Philip Gidley King: the making of a Governor

It was Arthur Phillip who chose King[1] as second lieutenant on HMS Sirius for the expedition to establish a convict settlement in NSW. King had served with Phillip before the First Fleet and was regarded as his protégé. Phillip certainly had a high opinion of King and consciously promoted his interests throughout the late 1780s and 1790s. Despite his lowly rank, soon after the settlement was established at Sydney Cove, King was selected to lead a small party of convicts and guards to set up a settlement at Norfolk Island.[2] On 14 February 1788, King sailed for his new post with a party of twenty-three, including fifteen convicts.[3] On 6 March 1788, King and his party landed with difficulty, owing to the lack of a suitable harbour and set about building huts, clearing the land, planting crops and resisting the ravages of grubs, salt air and hurricanes.[4] More convicts were sent and these proved occasionally troublesome. Early in 1789, King prevented a mutiny when some of the convicts planned to take him and other officers prisoner and escape on the next boat to arrive.[5] Despite the lack of a safe harbour, of lime and timbered land, there was plenty of fish, the stock flourished and the soil was good. It could maintain ‘at least one hundred families’, King told Phillip. Impressed by his work, the governor several times recommended his subordinate for naval promotion, but this would have raised difficulties because of King’s lack of seniority. To solve the problem the secretary of state announced in December 1789 that King would be appointed lieutenant-governor of Norfolk Island at a salary of £250.[6]

Following the wreck of Sirius at Norfolk Island in March 1790, King left and returned to England to report on the difficulties facing the settlements in NSW. During his twenty months absence the island had been under the command of Lieutenant-Governor Robert Ross[7] but Ross was not an easy commandant and convicts, settlers, soldiers and officials had become discontented under his rule.[8] King found ‘discord and strife on every person’s countenance’ and was ‘pestered with complaints, bitter revilings, back-biting’.[9] Tools and skilled labour were both very short. Thefts were common and there was still no criminal court on the island, despite the representations he had made in London on the need for better judicial arrangements.[10] However, King’s able and enthusiastic guidance helped to improve conditions. The regulations he issued in 1792 encouraged the settlers, who were drawn from ex-marines and ex-convicts, and he was willing to listen to their advice on fixing wages and prices and other things. By 1794, the island was self-sufficient in grain, and had a surplus of swine that it could send to Sydney. The numbers ‘off the store’ were high and few of the settlers wanted to leave, but unfortunately King had had no success with the growing of flax that so interested the British government.[11] In February 1794, King was faced with unfounded allegations by members of the NSW Corps on the island that he was punishing them too severely and ex-convicts too lightly when disputes arose. As their conduct became for mutinous, he sent twenty of them to Sydney for trial by court-martial.[12] There Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose censured King’s actions in going to New Zealand without first informing him, something with which Portland the new secretary of state in London later concurred and issued orders that gave the military illegal authority over the civilian population.[13] Grose later apologised, but conflict with the military continued to plague King.

Suffering from gout, King returned to England in October 1796, and after regaining his health, he resumed his naval career.[14] Phillip had wanted King to be appointed governor of New South Wales in 1792 and had continued to advocate King’s cause after Hunter had been preferred in 1794. In January 1798, it was decided that he should return to New South Wales with a dormant commission as Governor-General to succeed Hunter in the event of the latter’s death or absence from the colony, though at that time there was no question of Hunter being recalled.[15] The commission was issued on 1 May.[16] However, King was delayed in England for a further year[17] and when he finally sailed in a whaler, the Speedy on 26 November 1799 the situation had changed and he carried the dispatch recalling Hunter.

[1] For biographical information, see Shaw, A.G.L., ‘King, Philip Gidley (1758-1808)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 55-61; King, J. and J., Philip Gidley King: a biography of the third governor of New South Wales, (Methuen), 1981.

