- Baston, P.C., BEng (Hons), Sub-Lieutenant, RAN
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- April 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911 was brought about by many factors over a considerable period. Initially the defence of Australia was the responsibility of the Royal Navy, however with the increasing cost of maintaining and defending the Empire, the British government demanded part of this cost be recovered from the actual colonies to which it was providing protection.
Australian concern for self government and self defence late in the 19th Century led to Federation in 1901, but at that time the new government could not afford to pay for a substantial naval force, and chose to retain protection under the umbrella of the Royal Navy.
The influence of the Director of the Navy, Captain William Rooke Creswell, and the then Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin in the early 1900s led to the push for an Australian Navy. The gathering clouds of war in Europe was the point where the Royal Navy released its grip on the ships of the Australia Squadron, leading to the formation of the Australian Navy. The Royal Navy, however, still maintained military control over its operation.
On 10 July 1911, His Majesty, King George V granted approval for the navy to be prefixed ‘Royal’ and autonomy was granted within a framework of treaties with the Empire. In 1913, the renewed Australian Fleet sailed into SydneyHarbour for the first time, which represented the birth of a nation.
Australia’s history is inextricably linked to that of Britain and the Royal Navy (RN). It was an Englishman, Lieutenant James Cook, RN who claimed Australia for Britain in the name of King George III on 22 August 1770. He named the land New South Wales.
Undoubtedly, Cook was not the first European to the shores of the great southern land, ‘Terra Australis Incognita’. Both the Dutch and Portuguese had discovered the northern and western coast 100 years previously but, being trading nations, were unimpressed with the barren and desolate landscape and turned their attentions to the more profitable East Indies.
With the American Declaration of Independence in 1783, Britain was deprived of a location to send her convicts, and an alternative destination had to be found. The destination selected was the southern land found a decade earlier, New South Wales, and in 1787 the ships comprising the First Fleet set sail. Captain Arthur Phillip, RN was charged with the command of the fleet and also appointed as the Governor of the new colony.
On 26 January 1788, the First Fleet anchored in Port Jackson and put a party ashore at Sydney Cove. That afternoon, the Ensign was hoisted to a volley of muskets signalling the arrival of the first European settlers.
The fledgling colony was keenly watched from Britain, and although no naval vessel was permanently assigned, occasional visits from vessels of the East India Squadron reminded the colonists of their heritage and provided them with some token of protection.
Britain was at war with France and in 1805, Nelson defeated the combined Spanish and French Fleet at Trafalgar. This victory ensured naval supremacy for Britain which was never threatened for more than 100 years. The token naval presence in Port Jackson was considered ample security for the colony since the British dominated every ocean. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, all presence of the Royal Navy in Australia vanished.
The Australian Station
With the increasing importance of maritime trade and communications to the isolated community, the Admiralty decided to maintain a man-o-war permanently at Sydney. The Australian Station was formed with the arrival of the 26 gun frigate CALLIOPE in 1821. This vessel crossed the Tasman Sea on many occasions to inspect the colonies of New Zealand, and was also employed in the charting of Australian waters.
Merchant ships and colonial craft were instrumental in the development of settlement in Australia and the extension of British sovereignty over the entire continent. French ventures of the west coast forced the British to take the remainder of the continent, with a colony being established in Fremantle in 1829. Even so, the colonies grew slowly and the Admiralty found it unnecessary to station more than one frigate in Sydney.
Australian Colonies Act (1850)
By 1850, the population still did not warrant a large naval defence force. Settlement had occurred in other areas of Australia and they demanded statehood and self government. These issues were ratified in 1850 by the Australian Colonies Act which allowed them to establish their own democratic institutions for self government. Victoria, South Australia and Queensland had all achieved self government by 1859.