The Royal New Zealand Navy

Page 2 – Origins

Although some gunboats were acquired by the colonial government during the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s and torpedo boats for the coast defences in the 1880s, the genesis of the modern Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) dates from 1887.

In that year the British and colonial governments of Australia and New Zealand came together to address naval requirements in the South Pacific. Worried by the threat to their ports and trade posed by Russian cruisers, the colonies were demanding a greater presence in local waters than was provided by the Royal Navy’s Australia Squadron, based in Sydney.

Australasian Naval Agreement

The outcome was agreement to create an Australasian Auxiliary Squadron to bolster the naval strength available locally. The colonies would pay the interest on the loan needed to pay for the construction of five Pearl-class cruisers and two Rattlesnake-class torpedo boats. New Zealand agreed to join this scheme, which would cost it roughly £20,000 per annum, only on the understanding that two cruisers would be stationed in New Zealand waters in peacetime. The colonial shares of the cost were apportioned on the basis of population size. The auxiliary squadron arrived in Sydney in 1891.

New Zealand was content with this subsidy system. Its naval needs were met and, after 1903, when the agreement was revised and renewed, New Zealanders seeking a naval career could join the local Royal Navy squadron for training (the auxiliary squadron having been disbanded).

However, across the Tasman, the new Australian federation was less happy with the arrangement. It aspired to create its own navy (albeit within an imperial context). This goal was met in 1909 when the British government itself put forward a plan for a Pacific fleet that would comprise national naval units. Australia immediately set about building its navy. New Zealand’s Liberal government was firmly against such an approach, preferring to continue the subsidy system and criticising local navies as a divisive development likely to undermine British naval power. New Zealand’s annual subsidy increased to £100,000.