This Day in History – October 5th, 1864

Kolkata is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, but to those outside of India the city is better known as Calcutta. Located on the east bank of the Hooghly river, it is the principal commercial, cultural, and educational centre of East India, while the Port of Kolkata is India’s oldest operating port as well as its sole major riverine port. With approximately 14 million people living in the city and its surrounding suburbs it is the third most populated city in India, but is often cited as the image of overcrowding in 19th and 20th century literature and pop culture.

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The city has a long history with the now notorious East India Company after they were granted a trading license there in 1690. The area was developed by the Company into an increasingly fortified mercantile base. Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah occupied Kolkata in 1756 after company started evading taxes and due to increasing militarization of the fort, the East India Company retook it in the following year and in 1793 assumed full sovereignty after Mughal governorship (Nizamat) was abolished. Under East India Company and later under the British Raj, Kolkata served as the capital of India until 1911.

But it was on this day in 1864 that a cyclone devastated the city, killing approximately 60,000 people.

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Here is the full account from “the Calcutta Englishman” that was published in the New York Times on November 24th, 1864.

Accounts are now pouring in from all quarters of the damage that has been caused on shore and the utter ruin which has overtaken the greater part of the shipping in the river. During the whole of Tuesday night the weather was marked by a succession of squalls and heavy rain from the north-northeast, and it maintained the same character till about 10 1/8 on Wednesday morning, gradually increasing in violence. The wind then veered to the east, and began to blow more steadily and with increasing fury. The weaker trees were uprooted or broken short, but for the first hour or so no great damage was done.

Between 11 and 12 o’clock a noise like that of distant thunder, which probably may have been heard from as far as two miles, gave warning, as it gradually increased, that something worse was coming. In about two minutes from this time the true cyclone was upon the town. Wherever there were trees, they were either uprooted and fell, carrying with them in many cases walls, railings and buildings, or their branches were snapped off like reeds and huried away with the wind. Carriages and pulkees were upset and strewed the roads, mingled with the debris of roofs, verandahs, gates and fallen trees; corrugated iron roofings were torn, doubled up, and blown away like sheets of paper.

By 2 o’clock the eastern and southern suburbs of the city, and those parts of it to the westward, which, from their proximity to the maidan and the river, were the most exposed, were more or less a wreck: Excepting cocoanut and other palms, scarcely a tree was anywhere to be found standing. The beautiful avenues in Fort William were entirely destroyed; the Eden Gardens turned into a wilderness. In Tank-square the trees and shrubs were blown away, and in many parts the iron railings torn up and overthrown. In Garden Reach the roads were blocked up and rendered impassable from the trees that fell across them. The splendid avenue of usoth (polyalthea longifolia) trees to the compound of the school opposite St. James’ Church, some of which must have been four or five feet in circumference, was entirely destroyed, the trees being snapped off above the level of the wall which protected them, but which is now no longer standing.

The damage done to buildings was considerable. Among these we notice that the roof of the Free School was blown away, the upper part of the Roman Catholic Church at the upper end of the Bow Bazaar-road entirely destroyed, and the steeple of the Free Church of Scotland. The minarets of the Mosque in Dhurrumtolah were all blown away, St. James’ Theatre was unroofed and nearly destroyed, the roof of the Cathedral is much damaged, the sheds of the East India Railway Company are unroofed, and Messrs. Thacker and Spink’s premises seriously damaged. In fact, scarcely a pucka house in Calcutta has escaped without injury, while the native huts, especially in the suburbs, were almost all blown down. The telegraph lines are interrupted in all directions.

All these losses are sufficiently annoying and lamentable; but it is on the river that the storm has been attended by the most disastrous consequences. To give an accurate or connected account of the loss to the shipping is as yet impossible. All is confusion, and it is scarcely known what ships have been entirely lost, what are irremediably damaged, and what are safe. The last are few indeed, perhaps not more than halt a dozen are in a state to go to sea without extensive repairs. With few exceptions the shipping were driven from their moorings and cast ashore or jammed together on the opposite side of the river, white several were sunk in mid-channel, and others stranded by the storm wave high up on the Calcutta shore. Several ships are ashore in Garden-reach, and one sunk a little below the Garden-nouse, with, it is to be feared, loss of life. The steamer Bengal is high, and dry, opposite the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s moorings. The Nubia is dismasted, and the Nemesis adrift. The cid Hindostan, which was used an a hulk and floating church, sank this morning. It appears that, having broken adrift, she fouled the Nemesis, doing her damage, and finally rolling over and over, went down opposite the King of Oude’s house. The skips that have foundered are, as far as we can learn, the Lady Franklin, Govindpore, Azemia, Anne Royden. Loo-Choo, Vespasian, Ville de St. Denis, Sierie England; the tug steamers Hercules, Fire Queen, Banshee. Satellite, Linnet, and Hindustan. The Moulmein, which was generally supposed to have been lost, is adrift. Great loss of life, it is to be feared, has attended these founderings.

