In support of the Commandants: subaltern officers of the Moreton Bay settlement, 1824 – 1850
Rod Pratt, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2021

Free settlement at Moreton Bay

(Above: Settlers bark hut on Laidley Creek Image: JOL SLQ Image No APE-021-01-0019)

The role of the subaltern officer in Moreton Bay during the convict period changed with the beginning of the free settlement phase. It had been anticipated by both the Colonial and War Offices in Britain that with the end of transportation and the move towards a free settlement, the military would have no role and these troops could be returned to Britain or a colony that had greater need of them. The rationale for this became increasingly apparent as Britain’s post-Waterloo empire grew while her army remained the same size such that, by the 1830s, there were more redcoats posted overseas guarding British possessions than were actually stationed in Britain itself. As the Duke of Wellington observed, this imbalance meant that, in the event of a major European war, Britain would have to rely on its navy alone for defending the home isles.

By the 1840s Colonial Secretary Earl Grey introduced some reforms to alleviate this demand upon Britain’s army by dividing the British colonies into three categories. Some colonies were purely military in nature such as Gibraltar, while others such as India and South Africa still needed a strong military presence due to the on-going conflicts. The last category included colonies that were either self-governing or approaching this status, such as Canada and the Australian Colonies, which were intended to provide for their own defence. While it seemed reasonable that those colonies with self-governance should also look to their own defence, they objected to bearing the cost of protecting assets over which Britain held a trade monopoly.

Moreover, in the event of a major European war, these colonies would be vulnerable to foreign attack as a result of Britain’s foreign policies over which they had no control. Eventually a temporary compromise was reached between Britain and her semi-independent colonies which saw the continuation of redcoats posted to these colonies, until such time as they had their own viable volunteer defence forces. However, a combination of inter-colonial rivalry and hostilities in New Zealand necessitated the retention of British soldiers in the Australasian colonies far longer than anticipated.