I have also the honor to inform your Highness that the articles forcibly taken from the house of Mr. Scanlan by your people have not yet been returned, and that they must be returned to Mr. Scanlan without unnecessary delay, for which purpose I shall wait until sunset (Wednesday, 14th inst.), and if it be not reported to us by that time that my demand has been met with, I shall be at liberty to take action as will in future enforce a wholesome respect for the American flag and the and property under its protection.
In the years running up to the Great War, the future antagonists sparred with each other over control of trade routes and goods around the globe. In Samoa, Imperial Germany manuvered to monopolize coconut oil and cocoa bean production, using an ongoing civil war to keep the Samoans fragmented and impotent. Enter Captain Leary.
Taken from: Walsh, Henry Collins. "Captain Leary at Samoa." ("Ainslee's Magazine" July 1899). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
Captain Richard P. Leary, USN, who has just sailed on the "Yosemite" to take up the burden as Governor of Guam, was ten years ago the central figure in a drama at Samoa that almost resulted in a war between the United States and Germany. How Captain Leary upheld the honor of the flag is a story worth telling because it throws light upon the events afterward.
In July 1881 by an agreement between Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, Malietoa Laupepa became king of all Samoa and Tamasese became vice-king. But in August 1887 Tamasese, encouraged by Germany, proclaimed himself king and raised the standard of revolt. The English and American Consuls met and announced that they acknowledged Malietoa only and told the natives to await the result of a conference between the powers, but the conference never happened.
Malietoa surrendered to the Germans and was deported Samoa by the German war ship "Adler." He was kept in captivity in the Cameroons and the Marshall Islands. Mataafa, a relative of the exiled king and next in rank to him, then took up against Tamasese. The majority of natives would not acknowledge Tamasese as king and rallied around Mataafa. It was at the outbreak of this civil strife that Captain Leary arrived at Apia in the American warship "Adams."
Dr. Knappe was then the German Consul at Apia, and he and Commander Fritze of the German warship "Adler" carried on affairs with an imperious hand. Tempers ran high between the Germans on one hand and the Americans and English on the other. The Germans bombarded villages on various pretexts, fired upon unarmed natives, and gave open aid to Tamasese. It was not long be fore Captain Leary and Captain Fritze had some lively interchanges. On one occasion the "Adler" steamed past the American ship with a native chief bound to her foremast. The German saluted when he passed, but no answer came back from the American. Soon the German came to a standstill. A boat was dispatched to ascertain why the American had not answered the salute. Commander Leary sent the Teuton this characteristic reply, "The United States does not salute vessels engaged in the slave carrying trade."
On September 5th the "Adler" proceeded to the Island of Manono, and her guns were heard bombarding villages known to be occupied only by women and children. Furthermore, the war vessel acted as a towboat for a number of Tamasese's war canoes. On the following day Commander Leary sent this vigorous protest to the German commander:
"Sir, I have the honor to inform you that information was received yesterday stating that the German war vessel 'Adler,' under your command, would on that date proceed to the Island of Manono with a Samoan fleet and then burn the houses and villages of the Manono men who are now on this island (Upolu) in open revolt against Tamasese. It is reported that these houses were occupied by the defenseless wives and children of the aforesaid Manono men. The information further stated that after burning Manono, the Faasalelenga and the Tuamasaga would also be burned unless the men in revolt would surrender to Tamasese and return to their homes.
"It is a fact that yesterday morning an armed force of natives embarked in the corvette 'Adler,' and the ship proceeded with the native's boats in tow toward Manono, and later in the day the firing of heavy guns was reported in that direction, furnishing thereby presumptive evidence that the above mentioned mission was about to be accomplished. The present Samoan revolt is almost, if not quite, general, and the revolutionists had an armed force for warlike purposes in the field within a few hours march of this harbor when the vessel under your command transported the Tamesese troops to a neighboring island with the intention of making war on the isolated homes of the women and children of the enemy.
