On December 16, 1907, a fleet of twenty-eight United States Navy ships under the command of Rear Admiral Robley Evans departed the harbor of Hampton Roads, Virginia, on an around the world journey to demonstrate the naval power of the United States to the rest of the world.
It is not surprising that an around the world voyage of this magnitude produced many postcards to commemorate the event. Numerous sets of postcards featured the individual ships of the Fleet. Also, nearly every country where the ships made port published cards showing the celebrations that accompanied the Fleet’s arrival.
On 23 December 1907, the Fleet put into the harbor at Port of Spain, Trinidad (Figure #1). At the time, Trinidad was nothing more than a sleepy little island off the coast of Venezuela. It offered little for the sailors to see or do. As one marine noted on the post card that he sent home, “This is the most boring Christmas I’ve ever spent”.
The fleet departed Trinidad on 29 December and headed south to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Liberty in Rio proved to be somewhat more exciting than in Trinidad. At one point, a huge bar fight erupted between sailors of the Great White Fleet and local longshoremen. This altercation was, of course, contradictory to the overall mission objective of friendliness to allies. Although some diplomatic feathers were ruffled by this incident, Admiral Evans brought a quick resolution to the matter and good relations between the United States and Brazil were restored. Unfortunately, also while in Rio, Admiral Evans suffered a severe attack of gout. This condition that would plague him repeatedly during the rest of his voyage.
On January 21, 1908, the Great White Fleet made way from Rio towards the southern tip of South America. Since the Panama Canal had not been completed, the Fleet was forced to negotiate the treacherous waters of the Straits of Magellan (Figure #2). Numerous rumors surrounded the navigation of the Straits. It was believed that there were massive whirlpools within the Straits that could swallow a ship whole. Stories of winds in excess of two hundred miles per hour that could crush ships against the rocky shore also circulated among the ship’s crews. If these stories were not harrowing enough, the prevailing belief was that the various islands in the Straits were inhabited by cannibals whose favorite dish was young American sailors. Despite all the dire predictions, the fleet made an uneventful passage through the Straits and then turned northward along the western coast of South America making port calls in Chile, Peru (Figure #3), and Mexico. In April of 1908, the Fleet made port in San Diego (Figure #4). On 6 May, the ships reached San Francisco where they were greeted by the cheers of thousands of enthusiastic residents.
During the fleet’s two month stay in California, the battleships Maine and Alabama were replaced by the battleships Nebraska and Wisconsin (Figure #5). This change was necessitated by the large amount of coal that the Maine and the Alabama required to keep their engines running. Even back then, fuel economy was a factor that had to be considered during a voyage of this length.
As the Fleet’s departure from San Francisco approached, Admiral Evans failing health forced him to relinquish command to Rear Admiral Charles Sperry. On 7 July 1908, the Great White Fleet left San Francisco Bay bound for the South Pacific. After spending a week in Hawaii, the Fleet headed to Auckland, New Zealand, and then on to Australia. The postcards produced commemorating this leg of the Great White Fleet’s journey were exceptional both for their beauty and intricacy of design (Figure #6). Australia produced an “Omnibus” series of postal cards with colorful designs that were impressed with the stamps of each of the Australian States. Of these, the most common are the postal cards of Victoria and the rarest are from Tasmania. Used cards from this “Omnibus” issue are extremely hard to find, especially ones that have traveled through the international mails. After making port calls at Sidney, Melbourne and Albany, the fleet headed for Japan.