1791 - 1856
Son of Philip Gidley King, Governor of New South Wales, Phillip was the first Australian born (Norfolk Island) Marine Surveyor. He went to England with his parents in October 1796 but his father returned in 1799 to take up the post of Governor of N.S.W.
Phillip remained in England and in 1802 he went to the Portsmouth Naval Academy. He joined the Royal Navy in 1807 serving aboard the Diana as midshipman.
He had served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars and distinguished himself both by bravery in battle and in his every day duties. He was promoted master's mate in 1810 and lieutenant in February 1814.
It is said that he knew Mathew Flinders
and that it was Flinders who interested King in marine surveying.
Before leaving England, King married Harriet Lethbridge from Launceston in Cornwall.
In September 1817 he arrived at Port Jackson aboard the Dick. Here the brig Lady Nelson was made available for the upcoming survey work. Unfortunately the ship was in need to extensive repairs so when a larger ship, the cutter Mermaid, sailed into port she was purchased and outfitted for the upcoming expedition. Joining him on the expedition were Allan Cunningham, John Septimus Roe and an Aborigine named Bungaree.
King left Sydney in December 1817, first sailing south, then west through
Bass Straight. Eventually after battling headwinds, the Mermaid safely
reached King George’s Sound and dropped anchor to re-supply.
King then sailed north to explore the north west coast in detail, something that had yet to be finalised. On reaching the Exmouth Gulf (named by King after Viscount Exmouth) there was some trouble with the ship’s anchors with two being lost or broken. With only one good anchor left, King sailed north to the Dampier Archipelago.
By March, King had sailed half way along the coast of Arnhem Land but strong
easterly winds made it impossible to go any further east. Since
Tasman had been
in this area in 1644, no other European had returned for another look.
After charting much of the coast and making a trip to Timor to re-supply, King and his crew returned to Port Jackson in July 1818.
Meanwhile De Freycinet had finally left France and arrived off the West Australian coast in September 1818.
By December 1818, the Mermaid had been re-fitted, but King wanted to approach the North West from the east this time and had to wait until May 1819 for the winds to be favourable. Meanwhile he surveyed the recently discovered Macquarie Harbour on the coast of Van Diemen's Land.
De Freycinet, ignoring his orders, sailed north to Timor before going to the Hawaiian Islands and then sailing south west to Port Jackson. After doing virtually nothing to accomplish his objectives, De Freycinet sailed off towards Cape Horn only to have his ship sink while ‘safely’ anchored off the East Falkland Islands. Eventually the French sailors were rescued by an American whaler and returned to France in November 1820. After failing in his mission and losing his ship, De Freycinet was absolved during a Court Marshall and was promoted. (Quite a different result to the way Baudin would have been treated if he had returned to France.)
King arrived back at Port Jackson less than three weeks after De Ferycinet had sailed for France. In the end there had been no justification for the concern over the French expedition.
The Mermaid was re-fitted again and King sailed north in June 1820 (1) , right into the arms of a huge storm. The ship was severely damaged and King returned to port to re-fit yet again. By July they were going north again and escaped another mishap off the coast where Bowen now stands.
After the mishap the ship began to leak badly and after careening it was found that she had been constructed with iron nails instead of copper. Many nails had rusted away and all the held the ship together was the copper sheeting nailed over the hull. With the hull patched up as much as possible they pressed on but by October the leaks were again quite severe and King decided to head back to Port Jackson. On the way the ship was almost wrecked in a violent storm and only just survived to take shelter for 10 days in Botany Bay.
The ship was very lucky to survive but she had finished her surveying days. A larger ship, the Bathurst, was purchased and King was off yet again in May 1821. As had already happened twice before, King lost two anchors in the early stages of the trip and had to press on with just one on board.
By 1822 King had completed his latest expedition and was soon promoted and ordered to return to England. He had found no startling new discoveries but he had mapped a new passage through the inner Barrier Reef in Queensland and had contributed greatly to the detail of maps of the north of Australia.
In 1824 King published 'Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia'.
On his return to England King was sent, in 1836, to South America (with H.M.S. Adventure and H.M.S. Beagle) to survey the coastline of Peru, Chile and Patagonia. This was a very stressful task and in August 1828 the Captain of the Beagle shot himself. King completed the survey and returned to England in 1830.
In 1832 he came back to Australia aboard the Brothers. While he was abroad King had been appointed to the New South Wales Legislative Council but due to King's absence J. T. Campbell had to act in his place. King attempted to re-claim his place in the Council in 1837 but was opposed by Governor Bourke. King persisted and when the Governorship went to Gipps, King got his appointment back.
Not long afterward King was appointed resident commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Co. and this eventually led to him resigning from the Legislative Council.
In 1849 King boarded the Hamlet and returned to England once more before coming back again to Australia. In 1854 he fell seriously ill and the following year he became the first Australian to be promoted to Rear Admiral (retired).
King had suffered from ill health for some time when in February 1856 the rigors of his life finally caught up with him and he died at the front gate of his home in North Sydney. King and his wife had 8 children.
As for the Mermaid, she was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in June 1829. In a twist of fate her Captain had ignored the inner route through the reef pioneered by King, and had chosen to sail along the outer edge.