Why did Australian colonial governments become militarily involved in several of Britain’s little known wars between 1885 and 1902?
The first fleet sailed into Botany Bay in 1788 and the British settlement of the Australian continent began. However it was not until 1885 that any Australian colony got involved in supporting the mother country in war. Why was this so, why did it take one hundred years and what were the colonies motives and rationales when they did get involved?
For the first hundred years the colonies struggled to survive and become established. Populations were small and concentrated on the coasts near the capital town and men could not be spared for any military adventures overseas. Economic development and capital was scarce and was not available for financing military campaigns. For the first part of its existence New South Wales was little more than a convict prison camp.
Gradually the population increased and more of the country was settled. Economic wealth increased as wool and meat was sold in large quantities to the British market. Railways were laid to bring goods to market and to support the gold rushes under way after the 1850s. With the onset of the mining boom population and capital increased and the various colonies competed vigorously against each other for the biggest possible share of the pie. The colonies moved from being convict camps to fledgling nations able to offer assistance to Britain should the need to do so arise.
Perhaps the greatest change was the introduction of the telegraph. Before its introduction it took several months for information to reach Australia. Most wars were over before Australian’s knew about them, such as the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. By the 1870s the colonies were in telegraphic communication with the rest of the world.
So by 1885 the colonies were capable of militarily supporting Britain if required or if they thought it judicious, and indeed several volunteered or were requested from this date onwards. The question is, while they may have been capable of military involvement, what made them actually do so? I will examine the three instances where colonies fought for Britain before federation in 1901 and examine the motives for each. The main issue to be addressed is that raised by historians such as McQueen, namely, whether they fought to assist the mother country out of duty and loyalty or because of a need for “taking out insurance with a great and powerful ally”.
The first instance of Australian involvement in a British war was in the Sudan in 1885. General Charles Gordon was killed in Khartoum on 26 January 1885. The news of his death reached Sydney on 11 February 1885, to shattering effect. There was an outpouring of public grief and anger. New South Wales made an offer the next day of a contingent of troops to assist in the Sudan and this was accepted. The troops left to huge send-offs but arrived to late to take any active role in the Sudan offensive. This event marked the first time a self governing colony had sent troops to assist Great Britain in a conflict.
To understand why New South Wales became involved in this campaign, it is necessary to investigate events prior to this period and that impacted on the decision. It is true that Australians were concerned over the aggressive tendencies of the European powers, as Penny notes and their lack of defence against naval attack, but this was not the prime reason for the offer of support from New South Wales. There was much concern too over the power of the Little Englander movement, where English Governments were concerned that the Empire was over stretched and too big. For Australians this was most evident in the repudiation by the British Government of the annexation of New Guinea by the Queensland Government in 1882. As Penny notes, “Australian interests were being jeopardised by the negligence, indifference and compliancy of the Imperial authorities”.
Australians were swept up by Imperialist fervour. They were proud of Britain’s achievements on the world stage. As Penny notes, their British heritage and affection and sentiment for it was very powerful, as Great Britain had the largest empire in history and once that most imperialists believed was superior and more noble than any other. General Gordon’s stand in Khartoum symbolised all that was great about imperialism; He performed his duty gloriously and he died heroically in the defence of empire and all it represented. In the weeks prior to his death the siege of Khartoum had generated enormous interest in the Australian Press and was closely followed.
Gordon’s death was the catalyst for an outpouring of public grief and anger. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances the New South Wales offer of troops was accepted but those of Queensland, Victoria and South Australia were rejected. This rivalry between the Australian colonies was to continue in both the Boer War and the Boxer rebellion and was an indication of their Government’s desire not to be seen to be less loyal to Britain than any other colony.
There was no shortage of volunteers for the campaign. There were many ex-British military men living in New South Wales who “Offered to strike one more blow for the old country, God bless it.” The notion of adventure and gallantry in defence of empire is important in understanding the enthusiasm for war among the militia. Barton expressed this sentiment well when he quoted Shakespeare at a public meeting in Sydney, “If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss, and if to live, the fewer men the greater share of honours”.
But why did the colonies offer troops? Penny is of the opinion that, “Gordon’s death was indisputably the spring of New South Wales action”. Certainly New South Wales did not respond out of self interest or to earn gratitude from the Mother Country that could be used to its advantage in future conflicts. New South Wales knew as well that their contribution was not going to make any difference to the outcome of the hostilities and that the British Army was more than capable of defeating the Mahdi and his troops without colonial support.
