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The Samoa Hurricane of 1889.

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The Kaiser's Gunboat


By Keith Gordon

Scaramouche Note : This text was written by Keith Gordon and published in Dive New Zealand magazine. Please do not reproduce it in any form whasoever. It is not to be used in any commercial or other activity without his permission. I have put it here since it is a great story, and I didn't want it to be lost, but please respect this instruction.


Hurricanes sweep the South Pacific annually, creating havoc among the small island nations that lie in their paths. However, probably no hurricane has had more influence on modern history than the great hurricane of 1889 which swept through the Samoan Islands. For this hurricane halted a conflict that might otherwise have led to World War I commencing some 25 years sooner than it did, and in a different part of the world.

Today, when one stands in front of Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia and gazes out across the peaceful harbour, it is difficult to imagine the drama that was played out on this small body of water on the night of March 16, 1889. Little remains but a solitary memorial on the waterfront, commemorating the crews of the German warships who perished during that fateful storm.

The warships of the greatest naval powers of the time - Britain, Germany and the United States - were anchored in Apia Harbour. They were there to provide 'gunboat diplomacy' for their respective nations. Germany, ambitious for expansion in the Pacific, had exiled the previous Samoan ruler in 1887 and replaced him with their choice, a chief named Tamasese. Opposing him was the high chief Mata’afa. Conflict soon broke out, and culminated in a battle in which the Germans lost 36 men. The United States senate ordered ships to Apia in support of Mata’afa. They were joined by a British warship - the first military alliance between Britain and the USA.

Crowded into Apia Harbour were the United States ships Trenton, Vandalia, and Nipsic; the German ships Olga, Adler, and Eber; and the British Calliope, the most modern of the gathered fleet. Commanders maintained a watchful eye and at times trained their guns on the opposition ships anchored nearby. The stage was set where one wrong move would embroil the three great nations in open warfare.

Signs of an approaching storm were evident, but went unheeded as locals assured the fleet that it was too late in the hurricane season for a major blow. Prudent action, with the large number of ships riding at anchor in the small harbour, would have been to put to sea and ride out the storm well away from the dangers of the coral reefs. However, with the situation close to an outbreak of hostilities and with the dignity of nations to preserve, no captain was prepared to cut and run.

As the winds strengthened, concern grew. Crews on shore were recalled to their ships and preparations were made to weather out the storm in the crowded confines of the harbour. The barometer continued to fall, and although short of coal supplies, boilers were fired up and steam pressure raised. But by late afternoon the storm roared down upon the hapless fleet of ships, and it was now too late, in the heavy rains and darkness, to escape from the harbour. The winds and seas from the north strengthened their onslaught into the exposed harbour, where no ship dared move for fear of ramming friend and foe alike.

The two rivers that flowed into the harbour became a raging flood torrent, scouring the harbour of silt and exposing the smooth hard coral, offering little grip for the massive anchors that had been set. Anchors broke free, their massive iron flukes snapping under the wild forces of nature. The monstrous storm-fed surf thundered down onto the reef and through the funnel of the harbour entrance, creating a boiling cauldron of massive waves and surges, adding to the turmoil of the foaming whirlpools from the increased river currents.

Ships began dragging closer to the shore reef, their crews unable to see in the dark storm-wracked night through the walls of water and spray generated by winds of 100 kph or more. During the long night, the desperate captains and their crews fought the storm, colliding and disappearing again as they plunged through the turmoil. Over the next 24 hours, many acts of heroism were to be witnessed, as the ships of the world’s greatest navies fought a common battle against nature. Gone were thoughts of conflict and national pride as the terrified crews fought for survival.

By 0300 hours on March 16, every ship afloat was dragging her anchors, rolling, pitching and yawing as damage was inflicted to structure and systems. There had already been losses among civilian ships. The Samoans, realizing the danger, sent messengers to the opposing armed camps with news of the catastrophe developing in the harbour. Mata’afa ordered three hundred men to the beach to help where they could.

