Robbers and spoilers

Australia and Britain in the 19th Century Pacific

White settlers interact in distinctive ways with both the ‘mother country’ and the non-white peoples around them. TOM O’LINCOLN looks at colonial Australia’s love-hate relationship with British imperialism. (This article was written in 1997 for the journal Reconstruction, which ceased publication before the article appeared.)


AS THE twentieth century opened, Asian peoples began to clamour for independence from European oppression. Joining the clamour was the white settler population of Australia, which became a semi-independent state in 1901. Superficial analogies with other colonies have been used over the years to suggest that our local nationalism is, or was, anti-imperialist, and therefore progressive. However a look at Australia’s ‘foreign policy’ in the late 19th century proves otherwise. The local nationalism grew up within the framework of a ‘sub-imperialism’ more aggressive about imperialist conquest than the British themselves.

European empires, both colonial and informal, expanded fairly steadily between the Napoleonic wars and World War 1. Before the 1870s, it is true, this expansion was not accompanied by a rapidly imperialist climate of opinion. Richard Cobden and John Bright, liberal leaders of the free-trade "Manchester school", even argued that Britain's prosperity did not depend on possessing colonies. Such places would do business with Britain in any case, while the mother country only incurred extra expense by having to defend its direct control. The Oxford professor Goldwin Smith actively advocated withdrawal from the colonies.

However such arguments were ignored by successive governments. In the first half of the century Britain acquired key trading posts at Singapore (1819), Aden (1839) and Hong Kong (1842), annexed New Zealand (1840) and Natal (1842) and steadily strengthened its position in India as well as establishing a daunting commercial position in Latin America. The two other major imperialist powers were France and Russia. The expansion was driven by factors ranging from national prestige to pressure from local colonial officials and soldiers, who often seized territory and created faits accomplis. The key underlying cause, however, was the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe which created companies seeking raw materials, products and capital seeking outlets, and the military technology which enabled relatively small bands of soldiers to vanquish great armies -- a capability summed up in Hilaire Belloc's verse:

whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not.

In the second half of the century, as new players entered the scene (Belgium, Germany, Japan, the USA) the political and cultural atmosphere thickened. In Britain, the Royal Colonial Institute was established in 1868, D'Israeli made a major pro-imperialist speech at the Crystal Palace in 1872, and the Imperial Federation League emerged in in the 1880s. In these years of largely Liberal government, the British conservatives made an issue of supposed threats to the empire in an attempt to rally support. Meanwhile the public became fascinated with exploration, especially in Africa. The German Kolonialverein began lobbying for colonial expansion, as did Belgium's Crown Prince Leopold. The 1870s were a decade of growing political preparation for the orgy of colonial expansion which marked the latter stages of the century.

The race began in the eighties. In 1881 France established a protectorate at Tunis, then during 1884-85 it did the same in Annam. 1882 saw the British military occupation of Egypt. By 1884 Germany had African colonies, and from 1887 France began taking over a huge swathe of equitorial Africa. This process of expansion continued until World War 1. "Thus during the four decades before 1914 European influences, political, military, economic, cultural, were imposed on an unprecedented scale on every part of the non-European world." (Anderson 205) That the arrival of western capitalism brought economic and social advances need not be denied, as long as there is no pretence that the motives were altruistic or that massive brutality, theft, and sometimes genocide, were not also an integral part of the experience. "With all our 'highfalutin' to the contrary, " wrote the architect of British colonial policy in the South-west Pacific, J. B. Thurston, "the wrongs we have committed in the names of Christianity, civilisation, progress are manifold. We are ... a race of robbers and spoilers." (Scarr 234)

Often the most enthusiastic imperialists were the leaders of local settler populations. Their commercial hungers and political ambitions were naturally aroused by the prospect of new territories nearby. Conversely they feared the consequences should some rival power establish itself in the region.

A sub-imperialism* in the South Pacific

The key issues in Australasia and the Pacific Islands were land and labour. Establishing capitalism required the transformation of land into a commodity, and the mobilisation of a labour force to extract wealth from the soil. The people who already lived there were sometimes a nuisance and sometimes an opportunity: a nuisance where they perversely resisted being driven off the land that had been their home from time immemorial, but an opportunity if they could be put to work. In Australia, it proved difficult to turn the Aborigines into labourers, so labour had to be imported. Mostly it came from the British Isles, but in North Queensland indentured labour arrived from the Pacific.

The Australian colonies displayed expansionist tendencies almost from the beginning. In order to segregate different groups of convicts and create places of secondary punishment, the authorities founded outstations soon after the initial settlement at Sydney Cove. In addition, the presence of imperial rivals prodded the colonists into grabbing new territory. Reports of the Frenchman Freycinet's explorations, the foundation of Singapore and the growth of regional trade all drew the NSW government's attention to northern Australia. Meanwhile voices were heard demanding the establishment of a settlement at Swan River on the grounds that the area was too strategically important to be allowed to fall into French hands. In 1817, Governor Macquarie indicated that neither France nor any other European power would permitted to establish bases anywhere on the continent.