The reason for the offer of troops was loyalty to Britain. Australians, while proud of their colonies and the differences between themselves and the mother country, were loyal and enthusiastic supporters of empire and desired to express this support in the form of military assistance in the Old Dart’s hour of need. While they could not make a difference militarily, they stood by England and their shared values. This attitude is best illustrated by some of the quotes of the day. The Premier remarked that, “As members of Empire we are defending ourselves and all most dear to us just as much in Egypt as if the common enemy menaced us in the colony. The Queen’s .enemies are ours wherever they are”. Others felt that by offering support New South Wales was coming of age and “that the disgrace of Botany Bay was being washed out in the waters of the Nile”. Saunders has best summed up the dichotomy of feelings reflected in the debate in the New South Wales Parliament to sanction the executive decision to offer troops by remarking that, “Rather it was how the largest of Britain’s remote colonies could best show its loyalty to Britain Opponents rightly protested that they were no less loyal to Britain than the supporters ... But they were not confronting each other over whether the mother country or the colony deserved their principal allegiance. They were both applauding symbols of the country, the race, and the culture to which they were almost equally devoted”.
Others were concerned over the precedents being set and the possibility that the colonies would automatically become involved in all .future conflicts involving Great Britain. Yet others were concerned over Australian’s being involved in a war that was of no concern to them and which was morally questionable. These minority voices were barely heard as pride and loyalty to the mother country carried all before it. They were to be heard again, more strongly and passionately, in the Boer War in 1899.
The Australian colonies involvement in the Boer War arose out of different circumstances. This involvement required conniving by the British government and opposition among the colonists was much stronger as the dubious morality surrounding the machinations by the British Government was unacceptable among those who opposed Australian troops being involved in the conflict.. This state of affairs was to continue until the military losses surrounding Black Week, when empire loyalty and solidarity transformed into jingoism as the colonies realised that Britain was under serious threat in South Africa and that the Australian troops, experienced as they were in fighting guerilla like campaigns on horseback, could make a material difference to the outcome of the war.
All six colonies sent contingents of troops to South Africa in 1899. Connolly has unearthed the machinations of the British Government to manufacture a spontaneous expression of support from the colonies to assist British aims in South Africa. From his account it appears that the colonies were not as eager to supply troops as were the British to receive them. There were several reasons why the colonies became involved in the Boer War. Members of the defence forces volunteered because they were anxious to serve in the event of war. They were driven by purely military motives. The Press became involved on behalf of the Uitlanders in the Transvaal and helped raise the level of support for the Uitlander and British grievances. Once one colony committed troops, then all the other colonies were under extreme pressure to undertake the same course of action. This, of course, occurred as the rivalry amongst the colonies was very high and each was at the same time demonstrating its loyalty to the Mother Country and did not want to be seen any less loyal than the other colonies.
The decision to fight was carried in all colonies by a majority. And yet their seemed little enthusiasm for the struggle. Connolly believes that most politicians in the Colonies went along because, despite their lack of enthusiasm for the looming conflict, “They believed, however, that the colonies’ honour had been pledged because Chamberlain had already accepted the governments’ offers of troops: and they feared that any colony which repudiated its offer would be the only one to stand out. Under these circumstances, refusal to participate seemed a churlish abnegation of filial duty. Some politicians gloried in the doctrine of the new imperialism and were eager to fight the Boers. Most voted for the war because imperial manipulation, the machinations of the military and finally the offers of their own governments made any other course incompatible with traditional conceptions of loyalty”
Neither was there an outpouring of public support for war in the Transvaal, despite most newspapers pushing this course of action. Massive public support would only come after the setbacks of Black Week. It would thus appear that the colonies became involved in the Boer War out of loyalty to Empire and the difficulty of saying no to a Foreign Office that was determined to have its way. It is hard to find any evidence that the colonies fought in the Boer War as a form of “Taking out insurance with a great and powerful ally.” However it can be argued that the colonies were uneasy of the growing activity of the great powers in the Pacific and that the tendency of the last years of the century were clearly towards co-operation with Britain as Australians realised the weakness of their defences.
