Gayundah and Paluma were acquired to deal with the perceived threat from the Russian Pacific fleet. These were the first vessels ordered by the Queensland government for the colony’s Maritime Defence Force and were seen at the time (in the eyes of the public at least) as the start of a larger Queensland Colonial Navy.
The mid 1850s saw the emergence of a Pacific ocean Fleet of the Imperial Russian Navy.
1870 saw the withdrawal of the last Imperial military garrison from Sydney (and therefore Australia)
Sheer distance from Europe and membership of the world’s greatest empire with the world’s dominant navy supposedly gave the Australian colonies the ultimate guarantee of safety. Those facts did not, however, assuage feelings of vulnerability. The colonies considered themselves at risk of reprisal raids and potentially even invasion in the event the Empire went to war. It was the imperial connection itself which painted the Australasian colonies as targets in the event of hostilities.
The “Russian Scare”
It’s often said that in the 1870’s and 1880’s the Australian colonies experienced a “Russian Scare.” In fact Russian warships had been occasional visitors to various Australian ports and had been received with warm hospitality. There doesn’t appear to have been any particular enmity against the Russians on the part of the various colonies, however there was uncertainty given the deteriorating relationship between Britain and Russia during those years. It was assumed that if war broke out between those two nations that the colonies would be likely invasion targets.
During the 1870’s Russian and Italian warships were seen in the Torres Strait prompting Queensland to annexe the bulk of the islands in the Torres Strait, ostensibly for security reasons (New Guinea was annexed in 1883).
Unrest and hostilities in Europe in 1876 prompted the New South Wales government to appoint Sir William Jervois (a Royal Engineer, who had been largely responsible for the reorganisation of Britain’s defences) to determine the defence capabilities of all the Australian colonies except Western Australia. He and Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Scratchley made far-reaching recommendations, including upgrading and constructing additional shore batteries, modernising ordnance, a reorganisation of military personnel, and the acquisition of naval vessels for colonial defence.
Jervois was convinced (or at least that is how he was interpreted) that the Russian Empire would invade the Australian colonies to destroy shipping, threaten the economy, and obtain access to strategic ports. His report precipitated the construction of a number of warships including the HMS Acheron and HMS Evernus (spar-torpedo boats built in Sydney in 1879, for use in Sydney Harbour), and ultimately Gayundah and Paluma.
Meanwhile the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 was perceived in Britain as foreshadowing an expansion by the Russian Empire into India and beyond. The Australian colonies were advised to upgrade their defence capabilities accordingly.
The Melbourne-based Epoch newspaper re-ignited fears of a Russian invasion when three Russian ships—the Afrika, Vestnik and Platon – were sighted near Port Philip in January 1882. A series of editorials appeared The Age, asserting that the visit of the three ships was associated with a war that was threatening to engulf Britain and Russia, and that the Russian squadron was in the Pacific in order to raid British commerce. Despite the hysteria generated by the media in Melbourne, no invasion ensued.
This media activity both reflected, and increased, the general Russophobia taking hold in Australia at that time.
On April 24, 1882 at the request of the Queensland Government, a memorandum, with proposals for Queensland Defence based on the general outline of Defence for Australia recommended by Sir William Jervois, was submitted to the Colonial Secretary for Queensland by Colonel Peter H. Scratchley, C.M.
The following are extracts from Colonel Scratchley’s memorandum:
One of the recommendations made by Sir William Jervois was to the effect that a gun vessel should be provided for the general defence of the seaboard of the colony. Torpedo boats were also suggested, and although they form part of the local protection of ports, they should be manned by a naval brigade, which would have to be established for the floating defences.
Admiral Wilson has strongly advocated united action on the part of all the colonies, with the object of organizing a system of naval defence for all Australia. He recommends that naval brigades should be maintained at the principal ports, and that guns, ammunition, and equipment, should be kept ready to be placed, on the outbreak of war on board merchant steamers previously selected as suitable for the purpose.
The guns would be manned by the naval brigades, whilst the ships would be commanded and worked by their own captains and crews. These steamers would be of high speed, and would co-operate with the Imperial navy in the general naval defence of Australia. Any other floating defences that were available would also come under this organization.
It is manifest that if the Australian Colonies are to protect themselves singlehanded against a foreign power, assuming that British supremacy at sea is destroyed, their only security will lie in united action by sea and land. No time should, therefore, be lost in bringing this about. The necessity which has already been noticed as being of paramount importance, that naval defences should be provided at the same time as the military defences, is perfectly obvious.
GUN-VESSEL FOR THE GENERAL PROTECTION OF COAST.
The gun-vessel, already alluded to, could be designed so as to be utilised for Government service along the coast in time of peace. Its cost would be £27,750. A vessel of 10-knot speed, armed with an 8” B.L. gun forward, and a 6” B.L. gun aft, with two light broadside guns and two machine guns, would be most formidable for fighting purposes. Vessels of this class are being constructed in England; their engines and boilers are placed below the water line, thus rendering them secure against the enemy’s guns, and they carry coal sufficient to steam 200 hours full speed. The vessels can sail very well, and have made the voyage from England to China.
The estimated cost was “Gun Vessel, as described, allowing for journey out £31,000”
Debate in Parliament
The following is drawn from “The Queensland Marine Defence Force” by Commander Norman S Pixley M.B.E read at the meeting of the (?) Society on 28th November 1946.
