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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 1



‘We must take it [Papua]’.

William Morris Hughes, MP 19 November 1901

Australia’s early interest in the South Pacific, and in the island of New Guinea, reflected a variety of influences, ranging from an anxiety about the threat generated by the presence (real or potential) of foreign powers both European and Asian in the region, to a concern not to be denied the chance to secure territory in the Pacific for itself. There were trade and economic ambitions represented by shipping, plantation and trading companies such as Burns Philp, and other imperatives such as missionary zeal, scientific curiosity and the need to secure, by ‘blackbirding’ or kidnapping, island labourers for use in the Queensland sugarcane fields. There was also a sense of ‘Imperial duty’ felt by Australians and New Zealanders to extend British rule over the islands of the South Pacific. However, above and beyond all these, as Brian Primrose has described, was an overwhelming and persistent sense that possession would allow Australia to turn the island of New Guinea into a shield which would guarantee the safety of Australia against invasion.1

Within a few decades of the establishment of British settlement on the east coast of Australia in 1788, colonial politicians, followed by colonial news editors, began calling for the expansion of the British presence in the Pacific to include possession of the islands to the immediate north and east of the continent. Colonial Australia saw the islands of the South Pacific as providing their ‘geo-political setting … their buffer against possible aggressors’. The chief objective ‘was simply defensive, to exclude all other foreign powers from the region’.2 In the first instance, it was New Zealand’s Governor, Sir George Grey, who in 1848 called for the annexation of Tonga and Fiji.3 Britain declined to take up Grey’s suggestion. Five years later in 1853 Grey pointed out to London that with the French now in possession of New Caledonia ‘a position for attack against Australia and New Zealand had thus passed into foreign hands’.4 The Australian colonies had also shown an early interest in promoting the idea of annexing the islands. In 1867 the New South Wales Government submitted a minute to the Governor, Sir John Young, arguing that ‘the increasing traffic between Australia and the Indian isles by way of the Torres Strait makes the possession of New Guinea by the British Empire a matter of the highest importance to Australian colonists’. The British Government declined to act.

In 1873 Captain John Moresby attempted to claim three islands at the eastern end of New Guinea on behalf of Britain. He was motivated, in part, by a sense that ‘the occupation of this island [Hayter Island] by a foreign maritime power … would be a standing menace to Queensland’.5 However, his actions were not endorsed by the British Government. Two years later, in May 1875, the New South Wales Government asked the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, to forward to London its ‘opinion’ that it would be desirable ‘in the highest interests of civilisation’ for Britain to take possession of the island of New Guinea as well as the islands lying to the north and east of New Guinea, including New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville, Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and the Marshall, Gilbert and Ellice Islands ‘to all of which the traffic from the port of Sydney extends’.6 It added that the acquisition would ‘extend dominion over these waters on the part of the British Empire … but would conduce much to the tranquillity and peace of these Australian colonies’.7 It further argued that ‘the occupation by foreign Governments of large islands in the immediate neighbourhood of our coasts, and on the very tracks of our ocean communications with the mother country, might, and probably would, be in time of war fatal to our free navigation of the sea which adjoins our territory’.8 The New South Wales Cabinet also claimed that the colonies could not finance such acquisitions and that Britain alone would have to bear the costs.

The British Secretary of State for the Colonies in Disraeli’s Conservative Government, the Earl of Carnarvon, rejected the proposals. Carnarvon told the New South Wales Governor that he would be unable to persuade the British Parliament that while the Australia colonies might have an interest in New Guinea it should be left to Britain to bear the financial costs for the administration of the area. He added that ‘there is no present indication of any intention of a foreign state to annex islands in the Pacific’.9 The issue of who would underwrite the financial costs of any colonial administration in New Guinea frustrated these early attempts to secure London’s support for annexation.

The Australian colonial governments were not content with Britain’s reassurances. They were particularly anxious at reports that Imperial Germany was intent on expanding its new colonial empire into the region. Such was the level of concern that in 1883 ‘Queensland could no longer contain its frustration’ and unilaterally attempted to take possession of the eastern half of New Guinea.10 On 20 March 1883, alarmed by news of the departure from Sydney of a German Corvette, SMS Carola, the Queensland Premier, T. J. McIlwraith, instructed the resident magistrate on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, Henry Chester, to take possession of New Guinea east of the Dutch border and adjacent islands in the name of the Crown. The magistrate did so on 4 April 1883. The Governor of Queensland, Sir Arthur Kennedy, endorsed Chester’s action telling the Earl of Derby, the Secretary of State for Colonies in William Gladstone’s Government, that ‘I have never heard any well-informed person doubt the great disaster which the occupation of New Guinea by a European Power would prove to Australia’.11 On 11 July, Lord Derby replied that the Queensland Colonial Government had no authority to act beyond the geographic borders of its colony. Moreover, the ‘apprehension entertained in Australia that some foreign power was about to establish itself on the shores of New Guinea appears to have been altogether indefinite and unfounded’.12 He nevertheless told the House of Lords that ‘England would regard it as an unfriendly action should any foreigners settle in New Guinea’.13

Margaret George and Brian Primrose have argued that a mix of reasons motivated the Queensland Premier in 1883 to instruct the magistrate to take possession of the eastern half of New Guinea. Both have acknowledged the pull of commercial ambitions but have concluded that anxiety over security dominated the thinking of the Queensland Government. Primrose, in particular, has drawn attention to the terms of an earlier request by the Premier of Queensland to the Governor of Queensland (Sir Arthur Kennedy) that Britain be asked to annex New Guinea. McIlwraith had argued that:

Possession of New Guinea and the adjacent islands would be of value to the Empire and conduce specially to the peace and safety of Australia, the development of Australian trade and the prevention and punishment of crime throughout the Pacific.

