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Australia and the Military

From the outset, military history has been intermingled with the history of Australia and its European inhabitants. In fact, Australia owes its discovery to a lull in military activity in Europe.

When British and European armies were not fighting each other, military leaders often found themselves on half pay, and in many instances, they were sent on exploration missions throughout the world. Just as on the battlefield, national pride dominated these ventures as the war spilled over into the competitive world of exploration.

Historians are also quick to point out that new lands were not the only things at stake and that scientific conquest had also become a goal by the late 1700s. Australian's have only to recall that Captain Cook was initially sent to view an eclipse and that his discovery of New South Wales came as an added reward during his return voyage.

Rivalry between France and Britain featured heavily in the British decision to occupy New South Wales in 1788. It featured again in the 1820s, when the western third of the continent was added to Britain's Empire.

However, Australia's greatest involvement with the military establishment was still to come and was brought about by the American War of Independence. Until then, Britain had used America as a dumping ground for her convicts but soon after she lost that battle she had to turn her attention to the newly discovered New South Wales. A colony was established along military lines and a great proportion of its original settlers had convict or military backgrounds.

Family historians are well versed in the wealth of information on record in the files of the War Office, the Colonial Secretary's Office and the various local Convict Establishments. Until recently, personal approaches had to be made to the various Archives and Public Record Offices to gain access to those records, but the popularity of family research and the demands it placed on the various repositories precipitated some revolutionary measures.

Initiatives such as the creation and circulation of the Australian Joint Copying Project and the New South Wales Genealogical Resource Kit made the records more accessible to the public throughout Australia. Even more recently, the internet has been utilised in a most resourceful manner.

It is to be hoped that many of the people who read this article will have already experienced first hand some of information that is being systematically placed on-line by the Governments of New South Wales and Victoria and for those who have not heard, the Victorian PRO has placed searchable databases of passenger lists on-line for ships arriving from foreign ports. Not to be outdone, the New South Wales Government has not only put inward shipping passenger lists on-line, but has recently added a convict certificate of freedom database and has even trialed an on-line version of its popular Birth, Death and Marriage indexes which it released on CD-ROM a few years ago.

All databases are free of charge at the moment and one can only hope that they will remain that way.

The State offices of the Australian Archives have placed a growing amount of searchable information on their web-sites. Their on-line indexes refer to their records of past residents in their particular region, and apart from inward shipping information, they cover public service records and information on military service performed in Australia after Federation in 1901.

Earlier we considered Australia's passive military history, but she has had a surprisingly active military history as well. This year, with the Timor Crisis foremost in our minds, we have also been reminded that it is 100 years since the various Australian Colonies, and the new nation of Australia, sent troops to help Britain fight the Boers in South Africa.

It was only a few years ago that Australia was "Remembering" its involvement in World War II and there are a surprising number of other conflicts in which Australia has been involved over its short history. Australians have been committed over the past 150 years to military action in the Crimean War, the Maori Wars, the Sudan, the Boer War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and most recently, East Timor.

As always, military records are an invaluable source of information to the family historian and as years go by, more information is being released into the public domain.

At the moment this site has been devoted to Australia's involvement in the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902 but our links page provides a comprehensive collection of URLs for Australia's other military activities during the past 150 years.

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