However, the earliest expansionism flowed directly from British policy, not local initiative. In fact there were local chauvinist voices in Sydney, such as W.C. Wentworth's Australian newspaper, who disliked the Colonial Office's "scattering British subjects along the coasts of New Holland ... like so many bats in a forsaken dwelling" on the basis of decisions by "lieutenant dunderheads". (The Australian, 8 November 1826) By the mid-1820s the historic growth of the pastoral industry, which would drive the indigenous people from the land and transformed much of it into a vast sheepwalk, was already underway. A more sophisticated local economy emerged, accompanied by quasi-autonomous political structures. Yet the process was still overwhelming driven by the dynamic of British capitalism: the wool industry would not have amounted to very much without the hunger of British textiles mills for its products.

Even the rudiments of an Australian nation did not yet exist, and from the vantage point of London, or even Sydney, the distinction between "Australia" and elsewhere in the region was still fairly very vague at this stage. New Zealand, New Guinea, Norfolk Island, even Fiji were seen as being in much the same category as, say, Western Australia. They were all relatively close and were inhabited only by "savages" -- in fact the doctrine of terra nullius extended to New Guinea. They were all, therefore, inviting targets.

Sealers from NSW had established bases in New Zealand by as early as 1791, while the plentiful supply of flax and timber attracted traders, including members of the NSW Corps "prepared to go to almost any length, geographical or otherwise, to enrich themselves." (Tapp 8) Governor King had ideas of importing Maoris to work as shepherds -- the first hint of a labour trade. In 1814 New Zealand was treated to a visit from Samuel Marsden at the head of the first missionary contingent.

Although both traders and missionaries initially preferred to keep government involvement to a minimum, within a few years they had provoked enough local antagonism to need the protection of the redcoats. Merchants began calling for a military presence after Maoris, angered by abuses on the part of white sailors, massacred the crew of the Boyd in 1810. By 1823 the Sydney Gazette was already trumpeting plans for serious colonisation, and in 1826 a group of merchants and shipowners in the whaling industry called for British intervention "on commercial, humanitarian and strategic grounds". (Eddy 251) The argument for intervention was strengthened by the actions of adventurers selling firearms to Maori clans and fomenting strife between them. These pressures gradually drove both the Sydney authorities and the Colonial Office towards action.

In 1819 Governor Macquarie appointed the missonary John Butler as a JP in New Zealand, and the Colonial Office appointed a Resident in 1832, though the latter was quite ineffectual. After attacks on the crew of the Harriet in 1834, Governor Bourke sent two ships with troops to take bloody vengeance. Towards the end of the thirties that keen hatcher of colonisation schemes, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, helped initiate the New Zealand Colonisation Company which put further pressure on the government; in the same year Governor Gipps' mandate was enlarged to include New Zealand. Finally in 1840 a strong British force arrived to impose terms on the Maori tribes at Waitangi.

Administrative links did not last long, but as New Zealand remained an economic dependency of NSW was many years, this is perhaps the first hint of an "Australian imperialism". However it was the "long boom" after the 1850s gold rushes which consolidated Australia as a distinct centre of capital accumulation, with autonomous local ruling classes, elaborate machinery of state, and a flowering of local expansionist sentiment.

The hungry eyes turned first to Fiji. In 1859 the NSW Legislative Assembly resolved that the island group should become a British possession, the first time an Australian legislature had tried to influence imperial foreign policy. This followed the Crimean War, which had brought on a scare about invading Russians and provoked greater interest in international affairs. However interest subsided again until the late sixties, which saw the "Great Fiji Rush". Destruction of cotton plantations during the American civil war had caused a world-wide shortage of this crop, which grew readily in Fiji. The result was a flow of investment and settlers from Australia.

Enthusiasm was greatest in gold-rich and optimistic Victoria, where a wide range of business figures backed the Polynesia Company in late 1868. The Company failed in the end, but it stimulated other, more successful firms -- most famously the Melbourne-based Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), which by 1900 had made investments worth over 2 million pounds, was exporting 88% of the islands' sugar and spirits, and had imported tens of thousands of Indian labourers. The Melbourne Age drew political conclusions from the commercial trends, in an article which illustrated the sub-imperialist dynamic rather well:

"The most prosperous colonies have been founded without the assistance of, frequently in direct antagonism to, the wishes of the parent State ... if England refuses to interfere, Austeralia will do well to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of stepping into the breach ... Since England can rule India, why should not Victoria make the experiment of trying to rule Fiji?" (The Age, 14 August 1869)

Arguments for annexation were to hand: the settlers needed protection from local unrest, as did capital investment; moreover humanitarians could be assured that direct rule of the islands would stamp out the trade in black labour. Efforts to promote British rule of Fiji continued in the seventies, with the Polynesia Company making representations to both the Victorian and NSW governments, and two intercolonial conferences taking up the issue.

