In his new book, author Benjamin Kingsbury uncovers the harrowing history of the Bengal cyclone of 1876, which claimed over 200,000 lives and triggered a deadly cholera epidemic in the region.
This book tells the story of the Bengal cyclone of 1876. The storm came on the night of 31 October. It was a full moon, and the tides were at their peak; the great rivers of eastern Bengal were flowing high and fast to the sea. In the early hours of the morning the inhabitants of the coast and islands were overtaken by an immense wave from the Bay of Bengal—a wall of water that reached a height of 40 feet in some places. The wave swept away everything in its path; around 215,000 people were drowned. At least another 100,000 died in the cholera epidemic and famine that followed. It was the worst calamity of its kind in recorded history.
Such events are often described as “natural disasters”. The expression is not an unreasonable one: the extreme natural forces at work are impossible to overlook. Yet a focus on extreme forces tends to obscure the less spectacular, though equally important, human elements of calamity. It becomes possible to think of disasters as existing beyond human control or responsibility, isolated events without any connection to the processes of historical change. This book treats the Bengal cyclone as a human and historical event. It suggests that this was not simply a “natural” disaster, but one shaped by all-too-human patterns of exploitation and inequality—by divisions within Bengali society, and by the great disparities of political and economic power that characterised British rule in India.
The districts affected by the cyclone were among the most isolated in the empire. Bakarganj and Noakhali had been left untouched by the railway and telegraph; it was a journey of several days by boat from their headquarters towns to the nearest city. Chittagong had its port, but was still a long way from the provincial (and imperial) capital of Calcutta. The isolation of the islands in the Meghna estuary, divided between Bakarganj and Noakhali, was even more extreme: for much of the year they were cut off from the mainland by the estuary’s massive rivers. Even today the journey to Sandwip and Hatia is a slow and uncertain one.
Many of the cyclone’s victims were recent migrants to the coast. For fifty years the government had been trying to increase its land revenue by encouraging the settlement of newly-formed land in the estuary. It had also encouraged the clearance and settlement of the Bakarganj Sundarbans, the mangrove forest that offered the only defence against the storm-waves of the Bay of Bengal. There were plenty of people ready to move to this dangerous new frontier: the destruction of the estuary’s main industries, textiles and salt, had thrown thousands out of work, and the population of the delta was steadily increasing. The landlords and their rent-receiving intermediaries prospered through this “reclamation” of forest and alluvial land; their tenants, the poorest cultivators and labourers, were left exposed to the sea.
Poor people living in remote places are easy to forget. Just six months after the cyclone, at a time when many of its victims were still without adequate food or shelter, a writer in a popular science magazine observed that the calamity had already been forgotten by the outside world. “No more convincing proof could be given of the headlong pace of our modern life, or of the thoughtlessness of our age, than the fact that … 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.”
If the Bengal cyclone has remained a forgotten disaster it is not because of a lack of records. The proceedings of the government of Bengal, held at the College Street branch of the West Bengal State Archives in Calcutta, contain hundreds of pages of documents on the cyclone and its aftermath. Those pages tell much of the story disclosed here: the horrors of the storm-wave, the implementation of Sir Richard Temple’s patently inadequate relief policy, the terrible outbreak of cholera that followed the storm, and the efforts of Romesh Dutt—future economic nationalist and critic of British rule in India—to avert famine on the island of Dakhin Shahbazpur. The newspapers of Calcutta and small-town Bengal add the voices of a middle-class public that was forthright in its criticisms of the government, yet reluctant to offer any help to the victims itself.
The cyclone must have provided material for many poems, songs, and stories, but few of these would have been written down. One poem that has been preserved, Nagendra Ray’s Pabaner Otyachar (The Terror of a Storm), makes up the epilogue of this book. The poem is organised around a trial of the gods; the accuser is a young woman, a prostitute, from Dakhin Shahbazpur. The woman stands in for humanity, helpless and bewildered in the face of an inexplicable calamity. She recounts her suffering and the suffering of others, and asks for justice. It seemed appropriate to end with this reminder that for most people living along the coast, disasters were—and are—acts not of people, or of nature, but of God.
There are good reasons now to revisit the cyclone of 1876. The destruction caused by cyclones and storm-waves along the coast of eastern Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) has been greater than anywhere else in the world, and many of the problems that prefigure disaster—overpopulation, unemployment, landlessness, corruption, illiteracy, indebtedness, official indifference—have outlasted British rule. There is also the prospect of rising sea levels and stronger, more frequent storms. Already climate change is being blamed for disasters along the coast of Bangladesh. Yet terrible storms are nothing new, and the sad stories of people displaced by the estuary’s rivers have been told before. Change, on the coast, is constant and inescapable: climate change is only one problem among many, inseparable from all the rest. “The island of Maunpoora”, the surveyor Robert Smart wrote in the 1860s, “is fast disappearing, and will soon be submerged beneath the waves.” The island is still there today. Its future is uncertain. But the future is an abstraction: it offers no material for thought or action. The past, in its particularity, might be a better place to
Extracted with permission from ‘An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876’, by Benjamin Kingsbury, published by Speaking Tiger