That the establishment of a Foreign Power in the neighbourhood of Australia would be injurious to British and more particularly to Australian interests.14

Roger Joyce has concluded that the actions by Queensland confirmed an impression at the time that Papua New Guinea would serve as a ‘defensive shield’ across Australia’s north.15

The Australian colonies, and New Zealand, meeting at the Australasian Convention in Sydney in December 1883, resolved unanimously that ‘further acquisition of dominion in the Pacific, south of the Equator, by any foreign power would be highly detrimental to the safety and well-being of the British possessions in Australasia, and injurious to the interests of the Empire’. This statement was interpreted as attempting to impose a Monroe Doctrine for the Western Pacific similar to the United States statement in 1823 warning against foreign interference in Central and South America.16 In this case British (and colonial) maritime security interests were to be given primacy in the South Pacific and other powers warned off involving themselves in the region. The Convention also resolved that ‘having regard to the geographical position of New Guinea … such steps should be immediately taken as will most conveniently and effectively secure the incorporation with the British Empire of so much of New Guinea and the small islands adjacent thereto as is not claimed by the Government of the Netherlands’.17 The added significance of the resolution was that the colonies offered to finance the Australian presence in New Guinea. Alfred Deakin, a leading Victorian politician and later Prime Minister of Australia (1903–1904, 1905–1908 and 1909–1910) noted at the time that a driving force behind the calling together of the Convention and the passage of the resolution was the ‘dread of German aggression in New Guinea and of a French annexation of the New Hebrides coupled with the alarm occasioned by the arrival of escaped criminals from the [French] penal settlement in New Caledonia’.18

The concerns of the Australian colonial politicians as to Australia’s ‘strategic vulnerability’ were dramatically realised when it was revealed on 19 August 1884 that Imperial Germany had ordered a German protectorate be established over north-eastern New Guinea and the New Britain archipelago.19 The Victorian Premier, James Service, exclaimed ‘at last the end has come … The exasperation here is boundless’.20 On Australia Day 1885, the Sydney Morning Herald commented that the action:

Signifies … the possible establishment of a German colony within too convenient distance of Australian coasts, and thereby the loss of strength of isolation which had been, and should continue to be, more to us than any possible conditions of preparedness for war or defence. The probability of a speedy appearance of an armed man at the door of the Australian house has done more for Federation than any formal resolution. The sense of danger has been felt in every colony.21

The Gladstone Government, which had begun in August 1884 to consider the establishment of a protectorate over all of East New Guinea, responded on 23 October 1884 by ordering the British flag be hoisted at Port Moresby and the area claimed for Britain. On 6 November 1884 Commodore J. E. Erskine arrived in Port Moresby and proclaimed a British protectorate over southeastern New Guinea. By April 1885 Britain and Germany had reached substantial agreement on the boundaries between their respective jurisdictions and on 10 April 1886 an Anglo-German Declaration described and delineated the boundaries.22 On 4 September 1888 Lord Salisbury’s Conservative Government formally annexed the southeastern portion of the main island of New Guinea to the east of Dutch New Guinea and south of German New Guinea. The British portion was described as ‘British New Guinea’.

The new Commonwealth takes control of Papua

The Commonwealth’s Constitution of 1901 gave the Federal Government not only responsibility for external affairs but also for the ‘relations of the Commonwealth with the islands of the Pacific’.23 Neville Meaney has convincingly argued that this specific reference was a ‘direct expression of Australia’s anxiety for security in its own geographic sphere’.24 Marilyn Lake has developed this argument further and has drawn attention to the views of Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, as representative of the opinion of many of the new leaders of the Commonwealth towards the South Pacific.25 Barton, Lake notes, told the Colonial Office in London that the Australian nation had been founded in dreams of Empire, an ‘Island Empire’ of the Pacific, and that the new Constitution had endorsed Australia’s statutory right to exercise the ‘power and influence of the Commonwealth in connection with the islands of the South Seas’.26 Lake adds that control over the islands of the Pacific had been identified as a ‘key federal power’ in the creation of the Commonwealth and has drawn attention to Australia’s early ‘imperial’ interest in acquiring the Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Tonga, New Hebrides as well as British New Guinea.27 In colourful and effusive language that soon characterised the debate over control of the islands of the South Pacific, Sir Malcolm McEachern, the member of the House of Representatives for Melbourne and a shipping magnate, told the Parliament that Australia’s imperial ambitions would not end ‘until the whole of the islands are under our control’.28 Peter Overlack has pointed out that ‘no Australasian political party was opposed to the imperialist program (of acquisition)’.29

In November 1901 Prime Minister Edmund Barton introduced a resolution in the Parliament that the Commonwealth Government should accept British New Guinea as a Territory of the Commonwealth, if Britain were willing to place it under Australian control and that an annual budget be allocated to fund the administration of the territory. The subsequent debate focused more on the question of providing an adequate budget for the territory but it also included a number of comments from parliamentarians which illustrated their approach to defining the place of New Guinea in Australia’s strategic environment.

Barton saw New Guinea in a broader context of Australia, in time, assuming responsibility for other islands in the Pacific, notably the Solomon Islands and possibly the New Hebrides. He held out the image of Australia’s ‘destiny’ to be fulfilled in the South Pacific with ‘the hopes and aspirations of those who look forward to the creation of a federation in these seas’.30 Andrew Fisher of the Labor Party welcomed the concept of Australia taking responsibility for British New Guinea and told the Parliament that ‘it would be better … if we could secure the whole of New Guinea’.31 William Morris Hughes (Labor Party) told his parliamentary colleagues:

It is essential that we assume control of this territory as soon as we can. How any man can conceive it possible that British New Guinea, lying adjacent to these shores – within a stone’s throw, so to speak – being to all intents and purposes part of Australia, can be permitted, as it were, to lie, a pearl in the Pacific Ocean, waiting for some marauder to pick it up, I cannot understand. We must take it.32

