By the last decades of the nineteenth century [Australian] colonies had come to appreciate that they had a set of vital interests which were fundamentally different from those of the Mother Country. Disputes between the Australian and British governments over commerce, immigration, the future of the Pacific islands and naval defence 1 gave expression, sometimes a bitter expression to differences. The conflicts helped transmute instinctive Australian reactions into a self-conscious policy, they paved the way for colonial union and at the same time they strengthened Australian opposition to imperial federation.2
In his treatise, THE SEARCH FOR SECURITY IN THE PACIFIC 1901-1914, the author, Dr Neville Meaney, begs the question with regard to naval defence, what were the differences (if any) and, if there were any, what impact did they have on the federation of the six colonies?
From the beginning of European settlement in Australia in 1788 the colonists were very much aware of the sea. As Captain W R Creswell3 declared:
Australia was founded by the navy, its shores explored by the navy, every ounce of produce leaves in vessels guided by charts made by the navy that has surveyed our coast. It has been defended by the navy. Our continuance in it in security during early years of settlement and small population was effected by the navy.4
The assumption must of course be made that Creswell did not intend his remark with regard to naval defence to be taken literally as none of the Australian colonies was ever attacked. In the first six decades of Australia’s European development, the colonies were not even seriously threatened by external aggression. Prior to `1853 the Australian colonists paid little attention to the state of their naval defences relying instead on the naval supremacy of Great Britain to safeguard them. No doubt they took comfort in the preamble to the Articles of War which stated that “On the British Navy, under the good providence of God, the wealth, safety and strength of the kingdom chiefly depend.”
Australians were, however, pre-occupied with the notion of attack by a foreign power as early as 1792 “…when the presence of Francois Peron’s ship aroused the prospect of a simultaneous French assault and convict rising”. 5 Until around the third decade of the nineteenth century, most of the French voyages in and around Australian waters were innocent scientific and trading expeditions6 but in at least one instance France did have aggressive intentions toward Sydney.7 By 1815, French naval strength was a shadow; her fleets had been swept from the seas and Britain’s position as a maritime power was unchallenged.8 For the most part, therefore, British movements, enterprises or probings in Australian waters were leisurely and sustained by a minimum of official support9 although the French voyages sometimes threw the British authorities into defensive preparations such as establishing the settlement at King George Sound in 1826 and three years later, a colony at the Swan River.10
In the forty years that followed Napoleon’s defeat there existed such a period of absolute peace that it blanketed initiative and encouraged neglect.11 The British Admiralty was primarily a political committee with responsibility for naval affairs and, in general, “. ..the House of Commons showed an almost total ignorance of imperial geography and imperial needs…”12 and looked at the navy chiefly in terms of home defence.
On the surface, however, it appeared that the Admiralty was in sympathy with any call for a more positive naval defence when it issued instructions to the Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies station in 1837. “The great and increasing importance of Australia, make it indispensable that part of the force under your Command should be employed on the coasts of that Continent”.13 Captains were `at liberty’ to visit the remote parts of the station, provided their presence was `not likely to be required in India’. This clause made nonsense of the whole, because India, as well as the other parts of the station ranging from Africa to China, made constant and compelling demands on the East India squadron.14
The laissez-faire attitudes of the British were not always representative of Australians’ feelings toward the security of their colonies. “For a country with twelve thousand miles of coastline and situated twelve thousand miles from its principal market and major defender, it was natural that Australia should become highly sensitive to naval questions”.15 As early as 1827 the Sydney Gazette demanded the establishment of a safety perimeter which enclosed the entire Pacific Ocean16 in order to achieve the benefit of maximum security for the New South Wales colony. By 1853, however, the Royal Navy had seen fit to station only six small, poorly-armed vessels in Australia; the size and composition of such a fleet could hardly be called an over indulgence in expenditure. Such was the attitude toward naval defence in Australia from settlement until shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century.
