Maritime Art

The Escape of HMS Calliope

By William Lionel Wyllie

HMS Calliope, launched in 1884, was a Calypso-Class Corvette and became one of the most famous ships of the Royal Navy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when she was the only vessel, of a mixed fleet of thirteen British, American and German vessels, to survive a tropical hurricane which struck Samoa in the Spring of 1887.

This image by William Wyllie is a print of her in the act of escaping to safety.

Calliope was designed in a period of transition – she was a steam-corvette with a screw propeller, though equipped with a full rig. Her profile, as seen her, resembles a corvette of the sailing navy with a window across the stern, offering light into the officers’ quarters. Her sponsoned guns seen projecting here from the port side and the lines of her hull, however, clearly mark her out as being of a more modern era. Her construction and armament was also of a new era: she was armed with breech-loading rifled guns and her hull was made of iron and steel.

These ships were designed at a time of great growth in the British empire which explains her presence in Samoa in 1887. Based in the Australia station she was sent to Samoa to keep an eye on a growing international confrontation. Keen to expand into the Pacific, German agents fomented rebellion in Samoa, carefully watched by the Americans, also keen to expand their interests in the Pacific. The vessels from the three nations, as well as several merchant ships, were crammed into the inadequate harbour of Apia when the hurricane struck with onshore winds well in excess of 100 m.p.h. With ships smashing into each other, slipping anchors and crashing into shore, the Calliope worked her engines as hard as they could go just to hold her position, secured by five, failing, anchor cables.

Her captain, Henry Keane, seized an opportunity to run, and she made it to open sea narrowly avoiding a stricken American ship, the Trenton, coming so close that her fore yard-arm passed over the American deck. The Americans cheered, perhaps the moment depicted here by Wyllie. Her escape was described by one American witness as ‘one of the grandest sights a seaman or anyone else ever saw; the lives of 250 souls depended on the hazardous adventure.’ When Calliope returned two days later, she discovered that all of the remaining ships had been wrecked or sunk.

The event became hugely famous as an outstanding example of heroism, faith in modern technology, and the excellence of the Royal Navy’s ships and men. When she was scrapped in 1953 here steering wheel was presented to the Government of Western Samoa.

The event featured in an article published in the Mariner’s Mirror in 1958: ‘Storm at Samoa‘.

This print is part of a large collection of 123 Wyllie prints, mainly etchings, bought from the daughter of William Lionel Wyllie in 1985, the funds provided fully by the Society for Nautical Research. In 1931 an obituary of Wyllie was published in the Mariner’s Mirror.

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