He was born in London, the son of Jacob Phillip, a German-born language teacher, and his English wife, Elizabeth. Phillip joined the Royal Navy at fifteen, and saw action at Minorca in 1756. In 1762 he was promoted to lieutenant, but was placed on half pay when the Seven Years War ended in 1763. During this period he married, and farmed in Hampshire.
In 1774 Phillip joined the Portuguese Navy as a captain, serving in the war against Spain. In 1778 England was again at war, and Phillip was recalled to active service, and in 1779 obtained his first command, the Basilisk. He was promoted to captain in 1781, and was given command of the Europe, but in 1784 he was back on half pay.
Then, in October 1786, Phillip was appointed captain of the Sirius and appointed Governor-designate of New South Wales, the proposed British penal colony on the east coast of Australia, on the other side of the world. The appointment seems to have been the work of George Rose, Under-Secretary of the Treasury and a neighbour of Phillip in Hampshire. He would have known of Phillip's experience in farming.
Phillip had a very difficult time assembling the fleet which was to make the eight month sea voyage to Australia. Everything a new colony might need had to be taken, since Phillip had no real idea of what he might find when he got there. There were few funds available for equipping the expedition. His suggestion that people with experience in farming, building and crafts be included was rejected. Most of the 778 convicts were petty thieves from the London slums. Phillip was accompanied by a contingent of marines and a handful of other officers who were to administer the colony.
The First Fleet, of eleven ships, set sail on 13 May 1787. The leading ship reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. Phillip soon decided that this site, chosen on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks, who had accompanied James Cook in 1770, was not suitable, since it offered no secure anchorage and had no reliable water source. After some exploration Phillip decided to go on to Port Jackson, and on 26 January the marines and convicts were landed at Sydney Cove, which Phillip named after Viscount Sydney, the Home Secretary.
The early days of the settlement were chaotic and difficult. If food was not grown, the colony would soon starve, but few of the convicts had ever worked on the land, and many were unwilling to work at all. The marines were not interested in convict discipline. Almost at once, therefore, Phillip had to appoint overseers from among the ranks of the convicts to get the others working. This was the beginning of the process of emancipation which was to culminate in the reforms of Lachlan Macquarie after 1811.
Phillip showed in other ways that he recognised that New South Wales could not be run simply as a prison camp. Two convicts, Henry and Suzannah Kable, sought to sue the captain of one the transport ships for stealing their possessions during the voyage. Convicts in Britain had no right to sue. But Phillip not only allowed this, he found in their favour, and ordered the captain to make restitution. Phillip had said before leaving England: "In a new country there will be no slavery and hence no slaves," and he meant what he said. Neverthless, Phillip belived in discipline, and floggings and hangings were commonplace.
Phillip also had to adopt a policy towards the Iora Aboriginal people, who lived around the waters of Sydney Harbour. Phillip ordered that they must be well-treated, and that anyone killing Aboriginal people would be hanged. Phillip befriended an Iora man called Bennelong, and later took him to England. On the beach at Manly, a misunderstanding arose and Phillip was speared in the shoulder: but he ordered his men not to retaliate. Phillip generally won the trust of the Iora, although introduced diseases and alcohol soon greatly reduced their numbers.
The Governor's main problem was with his own military officers, who wanted large grants of land, to which Phillip would not agree. The officers were expected to grow food, but they considered this beneath them. As a result scurvy broke out, and in October 1788 Phillip had to send the Sirius to Cape Town for supplies, and strict rationing was introduced, with thefts of food punished by hanging.
By 1790 the situation had stabilised. The population of about 2,000 was adequately housed and fresh food was being grown. Phillip assigned a convict, James Ruse, land at Rose Hill (now Parramatta) to establish proper farming, and when Ruse succeeded others followed. But in June 1790 the Second Fleet arrived with hundreds more convicts, most of them to sick to work. In an attempt to relieve the overcrowding, Phillip established a satellite settlement at Norfolk Island, which later developed a terrible reputation as a place of severe punishment.
By December 1790 Phillip was ready to return to England, but the colony had largely been forgotten in London and no instructions reached him, so he carried on. In 1791 he was advised that the government would send out two convoys of convicts annually, plus adequate supplies. But July, when the vessels of the Third Fleet began to arrive, with 2,000 more convicts, food again ran short, and he had to send a ship to Calcutta for supplies.
By 1792 the colony was well-established, though Sydney remained an unplanned huddle of wooden huts and tents. The whaling industry was established, ships were visting Sydney to trade, and convicts whose sentences had expired were taking up farming. John Macarthur and other officers were importing sheep and beginning to grow wool. The colony was still very short of skilled farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen, and the convicts continued to work as little as possible, even though they were working mainly to grow their own food.
In late 1792 Phillip, whose health was suffering from the poor diet, at last received permission to leave, and on 11 December 1792 he sailed in the Atlantic, taking with him Bennelong and many specimens of plants and animals. The European population of New South Wales at his departure was 4,221, of whom 3,099 were convicts. The early years of the colony had been years of struggle and hardship, but the worst was over, and there were no further famines in New South Wales. Phillip arrived in London on in May 1793. He tendered his formal resignation and was granted a pension Of 500 pounds a year.
Phillip's wife, Margaret, had died in 1792. In 1794 he married Isabella Whitehead, and lived for a time at Bath. His health gradually recovered and in 1796 he went back to sea, holding a series of commands and responsible posts in the wars against the French. In January 1799 he became a Rear-Admiral. In 1805, aged 67, he retired from the Navy with the rank of Admiral, and spent most of the rest of his life at Bath. He continued to correspond with friends in New South Wales and to promote the colony's interests with government officials. He died at Bath in 1814.
Phillip was buried in St Nicholas's Church, Bathampton. Forgotten for many years, the grave was discovered in 1897 and the Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, had it restored. A monument to Phillip in Bath Abbey Church was unveiled in 1937. Another is at St Mildred's Church, Bread St, London, and there is a statue of him in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. There is an excellent portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. His name is commemorated in Australia by Port Phillip, Phillip Island and many streets, parks, schools and other things.
Alan Serle wrote of Phillip in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: "Steadfast in mind, modest, without self seeking, Phillip had imagination enough to conceive what the settlement might become, and the common sense to realize what at the moment was possible and expedient. When almost everyone was complaining he never himself complained, when all feared disaster he could still hopefully go on with his work. He was sent out to found a convict settlement, he laid the foundations of a great dominion."