On July 18, 1882, Mr. S. W. Griffith, Q.C., Member for North Brisbane asked the Premier if it were the intention of the Government in view of the present state of affairs in Europe, to invite the immediate attention of the House to the question of the defences of the Colony; Mr. Griffith had given notice of this question on July 12.
Later the Colonial Treasurer (Hon. A. Archer) moved in the estimates for £70,000 for Defence, of which £60,000 would be allocated from surplus revenue of the 1882/3 estimates, for the purchase of two Gunboats, one to be stationed in the Thursday Island area and one in the Moreton Bay area. Much debate ensued –
One Member commenting that, by passing the vote, they were beginning an Institution, the establishment of a Navy for Queensland, and, as the sum of £10,000 had just been voted to replace the Government steamer Kate, he would like to know what duties the gunboat based on Moreton Bay would perform that could not be done by the new steamer.
Another Member asked if the Honourable gentleman in charge of the Estimates had heard from the Home Authorities of six fast Cruisers which were expected for the Australian Station. He believed these ships should be armed and manned by the Colonies for the protection of their coasts. With regard to the gunboats, he believed these would be used against the Colonies, as they could be easily captured by an enemy and used to run up the rivers and shallow waters to attack the beautiful towns thereon. The Colony would be sufficiently protected by the Imperial Government with the six cruisers without the gunboats. The Colony might begin with these two vessels, but where would it end? Next year they might find the vote increased to £100,000.
The Hon. Mr. King said he did not agree with this reasoning. There was only one power likely to go to war with England and that was Russia. When in 1878 war with Russia was imminent, prior to the Treaty of Paris, an association was started in Russia for the fitting out of privateers against England; Russia had a small flotilla of vessels intended for Australian waters and bought a number of vessels in America and elsewhere, some of which were sent to Russian stations in the Pacific for the express purpose of preying on Australian trade. Mr. King also said that he regarded a Naval Brigade as, perhaps, the most important part of their Defence Force and there could not be an efficient and properly instructed Naval Brigade without a gunboat for their training. Although at the present time there was no immediate probability of war, he would point out that if the sum proposed was voted the gunboats could not be supplied for two years; if the sum was not now voted, the Empire meanwhile might be involved in war and the colony then be unable to get the gunboats when they most wanted them.
The Hon. Mr. Groom remarked that it appeared that for some time past those in charge of the Naval Defence of the Colonies had forgotten that there was such a place as Brisbane and such a coast as the Queensland coast. It was very seldom that they saw a British man-of-war in these waters — they seemed to be occupied exclusively between Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland—that alone would encourage him to support the vote.
The Premier (Sir Thomas Mcllwraith) spoke strongly in favour of the vote, stating that the leading statesmen in each party in England had, in communications they had with the Colonies, repeatedly denied that they took upon themselves to protect the Colonies. If he were a taxpayer in England, he would most undoubtedly object to pay for the protection of the Queensland coast while, as a Queenslander, he said it was their duty to protect themselves. The kind of protection they required was against filibustering expeditions which might be fitted out if England was at war. They had a knowledge of what took place in the war between Chile and Peru where a vessel armed out with one big Armstrong gun, lay at the mouth of a river and shelled a town for six or seven days and completely destroyed it.
In Queensland, if they made no arrangements to meet such an enemy, they would simply have to run away, but protection of the sort proposed would be quite sufficient. A 10-knot vessel of the kind proposed, capable of having the speed increased to 12-knots with a little more expenditure, was about the most efficient ship in the opinion of Naval men. A large gun she would carry, was capable of piercing 16″ armour plate and he knew that guns of this sort were fitted with wonderful accuracy. He had watched firing for two hours recently in Melbourne where he saw dozens of shots fired, and, though the gunners had never fired those guns before, every single shot fired at a distance of a mile and a half would have hit the hull of a small ship. With the Armstrong guns of the present time it would not be at all difficult to hit a mark even at 7,600 yards.
The Premier also stated that no other form of defence would be so efficient or obtained at such a small cost as the two ships he proposed. He advocated the expenditure for the defence of the Colony because it required defending. The ships were required for the defence of the Colony at the present time, and in time of war the Colony might one day sustain damage amounting to more than twenty times the expenditure required for these two ships unless the ships were obtained.
The Hon. Mr. Miles, in registering strong opposition to the scheme, remarked that the speed of the gunboats should be 15 knots to enable them to run away, and that it was ridiculous to think that two petty gunboats could defend a coastline 1,500 miles in length.
Another Member, Mr. Brookes, in opposing the vote, doubted that filibustering expeditions would take place, as privateering was against the law of Nations, and, with the cable telegraph and national opinions, the Colony could not be pounced on as was possible in the days of Queen Elizabeth. It would be fooling away money to spend it on gunboats which would be only toys. He gloomily added that, when wanted, they would probably be in the wrong place and the guns on shore.
Mr. Kingsford pertinently remarked that even if the gunboats were useless for coast defence, they might render invaluable service in convoying the shipping trade on the coast. If that trade were stopped, the Colony would lose far more than the cost of gunboats.
A motion that the cost of the gunboats (£60,000) be omitted from Estimates was defeated by 27 votes to 10, and, after some further debate the estimates were passed and the birth of the Queensland Marine Defence Force… had commenced.
Orders were then placed with Sir W. G. Armstrong, Mitchell & Co., of Newcastle on Tyne, for two gunboats of the “alphabetical” type, which were almost identical with Albert under construction for the Colony of Victoria. These were to be called Gayundah and Paluma.