Auckland, August 1908:

A Stop on the Great White Fleet World Cruise

Garry Law


Published by Maruiwi Press  




Maruiwi Press





This booklet is published in electronic form only.



ISBN:  978-0-473-13645-1    






Auckland, August 1908 – A Stop on the Great White Fleet World Cruise




Auckland in 1908                                    

Global Context                                        

US Naval History                                   

The USA in 1908                                   

Come a Naval President                       

The Start of the Cruise                          

Why New Zealand?                               

Preparing for the Visit                            

The Visit                                                 

After Auckland                                        

Naval Power after the Great Fleet          

Did if Matter?                                          




In the early light of Sunday the 9th of August 1908 a fleet of 16 United States Navy battleships sailed into Auckland Harbour, performed intricate manoeuvres outside the Rangitoto Channel before entering the harbour, settled into a spaced pattern and simultaneously dropped anchor. There they were to stay for six nights. Their arrival was watched by a crowd estimated at 100,000, many of them on a great array of small craft. This was a sizeable proportion of New Zealand’s then population of just under one million. Auckland was a stop on the world’s first round-the-world naval fleet cruise. The cruise fleet was the first battle fleet ever to circumnavigate the globe. Why did the voyage happen?

The United States was newly aware of its emerging status as a great power when it sent the greater part of its battle fleet around the world between December 1907 and February 1909. It was the point at which the US first projected itself as a global power and in particular asserted itself as a Pacific Power. The fleet included well over half of the total US naval strength in capital ships. The equivalent today would be the simultaneous arrival of seven US nuclear carrier groups.

The fleet later came to be commonly called the Great White Fleet. While this was not an official name at the time of the cruise it was used several times by the Auckland papers during the visit. In the Imperial geo-politics of the day the visit was a significant one and indeed the Auckland stay can be considered a point at which the political rent between the world’s English speaking nations caused by the American revolution had healed to the point where alliances were possible.


New Zealand Observer cover for Fleet Week. The cartoon’s caption reads “ Kia Ora! Hail Columbia! American Eagle: I’m real glad to meet you Cousin Moa. I guess you’re a bigger bird than I reckoned to see. Excuse me but they tell me you’re champions with your fleet.”

Auckland in 1908



Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart
On us, on us the unswerving season smiles,
Who wonder ’mid our fern why men depart
To seek the Happy Isles!

Last verse of The Song of Cities, by Rudyard Kipling, who visited Auckland in 1891.


What was Auckland like in 1908? Much of the isthmus on which all the city bar Devonport, then stood was still farmland but the city was growing rapidly. The region’s population was 128,000, of whom 42,000 lived in Auckland City and a further 55,000 in the suburban boroughs. It had been New Zealand’s largest city since 1886 and the main centre of the North Island, which had just passed the South Island in population.

Text Box:  Queen Street during the visit. Colour printed postcard.Auckland was centred on its port. Shipwrights and sawmills lined the waterfront. Ships chandlers, shipping agents’ offices and importers’ warehouses filled the land behind the waterfront. A freezing works stood to the east of the city, a dry dock to the west of Albert Street. Harbour ferries were vital local transport. Fleets of small steamers and scows then in their greatest number, linked Northland and Coromandel to the city. There were many more wharves around the harbour bays and beyond than survive today. Holidays were celebrated by ferry excursions to the inner gulf islands. Auckland’s rail links had extended to the Onehunga wharf, Helensville, Rotorua, Thames, Waihi and the Waikato but to travel further south one caught a steamer at Onehunga to New Plymouth and transferred to train there.

Suburbs were spreading along the rail and tram lines and the working population in the city centre was increasingly one that commuted. While there was a cluster of industries at Southdown, Westfield and Onehunga and a few other scattered single industry sites, like the sugar refinery and the west Auckland clay works, much of the manufacturing industry was still in the city centre.

The newest houses were no longer Victorian villas but Californian bungalows. The greatest American architectural influence of the time – the Spanish Mission style Auckland Grammar School building was to follow opening eight years later. Cars were new – there were only about 100 on Auckland roads, registration had only just been introduced and there was no licensing of drivers. The roads were notorious for mud, or dust in summer, a few were paved in wood blocks or stone sets but most had scoria surfaces from quarries on the volcanic cones. Queen St had been paved with asphalt only 6 years previously.

Cornwall Park had been open for five years. In July, along the road at Potters Park (now Alexandra Park), the newly named All Blacks had beaten the touring British Isles team 29 – nil, completing a series win by two wins and one drawn match, the only international matches they were to play that year. Rugby League had emerged that year in Australia, removing Australia as a rugby union threat, but not before they had beaten England at that year’s London Olympics for a rare Olympic rugby medal. New Zealand did not compete for that but then the New Zealanders at those games tagged along with the Australian team for there was no New Zealand national contingent. Unthinkable today.

Women had the vote, but were over a decade away from being able to use it to vote one of their own to parliament. Arthur Myers was the Mayor, later a great benefactor of the city. He had been elected on the platform of amalgamating the many boroughs and roads boards of the Auckland Isthmus. Some hope, that was to take another 80 years. Still the Grafton Bridge was under way – it was an engineering feat of world scale in its day. After agonising over tenders that far exceeded the budget, Auckland City had just committed to building a Town Hall. It was to be sited next to a city market that occupied the modern site of the Aotea Square.

Nationally though the rural population was still greater than the urban one. The Maori population had just commenced to grow again after fears they were a dying race. They were predominantly rural residents. In Auckland Ngati Whatua had their settlement in Okahu Bay. But the Maori population was repressed by law, loss of lands, disease and the memory of military defeat. Rua Kenana had a flourishing settlement in the Urewera Ranges resisting this domination but was considered a subversive. Prime Minister Ward met him at Whakatane early in the year telling him ”… in New Zealand King Edward is king, and is represented here by his government or king....there can’t be two suns shining in the sky at the same time.”

The Tohunga Suppression Act had been passed in 1907 largely under the leadership of Maui Pomare who was seeking to force accommodation on Maori of a more Pakeha centred world view.

Recorded music was on new-fangled discs – single sided - but the old cylinder records were not quite dead. "Shine on Harvest Moon” was the current tune, “Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Baby Mine“ was another. Live theatre was strong with His Majesty’s Theatre, opened in 1902, as the premier venue. The hit of 1908 was the locally written musical The Tea Girl. The plot had British forces being stationed in Japan – a contemporary touch reflecting the new alliance. The theatre hosted the pantomime Mother Goose just before the fleet arrival. Silent movies were the new rage, playing in music halls as part of vaudeville. Some local films were made of important events, including the arrival of the fleet and the fleet officers’ visit to Rotorua. The daily newspapers were the New Zealand Herald and the evening paper, the Auckland Star. The Weekly News was in its prime as was the New Zealand Graphic. It was the age of exhibitions. There had been an international exhibition in Christchurch in 1906 and Auckland, not to be outdone, was to hold one in 1913 sited in the Domain.

