In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his magnum opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History. Thayer was a geopolitical strategist and an admiral in the United States navy, and he argued that throughout history great empires had flourished by ruling the seas. America, Mahan wrote, should build up its fleet and seize islands that could function as naval coaling stations around the world. The book had a huge influence on policymakers in Washington D.C. and the world over--and would eventually prove fatal to a jug-eared Spokane teen named John R. Monaghan.
Monaghan's father James was an early settler of the region who made a fortune in mining and railroads. He sent his son to Gonzaga College, where John was in the first graduating class of 18 students. As ambitious as he was privileged, young Johnny went east to the Naval Academy, the first person from Washington State to attend that institution. Fueled by the admiral's writings, the great age of American Imperialism was underway, and Monaghan was its eager instrument.
The U.S. Navy of the 1890s was the cutting edge of empire. Aboard the battleship Olympia, Monaghan saw service across the wide Pacific. He took part in naval shows of force in China and Japan. He participated in the ceremonies marking the forced annexation of Hawaii into the American domain in 1898. He helped intimidate Nicaragua, where America was considering building a canal to link the seas. It was heady work for a young naval officer from Spokane.
Monaghan's luck ran out the next year, in Samoa. Since the 1880s the islands had been caught in an imperial tug-or war between the United States, Britain, and Germany--none of whom thought the Samoans themselves had a particularly strong claim to their homelands.
The conquest of the islands was a brutal affair. In 1899 the USS Philadelphia, where Monaghan served as an officer, shelled and destroyed native villages, with sailors and marines going to shore to burn out any survivors. It was on such an action on April 1, 1899, that Monaghan was killed.
The Samoans ambushed a combined American and British force at the Second Battle of Vailele. The leader of the expedition fell under heavy fire, as did a number of the enlisted men. Monaghan tried to rally the men and rescue his wounded commander, but the allies were outgunned in unfamiliar terrain. Monaghan died, and the survivors beat a hasty retreat. He was 26 years old.
The Americans and British soon conquered the islands in a campaign of naval shelling, that included some of the first uses of powerful chemical explosive shells. One witness was Fanny Stevenson, widow of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. She later recalled, "shells bursting everywhere; the cries of the bedridden and the helplessly wounded burning alive in their blazing hours; women in the pangs of childbirth ... mangled children crawling on the sands." The Samoans soon surrendered and their islands were divided between Britain, Germany, and the United States.
A defeat such as the one at Vailele, far more than a victory, needs a hero. Monaghan was pressed into service one more time. "The men were not in sufficient numbers to hold out any longer, and they were forced along by a fire which it was impossible to withstand. Ensign Monaghan did stand." the official report would read. "He stood steadfast by his wounded superior and friend—one rifle against many, one brave man against a score of savages. He knew he was doomed. He could not yield. He died in heroic performance of duty."
On October 26, 1906, the Ensign John R. Monaghan Memorial was dedicated in Spokane with suitable pomp and circumstance. Five thousand Spokanites turned out for what the Spokesman-Review described as "eloquent addresses" and a "magnificent parade" a mile in length, that included every active military man, veteran, and marching band the city had to offer.
If you go to see the memorial today you may be struck by the melodramatic bronze bas-relief panel on the pedestal, supposedly depicting the death of Ensign Monaghan at the hands of the Samoans. Monaghan is pictured at the very moment of his death, falling heroically in the familiar 19th-century manner of Davy Crockett or George Custer. Strangely, the Samoans look more like Africans than Polynesians, and in place of the modern weaponry they carried that day are shown using bows and spears. The artist rewrote the history of the incident to play up the very stereotypes of "savages" that were used to justify things like conquering and annexing islands on the other side of the world.
And what of Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book might be said to have sent young Monaghan off to war in the first place? He continued to teach at the Naval Academy, eventually running the place. He died just before the outbreak of the First World War, itself in part a product of the rising tensions of the naval arms race his thinking had produced.