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Weather Almanac for March 2009
THE SAMOAN HURRICANE OF 1889
The Calliope and Aftermath
The Miracle of the Calliope
When the storm began, HMS Calliope lay at anchor just off the southwestern reef and to the left of Olga and behind the American ships Vandalia and Trenton. Her captain Henry Kane was wary of his position in the harbor. The waters were overcrowded under normal circumstances, but to fight a hurricane in such close quarters was dangerous. The danger heightened when Calliope collided with Vandalia and Olga a number of times. Only three of his anchors remained to hold him, then one remaining cable was severed by Vandalia. Kane realized that he could not safely beach the 2770-ton corvette, so his only option was to attempt to sail out of the harbor and take his chances in open waters. In order to avoid a devastating hit by Vandalia, Kane reversed his screw but that backed Calliope onto the reef, scrapping it so hard that some of the carved letters of her name ripped off. Fortunately, her engines built enough steam to pull the warship clear.
At 9 am with engine boilers at full capacity, Kane made the decision to slip the last of his anchors and fight the gales and heavy seas. It was a do-or-die decision, for if Calliope could not buck the storm and gain open waters, she had no anchors to stop a push onto the reef. The ship made slow headway against the elements as it steamed forward. To make matters worse, dead ahead lay the Trenton, fires out and rudder smashed, drifting at the mercy of the winds and sea.
Kane steered Calliope through the narrow opening between the reef and Trenton. The two great ships bobbed in the waves in a dangerous, close dance. Several times when they almost collided, a wave crest leaned them away, thus avoiding an entanglement of spares and rigging that would have fatally enmeshed the two. As Calliope slipped clear, her yardarms missing catching Trenton's port quarter by inches, the crew of the Trenton burst out in cheer for Calliope, a cheer returned by the British crew.
Kane would later write of the event: "the American admiral and his men gave us three such ringing cheers that they called forth tears from many of our eyes, they pierced deep into my heart and I will ever remember the mighty outburst of fellow feeling which I felt came from the bottom of the hearts of the noble and gallant admiral and his men. Every man aboard the Calliope felt as I did; it made us work to win ... God bless America and her noble sailors."
In passing Trenton, Calliope had run the gauntlet of vessels and slowly sailed into open waters.
Calliope powered with great effort through the driving rain, not knowing exactly where the surrounding reef was under the limited visibility. For twelve agonizing hours, Calliope's engines had run at full power, and yet they continued to run powerfully. Kimberley's report states that Kane had told him the Calliope "was just able to make headway against the gale; and when outside [the anchorage], during the period of four hours she made no headway, engines running full steam." By afternoon, a fleeting break in the clouds confirmed Calliope had reached open waters north of the islands where she safely weathered the remaining hours of the storm. Remarkably, Kane had guided his ship to safety without the loss of a single crewman, and only one had sustained a serious injury, a fractured skull that Carpenter's Mate Thomas John would recover from.
The Storm Abates
The hurricane began to move away from Apia on Sunday 17 March, and the winds and seas died down. All vessels save the Calliope were scattered wrecks at the southern end of the bay, four on the southwest reef; two, Olga and Nipsic, on the eastern beach. Rescue efforts for the crews had begun the previous day when a valiant band of Samoans under the leadership of Seumanutafa, chief of Apia, risked their lives to free sailors from their damaged vessels. Olga's crew road the storm out on the beach in comparative safety. Those aboard Adler huddled in the overturned hull as waves battered it throughout the night.
On Sunday, the crews of the Trenton and Vandalia joined those of the Nipsic who had struggled ashore with the aid of the Samoans. American and German representatives offered rewards to those Samoans who joined the rescue parties. Many refused the payments, one reportedly declined with these words: "I have saved three German lives today, I make you a present of them." Indeed, much of the valuable flotsam and jetsam from the wrecks was returned though it could have been legitimately taken as booty. The total loss of men aboard the warships was 51 Americans and 96 Germans, though contemporary sources suggested 150 German sailors were lost.
All six warships of the American and German fleets lay severely damaged or wrecked, and their crews shaken.
Admiral Kimberly saw that both Trenton and Vandalia were beyond saving, the latter completely submerged. After salvaging stores and properties from the ship with the help of Chief Malietoa Mataafa and his men, Kimberly donated their wrecks to the Samoans. After further assessment, he found hope that Nipsic could be refloated; damage to the hull and steerage system was repairable. She was pulled back some 500 feet and refloated.
