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The Sydney Institute

09 August 2016

What I’d like to do is speak to you about the geopolitics of the eighteenth century which was the context in which the first settlement in Australia was established. Then I’d like to move to the geopolitics of northeast Asia, which is the subject of my current book project. As Gerard has just said, it is three years since I published my biography of Arthur Phillip. So let me give you a few dates and we’ll work our way through those formative years relevant to the establishment of the first colony in NSW.

In 1770, James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia and he was very fuzzy about how far west his claim extended. It was basically to the Great Dividing Range, as far as the eye could see from his ship. There was no specification of the western boundary. Two years later, in 1772, the first French government expedition in search of the great south land landed in Western Australia. It was commanded by a man called Kerguerlen after whom some islands are named in the southern Indian Ocean. His deputy was a man called Saint Aloüarn. They landed on the west coast near Dirk Hartog Island. And I’ll read something to you from the book because it may sound familiar:

The annexation ceremony took place on the cliffs above Turtle Bay on Dirk Hartog Island. Just as Cook had done. The French wandered inland and did not recognise any evidence of organised human occupation. They then raised the flag, read a formal proclamation claiming possession in the name of Louis XV shouted “Vive Le Roi” three times and fired three volleys of musket shot. Before leaving they buried one of their seaman in the sand and left several bottles, a few French coins and a white ensign.

So, within the space of two years, there were competing claims to the east coast and the west coast of Australia. The international law of nations at the time provided that, in order to take control of an uninhabited country, you had to do more than make a claim. You had to consummate the claim by settling, civilising, cultivating and establishing a settlement. Hence, there was a great urgency in France and in Britain over the next 20 years to ensure that, what lawyers call “inchoate” or incomplete, claims were completed.

Let’s move forward to 1778. In 1778, Arthur Phillip was in Rio de Janeiro, in the last few months of his four years of service as a captain in the Portuguese navy. This was a period of his life where he excelled himself. In fact, there were several periods like this. But this period gave him a great step up. He served with great distinction and was very well regarded by the Portuguese governor Lavradio who sent very praise worthy testimonials back to London.

Portugal and Britain were old allies. Phillip was in the Portuguese navy to assist in a war then taking place with Spain in South America. Portugal owned Brazil, Spain owned most of the rest of South America. They were warring over territory around the River Plata estuary where Montevideo was on one side and Buenos Aires is on the other. The war indirectly and eventually gave rise to the country we now know as Uruguay.

When a peace treaty was reached it was called the treaty of San Ildefonso. The peace treaty stated and recognised that the ancient line of separation, the Papal line through the Atlantic Ocean which divided the old world between Spain and Portugal was continued. Not only did it continue, but that it continued into the Eastern Hemisphere of the globe. At this point, no one in Whitehall knew as much about the political dynamics of the ancient line of separation between Portugal and Spain as much as Phillip.

This became significant to the claim, or to the territory, over which Phillip was given control when he was commissioned by His Majesty’s Government in 1786. Let me explain. Phillip sat down in Whitehall for weeks and months on end in the autumn of 1786 and the following winter, through to May 1887 when he left. The terms of his commission were matters on which he was vitally interested and he had a lot of input into them. He proposed that the government accept that the Western boundary of NSW should be the 135th meridian of longitude. By adopting that boundary the British government was seeking to respect the ancient line of separation and avoid offending the Dutch. I say the Dutch because Holland was effectively the legatee of Portugal in the Indian Ocean.

The prospect of offending Spain did not seem to matter. Spain was an inveterate enemy. Holland was involved in negotiations at the time with France and it was very delicate. That this was the true reason for selecting this western border emerges from a draft preface which Sir Joseph Banks wrote to Matthew Flinders called A Voyage to Terra Australis. Sir Joseph Banks explained “that the selection of the 135th meridian was intended to have preserved the ancient line of separation with which it was nearly corresponding.” The issue was apparently so sensitive that Sir Robert Peel, who was the Undersecretary for Colonies, requested Banks to “omit any notice of the reasons that are supposed to have informed his majesty’s government in placing the western boundary of NSW.” Banks got in a huff about this, withdrew his preface which was never published. But it still exists and historians know about it.

That’s how NSW came to extend from what Cook could see from the coast to the 135th meridian which is way over near the current border of Western Australia.

We then have to move forward to 1784 when Phillip is sent to France. He had returned from his time in the American Revolutionary Wars and a huge expedition which covered much of the ground that he would later cover with the first fleet. He was much favoured in Whitehall, especially by Nepean who was the Undersecretary of the Home Office.

The Home Office was responsible for colonies and espionage. Phillip was sent as an espionage agent to France because there was a great concern about the French navy rebuilding itself. Ever since the Seven Years War from 1856 to 1863, when France suffered terrible losses, it had been on a mission to rebuild its navy. This was a concern to the British. Phillip was sent to Toulon and the other ports of France. We have two of his reports that he sent back but we know that there were five because they were numbered in a series and the two reports are two of those five reports.

