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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1702/The Storm-Wave in Bengal

From The Saturday Review.


Sir Richard Temple, the lieutenant-governor of Bengal, has published an official account of the terrible disaster which visited the islands and adjacent coasts at the mouth of the Megna on the 31st of October. He went over the whole scene of the calamity, traced its course and progress, ascertained as nearly as possible the number of lives lost, examined into the wants and resources of the survivors, and organized the aid which was to be bestowed on the sufferers. The whole population affected numbered about a million, and of this number more than two hundred thousand perished. At the mouth of the Megna are the three islands, fronting the Bay of Bengal, of Sundeep, Hattia, and Dukhin Shahbazpore, enclosed between the coasts of Buckergunge on the west and Chittagong on the east, and it was these islands and these coasts which were swept by the storm-wave. The islands suffered much more severely than the coasts. Sir Richard Temple gives the population of Sundeep at eighty-seven thousand, and calculates that forty thousand of the inhabitants were drowned. Out of fifty-four thousand on Hattia Island thirty thousand, and out of two hundred and twenty-one thousand on Dukhin Shahbazpore Island seventy thousand are estimated to have perished. The population was one of peasant proprietors, the richest in Bengal, the chief produce being rice, which was produced in quantities sufficient not only to provide for the requirements of the locality, but to admit of exportation on a considerable scale. There was only one single village approaching in importance to a town, and this has been entirely swept away. The chief wealth of the people consisted in the cows, oxen, and buffaloes which they used in agriculture, and in the numerous boats with which they kept up communication with the mainland. Two widespread habits contributed greatly in the hour of need to avert the extremity of suffering and privation. The people were accustomed to live in hamlets surrounded with a thick wall of trees, and they buried their grain in deep pits until they wanted to use it. When the great wave swept over their dwellings, they were floated on to the trees, many of which were a species of prickly thorn, which caught and held them even when they were too unconscious or nervous to have helped themselves; and when the waters subsided, those who had escaped — and scarcely any one had escaped who had not been saved by a tree — were not without means of supporting life until assistance came. They opened their pits, dried the grain in the sun, and, though the misery they had to endure was very great, they were saved from the horrors of starvation.

There was a severe cyclone in the Bay of Bengal on the night of October 31. But it was not the wind which was the main agent of destruction. It was the storm-wave, sweeping along to a height of from ten to thirty feet, and in some places, where it met with any resistance, mounting still higher. What was the real direction of the wave is still a matter of doubt. Sir Richard Temple says that he found the prevalent opinion to be that it came first from the sea up the Megna with salt water, and then the cyclone turned round and rolled the fresh water from the river downwards, the salt and fresh waters being thus piled up at the point of confluence, and rushing all over the surrounding tracts. But the lieutenant-governor does not think that the facts he himself observed are in accordance with this account. In the extreme east of the scene of devastation, it seems that the direction of the inundation was from the south-west — that is, from the sea. But the almost unvarying direction of the bent, broken, and uprooted trees, in the parts to which he paid especial attention, convinced him the storm broke from the north and north-west — that is, from the upper reach of the Megna; and this view is corroborated by a circumstance which he notices in speaking of the sufferings of the inhabitants. He says that there must have been much trouble about water at first. But either the drinking-tanks speedily recovered from the brackishness left by the sea-wave, or else the storm-wave must have mainly consisted of fresh water; for the drinking-tanks were not brackish when he and his party tasted them a few days afterwards. The disaster came without any warning. In the evening the weather was a little windy and hazy, and had been somewhat hot; but the people retired to rest apprehending nothing. About midnight there arose a cry of "The water is on us!" and a great wave burst over the country, followed by another, and again by a third, all three rushing rapidly southwards. The air and wind were very cold, so that some who had escaped to the trees fell off from numbness and exhaustion; but the temperature of the water itself was noticeably warm. The cottages were swept away with the people in them, and were immediately broken up, and where the trees abounded the people were floated into them. There was no need to climb the trees; the water carried the victims of the storm-wave into the branches, and those who held on firmly enough were saved. If all who were saved were saved by trees, the trees must have been very numerous; for even in the worst case, that of the island of Hattia, where thirty thousand perished, there were twenty-four thousand saved, and in the adjacent island of Dukhin Shahbazore Sir Richard Temple calculates that two hundred and fifty-one thousand people were saved, which seems an enormous number to have owed the preservation of life to being caught in branches. But in some places there were great gaps in the lines of trees, and there the destruction of life was unchecked, while again numbers of trees were swept away. "So numerous were the trees torn up by the roots that they virtually barricaded the passage out to sea by the western branch of the Megna, so that Sir Richard Temple could not approach by sea the devastated tracts on that side.