[2] See, Hoare, Merval, Norfolk Island; an outline of its history 1774-1968, (University of Queensland Press), 1969, Hazzard, Margaret, Punishment Short of Death: A History of the Penal Settlement at Norfolk Island, (Hyland House), 1984 and Treadgold, M.L., Bounteous bestowal: the economic history of Norfolk Island, (Australian National University), 1988.

[3] Crittenden, Victor, King of Norfolk Island: The Story of Philip Gidley King as Commandant and Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island, (Mulini Press), 1993. For King’s appointment and instructions see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 136-138. Fidlon, P.G. and Ryan, R.J., (eds.), The Journal of Philip Gidley King: Lieutenant, R.N., 1787-1790, (Australian Documents Library), 1980 provides King’s view of his governance of Norfolk Island until 1790.

[4] Phillip to Sydney, 28 September 1788, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 185-187 provides analysis of the resources of Norfolk Island. Ross to Phillip, 11 February 1791 gives a detailed discussion of problems encountered, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 434-450.

[5] Phillip to Sydney, 12 February 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 293-294. Since Phillip had corresponded with Sydney during 1789, it is difficult to explain why he left it a year before informing him of the mutiny.

[6] For King’s commission dated 28 January 1790, see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 287-288.

[7] For Ross’ instruction dated 2 March 1790, see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 314-316. See also his observations on the island in December 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 416-420 and the contrast with King’s observations in January 1791 when he was in London, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 428-431.

[8] He had introduced martial law almost as soon as he arrived at Norfolk Island because of the loss of the Sirius; see, Ross to Phillip, 22 March 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 319-320; see also the enclosures pp. 321-323 in which Ross laid down the standards that would now operate on the island. Phillip informed Grenville in a letter dated 14 July 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 357-358. Food shortages on Norfolk Island led Ross to introduce draconian measures in proclamations on 7 August 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 390-393.

[9] King to Under Secretary Nepean, 23 November 1791, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 562; see also King to Phillip, 29 December 1791, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 572-580.

[10] See Phillip to Dundas, 4 October 1791, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 655 on the inconveniences of the lack of a criminal court on Norfolk Island. Legislation was finally passed in London establishing a criminal court on Norfolk Island on 9 May 1794, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 235-236.

[11] King to Dundas, 19 November 1793, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 86-98 details the voyage to New Zealand to obtain Maori help with flax production. This failed and the natives returned to New Zealand, HRNSW, Vol. 2, p. 174.

[12] King to Grose, 30 January 1794, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 103-110.

[13] Grose to King, 25 February 1794, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 125-131; King to Dundas, 10 March 1794, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp.135-173 detailed the mutiny and Grose’ response. For King’s response to Grose’s reprimand see, King to Grose, 19 March 1794, HRNSW, Vol. 2, pp. 173-192.

[14] King provided a summary of his career in King to Portland, 15 June 1797, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 221-223. In this, he emphasised that he had been commended by Phillip and by Henry Dundas, the previous secretary of state.

[15] This was agreed on 27 January 1798, HRNSW, Vol. 3, p. 353.

[16] This is printed in HRNSW, Vol. 3, p. 381 and HRA, Series I, Vol. 2, p. 605 and announced in The Star, 19 May 1798.

[17] The initial plan was for him to sail on the Porpoise, but initial trials showed the ship to be unseaworthy, see King to Sir Joseph Banks, 6 February 1799 and George Caley to Sir Joseph Banks, 9 February 1799, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 533-538 and King to Sir Andrew Hamond, Comptroller of the Navy Board, 14 February 1799, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 544-546. Once modifications had been made and after a significant delay, the Porpoise sailed in September 1799 but problems with the steering gear led to its return to England: King to Sir Joseph Banks, 17 September 1799 and King to Sir A. Hamond, 18 September 1799, HRNSW, Vol. 3, pp. 718-721. By early October 1799, the Porpoise had been declared unfit for service: Portland to the Admiralty Commissioners, 5 October 1799, HRNSW, Vol. 3, p. 723.

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