Kerguelen, in Australia’s anxious sights | Polarjournal
The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Australia, pictured here in 1937, operated in the Indian Ocean in 1941 during the Second World War. Image: Public domain

A study published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History dusts off an old Australian concern about the Kerguelen archipelago, a French possession since 1893, when England and France were still rivals. Australia then imagined, twice in history, that France and other nations could use this small chain of islands to block the Oceanian continent.

“I went to the Australian archives and saw records of this unusual (Australian, editor’s note) link with the Kerguelens, and thought it was interesting enough to look into it!” says Alexander Mitchell Lee, of the Australian National University’s Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies, in an e-mail to us. His historical and geopolitical research into naval threats and the sense of insecurity that Australia has developed over the course of history had led him to the striking example of the Kerguelen.

Kerguelen! This archipelago in the Indian Ocean, near the polar front wasn’t always as peaceful as it is today. The proof? A series of electromagnetic underwater mines in the inner gulf of the main island – the Gulf of Morbihan. To understand how such an isolated territory had turned into a theater of potential conflict and the flexing of muscles in the Australian defense strategy, the article published on January 28 in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, written by Alexander Mitchell Lee, is highly informative.

The reasons for Australia’s mistrust of this island date back to the 19th century. French imperialism then had extended to the Indian Ocean, with the annexation of New Caledonia in 1853, for example. This geographical positioning was of concern to Australia, which was dependent on London and its trade routes. In particular, the route from Plymouth around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, not far from the Kerguelen.

While the French and British, long-time rivals, clashed diplomatically, Australia tried to convince London to negotiate sovereignty over the archipelago annexed by France in 1893. Henry Copeland (1839-1904), an influential Australian politician, was one of the leading figures of these intentions, arguing in favor of this imperialist policy. His arguments were similar to those used by Yves Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec to set off on another expedition after discovering the archipelago in 1772. Henry Copeland pointed out the mining (coal) and agricultural potential for founding a colony on the island.

In his speech, he also mentioned the territory’s potential to be a nuisance for Australia. The multiple shelters are ideal for a flotilla of warships and the construction of a deepwater base. This position could be a threat for the last lifeline between London and Australia if the Suez Canal is cut off.

But London didn’t see the point, highlighting that France already owned New Caledonia, and that the swells, winds and reefs are too dangerous for France to risk. “Australians in some ways were more enthusiastic about Imperialism than Britian, as Australia did not have to pay to defend new colonies and did not have to negotiate with the other European great powers,” the author explains.

At the end of the 19th century, global geopolitical equilibrium was also being challenged by rising Japanese and German imperialism. The former planned to enter the Indian Ocean, while the latter took possession of part of New Guinea. This contributed to the rapprochement between France and Britain, symbolized by the Entente Cordiale of 1904. Australia’s anxiety about Kerguelen was no longer justified, and would not return until forty years later.

Gust of wind in Buenos Aires channel (Kerguelen). Image: Camille Lin

So it was during the Second World War that, for the second and last time, the Australians warned London of the threat Kerguelen represented to them. France was occupied and Japan allied with Germany. “Australia, which had assumed French colonies such as French Indochina, New Caledonia and Madagascar were friendly, was terrified that Japan would use these colonies to threaten Australia,” the author explains. Suspected Nazi activity on Kerguelen prompted the Australians to send HMAS Australia on patrol on November 1st, 1941. The ship installed four underwater electromagnetic mines, some of which were to be used to block access to Port-Jeanne-d’Arc.

End of story?

“I don’t think there is significant anxiety about the Sub-Antarctic Islands from the Australian perspective, however, if France or indeed any other nation invested in Kerguelen it would certainly be of interest to Canberra,” he concludes. Indeed, cutting off the Suez Canal remains a possible scenario in the future when looking at current events. This coudl lead to repercussions in the Indian Ocean and bring the Kerguelen closer to trade routes. “The Indian Ocean and Franco-Australian relations have become of increasing security interest here in Canberra,” notes the author.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to the study : Lee, A.M., (2024). The Kerguelen Archipelago and Australian Security Anxieties. Australian Journal of Politics & History, https://doi.org/10.1111/ajph.12951 .

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