Companion to East Timor - Australian Interest in East Timor before WWII

Australian Interest in East Timor before WWII

Australia, East Timor's large southern neighbour, had not shown any serious interest in it before World War II. Very few successful Australian businesses had been established there, and trade links were almost non-existent. There had been a suggestion during World War I that Australia should take possession of the Portuguese territory as a summer holiday location for northern Australians. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher had expressed an interest in the idea but it was soon rejected because, as the Secretary of Australia's Department of External Affairs Atlee Hunt said, 'if the residents of the North can afford to go away to escape the summer it is far more likely they will come south … where they can have the advantage of the society of their friends and relatives than go to such a place as Timor.'

East Timor did not feature much in the consciousness of Australian policymakers except on those occasions when rumours circulated that one foreign power or another was contemplating buying it from the Portuguese. For example, a Dutch newspaper reported in 1932 that Japan intended to purchase the Portuguese territory but the Portuguese Government immediately assured Australian officials 'that there was not the slightest foundation for the report in question.' After the outbreak of World War II, Australian authorities were concerned that some Japanese businesses had been established in East Timor. They began to fear foreign military intervention in the territory. However, although Japan had framed its rhetoric in anti-colonial terms, it had no intention of deploying forces there. Even during its march through Asia it never included East Timor or Portugal's other colony of Macau on its list of war objectives.