Penny has highlighted the influence of the 1897 Jubilee celebrations, to which all the colonies had been invited, “To take a prominent part in the pageantry, and the delegations were flattered and feted to an intoxicating degree. To crown the experience, the Victorian team won the Kolapore Cup for rifle
shooting against competitors from all parts of the Empire.” People began to talk again about national virility and racial degeneracy. Among sections of the community, was considered necessary to prevent decay and to show that Australians were worthy of their place in the sun. War was seen as an adventure, war was fun and most importantly, war was seen as heroic and having nation building qualities.
Once War was declared it was enthusiastically supported by sections of the media and the public while opposed by others. As the involvement became greater and setbacks for Britain increased, the imperialistic fervour became more jingoistic, drowning out opposition to the war. This was noted by the New York Times which on 26 November 1899 wrote, ‘But the jingoistic spirit of the Antipodes is too inflamed just now to care anything about the wrights or wrongs of the question. What is uppermost in the public mind is that the Transvaal Republic, as a nation, must be effaced, and the whole of the South African continent painted an imperial red from the southern limits of Cape Colony to the equator.”
There is a paradox here that needs to be addressed. Why were Australians so compliant and dutiful to Britain, on the one hand, while being so recognisably Australian and moving inexorably towards federation on the other? From our perspective it is difficult to reconcile these two paradoxes. Penny refers to that new creature the “Independent Australian Britain.” Hirst probably describes the paradox best in his discussion of the need by Britain for imperial troops, “This new interest in what the colonies could contribute to the imperial enterprise aroused great suspicion in the colonies. Canada and Australian now thought of themselves as nations in the making, still British and relying on the empire and owing it allegiance, but not to be diverted from their destiny by the imperial connection. They were loyalists and separationists, not nationalist but colonial nationalist, a very strange posture which defies our analysis no matter how much we pile paradox on contradiction. The British at the time were slow to understand it: seeing a very effusive colonial loyalty they thought they could build on it some guarantee of colonial support and a political organisation to bind the empire together.”
The Boxer Rebellion of 1900-1901 throws further light on this paradox. It was a Chinese uprising against the presence and influence of the mainly European foreigners in the country. Britain had more to lose from this uprising than any other power & was determined to protect its interests. Britain requested the use of Australian ships because they could reach China faster than similarly equipped British ships. Australian consent was readily given and at least two colonial governments offered additional help. Again, the rivalry amongst the colonies embarrassed Britain as they competed to outdo each other with offers of assistance. The naval forces of the colonies were once again more eager to volunteer than were their respective governments. The Boxer Rebellion did not arouse much passion for or against Australian involvement amongst the Australian populace. This was probably because the colonies were involved with the Boer War, which cornered the attention of the media, the government and the population, and because the Boxer Rebellion was not seen as a major crises. As one commentator noted, “the general response of the press and the public throughout the colonies lacked the enthusiasm displayed during the Boer War.”
It is difficult to distinguish the dominant reasons by which the colonies offered to send troops. As Saunders notes. “Pride in the British Empire and race formed one set of motives behind the offers: self-interest inspired another.” It appears that the dominant motive for the NSW colony was that “the prestige of the colony was at stake.” Opponents of the war were concerned that Australians were setting a dangerous precedent by becoming involved, that there were more than enough British troops available to quell the uprising and that it was not a real crises. In common with the development of the unique brand of Australian nationalism, these critics “wanted the colonies to be free to decide when Britain was faced with a serious crisis and therefore when they were obliged to go to her aid.” There were few voices in support of the notion that the colonies should go to war for Britain because it was in their best interests to do so.
However some Australians believed that it was preferable for “White” troops to put down this rebellion rather than using Indian forces and that by being involved it reaffirmed and strengthened the emerging White Australia policy that was soon to be passed into law. Proponents of this point of view were putting Australian, rather than British interests, first.
Having outlined the three conflicts that the Australian colonies were involved in on behalf of the British during the late nineteenth century, the pertinent question to be asked is why? It is not a simple matter to define the primary reasons for this involvement as both the protagonists for and against involvement advanced reasons to support their respective positions. As well, the peculiar phenomenon of Australian nationalism, while being a loyal son of Empire, needs to be factored in. At the most basic level the question could be asked as one of whether the colonies fought because of loyalty to Britain or for their own self-interests.