Men were be-hatted and only a neat moustache survived of Victorian whiskers. The fashion for women was big hats adorned with feathers. Australian egrets were under threat of extinction through this fashion. A farming boom was for ostriches - to supply yet more feathers. Fashionable women were corseted into an S shape with small waists and large busts, covered normally but in evening wear décolletage might be seen. Hems were to the floor, form-hugging sheer dresses were a shocking new development and hair was big – overall the style was characterised in America by the Gibson girl, or in Europe called Belle Epoch.

Electric trams had been running for six years by a private company and were redefining the suburbs of Auckland but their staff were restive – there had been a brief strike in 1906. Water supply was principally from Western Springs but the first Waitakere Ranges water had reached the city the previous year. A telephone service was well established. The City Council that year commissioned a new rubbish destructor at Victoria Park – an incinerator which generated electricity. The power was sold to eager consumers, so eager that before the year was out demand had exceeded supply. Auckland was mostly gas lit, supplied by a long established gas company, though Queen St had electric lights an obligation forced on the tram company by the City. Gas supplied domestic lighting and cooking appliances.

Sewerage was discharged untreated at the bottom of each of the valleys draining to the harbour. There was a typhoid outbreak around Cox’s Creek in 1908 – a consequence of poor public health engineering. A better scheme had been debated for years. The Okahu Bay diversion scheme was still 6 years away but had started, through an Auckland Drainage Board that had been formed this year. Still overall New Zealand was healthy; life expectancy at birth for those born in 1908 passed 60 for both sexes.

Text Box:  
Sir Joseph Ward, Prime Minister.
New Zealand had enjoyed a long period of industrial peace thanks to the arbitration system but labour was restive, dissatisfied with the system. The successful Blackball Mine strike over crib time was in 1908, with the strike leaders branded agitators and much criticised in the conservative press. It was one crucible of a new labour organisation. Labour called their business owner opponents The Trust – another American borrowing. The Federation of Labour was to be formed the next year under radical leadership. There was a resulting period of bitter labour disputes, culminating in the Waihi strike in 1912 and the waterfront strike of 1913. The internationalist Industrial Workers of the World movement, the Wobblies, were to form a local branch in 1911, part of an international movement through the English speaking world fuelled by immigrants, a social parallel of the fleet cruise. Still New Zealand with its old age pension and progressive electoral laws was regarded internationally as a social exemplar.

In rural New Zealand there was a vast expansion of small farms underway. The Liberal Government had engineered the break up of the large estates to this end, but it was not to benefit politically. The new farmers were radically conservative and were to dominate New Zealand politics for the next 25 years. A small scale farmer Richard Pearse had perhaps achieved controlled flight here a few years earlier, but unequivocal flight was to wait until 1911. Baden Powell published “Scouting for Boys” and the movement started in New Zealand in the same year, 1908.

Sir Joseph Ward was prime minister, having inherited the role on the death of King Dick Seddon, but was not regarded as having Seddon’s command. He faced an election in late 1908 – a high profile event like the fleet visit would be a welcome attention-getter. New Zealand had become a Dominion in 1907, a symbolic rather than any deep constitutional change but it probably marked the end of any likelihood New Zealand would join the Australian Commonwealth, a provision then (and still) in the Australian Constitution and explored by New Zealand delegations to the key federation conferences a decade earlier.

Ward was a strong supporter of British Imperialism. New Zealand had annexed Niue and Rarotonga in 1901 but its imperial ambitions had as yet extended no further. New Zealand did not see itself apart from the Empire and did not regard itself as isolated from world events. Its principal trade was with Britain. It had been an enthusiastic participant in the Boer War enforcing the perceived rights of British residents in the Boer republics. War trophy displays and memorials to the Boer War fallen were common. The mounted rifles contingent to the war had been called the New Zealand Rough Riders, a compliment to Roosevelt that would have been well understood at the time.

Ernest Shacklelton had left Lyttleton on Nimrod at the start of the year on his first try at the pole as expedition commander with great local interest but only minor local support. It was the year Rutherford won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his investigations into “the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances”. Nuclear energy was a consequence of the discovery – one that was to later bedevil US – New Zealand relations.

Global Context

The trip took place within a context of global politics. Projection of global power in the early 20th century involved having a navy. Nations like Britain with a colonial empire and vast seaborne trade had a vital interest in protecting commerce as well as boosting its prestige. Its European rivals, Germany and France had smaller empires but still commerce and prestige to protect and project. Russia had marine borders on four fronts and a vital interest in protecting them against naval aggression by its rivals.

The United States had a long friendship with France dating from their shared revolutionary history. It also had many German speaking immigrants in the 19th century who sustained links to Germany. The emergence of a federal Germany with democratic principles had been particularly welcomed in the United States.

Since the American revolution Britain had been a US rival, most recently showing its sympathy to the Confederate cause and at the time of the Spanish American war being rigidly neutral. The United States had been sympathetic to the Boer cause, but unlike Germany it had not actively helped the Boer republics. The nations though had all found common cause in the Boxer Revolution combining, with others, to defeat the Chinese nationalists and relieve the besieged Beijing embassies in 1900.

Text Box:  Japanese postcards celebrating the victory at Tsushima Strait.
















Britain was forming new alliances. Strengthened by royal links, it had long had a relationship with Germany, but emerging rivalry was putting that to a test. France, Britain’s traditional enemy in Europe, put an end to many centuries of history with the Entente Cordiale with Britain, concluded in 1904. This strengthened France’s hand in its other traditional rivalry with Germany. The pain of defeat by Germany in 1870 was still a raw memory to the French.

Russian naval power in the far east was a threat to British interests and particularly to Japan. Japan and Britain concluded the Anglo-Japanese Treaty in 1902 committing the parties to benevolent neutrality in the event of one being attacked by a single party and to alliance in war if attacked by more than one. Japan benefited from many exchanges on technical matters under this treaty. Britain then was the counter to the Russian threat to Japan’s interests. At the battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905 Japan eliminated the Russian threat by decisively defeating the Russian Baltic fleet that had sailed there to avenge earlier defeats. Britain seems to have been content with this new reality for it used the opportunity to boost its home fleet rather than sustain its far east fleet.

 That perception was not shared in Australia and New Zealand. They were long used to seeing Russia as the Pacific naval threat, building shore defences on harbours over many decades against the perception or the reality of a Russian threat. The populations and governments of both were strongly opposed to Asian immigration, most clearly exercised in the White Australia policy and less overtly in New Zealand, but just as effectively, through huge poll taxes to discourage Asian immigrants. The poll tax for immigrants was raised to £100 in 1904, to the protests of the Chinese community. In 1905 Lionel Terry murdered an inoffensive elderly Asian man in Wellington and defended his actions in court on racial lines. The case was a sensation. He was found guilty but the jury recommended mercy. He escaped hanging but was to spend the rest of his life in secure mental hospitals. Both New Zealand and Australia were convinced of the “yellow peril” presented by Asia. The prospect of replacement of Russia by Japan as the great power in Asia was certainly not welcome there, even if it was received with equanimity in Britain.