The views of Barton, Fisher and Hughes, along with those of Alfred Deakin, were to be of continuing importance in the years ahead.33 Each served as Prime Minister of Australia and all four were involved in developing Australia’s defence preparedness, with Cook and Deakin responsible for establishing a Royal Australian Navy. All played a critical role in defining Australia’s defence interests and strategic environment. All, as Meaney has argued, had seen in ‘the Pacific a primary threat to Australian security … and [had sought] to build up a formidable local defence force’.34 Deakin had been at the forefront when he had declared that ‘foreign interests and risks surround us on every side. A Pacific policy we must have’.35

The resolution introduced by Barton was adopted by the Parliament in 1902 but it was not until November 1905 that the Papua Bill was passed. The Papua Act was proclaimed on 1 September 1906 and Australia accepted responsibility for its first external territory which was henceforth known as Papua.36 As W. J. Hudson has argued in explaining the reasons for Australia’s acquisition of British New Guinea, ‘it was clear from the beginning that the defence interest was paramount … possession was sufficient’.37 This assessment would be shared by Atlee Hunt, the first Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, who in 1904 wrote that ‘possession of British New Guinea by the Commonwealth may be regarded as an important defensive measure in as much as while it remains under British control its harbours cannot be availed of as store-houses and places of equipment for vessels of foreign powers’.38

Defining Australia’s strategic environment

Successive governments in the first decade of the Commonwealth had created the framework of Australia’s defence policy with the passage of the first Defence Act in 1903 and the presentation in February 1910 by Field Marshal Lord Kitchener of his ‘Memorandum on the Defence of the Australian Continent’ at the conclusion of his visit to Australia. Australia had also begun to acquire the military hardware to defend itself and to contribute to the defence of the Empire, notably beginning in 1907–08 with elements of its own navy.39

As political and military leaders set about the task of building an Australian defence force and identifying its role, the strategic environment, including the place of New Guinea in that environment, changed dramatically. Japan’s comprehensive defeat of the Russian Navy in May 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima had the most profound significance, accompanied by the later decision in 1911 by Britain to withdraw its capital ships from the Pacific to bolster its home defence against Germany. Japan’s victory over the Russian fleet forced Prime Minister Deakin and military planners to elevate Japan to the role of a direct military threat. Australia’s leaders refused to be consoled by the fact that Japan was a formal ally of Britain following the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902.40 It was viewed as a challenger to Australia’s presence in the South Pacific, as well as a nation which could take issue with the country’s ‘White Australia policy’. Japan was perceived as a threat to Australia’s interests and, as Meaney has argued, ‘for the first time, Australians came to entertain seriously the fear of invasion’.41 Japan was to maintain that place in Australian military planning for the next forty years.

In the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War, defence planners began to examine more rigorously the question of Australia’s immediate strategic environment and to debate whether Australia had to be prepared to defend its interests in the South Pacific. In October 1911 Australian military strategists had drawn up a plan to capture Rabaul, the capital of German New Guinea,42 while in 1912 at a three-day conference at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne chaired by the Minister for Defence, Senator George Pearce, senior Australian and New Zealand military officers debated a ‘Scheme of Defence – Mobile Forces of Australia – Strategical Considerations’. The scheme noted the presence of a ‘foreign territory’ in the French possessions of New Caledonia and the German and Dutch possessions in the Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea, and the Java and Flores Seas. It called for ‘war preparations [that] must include plans for the occupation, if necessary, of probable hostile bases in these localities’.43 This objective, and the listing of the ports in these locations, were incorporated into the 1913 General Scheme of Defence. Despite the alliance relationship between Britain and Japan, the General Scheme identified an ‘Eastern Power’, a euphemism for Japan, as being able to bring pressure to bear on Australia through raids rather than invasion. It suggested that an enemy pursuing such a policy would benefit from taking possession of Wilhelmshaven in German New Guinea (present day Madang) and Noumea in New Caledonia. It advocated a policy of ‘active offence’ to meet the challenge posed by raids from the ‘Eastern Power’ and reiterated the proposal to occupy the bases identified in the 1912 Scheme of Defence plan. It recommended the ‘despatch of small expeditionary forces against foreign possessions which might be used as a base for operations against the Commonwealth in the East Indian Archipelago and the Pacific’.44

At the same time as defence planners were identifying areas in Australia’s immediate environment to be occupied at the outbreak of hostilities, consideration was also being given to identifying the limits of Australia’s strategic environment. In May 1913 Commander W. H. C. S. (Hugh) Thring, Royal Australian Navy and a recently appointed assistant to the First Naval Member (Rear Admiral William Creswell) of the pre-eminent advisory body, the Naval Board, reported on the naval defence of Australia following a visit to Papua, Thursday Island and the Northern Territory. He had been accompanied by Captain C. Hughes-Onslow, Second Naval Member of the Board.45 In his separate report Thring argued that Australia faced attack from the north rather than by raids against populated centres in the southeast. He identified Japan as a future threat to Australia. Thring asked his colleagues ‘to imagine Australia in the hands of Japan and it is not difficult to forsee [sic] the greater part of Asia under Japanese control. It would entail the downfall not alone of British power in the East but that of every other European nation’.46 He suggested that Japan would not try to take the whole of Australia but instead would occupy part of the country and ‘stop all coastwise and sea trade’. In assessing the targets for Japan to occupy, Thring concluded that ‘everything points to the Northern Territory, Papua, the Solomon Islands, Torres Strait and some harbours inside the Barrier Reef as the theatre of operations of the Fleet in war and our attention must be concentrated there’.47 He then proposed that the defence of Australia and New Zealand should be guided by identifying and fortifying a ‘naval frontier’ which would run from Singapore, Java, Timor, Papua, Solomon Islands, Fiji and ‘on this line we should attack the enemy’.48 David Stevens has described this ‘naval frontier’ as a ‘flexible tripwire’ which, with the deployment of an intelligence system, wireless communications and coastwatchers, could alert Australia’s defence forces to take action.49 Finally, Thring suggested that two naval bases should be established with one at Bynoe Harbour southwest of Darwin and the other at the southeast end of Papua or in the Solomon Islands.

