29 DEC 1860: The Maori Wars and Australians are in action at Matarikoriko, New Zealand. Sailors from the Victorian Colonial warship, Victoria, take part in the action at Matarikoriko, New Zealand. The Victoria’s service in New Zealand waters during the second Anglo-Maori war, represents the first overseas military operation by an Australian unit, the beginning of Australia’s overseas war history. Often called the Maori Wars, the New Zealand wars were a result of disputes over land sovereignty between the British and colonial forces and Māori tribes.
The colonial government of Victoria decided to send a sloop to New Zealand, to support British colonists fighting in the First Taranaki War. On 19 April 1860, HMVS Victoria sailed to Hobart, embarked 134 troops from the 40th Regiment of Foot, and transported them to New Zealand. Prior to her departure, the colonial government passed an Act giving the ship legal status, but this law was overturned by Britain as an attempt to create a naval force independent of the Royal Navy.
The legal hazards of having a colonial warship operating outside her territorial limits was rectified by declaring that all Australian warships in international or foreign waters had to be commissioned into the Royal Navy.
After delivering the soldiers to Auckland, Victoria performed shore bombardments and coastal patrols, while maintaining supply routes between Auckland and New Plymouth.
In July, she sailed to Sydney to transport General Thomas Pratt and his staff to New Zealand. Victoria was used to evacuate women and children from the town of New Plymouth, following Maori attacks on the town’s fortifications. In October, the ship underwent a refit in Wellington, and resumed duties by delivering British reinforcements to the combat areas. As the Victorian colonial government required the ship for urgent survey work, her return was requested at the end of the year, with Victoria arriving in Melbourne in March 1861.
Around 2000 Australians enlisted for this conflict. Most came from Victoria, although a number of British troops stationed in Australia were sent to fight in New Zealand. British soldiers in a number of regiments based in Australia were also sent across the Tasman as a military force at various times between 1845 and 1847 and between 1860 and 1866. At first stationed at Fort Niger in New Plymouth, the brigade later staged at Camp Waitara at the mouth of the Waitara River. From there the brigade took part in several actions including those at Kairau and Matarikoriko Pa. Victoria’s Naval Brigade was well equipped with breech-loading rifles, Colt revolvers and cutlasses. Their counterparts in the Imperial Naval Brigade were by contrast poorly equipped.
HMVS (Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship; also referred to with the prefix HMCSS – Her Majesty’s Colonial Steam Sloop) Victoria, was designed as a blue water vessel, able to guard the coastline of the Colony of Victoria, as well as defend Port Phillip Bay. It was during the goldrush of the 1850s that harbour defence became urgent. In response to requests for help, the Royal Navy could only send an outdated relic, the sailing ship HMS Electra. It was this `insult’ that made the proud colonists determined to have a warship of their own. Designed by British naval architect Oliver Lang, the Victoria was built at Limehouse, London, of the finest materials, and launched by Lady Constance Talbot in 1855.
In addition to supplying a naval brigade for shore service in the 1st Taranaki War, Victoria transported Maori Chiefs to conferences, and British army staff officers and naval officers to and from the seat of war. The ship in 1861 next took part in the search for lost explorers Burke and Wills by travelling to the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the present city of Normanton was named after Victoria’s Commander, William Norman, and the crew was reduced to living on turtles. Traces of the explorers were found, but they had already started back to Melbourne, only to perish of starvation in South Australia. Another rescue mission to the remote sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands in the mid-1860s further tested the crew.