Problems of Empire/Australia and Imperial Defence

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Problems of Empire by Thomas Allnutt Brassey
Australia and Imperial Defence
Extracts from an Address delivered before the Imperial Federation League of Victoria, at Melbourne, October 1896.


Extracts from an Address delivered before the Imperial Federation League of Victoria at Melbourne, October, 1896.[1]

The Imperial Federation League and its work. We are met to-night under the auspices of the Imperial Federation League of Victoria. The Imperial League Federation League of the United Kingdom was dissolved two years ago. Many members of the League in the United Kingdom, and, I suppose, a majority of the members of the branches both in Canada and here in Victoria disapproved of the dissolution. To devise a scheme of political federation was outside the scope of an irresponsible body of men however representative. All the work that it was in the power of the League to accomplish in the United Kingdom, at any rate, has been done. Mainly through the efforts of the League a complete revolution of popular sentiment has been effected. The idea of the old Manchester School that the Colonies were a burden on the mother country, and should be cut adrift at the earliest possible opportunity, has completely died out. With few insignificant exceptions, statesmen, politicians, and pressmen of all shades of political opinion, are now looking to the maintenance of the Union under one flag of the various communities which make up this Empire. Is not the sentiment of unity stronger in Canada, South Africa, and Australasia to-day than it was ten years ago? When we were threatened on one side by the President of the United States, on the other by the Emperor of Germany, had the unanimous resolution of the Canadian House of Commons and the message of the Australian Premiers no significance? From all that I have seen and heard in a recent journey across Canada, and since I have been in Australia, I am confident that the sentiment of loyalty is infinitely stronger to-day than it was ten years ago. Nowhere is it more apparent than here in the Colony of Victoria, a fact which may be attributed in great measure to the excellent teaching of geography and history in your State schools, just as I believe the hostility to Britain, which undoubtedly exists among large sections of the people especially in the central and western states of America, is largely due to the manner in which history is taught in the public schools.

Commercial Federation. Because we cannot look forward in the near future to any form of political federation, it does not follow that there are not other ways in which we may draw closer the ties that bind us together. Some people believe that we can best secure the unity of our Empire by strengthening our trade relations. This view is largely held in Canada, especially by the party which has just been defeated in the General Election. It is also held to some extent in the United Kingdom by those statesmen and others who have banded themselves together into the British Empire Trade League, and more recently into the British Empire League. The idea of a Zollverein, or Customs Union, has apparently not found much favour in Australia. To discuss the trade relations and the trade policies of the various British dominions would take an address in itself. The trade to be attracted by any change in our fiscal policy is not the main volume which we possess already, but a small fraction. The chief object to be gained is that Australian, Canadian, and South African producers would receive an advantage in the markets of the mother country that would enable them to compete even more successfully than at present with other producers of food and raw material, whether in the Argentine Republic or the United States, and that this would increase the attractiveness of British Colonies as a field for British settlement and the employment of British capital. Though a Liberal and though a Free Trader I might be prepared under certain circumstances to vote in favour of a Customs Union, but there is no indication at present that the people of the United Kingdom are prepared to revolutionise the fiscal policy, under which the progress of the last sixty years has been achieved.

Federation for Defence. It is far more possible and of infinitely greater importance that we should be more closely united for the purposes of defence. Before we can come to any conclusion as to the part which each member of the British dominions ought to play in the defence of the whole, we must understand the general principles on which the defence of the Empire rests. It is for this reason that I propose to devote the main portion of this address to the consideration of these principles.

Importance of the command of the sea. The main principle which I wish to lay down at the outset is that the defence of the Empire rests absolutely on our power to retain the command of the sea in other words, on sea power. I do not wish to minimise the functions which the Army will have to perform in case of war, but I do wish to insist very strongly that no army which it is conceivable we could raise and maintain would compensate for inferior naval strength.

To those who had grasped the principles of warfare which are applicable to a sea power like Britain, it appeared that if the relative proportions of naval and military expenditure which existed in 1892-3 were reversed, the Empire would be better defended. The proportions of naval and military expenditure though not reversed have been entirely altered in the last few years. The Navy Estimates for 1896-7 amount to 22,800,000l. gross, or 21,800,000l. net. The Army Estimates amount to 20,900,0007l. gross, 18,000,000l. net. It is impossible to deny that the British Empire is better defended to-day than it was two years ago. In 1894 there were 46 battleships built and building for Britain as against 51 for France and Russia. In 1896 there are 55 battleships built or building for Great Britain against 50 for France and Russia. In first-class battleships we had, in 1894, 19 built and 3 building as against 15 built and 12 building for France and Russia. In 1896 we have 12 building and 22 completed as against 14 building and 15 completed for France and Russia. We owe the change that has taken place to the fact that the principles of Imperial Defence are becoming better understood. The deepest gratitude of every Englishman is due to Captain Mahan of the United States Navy for so clearly Setting forth those principles in his two admirable books.

