Act 3: The governor sees it through
Arthur Phillip and Lord Sydney knew and liked each other. As a young man Phillip had served in the navy during the Seven Years War. Two decades later he came, to the attention of Britain’s Home Office when he authored the plans for an attack on Spain’s South American colonies, as part of a wider war between the two empires. The attack was called off at the last moment, as the ships were under sail, when an armistice was signed, but Sydney had clearly been impressed by the organisational energy of this man Phillip. He’d emerged from obscure origins (son of a German, educated at a Greenwich school for sons of poor seaman), but was now being employed in late 18th century espionage, spying on French naval arsenals on the European continent. Phillip was given charge of implementing Sydney’s blueprint for a new society in a new colony.
Say ‘implement’ and it can seem no greatly important thing – a mere functionary carrying out orders. Seeing through a new path against all the ingrained expectations of everyone who serves with or beneath you though, is no easy thing. The casual plundering of the Kables’ valuables during the First Fleet voyage is suggestive of just how unfathomable these new rules were. Convicts, especially illiterate convicts with no immediate great patron to protect them, were easy prey.
And by the time of the Kables trial, in early July 1788, Phillips’ estimation of the quality of convicts as settlers had plummeted. Simultaneous with the trial Phillip was writing back to Sydney in frank, even fed up tones, saying that the next fleet to arrive should bring even a small number of free families to cultivate the soil, as the convicts were proving hopeless as settlers. A handful of ordinary families, Phillip thought, would likely prove more useful ‘than all the convicts under our present circumstances, for they destroy and rob in spight [sic] of every possible precaution, and punishments have no effect.’ If ever the man on the spot could have felt it well in his rights to write home to London saying, effectively, ‘I tried out that civil not martial law experiment of yours, but I’m afraid it’s really not fit for purpose…’, it was Phillip, circa Port Jackson, midwinter 1788.
But that’s not what Phillip did. On Tuesday 1st July the Kables, (and, truly, you can’t help but admire their chutzpah), filed a request for Duncan Sinclair, master of the Alexander, to be summoned to explain the whereabouts of their mysteriously missing items. A warrant was duly signed and addressed, and on the Saturday the ship’s captain appeared before a court consisting of Judge Advocate David Collins, Reverend Richard Johnson and John White, ship’s surgeon, with some explaining to do.
After depositions from the ship’s mate, a ship steward and Captain Hunter, it was established that the Kables luggage had indeed been delivered to the Alexander for the journey but, tragically, when it was moved from one part of the ship to another, ‘it had broken’. Only one part of the contents had been delivered to the Kables, of one quarter the value of the total goods. Captain Sinclair was told to pay the convict Kables £15 to make good their loss. Without fanfare, or spectacular acclamation, a new, quite unexpected future began to beckon.
Artist: Bernard Caleo
Music: Bruce Woolley
A story told in three acts: