Battle of Drummond's Island

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Battle of Drummond's Island
Part of the United States Exploring Expedition
Drummonds Island warrior by Agate.jpg
A drawing by Alfred Thomas Agate featuring a warrior of Drummond Island in 1841.[1]
Date April 9, 1841
Location Tabiteuea, Gilbert Islands, Pacific Ocean
Result United States victory
United States United States Kiribati Tabiteuea
Commanders and leaders
US Naval Jack 26 stars.svg William L. Hudson
United States William M. Walker
Kiribati Unknown
~20 marines
~60 sailors
1 sloop-of-war
1 schooner
7 armed boats
~700 warriors
Casualties and losses
1 killed
7 armed boats damaged
12 killed

Coordinates: 1°21′00″N 174°48′00″E / 1.35000°N 174.80000°E / 1.35000; 174.80000

The Battle of Drummond's Island occurred during the American exploring expedition in April 1841 at Tabiteuea, then known as Drummond's Island. After an attack by native warriors on the United States Navy sloop USS Peacock, the Americans decided on exacting redress for the incident, which they succeeded in doing.[2]


USS Peacock stuck in ice off Antarctica during the expedition in January 1840

The USS Peacock was under the command of Lieutenant William L. Hudson when Commander Charles Wilkes ordered him to explore Drummond's Island, so named after a member of the expedition. Around this time Lieutenant Hudson learned from a member of his crew that a merchant ship had wrecked on a reef off the island's northwest coast years before. Most of the crew were massacred except a "white woman" and a child who were supposed to still be living there. So on April 6, the Peacock anchored off Utiroa on Drummond's island and he went ashore with the Scientific Corps and a few navy officers, as well as the detachment of marines. At first the natives were described as peaceful and they led the Americans to their village center. Tabiteuea means "land of no chiefs" in Gilbertese and the natives themselves practiced egalitarianism which meant the Americans had no chief, or leader, to consult with.[3] Utiroa was said to be where the massacre had taken place so other than studying the flora and fauna of the island, Hudson wanted to inquire about the shipwreck and the stranded woman and child. The natives spoke nothing of the incident but "parts of the vessel was found" inside the village's huts though most of the buildings were deemed off limits.[4]

After several hours the Americans returned to their ship but returned the following afternoon of April 7. All was fine until Lieutenant Hudson and his men were on their way back to the Peacock when they noticed that a member of the procession, Seaman John Anderson, was missing. A search was made and went unnoticed by the Gilbertese who appeared to be arming themselves with swords, spears and other weapons. Eventually the search was discontinued and the Americans began boarding their gig and four armed boats. Just then the natives tried to surround the sailors and marines, throwing rocks and waving their swords and spears as the boats shoved off. No one was harmed in the affair and Lieutenant Hudson decided to wait for Anderson until April 9, by which time the small schooner Flying Fish arrived.[4]


After it became apparent that the sailor would not return, Hudson attacked the town to administer punishment. About eighty marines and sailors under Lieutenant William M. Walker of the Marine Corps was divided into three sections and landed at daylight. Meanwhile, the Peacock maneuvered into firing position off Utiroa and the Flying Fish covered the landing of men in seven boats. In case the landing party was overwhelmed, the schooner would provide covering fire and rescue the survivors. Around 700 Gilbertese warriors were dancing in the jungle near the beach and as the boats pulled in, Lieutenant Walker shouted a warning to let Seaman Anderson go. The demand was ignored and the natives entered the water and headed for the boats, forcing them to retreat a little ways. After this Walker turned his boats around and opened fire with a rocket at the mass of warriors. He then ordered his men to begin volley fire and devastated the natives according to the Peacock's log book. A little while later the natives "fled to the bush" so the American vessels pulled in closer to shore, within "pistol shot" range. Then the landing was made.[5]

A painting by Alfred Thomas Agate of USS Flying Fish in a gale during the expedition.

The Gilbertese were not gone for long, many returned to defend their villages and they unsuccessfully skirmished with Americans for hours. When all the buildings of Utiroa were burned, Walker and his men moved on to another nearby village and destroyed it as well. They then tried to inquire about the shipwrecked survivors but again nothing was uncovered so Lieutenant Walker led his men back to the boats. There were no American combat casualties but the armed boats were damaged in some way during the action and they were repaired aboard USS Peacock as she sailed to rejoin Commander Wilkes in the sloop-of-war USS Vincennes with the Flying Fish in company. Twelve islanders were killed in the fighting and others were wounded. Later during the expedition, the Peacock sank without loss of life in July 1841 while sailing into the mouth of the Columbia River.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stanton, William (1975). The Great United States Exploring Expedition. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 243. ISBN 0520025571. 
  2. ^ Ellsworth, pg. 72-74
  3. ^ Macdonald, pg. 38
  4. ^ a b Ellsworth, pg. 72–73
  5. ^ Ellsworth, pg. 73
  6. ^ Ellsworth, pg. 74

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.