Thring’s report was not well received by the senior member of the Naval Board, Rear Admiral William Creswell, and it ran into considerable bureaucratic difficulties.50 Nevertheless, it is an interesting and illuminating insight into how defence planners were developing their thoughts on the detail and scope of Australia’s strategic environment. Thring’s description of a ‘naval frontier’ was, as will be seen in later chapters, remarkably close to that identified after the Second World War by Australia’s defence planners as the preferred outer perimeter for Australia’s defence. It also showed that the island of New Guinea was emerging as an important feature in Australia’s defence planning as crises erupted in Europe and the world stumbled into a major global conflict. As Stevens has concluded, ‘many of [the] features of the [Thring Plan] echo those enunciated in recent strategic policy guidance. The combination of deterrence and decisive response continues to underpin Australian security planning’.51

Seizing German New Guinea

Australia ‘jumped the gun’ in offering to contribute troops to defend the Empire before London had formally declared war on Imperial Germany in 1914.52 It showed similar alacrity in responding to Britain’s invitation that it launch a raid on the German New Guinea capital of Rabaul and seize German New Guinea and other German possessions in the South Pacific. On 6 August 1914, in the same telegram in which the British Government had accepted the offer by Australia to send 20,000 men to join the campaign against Germany, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lewis Harcourt, advised the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, and the Australian Government that:

If your Ministers at the same time desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless stations at Ytrop (Yap) in Marshall Islands, Nauru or Pleasant Islands and New Guinea we should feel this was a great and urgent Imperial Service. You will, however, realise that any territory now occupied must at the conclusion of war be at the disposal of the Imperial Government for purposes of an ultimate settlement. Other Dominions are acting in similar way on the same understanding in regard to Samoa.53

On 10 August 1914 the Minister for Defence (E. D. Millen) asked the Naval Board to examine the feasibility of despatching a contingent of 1500 soldiers ‘for the purposes of securing certain German possessions referred to in the recent Admiralty cablegram’.54 On 19 August Harcourt cabled Australia and suggested ‘that Rabaul be occupied as [a] base and there-after subsidiary expeditions to Nauru, Yap and Angaur. Later, operations should be taken to occupy mainland of German New Guinea and as many as possible of the more valuable outlying islands, such as Feys’.55 In late August the Naval Board ordered Australian ‘submarines and tenders to leave Sydney for Palm Island and then to Rabaul in furtherance of the purpose of the expedition and the occupation of German possessions and destruction of wireless stations’.56

On 11 September 1914, within six weeks of the outbreak of war and after some resistance from the local German forces, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force seized Rabaul and took control of German New Guinea.57 Six members of the landing party were killed and four wounded. Under the terms of the surrender dated 17 September all German possessions in the Pacific ‘lately administered from Rabaul’ were placed under the control of the Australian expeditionary force.58 The Australian force then went on to capture Nauru on 6 November. The intention to seize and occupy the German islands north of the Equator (Yap, Carolines and Marshall Islands) was, however, frustrated when HMAS Australia, which was escorting the Australian expeditionary force, was diverted to protect the New Zealand naval attack on German Samoa. In the period during which HMAS Australia was absent, momentum was lost, Australia’s military endeavour faltered and, contrary to expectations held in London, Japan, which had declared war on Germany on 23 August, took possession of the German-held islands north of the Equator.59

The proposal that Australia should secure German New Guinea had strong and immediate popular support. On 19 August 1914, The Age had commented:

In view of the intervention of Japan in Chinese waters, the duty of the Australian Commonwealth to plant the British flag on Germany’s Pacific Ocean colonies has acquired a new and sharp significance … That they will be wrested from Germany is certain. But under what flag will they pass? To the captors belong the prize. Australia should be first well and good, but we cannot afford to take chances in a matter so closely affecting our national interests and the future of the Commonwealth.60

The editorial had also identified an issue which was to confound Australia’s Pacific policy until the peace settlement. The issue was the role of Japan in the Pacific following its own declaration of war against Germany. The initial assessment from London had been that Japan would concentrate on securing German-held Tsingtao in China. On 11 August Harcourt advised the Australian Government through the Governor-General that the ‘action of Japan will not extend to the Pacific Ocean’. He followed this message up on 25 August 1914 with advice that Britain had ‘received private assurances from the Japanese Government that they have no intention to seize territory outside China Seas such as German islands in Pacific’.61

Events, however, moved quickly and on 10 September the Colonial Secretary asked the Governor-General to ‘inform your Ministers very confidentially that Japanese ships and destroyers may very likely cruise in the Pacific round Marianne and Caroline Islands in order to hunt down German squadron which is believed to be in these ports’.62 In October, a Japanese naval force temporarily occupied the island of Yap and took control of the German wireless station. Japan agreed to a British request that the island be occupied by Australia and an Australian military force was prepared under the command of Commander Samuel Petherbridge. On 23 November Harcourt advised of a change of plan. He directed that the Australian force should not proceed to Yap nor should it proceed north of the Equator. He confirmed that the islands north of the Equator were under military occupation by Japan. On 24 November he asked that Australia confine itself to the German islands south of the Equator, leaving the question of the future disposition of all the German island possessions to be settled after the war. On 3 December Harcourt repeated his request that ‘should be glad if Australian expedition would confine itself to occupation of German Islands south of Equator’.63 On 5 December the Governor-General advised Harcourt that the ‘wishes of the Imperial Government will be complied with’.64

In a ‘private, personal and very secret’ letter, Harcourt later explained to Munro Ferguson that the change in Britain’s instructions to Australia had been brought about by the need not to antagonise Japan while it was performing an essential role in augmenting the Allied naval effort in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, particularly as the German warships Sharnhorst, Gneisenau, Emden and Dresden were still active in the Pacific. He advised that the Japanese had called at Yap at Britain’s request and had destroyed the German wireless stations which were still operating and had also called at Jaluit in the Marshall Islands to destroy the German coal reserves. He commented that ‘all this has changed the character of the Japanese participation and no doubt of their eventual claims to compensation’. He added ‘from information which reaches me I have very little doubt that it is the intention of the Japanese at the end of the war to claim for themselves all the German islands north of the Equator’. (In fact Japan had told Britain on 1 December that it intended to retain permanently all the German islands north of the Equator. Britain had not objected to the Japanese statement.)

