Jan 21

The Apia Cyclone of 1889

Thursday, January 21, 2016 12:01 AM

By

As various European empires and the American government expanded their colonial interests across the Pacific in the late 19th century, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, they would come to blows over what would otherwise have been a local matter.

It began as a political crisis in the island chain of Samoa. The governments of the United States and Great Britain, and the German Empire had, in a sense, picked sides in a fight for the kingship of the islands, as Robert Louis Stevenson would defty lay out in his A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa. It was not, of course, in the interests of fomenting war, but to shore up that ruler which would be most friendly to their interests.

The crisis came to a head late in 1888, and by late February 1889 warships of three nationalities had steamed into the harbor at Apia, seat of foreign trade in the islands and now Samoa’s capital. There they waited at anchor, and the possibility of war between the powers became very real.

Apia Harbor before the Appearance of the harbor before the Hurricane. Artwork by Rear Admiral Lewis A. Kimberly, contained in his personal journal of the Apia Hurricane. It shows U.S., German and British warships, as well as civilian shipping, anchored in Apia Harbor. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Apia harbor before the Hurricane. Artwork by Rear Admiral Lewis A. Kimberly, contained in his personal journal of the Apia Hurricane. It shows U.S., German and British warships, as well as civilian shipping, anchored in Apia Harbor. Naval History and Heritage Command.

But, as recounted in this Proceedings article, Mother Nature had other plans.

“The conditions during the early part of March, 1889, seem to have been about normal up to the 4th, when British Meteorological Office reports from Suva, Fiji, and Nukalofa, Tonga, indicate that an anticyclone extended southward toward New Zealand. . . . . It was on the 12th that the very earliest signs of the hurricane’s approach were observed at Samoa. . . . . On the 14th the weather grew still more threatening and the barometer continued its steady fall, now slowly, as the time of the daily maximum approached, and now more rapidly, as the fall due to the influence of the approaching storm combined with the daily ebb of the barometric tide (always such a marked phenomenon in the tropics). Toward evening the ships got up steam in their boilers, that their engines might aid their anchors in keeping them off the reefs and preventing collisions with other vessels in the crowded harbor. It was doubtless an anxious moment for the commanders of the naval forces of the three great nations, responsible, as they were, not only for lives and ships but for the prompt execution of their instructions and the faithful guardianship of public interests committed to their care. To most of the others on board, both officers and men, free from at least some of the cares and responsibilities of their superiors, the actual danger of the situation was probably not fully evident till after the shift of wind to the northward Friday evening, when the long battle with the elements commenced in earnest.”

A more full account appeared in another Proceedings article from 1927:

“On the night of [March 16, 1889], seven warships, together with a few merchant vessels, were lying at anchor in the harbor of Apia, between the town and long reef which shuts it off from the Pacific. Three of the warships were German, three American, and the seventh was her Majesty’s steamer Calliope—a screw cruiser of the third class of 2,770 tons and 4,020 horse-power, commanded by Captain Kane—watching the still but half-extinguished feud between the representatives of the Fatherland and of the Great Republic. The beautiful scene— for Apia, like all the islands of that sea, is a perfect paradise of loveliness—was somber with the hush and gloom of a coming storm.

“Fearful was the strain upon every one of those seven warships off Apia when the light came on March 16, and hardly had it dawned before the Eber, a German gunboat, dragged helplessly, parted her cables, and, in spite of her hard-working engines, crashed on the rugged reef, slid back again with the reflex wave, and went down in the deep water under the coral shelf with all hands. A whole watch was below with hatches battened down, for the chain had very suddenly snapped. They were, of course, drowned with all their fellows, and hardly a cry heard; while shortly afterwards a huge wave wrenched the Adler from her anchors, hurled her upon the remorseless reef, and flung her broadside over its face. A few officers and men made their escape by favor of the waves, while near at hand the United States sloop Nipsic, overpowered, and drifting, managed to get steering way for a smooth bank of sand, and ran high and dry upon a spot where, by lowering boats under the lee, the captain could save all hands, except six men, drowned through capsizing.

Wrecks of the Trenton and Vandalia, Apia Samoa Artwork by Rear Admiral Lewis A. Kimberly, contained in his personal journal of the Apia Hurricane. It shows USS Vandalia sunk shortly after the storm, with USS Trenton wrecked alongside her. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Wrecks of the Trenton and Vandalia, Apia, Samoa. Artwork by Rear Admiral Lewis A. Kimberly, contained in his personal journal of the Apia Hurricane. It shows USS Vandalia sunk shortly after the storm, with USS Trenton wrecked alongside her. Naval History and Heritage Command.