Still the issue did not dominate Australian politics, and when Britain finally raised the Union Jack in the island group in 1874, pressure from the antipodes was only a minor factor in the decision. The seventies and even the early eighties were primarily a period in which the key arguments for expansion in nearby islands were rehearsed and lessons learnt from early mistakes. For example, advocates of annexation had generally resisted suggestions that the Australian colonies should actually shoulder the expense of administering the new territories, an attitude which irritated London. This mistake was not repeated in the eighties, when Australia finally got to join the race to divide the world.

A variety of colonial interests favoured imperial expansion in the Pacific. If we simplify the pattern slightly, we can identify each with one or another of the three eastern colonies.

Gold-rich Victoria had surplus capital looking for outlets. Its industrial and political leaders were generally recent migrants with an international outlook. The dominant economic philosophy, protectionism, could be readily extended to the idea of protecting investment abroad, and forestalling rivals like the French through state intervention. Victoria was also the main base for the nationalist Australian Natives Association and for the Presbyterian Church, which had a lot of missionaries in the islands and demanded imperial intervention to bolster their position. Premier James Service was both a Presbyterian and a committed imperialist as was a later premier from the other side of parliament, James Munro.

The missionaries presented themselves as humanitarian, but were not averse to using force to establish themselves, and in any case they tended to bring an Imperial military presence in their wake. Reflecting on the New Zealand experience, a Maroi prophet later described the missionaries as a sheath for the Pakeha (European) sword. "These men showed us this beautiful scabbard, all adorned with gold and jewels ... and then came a man in a red coat ... and all of a sudden drew a sword out of it, and cut off our heads." (Scarr 188) The missionaries campaigned for suppression of the labour trade, but while this had its humanitarian side it was also motivated by self-interest. Extensive labour recruiting in the New Hebrides was destabilizing the local society and thus making missionary work more difficult and dangerous. Instability also opened up potential opportunities for French intervention, which the Protestant missionaries feared.

New South Wales, by contrast, was a centre for traders who were much less concerned with annexation. Trade could flourish regardless of who ruled the islands, and French settlement looked like an opportunity rather than a threat. Two leading politicians, Alexander Stuart and George Dibbs, were shipowners who appreciated the fact that French-ruled New Caledonia accounted for nearly 40% of all NSW trade with Pacific Islands. NSW was a centre of free-trade ideology. It also had more Catholic voices, who generally welcomed the French presence.

Queensland was different again. Sugar planters in the north of the colony, which recorded the arrival of some 62,000 Pacific islanders between 1863 and 1904, were hungry for black labour and saw annexation as a means of getting more of it. The sugar industry was only profitable on the basis of cheap labour. There were regulations supposedly intended to prevent abuses in this labour trade, but these "were initially a departmental joke, since the trade was run for the planters, merchants and ship-owners who ran the colonial politicians and saw Queensland's development as the supreme good." (Scarr 176) Kidnapping, violence and sexual abuse were rife, and even many islanders who came voluntarily did not understanding the terms or duration of their engagement. It was not until the early 1880s, after a number of scandals, that the politicians began to take the issue seriously. Meanwhile, however, Victorian-based missionaries and political liberals presented annexation precisely as a means for stamping out the labour trade, so that a pro-imperialist united front between the two colonies was difficult to maintain.

There were some areas of common ground. One was hostility to the introduction of French convicts into the region. Having fought bitterly to end transportation to Australian, the colonists were not happy to see even small numbers of felons sent to New Caledonia from the 1850s. When larger numbers arrived in the seventies this became a bigger issue, especially as the French legislature was considering sending them to the New Hebrides as well. "The tendency to explain every case of washing stolen from a clothesline in terms of New Caledonia was temporary, but the affair had the permanent effect of sensitizing Australians and particularly their politicians to the 'problem' of European penetration of the Pacific." (McMinn 101) In addition there was significant Victorian investment in Queensland and therefore some common commercial interests. This made it easier for the two colonies to stick together when it came to foreign policy.

The frantic eighties

Australian expansionism in the Pacific reached its 19th Century peak between 1883 and 1885. The main arenas were New Guinea and the New Hebrides.

Queensland Premier Thomas McIlwraith sent a small party led by a police magistrate to raise the flag in Port Moresby in April 1883. McIlwraith, a Presbyterian like so many other keen imperialists, was not acting on British instructions. He had been alarmed by an editorial in the German Allgemeine Zeitung proposing German annexation of the non-Dutch eastern half of New Guinea and had called on London to forestall this by an intervention of its own, indicating his government would foot the bill. But he did not wait for a reply. Seizing on the presence of a German warship in the area as convenient pretext, McIwraith created a fait accompli.

