Back in mid-February 1873, Auckland newspaper editor David Leckie revealed the dramatic story of a secret Russian cruiser whose crew had taken over a British warship in Auckland harbour, with the help of a ‘submarine pinnace’, and was holding the city to ransom.
Their agent of terror was ‘deadly water gas’ invented by ‘the late General Todtlieben’, which had rendered the crew senseless. Then the Russian terrorists had pointed the British guns at the city, taken leading citizens hostage, and ’emptied the coffers of the banks’.
It was an outrageous act of terror, and half Leckie’s readers believed him. Though anybody reading it aloud would have known they were being pranked, because apart from the silly name of the German inventor (‘Deathlove’), Leckie also dubbed his Russian terror warship (wait for it) the Kaskowiski.
His actual aim was to raise awareness of New Zealand’s vulnerability to the Russian Bear – the Bad Guy de Jour of the 1870s. The ‘Great Game’ – Britain’s tussle with Russia over Afghanistan – was afoot, and with it risk of war. New Zealand, just emerged from the ‘New Zealand Wars’, was a far-flung outpost of Empire, and feeling vulnerable. And so New Zealand’s long naval story – a story that extended to the furthest corners of the globe – began.
I’ve covered that story – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, just re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime.
New Zealand’s naval defence has always faced a weird paradox. As a small island nation, we’re not particularly vulnerable to invasion. But our over-water interests stretch far into blue waters – along our trading routes, into the regions given us to protect. We first confronted the problem in the 1870s – and it’s dogged New Zealand ever since. The key issue, as always, is figuring out ways of paying for the navy needed to do the work. The historical solutions, for decades, were entwined with New Zealand’s sense of self, and of its place in the wider British Empire of the early twentieth century. And that, as much as the exciting stories of battles in the First and Second World Wars – is what Blue Water Kiwis is all about.
Blue Water Kiwis was originally published in late 2001, a couple of years after I proposed it. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015