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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/December 1877/The Great Bengal Cyclone of 1876

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 12‎ | December 1877

THE GREAT BENGAL CYCLONE OF 1876.[1]
By CARL DAMBECK.

NO more convincing proof could, perhaps, be given of the headlong pace of our modern life, or of the thoughtlessness of our age, than the fact that, though we still hear of the earthquake at Lisbon, hardly a word is said of the fearfully destructive cyclone which, on the 31st of October, 1876, swept over the Delta of the Ganges. Even in the queen's last speech from the throne, there is not so much as a simple mention of that disastrous event, whereby a quarter of a million of British subjects in India were destroyed. The after-effects of the cyclone in themselves constituted a fearful calamity, for thousands are still[2] dying of disease and hunger—evils the seeds of which had been sown in October.

Cyclones usually occur toward the end of spring and in the fall—from April to June, and from September till November—the periods of the change of direction in the monsoons. By far the greater number of the cyclones occur at the cessation of the southwest and the setting in of the northeast monsoons in the fall: out of eighty-eight observed in the Indian Ocean, forty-nine occurred in the fall and only twenty-nine in the spring. The former, almost without an exception, came from a point lying somewhat to the north of latitude 15 north, in the bay of Bengal; while the latter had their rise in the neighborhood of the Andaman Islands. The whole east coast of India is exposed to the fury of these storms, and from Ceylon to Chittagong there is hardly a point on the coast that has not more or less frequently felt the power of the cyclones, though the localities which suffer most are the low-lying portions of the coast, more particularly when they are situated in a bight or in an angle, for wind and water are there brought into violent conflict. One of the earliest cylones of which authentic accounts are extant occurred in 1789, at an unusual season of the year—December. Furthermore, it was attended by three enormous storm-waves, which flooded the coast at Coringa, near the mouth of the Godavary, destroying nearly the entire town with its 30,000 inhabitants, and driving far inland the ships which lay at anchor in the bay. In 1839 the same locality was visited by another cyclone, which was nearly as destructive as the preceding. The coast of Madras and of Coromandel has again and again been the theatre of cyclones, though here the wave is not so destructive in its effects as elsewhere, owing to the situation and the formation of the coast. In Madras the cyclone usually appears to expend its fury on the many ships at anchor in the roads, and on the buildings on the land, as was the case in the years 1773, 1783, and 1872. As on October 15, 1783, so on the 1st and 2d of May, 1872, an enormous amount of shipping was lost. In the latter case the greater part of the vessels might have put out to sea, if the officer of the port had been at his station and given warning in time. The destruction of life and property caused by the wind and rain, as also by the swell of the sea, was very considerable. Another cyclone which on October 15 and 16, 1874, swept the inland districts of Midnapore and Burderan, claimed but few victims comparatively: in Midnapore only about 3,000 persons lost their lives, while in Burderan there were but a few fatal casualties. Of all the coasts of India the mouths of the Ganges and the Hooghly appear to have suffered oftenest and most severely from this catastrophe, for there wind and water are, as it were, "forced into one sack."

Thus the country situated about the mouth of the former river was, on October 31, 1831, overflowed by a storm-wave to a distance of 150 miles from the coast, and 300 native villages with their 10,000 inhabitants were destroyed; and it was visited a second and a third time by cyclones on October 7,1832, and September 21, 1839. At the mouth of the Hooghly on the 21st of October, 1833, some 10,000 lives were lost in a storm-wave, and on May 21st of the same year, near Coringa, 600 villages, with 50,000 souls, were swept away. In the last-named case the wave rose nine feet higher than the highest point ever before observed, and the barometer suddenly fell all of two inches. During the cyclone of October 5, 1864, at Calcutta, 1,500 square miles of country was overflowed, though the banks of the Hooghly and its tributaries, and the shores of the islands in the mouth of the stream, were protected by dikes eight to ten feet high. But even though these dikes had been sufficiently strong to resist the pressure of the water, still they were far from being sufficiently high. On this occasion the storm-wave rose sixteen and a half feet over the water-mark of the spring-tide, and twenty-seven feet above the mean level of the sea; still, it attained this height only because it entered the river at about high water. The wave was noticed as far as Mehurpore, on the Matabangha, It caused the loss of 50,000 human lives, but the destruction of life would have been far greater had the cyclone occurred at night, and had the people, as at Bacarganch been surprised in their sleep. While this wave was ascending the Hooghly, and spreading over the neighboring districts, a portion of the same wave seems to have struck the coast near Chittagong, and, having swept along the same, to have overflowed the islands of Shahabazpore and Hattia from the rear. And this is the cause of the fearful devastation it wrought, for we shall not err if we suppose waves coming from two opposite directions to have met at these islands The number of human victims in the catastrophe of 1864 was nearly doubled in consequence of the diseases produced by the multitude of unburied dead bodies, and which carried off 30,000 souls. Hardly four weeks after the Hooghly catastrophe of 1864, namely, on November 5th, the coast at Masulipatam, on the Kistnah—a locality specially adapted for concentrating the force of the storm-wave and intensifying its powers of destruction—was overflowed and 35,000 lives were lost. Three years later, on November 1, 1867, the Calcutta district was again visited; but, fortunately, on this occasion only 1,000 lives were lost, though 30,000 huts of the natives were swept away. But of all the disasters of this kind which have occurred prior to 1876, that of June 6, 1822, was the most appalling and destructive, and the only one to be compared with that of last October. As is shown by Beveridge in his recently-published work on Bacarganch, the cyclone had a very wide track, extending far inland on the east, and beyond Calcutta to the west. The wave which overflowed the mouths of the Ganges and the adjoining coasts fortunately appeared early in the evening, and the people were somewhat prepared for it; nevertheless, 100,000 human beings lost their lives, and an equal number of cattle, and the damage otherwise exceeded 1,000,000 rupees.