The Queenslanders had several motivations. The islanders had attacked a few white settlers, there was a growing concern with the colony's military posture, and steamer traffic in the Torres Strait was on the rise. The politicians carefully kept one other motivation in the background: the sugar planters' continuing seach for labour. It was proving politically difficult to get "coolies" from India and existing sources in the Pacific were limited. A majority of the Queensland papers referred to this issue in March and April. They tactfully stopped mentioning it after British missionaries and humanitarians started campaigning around the issue.

New Guinea has great appeal for budding imperialists. Lke the Australian continent, it qualified as terra nullius. This doctrine did not deny the presence of indigenous people, but relied on the Locke's argument that rights to the land depended upon the application of labour to improve it. Where tribal cultures could not satisfy this demand as understood by 19th century capitalism, they were fair game. In addition, local opinion saw New Guinea as belonging geographically to Australia just as much as, say, Tasmania. This it is not surprising that other Premiers lined up with McIwraith. So did the Age, which opposed colour labour but saw the issue primarily in strategic terms:

"it is at least as important to Australia that New Guinea should be annexed as it was that New Zealand should be secured. The unappropriated parts of the world are rapidly being seized upon ... England can afford to disregard the extension of French colonies in distant areas [but] our security is at stake. Sooner or later it must come to something like a Monroe doctrine for Australia; and we shall have to intimate unmistakably that no foreign annexations will be permitted in countries south of the [equatorial] line." (The Age 29.5.83)

The Colonial Office was initially receptive. Although the Permanent Under-Secretary, Robert Herbert (himself a former Queensland Premier) recognised that the "intention has apparently been to force the hand of H.M. Government," he thought it would be necessary to accommodate what would be a unanimous clamour for annexation from the Australian colonies. (Thompson 64). However Prime Minister Gladstone was not enthusiastic. Queensland had a bad reputation for mistreatment of Aborigines and the black labour trade was unpalatable, while the Foreign Office discounted talk of German colonial ambitions in the area. On 2 July the government disallowed the Queensland annexation, though it did declare the eastern half of New Guinea to be within its sphere of influence.

McIlwraith's initiative had failed, but it had a catalytic impact on colonial public opinion. On 6 June a deputation of church leaders and MPs called on James Service seeking support for the seizure of the New Hebrides. As well as being inspired by the New Guinea venture, they were alarmed by the establishment of a New Caledonian-based French company, the Compagnie Caledonienne des Nouvelles-Hebrides which was buying up large tracts of land in the islands. Service and his Cabinet endorsed a somewhat scaled down version of their proposal. Perhaps he shared the hopes of Presbyterian missionary Daniel Macdonald that the New Hebrides would "become the Australian Indies, [yielding] cotton, coffee and cocoa-nut oil, sugar and spices, and all other tropical products in large quantities." (Thompson 69)

In July the Victorian parliament called for annexation of both New Guinea and the islands between it and Fiji, expressing a willingness to pay its share of the costs. 2000 citizens at a public meeting in support of the initiative heard the great liberal George Higinbotham present the other key argument for annexation, the threat of French convicts finding their way to Australia. The French had passed a "recidivist" bill with suggestions that 20,000 felons might be transported to the South Pacific, and talked of acquiring the New Hebrides for use as a penal settlement. At least 247 escaped convicts had found their way to Australia from New Caledonia in the previous decade; now it seemed the floodgates might be opened.

Once again the colonies presented a united front, but not for long. South Australian and Tasmania, which had no strong interest in the issue, soon dropped out of the alliance as did free-trade NSW. Queensland's defection might at first appear more surprising. McIwraith was under the impression, common at the time (though in fact erroneous) that British annoyance at the extension of the agitation from New Guinea to the other islands was a factor in their rejection of his own New Guinea adventure. However he was probably also sensitive (as were the local newspapers) to plans by missionaries to use annexation of the New Hebrides to suppress the black labour trade.

Victoria soldiered on with fifty public meetings, dozens of local councils and a range of other organisations rallying to the cause in 1883 and 1884. The colony was at its 19th Century peak, imbued with both local chauvinism and the emergent continental nationalism. Sub-imperial expansion blended with the campaign for federation, whose fiercest champions were Victorian capital, Victorian politicians, and the Melbourne-based Australian Natives Association. The 1883 intercolonial convention focused mainly on these two issues. The colonists' watchword, Service had told McIlwraith in a telegram shortly before the event, should be "Federation and all the islands." (Serle VCF 4) The convention adopted resolutions in this vein.

