The Canadian ship that became a safe harbour
In just over five years, Tokyo will mark a century since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The magnitude-7.9 temblor is one of history’s most deadly: at least 140,000 people died as a result in the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, and the surrounding prefectures. Portions of the capital were reduced to rubble, and because the earthquake struck just before noon, cooking fires ignited horrific firestorms and tornadoes of flame. With water mains ruptured, it took two days to extinguish the inferno.
But there are stories that show there were rays of hope amid the devastation. One story concerns the role of a Canadian ship commanded by a British–Canadian sea captain. The Canadian Pacific Steamships Ocean Services Ltd.’s ocean liner RMS Empress of Australia was moored at Yokohama and her captain, Samuel Robinson, was preparing to depart.
Born in Hull, England, Robinson first went to sea at age 14, joining the then-Canadian Pacific Steamship Company in 1895. He made a name for himself with a record-breaking run across the Pacific in 1914, when he commanded the RMS Empress of Asia from Yokohama, Japan, to Victoria in British Columbia in nine days, two hours and 44 minutes.
Robinson had been captain of many other ships, but it was his actions on the RMS Empress of Australia on that fateful day of September 1, 1923, for which he is remembered. When the quake struck, the crowd of well-wishers on the wharf waving to passengers was knocked over by the seismic shock.
According to a 1958 Canadian Press report, Robinson commented that “the land [was] rolling in waves apparently six to eight feet high like a succession of fast-moving ocean swells”, and noted that entire cars disappeared into fissures in the streets as the sea flooded the shore.
The wharf itself was on fire and high winds were lofting embers onto the ship. Robinson, a retired Royal Navy Reserves commander, did not lose his cool. He ordered ropes and ladders lowered to rescue those trapped on the dock.
Despite the fact that the harbour was full of debris, damaged ships and oil slicks that had ignited were generating 60-metre-tall towers of flame, while another ship, the Lisbon Maru, collided with the RMS Empress of Australia under high winds, Robinson managed to move the ship a safe distance from the wharf. However, its propeller snagged in a cable, the ship could not escape
While he waited for assistance, Robinson picked up more evacuees from small craft and had the ship’s lifeboats lowered and search parties dispatched to look for survivors. Passengers joined the ship’s officers and crew in this work, which continued all night.
Though Japanese and Canadian ships soon joined the relief effort, and helped free the RMS Empress of Australia, she remained in the area for 12 days, and took on more than 3,000 refugees, who were relocated to Kobe. The ship also served as headquarters for a relief effort organized by the British Consulate-General, which was boosted by the arrival of four American destroyers a few days after the catastrophe.
For having saved the lives of so many, Robinson was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, awarded Japan’s Order of the Chrysanthemum, and received numerous other accolades. He later served as captain of the RMS Empress of Canada, the line’s largest and fastest ship, and eventually retired in 1932 after 48 years at sea.
The RMS Empress of Australia served as a troop ship during and after World War II, and was scrapped in Scotland in 1952. A bronze tablet from the ship that was commissioned by the grateful survivors of the quake was saved and presented to Robinson, then aged 82, at a ceremony in Vancouver. He died five years later.