While Phillip was there he must have come across Lapérouse. The great expedition of Lapérouse was being fitted out in Brest Harbour in 1785. This brings me forward to 1786. This is the year that the decision was made to establish the colony of New South Wales. It was a decision made in a time of great urgency and a great anxiety and it was made on a Saturday morning, which was unusual for cabinet meetings. Even then, there were two motivating factors in the geopolitical sense. There was the concern about the overflowing prison hulks but it wouldn’t have happened without these other issues.

The first was the concern about possible French colonisation of New South Wales or New Zealand. So let me read a few passages. This time Louis XVI is the king. He was the grandson of Louis XV. The monarchy skipped a generation. His father died of tuberculosis. And he was a young and very much a figure of the enlightenment:

Most people think of Lapérouse’s expedition as scientific and geographic, but Louis’ instructions required Lapérouse to consider and report upon the possibilities of commerce and the suitability for settlement of the lands visited by him. And he was specifically requested to ascertain whether the English had formed a settlement on the Islands of New Zealand.

The French curiosity about whether the English had actual settled any of the newly discovered lands in the South Pacific was matched by an equivalent British concern that the French might do so themselves before they did. So you have the British ambassador in Paris, Dorset, expressing great anxiety in May 1785, passing on that he’d heard that Lapérouse had orders to visit New Zealand and that the French had a design of establishing some kind of settlement there.

The following month both Dorset and Dalrymple, another diplomat and also I think a cousin of Dorset, passed on intelligence that ultimately proved to be wrong, but this is what they believed at the time. They believed there was little room to doubt that the French had a desire to make a settlement in New Zealand by landing convicts there. In particular, the intelligence included alarming information that 60 criminals from the prison at Bicêtre, which is in the south east of Paris, were the Monday before conveyed under strong guard and with great secrecy to Brest where they were to be embarked on board Monsieur de Lapérouse’s ships. It was imagined that they would be left to take possession of the lately discovered country.

That was one anxiety. The other became manifest the next year. In 1786, Pitt and Sydney, who were the core of the cabinet, and Nepean, a most influential civil servant, made the decision to establish the colony of New South Wales. In the lead up to the decision, in February 1886, the British ambassador at The Hague, a man called Harris, warned that the intentions of France in forming a connection with the Dutch republic were too evident to admit of doubt. The Dutch and the French both had possessions in India. Then the French engaged in transparently provocative actions in the Bay of Bengal around the entrance of the Ganges River. A bit like ships manoeuvring in the South China Sea. These were the first drumbeats of war.

This was followed by a series of alarming news items in quick succession. On 1 August Harris wrote that there would soon be a major development and that France intended to send troops to the Dutch bases in India. On 8 August a week later he reported that the crisis is drawing nearer and nearer every hour. And on 16 August, Sydney, who was the Home Secretary, sent an account to the King George III of the French naval capacity in the East. The East being India. Within hours, George III acknowledged what Pitt and Sydney and their colleagues had been warning him. Three days later on a Saturday morning, Pitt’s cabinet decided to establish a settlement in New South Wales.

The eleven ships of the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788. Four days later, on 24 January, two large French ships La Boussole and Astrolabe arrived off the entrance to Botany Bay. They were Lapérouse’s ships. Phillip didn’t want to meet Lapérouse. Melbourne historian Alan Frost suggests that he was concerned that Lapérouse might recognise him from his days undercover in France. Just as probably, Phillip did not want Lapérouse to see the advantages of Port Jackson, which hadn’t been chartered and the French hadn’t seen.

It was no accident that Lapérouse arrived there on that date. He’d been sent a message from France. When the French learned about Phillip’s expedition, the Minister for Marines said, ‘We must get a message to Lapérouse.” They calculated at a certain time he would be in Kamchatka, North of Japan and Korea, in the far north east near Sacuden. But how did you get a message to someone so far from France in those days? They had to send dispatch riders in relays of horses from Paris to St Petersburg, then Moscow, all the way across the Tundra, to Petra Pavlos and then Kamchatka. They got a message to Lapérouse just before he was due to depart. The message told him to go immediately to Botany Bay and check out what the English were doing. Lapérouse arrived off Botany Bay four days after the last English ship.

Now I want to move to another part of the world, at least a part of the world that affects Australia. You may not know, but there were three supply ships in the first fleet, six transport ships, three supply ships and two naval ships. The three supply ships, after they’d unloaded and completed their responsibilities, headed to China making the journey round Cape York, through the Sunda Strait up into the South China Sea. They were chartered from East India Company they were going to collect tea to take to London. I believe that understanding the historical origins of the instability in North East Asia is something we all owe to ourselves. Only when you know the history can you understand, or can you make the right decisions.


The Chinese have a great feel for their own history. Let me read my manuscript. What the editors do to it I cannot promise:


The fateful proposal that the Korean nation should be partitioned at the 38th parallel was an American initiative, made by a little known war time policy committee known as the State War Navy Coordinating Committee. It was called SWNCC after its acronym SWNCC. The proposed dividing line was selected on 10 August 1945 around midnight in room number 866 in the Pentagon by two young colonels in the State Department. They were working from the March 1944 issue of the National Geographic magazine which contained a map of the Korean Peninsula. One of the colonels was Dean Rusk who later became Secretary of State.

