Forty Years On The Pacific/The Great Samoan Hurricane

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Forty Years On The Pacific by Frank Coffee
The Great Samoan Hurricane

Much has been written about the great hurricane of 1899, and the heroic conduct of the commander of the British warship Calliope, Captain Kane (afterward Admiral Sir Henry Kane) who died recently. On March 16, 1899, the Calliope was riding in the Bay of Apia. Suddenly a terrific hurricane burst over the islands from the league-long waters of the Southern Pacific. The German gunboats, the Eber, with the captain, officers and crew of seventy-six men, and the Adler, with fifteen on board, were finally wrecked, and many lives lost, while the Olga, a fine corvette, was driven ashore and went to pieces. The United States corvette Vandalia was wrecked and forty-five men perished, including Captain Schoonmaker, Lieutenant Sutton and Paymaster Arms. The sloop-of-war Nipsic ran on the reef, but was subsequently refloated and repaired, and taken to Honolulu. She is now stationed at the United States naval base at Bremerton (Washington). Another American corvette, the Trenton, was wrecked, but those on board were saved. She was afterward floated off. No fewer than 130 lives altogether were lost.

Captain Kane, of the British Navy, fortunately having steam up and a superior boat, determined to attempt an escape from the perilous bay in which the Calliope had been sheltering. He ordered full steam ahead, and fought his way out in the teeth of the hurricane until he reached open water, where comparative safety was obtained. The British Admiralty, in recording the event, said that the hurricane had caused a disaster unprecedented since the introduction of steam, and expressed itself as follows:

"Captain Kane showed both nerve and decision in determining to steam to sea in the teeth of a hurricane which destroyed all the vessels which remained at the anchorage he left, and in conveying to him the thanks of the Admiralty, my Lords desire to express their thorough approval of his skilful seamanship and of the measures taken by him throughout to secure the safety of his ship."

When the news of the disaster reached Washington, the Secretary of the United States Navy, Mr. B. F. Tracey, recommended that the thanks of the Naval Department be conveyed to Captain Kane through H. M. Government for the assistance he had so generously rendered to the United States Squadron in distress. After the storm had subsided, it was decided to transfer the crews to America. Therefore Lieutenant J. C. Wilson, of the Vandalia, was commissioned to proceed to Sydney, where he chartered the steamer Rockton, and called at Apia, taking aboard the American survivors, and proceeded to San Francisco.

Valuable assistance was rendered by the natives in the saving of life and property, during the height of the hurricane. The Samoans on this occasion behaved with a noble courage, showing a magnanimity rarely equaled in history. At the gravest peril to themselves, they rescued many of the very men who, but an hour or so before, were trying their utmost to slay them. On March 26, 1899, Admiral Kimberly, who was in charge of the American squadron, wrote as follows:

"Seumanu Tafa, chief of Apia, was the first to man a boat and come to the Trenton after she .struck the reef; he also rendered valuable assistance in directing the natives engaged in taking out people and public property on shore on the 17th and 18th of March, and was of great service in many ways to us. I most sincerely wish that for his services, a double-banked whale-boat, with its fittings, should be provided for Seumanu, and a suitable sum of money or other present for the following men, who composed his boat's crew, viz., Seumanu, chief of Apia, who understands and speaks English; Muniaiga, generally known as "Jack," speaks English very well; Anapu, son of Seumanu; Taupau, Chief Manono, Mose, Fuapopo, Tete Pita, Ionia, Apitu, Auvaa, Alo and Topu."

In reply thereto, the Secretary of the United States Navy subsequently wrote:

"I have to inform you that the Department has addressed letters to the Secretary of State, requesting him to express through the proper channel its high sense of the bravery and generosity of the Samoans in bringing succor to the shipwrecked officers and men of your squadron, and that it has adopted your recommendation that some substantial recognition of these services should be made by the United States Government. Upon the recommendation of Rear-Admiral Kimberly, and as a mark of appreciation of the valuable assistance rendered by Chief Seumanu to the shipwrecked vessels at Apia, the Department proposes to present him with a double-banked whale boat, with its fittings, and has to direct that you will take the necessary steps to have a suitable boat prepared in California for this purpose."

In a communication dated April 16, 1899, to the Secretary of the United States Navy, Admiral Kimberly thus refers to the conduct of Mr. W. Blacklock:

"Of the foreign residents of Apia, the United States Vice Consul, Mr. W. Blacklock, was preeminently conspicuous for his energy and good services, not only in saving life, but in caring for the immediate and pressing wants of the survivors of the Vandalia, the most of whom were taken to the consulate. Too much cannot be said in justice to his exertions and hospitality on this occasion."