Negotiating Imperial Unity : Colonial Australian Contributions to British Wars, 1885–1902

PhD Thesis

Little, A.. (2023). Negotiating Imperial Unity : Colonial Australian Contributions to British Wars, 1885–1902 [PhD Thesis]. Australian Catholic University School of Arts
AuthorsLittle, A.
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (History)

This thesis examines the Australian colonies’ relationship with British imperial defence through their participation in British wars in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. It looks at the evolving Australian responsibility to further share the burden of defending Britain’s empire. The Australian colonies’ undefined role within this imperial system was the subject of continual negotiation between the colonial and British governments throughout this crucial period in the Anglo-Australian relationship. This thesis examines these developments through the lens of three critical case studies, each offering crucial insights into how the colonies could more actively contribute to defending British interests: the Sudan crisis of 1885, the South African War (1899–1902), and the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900–1901). Each of these conflicts represented a commitment by one or more Australian colonies in response to overseas imperial crises through the raising, equipping and despatch of colonial contingents.

Historians have traditionally treated these conflicts as preludes to the more substantial Australian commitment to the First World War, or as individualised and novel experiences for Australia’s developing military and navy. This thesis shifts this perception by situating these conflicts within the distinct period of 1870–1902, defined by the Age of High Imperialism and Britain’s need to bring its empire into order in the face of increasing imperial competition. As such, it identifies these conflicts as not simply showing the linear progression towards greater Australian involvement in British wars, but rather as key windows into the negotiation of the Australian position on wider imperial affairs. This thesis unpacks the contemporary debates surrounding Australian responsibility towards defending Britain’s empire, and how this position was often defined by the Australian colonies’ own emerging nationalist interests.

As such, this thesis brings these conflicts into the one comprehensive study to draw out the underlying themes underpinning Australian approaches to British crises. It examines these conflicts in chronological order, assessing how the Australian colonial leaders perceived their evolving responsibility to imperial defence, and how they interpreted the emerging pattern that they appeared to be establishing with the increasing commitment to imperial wars. By employing a comparative and empirical methodology, while drawing upon a wealth of archival material in Australian and British archives, this thesis reshapes our understanding of Australia’s position in broader developments of imperial defence in the late Victorian and early Edwardian British Empire.

What emerges from this study of the Sudan, China, and South Africa conflicts is a host of nationalist interests that informed the Australian colonies negotiations with the British Official Mind. The major contestation at the centre of this relationship was Britain’s need for the Australian colonies to further buy in to Britain’s defensive network, while the Australian colonies were wary of any commitments that would tread upon their independence. However, there was much for the Australian colonies to gain from a defence defined by these colonial contributions. In addition to the invaluable experience of colonial forces fighting alongside seasoned British troops, these contributions placed imperial sentiment at the forefront of their relationship with Britain’s defence, one that Australian leaders hoped would result in Britain coming to their own defence should Australia be threatened. This thesis examines this crucial period in the Anglo-Australian relationship where the Australian colonies sought to reshape how they fit within British imperial defence.

KeywordsColonial Australia; Australian Military History; British Imperial History; Imperial Defence; Age of High Imperialism
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research or scholarlyResearch
Page range1-240
Final version
File Access Level
Supplementary Files (Layperson Summary)
All rights reserved
File Access Level
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Print19 Jun 2023
Publication process dates
Completed01 Feb 2024
Deposited01 Feb 2024
Additional information

This work © 2023, Alex Little, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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