Harcourt told Munro Ferguson that Britain was not prepared to risk a quarrel with Japan in order to oust its forces from the islands, particularly as it had been invited to occupy them ‘more or less’ by Britain. Harcourt also argued that such were the demands on the British Fleet that it was possible that Japan would be asked to serve in the European theatre of war. He then asked the Governor-General:

… in the most gradual and diplomatic way to begin to prepare the mind of your ministers for the possibility that at the end of the war Japan may be left in possession of the Northern islands and we with everything south of the Equator.

I know they won’t like this, but after all the thing of most importance are [sic] those territories most contiguous to Australia and it will be of great gain to add German New Guinea to Papua and to have the whole of the Solomon Island group under the British flag.65

The critical question had emerged of how Australia’s strategic environment was to be defined and whether Australia’s interests were best defined by limiting that environment to the island of New Guinea and the area south of the Equator.

Over the next few months the Governor-General carried out the task set for him. In January 1915 he advised Harcourt that he was ‘suggesting to trustworthy interlocutors the Equator as a likely line between British and Japanese sphere of influence in the Pacific’.66 He reported Prime Minister Fisher as ‘convinced that the islands south of the Line administered from Rabaul would leave Australia with enough on her hands’.67 Other senior parliamentarians, such as Defence Minister Senator George Pearce, agreed with Fisher, although Pearce preferred Australia to ‘keep a grip on the New Hebrides so that an Australian outer line of defence should run thence by the Solomons to New Guinea’.68 A military point of view was provided by Colonel Gordon Legge, Chief of the General Staff, who was reported by the Governor-General as saying that he was not sure (as a military man) whether he would not rather be without them, describing the islands north of the Equator as ‘expensive to hold, that the Japanese would seize them on the outbreak of war … whilst if Japan held them they would still be a thousand miles away from our outlying possessions’.69

In May 1915 Fisher informally canvassed the views of his Cabinet and reported to the Governor-General that he anticipated ‘no effective objection to continued occupation by Japanese of islands north of Line when question raised at end of war’. Moreover, he thought an ‘Australian administrative area including New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago and possibly Solomons would be favourably regarded’ and the ‘continued condominium [of the] New Hebrides considered better than our (i.e. British) withdrawal as a defensive measure’.70 Fisher also assured the Cabinet that nothing would be conceded until the terms of the peace settlement had been reached. The Cabinet accepted this assurance.

The Colonial Office, and Harcourt in particular, were pleased with the assessment of Australia’s attitude. Harcourt told Munro Ferguson that he had ‘done splendidly with Fisher and Legge over the question of the late German islands’ and that he was ‘greatly relieved to hear that they will be satisfied with those (islands) south of the Equator’. He added that he would be prepared to ‘hand over Bougainville and the British Solomons to the Commonwealth on certain conditions’, although that might force Britain to surrender its share of the New Hebrides to the French as a way of soothing any criticisms they might express and ‘greatly ease the future peace negotiations with France’.71 Harcourt told his successor as Colonial Secretary, Andrew Bonar Law, in July 1915, that the ground had been ‘prepared’ in Australia on the question of the disposition of the Japanese-held islands north of the Equator and the possible transfer of the British share of the New Hebrides to France.72

Hughes takes charge

The London-born William Morris Hughes was elected by his Labor Party colleagues to the post of Prime Minister on 27 October 1915 following the resignation of Andrew Fisher. Fisher had followed Deakin in articulating a role for Australia in the South Pacific, had supported the Australian takeover of German New Guinea and had expressed a keenness to acquire the French interests in the New Hebrides and New Caledonia as a way of projecting Australia’s presence in the region and in securing the outer perimeter of Australia’s defensive line. He had also been interested in securing the British protectorate of Solomon Islands. Hughes, who had already demonstrated an interest in the Pacific, proved to be a far more outspoken and bellicose advocate of the same principles and objectives. But, as time would show, he was a poor judge of the broader changes emerging in the international environment as the war continued and as a new alignment of forces and a new set of international principles began to emerge to determine the post-war international environment.73

Munro Ferguson welcomed Hughes’s appointment. He described Hughes to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, as ‘a remarkable personality’, a ‘natural leader of men’, as ‘bold in adversity’ and as ‘clear in his views’.74 He also told the Colonial Secretary, Bonar Law, that Hughes was ‘highly strung and at times violent … He stands out above his whole party in intellect, courage and skill’.75 Hughes was described as having a ‘grasp of the difficulties which must attend the administration of [the] Pacific Islands by Australia’76 and as having an appreciation of ‘the importance of the Pacific Question as it affects India, Japan, USA and Australia’.77 The Governor-General also warned London that Hughes was a ‘born politician and I am afraid that it is unlikely that his real opinions will remain unchanged in the face of Party prejudice or passions’.78

Hughes was the first of a long list of political leaders who were to prosecute Australia’s argument that East New Guinea had to be in Australian hands if the country were to be free from the fear of invasion or subversion. He was to be joined later by Australia’s leaders during the Second World War, notably Dr H. V. Evatt, Minister for External Affairs in the Curtin and Chifley Governments, and then by Prime Minister Menzies and External Affairs Ministers Spender, Casey and Barwick. A continuous, unbroken line of argument had formed and was shared by the major political parties in Australia and by the Australian press and community. Hughes held a number of senior ministerial posts in subsequent conservative governments and remained a member of parliament until his death in 1952. He thus had the opportunity to sustain his argument on the importance of New Guinea in the defence of Australia for over half a century.

