In 1889 United States and German
naval units were eyeing each other in an armed confrontation which Britain watched
as a neutral but cautious observer. A
false move by any party could well have triggered a shooting war with immeasurable
historical consequences. The United States, up to then underestimated as an
emerging Great Power, and the newly established German Empire – dating only from
1871 – were both taking their first steps towards projection of military and
naval, as well as commercial, influence on a global scale. As new players, both
were conscious – perhaps over conscious – of the importance of prestige.
HMS Calliope - the heroine of Apia
The scene of the confrontation
was an unlikely one – the harbour of Apia on the northern coast of the Pacific
island of East Samoa.
A civil war had been in progress
since 1886 – and indeed was to drag on to 1894 – and it involved a struggle
between two Samoan factions for control of the Samoan Islands. German trading and plantation companies
already had significant commercial interests in copra and cocoa-bean processing,
competing in the process with American traders.
Almost inevitably, Germans and Americans found themselves backing
different Samoan factions and Britain too, though to a lesser extent, had a
business presence. Tensions heightened in
1887 when a German naval vessel, ostensibly sent to protect German commercial
interests, shelled a village in which American-owned property was destroyed
– thereby resulting in despatch of an
American naval force to protect American interests. The situation worsened the
following year when one Samoan faction inflicted casualties on a German landing-party
and destroyed German-owned plantations.
National pride was now at stake
– the more so in view of the growing ambitions of Germany and the United States. German, American and British naval
units were despatched to Samoa and by March 1889 were moored in Apia harbour,
each waiting for the other to make a move. Suspicion and mistrust were greatest between the
Germans and the Americans and the British maintained a position of neutral observers. Annexation
by either Germany or the US was a distinct possibility and national prestige
was at stake – to what now seems a ludicrous extent. One more incident
involving the rival Samoan groups, an
incident likely to be outside the control of the foreign forces, could have
been enough to shift the situation from armed confrontation to outright war
between the German and American naval units.
SMS Olga - the largest German vessel present at Apia March 1889
And it was at this moment – on
15 March 1889 – that a hitherto unexpected player, Nature itself, dealt the
deciding hand. In the process death and disgrace were to be visited on some of
those involved while another was to earn universal admiration for a spectacular
feat of seamanship.
The German force present at Apia
consisted of three ships: the 2,424-ton corvette SMS Olga, the1,040-ton gunboat SMS
Adler and the 760-ton gunboat SMS Eber. Though the Olga was
the largest and most powerfully armed of these ships, the commander of the
German force was Fregattenkapitän Fritze of the Adler.
The USS Trenton - flagship of the US Pacific Station
The United States was also
represented by three units. The flagship was the USS Trenton, A 3,900 frigate, the largest US warship built between the
Civil War and the "New Navy" era that commenced in 1883. She flew the flag
of Rear Admiral Lewis Ashfield Kimberly, and was commanded by Captain Norman
Von H. Farquhar. The second American
ship was the USS Vandalia, a 2,033-ton sloop, notable for
having carried former President Ulysses S. Grant on a tour of the Mediterranean
in 1877/78. The smallest of the three
ships was the USS Nipsic, a 1,375-ton
HMS Calliope - superbly designed and brilliantly commanded
The Royal Navy’s single vessel,
the 2,770 ton screw corvette HMS Calliope, launched in 1884, though not
the largest, was the most modern present, being built of steel. She and her sister Calypso have been described
as “probably the most successful design
of cruising ship” of their time and were intended from the outset for
service in Pacific and Australian waters. Like the German and American ships
she carried masts and sails to complement her steam-power so as to allow less
dependence on sources of fuel on remote stations.
Calliope was commanded by Captain Henry C. Kane, a 46-year old
officer who had already distinguished himself in action on land in Egypt in
1882. His background was interesting – the son of the eminent Irish research
chemist, Sir Robert Kane, who was the only Catholic member of the "Irish
Relief Commissioners" board that investigated the causes and possible
solutions to the Irish Potato Blight in the 1850s. His mother was a noted
botanist and author in her own right.
Apia is an exposed harbour, open
to the Pacific and unprotected by high ground or an enclosing reef, and
vulnerable to storms rolling in from the north.
