- Walter Burroughs
- History - general, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In celebrating the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) we should recognise the RAN was born at a most turbulent time in our recent history. The turn of the 19th century being the subject of physical change with the end of the long established and stable Victorian age and its associated shorter Edwardian era but more importantly was the fundamental change from a traditional to a modernistic society. The traditional being urban based, accepting of autocratic rule and focused on long developed cultural values; while the centralised modern, is better educated, more aggressive and places values on technology and freedom of choice and expression. The resulting friction from these opposite camps causing sparks that ignited Europe into the catastrophic First World War. In recent times in the Middle East and North Africa we continue to witness this form of conflict. Australia has also witnessed remarkable changes in the political landscape with the decline of homogenous empires and their replacement by smaller democratic states giving rise to a shift in allegiances.
To fully appreciate the events leading up to 11 July 1911 an understanding is required of the continuum of naval history from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. At that stage the European maritime powers of Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain were still engaged in a battle for supremacy over control of their valuable trading posts in the Indian and Pacific regions. Direct European seaborne trading links with this vast area was first promoted in the 17th century by the Portuguese, who without making exclusive territorial claims established a system of fortified trading posts stretching from Lisbon via the southern tip of Africa to India, China and Japan with the Indian port city of Goa becoming capital of this eastern empire. They were followed by the Dutch whose main possessions were the Cape Colony, Ceylon and most of the East Indies with their capital at Batavia. France also laid claim to possessions on the east coast of Africa, the island of Mauritius and along the eastern seaboard of India with a Governor General at Pondicherry.
Other than an early foothold at Bombay, which was ceded from the Portuguese in 1661, Britain preoccupied with its American colonies was a late comer to the east. As British maritime power grew so did the desire to recover from the loss of her North American trade and seek alternative opportunities. Most importantly by the late 1700s she had prised most of India from the French and by 1796 both the Cape Colony and Ceylon had been ceded from the Dutch. In 1810 the French annexed the Netherlands which brought the Dutch East Indies under French control. Britain acted in haste and in 1811 secured Java and shortly after the remainder of the Dutch East Indies possessions and the last significant French possession of Mauritius (Isle de France) was taken in 1810. With the end of the Napoleonic era the Netherlands regained its independence and its East Indies colonies were restored. Through treaty negotiations with local rulers Singapore became a British possession in 1819 and Hong Kong in 1842.
Much of this vast British Eastern Empire was administered by a Governor-General at Calcutta who was supported by land and naval forces. The Royal Navy established a number of locally based squadrons usually under command of a commodore afloat, but when upgraded to flag rank accompanying shore headquarters were provided and in time these became known as naval stations. Commanders were appointed to squadrons operating off the Cape Colony and the East Indies based at Madras early in the 1800s and a China squadron was later established initially headquartered at Singapore. A South American squadron (later known as the Pacific Station) was also established at Valparaiso in 1826 and later in 1859 transferred to Esquimalt at Vancouver Island. It was relatively late in these developments in 1859 that Australian could boast its own Station which then included New Zealand.
Terra Australis Incognita an immense land stretching south of the equator towards Antarctica was strategically placed at the juxtaposition of the Indian and Pacific oceans but remained largely unknown and unwanted. The Dutch disliked what they found, the French were hesitant, the Portuguese remained content in their Timorese enclave and the Spanish were preoccupied with their American and Philippine colonies. It was left to the more adventurous British to claim this land when in need of replacement for the lost American penal settlements and also provide a strategic position from where watch could be maintained upon important Dutch and Spanish interests.