Defence as a contentious issue between the Antipodean colonies and the Mother Country did not, however, achieve any prominence until the eighteen fifties. The colonies, aware of their growing pastoral wealth and gold during the decade, developed a high degree of sensitivity to the Crimean War, the fear of the French and the American scares of 1859 and 1861, and the Polish scare of 1864.17 Significantly, it was also a period in which New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria acquired self-government or a large measure of control over their internal affairs.18
The colonials were not impressed with the token Royal Navy force and when the news reached Sydney in 1855 of Russian warships cruising in various parts of the Pacific Ocean the colony of New South Wales built a sixty-two foot gunboat.19 As a result of recommendations by a Select Committee of the legislature, Victoria ordered a substantially larger vessel in 1854.20
The concept of self-governing colonies having their own warships was without precedent and the legal position of armed colonial vessels was discussed by Crown law officers in England, in particular in relation to HMVS VICTORIA.
The VICTORIA is now employed as a vessel of war without the territorial waters of the Colony, but in the event of her being brought into conflict with the vessel of any foreign State…we think it very doubtful whether she could claim to be recognised as a British man-of-war, and to possess the privileges incident to international law…
We think that all vessels of war in the Colonies intended to navigate beyond these territorial limits should be commanded by officers holding commissions from the Crown, and be essentially part of the Royal Navy of England.21
Such was the thinking of the day that it would appear that both New South Wales and Victoria acquiesced with this statement. Even more surprising though is the fact that this legal opinion governed the position of all the naval forces in Australia until 1911.22
In 1847, the First Lord of the Admiralty recommended that a distinct division should be allotted to the joint Australia-New Zealand command.23 Eleven years were allowed to pass, however, before concern was felt to the point of responsible action. The Governor of Tasmania wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies urging the necessity for making the Australian Colonies an Admiral’s station, and for maintaining in Australian seas a Naval squadron “…equal at least to that maintained therein by any other power”.24 In a bid to support his representations, Sir Henry Young invited New South Wales to participate but the Executive Council of that colony disagreed that the commander-in-chief should be an Admiral.25 They did criticise the adequacy of the naval force then in Australia, however, stating that two vessels were not “… in any way adequate to the protection either in peace or war of British and Colonial interests…”26
Despite the fiscal restrictions of the time27 the Admiralty was obviously aware that it could procrastinate no longer and conceded “…the amount of force hitherto maintained in the seas adjacent to those [Australian and New Zealand] Colonies will in future require to be larger than at former periods…”28
The immediate and practical outcome of the decision was the despatch of an additional two vessels to Sydney, but more significant was the creation of the Australian Station under the command of a Commodore.29
These moves did not have the effect of placating the Colonies with regard to defence, however. In the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in November 1859, the arch republican John Dunmore Lang moved an amendment to a motion of Henry Parkes because he considered that Great Britain would be at war sooner or later with a great European power(s) and Australia should not have to be involved.30 He advocated Great Britain giving “…Her Australian Colonies their entire freedom and independence – and constituting them, under some form of Federal Government, .. .a Sovereign and Independent Australian Empire”.31 His speech showed a less than parochial outlook when he referred to the tempting prize of “…these defenceless colonies of New South Wales and Victoria”.32 The crux (and validity) of his argument was in the statement than in the event of Great Britain being involved in a European war, “I maintain.., it is hopeless for us to rely on imaginary succour…from the Mother Country, as the whole disposable force of England will then be required at home”.33
Victoria should also have had some doubts as to the effectiveness of relying on Britain for its defence needs. In 1859 the Defence Commission appointed Captain F B Seymour RN, to report on the defences of the Colony.34 The validity of Lang’s fears are to be found in a letter which Seymour wrote to the Governor of Victoria. With regard to the Royal Navy ships being available for defence purposes, the Captain wrote that “…it is better not to calculate upon an Imperial ship being in port [in time of war]”.35 He softened the statement by pointing out that if the enemy had colonies within a reasonable distance of Australian waters it would be “…the duty of Her Majesty’s servants …to seek him in his own ports…”36
The simple fact of the matter was that even in the event of an `incident’ or a minor war such as was common in South-East Asia at the time, six or eight months might elapse before reinforcements arrived from home waters to replace those ships withdrawn from Australian waters.37
The realisation that the naval defence arrangements of the Australian colonies would have to be drastically overhauled was also occurring in Britain. In 1859 a Departmental Committee submitted a report to the imperial government in which the `injurious consequences’ of the old policy of encouraging the colonies to rely solely on the Mother Country for protection was pointed out.38 The unfair burden on the British taxpayer and the `retardation of the spirit of self-reliance and self-defence in the colonies’ were given as the reasons for downgrading the Imperial naval defence effort in AustraIia.39 It seems that the point of possible conflict, the Australian colonies being left defenceless in the event of a European conflict, was studiously avoided.
