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The Russians Are Coming – To Conquer Northern Australia!

Or so an Australian town 6,650 kilometres from Russia has periodically feared

Cooktown, Australia, is about 6,650 kilometres from Russia. You might imagine that it’s as safe from Russian invasion as anywhere on the globe. But, as I learnt this week, its inhabitants haven’t always been convinced of that. I thought it was worth sharing the story.

Cooktown is built close to the spot where Captain James Cook beached his ship for repairs in 1770. Apparently, Cook had a perfectly decent relationship with the Russians and used to send his dispatches back home to England via Russia, as it was the quickest route available.

One hundred years after his landing, however, Anglo-Russian relations weren’t so good. In 1801, the Emperor Paul had ordered his army to invade India via Central Asia. Following Paul’s assassination, his successor, Alexander I, cancelled the operation, which was in any case almost certainly doomed to failure for logistical reasons. But by the mid-1870s, Russian advances into Central Asia had convinced the Brits that the Russians might try the same thing again.

To forestall this possibility, in 1878 the British invaded Afghanistan, sparking the Second Afghan War. British Russophobia, which was already high due to the Crimean War of 1853-1856, now rose even higher. Fear of Russian attack spread throughout the British empire, and before long Cooktown fell under its spell.

Australian historian John McNair notes that the inhabitants of the northern Australian state of Queensland feared that Russia ‘wanted to annex parts of New Guinea’. ‘There was’, he says, ‘a legacy around that time of British mistrust of Russian designs.’ In the early 1880s, a Russian clipper visited Queensland, and the Brisbane Evening Observer expressed ‘alarm that the Russians seemed to be getting too familiar with the colony.’

Fearing Russian attack, on 10 April 1885, the Cooktown Municipal Council passed a motion that, ‘a wire be sent to the Premier in Brisbane requesting that he supply arms, ammunition and competent officer to take charge against a threat of Russian invasion.’

It took the Premier, Samuel Griffith, rather a long time to respond, but two years later he sent to Cooktown a cannon, three cannonballs, two rifles and ‘the requested competent officer’. The cannon is still there, but the Russians never came.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Cooktown residents’ grasp of Russian realities has improved much since 1885. In November 2014 articleThe Australian newspaper recorded that:

With Soviet military vessels in the Coral Sea yesterday and heading south today, the current Mayor [of Cooktown] Peter Scott recalled the town’s overlooked role as a northern bulwark against the Russian menace. … The current Mayor reflected on reports yesterday that the Soviet vessels could be only 400 km off Australian waters. ‘I think they might be out of range of the cannon’, Mr Scott said.

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Ah, those Soviets! Still out there controlling the Coral Sea. Perhaps they are ghost ships, like in Pirates of the Caribbean.  It’s good to know that Australia is ready and waiting for them.

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