Report of British Merchant Captain A.W. Robbins
Manila. April 30th 1898
We finished loading at the port of Manila on 30th April 1898, getting all settled up, ordering Pilot and Tow boat in readiness to proceed to sea.
Next morning May 1st 1898 at 4 a.m. we mustered the crew to heave short to be in readiness for tow boat which we expected at daylight. Instead of the arrival of the tow boat we were surprised by the arrival of the American fleet of war ships, which passed immediately outside our ship. All our operations were now suspended and our interests transferred to the movement of the American Fleet.
As soon as it became sufficiently light the American Fleet steamed the Flagship1 ahead, in toward Kavita2 harbour, where the Spanish fleet lay.
As the fleet approached Kavita the Spaniards opened fire on the Flag ship from the fort, about three shots being fired before the Americans returned fire.
As the latter passed the fort they kept firing both at the fort and the Spanish fleet; each ship firing in turn as she came within range. The firing being well returned from the Spanish fort & ships.
The American ships steamed into the bay and turned on their port helm, each following the flagship and each keeping up constant fire. We could see the shots striking many of the Spanish ships and also striking right into the fort and we could not help but notice that the Americans had much better marksmen than the Spaniards. After this the Americans came out of the bay and moored just outside my ship remaining there from one to two hours. We then saw that the Spanish ships had been riddled with shot and shell and many of them were burning and sinking.
At this period, a large gun, which was placed on the breakwater at the entrance of the river leading to Manila was left firing upon the American ships lying at anchor in the Bay, and all the shots from that gun passed over the shipping at anchor in the Bay, our ship being in such a position that every shot fired passed over us. One could distinctively hear the shots whizzing through the air overhead. This was exceedingly dangerous as had any of the shells burst over any ship it would doubtless have caused much damage.
After lying at anchor for about two hours the American fleet again got under weigh, and steamed down the bay passing under the fort at Kavita and up into the bay again. Each ship as she came under range of the Spanish fort and ships kept up a sharp firing going in and out as on the first occasion. After this last manouvre the Spanish fleet was totally defeated and destroyed and the fort effectively silenced.
The fighting now being over, one of the American ships came close under our stern, and Mr. Williams3 the American Consul, together with the Lieutenant of the ship came on board our vessel. I had made the acquaintance of the American Consul while loading my vessel at Manila, before war was declared.
Mr Williams informed me that he wished a dispatch sent to the British Consul at Manila4 and knew of no better way of sending it than by the Master of a British ship. He asked me if I would take it and I replied that by leaving my ship I considered I would be running personal risk and also jeopardizing the interest and property of my owners. However after consideration I consented to undertake to deliver the dispatch. I then manned a boat placing the British Ensign at the bow and proceeded towards the harbor. In passing one of the ships in the harbor I saw a friend of mine whom I had met in Manila and to whom I explained my mission. This gentleman offered me his services, which I readily accepted as he was well acquainted with the city and also the Spanish language.
We landed at the mouth of the river and found that the quays were thronged with people, but however none spoke to us. We then tried to obtain a conveyance as the weather was hot, but we could not do so and had to walk a distance of about two miles to my friends factory where he said he had a conveyance and would place it at my disposal.
On obtaining my friends conveyance we drove to the British Consuls office but on arrival there were told that he had left for his private residence. We then decided to take one of the Consuls representatives with me as guide, and to drive to the Consuls residence, which we accordingly did.
On our arrival I met the Consul and handed him the dispatches in my possession. He then asked me if I was aware of the contents of the dispatches, to which I replied in the negative, but that I understood he was desired to go to the Governor General5 and offer terms of surrender.
He said he would do this at once and requested a friend of his who was present to drive me to the English Club, and asked me to wait there until he returned with the reply.
I was accordingly driven to the Club and left there, my friend returning with the carriage.
As it became dusk, the gentlemen members of the Club kept leaving for their homes and advised me to return to the quay and get on board my ship as they did not consider it safe for me to be on shore after dark. I informed one of the members that I had an appointment at the Club and also that I had no carriage to carry me back to the quay. This gentlemen offered to get me one and very kindly made arrangements with one of his friends to let me have the use of his carriage, and the coachman was accordingly instructed to wait at my disposal.
I considered this very kind of them, and felt very grateful to receive such attention in my difficult position.
About 9 p.m. the British Consul returned accompanied by the Vice Consul and they proceeded to a private room and wrote their reply.
The dispatch being written, it was handed to me and the consul advised me that if I found any difficulty in returning to the quay I had better return and stay overnight with the Vice Consul. I however reminded them of my boats crew waiting for me and decided to start at once for the quay.
I was stopped twice on the way down but explained I was an English ship master and going aboard my ship, which explanation satisfied them and I was allowed to proceed.
At this time it was very dark, there were no lights in the City, and the streets were lined with soldiers through whom I had to pass. However I met with no further interference and in due time arrived at the quay. I found one of my boat’s crew drunk and was informed that he had been quarreling with the soldiers. I got two of my men to take him into the boat and had him tied down to prevent any further disturbance with the soldiers.
I then proceeded to my ship and on arrival there I handed the dispatch to the American Consul, who thanked me very kindly for my services and said that I would very shortly hear about the matter again.
I was very glad to get aboard my ship and to feel that I was relieved of all further responsibility.
On Monday, the 2 inst. (May) the British Consul and Vice-Consul, who had been on board the American Flag Ship came aboard my ship and informed me that if I wished to put to the sea the American Admiral would permit me to do so.6
He also informed me that he did not think there were any torpedoes7 laid at the entrance, as the American ships had come through without touching anything.
I at once began to get under weigh and at 12 o’clock passed Corrigadore8 all well and very thankful to get away from Manila.
I omitted to mention that while I was ashore at the British Consul I mentioned the fact that a gun placed on the breakwater was firing over the ships lying at anchor in the Bay, and I protested in the names of all the British Ships-masters in the port, and asked the Consul to have it stopped.
He promised to speak to the Governor General which he no doubt did as I experienced no further in the same direction.
Liverpool Master British Ship
Source Note: Cy, DNA, AFNRC, M625, roll 363. There is a typed copy of this letter found immediately after it in M625, roll 363, that names the author in the signature. It states: “A.W. Robbins, Master, British Ship Buccleuch Liverpool, 18 November, 1898. Private address: Yarmouth Nova Scotia.”
Footnote 1: The armored cruiser Olympia.
Footnote 2: Cavite.
Footnote 3: United States Consul at Manila Oscar F. Williams.
Footnote 4: British Consul at Manila Edward H. Rowson-Walker.
Footnote 5: Spanish Governor General Basilo Augustín y Dávila.
Footnote 6: Commodore George Dewey was the admiral referred to.
Footnote 7: During this era electric mines, contact mines, and torpedoes, were referred to as to as torpedoes. In this case the British Consul was referencing electric mines that were supposed to be detonated from shore by an attached signal cable. See: Williams to Dewey, 21 March 1898, DLC-MSS, PGD; Williams to Dewey, 22 March 1898, DLC-MSS, PGD; and Williams to Dewey, 25 March 1898.
Footnote 8: Corregidor Island.