The Battle of Port Phillip

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A Russian fleet — if two warships and a pair of support vessels can be called a fleet — has been observed in waters somewhat near Australia and that news is the stuff of today’s front pages. Defence officials are variously quoted to the effect that there is no cause for panic, of which the only sign so far has been news editors’ decision to treat the story as a major development, while diplomatic sources have explained that the ships’ roaming so far from home should be seen as a further example of Vladimir Putin’s taste for displaying a little unsubtle muscle.

That Australians are going about their business calm and collected is a testament to our national maturity, as there was a time, long before the Cold War, when fears of a Russian invasion inflamed the colonial imagination to such an extent that the news editors of an earlier age thought it worthwhile to explain how such an attack would be dealt with.

On January 29, 1887, Melbourne’s Argus “reported”:

“Every home in Melbourne knew that the enemy was at hand, and every hour the rumours grew more alarming. The committee of the City Council met a committee of the Cabinet. The Premier reported that the land forces were rapidly concentrating, and that he would have 4,000 men in and about the city within a few hours to resist a landing if one were attempted, and it was unanimously agreed to pay no ransom, but if the Victorian flotilla was defeated to run the risks of a bombardment.

Notices were rapidly printed and posted to allay alarm and avert a panic. “No city was ever destroyed by bombardment from the sea.” “A shell is visible as it falls. Fall flat on your face if it is near you, and the explosion is usually harmless.” “The suburbs beyond East Melbourne, Fitzroy, and Hotham are beyond the range of fire.”

It all ended happily, with the mauled Russians and their battered French allies driven from Port Phillip in disarray.

For the Argus‘ full account of the Russian attack that never happened, follow the link below.

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