I will endeavour to illustrate the assertion that the Forms of hostility. defence of the Empire rests on sea power by considering the forms of attack which we may have to meet in case of war with a first-class European power, or combination of European powers. We shall have to meet attacks on commerce, attacks on colonies and dependencies, and, possibly, invasion.

* * * * *

Attacks on Commerce. The United States, it is true, were the first to lay down the type of fast and lightly armed cruiser, represented by the Columbia and Minneapolis, which have a trial speed of close on twenty-three knots. They are classed as commerce-destroyers in the American Navy List, and are commonly called in America 'Pirates.' France has followed suit by laying down this year two cruisers of the same class, the Guichen and Chateau Renault. We can only judge whether the policy indicated by the construction of such ships is likely to be successful in the future by the experience of the past. In the years 1756-60—that is during the Seven Years' War—2500 British merchant ships were captured; and in the year 1761, 800 out of the estimated total of 8000 British merchant ships, or 10 per cent., were captured by the cruisers or privateers of the enemy. Campbell, in his Lives of the Admirals, says, 'The trade of England increased gradually every year, and such a scene of national prosperity while waging a long, costly, and bloody war was never before shown by any people in the world.' In commenting on the results of the war of 1778, Captain Mahan says, 'Especially is commerce-destroying misleading when the nation against whom it is to be directed possesses, as Great Britain did, and does, the two requisites of a strong sea power—a widespread, healthy commerce and a powerful Navy. Only by military command of the sea, by prolonged control of the strategic centres of commerce, can such an attack be fatal. Such control can only be wrung from a powerful navy by fighting it and overcoming it.' It will be noted that though the number of British merchant ships had more than doubled between the first and last of the two wars that we have been considering, the estimated captures were reduced from 10 to 2½ per cent.

Position of British merchant shipping in 1896.  The British merchant navy holds a higher position to-day than it has ever done before relatively to the merchant navies of other countries. The aggregate merchant tonnage of the British Empire amounts to 10,512,272 tons, made up as follows:—

The United Kingdom ... ... 8,956,181
Canada ... ... ... ... 951,210
Australasia ... ... ... ... 359,614
British India ... ... ... ... 65,140
Other British Possessions ... ... 180,127
Total British Possessions ... 1,556,091
Total British Empire ... 10,512,272

The aggregate tonnage of the merchant navies of all other countries amounts to 8,449,000; or, if we include vessels employed on lakes and rivers in the United States, to 10,305,000. Taking steamships alone, which are generally considered to possess three times the carrying efficiency of sailing ships, 6,377,000 tons are under the British, 3,624,000 tons are under foreign flags; or, including vessels employed on the lakes and rivers of the United States 5,332,000 tons. The British Empire, therefore, possesses at the present time more than half the total merchant tonnage of the world, and nearly two-thirds of the tonnage of steamships. In any future war in which we may become involved, British commerce will undoubtedly suffer losses. Their number and extent will depend on the efficiency of the British Navy. Judging from the experience of previous wars, the losses will almost certainly be more numerous, but they should represent a less percentage of the whole.

Attacks on Colonies. Canada and India alone of British possessions are open to serious attack by land. British South Africa has a long land frontier, but no first-class power could contemplate a serious attack except with troops transported over sea. The defence of Australia depends absolutelyAustralia.  on the command of the sea, and this being the case, the localisation of the vessels of the special Australian Squadron in deference to the wish of the Colonies is a grave mistake. I will endeavour to give an illustration to bring this home to the minds of every one in this hall. You know that during the past fortnight British and Russian fleets have been watching one another through the Dardanelles. If the British Government had followed the advice of Mr. Gladstone, there is little doubt that we should have been at war with Russia, and possibly with France as well, at this moment. The naval force, maintained by foreign powers in waters in the neighbourhood of Australia, whether in the Pacific or Indian Ocean, is absolutely insignificant compared to our own. In China the Russian and French squadrons are equal, if not slightly superior, to the British squadron. They can oppose one battleship and five armoured cruisers to one battleship three armoured cruisers and a first-class protected cruiser. If the British China Squadron were to be defeated in battle, the command of the sea between Cape Horn and the Suez Canal would be temporarily lost. British commerce would be interrupted, and Australia would be liable to invasion by Russian troops from Vladivostok, or French troops from Saigon. The squadron now in Australian waters would be powerless to prevent it. I have no hesitation in saying that if the British China Squadron were immediately reinforced on the outbreak of war by the flagships here and in the Pacific, it would have a reasonable prospect of defeating, or of at any rate holding in check, the combined squadrons of France and Russia. There would most probably be a great popular outcry against any such action on the part of the Admiralty, but it is absolutely certain that the Orlando and Warspite would do more to defend the coasts of Canada and Australia in Chinese waters than they could ever do if they remained in Canadian or Australian waters. Against small raiding expeditions, accompanied by troops which are not likely to, but still might, escape our cruisers, you in Australia must be prepared to defend yourselves by maintaining a military force, not necessarily numerous, but certainly efficient, and capable of taking the field against disciplined troops.

