Current Issues

Australians and their Naval History 1 – To 1814

Here’s some Breaking News; Australia is an island! The blue salty stuff that many Australians like to swim or fish in or surf on or walk alongside, or even get sunburned beside, is the sea, and the beach is not just the end of the land but the start of a superhighway that links this continent and nation with the rest of the world. To move people en masse or goods to or from Australia one has to use the sea, and that is as true today as it was in the 16th Century, when European exploration of this part of the globe began. There would be no fuel for our vehicles except for the ships that bring it from overseas, and our balance of payments would be deep in the red were it not for our exports of ores, coal and natural gas and bulk agricultural produce across the sea to markets elsewhere.

So, it’s fair to say that, despite the ‘wide brown land’ image of Australia, we are a maritime nation, dependent on the free flow of goods and people across the sea. That’s been true too since the earliest days of European settlement. Aboriginal people in northern parts of the continent also recognised that much earlier through their contact with traders and trepang (sea slug) hunters from Makassar in what is now Indonesia.

If Australians can accept ‘maritime’ as an important element of their history to the present day, what about ‘naval’? The two adjectives are related to the sea but have separate meanings. ‘Naval’ implies uniforms, warships and the application of force; ‘maritime’ sounds largely peaceful. Strictly speaking, Australians have only owned naval forces since 1901, perhaps not long enough to be a significant historical influence. Those concepts can be debated and challenged but, if one were to say that Australia’s ‘naval history’ concerns the study of the influence navies have had on the history and development of this country, then new vistas open up. There were certainly uniforms and warships involved, but very little application of force until 1914, and the timeline shifts a long way left into the 16th Century.

The Chinese may have visited parts of Australia in the 15th Century and the view that the Portuguese were the first European explorers of Australia is plausible, but both suppositions lack unambiguous confirmation. The Dutch certainly landed in Western Australia in 1606; my generation learned about Dirk Hartog’s 1616 plate nailed to a pole at Shark Bay at school, an event that seems to have dropped out of the current curriculum.  Before that, from their New World capital in Peru the Spanish had launched three expeditions to find the Great South Land which failed, but a fourth, led by de Torres in 1606-07, came mighty close to discovering the eastern coastline; the strait separating Queensland from Papua New Guinea through which he sailed bears his name.

Dutch expeditions in the early 17th Century mapped the western and southern coastline of the continent and Abel Tasman circumnavigated Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. They also made several surveys of the northern coastline but the Dutch made no territorial claims to the new land: they were seeking trade not territory. In 1688 William Dampier became the first Briton to set foot on the Australian continent, at Shark Bay. In the 18th century, the continent became of interest to the British and French as a natural development of the naval and colonial rivalry between them. They took over many of the colonial possessions of the Dutch and the Portuguese in South and Southeast Asia, the British wanting to protect their growing trade with India and China while the French had science, discovery and trade as their motives. However Captain Saint-Allouarn did claim the western coast of Australia for the French in 1772, but this was not pursued by Paris.

The scientific and charting objectives of Cook’s first voyage are generally well known. However, he carried secret instructions directing him to search for strategic ports for British sea power in the Pacific from which British trade and interests in the East Asian region could be strengthened. Cook identified Botany Bay as a potential naval base and Norfolk Island as a source for naval stores like masts, spars and flax for sails for the Royal Navy. These factors, together with the loss of their American colonies as dumping grounds for convicts, convinced the British to raise, equip and dispatch the First Fleet to Botany Bay in 1787, under naval protection, command and direction.

A French expedition led by La Perouse reached Botany Bay within days of the British First Fleet’s arrival in January 1788. This was a pointed reminder that Britain was not alone in seeking advantage from the continent. Expeditions were soon sent from the Port Jackson to extend British knowledge of the coastline of New South Wales, and Norfolk Island was occupied in pursuit of naval stores. The island’s natural resources did not live up to expectations, but British ships did return to England with trial cargoes of strategic goods, including hardwood for ships and whale oil. The naval mission of the colony continued to grow and in 1806 Governor Bligh became the first ‘Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Ships on the New South Wales Station’.

The rise of Napoleon in France put the new colony on a war footing, and its seaward defences were strengthened. Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour was fortified using guns from HMS Supply. Further naval expeditions were sent out by the Admiralty in London to continue the task of mapping the coastline – a task that the Navy has performed to the present day. Marines were sent to Hobart to take possession of the island and to establish a colony there, and Port Essington in the Northern Territory was occupied and fortified. In 1802 Matthew Flinders met with the French expedition under Nicolas Baudin in Encounter Bay in South Australia. Baudin had been continuing the French survey of Tasmania, despite the fact that Britain and France were in a state of war.

The same war dragged Spain in on the French side and the infant colony had a new enemy. The Spanish Captain-General in Peru had sent two warships to visit Port Jackson in 1793, but now British whaling ships licensed by the Government to act as warships began to bring Spanish ships captured off the South American coast to Sydney for sale and disposal. One had been captured during the period of the Peace of Amiens 1802-03 and, in probably the first diplomatic venture from the continent, Governor King attempted to return the ship to the Spanish. The colony became further embroiled in the war when it was asked to send men and ships to join two abortive British attempts to capture Buenos Aires in 1806-07.

The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 put paid to Spanish seapower and any threat of expeditions launched against Port Jackson, but the Anglo-American War of 1812-14 now had its impact on the colony. Sydney became a base for operations against American raiding cruisers in the Pacific.

So, it is not possible to consider the history of modern Australia without acknowledging the naval element. We occupy a whole continent – a unique achievement in world history – and our national language is English. Those two facts alone attest to the power of the British navy in discovering, charting, settling and defending the first colonial outposts, tens of thousands of miles from the UK. There were no battles fought against other navies in this epic achievement and it was not until 1914 that Australia faced a serious threat from the sea, but it was naval power that brought our ancestors here and sustained them. We are what we have become thanks to the deployment of the uniforms, warships and men of the Royal Navy from the 18th Century. I wonder if they teach that in our schools today.

In the next ‘Current Issues’, a turbulent 100 years until 1914