The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

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 article, The 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.

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.

7 thoughts on “The Russians are coming – Aussie-style”

  1. ” In [January] 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”

    The Cossack host met the news about Pavel I assassination in March 1801 while still in Russia – Saratov gubernia, to be precise. Methinks they were in no rush to reach even the first “stage” (Orenburg) of their planned glorious invasion.

    EnglishLanguage WikiDorkia has this interesting quip:

    “The British public learned about the incident years later, but it firmly imprinted on the popular consciousness, contributing to feelings of mutual suspicion and distrust associated with the Great Game. Hugh Seton-Watson observes that “the grotesque plan had no military significance, but at least showed its author’s state of mind”. This assessment is echoed by Hopkirk who remarks that “no serious thought or study has been given to this wild adventure””

    Oh dear! Evil Russians basically mindraped entire generations of easily impressed Britons! #TheeToo?


  2. I remember C P Fitzgerald joking that Australians think that the Chinese are going to invade the country because, when we look at an atlas and see China up there, above us, we naturally imagine that the Chinese will drip down here under gravity. I have not heard a similar, erudite, explanation as to why the Russians would be so fascinated by us. After all, a single Russian clipper hardly compares with the US Great White Fleet, which called in not much later:
    Cooktown is worth a visit especially if you are an admirer of Cook, as I am. (And, to be fair, there are plenty of plaques up and down the East coast to “fortifications” built to hold off Russian invasions.)


  3. The Murdoch-owned Australian news article has been archived so anyone who wants to read about Cooktown’s firing of the cannon in 2014 can read an article on it here:

    Cooktown just having a bit of fun over the invasion.

    On a more serious note, we Australians would have more to fear from the Americans building more military bases on our soil.


    1. The American bases in Australia could drag Oz into a US/China cold war. This will be a bit tricky as China is a key export market for Aussie coal, LNG, metals and agricultural produce while America is a long term ally and cultural sibling.

      I do not doubt for one minute that Australia will side with USA for cultural reasons, but a hit to its export markets in Asia – China is the destination for 31% of Aussie exports and source of 23% of Aussie imports – could be a little unpleasant. Australia exported $190 Bn and imported $196 bn, an $8 bn trade deficit.

      Some of the Aussie exports to China such as gas (power of Siberia pipeline), coal, and wheat can be replaced by Russian exports. Russia does run a trade surplus with the rest of the world, $347 billion in 2016


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