillip had the information Sandwich needed to assist in planning a naval expedition under the command of George Johnstone to capture the Spanish treasure fleet then assembling at Buenos Aires. Phillip was thus drawn into contact with the highest ministers of state, for the task of Sandwich and the Admiralty was to assist theSecretary of State for Home and American Affairs, Lord Germain, who had overall responsibility for conduct of the American War. Germain, Sandwich and Johnstone also consulted Phillip's former commander in Brazil, Robert McDouall, who had also resigned from the Portuguese service. A letter from Phillip to Sandwich of 17 January 1781 records Phillip's loan to Sandwich of his charts of the Plata and Brazilian coasts for use in organising the expedition: "In the Charts of the Brazil Coast, that I had the honor of shewing your Lordship, there are three good harbours, where Ships that wanted to wood & water, would find only a few settlers, in case they were unwilling to put into any port where there was a Garrison. The most material of these Charts are from regular Surveys". That Phillip expected to benefit if the attack on the treasure fleet was successful is clear from his request that his ownership of the charts be acknowledged: "I make no doubt that when your Lordship shall please to Order them to be deliver'd to any of His Majts. Ships, or to the India Company, but orders will be gave that I may that I may reap the Credit & Advantage that will naturally arise from them. The Copyswch: Commodore Johnson [i.e. Johnstone] desired might be taken are finished."
The expedition sailed on 12 March 1781, with the additional object of first attempting the capture of Cape Town from the Dutch, who had now joined the war against Britain. However, on the way to the Cape Johnstone's fleet was mauled at the Azores by a French squadron under Admiral de Suffren, who then sailed on to reinforce the Dutch at Cape Town. Suffren's action effectually blocked Johnstone from achieving the goals of his expedition. Despite this setback, the strategy of making naval attacks on Spain's American empire remained attractive to the British Government. Robert McDouall had sailed with Johnstone's expedition, but had been detached from it to sail to Rio de Janeiro in the Shark sloop, where he had obtained information on Spanish defences from Captain William Robarts, one of his former subordinates still serving in the Portuguese Navy. This information was used in planning the next expedition against Spanish America, which Lord Shelburne, who had succeeded Germain as Secretary of State for Home and American Affairs in a change of government, was determined to proceed with.
In July 1782, in a change of government, Thomas Townshend assumed the seals of office as Secretary of State for Home and American Affairs, and therewith responsibility for organising an expedition against Spanish America. Like his predecessor, Lord Germain, he turned for advice to Arthur Phillip. Phillip's plan was for a squadron of three battleships and a frigate to mount a raid on Buenos Aires and Monte Video, thence to proceed to the coasts of Chile, Peru and Mexico to maraud, and ultimately to cross the Pacific to join Admiral Hughes' East Indian squadron for an attack on Manila. The plan incorporated a proposal made by Captain John Blankett to Lord Shelburne in August 1782: "This expedition might proceed to the Isle of St Catherine's or Rio Negro for intelligence or water, and failing of success at the River of Plate to proceed immediately round to Callao. On success at the River of Plate, such force as could be spar'd might be sent as a Reinforcement to India, or to the south Seas, as the circumstances of the case should make most prudent."
The plan bore a remarkable similarity to a plan promoted by Captain William Robarts, who in 1777 had been, like Phillip, a British officer in McDouall's squadron of the Portuguese Royal Navy in Brazil (he had commanded the São João Baptista).It is possible that the two had discussed such an operation at that time, when both were at Rio de Janeiro. Robarts had also been at Colônia, in January 1763 when he had commanded the frigate Ambuscade, which formed one of a squadron of nine vessels under the command of John MacNamara which had attempted unsuccessfully to re-take the settlement after it had been captured by the Spanish under Cevallos.
The expedition, consisting of the Grafton, 70 guns, Elizabeth, 74 guns, Europe, 64 guns, and the Iphigenia frigate, sailed on 16 January 1783, under the command of Commodore Robert Kingsmill. Phillip was given command of the Europe.Shortly after sailing, an armistice was concluded between Great Britain and Spain. Phillip learnt of this in April when he put in for storm repairs at Rio de Janeiro. Phillip wrote to Townshend from Rio de Janeiro on 25 April 1783, expressing his disappointment that the ending of the American War had robbed him of the opportunity for naval glory in South America:
have been under the necessity of putting into this port, and I can assure
you Sir that the situation of the Spanish Settlements are such as I always
thought them.... All the Regulars in Buenos Ayres Monte Vedio,
and the different Guards in the River of Plate do not amount to five hundred
Men. No ship of the Line, and only two frigates in the River. You will
Sir, easily suppose how much I must be mortified in being so near &
not at liberty to Act.
Rather than return immediately to England to be paid off, he decided to sail on to India by the Cape of Good Hope to join Admiral Hughes at Madras.
By this time, mid-1783, Phillip's patron, Lord Sandwich, together with the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, was advocating establishment of a British colony in New South Wales. A colony in that part of the world would be of great assistance to the Royal Navy in facilitating attacks on the Spanish possessions in Chile and Peru, as Banks's collaborators, James Matra, Captain Sir George Young and Sir John Call pointed out in written proposals on the subject. Banks had great influence on government policy through his position as trusted adviser to the Home Office and Admiralty.