In Europe the central powers of Germany, Austria and Hungary were bound by the Triple Alliance, which at an early stage had included Russia and more recently Italy. Russia, after its naval defeat by Japan, re-engaged with Britain and by the Anglo-Russian entente of 1907, France, Britain and Russia became the Triple Entente, the rival of the Triple Alliance.

Text Box:  
Commodore Perry as depicted by a Japanese artist.
The United States traditionally disfavoured standing armed forces but the reality of the world and its growing place in it had made that impractical. Nevertheless spending on armed forces was begrudged by the Congress. It was not even enamoured of high ranks for its serving officers. The great fleet sailed with four rear admirals, the lowest rank of admiral. The admiral in command had no greater rank than the others. There were no serving admirals higher than rear admiral. Congress controlled promotion at that level and it had denied attempts to advance the rank of the initial fleet commander, “Fighting Bob” Evans.

The US was staunch in its wish to be neutral in European rivalries. It had a positive desire to avoid entanglement in the alliances and rivalries of the European powers and in turn wanted them to stay out of American affairs. This was expressed in 1823 in the Monroe Doctrine where the US declared the Americas closed to European colonisation and efforts to extend New World political influence and in a corollary, not always remembered, that the US would not interfere in European wars or internal affairs. That doctrine was still very much alive 80 years later. However the US did see the Kaiser as the greatest threat to world peace.

The US had become a Pacific power by stages. Californians had revolted against Spanish rule in 1846 and the Californian Republic joined the Union in 1850, connecting the Union in a continent-wide spread, from sea to shining sea as the later patriotic song put it. The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 had put a US stamp on a vast swathe of Pacific coastline. The 1853 visit to Japan of the US squadron commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry broke Japanese resistance to foreign contact. Thereafter Japan sought to advance its industrial development, its military power and its foreign influence.

Text Box:  
The explosion sinking the US battleship Maine in Havana in 1898 triggered the Spanish American War with consequences to the US role in the Pacific.
American immigrants in Hawaii deposed the indigenous monarchy in 1894 and the islands became a US territory in 1898. As a result of the Spanish American war of 1898 the US became the occupying power in the Philippines and other formerly Spanish territories such as Guam. Naval power played a significant part  in the defeat of Spain with the Battle of Manila Bay being the crucial Pacific encounter in the US victory.

Rivalry over Samoa between Germany, Britain (egged on by New Zealand) and the US had seen American Samoa emerge, through a treaty of 1899 between the three powers. American Samoa was recognised as a US territory in 1900. Germany claimed the other half of Samoa as its reward. Germany had a far east squadron of modern ships. Germany put great emphasis on its navy in relationship to its colonies.

The US interest in the Panama Canal was in large part strategic. Completion of the canal had been pushed by Roosevelt but in 1908 it was still work in progress. With a canal in US hands naval strength could quickly be deployed from one ocean to the other, meaning two separate battle fleets did not have to be supported. Much greater strategic importance could be attached to a fleet which could readily cover both oceans.


US Naval History

Between 1904 and 1909 the number of battleships in the American fleet more than doubled. This did not happen without strong congressional support. The voyage of the fleet kept the navy in the public mind and in the mind of the funding legislators. Roosevelt was central in this. His roles as Secretary of the Navy before coming Vice President and then inheriting the presidency on the assassination of President McKinley were crucial.

There was real question over the efficacy of the American fleet. The battleships typically had four main guns in two turrets and much secondary armament. They all sported ram bows. Ramming was not by then a likely outcome for naval engagements, now able to be settled at ranges of many thousands of yards, the gunnery officers utilising sophisticated optical devices for ranging and sighting. However the US was not alone in this delusion.

The US fleet had a long history of explosive mishaps with munitions, some attributed in scare stories to anarchists. In reality there was inadequate protection of the explosives storage from flash when guns were fired. Armour belts too were arranged for torpedoes when what was also needed was above-waterline protection for magazines against incoming high angle, long range gunfire.

The US Navy had then but poor facilities within its borders to project naval power in the Pacific. For all the territorial growth there was relatively little development of US naval bases. Mare Island in San Francisco harbour became the first US west coast naval base in 1854. Ship building commenced there in 1859 and a dry dock was added in 1872 but the channel leading to it did not allow it to service battleships. There was a more useful base in Puget Sound. Long Beach as a naval station dates from the First World War and San Diego is a Naval base of the 1920s onwards.

The US Pacific fleet was not large in relation to the territory it ruled. Modern ship building had commenced on the Pacific Coast at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco with a cruiser being laid down in 1887 and a battleship in 1891. US naval dogma strongly opposed splitting the capital ships of the fleet. The Atlantic was seen as the primary focus. Responding to a Pacific threat then had to involve relocating the greater part of the fleet capital ships in response.

Logistic support for a Pacific fleet in the territories was weak in 1908. Pearl Harbour in Hawaii was commenced as a base from 1887, but it only grew after annexation of the islands. Major congressional funding to develop Pearl Harbour only came in 1908. Pangopango in Samoa became a coaling station and naval base from the early 1900s. Coal was all important but the navy had quite inadequate coaling abilities. Samoa was bypassed in mid-Pacific on the longest leg of the voyage from Hawaii to Auckland, while the ships had reserve coal stacked in bags on their decks. Samoa was of no help as a coaling station in 1908. Apart from logistics the US navy had not the confidence it could move its fleet on a global scale and arrive in fighting trim. The precedent of the Russian fleet sailing from the Baltic to disaster off Japan was fresh in the admirals’ minds.

In the tactics of the early 1900s the roles of escorting vessels were to lay smoke screens, to help ward off torpedo attacks by fast enemy torpedo boats and to threaten such attacks themselves. The US had only a small number of torpedo boats. The flotilla of torpedo boats was attached to the fleet for the first part of the voyage, was towed separately to Samoa from the US west coast but returned home without rejoining the fleet. One of the lessons of the voyage was that these small vessels were not sufficiently sea-worthy for the open ocean.

The commissioning of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 had set a new standard for battleships. Turbine powered, she was much faster than her contemporaries, was better armoured and most importantly she carried an all big gun armament of ten 12 inch guns arranged in 4 turrets, putting into practice the lesson learned at Tsushima Straits where the large guns had decided the issue at long range. She was still coal fuelled but later members of her class switched to oil.

HMS Dreadnought set such a high standard that all other battleships were relegated to a class of “pre-dreadnoughts”. Like it or not that was what the US battleships on this trip were – defined as second rate by this revolutionary warship in the fleet of a foreign power. Still the US fleet had the latest in the new radio equipment, first deployed at sea in 1901.


The USA in 1908

It was the year of the introduction of the Model T Ford, the year when the Wright brothers made their first public demonstrations of their flying prowess to a domestic audience and to sensation in France, the year when immigration from Europe reached its peak, when the term ‘Melting Pot’ was first applied to the USA’s phenomenal capacity to absorb a rainbow of nationalities and cultures. The USA was an industrial giant, the wealthiest country in the world yet still half its population was rural, showing its capacity for drawing labour to industry was not fully tapped. ‘Jim Crow’ laws denied African Americans rights across much of the country and lynch mobs still often intervened in denying them justice, even occasionally in the more liberal north. It was the age of the robber barons, men who typically later funded universities or discovered culture and founded and stocked the museums and art galleries that today grace American cities. Vast gaps of wealth between the rich and the poor fed labour unrest and anarchism. There was a cross-over between labour radicalism and anarchist movements. Bombs and assassination were the tools of the latter and the USA was obsessed with how it could protect itself against such extremists.

