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

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