It was believed by the British government that colonies which demanded and acquired increasing powers of self-government should accept the material and financial consequences. A resolution of the House of Commons in March 1862 summarised the policy thus: “That this House …is of the opinion that Colonies exercising the rights of self-government ought to undertake the main responsibility of providing for their own internal order and security and ought to assist in their own external defence.40
The culmination of the prevailing attitude was the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865 which, whatever its failings, did provide for a definite Colonial naval policy. Its chief provisions were:
(1) colonies were able to provide, maintain, and use their own vessels of war under such conditions and for such purposes as Her Majesty in Council …approves, and to place these vessels at Her Majesty’s disposal, when any such vessel would become to all intents a vessel of Her Majesty’s regular navy;
(2) to raise and maintain seamen to serve in such vessels; and,
(3) to raise and maintain volunteers entered on terms of being bound to general service in the Royal Navy, emergency volunteers so raised to form part of the Royal Navy Reserve.41
This invitation to establish local naval forces invoked little response from the Colonies (except Victoria42), and in 1869 the Admiralty put forward a proposal to establish a permanent Australian naval force, the colonies to pay half the cost of the -ships and their upkeep. Eventually after much discussion, the plan was abandoned.43
At face value the 1865 Act appeared to be an economic measure as it tended to reduce the liabilities of the Imperial government by permitting the establishment of locally controlled naval forces and giving to colonial armed vessels, the status of ships of war. Nor was it considered to be an inevitability of colonial influence but rather “…the means of enabling [the colonials] to provide for their own local defence in conjunction with the wider responsibility of the Imperial navy”.44 The Secretary of State for the Colonies saw the establishment of a colonial naval force as being “…a most valuable addition to the Imperial defences”.45 Separation of the colonies from the Empire was not, therefore, the aim of the legislators with regard to the Colonial Naval Defence Act. Rather, it was said to be seen as enhancing a continuing association between the colonies and the Mother Country “…on a basis of mutual instead of one-sided benefit”.46
The platitudes and public reasoning of politicians and statesmen alike were open to the most severe criticism but, curiously, the Australians were silent on the reasons for the enactment of the legislation. The First Lord of the Admiralty stated to Parliament that it was framed “… partly to meet the wish of the colony of Victoria to maintain a ship of war at its own cost”.47 That the colony had taken delivery of its first warship nine years before48 the statement was made, seems to have been overlooked.49
Victoria continued to make requests for additional naval defences until the 1880s but without any notable success.50 Of the various schemes mooted, none of any substance met with the approval of Victoria, the Admiralty or the Treasury.
For half a century the British fleet had enjoyed a long and seemingly irreducible lead in wooden ships, but by the end of the 1850s the simultaneous emergence of steam, screw, iron and armour plate suddenly transformed the situation.51 The technological advancements of the 19th century were responsible for an internal struggle between the innovators and the conservative sailors. The uncertainties about ship design were used by the politicians of both parties after 1865. “In fact naval expenses did not increase between 1865 and 1885″.52 For nearly two decades, naval defence was also a dormant issue in Australia. Even to the rich Australian colonies, the expense was considered unnecessary. The attention of both France and Russia was directed far from the Pacific, while the risk of war with the United States had passed.53 A great war might have made the difference, but none occurred.