Most towns had a fledgling electricity system, the early movers having an Edison direct current system adequate for running lighting and the late adopters the more versatile alternating current system which had won the “current war” around the turn of the century. Domestic appliances and industrial equipment using electricity were in a state of rapid development. Electric vacuum cleaners had just started to be sold, but home refrigerators were a few years away. Rather iceboxes using delivered ice were to be found in about half of homes.

Oklahoma had just become a state, New Mexico was still to reach that status. Women’s suffrage applied in some states to local elections but was not to become universal until 1920. Railroads linked cities and towns but roads were only local. A car race was run from New York across the USA, Russia and on to Paris, won on line honours by Germany but after penalties by the USA entry, a Thomas Flyer. Much of the route was run on railway beds for the lack of roads. Public health engineering had eliminated many causes of death, but life expectancy at birth was only just over 50 for both sexes, showing infant death and premature death of adults were still common. Robert Peary left for the North Pole, finally to succeed, but did Frederick Cook beat him in 1908? – probably not.Text Box:  
A postcard from the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 - a white painted US battleship  in the vanguard.
















The year 1907 that the fleet departed was that of the Jamestown Exposition in Virginia, adjacent to the fleet base of Hampton Roads. It was not a great success in visitor numbers but common opinion had the US naval display as a star attraction. Other nations contributed ships and at the opening there were 51 visiting warships. The US fleet that departed was well used to being on show.

It was a time of optimism and that was reflected in the character of their President.

Come a Naval President

Text Box:  
President Theodore Roosevelt.
Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s career prior to his presidency included periods as an historian, explorer, navy booster, Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President McKinley, organiser and commander of the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, hero of that war, Governor of New York and then Vice President of the USA. On President McKinley’s assassination by an anarchist in 1901 he succeeded to the Presidency. He was the youngest President ever, being just 42, with a young family. The famous West Wing of the White House was added to free up space for his family and he had all of the residence renovated.

He was a remarkable President nationally and internationally. He revelled in the role – his ‘bully pulpit’. As President he achieved the Antiquities Act to preserve historic monuments, founded the US National Parks, Grand Canyon was added in 1908 and was a strong advocate for conservation (despite being a big game hunter). He agitated against the US laissez faire capitalism and started to end the trusts created by industrialists that managed US markets to avoid competition. He railed against the vast gulfs of wealth between the few rich and many poor in the USA. He settled the relationship with Mexico after decades of turmoil and crucially for geopolitics in 1905 took a key role in settling a negotiated peace between Russia and Japan after their recent war, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was intimately familiar with naval matters and promoted the growth of the US Navy to the point in 1908 where it was large enough to figure in the great power calculations.

Rivalry with Japan over China and Japanese alarm at racism exerted over Japanese residents in the USA had brought a considerable degree of tension between the two Pacific powers. The USA saw China as a land of opportunity for trade and investment and regarded with concern Japan’s taking control in Manchuria establishing exclusive commercial rights. The US sought an ‘open door’ access to China. Weak China had little say in that. A 1894 treaty had given Japanese the right to migrate to the USA and with rights as citizens when once there, but local practice was to discriminate, culminating in 1906 in school segregation in San Francisco. It was only one aspect of anti-Asian feeling of the time. Japan protested the school action vehemently. Two treaties were negotiated in 1908 – a ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ where the US government agreed to pressure San Francisco over its discrimination and the Root-Takahira Agreement, which recognised US possessions in the Pacific, Japanese control of Taiwan and its interests in Manchuria while Japan agreed to respect the US open door policy on China. Both of these agreements came after the fleet had commenced its cruise and within the context it created.

In 1903 Roosevelt had said in a speech,

“There is a homely old adage which runs: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.' If the American nation will speak softly, and yet build and keep at a pitch of the highest training a thoroughly efficient navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far. “

‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ has been much quoted since by exponents of American power. While Japanese relations had nothing to do with the Monroe Doctrine clearly the same approach was alive there too. The tension between the USA and Japan was seen as a potential cause of war but it was resolved by USA diplomacy coupled with an implied threat if that was not responded to. British papers claimed the eventual success of the Japan visit was a result of British diplomacy, but while some of that may have occurred, its central role is hard to credit.


The Start of the Cruise

Text Box:  
Roosevelt reviewing the departing fleet in Hampton Roads 1907.
In December 1907 the fleet was seen off by Roosevelt at Hampton Roads, cruising up and down the fleet lines in a presidential yacht Mayflower. On board the fleet was a suite of journalists from daily papers and magazines. Embedded would be today’s term. They were to report the reception of the fleet in foreign ports and on the experiences of the crews. But perhaps more. Harpers Weekly magazine headed up its departure story “For a Fight or a Frolic”.  With the rapid expansion of the navy the crews were unlike those of the old navy – many were from midwest and from farm backgrounds. Innocent of the world, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for many. They presented few disciplinary problems, beyond some failing to report back for duty after shore leave in some more attractive ports. Their tax-paying parents were paying for this navy and this trip so it was important to the Navy that they were told what a good job their sons and the fleet were doing.

The route of the tour had not been announced beyond the trip around South America to the western seaboard. There was speculation of a round-the-world cruise but Roosevelt would not be drawn. On an early leg Admiral Evans let slip to a journalist that it was envisioned and this was cabled home but he quickly had to correct that it was only his personal opinion. Another account says poor radio security in transmissions between the ships was at fault for the leak. Official confirmation of the cruise’s extent did not come until much later.

Why was this? There was always the possibility of some increase in tension in the Atlantic which might have required the recall of the fleet. More likely was that the situation with Japan was better left placing the initiative with them – the presence of the US fleet in the Pacific needed some response. Roosevelt over the years gave a variety of answers when questioned to the overall purpose. Completing a world cruise was seemingly always a part of the self aggrandisement aim, for the fleet, the USA and himself.

Germany in response to the Britain /Japan treaty would have loved to provoke some aggression between Japan and the US in the hope of driving the US into the arms of Germany. They sent units of their fleet to meet the US fleet in its South American stops and politicked hard with those in the US it could influence about the threat that Japan presented. At a crucial point the Kaiser announced a forthcoming alliance between the USA and Germany at a time when this was far from a reality. The announcement only served to sour relations. Someone, perhaps Germany, started a rumour that there was a fleet of Japanese submarines or torpedo boats waiting in Magellan Strait to attack the US fleet, or that the strait would be mined. How this could have been done logistically is a mystery but never the less it was reported seriously, as were rumours the Japanese fleet was off Hawaii and a supposed anarchist plot to harm the fleet in Rio.