In 1884 this sustained agitation finally pushed Britain into hesitant motion. In May, Colonial Secretary Derby renewed a largely symbolic offer to provide a resident commissioner to New Guinea, though proposals to declare a protectorate over all of eastern New Guinea were postponed. Meanwhile German traders in the area, alarmed by the Queensland initiative, were pressing Berlin to seize the initiative. By the time London agreed to declare a protectorate in August, the Germans were ready to seize the northeastern section, and Britain was not prepared to confront them over the issue. New Guinea might loom large in Australian thinking, but imperial strategy was more concerned with Egypt, the gateway to India. To secure British interests in the Middle East, and to guarantee the carve-up of Africa negotiated at the 1884 Berlin conference, it was important to placate Germany.

Britain's declaration of a protectorate over only the south coast of New Guinea, followed by German annexation of the northeast, provoked outrage in Australia (though less so in NSW, where a minority welcomed the trading opportunities opened up by Germany's action). Thousands flocked to public meetings in Melbourne and Ballarat. Little could be done to change the situation in New Guinea, and public attention soon turned to the emerging hostilities in the Sudan. However the British government was now more sensitive to public opinion in the antipodes, if only because it might tip the balance in electoral politics at home. In March, 1885 Her Majesty's opposition seized on indiscreet suggestions from a government emmissary that France might receive a free hand in the New Hebrides. In the ensuing uproar, the government was obliged to rule out such a concession without Australian consent. It was the first time that colonial opinion had so clearly influenced imperial policy.

The outcome of two years' agitation was a compromise. Britain had taken over part of New Guinea and would eventually hand control to Queensland, but in return the colonies accepted the need to pay some of the costs of expansion, and Queensland accepted in principle that the labour trade would eventually have to end. Its end came after federation, with a restructuring of the sugar industry, a sugar tariff to make the industry capable of paying "white" wages, and the advent of a national White Australia policy.

Australian attention now turned to the New Hebrides. Initial European interest in this islands had centred on the sandalwood trade, but after supplies ran out in the sixties, the traders in black labour took their place. In the seventies, small numbers of planters arrived to plant cotton, while Presbyterian missionaries gained control of the southern part of the group, excepting Tanna, where the local people put up stiff resistance. These missionaries, remembering their early expulsion from Tahiti, were haunted by fear of the French, especially after the latter moved into the neighbouring Loyalty Islands.

1882 saw the establishment of the Compagnie Caledonniene des Nouvelles-Hebrides, with the explicit aim of achieving French control. In 1887, alarmed missionaries persuaded the Victorian and NSW government to subsidize shipping services. This was followed in 1889 by the emergence of the Australasian New Hebrides Company, whose Victorian backers included two ministers and four other MPs, former premier James Service and leading merchants. James Burns and Robert Philp of Burns Philp were also involved. The shareholders participated on political more than economic grounds and did not expect to get all their money back. In addition to waging the trade battle, the Australasian New Hebrides Company actively encouraged Australian settlers. Within the context of an Anglo-French condominium in the islands, which grew increasingly amicable as the two powers drew closer together in response to the emerging German threat, this economic struggle continued up to the first World War.

The wider imperial context

The 1880s had brought chastening experiences. Australasian colonists were already aware that the interests of the mother country did not entirely match their own. The anti-imperial arguments of Goldwin Smith had aroused antipodean fears in the sixties. But it came as a shock to learn that even in the fervently imperialist eighties, local expansionist appetites were still not shared in London. In the British capital, quarrels over tiny Pacific Islands appeared as an irritant jeopardizing other policy goals. Amidst the agitation over the New Hebrides, Lord Salisbury complained privately that the colonists were "the most unreasonable people I ever have heard or dreamt of. They want us to incur all the bloodshed, and the danger, and the stupendous cost of a war with France ... for a group of islands which to us are as valueless as the South Pole ..." (Thompson 129)

Australia dare not slacken its efforts. Its duty, Alfred Deakin had declared during the New Guinea debate, lay in a struggle "to revive the colonial policy of the days of Raleigh and Drake, and the traditions of Sir Henry Lawrence in India, and of General Gordon, alone to-day in Khartoum". (Serle RTBR 196) Such efforts would be more effective, of course, if the colonists could secure additional leverage within the empire. One way to do so was to participate in Britain's adventures in other parts of the globe, in the hope that this assistance would be reciprocated if Australia or its interests were threatened. As early as the late 1840s troops had been sent from NSW to New Zealand to fight in the Maori wars, but these were British troops and in any case it was still the local neighbourhood. The first major opportunity arose with Gordon's failed adventure in the Sudan.

News of the drunken adventurer's death reached Australia in February, 1885 arousing jingoistic anger and a fresh round of public meetings. Local sentiment was fierce, because Britain's "betrayal" of Gordon was seen as related to its reluctance to support sub-imperialist adventures in the Pacific. When Britain announced it would intervene in the Sudan, the NSW government took quick advantage of the situation by offering troops for Kitchener's expeditionary force. Acting Premier William Dalley had a number of reasons for his enthusiasm: he was looking for ways to ingratiate his government with London in order to better resist Victorian calls for federation, and he needed something to distract public opinion from a crisis in colonial finance. However he also hoped this assistance would make it easier, at some future date, to seek British backing for Australian interests.

