A captain of a man-of-war then, as now, began at the bottom of the ladder, learning how to do little things, picking up such knowledge of detail as qualified him to teach others, to know what could be done and how it ought to be done. In all professions this rule holds good, but on shipboard men acquire something more. On land a man learns his particular business in the world; at sea his ship is a man’s world, and on the completeness of the captain’s knowledge of how to feed, to clothe, to govern, his people depended then, and in a great measure now depends, the comfort, the lives even, of seamen. So that, being trained in this self-dependence—in the problem of supplying food to men, and in the art of governing them, as well as in the trade of sailorizing—the sea-captain ought to make the best kind of governor for a new and desolate country. If your sea-captain has brains, has a mind, in fact, as well as a training, then he ought to make the ideal king.
Phillip’s despatches contain passages that strikingly show his peculiar qualifications in both these respects. His capacity for detail and readiness of resource were continually demonstrated, these qualifications doubtless due to his sea-training; his sound judgment of men and things, his wonderful foresight, which enabled him to predict the great future of the colony and to so govern it as to hold this future ever in view, were qualifications belonging to the man, and were such that no professional training could have given.
Barton, in his History of New South Wales from the Records, incomparably the best work on the subject, says: “The policy of the Government in his day consisted mainly of finding something to eat.” This is true so far as it goes, but Barton himself shows what finding something to eat meant in those days, and Phillip’s despatches prove that, although the food question was the practical every-day problem to be grappled with, he, in the midst of the most harassing famine-time, was able to look beyond when he wrote these words: “This country will yet be the most valuable acquisition Great Britain has ever made.”
In future chapters we shall go more particularly into the early life of the colony and see how the problems that harassed Phillip’s administration continued long after he had returned to England; we shall then see how immeasurably the first governor was superior to the men who followed him. And it is only by such comparison that a just estimate of Phillip can be made, for he was a modest, self-contained man, making no complaints in his letters of the difficulties to be encountered, making no boasts of his success in overcoming them. The three sea-captains who in turn followed him did their best to govern well, taking care in their despatches that the causes of their non-success should be duly set forth, but these documents also show that much of their trouble was of their own making. In the case of Phillip, his letters to the Home Office show, and every contemporary writer and modern Australian [Sidenote: 1801-14] historian proves, that in no single instance did a lack of any quality of administrative ability in him create a difficulty, and that every problem of the many that during his term of office required solution was solved by his sound common-sense method of grappling with it.