To the dismay of the US admirals, the fleet was painted an unmilitary white, far easier to see at a distance than the more usual grey. In the days when all naval gunnery was aimed optically, when smoke screens were a vital tool of battle and night engagements used powerful searchlights, having white painted ships was a clear sign that hostilities were not seen as imminent but this was certainly not to the admirals’ liking. During the fleet voyage they repeatedly requested that the ships be repainted grey but this was consistently denied at political level. A large stock of grey paint was carried in preparation for a change remained unused at the voyage end. The prospective change was even in the Auckland papers during the visit but the timing was reported then to be proposed for after the Japanese visit. Before the cruise some ships had Japanese messmen. They were removed before the fleet left obviously to end any potential source of espionage or treachery.

The fleet set out accompanied by torpedo boats. The newly perfected self-powered torpedoes were thought then to bring a major new tactical element to big ship engagements. The other vital element to the fleet tour was logistics. The US fleet were nervous about foreign coal, fearing it may have explosives planted in it, or have them left over from poor mining practice. However the navy lacked its own fleet colliers and foreign vessels mainly British and Norwegian, had to be hired to haul coal supplies from US ports. Despite US coal ships being offered a premium to perform the role none were tendered. Coal supply was to be a continuous worry for the fleet and captains were on public watch as to the efficiency of their coal consumption. There were some fleet auxiliaries as well at departure - two storeships, a tender, a hospital ship and a repair ship.

The fleet’s calls before Auckland were Port of Spain, Trinidad; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Punta Arenas, Chile; through the Straits of Magellan to Callao, Peru; Magdalena Bay, Mexico; San Francisco, California; Puget Sound, Washington; San Francisco again, and Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. The Port of Spain visit was difficult. It was British territory and the reception can only be described as cool. Seemingly the Governor had no instructions to organise hospitality. It mirrored a frosty British response to an offer of assistance from the US after a 1907 earthquake in Jamaica. The coolness was widely reported in the United States and no doubt by diplomatic correspondence back to Whitehall. Those who were plotting the developments in the naval and diplomatic rivalry with Germany may well have been alarmed. The other American continent stops though were welcoming and the welcome was reciprocated by the sailors.

Before departing the US west coast ailing Rear Admiral Evans was relieved and Rear Admiral Charles Sperry took over command. The composition of the fleet changed too with two battleships joining the fleet and two departing to stay on the west coast.

Why New Zealand?

Why was Auckland visited? Australia had been quick with an invitation sent via the local consul-general in December 1907 and formally from the Governor General in January. It was accepted in mid-March. Ward having heard of the Australian invitation issued one for New Zealand in early March again through local consul-general with a backup from the Governor General. It was accepted on March 28, with a specific proviso that only Auckland could be visited. The Japanese invitation came on March 18th and was accepted on the 20th.

It was reported in the US that New Zealand would feel slighted if Australia was visited but not New Zealand. Nothing new in that but where had that come from? New Zealand did not have diplomatic relations in the United States until the Second World War. The US had long had consular representatives but they to did not advance to ambassador level until the Second World War. It is likely then it was the impression of the consul, general a Mr W A Prickitt, no doubt keen himself to see a visit to enliven his own status and social life. One reality was that Auckland was needed as a coaling stop. To Sydney from Hawaii was thought too far.

Both countries’ invitations circumvented Imperial protocol. The invitations routed through the Governors General were supposed to go through Whitehall. They were sent there but were publicised before the British Government had time to react officially. Churchill, then a parliamentary undersecretary, was not supportive of the visits. The Admiralty thought it “inconvenient” but probably it was not pleased at a show of force it could not match. The announcement of the acceptances was greeted rapturously in both Australia and New Zealand. An aware naval aide to Roosevelt predicted for Australia and New Zealand, “The officers and men will barely escape with their lives from the hospitality of the people.”

At the time Roosevelt speculated on a Monroe Doctrine type American protection being extended to Australia and New Zealand. To a journalist he explained the voyage as being, “to show England – I cannot say a ‘renegade mother country’ - that those colonies are white man’s country and that is why the fleet was sent there.” So Australia and New Zealand were being tested on their loyalties and Britain too. The dig at Britain was presumably in relation to its treaty with Japan. Prime Minister Ward put it a bit differently but still in racial terms – responding to criticism of the cost of the welcome he said that there would “someday be a fight to decide whether the white races should govern Australia and New Zealand and the other islands of the Pacific. If at that time we should have as our ally America with her powerful fleet we should be very glad to have them fighting shoulder to shoulder with us.” The paint colour of the fleet had perhaps even more symbolism than that with which it is usually credited.

Preparing For the Visit

Text Box:  
Onehunga by tram - what a sailor might explore on shore?

The reception that the fleet sailors had been given in San Francisco was reported in the New Zealand Herald which also anxiously reported the preparations that had been commenced in Sydney. Clearly Auckland was being put to its mettle. The fact that there were special arrangements for representatives of the press in San Francisco was noted so the publicity opportunity was recognised early. The first organisation to move on planning the reception was the wealthy Harbour Board but Auckland City soon moved to join them. Their first action was then to complain to central Government that it had not yet shouldered its share of the task. Eventually a commission and supporting committees emerged with representatives of the national Government and local worthies involving from the Governor General down to the many local mayors, board chairpersons and sundry other locals making up the no less than 18 subcommittees.

A key commissioner was T. E. Donne, secretary of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. Rotorua at the time lacked a local government and the fledgling town came within Donne’s responsibilities. The Government-funded Tudor styled bath house was nearing completion and of course Donne took the opportunity to plan to bring a train load of fleet officers to Rotorua, with the American reporters for its opening. At first the date of the fleet arrival was uncertain and then its duration but by May 7 Ward advised Auckland’s Mayor of the final dates.

Auckland having the visit was the envy of Wellington. The Wellington Naval League petitioned the Governor General and then Ward, first for a visit after Auckland, then for a visit of a detachment. A Wellington paper claimed it was a necessity as Auckland could not meet the coaling need. Ward met a delegation and explained the one visit was only gained after some effort and it was not his decision as to where the fleet went. The Wellington papers continued a pattern of snide comments on the visit up to and beyond its occurrence. Some were repeated in Auckland papers with more than a touch of superiority.

The visit was big news in the newspapers. The New Zealand Herald ran a daily column with nothing too trivial for mention: the mobilisation of the volunteer corps, the extended timetables for trams and trains, the government electrician arriving to wire the Government illuminations, school closures, the Rotorua arrangements, butchers half holidays, speculation Roosevelt might visit in his retirement, the parliamentary train arrangements, what Australia was planning, St Johns Ambulance preparations and the forecast scarcity of accommodation because of local visitors were just a few of the subjects covered. For the commercial readers there were reports on the currency the sailors would be carrying and what they were likely to want to buy. There were charts of where the fleet would anchor and what the admirals were to be formally presented with by the Government.

The Prime Minister’s office was involved in the preparations in detail. There was regular communication with the two commissioners. Invitations to local bodies to contribute named banners to the decorations came directly from the Prime Minister’s office and the responses and orders were managed there as well. Not all the preparations went smoothly. It was discovered that legislation prohibited an extra race meeting being held to coincide with the visit. For a period the meeting was off the calendar but a compromise was found where the Auckland Racing Club gave up one of its later scheduled meetings. This was not before Wellington clergy denounced the idea of a meeting as “filching many hundreds of pounds from American crewmen”.