“Here were three good vessels already gone, strewing the harbor waters with corpses and wreckage, and still the awful storm raged unabated. The American corvette Vandalia—a fine old-fashioned, wooden, bark-rigged ship of 2,100 tons, which carried General Grant in his tour round the world—was the next victim. The fury of the hurricane swept her loose, and dashed her on the reef, fifty yards from where the Nipsic lay, but, unlike that vessel, on hard rock, where the first wave washed her captain and many of the company to their death, and the next bilged the vessel in, so that she sank with part of her hull and her tall masts remaining above water, covered with clinging sailors. The Trenton, American second-rate, of 4,000 tons and twelve guns, was still riding it out, but drifting nearer and nearer to the Calliope, the British cruiser, whose steam was up at its high- pressure, waiting for the final moment when she must “cut and run.” Already the Calliope had collided with the hapless Vandalia; and she must soon have the Trenton upon her; the day was waning, the tempest strong as ever. Captain Kane determined to trust his powerful engines and make for the open sea.”

“It was a momentous resolve, for the anchors and engines together had failed to save the other vessels in the harbour. When Captain Kane threw the head of the corvette into the teeth of the storm, and slipped his cables, the Calliope for an appreciable period of time, remained perfectly still. Then she gathered headway by inches, and finally moved at a snail’s pace past the Trenton. As the Calliope steamed into safety the 450 men who formed the officers and crew of the Trenton, though momentarily expecting a fatal disaster to themselves, raised a ringing cheer as a tribute to the brave daring of the English commander. The crew of the Calliope returned the greeting as heartily.

The SMS Adler beached and laying on her side. Note the huge holes in her hull from being dashed against the rocks. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The SMS Adler beached and laying on her side. Note the huge holes in her hull from being dashed against the rocks. Naval History and Heritage Command.

“The next incident, says the account, was the sinking of the Vandalia, and this, too, embraces an instance of noble conduct. Her rigging was thronged with men when the Trenton found herself in her worst difficulty. The fires were out, the sails gone, the pouring of oil on the waves had proved useless, and the danger was imminent of a collision between the Trenton and the Vandalia, which would destroy the last hopes of the survivors clinging to the rigging of the latter. At this juncture Lieutenant Brown, of the Trenton, ran up the ship’s colors, the only flag that floated at Apia that day, ordered the ship’s band to play “The Star- Spangled Banner” and sent half his company into the port-rigging, rightly calculating that their weight on the side next to the storm, and their mass of resistance to the gale, might help the maneuvering of the ship. As the Trenton and the Vandalia approached towards collision, the Trenton men cheered the Vandalia crew. The latter replied as well as they could, with their throats enfeebled by exposure, but with all good-will, as recognizing that the Trenton was their unwilling executioner. Yet, strangely enough, the Trenton never came alongside a dock more gently than her stem now touched the Vandalia, whose survivors swarmed upon the larger vessel’s decks into comparative safety. Thus out of peril came sudden salvation, and the American corvette, which cheered our ship, not only lost no hands, but saved the survivors of the Vandalia, though she afterwards went to pieces.

“The German corvette Olga, which drove ashore, has since been got off, and taken safely to Sydney, and the Nipsic was also floated again, but never to re-cross the Pacific to her native coasts *. Altogether one hundred and forty-three lives were lost in this most disastrous tempest, and at least four good ships of war, besides many merchantmen, yet greater and more majestic than any hurricane, than any death or disaster, is once more proved to be the spirit of man, which, in a scene of dreadful tumult of nature, where strong vessels were helpless as chips, and the stoutest skill was useless, could raise above the whirlwind that dauntless cheer to the Calliope, the expression of an immortal courage—a cry, all things considered, of such indomitable Anglo-Saxon pluck as to ring finer than any which has ever echoed under the flag of victory, or in the happiest hours of security and success.”

Map of Apia Harbor showing the damages resulting from the cyclone. Click to enlarge. Naval Institute photo archives.

Map of Apia Harbor showing the damages resulting from the cyclone. Click to enlarge. Naval Institute photo archives.

For the United States, loss of life was greatest aboard the USS Vandalia, which saw 43 of her compliment drowned. Among the survivors was a twenty-two-year-old midshipman on his cadet cruise out of the Naval Academy named John A. Lejeune.

The great cyclone had, in the end, removed the immediate threat of outright colonial confrontation over Samoa, but the crisis would simmer on for many more years. Germany and the United States would not officially come to blows in the Pacific until 1917 with the start of the First World War.

* The USS Nipsic was refloated shortly after this report and sailed for Hawaii for repair and rebuilding. credit-n.ru