When Aucklanders awoke to read, 146 years ago today, that their leading citizens had been taken hostage and the banks had been looted in a Russian invasion, the city fell into a panic.

An armour-plated Russian warship had stormed into the Waitematā Harbour, its crew brandished cutlasses and aimed carbines, and the banks were forced to hand over gold and silver - according the Daily Southern Cross, a morning newspaper that would later merge with the Herald.

There had been a "sudden Declaration of War between Russia and England, arising out of the Central Asian difficulty", the Cross said.

Waiting in the Hauraki Gulf on the Saturday evening, the Russians, under the command of Vice-Admiral Herodskoff, had been tipped off when to launch their attack by spies who fired rockets from North Head.

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The 953 invaders in their ironclad man-of-war seized a weaker British warship in the harbour using the latest Russian military technology - supposedly a submarine and a jet of poisonous "water gas".

They were foiled in their attack on a passenger steamer, the Wonga Wonga, but after taking the British warship, the Russians came ashore and seized a local horde, including the mayor and leading politicians and bankers.

The captives were held at the Provincial Council Chamber - in the vicinity of today's Anzac Ave - and harangued for payment of £250,000 (about $34 million today), if they didn't want the town burned down.

The province claimed it had no cash, someone suggested paying in mining company shares, and the banks eventually coughed up half the ransom. The hostages were marched aboard the Russian ship and would be released at Fiji if Herodskoff could overtake the Wonga Wonga and make up the ransom's shortfall by plundering the ship's gold dust.


The first part of the hoax article published by the Daily Southern Cross. Source / National Library

A 21st century Department of Conservation historical publication recalls the reaction to the story: "Panic stricken citizens hurriedly hid money and jewellery and descended on the offices of the Daily Southern Cross to seek further news."

But the article was a hoax, a pre-social-media example of genuinely fake news published for political purposes.

Careful - or sceptical - readers would have been tipped off by an asterisk in the headline and a note at the end stating the article was "from the Daily Southern Cross of Monday, the 15th of May, 1873", three months in the future and, anyway, a fake date; the 15th was a Thursday.

Another clue was the name of the ironclad ship, the Kaskowiski - thought to stand in for "cask of whiskey".

The paper's editor, David Luckie, who was also the MP for Nelson, had been running the Southern Cross for just weeks and was no doubt keen to make his mark. As a journalist he was later said to have had "few equals in the Colony".

The next day's Cross admitted the prank had caused some offence and explained the point of the half-comic deception: "Where is the British navy? It is true that we have some excellent old [wooden ships] in these seas, heavily armed … But could these cope with an ironclad?"

The Waikato Times agreed that New Zealand was vulnerable to attack. It said Britain's Australasian fleet was miserably small and harbour protection with forts was "little more than a farce".

A Massey University historian, Professor Michael Belgrave, says the hoax was a "small but interesting incident" in the wider context of New Zealand's fear of Russian aggression throughout most of the 1800s.

He said Russia was seen, for possibly most of the century, as the major threat to Britain's imperial interests worldwide and as a British colony New Zealand was caught up in this. One example was that in an 1878 telegram to the British Government, New Zealand Premier Sir George Grey promised New Zealand intervention in support of the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli in Turkey against Russia.

After the Crimean War of the 1850s, in which Russia, and Britain with the Ottomans, were on opposing sides, New Zealand was punctuated by regular panics about Russian expansion into the South Pacific. New Zealand's anxieties ramped up after the departure of British imperial troops in 1870.

Gradually these pressures fuelled the construction of harbour defences around the colony, such as the gun emplacements that can still be seen at Auckland's Maungauika/North Head.

The belligerence between Britain and Russia in 1878 prompted New Zealand to import guns for harbour defence, but the threat subsided and the guns went into storage.

The next spur to fort-building was the biggest Russian war scare in the colony's history, in 1885. Russia, which had been expanding into Central Asia, occupied a border fort in Afghanistan. This was perceived as a threat to British India and war was feared. Diplomacy eventually prevailed, but not before New Zealand was shaken into action.

"Most of New Zealand seemed to consider raids inevitable," says the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, "and such was the public panic that it would have been political suicide for the Government not to have taken immediate action."

New heavy guns were ordered from London and tenders were called to set up one of the earlier, 1878 guns at North Head.

"Mines were readied in support of the gun emplacements now being hastily constructed in all the major harbours … The war-scare also encouraged the Government to consider sending a thousand-man force to Afghanistan in support of the Empire …"