For several days prior to March 15th there were increasing
signs – including falling atmospheric pressure – that a cyclone was approaching. This was
indeed the cyclone season and Apia had been hit by one three years earlier, about
which captains of the naval vessels present could learn from the locals. In all
cases these commanders had seafaring experience in the Pacific and all saw the
approach of potential disaster that could only be avoided by taking their ships
from the harbour to ride out the likely 100 mph winds in the open sea.
And yet, as if they were players
in some bizarre game of “Chicken”, no commander ordered such a move. Considerations
of “face” were involved and no one was willing to admit, in front of the other
nations' navies, that they were afraid of the elements. Worse still, they
refused to allow the thirteen merchant ships they were allegedly protecting to
HMS Calliope's escape, cheered from USS Trenton
The cyclone struck in the early
hours of March 15th. Samoans onshore had already taken shelter but
out in the harbour the ships were exposed to the full fury of wind and wave.
The American and German commanders stuck by their decisions to remain at anchor
and only Kane of the Calliope had the
moral courage to disregard considerations of pride and to head for the open
sea. Engines straining, and making less than one knot against the oncoming wind
and sea, Calliope crawled northwards to safety through the narrow approach
channel , despite being less than six
feet from a reef at one point. Once at sea she was easily able to ride out the
ensuing winds. The achievement represented seamanship of the highest order and reflected credit not only on every officer and man of the Calliope but on her designers, constructors and engine builders.
Back in the harbour the USS Trenton’s moorings failed in the
afternoon and she was flung against the beach, then dragged back into the sea until
being finally wrecked on a reef at 10 p.m. that evening. The majority of her
crew did however survive unhurt and were able to participate in the ensuing
rescue operation. The USS Vandalia was thrown on to the same reef
in the early afternoon. Her crew was to spend some 24 hours night clinging to
her rigging, losing 43 men before rescue was possible. The gunboat USS Nipsic was thrown high on the beach with
the loss of eight men.
A contemporary drawing, showing the USS Trenton dragging her moorings
The German vessels fared even
worse. The SMS Olga was thrown high onto the beach but many of her crew escaped
higher ground. The Adler and SMS Eber were
smashed together. The Eber
had touched her propeller the reef in a storm some weeks earlier and the
damage had impaired engine capability. Her commander, a Kapitan Wallis, recognising
this weakness even before the cyclone hit, he had repeatedly requested
permission to leave the harbour. This was refused by his superior, Fritze, on the Adler.
Eber used her engine in short bursts
to try to stay off the reef, but she was pounded to pieces, losing 75men from
her crew of 80. The Adler also fetched
up on the reef and was also a total loss, though with smaller though
appreciable loss of life, 20 men.
SMS Adler lying wrecked on the beach
The bow section of SMS Eber with USS Trenton in the background The sunken remnant of USS Vandalia is just visible alongside the Trenton
The irony was that though
bull-headed pride was the cause of the disaster, only the single captain – Kane
of the Calliope – who was not
obsessed with it came out of the affair with credit. German and American
prestige, far from being enhanced, suffered very badly while Kane’s moral
courage, leadership and superb seamanship ensured that the reputation of the
Royal Navy was raised to new heights. The events at Apia received attention
from all over the world – and were described by the Samoan resident Robert
Louis Stevenson In his 1892 book “A
Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa.” The behaviour of the American and German
commanders has provided an illuminating case for psychologists studying aspects of pride, pragmatism and decision-making under extreme pressure.
The Samoan Civil War dragged on for many years more though it never brought the United States and Germany close to war again. The final outcome was the annexation of East Samoa by the United States and of West Samoa to the Germans – which they were to lose to British Empire forces in 1914.
Kane’s subsequent career
involved command of one of the largest vessels of the Victorian navy, HMS Inflexible, as well as the prestigious
captaincy of HMS Victory. He retired
as an admiral in 1907, was knighted in 1911 and died in 1917.
Another player in the drama of
the Apia cyclone was to meet a dramatic end a quarter century later. A young
midshipman on the Calliope, Horace
Lambert Alexander Hood, was to die as a Rear-Admiral on the Inflexible, the first battle cruiser, at
the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when she blew up with the loss of all but six of
her crew of 1,032 officers and men.
And HMS Calliope? She was to survive as a moored training ship for Royal Navy
Volunteer Reservists until 1951. The painting below, by John Munday, shows her
in her final years –a mundane end for a ship that had endured so much.
HMS Calliope in the Tyne, 1950, by John Munday (with acknowledgement to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)