The Samoan Crisis of 1899

Samoa consists of two main islands and four smaller islands.  Human beings have inhabited these islands for around 3,500 years. The Samoan people have their own unique language and their own cultural identity.  Owing to the seafaring skills of the Samoan people, early European explorers began to refer to these islands as the “Navigator Islands.”

Contact with Europeans began in the early 18thCentury.  Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen first sighted the islands in 1722.  He was followed by the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1768.  European contact was limited before 1830, but in that year British missionaries and traders began to arrive, led by John Williams (London Missionary Society) who traveled there from the Cook Islands.  Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Samoa from 1889 to 1894.

Of all the European explorers, Germany alone demonstrated a keen interest in the commercial development of the Samoan Islands, particularly in the processing of copra and cocoa beans on the island of Upolu.  The United States also had an interest in Samoa, particularly in the establishment of a coaling station at Pago Pago Bay.  To this end, the Americans forced alliances on the islands of Tutuila and Manu’a, which later became American Samoa.  Not to be undone, the British sent troops to protect their business interests, harbor rights, and consulate offices.  During an eight-year civil war, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States provided arms, training, and in some instances, combat troops to the warring Samoan natives.  The Samoan Crisis came to a head in 1889 when all three colonial competitors sent warships into Apia harbor; a larger war seemed imminent until a massive typhoon destroyed the warships in the harbor.

A second civil war came in March 1898 when Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States were locked in dispute over which of these should control the Samoan Islands.  The first battle involved British and American forces seeking to prevent a rebel takeover of the city of Apia.  When rebel forces (urged-on by the Germans) launched their attack, Anglo-American forces responded by directing naval gunfire against rebel positions surrounding Apia, which ultimately forced the rebels to retreat to the stronghold of the Vailele plantation.

American and British naval forces included cruisers USS Philadelphia, HMS Tauranga, HMS Porpoise and the corvette HMS Royalist.  On 1 April, Philadelphia, Tauranga, Porpoise and Royalist landed an expedition totaling 26 Royal and American Marines, 88 Royal and US sailors, and 136 Samoans for an attack on the landward side of Vailele.  Royalist was sent ahead to bombard the two fortifications guarding the Vailele plantation.  As the landing force moved inland, it no longer enjoyed the protection of naval gunfire. Upon their approach to Vailele, British and American troops were overwhelmed by rebel forces.  It was a defeat for the British and Americans, but three of America’s combatants are of particular interest.

Monaghan J 001U. S. Navy Ensign John R. Monaghan was born in Chewelah, Washington on 26 March 1873.  He was in the first graduating class of Gonzaga University and later graduated from the United States Naval Academy in June 1895. After graduation, he served as a midshipman aboard USS Olympia (flagship of the US Asiatic Station) where he was commissioned an ensign in 1897.  Monaghan was later transferred for duty aboard the monitor Monadnock and the gunboat USS Alert.  During the Spanish-American War, Ensign Monaghan was transferred to USS Philadelphia, flagship of the Pacific Station [1].

Lansdale PVH 001Lieutenant Philip Van Horne Lansdale was born in Washington, D. C., on 15 February 1858. He was commissioned an ensign on 1 June 1881 and subsequently served on Asiatic, North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific Stations.  Promoted to lieutenant in 1893, he became the executive officer (second in command) of Philadelphia on 9 July 1898.  After participating in the ceremonies which transferred sovereignty of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States, Philadelphia was dispatched to Samoa, arriving off Apia on 6 March 1899.  Lansdale was the officer commanding the landing force on 1 April 1899.

Hulbert JL 001Private Henry Lewis Hulbert was born in Kingston Upon Hull, East Yorkshire, England on 12 January 1867.  He was raised in a cultured home environment, he was well-educated, and he was adventurous. He entered the British Colonial Civil Service and was posted to Malaya.  While there, he married Anne Rose Hewitt, but it was a nasty marriage and one that ended in a publicly visible, very embarrassing scandal.  Hulbert left Malaya and traveled directly to the United States.  At the age of 31-years, Hulbert joined the U. S. Marine Corps on 28 March 1898.  After completing his initial training at Mare Island, California, he was assigned to the Marine contingent aboard Philadelphia.  Private Hulbert was one of the 200-man landing force on 1 April 1899.

Philadelphia arrived at Apia, which was the main port on the island of Upolu (largest of a group of six islands) on 8 March 1899, and the center of the Samoan disturbance.  A conference was held at once between British and American naval commanders, their respective consuls, and local government officials.  They were looking for ways to preserve the peace.  German interests were not represented at this meeting owing to the fact that the Germans were behind the rebellion.  On 11 March, Rear Admiral Kautz, having assumed responsibility for joint operations, issued a proclamation addressed to the Samoan high chiefs and residents of the island, both native and foreign.  In general, he called for all concerned to return to their homes and obey the laws of Samoa.  Every effort was made to influential citizens to prevail upon warring factions to obey the proclamation and to recognize the authority of the Chief Justice of Samoa.

