Pride vs. the cyclone

Three American and three German warships spent months in a standoff in Apia Harbour in Samoa. And then a cyclone hit.

SMS Adler
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. / Public domain

Gunboat diplomacy was a common strategy in the late 19th century for naval powers to assert their dominance over other countries without bloodshed. Sail a warship into harbour and then begin Entirely Peaceful Negotiations. What, this warship? It’s just there to keep us company, no need for concern. Don’t even give it a second thought. Would we lie to you?

This kind of “diplomacy” sailed into Samoa during a civil war. Two rival claimants for the kingship, Malietoa Laupepa and Mata’afa Iosefo, were being backed by Germany and the United States respectively. To exert a little outside pressure, both nations sent three warships to Apia Harbour. They put down anchors and glowered at each other across the bay.

They stayed there for months. It was a standoff. No shots were fired, no actual battles or conflicts ensued – it was just duelling displays of power, naval bravado. A British warship was also parked in the harbour, officially to keep an eye on the other two, but probably to look for any opening themselves. 

Here’s the thing about displays of power: pride cometh before the fall. And boy did they fall. In March 1889, the atmospheric pressure began to drop. Everyone anchored in the harbour knew exactly what this meant: a cyclone was on the way.

Any ships that stayed in the harbour would be doomed, dashed against the reef. Put out to sea, and you had a good chance of survival. But such a show of weakness would undermine your gunboat diplomacy – at least, that’s what the ships’ commanders evidently thought. And the other side’s ships weren’t going anywhere. No-one would leave first. The standoff against each other had become a standoff against one of the most destructive weather events in the world.

The British observers broke first and made a run for it. The other ships followed, but too late. The 1889 Apia tropical cyclone smashed through both fleets. Of the seven warships, only the British corvette HMS Calliope made it out of the harbour. The others were beached, wrecked, or blown into each other; 51 American and 93 German sailors died. In the battle of pride vs. the cyclone, the cyclone won.

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