South Australia's own warship, the Protector, goes to China during 1900 Boxer rebellion

South Australia's HMCS Protector, 188 feet long, was armed with weapons ranging from large-calibre artillery to small arms including cutlasses, boarding pikes, Martini-Henry rifles, and revolvers. 
Image courtesy South Australian Maritime Museum

South Australia was armed with the largest well-armed light cruiser warship of all Australian colonies in 1884, with the arrival from Britain of its HMCS (Her Majesty’s Colonial Ship) Protector.

The Protector was built for the South Australian government, at a final cost of £65,000, by British firm of Sir William Armstrong & Co. of Newcastle-on-Tyne. It was a reaction to the colonies’ long-standing fear of a threat from Russia.

In the 1870s. William Jervois, the colony’s governor who, as a British military engineer, had looked into Australian colonies’ defence, believed the Russian navy,  if war broke out with Britain, would harass South Australia’s merchant ships to disrupt its economy. Adding to this warning, an unannounced Russian naval contingent—the AfrikaVestnik and Plastoun— arrived at Holdfast Bay in 1882.

Protector was intended to defend South Australia’s coastal ports and towns from seaborne assault as part of a larger coastal defence system comprising shore-based artillery batteries (such as Fort Largs and Fort Glanville), a submarine mining (or torpedo) station at the North Arm in Port Adelaide, and volunteer militias. 

The 920-ton flat-iron Protector wasn’t able to patrol South Australia’s coast because the colony had overspent on getting it built and fitted. It was normally anchored at Largs Bay anchorage— close to the reformatory hulk Fitzjames, where seven boys were “recruited” to the warship’s crew in the mid 1880s.

In 1900, the South Australian government offered Protector and its crew to assist the British government and other Western powers in suppressing the Yihetuan Movement or Boxer rebellion in China. It never got to fire its guns in China: the Yihetuan forces retreated inland before its part in an assault on Shan Hai Khan.

After Australian federation in 1901, the Protector was transferred to the Commonwealth Naval Force. During World War I, it was a submarines tender and mine sweeper. Decommissioned in 1924, it was requisitioned by the US Navy during World War II but collided with another ship soon after. Its hulk is now a breakwater off Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

• Information from James Hunter, History SA

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