- Wilson, Graham, Warrant Officer Class Two, Australian Intelligence Corps
- History - general, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By mid-afternoon of 15 March, 1889, it was apparent to all aboard the small fleet of British, American and German warships crammed into Apia harbour at Samoa that a major blow was in the offing. Already the German gunboat Eber had dragged its anchor and damaged its propeller when it touched ground during an earlier blow and the crews of the various ships began to secure for what they knew was going to be a severe storm.
Among the international flotilla making preparations was the cruiser HMS Calliope, a unit of the Royal Navy’s Australia Station, normally based in Sydney. The question arises of course as to what a ship of the Royal Navy was doing in the primitive harbour of a distant South Pacific island in company with ships of the United States and Germany. The aim of this article is to describe the background to Calliope’s presence and to detail her adventures during the great hurricane.
The Samoan Question
Towards the end of the 19th century, both Germany and the United States were expanding into the Pacific, vying with the traditional powers of France and Great Britain. While most of the island kingdoms had been well and truly staked out by the colonial powers by the second last decade of the century, Tonga and Samoa still remained unclaimed. Although a number of moves had been made to annex Tonga by various powers, the existence of a strong central government embodied in the person of King George Taupo, combined with British support, ensured that that particular Polynesian kingdom remained, at least nominally, independent. Samoa was a different question as its political organisation was based on a network of small kingdoms with power largely delegated down to the village level. At the top of the social structure was the, for want of a better term, “paramount king”, the tafa’ifa or holder of the four main titles of Upolu, a position greatly coveted by the main ruling families.
This system resulted in almost constant warfare as the ruling families battled for control of the position of tafa’ifa. The situation presented by this constant state of civil war was totally inimical to the designs of the European powers, driven as they were by the triple imperatives of commerce, Christianity and coaling stations. The Europeans, in their pursuit of empire, both commercial and political, needed and desired a strong central government with whom they could treat to ensure the security and safety of their traders and missionaries and which would assure them of access to coaling stations for their cruising squadrons.
By early 1889, the United States and Germany were at loggerheads over control of Samoa, both keen to acquire the rich copra plantations of the islands as well as secure for themselves a strategically located naval base. The Royal Navy, in the form of the Australia Station, had been most reluctant to involve itself in the confused situation in Samoa but had nevertheless, by force of circumstance, become involved over the years, notably in 1875 with the embarrassing intervention of the captain of HMS Barracouta in local affairs, then in 1880 during the Malietoa Affair and again in 1885 as a result of German meddling in the local political scene.
In 1889, the Germans had engineered a bloody civil war between the (pro-German) Tamasese and the Mata’afa, the latter of whom had emerged triumphant. Stung by the loss by their protégés to the Mata’afa and determined to redress the balance in their favour, the Germans despatched a squadron of three ships to Apia. This move was countered by the Americans who also sent three ships. While a conference was convened in Berlin to discuss the future of the Samoans, none of whom of course were invited, the German and American ships crammed into the harbour at Apia, maintaining an uneasy truce as their national representatives vied for control ashore. At the orders of the Foreign Office in London, the Commander in Chief of the Australia Station despatched a ship to Apia to observe proceedings and to represent British interests. Admiral Tryon originally sent the frigate Lizard but later replaced her with the cruiser Calliope.
The ship sent to replace Lizard was the almost brand new iron and steel sheathed cruiser HMS Calliope. Launched at Portsmouth in 1884, Calliope had a length of 235 ft, a beam of 44 ft 6 in and drew just under 20 ft. With a displacement of 2770 tons, she was rated at 4,020 IHP and 14.6 knots from her single screw, carried an armament of four 6-in and 12 5-in guns as well as nine machine guns, and had a complement of 291. In common with most other steam powered ships of the time, she was also rigged for sail. At the time that she sailed from England to join the Australia Station at the end of 1887, Calliope was under the command of Captain Henry Coey Kane who was also in command when she steamed for Apia in February 1889.