The Governor Lord Plunket cried off attending the planned waterfront reception – no doubt he recognised the political importance Ward placed upon it and wanted distance from that. The Rutland Street Drill Hall was enlarged as a rush job so as to accommodate the Civic Reception.

At Rotorua Tai Mitchell seems to have been the key person organising the Arawa side of the events, meeting with the Crown commissioners.

The Government commissioned a commemorative casket to be presented at the welcoming function. It was of New Zealand gold and silver greenstone mounted and featured an American Eagle and a Kiwi – which must have been a very early use of kiwi as an official national symbol. The order was for £50 but the final bill was (to some consternation) for £62. There was also an illuminated address prepared to be forwarded to Roosevelt, written by Charles Wilson chief librarian of the General Assembly Library. There was some tension over the address not being sent to Parliament for endorsement, that Ward had to smooth over. He also was sensitive to the wording changing “Australasian waters” to “British waters” at one point.

A book was prepared for presentation to each of the fleet officers. James Cowan was commissioned to write it but his draft did not find favour and it was sent to Henry Brett the publisher, with a request that his editors work on it. Cowan was not advised of this and later took offence. The overall cost was of course controversial. There were protests from the unemployed that the money should go to their relief. The opposition was critical in Parliament. Ward countered the criticism noting the cost was 1½ d per head of population.

A month before the arrival the Herald was setting the scene, comparing the US to Australia as commercial and industrial rivals rather than potential enemies and stating, (US) “naval superiority in the Pacific does not endanger us however much we may prefer to be navaly superior ourselves, between us there are only political lines which are very different to lines drawn by lingual and racial differences.”

Wireless communications from the fleet reported in the Herald reported its position over several days while approaching Auckland – but these reports were relayed by telegraph from Australia, Auckland seemingly unable to do more than have Tiri lighthouse on alert to signal the fleet in sight.

The New Zealand Herald of Saturday August 8th excelled itself with usually rare photo-block portraits of the leading officers and pictures of the ships and much reporting on the programme for the week. Its leader exulted: “..the White Man’s lands are for the White Man….today the American Fleet stands for the racial integrity of every English-speaking State in the Pacific.”


The fleet at anchor in Auckland Harbour. Colour printed postcard.


The Visit

The Australasian Squadron of the Royal Navy was represented in Auckland to meet the fleet. An obsolescent cruiser HMS Powerful did not amount to much in comparison, but it showed the flag.

While the North Island Main Trunk line was not finished, enough temporary track existed to allow a Parliamentary special train to run to bring Ward, other ministers, wives and other notables from Wellington for the Feet visit. It was the first through train ever and took almost 20 hours, arriving on the evening of the 8th.

Text Box:  
Ehrenfried’s Building decorated for the visit. Postcard.

The first liberty men ashore on the 9th found Auckland was closed – it was Sunday. Only official courtesy calls were made and Ward and an official party cruised the lines of ships. The programme of events was to start on the Monday, with a welcome at the waterfront and a parade up Queen Street passing under a welcoming arch.

The programme of Auckland events was full:

Monday 10 Official welcome, parade up Queen Street, Review of volunteer troops in the Domain watched by 20,000, State banquet with 1500 guests.
Tuesday 11 Tram trips, matinee performance of Mother Goose at His Majesty’s Theatre, Mayoral reception, Concerts and socials, State Ball at Government House.
Wednesday 12 Race meeting at Ellerslie, officers depart by train for Rotorua. Entertainments and boxing match.
Thursday 13 Tram trips, lunch at Royal Albert Hall, a further matinee, rifle shooting match, concerts and gymnastic displays
Friday 14 Aquatic sports, general sports at the domain including Australian football, Lacrosse, rugby and association football. Officers “at home” on the ships with 2000 guests.
Saturday 15 Auckland-Wellington rugby match at Alexandra Park.


Auckland was decorated for the event. Queen Street was lit by electric light courtesy of the tram company and many other buildings had electrical illuminations to their exterior. Flags, bunting and greenery completed the picture. The ships responded later at night with their own lights and displays of their searchlights. There were arches in the street as well. On the Monday evening there was a fireworks display at the harbour edge.

There was some role for Maori in the Auckland events. A special Maori encampment and entertainment at Orakei was mooted at one time but does not seem to have happened. Kia Ora and Haere Mai were appropriated as greetings on the decorations and publications The third Maori King, Mahuta, was in one of the parades – he was a member of the Legislative Council so may have been there as much for that. Mahuta and Western Maori MP Henare Kaihau were called to the podium at the waterfront reception and introduced to Admiral Sperry. He was well primed and responded that the “splendid race of Maoris had established a tradition for loyalty and faithfulness”. It is hard to imagine all the rhetoric about white brotherhood went down well with the Maori that watched.

At the waterfront reception Ward read the illustrated address and presented the illuminated copy and the casket. The Governor spoke at the Civic Reception. Sperry in reply spoke of the “strongest possible ties of amity and friendship between two nations of common ancestry, blood, common traditions and common aspirations …The Imperial interests of both great nations in the Pacific are the same.”

The booklet prepared for the fleet officers had this from Ward:

‘No visiting warships of a foreign Powers have ever been so welcome as yours is to-day, for in receiving the fleet of the U.S.A. a sense of kinship stirs our hearts. We feel that the greatest nation of the West has come to visit us, for the fleet of a nation is more directly part of it than any other of the visible embodiments of its majesty and dominion’.   ‘Your President, by act and word in his life-work, reflects and voices our own national ethics and aspirations. With him and with your nation we too would lead and live the strenuous life, based upon honour, fair dealing, and human kindness, and in the love of God. The name of Roosevelt in this Dominion stands for national righteousness, and is cherished, honoured, and revered. We believe of him, as has been said of one of our immortals, that he has

He never sold the truth to serve the hour,
Nor paltered with Eternal God for power
(Ed: Tennyson)

And in that way he typifies to us our sympathies and ideals. We look to him as a faithful counsellor and friend. The armaments of America, and, above all, of her navy, are but majestic instruments for working out the aims of a higher civilisation. Your fleet stands for peace, not war, justice not aggression freedom, not tyranny. It is all these thoughts and feelings stirring in our hearts to-day that lift our welcome above any mere international courtesy. Our hearts go out to you; our hands grasp yours as brothers, friends, and fellow sailors. Haeremai!, haeremai!'

Text Box:  
The celebratory arch at the bottom of Queen Street. Colour printed postcard.

A special post office was set up in Queen Street to handle the demand for mail. The central post office in Shortland Street would not have coped. It was the age of the postcard and 40,000 were sent and many more bought to take home. Many were specially prepared for the visit, with photographs of the fleet at anchor, the city decorations and scenic highlights of Auckland and Rotorua being the most popular. These and the standard tourist postcards were purchased as mementoes or posted with a one penny “Universal” stamp. Many thousands still exist and are traded on internet auction sites. Several internet sites depict the many postcards that can be linked to the fleet. The added messages are mostly mundane but occasionally revealing in their comments on New Zealand.

