Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Samoan Tragedy

In reply to the map I posted a couple of weeks ago, someone was kind enough to point me in the direction of a New York Herald article from, March 31, 1889 (available here:

The article relates the terrible loss of life that occurred on March 13th 1889, when a hurricane hit Apia, Samoa. The report describes damage to ‘every vessel in the harbour or shore except the English man-of-war Calliope, which got to sea.’

The German Warship Eber after the storm

Two American ships, the Trenton and the Vandalia, as well as two German ships, the Adler and the Eber, were a total loss, and two more ships, the American Nipsic and German Olga, were badly damaged. Despite many of the crews being saved, the loss of life was horrific. The article reports that ‘The Vandalia lost four officers and thirty-nine men... and the Nipsic lost seven men.’ In addition, ‘German losses are ninety-six’, bringing the total loss of life to 146.

Such a tragedy of course brought with it questions about how and why the German and American boats had not been able to get to sea as the British ship had done.

Although the British ship has been nearer to the harbour entrance, it was not the distance from port that had spelt disaster for the other ships. Whilst the British ship had easily been able to coal at Auckland on the way to Apia, both the American  and German ships had arrived without fuel, and, despite possessions in the Pacific, had been unable to find fuel. 

The German Warship Adler after the storm

The American coaling station of Pago-Pago, just thirty miles from Apia, had not been adequately supplied, and thus the ships were stranded in harbour. The Herald journalist cynically remarks ‘the island was acquired in 1872, but our government has not apparently discovered in seventeen years the strategic importance of having an ample supply of coal there’, then pointing out that ‘the nearest point at which coal could be obtained was Honolulu, 2,100 miles away.’

Even those who had been lucky enough to survive the ordeal faced a long wait to be rescued. Even though coal had been sent nearly a month before the hurricane, the wooden ship, seen as a fast boat, carrying the coal from San Francisco would not arrive for another four weeks. Another ship, sent from Philadelphia, would have to navigate around Cape Horn to reach the Pacific, and thus was ‘months’ away.

The London Evening News featured the tragedy on its front page

What is obvious from the tragic tale is that, although certainly growing naval powers, Germany and the United States were not able to match Great Britain in terms of  naval infrastructure. Although in reality the disaster was perhaps a freak occurrence, in a world of growing geopolitical tension, especially in terms of naval arms races, it is clear that Britain held the ace card with its far superior naval infrastructure. Her ability to acquire coal worldwide was supplemented by her ability to deny coal to her enemies, not only at Britain’s extensive chain of stations but also those of her allies. The extent of Britain’s diplomatic leverage, though her economic and naval might, meant that any potential enemy would find it very difficult to sustain any fleet outside its own waters. 

All pictures from Wikipedia

Friday, 19 August 2011

Notes from a doomed journey

In the last few weeks, I have been looking to try and plot the coaling stations used by both the British and foreign navies on a map. Mentions of foreign stations tend to be sporadic in English, and without a working knowledge of German, French and Russian, it has been difficult to locate all of them. One of my supervisors therefore suggested that I look at the movements of the Russian fleet on the way to Tsushima, as it largely used French coaling infrastructure on its long journey around the Cape.

I discovered the diary of Eugene S Politovsky, who was part of that fleet, which has been translated and published. It is interesting on a number of levels. On a basic level it is the fairly sombre correspondence of a man on a naval mission which slowly deteriorates and ends in unprecedented disaster. It is also a fascinating insight into the day to day life of a sailor in the less fashionable age of steam.

What is especially interesting to me is the story it tells about infrastructure. The reason that the fleet had to steam via the Cape in itself was because of Britain's ability to deny Russia the use of the Suez Canal. By denying their own coaling facilities, and through their long standing alliance, those of Portugal as well, they were also able to fuelling opportunities to the Russians, delaying their movement and causing vast amounts of inconvenience to the fleet. Although they were able to make use of French coaling infrastructure, they constantly encountered British ships and possessions, and were even escorted by British ships around the Iberian coast.
The Route taken by the Baltic Fleet.(From

Throughout the doomed journey Politovsky laments the vast power Britain held around the global oceans, feeling constantly under the influence and at the mercy of the whims of the Royal Navy. He also laments the lack of infrastructure of his own country. He recognises the value of coal early on: ‘Coal! It is our weak spot. Our comings, our goings, our voyage, and even our success depend on coal.’ Later, as the delays mounted up, and the realisation of the precarious situation the Baltic fleet faced, he remarked ‘the coaling question is the question of life.’

