The war that never was

“Lungeous lauthanum Russian innermost sanctitude islander…” *

In March 1885, the Colonial Secretary of WA received a coded, top-secret telegram warning of impending war with Russia. This week, Damien Hassan, Senior Archivist at the State Records Office, looks into the matter and how Russian spies had been sent to WA in preparation for war.

The State Records Office holds a number of government files relating to what was perceived as a looming war between Russia and British Empire in early 1885. The thought of war was triggered by Russia’s incursions into eastern Afghanistan, bordering with what was then India under control of the British Raj.

Curiously, Albany was seen as a point of possible conflict and the Albany Resident Magistrate was instructed to report immediately any Russian Ships of War in or near its waters. As was reported by the Inspecting Field Officer at Perth to the Colonial Secretary, Albany was considered “the point most liable to attack and of the greatest strategical value to the Empire generally”. Albany was also perceived as a location that was completely undefended.

Only several years earlier, a Russian warship was seen making soundings of Princess Royal Harbour as well as crewmen making sketches from the shore for purposes unknown.

In parallel with these concerns, the Albany Police Inspector reported to his superiors that three suspected Russian spies disembarked at Albany on 25 March 1885 after travelling from Bombay and that after staying several nights, then walked overland to Perth arriving on 8th April. They were described as having an exceedingly foreign appearance, were well educated and had a good supply of money. Those who the police interviewed said the Russians had indicated they came to the Colony to gain experience in sheep farming. They were reported as interested in obtaining maps of the Colony. The men were kept under observation by police until they departed by vessel to Gascoyne on 23 April.

In Perth, planning was carried out to put WA on a war footing with 353 men identified from the Volunteer Force to be made ready for active service. Rottnest Island was put on alert and a system of signaling between Rottnest and Fremantle was agreed to if “suspicious looking steam vessels” were spotted off the coast. In such an event, coal and wood stored at the Fremantle Railway Station was to be destroyed at once and buoys marking submerged rocks near Fremantle were to be removed.

Internationally, tensions between Russia and Britain soon eased and war was averted.

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* Translated as: “Any information you may obtain regarding Russian man of war is to be immediately telegraphed to this office…”

Recorded live on ABC Radio Perth on 27 October 2020.

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