On a spring afternoon in Brisbane in October 1888, twenty armed policemen, under the command of the Commissioner of Police, marched down Edward Street and deployed to take up positions in Queens Park. This police activity, which quickly drew a large crowd, was not an exercise but was in deadly earnest. But the target of their actions was not a criminal gang nor riotous crowd, rather it was the gunboat Gayundah, flagship and pride of the Queensland Marine Defence Force. The police were under orders from the Colonial Secretary to take the ship, by force if necessary, and to remove its captain from command.
At a remove of over a hundred years this incident, ludicrous enough at the time, now appears positively bizarre. How had this situation come to pass and what was the outcome? The aim of this article is to answer those questions and, in passing, to detail the career of HMQS Gayundah, one of the original ships of the infant RAN.
Colonial Naval Defence
Originally discovered, settled and explored by the Royal Navy, Australia, or rather the Australian colonies, relied comfortably for many years on the protection of the Royal Navy, safe in the knowledge that they were shielded by Albion’s might. As the various colonies expanded in population and wealth, however, and as any threat of real invasion or attack seemed to recede into the distance, the colonial power began to make moves in the middle of the 19th century to withdraw its forces from the Antipodes.
The last British Army garrison, troops of the 18th Regiment of Foot (The Royal Irish Regiment) were withdrawn in 1870. Prior to that, in 1865, the British Government had passed an act to provide for the naval defence of the colonies by the colonies themselves, the Colonial Naval Defence Act. Although this act provided for the establishment of permanent and part-time naval forces at the expense of the colonies, it actually discouraged the colonies from obtaining and operating seagoing ships and was largely designed to ensure that the colonies would provide the Royal Navy with secure ports and bases in the event of war. This did not discourage several of the colonies, however, notably Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, from raising their own navies.
The act also provided for the continuing presence of the Royal Navy in Australian waters, the squadron of the Australian Station later to be joined by the Auxiliary Squadron. The former was strictly a Royal Navy unit under command of the Admiral Commanding the Australian Station. The second unit, also under command of the Admiral Commanding the Australian Station, was an element of the Royal Navy maintained on the Australian Station at the expense of the various colonies. A particular point about the Auxiliary Squadron was that under the act and the agreements stemming from the act, units of the squadron could not be deployed away from the Australian Station without the specific agreement of the colonial governments. The agreements also allowed for the recruiting of seamen from the colonies to man both squadrons if needed.
The Queensland “Navy”
Naval defence in Queensland was very much an on again off again affair for many years, naval development going through fairly regular cycles of plenty and famine with invasion and war scares, usually involving the French or the Russians, seeing naval defence expanded and lavishly funded and then seeing funds and government support dry up when the furore of the moment had died down.
Finally, in 1882, following reports of increasing Russian naval activity in the Pacific, the decision was made to form the Queensland Marine Defence Force and the following year the Queensland government purchased a Thornycroft second-class torpedo boat which was to be named Mosquito. This boat arrived in Brisbane as deck cargo on 13 October 1884 and was forced to wait idle for a period until the Marine Defence Force could be organised to man her!
Mosquito, which distinguished itself on its very first outing on the Brisbane River by streaking off at full power in the wrong direction and dumping the official party overboard, was soon to be joined by a far more powerful sister. Anxious to increase the strength of its fledgling navy, the Queensland government made inquiries of the Admiralty regarding acquisition of two gunboats. As it happened, two “flat-iron” type gunboats (so called because in silhouette they bore an uncanny resemblance to that household appliance) were then building on the Tyne. Destined originally for a South American republic, the two hulls were taken over by the Admiralty and completed for Queensland under the names Gayundah and Paluma, aboriginal words meaning Lightning and Thunder respectively. Paluma was offered to Admiralty as a survey ship while still building and this offer was accepted, the ship’s after gun not being mounted, a chart house being built in its place. Although operated by Queensland, Paluma was to spend a large part of her career conducting surveys for the Royal Navy, a co-operative activity which benefited both parties.