Monday, December 04, 2006

Pacific Perspective - Australia in the Pacific

Photo: 4 April 1883, Queensland unilaterally annexes the southern coast of New Guinea in the name of the British Empire

In my last post, I pointed to the way the Pacific had vanished from Australian consciousness. This post discusses the evolution of Australia's involvement in the Pacific.

The 19th century saw a rapid expansion of colonial influence throughout the Pacific as the European empires, the US and later Japan extended their sway.

From an Australian perspective, the Pacific was a source of wealth. The Australian colonies were also concerned about Defence issues and the protection of the their and British interests in the Pacific in the face of expansion of other powers.

I do not want to write a history of the Pacific, but will use three examples to illustrate the point.

New Zealand

New Zealand was originally settled by waves of Polynesians some time between 1000 and 1300 CE, although some evidence suggests earlier settlement. The descendants of these settlers created a distinct culture and became known as the Māori. Some of the Māori (particularly in the North Island), called their new homeland "Aotearoa" ("land of the long white cloud").

There are no known links between New Zealand and Australia prior to European settlement, but the two places were linked from the start of settlement.

At the time of the foundation of NSW, Governor Phillip's commission stated that the new colony included "all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean" and running westward on the continent to the 135th meridian. This technically included the islands of New Zealand.

From the 1790s, the waters around New Zealand were visited by British, French, and American whaling ships, while seal hunters exploited the fur seal colonies around the coastline. Largely unregulated immigration of British settlers began, while missionaries arrived to spread the Christian message.

In 1832, following growing tensions between local Māori and the increasing settler population, James Busby was appointed Official Resident in New Zealand, a move supported by the missionary population who sought to bring British institutions to complement their Christian teachings.

Unlike the Australian Aborigines, the Māori were organised and had a strong military tradition. Busby encouraged local Māori chiefs to assert their sovereignty. This included approval for the first New Zealand flag (photo) followed by the signing of a "Declaration of Independence" in 1835. This Declaration was acknowledged by King William IV but did not conclude the issue of governance.

In 1839 new Letters Patent were proclaimed by NSW Governor Gipps giving New Zealand a Lt Governor. This was followed early in 1840 by the negotiation of the Treaty of Waitangi signed on 6 February 1840 between Britain and Māori chiefs and then, in 1841, by the creation of New Zealand as a separate crown colony with similar powers to NSW. The formal linkage between New Zealand and the Australian colonies may have ended. but close contact continued.

Australian participation in the Sudan War (1885) is sometimes thought of as the first overseas service by troops from Australia. In fact, Australian participation in what were called here the Maori Wars, in New Zealand the Land Wars, was our first large overseas military engagement.

The Maori or Land Wars refers to a series of conflicts that took place in New Zealand between 1845 and 1872 between Maori and New Zealand/Imperial forces.

During the first three wars (1845-1847) the Māori fought the British (including British regular troops rushed from the Australian colonies) to a standstill. Peaceful relations then followed until 1860 when fighting broke out again, including the biggest war, the Waikato.

Victoria sent a corvette (its entire navy at the time) to support the Imperial forces, NSW gunships, while 2,500 Australian volunteers served in the Army. This would be the largest Australian military involvement until the Boer War (1899-1902) when a total of 16,175 men left Australia to fight in South Africa.


Fijian history during the the first three quarters of the 19th century can best be described as complex, displaying many features found elsewhere in the Pacific including a strong Australian commercial influence.

Voyagers from the east first settled Fiji at least 2,500 years ago. Some of their descendants later moved on to settle the Polynesian islands to the west.

The first Europeans to settle among the Fijians were shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from Australian penal colonies. The discovery first of sandlewood in 1804 then of beche-der-mer led to an increase in the number and frequency of Western trading ships visiting Fiji. In the early 1820s, Levuka was established as the first European-style town in Fiji, on the island of Ovalau.

The intervention of European traders and missionaries, of whom the first arrived from Tahiti in 1830 followed by Wesleyan Methodists from Tonga in 1835 , led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. As happened in New Zealand, the supply of guns changed local power equations.