It was been widely believed that the former was the case, although in 1970 McQueen argued the latter. However a closer examination of his book indicates that he relies on a quote from Richard Jebb who in 1911 observed, in relation to the Boer War, that, “some of the most wholehearted supporters of the sending of contingents were nationalists who knew that the undertaking of responsibility would develop national self-respect, and the respect of the authorities in London for Australian nationhood.:  From this quote McQueen concludes that, “here again is the policy of taking out insurance with a great and powerful ally.” However, according to Eddy, Jebb had very different views, noting that, “the advent of the Commonwealth was striking evidence for the young observer of the existence of powerful national aspirations within an equally potent imperial context. What was necessary was to highlight and harness patriotism built on mutual advantage rather than to attempt to impose or foster an artificial loyalty to a distant metropolis.” In Jebb’s own words, he called for, “abandoning the shadow, let us reach after the substance; discarding supremacy...stake the future on alliance.”
I would contend that these two themes as espoused by McQueen are not analogous. Forging a new nation, one which would demand admiration and self-respect, is different to taking out insurance. Indeed, one could argue that, because of their loyalty to the Empire, Australians participated and that it was this action that generated respect rather than the other way around. McQueen, writing from the perspective of the Vietnam War, with Australia’s “All the Way with LBJ” support for a great and powerful American ally odiously ringing in his ears, fails to appreciate the extent to which Australians were capable of being nationalists and yet still remain loyal and committed to Empire.
All the evidence presented in this essay demonstrates that primarily Australian’s supported Britain in these conflicts out of loyalty to Britain and not out of self-interest. The intense rivalry between the colonial governments resulted in this loyalty rising to a level of embarrassment for its intended recipient. However, when Britain was seen to be truly in peril, such as after Black Week in the Boer War, this loyalty turned into jingoism. Hardly the stuff of which self-interest is made.
 Eric Andrews, A History of Australian Foreign Policy: From Dependence to Independence, 1979, 2nd ed 1988. P. 9
 Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origin of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism, Harmondsworth, 1975, p. 21
 Barbara Penny, “The Age of Empire: An Australian Episode”, Historical Studies, 11, 41, November 1963, p. 32
 Ibid., p.35
 Ibid., p. 35-36
 Ibid., p. 33
 Ibid., p. 34
 Ibid., p. 35
 Ibid., p. 36
 Ibid., p. 38. This quote appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 1885, p. 7
 Frank Crowley (ed.), A documentary History of Australia: Volume 3: Colonial Australia 1875-1900, Melbourne, 1980, p. 173
 Penny, p. 41
 Ibid., p. 42
 Malcolm Saunders, “Parliament and the New South Wales contingent to the Sudan in 1885: The Dissection of a Debate”, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal, 70, 4, April 1985, p. 243
 C.N. Connolly. “Manufacturing Spontaneity: The Australian Offers of Troops for the Boer War”, Historical Studies, 18,70, April 1978, pp. 106-117
 Ibid., p. 106
 Ibid., p. 108
 Ibid., p. 111
 Ibid., p. 114
 Ibid., p. 115
 Ibid. P. 115-6
 McQueen, p. 35
 Lawrence M. Field. The Forgotten War: Australian Involvement in the South African Conflict of 1899-1902, Melbourne, 1979, p., 3
 Barbara R. Penny, “Australia’s Reactions to the Boer War - A Study in Colonial Imperialism”, Journal of British Studies, 7, 1, November 1967, p. 101
 Ibid. An example is this ditty:
“A nation is never a nation
Worthy of pride or place
Till the mothers have sent their firstborn
To look death in the field in the face.”
 Crowley, p. 577
 Barbara R. Penny, “The Australian Debate on the Boer war”, Historical Studies, 14, 56, April 1971, p. 3
 J.B. Hirst, “Australian Defence and Conscription: A Re-Assessment, Part I”, Australian Historical Studies, 25, 101, October 1993, p. 611
 Malcolm Saunders, “The Boxer Rebellion: 1900-1901”, Sabretache, 24, 4, October-December 1983, p. 4
 Ibid., p. 5
 Ibid., p. 6
 Ibid., p. 7
 Ibid., p. 31
 James Eddy, The Rise of Colonial Nationalism: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa First Assert Their Nationalities, 1880-1914. Sydney, 1988, p. 135