For these and other reasons, the Colonial Naval Defence Act was not of much importance during the period. “It did not take its proper place in Imperial relations until developing national consciousness made it unsatisfactory …to depend entirely upon the Royal Navy …for …external defence”.54
In January 1881 colonial politicians meeting in Sydney passed a resolution defining responsibility for the defence of the Australian colonies. Naval defence, they flatly stated, was exclusively an Imperial responsibility. Since existing defence was inadequate, the Royal Naval squadron on the station should be increased, and at Imperial expense.55
Needless to say the British Government declined the responsibility “…but it took six years of negotiation, argument, proposal and counter-proposal before the terms of the Australian naval defence agreement were finalised …”56 closely linked local problems which needed to be resolved were twofold:
…should colonial forces be an alternative to, or an integral part of, the Royal Naval squadron on the station; should additional naval defence for Australasia be provide at imperial or colonial cost [?]57
For the first time the problems were clearly identified, but more importantly, they were not, as in the past, being discussed in a piecemeal fashion over many years. The debate about these problems resulted in a revision of the role of colonial navies and a new defence relationship between the Imperial government and the colonies was worked out.58 Like all compromises, the Naval Defence Agreement of 1887 was not entirely satisfactory but both sides knew that a solution had to be found to what was becoming an increasingly pressing problem.
During the last quarter of the century, Germany, Japan, the United States and Italy made their appearances as great Powers. In the same period, nationalism increased in strength, while international diplomacy became more tense and less scrupulous. Among the great Powers the advance of the industrial revolution combined with a desire for national aggrandisement to produce a dynamic imperialism and highly competitive policies of colonial expansion. Accordingly, the nations lived in a world that had lost much of its former stability and security.59
The eighties witnessed a boom in imperialism. The race between the great Powers for the acquisition of colonies, the growing militarism on the Continent, and the defeat of Free Trade in almost all foreign countries had placed the value of colonies beyond all doubt.60 Public attention was drawn to the problem of the relations between England and her colonies and it was under these types of pressures that the 1887 Naval Defence Agreement was reached. As defence was probably the most important and fundamental of all the interests which the various parts of the Empire held in common, “…it might appear that if the imperialists failed to solve the problem of common defence they would fail all along the line”.61
In the report of a Royal Commission published in 1882, the Commissioners stated that the time had come for the Australian Colonies to share the burden of their naval defence more equitably.
It was not desirable that these [Australian] Colonies should maintain sea-going ships of their own for action beyond their territorial waters. But we see no reason why the Australian Colonies should not make a moderate contribution in money towards the cost of that Squadron which is maintained by the Mother Country for the protection of the interests common to the Colonies and herself.62
What Britain was worried about became a reality in the following year. Queensland purchased a gunboat with the express purpose of having the ability to move out into the open seas in order to seize Pacific territories and matters came to a head in 1883 when Queensland seized New Guinea.
Britain refused to ratify the annexation.63 Britain had no objection to coming to Australia’s aid if she were attacked but objected strongly to being dragged into a major European war “…because some upstart colonial Premier attacked a French or German ship in order to indenture a few more labourers”.64
In Australia at the time, the Colonies were each convinced that they must provide their own local naval forces65 in spite of the advice of the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Station that they should take united action for the defence of their territorial waters.66
A naval organisation already existed in Victoria and New South Wales. In South Australia and Queensland proposals to form local naval forces, based on the recommendations of the Jervois-Scratchley report,67 were under discussion. By 1884, five separate naval forces were concerned with Australian naval defence. This unco-operative effort on the part of the Australian Colonies failed to satisfy the British Government, which repeated its view that Australians should contribute towards the cost of defence at sea as distinct from harbour and coastal defence.68
Late in 1884, the First Sea Lord suggested that the formation of a special Australasian Squadron supplementing the Imperial Squadron, would be the best way to overcome the inherent weakness and inefficiency which must mark any further development of independent colonial forces. In many respects, this was a repetition of the proposals advanced in 1869 but rejected by the CoIonies.69
In November 1884 Rear Admiral George Tryon was appointed as the first Flag Officer to command the Australian Squadron. Before leaving England he was instructed to confer with the Colonial Premiers concerning the Admiralty proposal to form an Auxiliary Squadron. Tryon proved an able and patient negotiator and,in 1885, aided perhaps by the seeming imminence of war with Russia, he succeeded in persuading the colonies that the time had come for them to contribute towards to cost of their seaward defence.70
As the States were at last in agreement in their willingness to provide a subsidy, a Colonial Conference was convened in London in April 1887. From these discussions emerged the Australasian Naval Defence Act of 1887 which provided that the existing British Squadron in Australasian waters should be supplemented by an Auxiliary Squadron of five fast cruisers and two torpedo gunboats at a cost to each colony determined on the basis of population.71 It was made for a period of ten years at least; and it could only be terminated then or thereafter with two years notice.72 The ships were to be under the sole control and orders of the Commander-in-Chief of the Australia Station but, most important of all, they could not be removed from Australasian waters without the consent of the Colonial Governments.73 This overcame the major source of concern for there was no point in paying for a fleet in peace time if it was to be taken away once an attack was imminent.74 The Auxiliary Squadron which arrived at Sydney on 5 September 1891 proved a failure.75
There was now a three-tiered arrangement for naval defence in Australia and six different administrative organisations.76 On the one hand, the Admiralty, unused to the responsibility of operating a squadron over which it had only limited control, developed the creed that there must be only one Empire Navy – the Royal Navy.