Supplied with weapons by a Swedish mercenary, the Chief of Bau Island succeeded in subduing much of western Fiji. His successor, Seru Epenisa Cakobau, fought to consolidate Bauan domination and from 1853 started calling himself the Tui Viti, or King of Fiji. He faced opposition, however, from local chiefs who saw him at best as first among equals, and also from the Tongan Prince Enele Ma'afu, who had established himself on the Island of Lakeba in the Lau archipelago in 1848.

Cakobau's position was also undermined by trouble with the United States which demanded substantial reparations for damage done to the property of its consul, demands enforced by gunship. When Britain declined his offer to cede control of Fiji to them in return for payment of his debts and retention of his title, Cakobau turned to the Australian based Polynesia Company.

The Company agreed to pay his debts in return for 5,000 km² of land. In 1868 Australian settlers landed on 575 km² of land near the Fijian village of Suva. They would be followed by several thousand further planters over the next ten years.

Tensions over land combined with a collapse in cotton prices and the loss in 1870 of the crop through hurricane created a crisis. In 1871, the honorary British consul forced the creation of a constitutional monarchy, in so doing creating the first Fijian national state. This proved no more successful than previous arrangements, quickly collapsing under its debts. The British finally accepted another offer by the King to cede control of the Islands, taking control in 1874.

British rule brought peace and facilitated economic development centred especially on sugar. The admission of 60,000 indentured Indian labourers to work on the sugar plantations would create later problems. At the same time, the British also stopped the expropriation of Fijian land, protecting the position of the indigenous Fijians.

Australia maintained its economic dominance of the Islands, from sugar through mining to commerce.

Annexation of Papua

The third example (and here) is a much shorter one.

In the 1870s the Australian colonies were concerned about the expansion of German power in the Pacific. (Photo German New Guinea Company flag). They asked the central Government to annex New Guinea, but also refused to pay any of the costs. In 1876, London declined.

In 1883, Queensland decided to act pre-emptively in what must have been one of the first independent foreign policy actions by one of the Australian colonies.

The Queensland Premier, Sir Thomas McIlwraith the Premier of Queensland ordered Henry Chester (1832-1914), the Police Magistrate on Thursday Island to proceed to Port Moresby and formally annex New Guinea and adjacent islands in the name of the British Empire. Chester made the proclamation on 4 April 1883.

The British government repudiated the action. However, after the Australian colonies agreed to provide financial support, the British Government made the territory a British protectorate the following year. Agreement was also reached between the Netherlands, Germany and Britain defining a key dividing boundary. Four years later, in 1888, Britain formally annexed the territory along with some adjacent islands.

Upon Federation, formal responsibility for British New Guinea, now called Papua, moved to the new Australian Government (1906). Control over German New Guinea was added at the end of the First World War under a League of Nations mandate.


These three examples all show different aspects of the evolution of Australia's involvement with the Pacific during the 19th century.

As I indicated earlier in this series, the Pacific was still deeply embedded in the Australian consciousness during the fifties.

We had been involved in two major wars defending our Pacific boundaries. A separate Department of State, the Department of External Territories, managed our external territories. Australian commercial interests largely dominated economic life in the Pacific. Pacific Islands including New Zealand took most of our small quantity of manufactured exports. Most Australians knew someone or had relatives living and working somewhere in the Pacific.

This changed during the seventies and eighties.

Papua New Guinea gained its independence in 1975, although it remained the largest recipient of Australian aid. As Australia grew in size and pursued other interests, the Pacific shrank in relative importance. Our commercial and trading interests also shrank, although the Pacific including New Zealand remained important in trade terms. By the 1980s Pacific leaders were complaining about the lack of official interest in the Pacific.

Would we have avoided or at least minimised recent troubles had we retained a stronger Pacific focus? Perhaps not given the nature of the problems. But at the very least, the problems would have come as less of a surprise. Certainly we can no longer ignore the Pacific.

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