Victoria, which had previously offered two gunboats, hurriedly made plans to send a naval brigade and mounted infantry. Britain accepted the NSW offer but declined that from Victoria. It was the first occasion that white colonial troops travelled to reinforce the British army in another part of the world.

The Sudan crisis was also the first important occasion that military adventures in distant places were used to boost national sentiment. Naming streets after Gordon, putting up statues and mustering thousands of schoolchildren to sing patriotic songs was an exercise in Australian nationalism as well imperial pride. Few apart from a small anti-war minority saw any contradiction between the two; more prevalent was the view of a NSW MLA that "the fate of Australasia ... might be settled in the Sudan, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Cape Colony, or in the English Channel. Let England be defeated and humiliated, no matter where, and the colonies would suffer for it." (Alomes 174). Beating up national chauvinism might also help consolidate social peace, particularly in Sydney where class antagonisms were strongest. NSW Opposition member H.S. Badgery hoped that sending a contingent to the Sudan would "cement the people in this community of all classes and creeds in one common feeling." (Trainor 27)

Service believed the NSW initiative had "precipitated Australia in one short week from a geographical expression to a nation", and even a leftish Victorian liberal MP such as W.F. Walker, who opposed imperial policy and sympathised with the Sudanese, still thought that "nothing that has ever happened ... has done more ... to make Australia known as ... a nation". (Serle RTBR 198, 200) At the same time it helped nudge Britain towards seizing part of New Guinea. Lord Rosebery, soon to become Foreign Secretary, thought that Dalley had "played a great card for Australia & the Empire". (Thompson 103)

When tension in Afghanistan diverted Britain's attention from the Sudan, NSW's Acting Premier promptly proposed to send the Sudan contingent to the Indian frontier; however the Afghan crisis subsided and they returned to Sydney. In 1879 South Australia offered to provide troops to serve with Imperial forces against the Zulus, but had their offer declined. If Australian troops did not get to shed much blood in remote climes, it was not for want of trying.

Federation brought a renewed interest in local imperial expansion. While foreign policy would generally be left to London, the new Commonwealth government received powers to deal with the Pacific islands and immediately assumed responsibility for New Guinea. This was the era of "new imperialism", with colonial expansion by all the key European powers grabbing territory. The United States was also emerging as a major player, having taken several posessions including the Philippines from Spain in 1898. Australian patriots often saw the Americans as an example to be emulated. Within the British empire, the Boer War turned this enthusiasm into a frenzy. Although the battlefields were far from Australia there was a feeling that rival empires were becoming a general threat. Even the imperialist coalition put together in 1900 to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China, in which Australian troops took part, raised the spectre of other coalitions and other conflicts which might jeopardise Australian interests.

The rights and wrongs of far-away conflicts did not really matter much. When the Boer war broke out, the Victorian Premier admitted that it was "difficult for us to say what the merits of this question are" (Rickard 35) but that hardly stopped him supporting the British side. Here at last was an opportunity to get a real piece of the action. 16,000 young men sailed off to kill and be killed as Australian politicians seized upon another opportunity to take out an insurance policy with the empire as well as to cultivate local nationalism in the run-up to federation:

A nation is never a nation
Worthy of pride or place
Till the mothers have sent their firstborn
To look death on the field in the face.
(Penny 544)

The Australian colonies' own military efforts are only comprehensible in this imperial context. Of course our armed forces always claim to exist for our defense, yet this country's history is remarkably devoid of actual foreign threats.(**) Early NSW and Van Dieman's Land did not need defending from anybody: one officer told Commissioner J.T. Bigge that the danger from fraternization between convicts and Irish soldiers was a greater threat than attacks by foreign powers. (Eddy 247)

The first specifically Australian military forces arose at the time of the Crimean War. Having first passed a Volunteer Act under which several troop units took shape, the colony of Victoria decided to lash out and acquire a steam ship. Governor Hotham would not settle for a small boat to patrol Port Phillip Bay. He wanted a war steamer and he got one: the HMCS Victoria. It was supposed to be for defence, but soon there were foreign adventures. When fighting broke out between Marois and British forces in 1860, the ship spent several months ferrying troops and supplies to New Zealand.