* * * * *

Responsibility of the Colonies in Imperial Defence.  Is our present standard of strength sufficient? Our very greatness, the splendid growth of our self-governing Colonies under free institutions, the talent we have shown for the government of native races in Egypt and India, make us the most unpopular Power in the world. Hitherto the burden of defending this great Empire has fallen almost exclusively on the inhabitants of the mother country. During the past two years we have added over 7,000,000l. to our Navy Estimates alone, irrespective of 14,000,000l. provided in the Naval Works Acts. In many of the Colonies, certainly in the Australasian Colonies, expenditure on defence has been cut down, and the tendency seems toward still further reduction. You have been passing through a period of severe depression. We in the old country have had a revival in material prosperity. The addition to the naval expenditure has hardly been felt, certainly not by the general body of taxpayers. We have been able to hold our own well up till now against our probable enemies, but should those enemies become more numerous at a time when commerce and industry are not so prosperous as they are now, the British taxpayer may find the burden almost too heavy for his shoulders alone. Speaking as a representative of British working men, and putting it to you as purely an abstract question, is it just that we who live in the old country should contribute twenty times what you do to the common defence? Is it right that the sons and the brothers of British workmen should uphold the British flag in every corner of the world, while, if I am to judge from what I sometimes read in Australian newspapers, it is considered unreasonable to expect an Australian to serve anywhere except in defence of Australia? Though I am a member of the Imperial Defence Committee; though I believe that it is well that we should turn these questions over in our minds, I certainly deprecate the tone sometimes adopted by members of the committee in discussing this question. Believe me, Englishmen as a body recognise that Australians as well as Canadians have done much for the defence of the Empire in the past. We do not forget that Melbourne and Sydney have been well defended at Colonial expense. We do not forget the presence of the New South Wales contingent in the Soudan, a great object-lesson to European nations of the unity of sentiment which animates all who live under the Union Jack. A contribution of 135,0007l. a year does not loom very large in Navy Estimates which amount to 22,000,000l., but it is valuable as the recognition of a principle and as an earnest of what our Colonies may some day be prepared to do. We shall not repeat the mistakes of the past. We do not and we have no right to expect that you will make any serious money contribution to the defence of the Empire until we are prepared to give you a constitutional voice in the control of that expenditure. That is impossible under our present Constitution.

Federal Government the future Constitution of the Empire.  Looking to the future many people will be disposed to agree with Lord Rosebery that 'in a full measure of devolution subject always to Imperial control lies the secret of the future working of this Empire.' No nation has ever attempted to deal with such multifarious questions as we attempt to deal with in the House of Commons. It will be some years yet before we in the old country are able to draw the line between matters which are of Imperial, and matters which are of local, concern, as they do in Germany and in the United States. A delay of one or even two generations will give an opportunity for the population and resources of the Colonies to develop, and will place you in a position to enter into a political federation with the mother country on fairly equal terms. In the period of growth of her Colonies, it is clearly the duty of the mother country to undertake the main burden of defence; but when you no longer require such a large proportion of your resources for the development of your territory, it is not unreasonable to expect that Colonial taxpayers will be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with the British taxpayer in bearing the common burdens, and that Colonial statesmen will be ready to take their place side by side with British statesmen in a Parliament or Council in which all parts of the British Empire shall be represented.

Local defences in Australia. Meantime your task in the common defence is to see that the forts which make Sydney and Melbourne two of the most strongly defended ports in the Empire, and which protect Thursday Island and King George's Sound, are kept properly armed and efficiently manned. If the Colonies wish to spend money on local naval defences for their ports, keep the force which is to man them efficient and contented. The Cerberus would probably act as a greater deterrent to hostile cruisers than the forts at the Heads. More important than either your forts or your ships are your military forces. You do not want a large force. What you have let it be efficient, properly equipped, and capable of taking the field against disciplined troops. A small but efficient military force in these Colonies would not only render you secure against any possible attack that might be made on your territory, but would also render valuable assistance in time of war by capturing the naval bases of the enemy in neighbouring seas. In time of peace popular opinion is often impatient of military expenditure, and that is no doubt especially the case in these Colonies, which have always been far removed from the strife of battle. Bear in mind the words of a distinguished President of the United States, 'A defenceless position and a distinguished love of peace are the surest invitations to war.'

I have had unrivalled opportunities of seeing the British Empire. Let me say in conclusion that it is the highest ambition of my life to help to bind the Colonies and the mother country more closely together, and whatever may be my political career, I can undertake that my best energies will be devoted to that object. This is no more than could be expected from the son of your Governor, who, at a time of life when many men are looking to rest from their labours, left his home and his children, who were settled round him, to serve his Queen and his country for the sake of the cause which we both have so much at heart.

  1. This address was to some extent a résumé of the points given in the article reprinted from the Nineteenth Century.