It was on 13 March 1899 at about ten o’clock p.m. that the rebel leader answered the proclamation by attacking Apia and concentrating their fire upon British and American consulates and at Mulinu’u Point, where women and children had taken refuge.  Within moments, US Marines and blue jackets went over the side and headed for Mulinu’u Point to protect the defenseless women. A series of well-aimed volleys dispersed the rebels at that location, but the Americans received sniper fire throughout the night.

Over the next several days, US and British forces constructed trenches and breastworks extending along the outskirts of Apia; nights were occupied fighting off rebel forays attempting to discover weak areas along the defensive perimeter.

On 31 March, Lieutenant C. M. Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, USS Philadelphia, led a reconnaissance force consisting of sixteen riflemen and a machinegun crew into the jungle outside Apia.  Perkins encountered a vastly superior force of rebels, forcing him to withdraw back to the edge of town, to the American Consulate.

Rear Admiral Kautz ordered that a larger landing force be organized for the next day.  Commanding the landing force was Lieutenant Freeman, Royal Navy. The Americans would serve under Lieutenant Philip Lansdale, who was assisted by Lieutenant C. M. Perkins and Ensign John Monaghan.  Accompanying the combined force were an additional 136 natives, indifferently armed, poorly disciplined, with some of these men suspected rebel sympathizers.  British and American forces did not trust them and established a “color line” across which no Samoan could be allowed to cross.

On 1 April, the expedition had only just crossed the point at which the previous day’s battle had taken place when they were engaged by an estimated 1,200 rebels who had concealed themselves in the thick forest.  Lieutenant Freeman was almost immediately killed; shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Lansdale was shot in the leg, rendering him unable to walk.  In spite of his painful wound, Lansdale continued to fire at the rebels who were rapidly approaching him with rifles and beheading knives.

Realizing Lansdale’s dangerous predicament, Ensign Monaghan organized a number of blue jackets to form a defensive perimeter around their fallen leader.  Monaghan struggled to remove his superior from the battle area; the sailors fought off the savages for as long as they could, but they were being overwhelmed. Finally realizing the hopelessness of his situation, Lansdale ordered a general retreat.

As the force began its extraction, Private Hulbert stepped up calmly delivering deadly fire upon the approaching Samoan forces.  The Lansdale party slowly worked their way to the rear in withdrawal, but Lieutenant Lansdale received a gunshot wound to the chest.  It was a mortal wound from which would not recover.  Seaman N. E. Edsall joined Hulbert in laying down accurate fire as Monaghan continued in his attempt to remove Lieutenant Lansdale’s body from the field. Moments later, both Monaghan and Edsall were killed.  Private Hulbert executed a fighting withdrawal.

Private Hulbert survived the battle and received a commendation from the Secretary of the Navy on 22 May 1899, which stated in part, “The gallantry of Private Henry L. Hulbert, who remained behind at the fence till the last and who was with Lansdale and Monaghan when they were killed, I desire especially to mention.”

Private Hulbert was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for this engagement; he was later killed at the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge in France on 4 October 1918.  He was, at the time of his death, a 51-year old First Lieutenant, already slated for promotion to Captain.  His personal decorations include the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and French Croix de Guerre.

Notes:

[1] Rear Admiral Albert Kautz, U. S. Navy, Commander, Pacific Station.

8 thoughts on “The Samoan Crisis of 1899”

  1. Fascinating tale Mustang….it brought to mind Pelosi… as I recall much of her wealth comes out of that little enclave of ours…

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    1. I’d completely forgotten about that, Bunks. You’re right, though. The history of our country is generally one in which people like Pelosi have sent our military resources to foreign lands, placed them in harm’s way, for no other reason than to enrich themselves. A pox on them all…

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    2. I don’t know the history of PR…but thanks to that little territory, we will pay for it in spades come Tuesday. Tens of thousands moved in after their hurricane. It was always a nip and tuck state as far as the GOP goes

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    1. PR was a Spanish colony from 1493 to 1898. In 1898, the US went to war with Spain. Prompted by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahon (a distant ancestor), the USA embarked on a strategy to acquire Caribbean colonies to serve as coaling and naval stations. These islands would serve as points of defense for the Panama Canal, yet to be constructed. These discussions actually began during the administrations of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and involved American interests in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama (at the time, a province of Colombia). One interesting note: The Naval War College began developing war plans for Spain in 1894. The US invaded Puerto Rico on 25 July 1898. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded PR (and the Philippines and Guam) to the United States. Spain also relinquished Cuba but did not cede it to the United States. Today, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and its citizens are citizens of the United States. Did anyone in 1894 consider the likely consequences of US possession of that island? I seriously doubt it. They overwhelmingly vote as Democrats, however … it is a sure path to getting free stuff.

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  2. Thanks Mustang.. I had a guess we should have learned that what we gained from the Spanish were IED’s now primed and ready. Interesting that Hawaii and Alaska turned out so differently. I recall both States joining the Union at the time, and the teacher’s excitement over it, though I was too young to appreciate. So far the referendums have been turned down by PR regarding statehood. Bet they won’t do it next time.

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  3. As always, an education!
    While I have always known of American Samoa, I knew little about how the US became involved there.
    Great post.

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    1. Thank you, Pablo. We can marvel at history, of course, but its true purpose is to teach us important lessons for the future.

      Semper Fi!

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