In the last years of his presidency, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the US Navy on a world tour from December 16, 1907 – February 22, 1909. It was a test for the ships on such a long tour, as well as a carefully choreographed display of military might on the high seas.
The sheer logistics of travel and refueling points made the voyage of the ‘Great White Fleet’ an impressive exercise.
The voyage of the Great White Fleet proved to be a huge public relations coup for President Roosevelt and the US Navy. Wherever they went, huge crowds greeted the arrival of the Fleet, with formal dances, fetes, games, receptions and other events prepared for the tens of thousands of sailors and officers.
The arrival of the Great White Fleet had a powerful impact on Australia, a federated nation for seven years but with its independence still reliant on British naval muscle. Concern about this reliance had been escalated by Britain’s recent decision to withdraw its Pacific naval presence.
Victoria pulled out all the stops for ‘Fleet Week’ and records held at PROV show the scale and scope of the welcome: newspaper articles, sixteen thousand maps, railway schedules, guidebooks and souvenir programs, printed and distributed to the ships’ crews to help them find their way around Australia’s biggest city.
Spruiking of Victoria’s livability was well in evidence during Fleet Week. The Americans were proudly told that ‘All railways … and supplies of water are state-owned’, and that the state had ‘Factories Acts and Wage Boards, Pure Food Laws, Compulsory Vaccinations’ and ‘Manhood Suffrage’ (Victoria was just three months shy of granting the vote to women).
So convinced were the visitors of Victoria’s virtues that 221 men jumped ship in Melbourne. More than half the deserters were recovered, but about 100 remained behind to start a new life.
Flamboyant press descriptions, bureaucratic reports, minutes, programs, guidebooks and correspondence – including telegram upon telegram organizing, confirming, rearranging and renegotiating functions – are just some of the records left in the wake of the Great White Fleet’s visit to Victoria.