Executive decisions to go to war: 1885

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In January 1885, the acting premier of New South Wales, Mr W. B. Dalley, without apparent parliamentary approval or debate, sent 500 infantry and two batteries of colonial artillery to Khartoum to teach the Mahdi a lesson for ordering the murder of General Gordon. In the context of our own indignation at Howard’s decision to send forces to Iraq in 2003, it is worth noting that even before we became a nation, similar actions stirred indignation in some pre-federation breasts: in this case the thunderous reaction of Sir Henry Parkes in a letter to the SMH on 19 February 1885 to Dalley’s high-handed decision.

‘There is’, Parkes asserted, ‘no national crisis for the interference of a colony of 900,000 souls, in the military movements of the Empire. I assert that there can be no greater folly than to foster a spurious spirit of military ardour in a country like ours, were every man is wanted to take his part, in some form or other, in colonising work. With the right hand we are expending our revenues to import able-bodied men to subjugate the soil, while with the left hand we propose to squander our revenues to deport men to subjugate Sir Edward Strickland’s ‘Saracens’. However men may delude themselves, this is not patriotism; this is not loyalty; this is not true British sense of duty. It is a cry of ‘wolf’ when there is no wolf; and it is to be earnestly hoped that the fable will have no application when the wolf verily comes. All the misty talk about the ‘tight little island’ and ‘heroic federation’ will dissipate itself in the clear atmosphere of time and reason.’

Richard Broinowski

Image: Volunteers for the NSW Infantry Contingent for the Sudan at Victoria Barracks, Sydney, shortly before the contingent’s departure on 3 March 1885. Credit: Australian War Memorial.

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