A British cableship fired on by the US Navy! Its captain and crew arrested by the Americans! An international incident off Miami! Four miles off Miami Beach, the 8,000-ton cable-ship Colonia grappled the end of the Barbados-Miami cable, at which moment a US submarine-chaser arrived and fired a warning shot across the Colonia’s bows. The cableship was boarded and the whole crew were arrested!
Or at least, that is what one newspaper reported. The truth involves fewer gunshots and little by way of arrests.
Yet, in 1920, the US Navy really did put to sea against the Colonia.
In the Blue Corner: the Colonia
The Colonia was a triple expansion, twin screw cable-layer of 7,981 gross registered tons. It had been built in 1902 on the Tyne by Wigham Richardson & Company. At a little under 500 feet in length, the Colonia was a large ship by cableship standards and had a crew of 150 men.
For 18 years, the Colonia laid cable, starting with the Pacific Cable Board’s 6,500-kilometre/3,800-mile Vancouver Island-Fanning Island cable (a long cable needing a big ship). The Nova Scotia to Waterville (Ireland) 1905 cable, the New York to Cuba 1907 cable, the Suez and Aden to Colombo 1913 cable, the Montevideo to the Falkland Islands 1915 cable – these were all laid by the Colonia. In 1917, the cableship diverted the German Transatlantic cables into Halifax and Penzance. It worked for the Commercial Cable Company, the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company, the Eastern, the General Post Office, and even the British Admiralty.
After the First World War, the Colonia worked on the South American cables. A telegraph submarine cable was needed to link South America to North America, and so a cable was laid by the Colonia from Maranham to Barbados. Western Union wanted to join this Western Telegraph Company cable to Florida.
In the summer of 1920, the Colonia was under the command of Captain Victor Campos, and had been chartered to Western Union. It was tasked with laying the Miami-Barbados cable which would complete this submarine cable link. It returned to Great Britain to load 7,322 tons of cable (the vast majority of telegraph submarine cable was manufactured in Britain), and then, at 1:30pm on Thursday 15th July, the Colonia left Enderby’s Wharf bound for Miami.
The cableship steamed for Gravesend, Dover, Plymouth, and then crossed the North Atlantic to Hampton Roads for a crew medical examination. By now, it was Saturday 31st July, and a representative of Western Union had arrived to inform Captain Campos that the cable landing licence had not yet been granted.
In the Red Corner: the US Navy
At 3:45pm on Monday 2nd August, the Colonia weighed anchor and proceeded to Miami. A day later came a wireless message from the British Embassy, ordering the cableship to suspend the cable-lay. The Americans were unhappy about the cable lay – so unhappy, in fact, that the US Navy had deployed four destroyers (two 1,000-ton Wickes-class destroyers USS Herbert (DD-160) and USS Cole (DD-155), and two 1,200-ton Clemson-class destroyers USS Lardner (DD-286) and USS Satterlee (DD-190)) under Commander Fewall on the Satterlee, with orders to prevent the landing in Miami. (Random fact: during the Second World War, USS Satterlee was transferred to the Royal Navy as HMS Belmont and was torpedoed and sunk with all hands during the Battle of the Atlantic.) Directed by Rear-Admiral Benton C. Decker, who commanded the 7th Naval District, Key West, from his ‘flagship’ USS Zumbrota (a 70-foot/21-metre long motor-boat now used as a dinner cruise vessel), the four destroyers hurried out to patrol the Florida coast.
This was rather extraordinary, and Washington offered two explanations. The first was that the necessary permit for the landing had not been obtained. The second was the State Department did not like the idea of a British monopoly, and so decided to delay the cable landing until after a conference on international communications being held by the League of Nations (the between-the-wars version of the United Nations) on 15th September. As the US Secretary of State, Mr Bainbridge Colby, wrote to President Woodrow Wilson (in a letter dated 17th July, 1920): ‘There has been much complaint from Americans doing business in territory served by this Company, that private messages have been postponed in delivery and their contents revealed, to promote British interests at the expense of American.’
On Thursday 5th August, the Colonia was approached by an American destroyer Captain Campos identified as ‘Number 286’, undoubtedly the USS Lardner. It took up a position behind the Colonia. Then it steamed ahead. Then it signalled to shore. Then it took up a position behind the Colonia again.
The destroyer was relieved by the USS Cole (the engineer’s report reports it as having the number 155 and identifies it as the USS Satterlee, but the latter’s number was DD-190, whilst DD-155 was the USS Cole).
By 6th August, the Colonia was off the Port of Miami, and the British had reassured the State Department the Colonia would not lay the cable. Another US destroyer (‘Number 154’, and so therefore the USS Ellis (DD-154)), took Rear-Admiral Decker, Rear-Admiral Edwin A. Anderson, Colonel H. H. Tebbats of the US Army, and the British Vice-Consul in Miami, Mr A. A. H. Hubbard, out to the Colonia. The latter took charge of the cableship and ordered Captain Campos to drop anchor outside American territorial waters. Captain Campos was told the US Navy were authorised to use force if necessary to prevent the cable laying. Clearly, the American were really, really unhappy about the cable.
It’s a Knockout
With warships guarding the coast, and the Colonia presenting a broad target, Captain Campos was co-operative. As the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Robert E. Coontz, wrote in a 9th August letter to the Secretary of State: ‘It would appear that the Master of the Colonia has definitely decided to comply with the wishes of the British Ambassador, and although that vessel will be kept under observation so long as she remains in the vicinity of Miami or Key West, her movements will not be otherwise interfered with.’
Admiral Anderson, though, pointed out there was nothing he or the US Navy could do to prevent the cable being laid outside of US territorial waters, and so the Western Union Telegraph Company decided to go ahead with at least this part of the task.
After some reluctance from Captain Campos, the Colonia dropped the buoyed end of the cable and commenced paying out towards Barbados.
After the Match
This dispute over the landing of the Miami-Barbados cable would rumble on until late June, 1922, by which time the Colonia had laid cable between Madras and Singapore, Gibraltar and Malta, and had laid the world’s first coaxial telephone cable between Key West and Havana. But the US courts ruled in favour of Western Union and the shore-end of the Miami-Barbados cable was eventually laid.
Six years of cable laying later, the Colonia was sold to A/S Odd (Thor Dahl) of Sandefjord, who renamed it the Torodd and refitted it as a whale factory ship. It was not the Torodd for long, being resold first to Norske Hvalprodukter A/S (Nordstrøm, Jespersen & Co A/S) of Oslo and re-renamed the Sydis, and then to Deutsche Olmuhlen Rohstoffe Gmhb of Hamburg where it was re-re-renamed the Sudmeer. Unfortunately, the ex-Colonia was requisitioned into the Kriegsmarine during the Second World War and whilst off north Norway, was torpedoed – not by the Americans, but by the Russians.
Duncan S. Mackenzie, RITTech, AMBCS
Digital Collections Officer, PK Porthcurno
Header image: Cableship Colonia © East London Postcard Company