In this second instalment of a three-post series, Ian Kemish outlines how a public mindset overwhelmingly focused on ‘strategic denial’ developed in Australia through the 19th century.
The first several decades of the nineteenth century saw the Australian colonies respond with anxiety to a series of strategic threats, real or perceived, from foreign powers in the Pacific. New South Wales was established almost on the eve of the French revolution, and the subsequent prolonged war against Emperor Bonaparte came to be the overriding preoccupation for the British authorities. Governor King dispatched an expedition to settle Van Diemen’s Land in 1803 as part of a push to secure southern strategic locations in the Pacific which might be of use to France, and then two decades later, rumours of French plans for a colony in Western Australia motivated British authorities to establish their own in 1826.
Russia was hot on the heels of France as the main regional security concern in the Pacific after Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815. This intensified in the 1850s when Russia became a British enemy with the outbreak of the Crimean war. The passage through nearby waters of a Russian naval squadron in 1854 led to the reorganisation of imperial forces in Australia, including the moving of military headquarters from Sydney to Melbourne and the construction of defensive batteries around Sydney harbour.
A different sense of danger crystallised in the colonies in the 1850s, when the discovery of gold brought thousands of Chinese workers to Australia, resulting in a well-documented racist backlash. Colonial fear of the Chinese was real, but it was not really of the Chinese state. It was not about invading armies or blockading navies; rather it was of teeming millions escaping poverty by swarming down unchecked into an underpopulated Australia.
From the late 1860s onwards, Australian colonial officials and newspapers expressed strong opposition to the establishment of a French penal colony in New Caledonia. Their objections were framed in security terms—fear of escapees loomed large in the public mind. The reaction to this French initiative also needs to be seen as part of a larger story of Australian convict shame. As the century progressed the activities of French settlers in the New Hebrides (modern-day Vanuatu) also came to be seen as threatening the security of the Melanesian island chain, which the colonies hoped would provide a bulwark against potential external threats.
The objections to French activity in the Pacific in this period were important in the development of a more independent external outlook by the Australian colonies through the last quarter of the century. Their views of France as a security threat in the Pacific increasingly differed from the strategic perspective in London, where Britain found itself needing to balance its support for the colonies with the shifting strategic dynamics in Europe.
The divergence between the strategic perspectives of London and its Australian colonies was to become even clearer when it came to the growth in German trading and missionary activity in the region. A perception grew in the colonies that Germany was a growing threat to “natural” British dominance in the Pacific, and that New Guinea to our immediate north was where that threat was concentrated. The colonies called on the imperial British authorities from the 1860s onwards to annex the unclaimed portion of the island of New Guinea—essentially the territory now called Papua New Guinea. The British believed the Australian alarm about German activity in the region was overblown. It had no wish to encourage, through perceived British expansionism, an alliance of continental powers against itself.
This tension gave rise to one of the more extraordinary moments in our own colonial history. In 1883, fearing a German annexation of New Guinea, Queensland Premier Thomas McIlwraith attempted to take matters into his own hands, unilaterally dispatching the police magistrate on Thursday Island to Port Moresby to claim the territory on behalf of the British Empire. The British authorities then stoked colonial outrage by refusing to approve this action, making it clear that Queensland had exceeded its authority and implying that part of the motivation was to increase the supply of indentured labour for Queensland’s sugar plantations.
The outrage in Australia about this British “betrayal” over New Guinea helped drive the push for an independent policy towards the Pacific. The “father of federation,” Henry Parkes, wrote later that he held no doubts that “if Australia could have spoken with one voice in the year 1883, New Guinea would have belonged to Australia”. Indeed, the first major convention of the Australian colonies to discuss federation in 1883 was driven by the immediate need to agree a common position to oppose French and German colonisation in the Pacific. The convention resolved that “further acquisition of dominion in the Pacific, south of the Equator, by any Foreign Power, would be highly detrimental to the safety and well-being of the British possessions in Australasia”. They also adopted a draft bill to establish a Federal Council of the Australasian Colonies, marking an important milestone on the path to federation.
Resentment over the British failure to back McIlwraith’s annexation of New Guinea was not appeased in November 1884 when the British were forced to respond to the declaration of a German protectorate over north-eastern New Guinea with its own protectorate over the southeast. (These protectorates were to be converted to annexations within four years.)
Renewed tension between Russia and Britain in Asia in the 1880s followed, leading to the strengthening of the British naval presence in the Pacific, major growth in the size of the colonies’ own military forces, and imperial agreement to establish an auxiliary naval squadron in Australian waters. A formal review of Australian defence capabilities in 1889 emphasised the need for military unification and a major defence upgrade to protect Australia from potential attacks—conclusions which Henry Parkes seized upon to strengthen his argument for federation, including in his famous Tenterfield speech of December that same year.
The next and final instalment will explore further how entrenched the instinct for ‘strategic denial’ had become in Australian thinking by the time of modern Australia’s formation.
Ian Kemish AM is a Griffith Asia Institute Industry Fellow.