3 Mar 2022

History with Dr Grant Morris

From Afternoons, 3:20 pm on 3 March 2022

As Russia continues its offensive in Ukraine, Wellington historian Dr Grant Morris reflects on New Zealand's own Russian invasion scare 137 years ago.

The firing of a Nordenfelt multi-barrel anti-torpedo boat gun similar to those ordered by the Royal NZ Navy in the 1870s

The firing of a Nordenfelt multi-barrel anti-torpedo boat gun similar to those ordered by the Royal NZ Navy in the 1870s Photo: Public domain

At the time, there was national panic across New Zealand due to "mischievous" newspaper reports of a threat by the Russians, Morris says, and as a response, armed fortifications were built in ports all over the country.

The remnants of these structures are still seen today, he tells Jesse Mulligan, as fear and false media created a situation where New Zealanders were swayed by a national hysteria that left its mark on the landscape.

A colonial connection with Britain also played a part, he says.

“When we think of the historical enemies of Britain if we go right back to our colonial times, early on, Napoleon’s France, Germany in two world wars, Turkey in the first world war. We don’t really think of Russia necessarily.

“Not until the cold war anyway, but in the 19th century Russia was a competitor or rival of Britain… we remember the Crimea war in the 1850s, the Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale and those famous events. So, that was a manifestation of this rivalry between the Great Powers, with Russia and the UK. Of course, where Britain had enemies, New Zealand had enemies as well, being part of the empire."

He says it was almost a Cold War for a lot of the time between Russia and Britain generally and it spilled into conflicts like in Afghanistan during that time. 

“When they happened there’d be ramifications for New Zealand and that’s what happened during the 1880s in particular.

"Russia had opened its big port in Vladivostok in 1872… The first real well-known incident is in 1883 with the Southern Cross newspaper, the editor published a hoax saying that the Russians had invaded New Zealand and even though if you look at it closely you can see it was a hoax, it panicked an Auckland newspaper and Auckland thought they were being invaded by the Russians, and a ship in particularly which had just landed called A Cask of Whiskey."

He said it was the behaviour of a "mischievous" editor, the incident reminding him of Orson Wells with War of the Worlds in 1938, where a great panic was set off in the US during the radio broadcasts of his novel. But New Zealanders weren't worried about aliens.

“In this case, it was about this Russian fear, where the mayor had been taken hostage and the Russians were landing," he says. "It caused a panic and what that shows is we should be sceptical about what we read in the newspapers of course, but also that there was a level of fear that meant that people could believe it and that it was to them believable.”

Fort Buckley, Wellington 1886

Fort Buckley, Wellington 1886 Photo: natlib.govt.nz

War preparations took place up and down the country.

“We responded to this perceived threat from Russia by building coastal defences and some of these are very famous in New Zealand,” he says.

There were dozens of guns and coastal fortifications built around New Zealand to defend the New Zealand harbours against the Russian ships coming in. The defence systems were all built for nothing.

“The main harbours – Auckland, Wellington, Lyttleton, Christchurch, and Dunedin – there were 17 ports with massive guns, including the brand new disappearing gun, which was the latest technology.

“The one that’s closest to me is Fort Buckley… you can see the remains of where the gun was facing out into Wellington Harbour.”

Fortifications went up in Queenstown and Morris says it's interesting that there were even fears Russian soldiers would invade inland areas.

Morris says he often wonders if the New Zealand colonial system, which had a large military aspect to it, was primed for confrontation in this instance.

 "We look back and the New Zealand Wars weren’t that long before and that kind of said, well okay now we can do something with this, we can leap into action and defend ourselves, defend the British Empire and I wonder if there was an element of that in it as well, which we saw with the Boar War 18 years later."

Morris however draws no substantive connections with what happened then with what's happening now, as Russia invades Ukraine over NATO expansion and the breakaway Russian-speaking republics in the east of the country.

“In this case, I’d be a little bit wary about drawing connections, but only to say in New Zealand we do worry about what happens overseas. We do have an interest in threat and military events and how it will affect us and how it affects the world."

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)