"Such action especially after the Tamasese party having been represented as a strong government not needing the armed support of a foreign power appears to be a violation of the principles of international law as well as a violation of the generally recognized laws of humanity. Being the only other representative of a naval power now present in the harbor for the sake of humanity, I hereby respectfully and solemnly protest in the name of the United States of America, and of the civilized world in general, against the use of a national war vessel for such service as was yesterday rendered by the German corvette."
Three days previously Captain Leary had sent to Mr. Brandeis, a man supposed to be a clerk in the employ of a German firm, but who was really the power behind the throne of Tamasese, the following letter of warning:
"In consequence of the various rumors that have been received in reference to the impending conflict between Tamasese and the terrible jeopardy of American citizens and their property I have the honor to inform you that the right of Americans concerning life and property must be respected. Any violation of these rights by the party or persons under your command, or by order of yourself or of others whom you represent, or are represented by, will be considered a just and sufficient cause for such action as may be deemed proper."
A few days after this an incident occurred which roused the righteous indignation of Commander Leary. A party of natives unarmed while going across the harbor in a canoe were fired upon from the German warship. By good luck, no natives were killed, but the boat was sunk and the occupants had to swim to the shore for their lives. Some of the shots struck the residences of foreigners on shore.
Captain Leary immediately sent a letter to Commander Fritze which reads:
"I have the honor to inform you that the hostile attack made last night in this harbor by an armed force under your command upon a boat manned by natives who were harmlessly crossing the harbor was an act that seriously endangered the lives of the Americans and others afloat and ashore in the vicinity of Matauta, and cannot be regarded otherwise than a most serious affair coming so soon after arranging and accepting terms establishing neutral ground, within the limits of which no hostilities should occur with a view to securing safety to the foreign residents in and around Apia.
"I am unable to understand your action as the alleged causes of the attack cannot be accepted as justifying such dangerous and careless conduct. I shall report the affair to my government as a gross violation of the principles of international law and as a breach of neutrality. For the security of Americans and others within the neutral lines, I protest against the apparently unwarranted attack made by your men last night, and also against a recurrence of any hostile action within the harbor whereby the lives of foreigners and non-combatants would be jeopardized."
True to his promise, Commander Leary, in his report to the Secretary of the Navy, characterizes the conduct of the Captain and crew of the "Adler" as a most dastardly disregard for the safety of human life, as well as a cowardly breach of faith and neutrality. It may be seen that Captain Leary is a forceful and straightforward man and that the naked truth, rather than diplomacy, is the burden of his story.
In another report to the Secretary of the Navy he says:
"The German Consul seems to control the naval and military as well as the diplomatic and political affairs of the Germans, and it is difficult to negotiate with them on any case as the Naval Commander evades the question at issue by taking shelter under the wing of the German Consul who appears to order them as he pleases. Atrocities are committed by the armed natives belonging to Tamasese's party almost under the shadow of the German fort, and I have written to the German Consul and Naval Commander protesting against such a case of violation of American rights, etc., and have received an evasive reply. I shall send him another message and insist upon having a satisfactory answer."
Among the atrocities that Commander Leary referred to was the taking of some property by Tamasese's warriors from the house of an American citizen, and the seizure and destruction of an American flag, which had been hoisted by an American citizen. The citizen's house was wrecked and life was threatened. Commander Leary at once wrote a protest to the German commander as he states in his report, and sent the following determined note to Tamasese November 11, 1888:
"I have also the to inform your Highness that the articles forcibly taken from the house of Mr. Scanlan by your people have not yet been returned, and that they must be returned to Mr. Scanlan without unnecessary delay, for which purpose I shall wait until sunset (Wednesday, 14th inst.), and if it be not reported to us by that time that my demand has been met with, I shall be at liberty to take action as will in future enforce a wholesome respect for the American flag and the and property under its protection.
“A red flag hoisted at the foremast head of American war vessel, simultaneously with a blank charge, will be the signal for you to remove from your forts and vicinity to place of safety all women, children, sick, and wounded, for which purpose a liberal time will be allowed before resorting to more serious measures."