The Crimean conflict had brought the first of many colonial war scares. These were generally inane and always passed fairly quickly, but while they lasted they were important in legitimising "defence" efforts. Without a panic about Russian invaders, Hotham might never have got his ship. In 1876 the prospect of another war with Russia prompted Henry Parkes to call for a review of military issues; Sir William Jervois undertook it along with Lt-Colonel Peter Scratchley. "The first task for Jervois and Scratchley was to convince the colonists that some form of local defence was a necessity." They couldn't make much of a case, however, since "the most the colonies had to fear were raids". (Nichols 79) Another review by Major General J. Bevan Edwards in 1887, although it recommended a coherent national Australian military and was therefore politically significant in promoting federation, did not identify any actual threat to Australia. The Colonial Defence Committee in London declared: "There is no British territory so little liable to aggression as that of Australia." (Nicholls 136)

Australian militarism was part of what, with no intentional irony, was called "imperial defence". The Intercolonial Military Committee recommended in 1896 that "Instead of thinking in terms of the continent and Tasmania ... the defence region of Australia be extended to include New Zealand, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, New Guinea, and portions of Borneo and Java." (McQueen 64) The authorities focused on three locations where serious military precautions were needed: Thursday Island in Torres Strait, King George's Sound, and Port Darwin. To name them is to indicate immediately how little this had to do with defending the mass of the Australian population.

Thursday Island was the gateway to New Guinea, a major shipping lane for Queensland trade, a base for missionary efforts, and the source of gunboats to punish islanders who dared to attack white people. Both Thursday Island and King George's Sound were important, as coaling stations, in maintaining British naval power. Port Darwin was the point where the telegraph cable linking Australia to Britain came ashore and also the terminus of a transcontinental railway. Thus the military efforts were focused on securing the shipping and communications through which both Britain and the Australian colonies projected power.

This is not to say the military had no domestic role. Scratchley cited the army's intervention during industrial disputes in Newcastle and Hobart and referred to "the importance of having such a trained body to back up the Police Force in the event of civil disturbances." (Trainor 24) Just such a requirement arose in the early nineties, when the Queensland government deployed troops against striking shearers. Unpaid volunteer regiments were largely drawn from the middle classes, and did not resist being used against workers. Another type of armed force, the Native Police, was used against the Aborigines. Whether on or offshore, the military existed not to defend the common people but to secure conditions for capital accumulation.


Just as the interplay between Britain and several distinct colonial settler populations in the south Pacific was complex and contradictory, so was the ideological framework which supported and at the same time reflected the various interests involved. Nationalism and racism have been the main components of most if not all modern imperialist ideology, and so they were in colonial Australia. But neither was simple.

The local nationalism began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century was still, for most people, firmly located within a wider British or "empire" patriotism. This was not surprising. The colonists might resent Britain's lack of enthusiasm for adventures in the Pacific, but they were not themselves oppressed by imperialism. On the contrary, "in terms of increased production and improved living standards, Australia on the whole benefitted from the link with Britain." (Buckley and Wheelwright, 101-104)

Even where some of them opposed one of Britain's imperial campaigns, the logic of colonial nationalism made it hard for them to do so consistently. During the Boer War, a minority of Australians opposed the British war effort and sympathised with the enemy, who fought better than expected. However this sentiment could be easily deflected into the emerging cult of "The Coming Man", which celebrated the virtues of manly colonial fighters; this in turn became the basis of a new enthusiasm for white settlers everywhere taking up the "white man's burden".

In other cases, anti-imperialism was simply xenophobic. Take William Lane, whose well known racism was part of a general desire to keep the rest of the world out of Australia:

"We want to be left alone. We don't care whether Canada loses her fishing monopoly or not; or whether Russian civil servants replace theBritish pauper aristocracy in Hindustan offices; or whether China takes missionaries and opium-dealers together and sends them packing; or whether the sun sets on the British drum beat or not -- so long as the said drum beat keeps away from our shores."

The actual nationalist element within this xenophobia was fairly uncertain, or he would never have left the country to found a utopian colony in Paraguay. When accused of deserting Australia, he replied: "It is not a local question, not a national question, but a life question." (Palmer 67, 72) Paraguay, it seemed, was an even better place to the left alone. This mentality effectively left imperialism unchallenged.

The second plank of imperialist ideology was racism. This was highly contradictory. One the one hand, a belief in the superiority of Europeans went logically together with imperial expansion. On the other, racism at home sometimes fed hostility to particular imperialist projects.

Hostility to the labour trade in the Pacific islands was partly humanitarian in nature, but partly it was based on racist hostility to the introduction of black labour into Australia.˙Later the Worker, paper of the Australian Workers' Union, argued it was a 'simple matter to see through the plot of the Jew capitalists' which lay behind the Boer War; while Henry Lawson warned that the Australian troops in South Africa faced the danger of "niggers" crawling into their tents at night to "rip out your innards". (McQueen 31)

Indeed there was a strong racist streak in arguments both for and against the war:

"Pro-Boers felt that that most cherished ideal [White Australia] was violated by a war which was engineered by financial interests to secure an assured supply of cheap labour for the mines -- black, brown, yellow or depressed white ... Supporters of the war simply dismissed this interpretation and construed their own support as a premium to insure the inviolability of White Australia ... when Chinese coolies were imported into the Transvaal in 1904 the critics crowed and the Australian Imperialists denounced their betrayal." (Penny 541)

Given most critics of imperialism shared its fundamental nationalist and racist assumptions, it was easy for them to eventually embrace its logic. Although Lawson had sympathised with the Boers, by the time of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war he saw Russia as the champion of the white races in "the struggle of the East against the West" and effectively defending Britain's Indian empire in 'the fearful war of races'. (McQueen 111)

As always, imperialist racism had direct connections to race conflict in Australia. Palmerston’s British government fell against the background of the second "Opium War", and the ensuing election was dominated by hysteria rhetoric about alleged Chinese atrocities. Coverage of these developments reached the colonies in May 1857, contributing to a wave of local agitation that culminated with the Buckland riots in July.