As dawn broke, the tide was approaching full. Waves smashed across the single waterfront street of Apia, battering waterfront buildings. On the little gunboat Eber, under command of Kapitanlieutenant Wallis, every man was at action stations and their situation had become perilous. During the night, Eber had drifted into the river current which pushed her towards the shore reef. The gunboat had sustained damage to her screw from a reef collision in February, and although Captain Wallis had ordered steam he was hesitant to use his damaged propeller. Therefore the engines were little used, except in short bursts. Nursing his engines in this manner, Captain Wallis held his ship away from the dangers of the reef.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, a giant wall of water struck the Eber, enveloping crew members and sending them tumbling across the deck. Miraculously, no man was lost overboard. Wallis realised with horror that the starboard anchor chain had parted, and the ship, dragging on its remaining anchor, was driving towards the reef. Grabbing the telegraph, Wallis signaled full speed back and waited desperately for the response. The engines engaged and roared, but nothing happened. The broken starboard anchor chain had wrapped itself around the screw.

Taking the only chance for safety, Wallis frantically ordered full speed ahead. There was a loud crack of metal as the engines fighting the resisting screw began turning. With the crew fighting the wheel and with the assistance of the port anchor, disaster was averted for the time. As Wallis calmly issued orders, the men began to believe they might be saved. The Chief Engineer reported to Wallis the problem of the propeller and that he was unable to give full power. After its encounter with the anchor chain, the propeller was slipping on its shaft and the vibration the engineers could feel below indicated the bent blade could break at any moment. The pumps, however, were working well, fighting the seas that found their way below.

But in the growing light of dawn, it was evident the Eber was losing her battle. The ship was dragging towards the reef, and with the damaged propeller little could be done. The slide towards the maelstrom on the reef was halted when, as if in answer to the crew's prayers, the remaining anchor suddenly caught and held fast with the ship's stern less than ten metres from the reef. The surging seas rolled across her, the bow at times two metres beneath the surface.

However, fate was against the Eber as, with engines churning, the propeller failed. A giant wave thundered down on the hapless ship and it was all over. The Eber struck the reef with a crash, was momentarily washed off, and then plunged ahead to her doom. For a moment she stood with her stern and the useless battered propeller exposed, then she was gone, swallowed into the maw of coral and surging sea.

Those on shore could only watch the Eber disappearing before their eyes. Then suddenly a head was spotted on the surface, and a survivor was washed, tumbling and struggling, towards the shore. With a shout, a dozen of Mata'afa's warriors plunged into the dangerous surf to save their sworn enemy. Only five of the Eber's 70 men survived.

The storm raged all day as the remaining ships fought; for many, their last battle. The tales of ships and crew, of the heroism, the cowardliness and the tragedy during that fateful night would fill a book. The Calliope, after a desperate battle with the raging seas, fought her way out of the harbour - for which credit is often given to the fact she was burning Westport coal! Some of the American ships had resorted to burning barrels of pork in a desperate attempt to maintain steam pressure. The Nipsic was the only American ship to survive, grounded and later salvaged. The German Olga was also salvaged, but the Adler was not so lucky. With her rudder out of action, she was thrown by a tremendous wave onto the reef. Eventually, her remains were buried under the reclamation area where the Government Building stands today. All that remained of the Eber was a piece of her shattered bowsprit washed up on the beach.
During a period of living and working in Western Samoa, I became acquainted with the events of the fateful 1889 storm. The remains of the Adler still lay exposed on the foreshore reef. A keen diver, I had occasionally made forays into the uninviting waters of Apia Harbour on the chance of finding remains of the wrecks that litter the harbour floor. However, the clear pristine waters, corals and fish life of the nearby reefs were more inviting, so these wreck hunting excursions were not regular. We sometimes came across a piece of wreckage, and once a bronze gun mount. In recent times some commercial dive work has been carried out in the harbour and two large anchors were recovered, one of which is now on display in the grounds of Aggie Grey’s Hotel. Last year, I revisited Apia and as recent cyclones had inflicted damage to the reefs, I wondered if any wreckage from the 1889 storm had been exposed. I had an idea of where the Eber should be, and set out across the sparkling calm harbour waters. Anchoring our Samoan twin-hulled alia over the chosen site, I swam down the wall of the reef. Surprisingly, despite being within the harbour and a few metres from the busy main road, it was rich in coral and marine life. It was apparent the reef had been growing outwards over the years and had formed a large overhang, partially created by fresh water flows from the rivers.