Concerning the latest deplorable catastrophe, we possess the following data: Down to 11 p. m. there was no sign of impending danger; before midnight the storm burst suddenly, and without warning, surprising the people in their beds and dwellings. Three storm-waves swept over an area of 3,000 square miles, containing a population of 1,000,000 souls. In a few minutes, 215,000 human beings were swept off by the waters, and there perished. This estimate, however, is probably far too low; for nearly all the officials from whom authentic information might have been obtained themselves perished in the flood, and many villages are known to have lost seventy per cent, of their inhabitants. This is undoubtedly the gravest calamity ever caused by water. Three great islands, and innumerable small ones, were entirely swept by the flood, as also the mainland, over an area of five or six miles in length by about four miles in width. These islands all lie near the mouth of the Meghna, a river formed by the union of the Ganges with the Brahmapootra. The largest of the islands—Dakhin Shahabazpore—is 800 miles in circumference, and had 240,000 inhabitants, while the other two great islands—Hattia and Sundney—had in all about 100,000 inhabitants. The people had only a few minutes to think of their safety, When the wave rose ten to twenty feet above the land. Two hours later the flood began to subside, but not till noon of the following day could the survivors quit their places of refuge in the trees, etc. As luck would have it, the villages are surrounded by groves of cocoanut and palm trees: those who saved themselves did so by taking to the trees. Some took refuge on the house-tops, but the water entered the houses and rose to the roofs, and carried them off to the sea, together with the people upon them. There was hardly a household on the islands, or on the neighboring coast, but had lost several of its members. All the cattle were lost. Boats were swept away, and as wagons on wheels are unknown in that region, all means of communication failed. Nearly all of the civil and police officials perished. The town of Dowluctor was utterly destroyed. The loss in cattle cannot be estimated. The crops suffered greatly, but it is hoped that enough remains to prevent a famine. The entire flooded region looks like a waste. Still the condition of the survivors just after the catastrophe was better than was to have been expected. The farmers of that region are the most thrifty in Bengal; the provisions are mostly kept buried in the ground; hence, though they were damaged by water, they can still be used for food. Wherever Sir R. Temple went he found the people drying grain in the sun. Until harvest-time, the cocoanuts will be of some assistance. Prior to the calamity, the harvest promised to be very bountiful; as it is, it will be a fair one. About sixty relief-stations were established. The official journal says: "Wherever the storm-wave struck, not a third part of the population, it is believed, survives. The islands have only a fourth of their former inhabitants. The odor of the decaying carcasses is intolerable, and a general outbreak of cholera is hourly expected." From an official communication, it appears that there perished in Chittagong during the storm over 3,000 souls, and between October 31st and December 31st, 4,399 persons died of cholera. Since New-Year's cholera has raged fearfully. In the district of Noakholly there died in October 43,544 persons, and in the following three months 30,263. Indeed, with the exception of the islands of Hattia and Sundney, the deaths from cholera everywhere have exceeded those caused by the inundation. On these two islands the number of deaths in October way 34,708; later it was only 7,139.

Thus, in the course of eighty-seven years, half a million of human beings have lost their lives by cyclones, without counting the mortality from pestilence and famine.—Das Ausland.

  1. Translated from the German, by J. Fitzgerald, A.M.
  2. May, 1877, when this article was written.