Shortly after taking office, and in preparation for his first visit to London as Prime Minister, Hughes received an assessment from his Minister for Defence, Senator George Pearce, on the strategic value to Australia of the former German possessions in the Pacific. In contrast to the private remarks made by ministers and others in the Fisher Government and conveyed to London by the Governor-General, Pearce’s statement, written following a conversation with Hughes on the Pacific islands, can be described as one of the first formal, endorsed assessments of Australia’s immediate security environment and the place of New Guinea in that environment. Pearce dismissed the islands north of the Equator as:

not of very great value to Australia. Their commercial value is small; they have essentially a tropical climate and their distance from Australia renders them of little value to us from a strategical point of view. In fact they might be a source of weakness whereas, in the hands of another power they cannot be of much danger to us because of their distance from us and the intervention of other islands.79

Turning to the islands south of the Equator, Pearce made clear his view that they were of ‘incalculable value to Australia’. He added that:

Their commercial value is already considerable and will be largely increased. … the latest reports indicate that that portion of New Guinea, possessed by Germany, to be the richest portion and capable of great development. The climate is not by any means bad even for white people. Their strategic value is exceedingly great to Australia forming a shield to the northern portions of our continent. They possess many good harbours. In addition, New Guinea may be capable of carrying a considerable white population; the New Guinea native is capable of training for industrial pursuits and as a soldier and because of this, the holding of these islands with naval assistance is rendered fairly easy and the holding of these islands and outlying posts will ward off any invasion of Australia by a hostile power.80

Pearce also referred in detail to the New Hebrides which he described as forming a ‘portion of a shield’ and containing ‘many excellent harbours, making ideal naval bases’. He acknowledged that while it remained with the French and British it posed no danger to Australia but said it would be a different matter if it were to be transferred to another power which in turn were to become hostile. Pearce concluded his letter by noting that ‘my remarks regarding New Guinea apply equally to the Solomons and the islands of other groups south of the Equator’.81

Pearce’s assessment had captured many of the ideas put forward in reports written for the Naval Board before the outbreak of the war. He had identified New Guinea as a shield lying across the northern portion of the Australian continent which would help to ‘ward off any invasion of Australia by a hostile power’. Such terminology was to appear frequently over the next fifty years.

There is no record of Hughes’s response to Pearce’s assessment but the themes and arguments were consistent with his own thinking. Hughes was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in the same month as Pearce’s letter was drafted as having said that Australia was ‘in deadly peril. … Take a look at the map. Look where Australia is. We are five million people and we have challenged the whole Pacific to interfere with us’.82

Preparing for the Peace Conference

As Hughes turned his attention to the possible terms of a post-war settlement he had before him a number of additional assessments which set out the possible military dangers facing Australia. The documents reinforced Hughes’s own strongly held views on the need to protect Australia in the Pacific. In June 1916 the Naval Secretary, George Macandie, forwarded to the Prime Minister a report on the threat from Japan in the Pacific.83 The assessment made clear the defence establishment’s view that Japan ‘wants a good deal that she has not got and has shown more than once that she will fight to get what she wants … they will not shrink from war as a means of getting it’.84

The Macandie assessment argued that by virtue of its occupation of the former German-held islands north of the Equator, Japan posed a real threat to Australia. A Japanese force ‘could be assembled in full readiness for an attack not five days’ steaming from the Australian coast’. It added that the ‘permanent ownership of these groups is a matter of great importance to Australia’. It suggested that if it were not too late the islands should be handed over to Britain and then Australia but accepted that this might no longer be possible. As a consequence the ‘retention of the groups in the hands of Japan (which seems now almost inevitable) or their restoration to Germany … confronts us with the probability that they will become bases for the quiet accumulation of stores, ships and troops from which an attack can be made quickly and without giving any clear intention of its real objective’. It speculated that a raid on the Australian coast could be launched in less than a week from the Japanese-held islands.85

A second paper on the ‘Importance to Australia of German New Guinea and the Islands (lately German) North of the Equator’ was forwarded to Hughes in July 1918 and was drafted by John Latham who was later to serve as an adviser to Hughes during the peace negotiations.86 The report described in detail the value of the harbours and wireless stations in the islands north of the Equator to an enemy and to Australia. It concluded that ‘the possession of these islands by an enemy [identified as Japan] would make it necessary to double the strength of the Australian naval and military forces; and the number of days necessary for mobilisation would probably be halved. The annual increase in cost to Australia would amount to many millions of pounds. … The possession of these islands by Japan might even make it impossible to defend all parts of Australia’.87

Latham went on to argue that:

in enemy hands German New Guinea would form a perpetual and very serious menace to Australia. In Australian hands this territory would afford observation posts, advance bases and positions from which aeroplanes could watch the Straits thereby reducing the number of cruisers required. It covered the most direct route by which an attacking force from the north could approach the eastern coast of Australia and formed a link in the sea frontier between Papua and the Solomons.88

Hughes was sympathetic to the assessments put forward by his military and civilian advisers. Indeed, they reinforced his own firmly held views. He believed that Australia’s future depended ‘upon the control of the Pacific being in the hands of the Empire and its Allies’.89 At the same time, he appeared to accept that Australia could not secure the German-held islands north of the Equator. In response to advice from the British Government in February 1917 that Japan wished to secure British support for its claims to the islands, Hughes replied that Australia would not object to the ‘occupancy’ of the islands north of the Equator ‘except for one or two small islands near the border line of which Nauru and Ocean Islands are typical’.90 He later clarified the meaning of ‘occupancy’ by noting that he had ‘no objection’ to Japan’s annexation of the North Pacific possessions in return for a Japanese promise to support the British Empire’s claims to the South Pacific islands.91 Later in the year Hughes told the British Government that Australian ministers’ desire to emphasise that the islands in question south of the Equator should not be returned to the Government of Germany nor handed over to any foreign power’.92 Hughes’s attitude had the full support of the Australian Parliament which passed a number of resolutions in 1917 and 1918 expressing its opposition to any possible return to Germany of the islands and arguing that the defence of Australia now depended on the islands south of the Equator being held by Australia.93