Nationalism and white supremacy were also closely linked to the sexual politics of the era. Alongside the virile 'Coming Man' was an image of the ideal white woman as the lynchpin of family life, reproducer of the race, and guardian of its purity. British and Australian colonists took this very seriously in places like Fiji, 'where the maintenance of minority power and status was seen to depend on racial purity [and] where the white woman was unquestionably the protector of the white home.' (Knapman 127-8). Here, European women were under great pressure to bear numerous children, and their ability to work was even more limited than it was in Britain or Australia, since white prestige would be undermined if they did physical labour. Sexual morality was also particularly stifling for white females; they were expected to provide a sharp contrast to 'native' women who were portrayed as morally lax.

After federation

The pattern of Australian (sub-)imperialism did not alter radically after 1900. Some discussions of the era conclude around 1920, and one could easily offer more tales of Australian plots to get control of the New Hebrides, or more cases of colonial vexation at British indifference. But it's not clear they would add new insights, and besides, why stop at 1920? One can point to much more recent events that mirror the earlier history. During the Vietnam war, Australian politicians tried to push the Americans into escalating the conflict (see Pemberton). The tactic of enlisting in far away adventures also continues: the modern-day equivalent of the Sudan conflict is surely the Gulf War, to which Australia sent its token force in the hope of securing American backing for its own interests in the Asia-Pacific region. No doubt there are also many differences, especially with the rise of Asian tiger economies and the end of White Australia. It would take another article to weigh up these elements of change and continuity.

But one thing is evident: from 1788 to the present Australia has never been a victim, or a lackey, of imperialism. Our rulers have always taken their place among the robbers and spoilers.

Notes and sources

*I use the term imperialism in its literal, pre-Leninist sense. 19th Century Australian interventions in the surrounding region are best described as "sub-imperial" because of the wider British empire context.

**It is fairly clear that Japan had no plans to invade Australia during World War 2. See Griffiths, Phil, "Australian Perceptions of Japan: The History of a Racist Phobia", Socialist Review (Melbourne) No 3, Summer 1990, p. 31ff.

Alomes, Stephen, "Australian Nationalism in the Eras of Imperialism and 'Internationalism'", in Arnold, John, Spearitt, Peter, and Walker, David (eds), Out of Empire: the British Dominion of Australia, Mandarin, Melbourne 1993.

Anderson, M.S., The Ascendancy of Europe: Aspects of European History 1815-1914, Longman, London, 1972.

Buckley, Ken and Wheelwright, Ted, No Paradise for Workers: Capitalism and the Common People in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1988.

Eddy, J.J., Britain and the Australian Colonies 1818-1831: The Technique of Government, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1969.

Knapman, Claudia, 'Reproducing Empire: Exploring Ideologies of Gender and Race on Australia's Pacific Frontier', in Margarey, Susan, Rowley, Sue and Sheridan, Susan, Debutante Nation: Feminism Contests the 1890s, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1993.

McMinn, W.G., Nationalism and Federalism in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1994.

McQueen, Humphrey, A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism, Penguin, Melbourne, 1978.

Nicholls, Bob, The Colonial Volunteers: The Defence Forces of the Australian Colonies 1836-1901, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1988.

Palmer, Vance, The Legend of the Nineties, Currey O'Neil, Melbourne, 1988.

Pemberton, Gregory, All the Way: Australia's Road to Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987.

Penny, Barbara, "The Australian Debate on the Boer War", Historical Studies 14 (56), April 1971.

Rickard, John, "Loyalties" in Arnold, Spearitt and Walker.

Scarr, Deryck, The History of the Pacific Islands: Kingdoms of the Reefs, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1990

Serle, Geoffrey, The Rush to be Rich: A History of the Colony of Victoria 1883-1889, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1974.

Serle, Geoffrey, "The Victorian Government's Campaign for Federation 1883-1889", in Martin, A.W., Essays in Australian Federation, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976.

Tapp, E.J., Early New Zealand: A Dependency of New South Wales 1788-1841, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 1958.

Thompson, Roger C., Australian Imperialism in the Pacific: The Expansionist Era 1820-1920, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1980.

Trainor, Luke, British Imperialism and Australian Nationalism: Manipulation, Conflict and Compromise in the Late Nineteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 1994

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