Samoan Crisis (1889)

April 3, 2012 0 Comments

One beached warship (US Nipsic) being attended to by men in smaller boats, one almost submerged warship (US Vandalia) and one severely damaged warship (US Trenton) further out.

In March 1889 seven warships from three different countries had gathered in Apia, Samoa to claim political control there. The American ships were the Nipsic, Trenton and Vandalia. The German ships were the SMS Adler, SMS Eber and SMS Olga. The British were represented by the man-of-war HMS Calliope. On the 15th March a hurricane struck, trapping the American and German ships in the harbour. Calliope managed to steam her way out to sea early on the 16th March. All three German ships sank, as did the Trenton and Vandalia. Nipsic, though severely damaged, managed to beach and survive the storm.

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A three-cornered diplomatic confrontation, involving competing American, British, and German claims to the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific west of Tahiti. British missionaries had been active in Samoa since the 1830s, but the largest commercial presence was that of plantations established by the German company Godeffroy and Son. The company acquired such a dominant position in cotton, coffee, rubber, and cocoa that it interfered in the clan disputes of the local population. In 1878, the United States established a naval base at Pago Pago, and the next year the three powers agreed to govern jointly the town of Apia. In 1885, however, Germany sought to answer anti-German sentiment among the Samoan population by seizing control of Apia and the Mulinuu Peninsula. When the Samoans sought American protection against the German claims, the U.S. Consul Berthold Greenbaum declared Samoa to be under American protection. As he had done this without the authorization of his government, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Bayard opted instead for a conference to resolve the issue. Held in Washington in June and July 1887, however, the conference failed to find a compromise between American support for King Malietoa and German insistence that Chief Tamasese replace him.

 

The dispute edged toward crisis when, in August 1887, Germany attempted to topple Malietoa, and the United States sent a warship, U.S.S. Adams, to Apia in October. Matters deteriorated further in September 1888 when German warships began shelling Samoan coastal villages in response to a revolt and seized an American vessel in the process. President Grover Cleveland denounced the action, but German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck proposed a three-nation conference, this time in Berlin, as American, British, and German warships converged on Apia harbor. The conference met in late April, but in the interim a hurricane struck Samoa and sunk six of the seven warships at Apia. The disaster helped to establish a climate of cooperation, so that in June 1889 the General Act of Berlin established a three-power protectorate. Supplementary agreements signed in 1900 gave the islands west of 171º west longitude to Germany and the islands to the east of the line to the United States. Britain, suddenly preoccupied with the Second Boer War, withdrew its claims in Samoa in return for territorial concessions elsewhere.

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A possible game of this subject could be this incident just before the Samoan hurricane in 1889. The USN ships Trenton, Nipsic and Vandalia were dispatched to the Samoa to protect the America interest against the British and German naval units. The German vessels the Adler, Olga and Eber with one 6" rifled breech loader and a number of smaller ones and the British ship Calliope with 4 six inch rifles breech loaders, plus smaller 4 - 5" ones( a total of 36 breech loaders between all the European ships) would have confronted 12 8' muzzle loading rifles, 10 9' smoothbore s, and two 6lb rifled breech loaders among the three America ships.  Of course the battle never took place since the Hurricane intervened. Hell-of-a weather role in a game.

 

The Americans would have had an advantage, largely in size of ship and sheer weight of broadside. I wouldn't give the edge on seamanship to either side.  By 1889 the German Empire had built decent-sized merchant marine. The Germans even as early as 1889 would have been worthy foes. Those lovely Krupps would have been most useful if the Germans could have kept the range open until they scored enough hits on the Americans to wear them down.  This would have been an iffy strategy. Once the range closed, the American weight of metal would have told - the ships may have been built of iron, but they were not armored.

 

FURTHER READING: Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Typhoon That Stopped a War. New York; D.
McKay Co., 1968; Kennedy, Paul M. The Samoan Tangle: A Study in Anglo-German-American
Relations, 1878–1900. Dublin: Irish University Press, 1974.

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