[Editor: This article was published in The Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), 1 October 1913.]
When Australia was at war.
Australia was once involved in a naval war. Just on one hundred and nine years ago — on November 17, 1804 — the inhabitants of Sydney looked down from those very Sydney Heads from which they will watch the arrival of the flagship, upon an English ship towing in a foreign prize of war which she had captured not far from the Australian coast.
One account, an erroneous one, says that the action was fought off Sydney Heads. According to Rusden’s History, from the signal station at South Head on that day two ships were seen approaching. The Governor had previously received news that the Peace of Amiens was broken, and England was at war with France. Accordingly the, look-out officer at South Head sent for an officer from head-quarters.
The drums in Sydney beat to arms.
New South Wales Corps and the “Loyal Association” were assembled “to welcome the strangers.” “At 11 o’clock in the morning,” says Rusden, “a trooper spurred in haste to Government House. A battle was fought outside the Heads. The English whaler Policy (carrying letters of marque), with six 12-pounders, chased by a Dutch vessel, the Swift, with six 18-pounders, made ready for action, bore down upon the Swift, was at close quarters at half-past 11, and in two hours compelled the Dutchmen to strike their colours. Twenty thousand Spanish dollars were on board the prize, which was duly condemned and sold in Sydney.”
Unfortunately, from the point of view of romance, there is no doubt whatever that Rusden is wrong. For in the very carefully compiled Records of New South Wales it appears that the Swift, Captain R. Portvelt, was a Dutch vessel carrying provisions from Batavia to the island of Amboyna. The British whaler Policy met and captured her near Timor on September 12, and, because Sydney contained a Court of Vice-Admiralty, towed her in there and had her condemned. A letter from Governor King written on December 20, 1804, makes this certain.
Dangerous seas in 1803.
However, there is no doubt that the action was fought not far from the Australian coast, and this prize, and probably others, brought into Sydney and sold. Australia was involved in naval war. Even at that time, with the Pacific practically empty of all possible enemies, the British Government wrote to the Governor of New South Wales warning him that “homeward bound merchantmen should wait until such time as they may have an opportunity of being convoyed home.” And in May, 1803, when H.M.S. Glatton sailed from Sydney for England, Governor King warned the home authorities that a small trading vessel had recently arrived from South America, where it had been “chased by an armed vessel, which took his boat and 13 men.” There had been some recent captures on the South American coast; and the force of the enemy there was “two frigates, a ship of 20 guns (that sails very ill — built in Peru), two armed whalers, a cutter brig, and a lugger.”
A couple of years later an enterprising captain of a British brig, the Harrington, having obtained letters of marque, captured a Spanish brig and Spanish cruiser, and brought them to Sydney. But before arriving he found that Spain and England had not been at war; so, not knowing how the Sydney authorities would take his action, he left the two prizes outside out of sight, and came into the harbour without them. The story leaked out, and the authorities had the vessels brought in and sold, and handed the money back to the Spanish Government. The captain was punished, but there is reason to believe that the Admiralty was not anxious to make an example of him.
The Little Sailing Fleet.
That was the last naval war in which Australia was really affected. As late as 1883 there was a strange little fleet of five ships maintained on the Australian station for the suppression of the slave trade in Polynesia — a miniature fleet of sailing schooners, all the same size and all similarly armed. The fleet consisted of the Alacrity (1 gun, 120 tons), Beagle (1 gun, 120 tons), Conflict (1 gun, 120 tons), Renard (1 gun, 120 tons), and Sandfly (1 gun, 120 tons). This miniature force and a few sloops sent on punitive expeditions to the islands are all the evidence of the active uses of the navy that Australians have seen in this generation.
But if Britain were once at war with any considerable naval Power, and especially if the British Empire were involved in a struggle with a sea Power in the Pacific, we should learn the meaning of the command of the sea more thoroughly and speedily than all the textbooks in the world could teach it to us.
A navy is our best means of defence and our only means of attack. Our White Australia policy, our labour legislation, our liberal legislation, depend hourly on the navy. And since we have to stand defended by a navy, we have realised that we cannot leave another to bear the whole burden of it. We have only one safe rule — to shoulder our full share.
The Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), 1 October 1913, p. 25
[Editor: Changed “; Renard” to “, Renard” (replaced a semi-colon with a comma, in line with the use of commas in the same sentence.]