Hughes left Australia in mid-1918 for Washington and London determined to ensure that Australia’s strategic interests in the Pacific were secured in the peace settlement. He used the occasion of his visit to the United States to put his case for a peace settlement which took account of Australia’s particular interests. He called on President Woodrow Wilson on 2 June and, in the only contemporary record of the meeting, prepared by the British Ambassador who accompanied Hughes, he:

impressed on the President that it was vital to secure to Australia that Germany should never be allowed to hold any part of New Guinea or the islands of the Pacific. Mr Hughes made plain that Australia was not seeking all these islands for herself, that she had sufficient territory, but that her life would be menaced if Germany with her predatory designs held any of these islands, and he emphasized the necessity of these belonging only to the British Empire and friendly powers.94

Wilson is recorded as saying he was ‘sympathetic’ and that he would refer the issue to a team of officials (‘The Inquiry’) he had assembled to study such issues. Hughes may have interpreted Wilson’s near silence on the issue as indicating support but if he had done so he had badly misunderstood Wilson’s philosophical approach to a post-war peace settlement which he would announce six months later in his Fourteen Points. Joan Beaumont has described Hughes’s call on the President as ‘probably a failure’.95

Hughes also used the occasion of his visit to the United States to deliver two speeches in which he put forward the concept of a Monroe Doctrine for the Pacific, an idea that had been previously aired by a number of colonial politicians, as well as Prime Minister Deakin. Hughes told a gathering in New York that:

If Australia is to continue to be a Commonwealth of free people we must have guarantees against enemy aggression in the future. This involves the Australasian Monroe Doctrine in the Southern Pacific. … it is essential to [Australia’s] territorial integrity that it should either control these islands itself or that they should be in the hands of friendly and civilised nations. For they stand in the same relation to Australia as, say Mount Kemmel does to Ypres, Amiens to Paris or as Calais and the Channel Ports do to England. To allow another nation to control them would be to allow it to control Australia. Hands off the Australian Pacific is the doctrine to which by inexorable circumstances we are committed.96

In his second speech Hughes presented a description of the pressures he felt Australia was under when he argued that ‘the possession of islands within striking distance of us in unfriendly hands means that our country must always sleep with the sword half drawn’.97 The speeches were widely reported in the Japanese press.

Negotiating the terms of a peace settlement

Hughes proceeded to London and for the next six months, in meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet and then later at the peace negotiations in Paris, argued Australia’s case against the inclusion of a racial equality clause in the final peace treaty as sought by Japan and for Germany to accept full indemnity and pay reparations for the costs of the war.98 He also made clear that ‘as regards the Pacific Islands his attitude was that if anyone wanted to shift Australia from them they would have to come and get it’.99 Contrary to the advice given to the Governor-General by Prime Minister Fisher, Hughes told the War Cabinet that Australia did not regard itself as responsible for the fact that Japan now occupied the former German-held islands north of the Equator and argued that ‘it would be most unfortunate if such a claim were admitted’.100 Leo Amery, Under Secretary of State for Colonies, described Hughes as ‘quarrelsome and vain’ while historians have judged his persistent and belligerent manner as a ‘liability’.101 Leaders such as Britain’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George soon grew tired of him and sought ways to minimise his influence. Hughes had quickly worn out his welcome.

On 4 November 1918, following press reports of the views of Japan’s Prime Minister, Marquis Okuma, on Japan’s claim to the islands north of the Equator, Hughes wrote to Lloyd George and, in a seven page letter, set out his case for Australia to retain possession of the islands north and south of the Equator. He reminded Lloyd George of ‘Australia’s deeply rooted mistrust of Japan’ and his wish to ‘enter an emphatic protest on behalf of the Commonwealth against Japan’s right or even claim to the islands mentioned by Marquis Okuma, viz, the Marshalls, Caroline and Ladrones’. Hughes added ‘Japan has neither the right nor just claim to these islands and … menace to the trade and national safety of Australia and the Empire is involved’ in its claim. He noted that the islands were ‘most important to Australia from the point of view of defence and of possible offence’. He cited the value of the harbours in the islands and their use as locations for wireless stations and as advance bases for aeroplane and seaplane patrol. Hughes argued that if Australia were to retain the island of Yap, north of the Equator, it would serve as a monitoring station and provide early information and warning of possible enemy advance. He added:

if, on the other hand, these islands were in foreign hands, Australia would lose all the advantages I have mentioned. The islands would serve as possible enemy bases and as points for the secret concentration of large naval and military forces, and all the consequential advantages would accrue to the armed forces using them. … Australia so profoundly distrusts Japan that its national welfare and its trade alike are seriously menaced by Japan.102

Hughes’s argument fell on deaf ears. His relentless and quarrelsome style of representations had irritated Lloyd George to the point that, as shown in his reply to Hughes of 11 November 1918, the British Prime Minister was no longer prepared to tolerate his arguments and protestations.103 In addition, Britain was not prepared to antagonise Japan by abandoning the secret agreement reached between the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, and Japan’s Foreign Minister, Motono Ichirō, in February 1917 that Britain would ‘support’ Japan’s claim in the peace settlement to the islands north of the Equator. Britain had traded this assurance for an undertaking by Japan to increase its naval assistance in the Mediterranean and around the Cape of Good Hope and Japan’s acceptance of Britain’s right to dispose of the islands south of the Equator in a post-war settlement.104 While a statement of ‘support’ was weaker than a guarantee, it nevertheless represented a strong political undertaking from which it would be difficult to withdraw.

