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4 Memorandum prepared for Delegation to Imperial Conference



1. Until recently the question of the ownership of the small islands lying off the coast of Australia has not been of any great significance to the Commonwealth.

A number of factors have, however, arisen during the past few years which have lent significance to the fact that certain small islands and reefs which lie at a distance of about 300 miles from the Queensland coast are virtually not annexed, or at least, might be subject to disputed ownership.

These factors may be summarised as follows:-

(a) The activities of the Japanese along the coasts of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, Papua, New Guinea, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides and generally amongst the whole of the Western Pacific Islands, the North coasts of Australia and the Dutch East Indies. This penetration has been a source of great uneasiness in turn to the Netherlands East Indies, the Philippines, and now the Commonwealth authorities. Unless the Commonwealth or a State Government has effective control of all islands in the vicinity of Australia, which may be used as bases and sources of fuel and water supply, the problem of poaching in Australian Territorial waters may not be effectively dealt with.

(b) The announcement that the Japanese intend to extend trawling activities on a large scale in Australian waters, or waters hitherto regarded as Australian waters, though actually outside the three mile territorial limit.

(c) In 1933 the French annexed Spratley Island, about 250 miles from the North-West coast of Borneo, and also certain islands in the South China Sea between French Indo-China and the Philippines. In I934 Captain de Hisschop announced that he had discovered an unknown island to the North of Australia, and that he had claimed it for France. The island was, however, found to be non-existent. These actions are indicative of the present interest being displayed by the French in regard to all unoccupied Pacific islands, wherever situated.

(d) The demands by certain powers for colonial territory, and in the case of Germany, for the return of colonies, which have caused increased international interest in the colonial question with a tendency to examine all unoccupied or unannexed islands, even those having no possible present value.

(e) The American activity on small islands in the Pacific in connection with the development of Trans-Pacific air Services. Particular reference is made to the reported annexation of the Howland, Baker and Jarvis Islands, two of which are regarded as being British.

(f) The development of the submarine arm, especially its radius of action and naval effectiveness, gives outlying islands, at present without value, a distinct potential value.

(g) The initiation and development of trans-oceanic air services make even the smallest and most economically worthless islands, provided they are favourably situated, geographically, of great importance.

2. The whole of this question came under review when a wireless station was erected in 1922 on Willis Island, one of the islands in the Coral Sea. A memorandum on the question, prepared by the Department at that time, stated: -

'According to a telegram dated 19/10/1921 from the Secretary of State ... there does not seem to have been a quite satisfactory act of annexation of all these islets and reefs. They are deemed to be British possessions in virtue of Captain Cook's annexation of the east coast of Australia and the off-lying islands on 22nd August, 1770; and on one or two of them, the British Flag has since been hoisted. Some of them, according to the Australia Directory, Vol. 1, have been in occasional occupation, and Willis island has recently been occupied by the Commonwealth Government; others have not been occupied; but it is to be presumed that no other country is likely to lay claim to any of them . . .'

It was suggested that it would be well that these islets and reefs should be brought under the control of the Commonwealth. Nothing further was done until 1929 when the question was again examined in London, and also by the Commonwealth Department of Defence. The Admiralty Office, London, reported that Hunter and Matthew Islands were unclaimed by any nation, and the Defence Department stated that these two islands, while not of any value from a purely defensive point of view, 'are on the air route Sydney-Norfolk Island-Fiji, and might be of use as emergency landing grounds in connection with the development of air routes across the Pacific'. It was also pointed out that these islands are within the limits of the New Zealand Naval Station. The Admiralty Office later advised that Mellish Reef was, as far as was known, unclaimed, but that a British claim to it would be on a sound footing.

Nothing more was done until 1933 when, in response to a request by Mr Latham, the then Minister for External Affairs, the Defence Department reported that there were no islands on the Australian Naval Station as to which sovereignty was doubtful. (The Eastern limit of the Australian Naval Station is 170( East longitude). In reply to a further inquiry the Defence Department wrote that an examination of Admiralty Charts and Sailing Directions had been made, and had confirmed the position that there are certain islets and reefs in the Coral Sea which are British possessions but not part of the Commonwealth. In addition Middleton and Elizabeth Reefs were shown as British Dependencies of New South Wales, while Hunter and Matthew Islands and Mellish Reef were not shown in the possession of any nation.

The matter was then referred to the External Affairs Officer, London, in September 1934, and he was requested to take up the matter with a competent authority such as the Hydrographic Branch of the Admiralty, with a view to obtaining an opinion as to whether it would be advisable to take any further action in regard to these unclaimed islands and reefs. No reply has since been received.

3. A further examination of the question has been made in the External Affairs Department and shows that the boundary of the State of Queensland is the outer edge of the Barrier Reef, or 60 miles from the mainland, whichever is the farther, while the jurisdiction of New South Wales over the area to the Eastward of that line appears to have been removed in 1859. The only other authority with power to take steps to exercise British jurisdiction over this area is the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, by virtue of the Order-in-Council of 1893, which defined the limits of his jurisdiction, but no steps have ever been taken by the High Commissioner to render the British Sovereignty over those islands effective, nor is there any present indication that he will do so. The sovereignty of these islands is a matter which is of primary importance to Australia, and consequently it is felt that action should be initiated by the Commonwealth Government to ensure that they become clearly recognised as British territory.

4. They can, moreover, be brought under Australian control with little difficulty. As all but three of the islands can legitimately be claimed as British, all that is required to bring them under Australian control, is for action to be taken to have an Order-in-Council made under the Colonial Boundaries Act placing the islands under the control of the Government of the Commonwealth, or of the Government of Queensland. This Order-in- Council would come into operation after the necessary legislation accepting the territory had been passed by the Government concerned.

5. Should the territory be accepted by the Commonwealth Government, provision could then be made either for its administration by the Commonwealth or legislation could be passed providing for its control by Ordinances made by the Government of Queensland.

6. To ensure that no islands are overlooked in the extension of the boundary, the Order-in-Council and the Act should be so worded as to define the boundaries of the area within which all the islands and territories are to be included as:-

'Commencing at the North-Eastern corner of the boundary of Papua, on the East by a line drawn to the intersection of the 12th Parallel of South latitude with the 158th Meridian of East longitude, (to take in Pocklington Reef) then along that Meridian to the latitude of Point Danger, on the South by that latitude, on the West by the Eastern boundary of the State of Queensland (i.e., the Barrier Reef, or 60 miles from the coast of Queensland, whichever lies at the greatest distance from the coast), and on the North by the Southern and Eastern boundaries of Papua.'

7. Middleton Reef and Elizabeth Reef could either be brought within the same jurisdiction by specific reference, or if desired, these islands could be placed under the control of the State of New South Wales. 8. Matthew and Hunter Islands, coming within the New Zealand Naval Station, approximately 1,500 miles distant from Australia, and with the French Dependency of New Caledonia lying between them and Australia, might appropriately be taken over by the Government of New Zealand, or alternatively by the Government of Fiji. Their sovereignty is definitely a matter of Australian national interest, and it is most desirable that they should be British. [1]

1 Memorandum prepared in Department of External Affairs.


Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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