Australia and New Zealand — losing an empire, who will protect us now? Part 1. Early Days

It is readily apparent that the balance of power and geopolitical landscape is undergoing a period of rapid change where the uni-polar empire headed by the USA and its elites is being challenged by a combination of a resurgent and reinvigorated Russia and the rising economic and industrial might of China. Caught in this dynamic, Australia and New Zealand need to find a way to individually and perhaps collectively navigate their way from the past certainty of being a part of an apparently unchallenged dominant Anglo-US empire to a new multi-polar world.

1. Early Days and Growing Support for the Empire

Through much of the 1800s, both Australia and New Zealand were non-players on both the international stage and as participants in the British Empire’s wider campaigns of conquest and domination. In the early to mid-1800s the active phase of colonisation led to the formation of colonies in New South Wales, Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1836), Victoria (1851), Queensland (1859) and Tasmania (1825). From the 1850s, these colonies acquired responsible governments and in 1901 the Australian colonial governments federated to create the Commonwealth of Australia. In New Zealand, a number of Māori chiefs ratified the 1834 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand as a part of which King William IV recognised the nation and agreed to act as protector. New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 and British sovereignty was declared that year. New Zealand became a separate British Colony in 1841 and the country gained an independent government in the 1850s.

Apart from the internal wars of colonial conquest, which proceeded throughout the 1800s, Australia and New Zealand gradually moved to providing military support for the British Empire’s wars. During the New Zealand Wars of 1861–64, a Victorian naval ship was dispatched in 1861 to help the New Zealand colonial government in its war against Māori in the Taranaki Wars and in late 1863 a contingent of Australian troops assisted the New Zealand government’s invasion of the Waikato province. A New South Wales Contingent served in Sudan with British forces as part of the 1885 Suakin Expedition and naval personnel from New South Wales and Victoria took part in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. Both Australia and New Zealand provided eager support to the British forces during the South African War (also known as the Second Anglo-Boer War), which was the first overseas conflict to involve New Zealand troops. During the Boer War, some 16,175 Australians served in South Africa, with another 10,000 enlisting as individuals in Imperial units, while New Zealand sent 10 contingents of volunteers totalling more than 6,500 men (plus 8000 horses), along with doctors, nurses, veterinary surgeons and about 20 schoolteachers.

During the early to mid-1800s, most of the new nations’ international commerce involved the inwards flow of the people and materials required for colonisation which involved pioneering individuals and families staking land claims, clearing the land and setting up habitations and townships. In the early years whale oil and baleen were key exports and other primary agricultural exports commenced as early as 1830, when some 8,000 bales of wool were sent from Australia to Britain. With the advent of refrigerated shipping, meat exports from the developing sheep and beef industries became possible during the 1880s. In 1882, New Zealand’s first successful shipment of frozen meat was exported to Britain. New Zealand’s other exports during this period included hard-rock gold, native timber and kauri gum—all of which were steadily exhausted, leaving pastoral-farming products accounting for over 90% of the country’s exports by the mid-20th century—though still mainly to Britain. A similar export picture was seen in Australia where in 1881-90 some 27.2% of exports were minerals (mainly gold) and 54.1% wool, the gold resources were quickly depleted and by 1920-28 mineral exports had shrunk to 8.8% while wool was at 42.9% and wheat products had increased from 5.3% to 20.5%. Australia’s exports up to and through the first half of the 20th century involved a small range of major agricultural commodities were exported to a small number of British Empire markets.

While World War I never came close to threatening the territories of either nation, as dutiful colonies of the Empire with a vested stake in the economic welfare of the UK, both sent men to fight alongside the British forces in Europe. During these actions, the ill-fated and disastrous attempt to invade Turkey at Gallipoli has for many Australians and New Zealanders come to define a key nation-making point in their respective histories. The losses the ANZAC contingent suffered in this battle is still commemorated in monuments in nearly every city and town across both countries and in the annual ANZAC Day parades, which have in recent years seen a resurgence of popularity as a focal point of national pride.

Australian and New Zealand participation in World War II followed much the same pattern, with colonial forces being sent off to fight a war on the other side of the globe which held no direct immediate territorial threat to either—right up until the moment the Japanese forces conquered Singapore in February 1942. The Japanese advance through the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and many islands in the Pacific marked the first significant direct military threat to either country since the British colonised Australia and New Zealand in the early-mid 1800s. This event struck fear into the populations of both nations, whose small populations had already committed significant manpower and other resources to helping out in Europe. This was especially so, given the vindictively cruel brutality of the Japanese forces as evidenced by the genocidal atrocities enacted in their conquests and occupations of Korea and China, and then the extremely harsh treatment meted out to prisoners of war after the fall of Singapore—including the use of prisoners of war as slave labour on the notorious Burma Railway, the horrors of which were immortalised in the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai.

“Since 1945 prisoners of war and the Burma-Thailand railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia’s national memory of World War II. There are good reasons for this. Over 22 000 Australians were captured by the Japanese when they conquered South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation of only 7 million people.”

Source: The Burma-Thailand Railway and Hellfire Pass

The Australian government came to believe that the Japanese were planning to invade Australia with the intent of denying the US forces resources and supplies in the region. This belief was supported by the aerial bombardment of Darwin on 19 February 1942 and the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea. With this apparently unstoppable Japanese threat looming, the US naval vanguard arrived in Wellington on 10 February 1942. Japanese air raids started over northern Australia in March and on 30 April New Zealand commenced preparations for possible invasion with evacuation plans set in place for some cities. It was only after the US naval forces turned the Japanese advance through the 8 May Battle of Coral Sea and the 3-6 June US victory at the Battle of Midway that the Japanese threat to both countries was averted, although actions in Papua New Guinea carried on through to 1945, including the legendary Australian success in forcing the Japanese retreat on the Kokoda Track.

Continued in Part 2.

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