Hughes continued his campaign at the Council of Ten Meeting in Paris in January 1919 when he addressed the Allied leaders: President Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy and Baron Makino of Japan.105 Hughes appeared before the Council on 24 January 1919 and, with the aid of a large map, set out Australia’s case for its retention of New Guinea and other islands in the Pacific. To present his case, he used all the same rhetorical devices and flourishes he had employed on earlier occasions and focused almost exclusively on the strategic importance of New Guinea to Australia. He told the leaders that ‘strategically the Pacific Islands encompassed Australia like a fortress’ and that ‘south east’ of New Guinea was a ‘string of islands suitable for coaling and submarine bases from which Australia could be attacked’. The islands ‘were as necessary to Australia as water to a city. If they were in the hands of a superior power there would be no peace for Australia. … Any strong power controlling New Guinea controlled Australia’. Hughes objected to the idea of a mandatory power acting under the authority of the League of Nations being placed in charge of a quarter of the island. He claimed this would ‘overshadow’ Australian authority. Perhaps with an eye directed at the Japanese representative, he noted that ‘history showed that friends in one war were not always friends in the next’ and that a mandatory power could develop into a potential enemy. He concluded by noting that ‘Australia … had a right to claim freedom from the menace of any enemy such as had weighed upon her before this war’.106

Hughes’s presentation was not his best. He had spent a good deal of his allotted time retracing the history of Australia’s interest in acquiring New Guinea and the various failed attempts in the 1880s. He had mentioned only in passing the issue of the ‘rights of the natives’ – a question of particular interest to President Wilson. In contrast, the presentations by General Louis Smuts (South Africa) in arguing for South Africa to secure South West Africa and William Massey (Prime Minister of New Zealand) to secure Samoa were more measured and more convincing. The presentation by Baron Makino of Japan’s claims to retain possession of the former German islands focused solely on Japan’s role in responding to the presence of German naval forces in the Pacific Ocean and its activities undertaken in the Pacific and Indian Oceans in cooperation with the British Navy. He argued that continued Japanese possession of the islands would allow Japan to ‘continue to protect the inhabitants and to endeavour to better their conditions’.107

As the Council continued its deliberations the question which emerged to preoccupy the leaders was the form in which the German colonies were to be administered. The options were either annexation by a metropolitan power or the hastily developed concept of a system of mandates functioning under the overall responsibility of the League of Nations. Wilson, who had little sympathy for Hughes and his arguments as to the strategic significance of German New Guinea, opposed the concept of annexation and favoured a system of mandates aimed at promoting the development of the native population. Hughes challenged Wilson to identify ‘what advantage was to be gained by the appointment of a mandatory for New Guinea in preference to handing it over to Australia’. He also challenged Wilson’s view that Australia’s security would be strengthened under a mandatory system. He again turned to a rhetorical flourish when he told the Allied leaders that ‘were this mandatory principle applied to Great Britain, to America, to France, it would not work. As Ireland is to the United Kingdom, as Mexico is to the United States, as Alsace-Lorraine is to France, so was New Guinea to Australia’. He went on to argue that ‘Australia had governed New Guinea; New Guinea was essential to the safety of Australia’. He added ‘New Guinea was the outward and visible sign of the World’s recognition that they (Australians) were worthy to be entrusted with the government of that country’.108

After three days of often intense and acrimonious debate and disagreement with Hughes, ever the nuisance at the centre of the argument, the Council of Ten reached a provisional agreement on the creation of a new, three-tiered system of mandates under the authority of the League of Nations.109 Australia accepted a ‘Class C’ mandate over the former German New Guinea. It agreed to administer the mandate as an integral part of its own territory and as part of its legal and economic system. It also accepted the reference to the ‘prevention of the establishment of fortifications or military and naval bases and of the military training of the natives for other than police purposes and the defence of the territory’. In a remark designed no doubt to save face, Hughes said it ‘gives us all the power we want and all the safety too’.110 Britain, Australia and New Zealand also accepted a mandate over Nauru with Australia as the administering authority on the island.

On his return to Melbourne Hughes, who tabled the Treaty signed at Versailles on 28 June 1919, reminded the House of Representatives that ‘in order for Australia to be safe, it is necessary that the great rampart of islands stretching around the north-east of Australia should be held by us or by some Power in whom we have absolute confidence. … It was difficult to make the Council of Ten realize how utterly the safety of Australia depended upon the possession of these islands. … Those who hold it [sic] hold us’.111


Australia would have preferred to have annexed German New Guinea and to have had full and unfettered control over that quadrant of the island. The government was nevertheless satisfied that Australia’s strategic interests had been strengthened and that its security had been improved. The decision in Paris had brought to an end a debate which had begun before the formation of the Commonwealth. Australia’s security could best be guaranteed by the eviction of aggressive foreign powers from its immediate neighbourhood and the securing of the island of New Guinea by Australia or forces sympathetic to Australia, i.e. Britain and the Netherlands. Since the formation of the Commonwealth all Australian Prime Ministers had argued that Australia’s security depended on it controlling the eastern half of New Guinea. In the first instance the threat to Australia’s interests was seen as coming from Imperial Germany. However, from 1905 onwards the fear of Japan had gradually come to dominate the thinking of Australian military and political leaders and subsequently their attitude towards the terms of a peace settlement. Hughes was without peer in articulating these views. He repeatedly turned to arguments based on geography, security and an implied fear of Japan to emphasise his case for Australia to occupy and then secure German New Guinea. He saw Australia’s defence and the role of the island of New Guinea in terms of forward lines of battlements and ramparts designed to keep an enemy at a distance. And that enemy was now Japan.112 The arguments and vocabulary employed by Hughes would be drawn on by Australian political leaders over the next fifty years.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt