Monday, March 26, 2012

The Great White Fleet, 1907-1909

An especial treasure I picked up through Trade Me recently is this: a 1908 postcard, printed by Clark & Matheson, engraved by C E Mackie, of the US Fleet entering Auckland Harbour, Sunday, August 9th, 1908. I’m not sure why, but the “Great White Fleet” (see also the Wikipedia page for a good map) as the battleships of the Atlantic Fleet were known during their 1908 tour of the Pacific has been a recurring fascination for me. Obtaining the near 104-year old souvenir was wonderful. Even better than I’d hoped: I got also the image of the little kiwi at the top of the border, one of the earliest impressions of the bird as our national symbol; and the flags tucked around the image. Better than just a photo of ships in the harbour.

The best text I’m come across so far on the fleet and its context in that Edwardian world of shifting diplomacy, sabre-rattling, and the premonitory twinges in world history which led down to the trenches of the First World War, is James R Reckner’s Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet (1988). I purchased my copy towards the end of last year, at the price of $52.00 from the souvenir shop at the Voyager Maritime Museum in downtown Auckland. With the thought soon after the deed was done with my Eftpos card that my dratted spontaneity in such things had finally gone, well, quite literally overboard. Such a price for a book with only around 220 pages – and softback at that! But, it is printed in the US, which makes a refreshing change in these days where publications, due to cost and economics, are increasingly produced by the roaring engines from Chinese and Taiwanese establishments. I do have a soft spot for American books. Also, and this is the main reason why I feel I have made a good investment – this book is wonderfully well-written. Clear, concise, and packed with well-researched information from files and the newspapers of the day, along with images from the time.

Yes, yes, I do still wish I’d spotted it in a second-hand bookstore from amongst my usual haunts and obtained it at a cheaper price. That’s my quarter-Scots blood from a grandfather coming out, not to mention the fiscal caution of my late mother. But … ah well. What’s done, is done.

The reasons why the fleet’s tour happened are linked to a changing focus for America in terms of possible defence needs, or at least as they were perceived at the time. Japan, having just won a war with the Russians, set up a presence on the Chinese mainland and arranged a diplomatic treaty with Britain, seemed to those on America who believed in the “yellow peril’ paranoia to be a new threat. In that light, the Great White Fleet was possibly sabre-rattling on a grand scale. But President Theodore Roosevelt also seemed keen to see just how well his coal-fuelled battle fleet could do if required to take action against some future foe. 

"Departure of the American Fleet for the Pacific: the principal vessels of the squadron, which left New York December 16, 1907," Auckland Weekly News 26 December 1907, ref. AWNS-19071226-11-4, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

The fleet left their base in December 1907, arousing suspicion from authorities in Argentina and Chile where stopovers were made (North American dominance over South America an issue which would linger through the entire 20th century), while the Peruvians greeted the fleet warmly. They reached Los Angeles by April 1908, and left San Francisco in July. Hawaii was reached later that month, and American Samoa by 1 August.

Ships of the American fleet (Great White Fleet) on Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, 1908 Reference Number: 1/1-006190-G Ships of the American fleet (Great White Fleet) on Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, in 1908, photographed by James Hutchings Kinnear, Alexander Turnbull Library

In Auckland, at 7.10 am on 9 August, around 100,000 people lined the shores of the Waitemata Harbour and Rangitoto Channel, according to Reckner – 10% of our national population then.

“They conducted an intricate S-patterned maneuver in the outer harbour of Rangitoto Channel and then, escorted by a flotilla of local craft dangerously overloaded with cheering passengers, rounded North Head and swept up the channel to anchor in modified line of squadrons in the Waitemata Harbour. A plan for the ships of each division to anchor simultaneously went well except when the Rhode Island found insufficient room in her assigned anchorage and nearly rammed the British flagship Powerful. After much backing and filling, the unfortunate ship was assigned an alternate anchorage and guided there by the harbour master.” (pp. 93-94)
Auckland Weekly News, 20 August 1908, ref. AWNS-19080820-12-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

Here, we had “American Fleet Week”, an almost unending round of receptions, banquets, floral arches, flag waving, including trips to Rotorua and a day at the Ellerslie races.

Visit of the American fleet, Queen St arch. C.B & Co Ltd. Real photograph by Ernest de Tourret, Whangarei, N.Z. [1908?] Reference Number: Eph-B-POSTCARD-Vol-3-034-1 Shows Queen Street, Auckland, with an archway constructed of towers, scaffolding, raupo and cabbage trees, with the word WELCOME on the arch. There is the New Zealand coat of arms and an American eagle decoration on each tower. Alexander Turnbull Library.

"Officers of the American Fleet who took part in the official landing, Monday, August 10, 1908," Auckland Weekly News, ref AWNS-19080820-10-3, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

A look at Papers Past will show that the entire country was fixated on what was to become “the” event of 1908 (so much so that, ahead of the scheduled completion time and official opening, politicians and their et ceteras steamed up from Wellington on their special Parliament Train, just to be on hand when the fleet arrived in Auckland).

Auckland Weekly News, 20 August 1908, AWNS-19080820-16-6, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

 Observer, 15 August 1908

The fleet eventually left at 8am, Saturday 15 August, and the grand tour of the Pacific, including Australia and Japan, concluded in February 1909.

Observer, 29 August 1908


  1. I like to support local retailers as much as possible but I'm sick of being ripped off by booksellers. $52 for the Reckner book seemed too much to pay, so I checked what it would cost from The Book Depository. They will post it to your home from the UK within a week for about half that amount. Here in Oz it would cost $18-76. I don't know exactly how much that is in your dollars but it certainly isn't 52!

  2. Bear in mind, though, that the Maritime Museum isn't a bookseller. They're out to make a profit -- something which has been made a bit more difficult by the fact that entry is free to those of us in the Auckland Region.

    I'm not annoyed. I made the choice to buy the book -- which I do have right now. A couple of free visits to the museum will even things out. :-)

  3. I've read alot of the background to at PPast re the admiration for Admiral Sperry
    Supposedly in Thames a little lane and nursing nursing home was named in his honour

  4. Admiral Sperry didn't live long afterward -- he died in 1911.