The property was immediately restored, including the tattered American flag, for which there was shown in future that wholesome respect which Commander Leary had demanded.
On one occasion the Germans advertised for bids to take down a bridge that had been partially wrecked by a storm, and which connected Apia with a suburb where most of the foreigners dwelt. The idea of the Germans was to gain a strategical advantage by having the bridge removed. The notice calling for bids was posted on a tree near the bridge. Commander Leary tore down the notice with his own hand, and notified the authorities that the bridge should not be removed. He stationed a company of marines by the bridge, and sent a band of carpenters from the “Adams” to make repairs.
But the incident which best illustrates Commander Leary's grit and determination, and which deserves to live in song and story, occurred in the waters near Apia on November 15, 1888. Strained relations came to a crisis then and war between the United States and Germany seemed inevitable. On the day previous, a message came from Mataafa to inform Commander Leary that the Germans had threatened to attack Mataafa in his stronghold on the morrow. Both Mataafa and Tamasese had entrenched themselves in fortified places about seven miles from Apia, upon land under American protection. Mataafa asked for advice, and Commander Leary told him through the messenger to stand his ground: that he would not allow the German to make an attack upon property under his protection.
According to the German plan, the "Adler" was to bombard at dawn. Captain Leary quietly prepared to foil the plan, at the same time keeping his promise. By using some hard coal he had aboard he was able to get up steam without the tell-tale smoke that would have warned the Germans of his actions. Then he muffled his anchor chains with native mats, and at four in the morning all hands were quietly called to quarters. At daybreak the anchors of the "Adler" were hauled up, and with full steam on the vessel made for the open sea. Noiselessly came up the Yankee's anchors, and to the amazement of the "Adler," the "Adams" was close upon her heels. The German had to turn to get out of the harbor, and by the time she reached the entrance the two ships were close together.
Again the German turned and then headed toward the fort that was to be bombarded. Commander Leary ran his ship between the German and the shore, and when about three hundred yards from the "Adler" gave the order, "Clear for action!" At once the decks were cleared, and the guns were trained. The German followed suit and the two ships steamed along the coast ready for the fray. A shot from either vessel meant war between the two countries. When opposite the native forts, the "Adler" came to anchor and the "Adams" anchored between the German and the shore. So close were the vessels that no guns could be fired from the "Adler" without passing over or through the "Adams."
Then Commander Leary sent this note to the German commander: "I have the honor to inform you that having received information that American property in the Latoga vicinity of Laulii, Lotoa-Nuu, and Solo-Solo is liable to be invaded this day, I am here for the purpose of protecting the same."
For hours the men stood at their guns, but no shot came from the German. He was ready to war upon the Samoans, but war with the United States was another matter. At length the German started on a cruise along the coast, but he could not shake off the persistent Yankee. Finally, he renounced his designs and returned to his anchorage in Apia bay. To her anchorage came also the "Adams" and Commander Leary had won the game. Some time before this incident Commander Leary had been ordered to Honolulu, but had delayed departure because he felt the necessity of the flag being in Samoan waters. Communications are difficult and few and far between from Samoa to the Navy Department, and a naval officer is thrown largely upon his own discretion.
It may be wondered, in view of Captain Leary's forceful intrepidity at Samoa, that he did not develop into a naval hero in the glorious year of victories in 1899. But the Spanish-American war must count Captain Leary as one of the unsung heroes. He commanded the “San Francisco” as first the flagship of the Northern Patrol Squadron, which guarded the coast from Eastport Maine to Cape Delaware. Later the San Francisco was flagship of the blockade off the northern coast of Cuba. How well the patrolling of our coasts was directed during the war is not the least important part of our history.
Captain Leary upheld the honor of his country's flag at a time when our government took but a half-hearted interest in Samoan affairs. He bravely defied and held in check a warship far superior to his own, and saved the lives of an unknown number of Samoan innocents in the process. For his bravery, Captain Leary received the thanks of the Legislature of Maryland, his native state, but the United Sates government took no official notice of his actions.