After his return to England from India in April 1784, Phillip remained in close contact with Townshend (now Lord Sydney) and the Home Office Under-Secretary, Evan Nepean. From October 1784 to September 1786 he was employed by Nepean (who was in charge of the Secret Service relating to the Bourbon Powers, France and Spain) to spy on the French naval arsenals at Toulon and other ports.
In mid-1786, a renewal of war with Spain, France and Holland appeared imminent as a result of civil war in Holland, and the British Government took the decision to found a colony at Botany Bay in New South Wales. One of the reasons for founding the colony was to provide a naval base for the British Navy in the Pacific. Lord Sydney, as Secretary of State for the Home Office, was the minister in charge of this undertaking, and in September 1786 he appointed Phillip commodore of the fleet which was to transport the convicts and soldiers who were to be the new settlers to Botany Bay. Upon arrival there, Phillip was to assume the powers of Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the new colony. A subsidiary colony was to be founded on Norfolk Island, as recommended by Sir John Call, to take advantage for naval purposes of that island's native flax and timber. Phillip's fleet sailed from Portsmouth in May 1787.
The fleet called at Rio de Janeiro during its voyage to Botany Bay to obtain essential supplies. This stay apparently re-awakened Phillip's regret at the opportunity lost for naval glory caused by the failure of his 1783 expedition. From Rio de Janeiro, Phillip sent word to Sydney and to Shelburne (now Lord Lansdowne) in a letter to Nepean dated 2 September 1787:
You know how much I was interested in the intended expedition against Monte Vedio, and that it was said that the Spaniards had more troops that I supposed. The following account I have from a person who was there all the war and I am certain that the account is exact:
One Regiment under700
Four Companies of Artillery400
Two Battalions of Infantry700
were divided on the north and south shores, and in different towns. Monte Vedio
would not have been defended, as half these troops could not have been
drawn together. Of this you will be so good as to inform the Lords Sydney
and Landsdowne; it will corroborate what
I mentioned before I left town.
In sending this letter, Phillip may not have been merely sighing for past disappointments, but reminding his government patrons that the strategy behind the 1783 expedition would still be viable in the event of a renewal of hostilities between Britain and Spain. His recalling of discussion of the matter before he left London early in 1787 would indicate that Sydney was thinking about such an expedition at that time.
The territorial boundaries of New South Wales which Phillip proclaimed when he formally founded the colony on 7 February 1788 would have reminded him of his days in Brazil. The western boundary of his jurisdiction was set at the meridian of 135° East of Greenwich, so that New South Wales was made to include the whole eastern half of Australia. That meridian coincided with the reciprocal of the line of demarcation claimed by Spain under the Treaty of Tordesillas. Dispute between Spain and Portugal over the location of the Tordesillas line had led to much conflict between the two monarchies, including the Third Colonia War which ended with a final settlement of the issue in both hemispheres by the 1777 Treaty of San Ildefonso. Ever hostile to Spain's pretensions in the Pacific, Britain felt free to disregard any claims the King of Spain might make to eastern Australia under ancient treaties when the decision was made to colonize New South Wales.
When Phillip was designated Governor of the convict colony, the London press recalled, in a rather garbled way, his transporting of degredadados from Rio de Janeiro to Colônia in 1776. An article in The World of 16 April 1789 stated: "BOTANY BAY.— Mr. Philip, who has this command, has the aid of experience. He had a similar expedition entrusted him by PORTUGAL, to carry convicts to South America."
It was not, however his experience in transporting convicts which commended Phillip to the attention of Sandwich and Sydney. His Brazilian service had shown him to be a daring and able naval officer, and had enabled him to become knowledgeable about navigation in the waters of southern Brazil and the Rio de la Plata, and concerning the defences of the Spanish empire in South America. This was what proved valuable in bringing him to the attention of Sandwich and Sydney. His able administration as founding Governor of New South Wales from January 1788 until ill health forced his premature retirement in December 1792 justified their faith in his abilities. During the Nootka Sound Crisis in 1790, plans for attacking the Spanish empire in America were revived, and Phillip's new colony was considered as a staging point for an expedition from India. However, the crisis was resolved before these plans were put into operation.
Phillip's contribution to the defence of Brazil was always remembered there and both when he called at Rio de Janeiro in August 1787 as commodore of the fleet going to colonize New South Wales and during his return to England in February 1793 he was honoured with extraordinary attention. The supplies his fleet received at Rio de Janeiro in 1787 were essential for the successful founding of the new colony, and no doubt the provision of those supplies was greatly facilitated by Phillip's good reputation. Watkin Tench, a Captain of Marines, observed of the fleet's visit in 1787: "Some part, indeed, of the numerous indulgences we experienced during our stay here must doubtless be attributed to the high respect in which the Portuguese held Governor Phillip, who was for many years a captain in their navy and commanded a ship of war on this station, in consequence of which many privileges were extended to us, very unusual to be granted to strangers." Rio de Janeiro continued to be a vital port of call for British ships supplying the New South Wales colony until well into the nineteenth century.
Presented to the V Simpósio de HistóriaMarítimo e Naval Iber-americano,
Fiscal, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 25 to
Updated: June 13, 2018