In a short example, the importance of coal and coaling infrastructure is explicitly shown.

Reference: Politovsky, E. S. (1906). From Libau to Tsushima : a narrative of the voyage of Admiral Rojdestvensky's fleet.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Starkey: Symptom of a wider problem in television

Thought it might be time to wade into the Starkey debate (has anyone named it Starkeygate yet?) Anyway, I want to ignore what he said for the purposes of this little blog. I think enough has been written about how out of touch and insulting it was, and plus I must follow that famous quote misattributed to Voltaire (I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.)
What I wanted to question was the train of thought of whoever selects the guests of Newsnight. I can see the sense of getting an historian on. A bit of historical perspective is always good. I am not convinced they needed a ‘marquee’ name to bring in audiences, but I can see why they might have decided to plump for a well known name. I would have thought, however, that the expertise of the guest might have been more of a pressing issue. Ideally, an historian of twentieth century rioting. Or perhaps of social uprisings or disorder in general. I have read good articles on the historical precedents for urban riots from both. So to select a specialist in early modern England seems odd. The fact that his specialism is a King, and not even those further down the social ladder makes him about as unqualified as you can get within history. Furthermore, this country is blessed with fantastic historians, who would have been far more suitable, many of them internationally renowned. The only excuse I can think of is that, due to deadlines, decisions were rushed, or perhaps those more suitable were unavailable at short notice.
The more I think about this, though, the more I saw an emerging pattern. It seems since I last lauded the efforts of the powers that be in television for expanding the ‘educational’ output on our screens, some worrying trends have emerged. Firstly if the rumours surrounding BBC4 are true, it would be ten steps backwards. Following on from the ‘miscasting’ of Starkey, however, there have in recent months been some very interesting choice of presenters. First case in point was Richard Hammond and his Journey to the Centre of the Planet. I can see the logic, Top Gear is very popular, and Hammond has made some pretty good shows on engineering, where he is in his element. But he was clearly out of his depth in this series, and it would have been much better served by an expert. Another example of this was the recent history of Britain (I regret to say I cannot remember its title) with none other than Alan Titchmarsh. The less said about that the better I would imagine.
That is not to say that all educational programmes without academics are worthless. Despite many criticisms about his TV connections, Dan Snow is doing an admirable job promoting history, and is well qualified (double first in history from Oxford) and is genuinely interested in the subjects he covers, which therefore creates fulfilling television. A further example is a show that really didn’t think I would enjoy, with another history graduate, this time from Cambridge, Michael Portillo. Great British Railway Journeys, which has been shown around dinner time, works well because Portillo is so enthusiastic about railways and the towns he visits. Key, however, is the use of talking heads. By interviewing local historians in each locale, Portillo never looks out of his depth, yet the programme remains detailed and interesting.
So, in conclusion, it is possible to make good television without making it only suitable for academics. But there needs to be more thought in the choice of presenter and ‘expert’, and not just plumping for the one who gets the most coverage, or who is currently en vogue.  

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Global Context

Just thought I would share something I have been working on for a couple of days. Based on a few sources I have been reading through, I have plotted as many of the British coaling stations as possible onto a google map. I must admit to being a novice to this, so please bear with it, but this represents the beginning of what will hopefully be an interactive map, showing change over time, as well as a plethora of information and pictures of individual stations. It will also show the range of warships from the stations, as well as the principle trade routes. The aim is to try and explain why certain stations were seen as more important than others, by analysing their strategic placement and their proximity to important trade routes, rival stations and important colonies. It is a work in its infancy, but any pictures, stats or comments would be most welcome.

View Coaling stations in a larger map