Sunday, October 2, 2016

Russophobia in New Zealand 1838-1908

While on a brief holiday type foray south to Dunedin I managed quick visits to the two fantastic second hand bookstores in the city. From 'Scribes' I picked up a book of Owen Marshall short stories ( I have a thing for NZ literature, there's awesome stuff out there and we need to read it as we constantly re-assess and define our identity), and from 'Hard to find' I picked up this little gem (ISBN 0 908564 75 9, Dunmore Press, 1981):



I have had  a longstanding interest in the subject of coast defences in New Zealand, and in the early 80's even did some research on the topic. That research went no where from an historical perspective, but it did inspire a piece of historical fiction that still sits in the files on my laptop.

It is easy in this modern age to sit back in judgement of the decision makers of the day, and the New Zealand public generally; their Russophobia might seem to us today to be laughable. Yet to them it was palpable, stirred up by people with a range of agendas both political and mischievous.

Barratt was a Professor of Russian at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, at the time he wrote the book (first published in 1981). He traces New Zealand views of the Russians from the 1830s through to 1908 and of perhaps the greatest amusement for me as I red was his account of  David Luckie (a journalist) and the Kaskowiski scare of 1873. In his story he claimed that the Russian ship the Kaskowiski had slipped into Auckland Harbour and using 'mephitic water gas' had overpowered and seized the only British warship present in the Waitemata Harbour at the time. Detachments had then been sent ashore to seize the armoury and magazines, occupy the telegraphic offices, and then proceeded to the Provincial Council Chamber to demand a large ransom from the Banks vaults around the city.

As Barrett says:

"Luckie's hoax enjoyed immense local success. The morning after (Tuesday, 18 February), he himself described the flurry it caused, stressing the comic element and minimising any anguish that the warship Cask-of-whisky might in fact have caused certain people."
To the modern reader the stories are at time humorous, and it is difficult to understand the angst that this 'phobia must have caused for the colonists of the time, staunch as they were in their belief that the Royal Navy should be providing protection for them. Such was their belief that it took some time to organise coast defences, and any sort of vaguely efficient  Volunteer Force with which to resist any sort of armed attack or landing.

North Head - Fort Cautley, Auckland


However worried they were, it was only the Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1905 that closed the covers on the story of New Zealand;'s Russophobia, only then to be replaced by a growing fear of Japanese attack.

Barratt's writing style is not the easiest to read, but the book is a rich source of research evidence and commentary on the  subject.

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