The survivors showed much quiet fortitude. In a few hours they were at work drying their grain, and they made frame-works with broken branches, over which they threw sheets and cloths, such as they had about them at the moment, and so made what Sir Richard Temple calls little tent-like habitations on the sites of their former houses. But a scene of the most dreadful desolation spread all around them. Dead bodies lay and soon decomposed on every side. The cows and oxen were almost all gone, but the buffaloes had for the most escaped, through their great power of swimming. The bouts, great and small, which constitute the only means of carriage in these tracts, filling the place of carts, were all lost, having been "jammed and smashed up together," or wrecked or carried far inland; and not only was a great part of their wealth thus taken from the people, but they were deprived of the means of communicating with, and seeking help from, the mainland. The whole aspect of the country was changed; for the trees were no longer green, but appeared to be of a drab color, with bare branches or dead leaves. When the storm burst the rice-crop was ripening for the harvest, and where the plant had not advanced beyond the stage of flowering the crop was totally destroyed; but it was saved where the grain had formed or begun to form. So abundant, however, would the crop have been if it had not been injured, that Sir Richard Temple calculates that, it only one-third is found to have been saved, it will suffice for the wants of the population. The plantain trees had lost all their fruit, but the cocoanuts withstood the storm and afforded some sustenance. Terrible as has been the loss of life, the material injury seems not to have been so great as might have been expected. Order was soon restored by the prompt intervention of the authorities on the mainland. Most of the local native officials had been drowned on the islands; and of those who escaped, some stood by their posts and did their duty well, while some few deserted and fled for their own safety, and these offenders, who belonged chiefly to the lowest grade of the police, will, Sir Richard Temple says, be duly punished. But all the higher authorities who were near enough to render any effective aid showed the most exemplary activity and zeal, and before Sir Richard Temple left he had sketched out a complete scheme of what the course of the government and its agents was to be. The great danger was, he thought, that of an epidemic from exposure to the climate, from the putrefaction of the dead bodies of men and animals, and from the pollution of the drinking-water, and he established a large medical staff ready to combat disease as soon as it might show itself. For the general body of the people the best thing to be done was, he thought, to cheer them, to give them heart to work, to encourage them to rebuild their houses and open shops. Government was to interfere principally as a comforter, and, if there were to be relief centres, these centres were set up, not so much to give relief, which was to be accorded only in extreme and exceptional cases, as to preserve order. The inhabitants, who are a thrifty, industrious race, will soon, Sir Richard Temple thinks, build new houses, buy new boats, and find the land as profitable as ever. A little money may have to be spent by government in its work of encouragement; but the local resources will be sufficient, and no application to the Imperial treasury will be necessary. Nor will it even be necessary to remit the land-tax. It is small in these districts in comparison to the total profits of the land, and the people are quite able to pay it. The government got in all its land revenue during the much worse crisis of the famine of 1874 in every district of Bengal; and Sir Richard Temple sees no reason why the result should be worse in the case of the tracts over which the storm-wave swept. Altogether, this memorandum by Sir Richard Temple is most creditable to him, and to the whole system of Indian administration. It shows - that those who govern India never spare themselves trouble to gain a real practical knowledge of facts; that they sympathize with the victims of calamities, and keep up every official to a high standard of duty; and that at the same time they do not lose their heads when great misfortunes happen, see what the natives can be made to do, and are not to be diverted by pity or ignorance from insisting that the, paramount claims of the government shall be respected and satisfied.