From the Admiralty …we who had the cause of a self-reliant colonial naval service at heart could not only not look for support but had active opposition to fear… It neither desired nor would tolerate a family of infant navies overseas, and resolutely set its face against providing a nursery for the brats. Colonial control would have spelt dual control, and dual control of the sea forces of the Empire …seemed bound to lead straight to disaster.77
On the other hand, the Australians came to regard the squadron as poor value for their money. In effect, the ships became part of the Imperial Squadron and at no time became the training ground for Australian seamen as had been expected by the Colonies.78 Finally, the loan of three of the Auxiliary Squadron ships and the South Australian cruiser PROTECTOR for service in China waters during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 brought matters to a head. On their return, Australians argued that `Australian’ ships and men should not be sent to fight for causes which were of no concern to Australia.79 Before most of the ships had returned, Federation had created the Commonwealth of Australia and the `Agreement’ was about to expire, so the naval situation became a subject for general debate.80
A strong reason for the formation of the Auxiliary Squadron in the first place was the weakness of the Imperial Squadron stationed in Australian waters. Most of the ships had no fighting value against modern armaments and were kept in the Pacific “…as a step towards the scrap-heap”.81 HMS NELSON, flagship of the Squadron when Admiral Tryon took command was still fitted with a ram!82
Australia, during the last decade of the century, was beset with many internal problems, not the least of which was the financial crisis of 1892-3, which depleted the Treasuries and made governments unwilling to consider any schemes that might necessitate fresh expenditure.83 In Victoria, for example, all naval progress was brought to a standstill. All ships were placed in reserve and some even sold. In the remaining years before Federation, naval activity did not revive so that when the Commonwealth finally took over her five ships, not only were they in a deplorable condition, but also they did not even have nucleus crews.84
All through the nineties, too, federation was occupying the attention of politicians; defence, though an essential part of the Federation problem, could be left over till the main issues had been decided.85
In 1901, none of the defence forces transferred to the Commonwealth by the States were of importance in any serious calculation of the security of the continent against attack.86 Feakes described two of the vessels as “…Lilliputian over-gunned hulks …[which] …exhibited the sea-going qualities of half-tide rocks”.87 Such was the state of naval defence at the birth of the Commonwealth of Australia.
The Australians at the end of the century welcomed increased imperial co-operation despite the many differences which had taken place over the years. They also welcomed bilateral co-operation in matters concerning Pacific defence and diplomacy. On the other hand they had turned their face against anything that smacked of an imperial executive.88
They had come to recognise that there was a fundamental conflict of view over priorities in defence and diplomacy between the colonies and the Mother Country. Australians in looking to their own were unwilling to be sacrificed for a greater interest with which they could not fully identify and which they did not wholly share.89
As to whether the differences between the Australian colonies and Britain on the subject of naval defence made any impact on the federation of the colonies, there really is no direct evidence. The conflicts which did appear to strain the relationship were cyclical and, generally, arose as a result of a short-lived scare of war. As these were infrequent in the 113 years between European settlement and Federation, the conclusion must be that, on the balance of probabilities, the differences did not have any significant impact on the decision of the six Australian colonies to federate.