Olga was firmly beached but could also be refloated. Eber was, however, dashed to pieces on the reef. Alder would also be left on the reef. Ironically, she would be the last vessel to "die" of the six. Her broken hull slowly decayed on the reef for half a century before local reclamation would cover the remaining beams with a government building.
On Monday evening, Calliope returned but stayed away from the harbor until the next morning. In Kimberley's report on the event, he observed that "Calliope steamed into harbor this morning, showing signs of having experienced heavy weather." (Quite the understatement.) Captain Kane had hoped he could recover his lost anchors, but that was impossible, dozens of anchors lay on the anchorage floor with cables intertwined and tangled. With only one small anchor and most of his coal gone, Kane had no desire to remain, fearing entrapment should another storm arise. Kane gave his diving outfit to the Americans for use in salvage operations. Kimberly in turn gave Kane nearly all the boats he had to replace those lost on Calliope. After buying some coal from a German supplier at an exorbitant price Kane set sail for Australia. He carried a German officer with him to report to their consulate and arrange for returning the survivors, and a dispatch from Kimberly to the US consul to the navy in Sydney.
When Kane brought Calliope into Sydney harbor on 4 April, he was meet with an enthusiastic welcome. An American officer had left earlier on a schooner to intercept the mailboat and had brought the news that all ships in Apia harbor had been lost. A fast yacht, however, sighted Calliope and quickly brought the news of her impending arrival into Sydney. Thus Calliope was met with a grand reception presided over by the Governor Lord Carrington who declared the day a public holiday. Bands playing "Rule Britannia" and other popular tunes filled to docks and streets of Sydney.
Eight years later, the Royal Navy asked famed Australian poet and songster Andrew "Banjo" Paterson to write a poem for the Navy. Paterson, who also gave us "Waltzin' Matilda" and "The Man From Snowy River," chose the saga of the HMS Calliope as his topic. "The Ballad of the Calliope" tells the story that I have unfolded above. The full text of the patriotic ballad can be found here.
Calliope underwent full repairs and then returned to duty in Australia. At the end of 1889 she was recalled to Britain and placed in reserve. Calliope eventually became a training ship and was renamed the Helicon for a time. Calliope eventually was sold as salvage in 1951. Its wheel, however, was saved and presented to the Government of Western Samoa. Captain Kane received many tributes and was installed as a Companion of the Order of Bath in 1891; he eventually retired as a rear-admiral.
The quick thinking of Olga's captain during the height of the storm saved her from destruction. She survived the hurricane and was able to hobble into Sydney a few weeks after Calliope. There she underwent repairs that allowed her to return home to Germany under her own power. Ironically, she suffered a collision with a British merchant ship in the Suez Canal during the voyage home. SMS Olga was used as a training ship for a number of years and scrapped in 1908.
Sufficient repairs were made to Nipsic at Apia for her to return to American shipyards under escort. She was decommissioned in 1890 and eventually found berth in Puget Sound Naval Station at Bremerton, Washington, used as a barracks and prison ship. The navy sold Nipsic to civilian interests in 1913 who converted her to a barge.
There were perhaps ten other ships in Apia harbor that fateful day. All were lost except one unknown vessel which was thrown high on the beach. It was repaired and refloated in a couple days and dispatched with an American officer to intercept the mailboat running from Honolulu to Auckland. Fortunately, most of the crew members of these vessels had prudently gone ashore when the storm began. Three who did not were aboard the schooner Lily which had been run down by the Nipsic. The ship's master Mr Douglas was able to struggle aboard Olga and later helped her captain guide the ship to its beaching onshore. His two companions perished.
Following the storm, the powder keg of tension that had almost started a war had abated. The question of control over the islands was left to the diplomats who first agreed that the foreign powers would refrain from interference in Samoan internal politics. A decade later, however, control of the Samoan Islands was split between the Americans who gained the islands east of the 171 degree West longitude line and the Germans who got the islands west of that line. After the First World War, Germany lost the islands and they were taken under New Zealand administration. Western Samoa became an independent nation in 1962; American Samoa remains a part of the US territories.
Return to THE SAMOAN HURRICANE OF 1889 Part I:
Unless noted otherwise, all photographs and drawings courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center. Paintings of the event by Rear Admiral Kimberly were done during his retirement.
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