Thursday, December 20, 2012

March 16, 1889 – German-American War Begins in Pacific

As imperialism spread through the Pacific in the nineteenth century, three Western powers settled on the Samoan Islands. Although it was first sighted by the Dutch, the British, Germans, and Americans competed among the local tribes for control of the strategic island chain. Germans established numerous plantations while Britain created a consulship and Americans began trading extensively from posts around Pago Pago harbor. All three nations claimed the entirety of the island group and sold weapons to the locals, sparking a civil war in 1886.

As the war continued among the tribes, the diplomats of Germany, Britain, and America met in attempt to sort out the issue in Washington in 1887. They were unable to come to any agreement, however, and left with no progress made. Instead, more warships sailed for Samoa. In 1889, German foreign minister Count Herbert von Bismarck called for a meeting in Berlin that April for a new try to calm international tensions.

In March, however, a literal storm was brewing. A tropical cyclone of massive proportions rolled toward Apia, and natives warned the fleets anchored in its harbor with tales of a storm that had struck three years before. The captains could clearly see the signs of storms and the telltale plummet in barometric pressure. Sailing out into open sea would give the ships a chance of bracing themselves through the storm. However, each nation looked at each other to move first, and a game of chicken began.

A sudden south-westerly wind came up, pushing the cyclone farther to the north and giving the ships a chance to escape. The large British HMS Calliope managed to push its way to safety, but the smaller Germans and Americans were slower to follow. As they came to the entrance to the harbor on the north side, their engines bolstered by the wind, the two fleets became tangled up. Tempers rose to match the fury of the storm, and ships were fired upon to sabotage engines. Disabled ships were pushed back by the storm tide and smashed against the reef to the south. Hundreds ended up dead on both sides, and each blamed the other. The scuffle became a full battle, and the Americans became overwhelmed by the Germans who were able to call up reinforcements from their plantations.

Americans became infuriated. While former President Grover Cleveland had been anti-imperialist, Benjamin Harrison's term had begun eleven days before, and he took this as his first great act. After leading Congress to declare war, Harrison called the American Navy to action, assembling a fleet in San Francisco to retake Samoa once and for all.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, thirty-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II had been on the throne less than a year. He had already begun to chafe with his ministers, particularly Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck suggested patience and to continue the planned meeting, but Wilhelm saw this war as a chance to prove German military prowess and strength in colonizing. He called for the resignation of both Bismarcks and assembled his own military advisers.

Both nations hurried to modernize their fleets, stalling the expansion of the war for months. Harrison's fleet succeeded in chasing off the Germans in Samoa, but the Kaiser was ready to dispatch a new wave of his own, and the Kaiserliche Marine was twice the size of the US Navy. Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson had moved to Samoa on an extended tour of the Pacific only months before and wrote a detailed account of the battles at sea as well as the chaos among native factions. Newspapers picked up the violent tales and contributed to the failing popularity of the war. Nearly one-third of American farmers had German backgrounds, and anti-German sentiment spread the violence to the United States as well. German immigration had halted, as had a good deal of business in trade. Harrison's “first great act” turned into a political nightmare from which he could not back down.

Finally, in 1892, Grover Cleveland was swept back into the White House, vowing to end the war. Britain hosted peace talks, saving face for both nations. While the war ended, German-American relations did not heal rapidly. Decades' worth of immigrants bent on coming to America were refused, instead heading to Germany's many colonies in Africa and the Pacific, where Samoa had been split into east-west spheres of influence. Wilhelm claimed victory in the war and successfully pursued his ideals of colonies and navy, which made a stunning show at the Fleet Review in his grandmother Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

The United States, meanwhile, struggled in an economic depression. The nation yearned for hope, and they found it in McKinley's renewed imperialism. The Spanish-American War reaffirmed America's reputation and brought Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and Cuba into the fold. When the World War broke out in Europe, however, war-weariness from Americans already facing quagmire in Cuba and the Philippines refused to participate. It finally ended in 1919 as a general draw, and Wilhelm II seemed to have his fill of war, instead focusing on empire-building in Germany's many colonies.


In reality, the Apia cyclone hit the island directly, and the German and American ships had no hope of escaping. Over 200 sailors perished as ships were tossed onto the shore, slammed against one another, and torn apart by wind and waves. The disaster eased the tension, which later returned and was finally solved in 1899 with the Tripartite Convention dividing the islands.

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