Gunboat diplomacy was at its height in 1889 and on this day, March 15, tension was high with an act of war seemingly imminent. Three American warships (the sloop-of-war USS Vandalia, the screw steamer USS Trenton, and the gunboat USS Nipsic) and three from Germany (the gunboats SMS Adler and SMS Eber and the corvette SMS Olga) were jostling for position in a small harbour in the South Pacific, Apia Harbour, Western Samoa, observed by yet another warship from Britain, HMS Calliope.
They had been intimidating each other from 1887–1889, during the Samoan Crisis’s standoff, while the major powers struggled for control of the Islands in an attempt to extend their influence and grasp commercial opportunities in the region.
The outcome of this ultimate confrontation was uncertain, but it seemed that a broadside from one of the ships, possibly with catastrophic consequences, was inevitable.
But, eventually, nature intervened.
The waters of Apia harbour, where the encounter was taking place, had been growing choppier by the minute and soon the crews found themselves at the centre of a violent cyclone.
The local people had taken themselves to safety well before the storm struck, but the ships in the bay only began to evacuate at the very last minute, and thus were crowding towards the entrance to the bay when the hurricane hit.
Only HMS Calliope escaped, dragging herself to the open sea, where she was easily able to ride out the ensuing winds. Her survival is attributed to her size (2,227 tons) and her more powerful and modern engines, built only five years before, as compared to the ten or twenty years for many of the other ships.
Two of the German ships, SMS Adler and SMS Eber, were literally picked up by the storm and smashed together, while the third, SMS Olga, was flung high onto a beach and wrecked.
The same fate, being met by one of the American warships, USS Trenton, which was tossed against the beach in the afternoon, dragged back into the sea and eventually wrecked on a reef, although the majority of her crew survived unhurt and were able to participate in the ensuing rescue operation.
The other two US vessels were hurled against a reef and wrecked too: USS Vandalia was smashed into the same reef in the early afternoon, and her surviving crew spent a day and night clinging to her rigging before being rescued, by which time 43 of her complement had drowned, while USS Nipsic was thrown high on the beach with eight of her crew missing or dead and her internal systems totally wrecked. She would however later be refloated and eventually reconstructed in Hawaii.
All six of the merchant ships remaining in the harbour were also destroyed, bringing a total death toll of more than 200 sailors from several nationalities.
After the terrible hurricane it was left to the Samoans to carry on independently, while the super-powers licking their wounds until ten years later, when the Americans and the Germans split the islands between them.
Historically, after the First World War, the German territory was taken under New Zealand administration and Western Samoa became an independent nation in 1962 but American Samoa remains a part of the US territories. In any case, still today, Hurricanes and storms continue to pound the islands, though, as if they were still angry….