Sailors tired of naval fare queued to be fed in the city restaurants. Shopping was a high priority. Reportedly popular were toys, cameras, souvenir spoons, confectionery, travelling rugs, greenstone brooches and Maori items. One sailor reported “the streets having a sort of Christmas air because it is cold and the people seem busy with shopping”.

Only three of the contracted six colliers arrived in Auckland and little coal was available locally to supplement supplies. The ships were forced to redistribute coal in preparation for the voyage to Sydney.

The toasts at the banquet started with one by Ward to the King and President, diplomatically avoiding having to give one precedence. The toasts were fitted around oysters in the shell, turtle soup, pork, turkey, chicken, ham, apple pie, trifle and mandarin jelly to name a few. The Ball the next night had Waltzes, Lancers, Two Steps and a Gallop. The race meeting included hurdles races – appropriate to the season. The Rotorua trains departed from there – taking up so much of the rolling stock that patrons returning from Ellerslie to Auckland were hauled in freight wagons.

The officers and the men had different entertainments organised. Those for the men were dry. Still then the bars were open until 10PM so we can imagine the lack was remedied. There were few reports of trouble. The Herald reported one fight over a lady, swiftly dealt with by the navy shore patrol who were prominent on the streets.

The officer’s Rotorua excursion required two trains – the 500 officers were too many for a single train. There was a stop at Frankton for dinner – New Zealand trains then had no dining cars. Events on the Thursday included a welcome by the “Arawa Natives” at the Government Gardens, opening of the new baths building by the Prime Minister, a visit to Ohinemutu village and to the thermal sights, guided by Maggie Papakura amongst others. The welcome featured the usual challenge, haka, a mock battle at a model pa and poi dances. Accommodation in Rotorua just coped with the numbers spread over all the establishments. There was a lunch stop at Hamilton on the return on Friday.

The hospitality was returned by an open day on the ships on the Tuesday and the Officers at home on the ships. Thousands of visitors were transported by the fleet boats to the anchorages to a “cheery welcome”. Few parts of the ships were no-go areas.

What did Auckland think of the crews? They were praised for their bearing, discipline and politeness. And the reverse? The three US reporters gave the city and the nation good press in their home journals. The crews wrote home. “The citizens of Auckland are all English, the natives are called Maoris”, explained one postcard writer. Another letter writer, Louis Maxfield: “The people are very queer looking, you see the English and the native Maori” At the Ellerslie racecourse he found “a beautiful course with gay people”. Again: “Maoris are not like our negroes or Indians, they are highly intelligent, go to school …. dress in the best fashion and speak the most beautiful English imaginable. Visiting Whakarewarewa: “here a bunch of girls headed by Maggie the belle of Rotorua guided us all around”. One officer thought Hamilton “a lively little city that might have been moved bodily from central Kansas…”

In common with any naval visit a defence appraisal report was made of Auckland by the visiting officers. It went off to Washington to sit in files until declassified in 1972. It did not rate Auckland’s anti-Russian defences highly.

At muster after Auckland and counting two deserters returned to a fleet auxiliary ship by the police, the fleet found it lost one crew member but strangely it had gained two recruits.

After Auckland

Sydney turned on a splendid welcome for the fleet. Australians’ speeches about racial solidarity if anything exceeded those of New Zealand in their virulence. The crews by now were becoming sick of parades and official events and voiced their dissatisfaction to their officers. Melbourne too was welcoming but here the crew were given the option of attending some of the official events at their choice. One enormous dinner catered for 3000 was attended by seven no doubt well fed sailors while the other crew chose to get to know the locals instead. Melbourne was agreed by the crews as the best port to date and it is not hard to guess why. Unsurprisingly when the fleet sailed, the 221 deserters were the highest of any of the four local stops. Some were collected by a later-sailing fleet auxiliary but not all. There are very likely some Australians today who are a living legacy of Melbourne’s hospitality. Albany, Western Australia was the last Australian stop followed by Manila and then on to Yokohama.

The diplomatic efforts had smoothed over the tensions with Japan but finally the absence of the torpedo boats, the ships still being painted white and the arrival of many of the fleet officers’ wives all served to convince Japan that the US was really there in goodwill. The ships were joined at their moorings by some obsolete units of the Japanese fleet. The real Japanese fighting ships remained at sea off Tokyo Bay for the whole visit no doubt as an insurance against the US really doing the Kaiser’s bidding. They did not wish to be surprised in port as Japan had surprised the Russians only a few years earlier at Port Arthur. Japan put on highly organised entertainments for the visitors, the Japanese spoke often of their peaceful intentions and the visit was an acclaimed success.

The journey home had far more invitations to visit than could be accommodated. Britain had issued  invitations for a home visit and Hong Kong and Fiji sought visits but these and many others were declined. Ports that were visited were Amoy, China (the Second Squadron only); Manila again, Colombo, Ceylon - where the British Governor was well primed with hospitality; Suez; Egypt; Messina, Italy (for earthquake relief); Naples, Italy; Gibraltar and then finally home to Hampton Roads, Virginia in February 1909, to be welcomed by Teddy Roosevelt, by now nearly ex-President. 

Naval Power after the Great Fleet

The Naval lessons the US took from the tour were over logistics, bases in the Pacific, fleet auxiliaries for transporting coal and the limited utility of torpedo boats. These lessons were all acted on. The US subsequently ran down its torpedo boat numbers and rapidly built up the number of larger destroyers in its fleet. These could do the same task but could operate in open ocean with less difficulty and could still be used to counter any torpedo boats ranged against the fleet. These same destroyers, loaned to Britain in Second World War were then crucial in winning the Battle of the Atlantic. Against this picture of limited preparedness, all of the capital ships in the visiting fleet went on to long careers until past the First World War.

In the naval arms race after the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought, the US built modestly and initially not that well. Its next two battleships commissioned in 1908, Mississippi and Idaho, lacked the large gun armament that was the new standard, each mounting only four 12 inch guns. Both were not very seaworthy and they were sold to Greece in 1914. The next, New Hampshire also commissioned 1908 had similar armament. It was not until South Carolina commissioned in 1910, that a modern armament was mounted, eight 12 inch guns. It was the first US ship of Dreadnought class. By 1914 she had been joined by nine further modern battleships.

The ships of the Great White Fleet for the most part soldiered on. Three were decommissioned in 1909 but were later recommissioned. Kearsarge was converted to a crane ship in 1915. All the remainder were decommissioned after the war, starting in 1919, the majority in 1920 and the last, Connecticut, in 1923. Their role after the cruise was secondary to the diplomatic achievements in 1908.

Text Box:  The battle cruiser HMS New Zealand.

There was a response to the fleet around the world in terms of naval construction. Many nations suddenly aspired to new fleets and particularly to battleships. From 1908 the Australian Government started its own naval construction programme. New Zealand's response was different, deciding in 1909 to contribute a battle cruiser to the British Fleet - HMS New Zealand, which later served in the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland. It was supposed to be the flagship of the British Pacific Fleet but European tension meant that was never delivered on. Australia and New Zealand having different approaches to defence is not that new.

