It was the first time Australians fought overseas. Sadly, the reasons were anything but noble. No wonder we kept it quiet.
In Hobart, in the Anglesea Barracks Memorial Garden, stands a remarkable monument. It is the only reminder of the Australian contribution to a war most of us don’t even know we participated in. Still, the 24 men from the 99th Regiment of Foot who are remembered there were only the first to die in a conflict that took Australians across the Tasman to fight for Queen and Empire.
Officially, of course, they weren’t Australians yet. We’re talking about the time before Federation, and the 99th were therefore British in name, although most of them were Australian by birth – Tasmanians, from the Colony of NSW (because Tasmania didn’t exist as a separate Colony until 1856). In another episode about the weird and (sometimes, although not so much this time) wonderful in Australian history, we’ll have a look at the New Zealand wars, and the thousands of Australians who volunteered to go. Some even stayed, as “military settlers”, and their descendants are still there. They were part of “an army of determined men… paid in the soil they should conquer”; a “cheap and effectual way of pacifying the country”, as the British Parliament said in 1863.
In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Maori and British, recognising Maori ownership of their land in return for the Maori accepting Queen Victoria’s sovereignty. In future, when the Pakeha (white Europeans) wanted land, they had to buy it, and the combined tribes had to consent to it as well. The Treaty only took five years to start disintegrating, with violations from both sides. It first went really wrong in 1845 at the Bay of Islands, which is why the 99th Regiment was there. It was part of a large contingent of British forces that nevertheless also consisted of so-called Colonial troops. They came from all over the Empire but, because of geographical proximity, especially from Australia. Australia, at that time, meant the Colony of NSW. Only in the 1850s would there be the separate colonies of Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland.
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The first part of the New Zealand wars, from 1845 until roughly 1850, was mostly overseen by the Governor of South Australia, a man called Sir George Grey. Grey was an interesting man, who had come to Australia in 1836, determined to explore the new continent and become famous. During four years of travel he had been speared by Aboriginals, shipwrecked and almost starved, and partly as a thank-you, he had been made Governor. Although he was, by most accounts, an autocrat and a penny-pincher who delayed whole pieces of legislation because the accountants had put one too many pots of mustard on the ledger, in 1845 he was asked to fix the problem with the Maori. He sort-of managed, and the 1850s were a period of uneasy peace. But 1854 saw the first New Zealand Parliament and the arrival of more white settlers, and that didn’t improve relations with the original owners of the land. At the end of the 1850s the Maori chiefs had become worried about all these people pushing them out, which led to the outbreak of the Taranaki war in 1860. That is when the New Zealanders seriously appealed for help to their neighbours in the west.
Australia in the 1860s was, like New Zealand, all about land. There were still wars going on with Aboriginal people, especially in Queensland. And even within the white communities, there were problems. Small-scale selectors tried to get a leg-up against the big squatters, but usually ended up with the scraps, and this led to more and more expeditions inland, to look for more land. At the same time, there were also lots of immigrants coming in, eager to flee the poverty in Europe and get on the property ladder Down Under.
So when the New Zealanders applied for men to fight the Maoris in return for land, there were people lining up at the recruitment offices. It did look very attractive: in return for three years of military service, soldiers would receive 50 acres of land, while there were 400 acres on offer for officers. They would be paid in the meantime, of course, and could bring their wives and children. In 1863 alone, 2,400 men signed up, adding to the estimated 2,000 Australians who were already fighting in Imperial forces in NZ. In total 3,600 went, until the war ended in 1872. The new recruits together formed a new regiment, the Waikato regiment, which was made up of men from Tasmania, NSW, Queensland and Victoria.
Apart from men, the Australians also contributed ships. In fact, the Victorians sent their entire navy, the steam corvette HMVS Victoria, while NSW dispatched two gun boats. They were the first Australian ships to ever serve abroad, with the first Australian military. Although, of course, the Australian War Memorial disagrees. It doesn’t include the men who fought or fell on its Roll of Honour, because they didn’t serve in Australian regiments. This is obviously a technicality: there might not have been an official “Australia” before Federation, but everybody who lived on the continent was still called an Australian. But anyway. Ships, yes. And cavalry horses, “broken to saddle, up to weight, with good action, sound in wind”, specially bred in the Hawkesbury. And money, lots of money, that still hasn’t been paid by either the New Zealanders or the British. The Australians also supplied arms, ammunition, food, clothes and logistical assistance, mostly organised by the Imperial Commissariat Transport Corps. There was a special “act to regulate the exportation of warlike stores”, that had to prevent arms sales and importations to the Maori from abroad. And gallons and gallons of rum, gallantly sold with a good mark-up to the thirsty military across the ditch.
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Not all Colonies were happy so many men went overseas. The Crimean War had just ended and in 1862 some Russian warships “visited” the area, and people were a bit suss about the proximity of the Great White Bear. There was also French expansionism in the Pacific and rumours that Napoleon III wanted to invade Australia. And on home soil good fighters were also needed to repel those pesky Aboriginals who still didn’t seem to understand that they had been conquered. Nevertheless, offers of free land had been “the bait which had allured men away”, as the Brisbane Courier wrote at the time. Its rival, the Queensland Daily Guardian, however, warned the recruits, by writing, “It seems to be the case that colored races are everywhere bound to disappear before the more fortunate but perhaps less scrupulous whites…but New Zealand is a rugged country; the natives crouch in the fern, and rely frequently on ambuscades for the success of their attacks.” The men might be a “fine, manly corps… as fine soldiers as ever handled a musket,” but that didn’t guarantee safety or their survival.
The paper was right. The Maori were trained and fearsome warriors, who fought with fortified villages and guerilla-style tactics and were, like their adversaries, not disinclined to engage in a massacre or two. In 1869, after years of fighting, the Courier opined that the problem was that this was “not a war with a civilised nation, but with a band of daring bloodthirsty savages… The amount of blood and treasure which will be required, the torture and suffering which must be endured before the result is achieved are beyond calculation,” it said, which led one of its letter-writers to ask for “a little wholesome retribution…shells and other hollow projectiles charged with petroleum, which I think might make the cannibal Maories rather uncomfortable in their entrechments.” There was on and off warfare until 1872, but even in the decades after there was still Maori resistance to settler incursions. The Australians, though, were happy that their contribution was over. It had been tough. Seventeen men had been killed in action, probably almost a hundred had been lost to sickness and accidents, and, even worse, sometimes the men had been forced to “fight without beer” There were 15 recipients of the Victoria Cross, which up to then had not been available to Colonial troops, not even those serving under British command. The New Zealand wars changed that, as it changed our view of the world. There would be Australians fighting in the Boer War a decade later, and in many other wars since.
For this story I have used the following sources:
Jeff Hopkins-Weise ‘Queensland and the New Zealand war of the 1860s’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, February 2003, vol. 18, iss. 5, pp. 209-231
Burnett ‘Exemptions in the NZ militia, 1845-1865’, Political Science, 17.1, 1965, pp. 13-25
Frank Glen For Glory and a Farm, the story of Australia’s involvement in the NZ wars of 1860-1866, Whakatane, Whakatane and District Historical Society, 1984