Swimming along the base of the reef, peering into the gloom of the overhang, I found a long piece of timber. Further on, I suddenly came upon a jumble of wreckage scattered across the bottom and protruding from the reef. With growing excitement, I carried out a quick survey of the area, discovering steel plating, ribs, riveted structure, pipes and valves. These were the remains of a major section of a shipwreck, but what ship?

It was apparent the storms of recent years had exposed the majority of the wreckage, the twisted steel structure and crushed copper pipes testimony to the forces that had wracked this area. Huge boulders of coral had been torn from the reef and dumped on the wreck site. A section of a large box-like structure complete with fittings was partly exposed, fused into the reef by coral growth. This box was to be the source of some interesting recoveries which would finally confirm the identity of the wreck.

Over the following month, I carried out a number of dives on the wreck site, often aided by two Samoan divers, Foua and Uati. We recovered a number of brass fittings, which I spent considerable effort cleaning in an attempt to find an identification. On one occasion we came across a warhead from an artillery shell. Seeing the fuse, I indicated to Foua that we had best leave this where it lay. The next day, intending to warn Uati about relics of this type, I asked if he had sighted the warhead. Confirming he had, Uati added he had recovered the shell and planned to take it home and cut it up for dive weights!

After informing him of the possible dangers of such actions, I decided it would be best to put the shell back in the water, away from the dive site. My wife was at lunch with a group of friends in a waterfront restaurant not more than 300 metres away - visions of a loud bang interrupting their lunch and our alia flying past their window flashed in my mind. Retreating to a position as far away as the confines of the alia would allow, I ordered, 'Uati, you brought it up, you get rid of it!' He did so without event.

Other ammunition was discovered amongst the wreckage, indicating the wreck was a warship. Markings, including a small crown, were found on a brass porthole. Was our wreck then of British origin? This did not support my research, as no British warship was recorded as having been lost. Then I recovered a brass fine leaf foil with discernible markings. Carefully, I cleaned and spread open the fragile piece and exposed the British lion and unicorn crest with wording in English. It was a seal from a container, proclaiming the contents had been Patent Preserved Potatoes produced by Edwards & Co. Could these have been provisions on a German ship on station in the South Pacific? I still had nothing to prove the identity of this shipwreck.

In the meantime all sorts of interesting objects were coming to light. Brass fittings from woodwork, including hinges and locks, were recovered. Fred Fairman, a 97 year old long-time resident of Apia, had taken a great interest in our underwater salvage activities and was excited by our recovery of the locks. He considered that with all these locks still in a locked position, they would have secured something of value. Fred’s apartment at Aggie Grey’s looks out over the wreck site, and he would maintain a vigil with binoculars in the event other parties started to take an interest in our activities. He became the guardian of the wreck, and still keeps me informed on the situation, including the effects of storms in the area.

With visions of valuables about to be uncovered, we kept digging. However, with my visit coming to an end, we had to cease work. On our final foray, two brass dress uniform buttons were recovered which clearly showed a crown and anchor emblem. On the reverse side was the maker's name and location in German! The emblem was the same as on the nearby German memorial: the crest of the Imperial Navy of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This, then, was the remains of the Eber. The crown on the porthole was similar. As for the British potatoes, well, I suppose an army cannot fight on an empty stomach even if the food originated from enemy sources. It was with some emotion that I visited the German memorial on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Looking at the names inscribed in the granite, one thinks of all those young men, so far from home and family, lost in battle not against the forces of the enemy, but the forces of nature which showed no mercy to either side.

Robert Louis Stevenson, who came to live in Apia soon after the great hurricane, summed up the events in his narrative A Footnote To History with the following words: 'Thus, in what seemed the very article of war and within the duration of a single day, the sword arm of each of the two angry powers was broken; their formidable ships reduced to junk, their disciplined hundreds to a horde of castaways.'

Further dives are planned on the site of the Eber using suction dredge equipment. It is proposed to establish a display including relics recovered from the Eber, to record the events that history now records as 'the hurricane that stopped a war'.