In contrast to the USA’s nine Dreadnought class battleships by the end of 1914 Britain had 22 of Dreadnought class or better and Germany had 17. To these can be added the heavily gunned but lightly armoured battle cruisers possessed by both European powers. German battle cruisers were similarly outnumbered, ten British (of which HMS New Zealand was one) to six German.

The Panama Canal was eventually finished and remained under USA control. It became a major determinant of the extension of US sea power allowing ready transfer of ships between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Three of the battleships that visited Auckland were the first US warships to transit the canal, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin passing it in July 1915. It was then and long after a focus of US defences – being so key to naval deployment. The dimensions of the Panama locks long determined the maximum beam of US warships – a limit broken finally only by the massive nuclear powered carriers. It quickly too became and remains a vital sea link between Europe and New Zealand.

In 1910 the US Navy pioneered the use of aircraft flying off a ship and the next year landing on a ship. These pioneers were ultimately the cause of the demise of the battleship as the centre of maritime power.

German influence in the Pacific was ended in 1914. Japan joined the Entente group in the First World War and the German East Asia Squadron being outclassed by Japanese forces departed for the eastern Pacific. It had a brief experience of victory raiding British merchant shipping and decisively defeating an inferior British force at Coronel off the coast of Chile in 1914 but it was in turn eliminated by a superior British force in the Battle of the Falkland Islands. New Zealand played a small local part in the war in taking over the German part of Samoa, while Australia took German New Guinea.

If Japan ever doubted who its main rival in the Pacific now was, the cruise made it clear it was America. Planning an attack on Pearl Harbour was no doubt an exercise for Japanese naval staff long before it came to fruition in 1941.

Did it Matter?

What then was the importance of the fleet visit to Australia and New Zealand? In retrospect it can be seen as the cusp when the US friendship with Germany began to wane and its engagement with Britain began to grow. The British - US alliance must be seen as the most significant of the 20th century, crucial through the two world wars, the cold war and into the recent engagements such as Iraq. The enthusiastic welcome received by the then very British New Zealanders and especially its reporting in the US contributed to a rise in the acceptance of Britain as an ally. Australian hospitality of course reinforced it.

Both Britain and Germany mishandled the diplomacy involved in the fleet voyage, the Kaiser by publicly announcing an alliance with the US when that was far from reality, Britain by its slight of the fleet at Port of Spain, Trinidad. That was an error the British worked hard to correct.

President Roosevelt finished his second term in 1909, having decided not to seek a further term. Polls of Presidential rankings usually put him in the top five of all time. He spent some time subsequently on African safaris but this did not contain him. Roosevelt challenged his successor Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912 but lost, standing then for President under his own Bull Moose party. He was defeated by Woodrow Wilson but after his campaign was interrupted by an assassination attempt. Taft came third. Roosevelt died in 1919. His distant cousin Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was to be a future President, leading the New Deal depression recovery and then was the wartime President of the Second World War.

Ward won the late 1908 election – no doubt the fleet visit helped - but lost the party leadership three years later after a poor election result. In 1911 he attended the Imperial Conference in London advocating a collective Empire governance of foreign affairs and defence matters. His ideas were undeveloped and finally carried no weight with the other attendees.

The members of the new Massey lead Reform Government were much more enthusiastic class warriors, defeating the major strikes of the time. They welcomed the Farmers Union organised mounted special constables (“Massey’s Cossacks” – shades of the Winter Palace, 1905) that smashed the 1913 waterfront strike – the closest New Zealand ever came to suffering a private militia.

In a more global view the fleet cruise can be seen as reinforcing the Imperialist and racist ideas that were to blight the first half of the 20th century. The fleet’s crews, its promoters and welcomers heartily embraced these views of the world. They cannot be blamed for creating them but they certainly reinforced them. New Zealand was genuine in its fleet welcome but it was not removed from self interest. They wanted America as a counter to Japan, as much as Germany wanted America as a counter to Britain and France. The genuineness of the New Zealand welcome, reinforced in Australia, made any calculation seem secondary. In New Zealand terms the visit helped New Zealanders to think of themselves in global terms but particularly brought an early realisation that the US had emerged as both a Pacific and a global power, a realisation that did not fully impact in Europe until late in the First World War. If the USA and New Zealand have since remained allies and more latterly “very very very good friends”, sympathy for US naval visits has foundered particularly on the issue of nuclear weapons. Certainly the centenary of the visit in 2008 was not celebrated by any return naval visit to New Zealand, though it was to Australia. There is though a visual reminder, in Albert Park in the city, where 16 oak trees were planted around the band rotunda by each of the battleship captains. Twelve have survived to the centenary of their planting.

Two junior members of the fleet crew were to more than repay Australasian hospitality, but not for many years. They were Midshipman William Halsey and Ensign Raymond Spurance, destined to become famous names in the Pacific naval history of the Second World War, when the tension with Japan finally did erupt into war.



Garry Law is the principal of Law Associates Ltd Consultants,, is a past President of the New Zealand Archaeological Association and a director of the Environmental Defence Society,


Anon. 1908 Souvenir of the visit of the American fleet to New Zealand, Auckland 1908. Brett Printing and Publishing, Auckland.

Anon. 1908 Official programme, visit of the American fleet to New Zealand August 1908. Wilson and Horton, Auckland.

Hart, R.A. 1965 The great white fleet, its voyage around the world, 1907-1909. Little Brown and Company, Boston.

Pleshakov, C. 2002 The tsar’s last armada, the epic journey to the battle of Tsushima. Basic Books, New York.

Rasenberger, J 2007 America, 1908: the dawn of flight, the race to the Pole, the invention of the Model T, and the making of a modern nation. Scribner, New York.

Reckner, J. R. 1985 The world cruise of the Atlantic battleship fleet : the great white fleet and the U.S. Navy, 1907-1909.Thesis (PhD-History), University of Auckland.

Reckner, J. R. 1988 Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis.

Reckner, J. R. 1991 The Great White Fleet in New Zealand. Naval History 5(1): 26-29.

Wimmel, J. 1998 Theodore Roosevelt and the great white fleet. Brasseys, Dulles.



Louis Maxfield: Letters by Maxfield to his mother while serving with the US Navy on its round the world cruise (1907-1909) (copy), Alexander Turnbull Library.

National Archives: Commissioners for the Reception of the American Fleet, 1908 (item 8453).

Papers Past, Particularly the New Zealand Observer and the New Zealand Free Lance.

New Zealand Herald: Microfilm Auckland City Council Library.



Auckland map from the Official Programme.

Text Box:
Rotorua map from the Official Programme.

Text Box:  
Rotorua map for the Official Programme

Other Maruiwi Press publications


Recollections of a Voyage to South Australia and New Zealand Commenced in 1838, Recorded at Huntly in 1907 by William Porter. Editors Miranda Law and Garry Law 96pp - illustrated - soft covers - ISBN: 0-476-01579-0

Abundance and Constraint - A Short History of Water Use in New ZealandGarry Law  (Web publication)


See  to order.









ISBN:  978-0-473-13645-1