A response to Charles Miranda’s ‘An Admiral Endeavour’,
The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18th May 2013, page 17
So, ten years ago Premier Bob Carr secretly commissioned expatriate lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, Queen’s Counsel, to locate the remains of Captain Arthur Phillip, who died in 1814, and report on sending them to Sydney for reburial. Secret commissions, exhuming dead bodies, Sydney politicians and lawyers – it sounds like a case for ICAC. But, as these things are no doubt all perfectly legal and above board, it seems more like a case of necro-nationalism.
Mr Robertson QC was able to locate the gravesite, or at least a gravesite, about which he casts aspersions as to whether it is actually Phillip’s grave. These aspersions are valid because the beastly British have once again been treating ‘our heroes’ with their usual casual indifference and shabbiness. Shockingly, Phillip was buried in the graveyard of a country church, beside his wife, just as he wanted. More evidence of what the British thought of an Australian hero claims Mr Robertson QC. Phillip should, he says, have been in entombed in London’s Westminster Abbey with other national heroes.
As the British have recently found the remains of some old kings such as Richard III and Alfred the Great, this means that ‘foreign heroes’ should also be dug up and returned to where they came from. Things get a bit confusing at this point, as Phillip did not actually come from Australia, so ‘repatriating’ his bones (if they’re his) for burial in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney would be deliberately falsifying history. Still, that has never stopped nationalists from re-writing the past as they think it should have been. Once safely repatriated in some harbourside Westminster Abbey of our own (was Mr Carr or Mr Robertson QC channeling Henry Parkes’ State House?), Phillip will then, no doubt, be claimed to have always been a republican, and to have intended all along to found a convict republic at the earliest opportunity and rebel against the nasty imperialists in London. If only grovelling British-minded historians hadn’t written him out of our history. Repatriating Phillip’s bones would show those awful Brits that they can’t steal our history.
Once the Poms have been forced to give up our hero’s bones, we could then demand the repatriation of all our vice-regal heroes. Poor Lachlan Macquarie lying in his cold mausoleum in Scotland, or James Stirling and John Hindmarsh in neglected church paddocks on the English south coast. Gosh, Britain must be full of the bones of our founder-heroes just aching for repatriation. But, why stop there? Lord Sydney, suitably restyled as Tommy Townshend, would be an obvious candidate for liberation from his English family tomb. Of course, these hero’s descendants, and local people who honour their gravesites today, might object but really, this is our great national project. They’ll just have to get out of the way, those foreigners, those thieving Brits with no right to purloin our heroes. Clearly, they learnt nothing from transporting our innocent convicts.
Some of Phillips relics have already been repatriated, such as the bricks from a shed once on Phillip’s farm in southern England. These were a bicentennial gift to Australia, and some of the bricks ended up on the waterfront in Kingston, Norfolk Island, where they were made into a combined seat and monument to HMS Sirius (a British ship wrecked there in 1790). Today the bricks are eroding away, not being made for a harsh seaside environment. Phillip never went to Norfolk Island (a tiny detail), but a vice-regal successor, Governor-General Sir William Deane, unveiled the enigmatic seat-monument on the anniversary day of the island’s British settlement in 1788, during the Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001. Its meanings remain as confused as the righteousness of necro-nationalists.
Mr Robertson QC, who has been on this heroic quest for some time, told Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes program in 2007 that “The moral of this story is that we can’t trust the English, the Church of England, the British, to look after our national treasures”. But before we go off body snatching in the cause of the endless nationalist quest to traduce Britain and all things British, perhaps Mr Robertson QC could again be secretly commissioned to report on the fate afforded by ‘us’ to the remains of Henry James O’Farrell, ‘our’ failed assassin of Prince Alfred in 1868. Sure, anti-heroes are not the stuff of heroic necro-nationalism, but perhaps that’s the point. Throwing stones about neglecting to tend the graves of the long-departed, heroes or otherwise, will soon reveal myriad glass houses.
Phillip was an Englishman of German and Huguenot heritage who did his job as a professional officer in the Royal Navy. We should understand him for who and what he was, in his own times. Trying to saddle him with retrospective Australian nationality and herohood does, I think, a disservice to the man, his memory and his many fine achievements, not all of which were in Australia. He continued to advocate for New South Wales after he returned to London, but never expressed any desire to return, and certainly not to have his remains transported across the seas to a republic of thieves that he never founded.
I say, leave Admiral Arthur Phillip RN to rest in his grave in England, beside his wife, as he wanted. The local people there respect his memory, tend his grave and take pride in a shared history between our two countries. We can probably learn something from their generous spirit. Nature should be allowed to get on with quietly reclaiming his remains and his headstone free of the not-always tender mercies of heritage restorers and body snatching necro-nationalists. Dust to dust is at least an honest epitaph.