We’ve been having a little panic over the appearance of a Russian battle group in the Coral Sea – this isn’t the first time we’ve had one – Cooktown town council panicked in the 1880’s about the need to defend themselves from the Russians during another time of paranoia and received a single Crimean war vintage cannon from the Government.
There might be bit of poetic justice there. It’s also important to realise that British and French warships attacked Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on coast of Siberia, north of where Vladivostok now stands, during the Crimean war. Global reach was as much a nineteenth century thing as a twentyfirst century concern.
And Cooktown, while today it’s a sleepy town at the end of the bitumen, in the 1870’s and ’80’s was a dynamic go ahead gold mining centre with direct shipping links to Guangzhou, Singapore and India, and crucially had a telegraph link south.
While most of the mail from the outside world came via Galle and Albany, some of the mail from the UK landed first in Cooktown and, before Australia was connected to the outside world, the Cooktown wire helped spread the news of events overseas.
So Cooktown had some strategic value. What’s also not realised is that Russia has had a long history of involvement in the Pacific.
During the American civil war, when Confederate commerce raiders were wreaking havoc, the Russian navy patrolled the Pacific in support of the Union forces. Russia also had interests in Hawaii and other places, mostly on the back of whaling and a bit of general commerce. And there was a great concern that Russia might plant a colony in New Guinea. (In the event it was the Germans who created Deutsche Neu-Guinea in the north of the island and the British, in combination with the Australian colonies who created a protectorate in the south as a buffer)
So it’s hardly a new thing for there to be a Russian presence off the coast of Australia – nor is paranoia about Russian vessels off our coast