Nature Blows Gunboat Diplomacy Out of the Water

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: March 15, 1889
Location: Apia Harbour, Western Samoa

Gunboat diplomacy was at its height in 1889 and on this day tension was high with an act of war seemingly imminent. Three warships from America and three from Germany were jostling for position in a small harbour in the South Pacific, observed by yet another warship – from Britain.

They had been intimidating each other for months as the major powers struggled for control of the Samoan 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. Then nature intervened.

The waters of Apia harbour, where the eyeball to eyeball encounter was taking place, had been growing choppier by the minute and soon the crews found themselves at the centre of a violent cyclone.

Two of the German ships were bodily picked up by the storm and smashed together. The third was flung high onto a beach and wrecked, the same fate being met by one of the American warships. The other two US vessels were hurled against a reef and wrecked. Six merchant ships which were also in the harbour were also destroyed, bringing a total death toll of more than 200.

After the tragic hurricane it was left to the Samoans to carry on independently, the super-powers seemingly licking their wounds, until ten years later when the Americans and the Germans split the islands between them. After the First World War, the German territory was taken under New Zealand administration. Western Samoa became an independent nation in 1962 but American Samoa remains a part of the US territories.

Hurricanes and storms continue to pound the islands, though, almost like an expression of anger.

Published: April 25, 2016

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