You might ask, why did they do this? Well it was 10 August, Hiroshima occurred on 6 August, Nagasaki on the 9 August. This was the crucial factor in Japan’s surrender. But Russia also intervened in the Pacific War. Stalin had agreed at Yalta, in February 1945, to enter the war against Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. The German surrender took place on 8 May and precisely three months later on the evening of 8 August, two days after Hiroshima, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov informed the Japanese Foreign Minister of his governments hostile intentions.

At one minute past midnight on 9 August, the Soviet Army moved into Manchuria. The area north of the Korean border. On a grand scale. Its front consisted of three army groups. Half a million men and over five thousand tanks extended more than 4600 kilometres from the Pacific Coast to eastern inner Mongolia. Its manifest ability was to occupy the whole of the Korean Peninsula, before American forces could arrive. This was a source of consternation in the Pentagon. By 10 August, the first element of the Russian 25th army had entered North East Korea, a fortnight later they’d completed occupation as far South as Pyongyang. By 1 September they had affected occupation to the 38th parallel. So impressed was one American military historian that he named the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the Korean peninsula “Operation August Storm”.

The partition was a unilateral initiative. The United Kingdom was not consulted nor was any other allied power. Korea was ignored. Stalin acquiesced intriguingly and without demur. That’s how it all started. What followed for three years was the occupation of the North and the South by occupying armies of Soviet Russia and the United States. The state department professed to have as its objective the unification of the country under a trusteeship. An international trusteeship. The Pentagon had different ideas. Certainly, the occupation army commander General Hodge and his Soviet counterpart had different ideas. So the two occupation armies built Clyde Space and by 1948 there was no turning back. In 1948, two states emerged. South Korea called itself the Republic of Korea and came into existence in August after an election which was supervised by the United Nations but which was controversial.

The North Korean state came into existence a couple of weeks later after an election, but one which was not supervised by the United Nations. As a British court made clear in the 1970s, whether a nation state comes into existence or not depends on the practicalities of control and jurisdiction and not whether the United Nations supervises elections or not.

So we had two states and for two years they were sparring. It was never clear who would invade the other first because the President of South Korea was always saying that he wanted to unify the peninsula and the President of North Korea made similar statements. Both presidents had been brought in from outside, by their respective occupation armies.

Kim Il-Sung, Kim number one, was brought in from Manchuria. He was actually originally born in North Korea but had gone off to Manchuria to fight the Japanese. The South Korean President was a man called Syngmann Rhee, brought in from the United States where he spent most of his life.

The Korean War started in June 1950. Before dawn on a Sunday morning, the North Korean army invaded. They had 120 Soviet tanks. Stalin had provided the material that Kim il-Sung needed. It should have been straightforward, Kim Il-Sung thought it would be straightforward, a matter of weeks. But President Truman sent across the US occupation army in Japan. The us troops had a hard time because they were soft, they had been living a good life in Japan, they all had house boys. My father used to say they were overfed and undertrained. The first three months were very tough. But they turned it around and after three months they had re-established the border. The United Nations resolution which authorised the intervention authorised a United Nations force to repel the invasion and restore the security of the border. Repel and restore.

So it was all over in three months, by the end of September. At that point a decision was made that many historians have said was tragic. Washington decided to cross the border itself. Having protested at the North Koreans crossing the border, UN forces now crossed the border themselves and moved towards the Yalu River approaching China.

China had nothing to do with the war at this stage. Nothing at all. It wasn’t there. But China was very concerned that the American led UN forces were going to threaten their border. Zhou Enlai made a memorable statement in which he said “China cannot stand idly by and watch the Americans at its border.” I said earlier that the Chinese know their history. They all know what happened and they know that history repeats itself. So the Chinese were waiting for the Americans. They crossed the Yalu River at night and went into the mountains and, to adopt a phrase that Mao used, they lured the enemy in deep. So the American led forces moved further rand further into the mountains, closer to the border, the Chinese waited.

They had brought in without any of them being noticed, over 200 000 troops. It was “the most successful mass infiltration in modern history”. I’m quoting. And when they decided to attack it was an unmitigated disaster.

The resulting retreat by the United States 8th Army was not only the longest in American history, it was one of the worst military disasters in history. President Truman declared a state of emergency. The Australian official historian of the Korean War said that legitimate questions about the wisdom, morality and legality of taking an offensive action north of the 38th parallel were ignored.

In fact, they were lost beneath a wave of moral righteousness and misplaced confidence. Doubters were sidelined, sceptics labelled as appeasers and allies were labelled as either “with us or against us”. In a pattern that has become familiar since, the quest for UN authority to cross the US parallel was mired in unconvincing rationalism, transparent ambiguity, and diplomatic and legal machinations reminiscent of the wrangling of the justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That wasn’t the end of it of course. The US army was pushed back and then they recovered. The fighting finally stabilised along the 38th parallel where it had started. It continued there for over two years and finished. The number of lives lost is, according to most estimates, 3-4 million people, the vast majority of whom lost their lives after the initial resolution of the United Nations had been successfully achieved. That is the invasion had been pushed back.


MA Pembroke

9 August 2016

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