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Who Was In Charge of The First Fleet?

Students observe and interpret the painting of Arthur Phillip to comprehend the man and leader. 

Student activities

Task no. 1

Who Was In Charge of The First Fleet?

The First Fleet was captained by Arthur Phillip. He was appointed Governor-designate of NSW in 1786, two years before he set foot on our continent. He spent that time in England preparing for the journey and planning the settlement in New South Wales from the other side of the world.  

Look at Arthur Phillip’s portrait, below, and zoom into the details. This painting is a primary source. It was painted in 1786 by Francis Wheatley in England. Arthur would have posed for the portrait when he was 48 years old.  

[Captain Arthur Phillip, 1786] / painted by Francis Wheatley, 1786
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Answer these questions: 

  • What is he wearing? What does that tell us about him? 
  • What is he holding in his hand? What do the words and the four numbers mean? 
  • What can you tell about him from this painting? Discuss as a class. 

We can’t know everything about a person from their portrait. Try answering these questions, take a guess. [Answers in Additional Information.] 

  • How many languages did Arthur Phillip speak? 
  • Was he born into a rich family? 
  • Did he have any children? 
  • Do you think he ever worked as a spy? 

As it turns out, Arthur Phillip appears to have been a rather reserved person and didn’t say a lot. Portuguese authorities at the time called him

brave, honest, obedient, and self-sacrificing.

Answer this question: 

  • Which of Arthur’s qualities mentioned above do you think would be helpful as Governor? 

Discuss what qualities make a good leader. 

Why Arthur Phillip? We don’t really know why Arthur was chosen to lead the expedition and be Governor. Perhaps he was chosen as he had successfully delivered prisoners to Brazil in South America for Portugal and that he had some farming experience. Or maybe it was because he lived next door to Sir George Rose, the treasurer of the navy, who had recommended him? 

Arthur Phillip was in charge of everything and everyone on the First Fleet, including the convicts. He was the Governor of NSW for the first five years of the colony and only left when his health failed and he needed medical help.