Many European sailors were to be seen during the gale floating down the river on pieces of wreck, and we have heard the number lost estimated as high as 300, but this we are unwilling to believe. A man named CLEARY, whose heroism Should be handsomely rewarded, swam off with a life-line to the sunken ship Govindpore, and rescued eight of her crew from drowning. The list above given is, it is to be feared, very imperfect, white numbers of vessels that are at present on shore will probably have to be abandoned. Many ships rode out the gate in safety until run foul of by others adrift and carried away with them. In this way the Grappler, buoy-vessel, was fouled by the Princess Royal, and parted her chain. She was again brought it up, when five other vessels drifted on to her and swept her away, carrying away her rudder and all her masts except the mainmast. A few vessels were fortunate enough to ride out the gale at their own anchors; among others, the floating light Saugor, which escaped without any damage but the loss of one of her boats. The police hulks have all foundered, with the exception of the one at Prinsep’s Ghaut, which is high and dry. Close to her may be seen the Government sleamer Adjai. with a broken back.

The scene presented by the shipping is indescribable. There must be at least 100 ships ashore, all huddled together in tangled masses in inextricable confusion. Yards and mases are hanging about in every conceivable form of wreck, and the scene is one of the utmost desolation and ruin. The loss of boats of every description is also enormous; probably nine out of ten were capsized and sunk by the storm-wave which followed the change of the wind from east to south, and many of the remainder have been cast up on shore. The utmost difficulty is from this cause experienced in communicating with the shipping. The inland river steamers have not escaped. The steamer Progress, with two flats, left two days ago, and must have been between Channel Creek and Mutiah, en route from Assam, at the time of the cyclone; but we do not yet know how far that extended. The steamer Mirzapore, belonging to the Ganges Company, is ashore at Armenian Ghaut. Four flats of the India General Steam Navigation Company are disabled, and two steamers and two flats belonging to the Bengal River Company are supposed to have been lost. The steamer Cachar, which arrived here two days ago, is missing, while her two flats are ashore and broken. At Serampore the gale appears to have blown as furiously as in Calcutta. At 9 P.M. It was moderating, so that it must have reached Serampore much later than Calcutta. It appears to have travelled in a north-westerly direction.

Calcutta

The following is an account of the cyclone by an eye-witness off Banksnall Ghat:

Except the falling in the barometer, there seems to have been but few symptoms of this awful visitation which has swept over our city. The preceding day was rather close, and on the evening of it there was a slight flickering of lightning on the horizon, but not such as would, to an ordinary observer, attract notice. The morning of the day was ushered in by copius rain, and by wind, which gradually became more and more gusty. Up to ten o’clock, or thereabouts, it was possible for carriages and palkees to proceed, though with some discomfort, but afterwards, as the wind steadily increased, none except the most venturesome trusted themselves in the streets. It will be observed that the gale did not attain its greatest fury until it had gone round, which it did very gradually, to the south. It will also be noted that whilst blowing from the east, and therefore across the stream, the waves were kept down by the wind, and the commotion of the water was not great: but when the wind set due south its violence was greatly aggravated by the billowy state into which the river was lashed, to which the destruction of much of the smaller craft, and, indeed, of human life, was owing. The boats moored all along the bank sustained very little damage previous to this crisis in the storm, but as soon as it occured they began rapidly to fill and go down, it was a full spring-tide, and as soon as the change in direction of the wind before indicated took place the rollers gradually encroached on the strand, and at last converted it into a flowing stream, in which a man might have been taken off his legs, and which bore a miscellaneous freight of native bedding, mats, chests, and other flotsam and jetsam too numerous to mention.

We watched with suspense the efforts of the vessels to preserve their ground, one pair in particular, which had fouled each other, and had then united their efforts to preserve each other for a long time, and when the ga[???]e was at its worst it seemed very doubtful whether it would force their grapplings, when an unforeseen accident took place. The Bethel, or floating Seaman’s Chapel, which was moored close to their bows, dragged or broke her front mooring, and swung round on the chain of one of the “united brothers;” she chafed against the chain for a long time, and at last sawed herself through from some feet above to considerably below water mark, and as she rolled heavily, the water issued in jets from the crevice, she soon became heavily water-logged and seemed, only kept above water by the chain, but soon the gale increased in violence, and her increased weight bearing on the moorings as well as of those of the vessels themselves, to our regret the whole group soon gave way and gradually drifted out into the mist to join one of the groups of stranded and dismasted vessels.

Every now and then a loud report, heard indistinctly through the roar of the hurricane, indicated that some main or foresail had “gone to ribbons.” Scarcely a vessel that drifted by — and there could not have been fewer than twenty whilst we were looking on — had her suit of canvas complete, and many had scarcely a complete sail amongst the whole lot. Awnings, and even wooden roofing, were whisked off as if it had been so much thatch. At last, the force of destruction could no further go, and the river was left in front of us, and as far as we could see through the mist, clear of ships, and there was not a boat to be seen, every one being swamped. A cargo-boat went down not thirty yards from shore, and out of it emerged five heads — all were swimmers, but the smothering effect of the spray was so great, that only three succeeded in reaching the shore.

An ice-ship, which had her broadside to the wind, succumbed early in the gale, and drifted across where she now lies, high and dry. There was a constant change in this panorama of destruction; as fast as vessels drifted away, others replaced them, some dragging their buoys, others whose chains had parted and left them at the mercy of the wind, and others which drifted gradually, though no less surely, to their inevitable fate. Cargo boats in great numbers drifted past, and every now and then the wreck of some bholio, swamped but not sunk, bobbed up and down like some green monster. Toward the termination of the worst part of the gale, one of the China steamers suddenly came into our field of view; she had evidently experienced rough usage, her sides had been badly battered, and one of her boats hanging down her side, which, had evidently acted as fender, had her bottom knocked to splinters in so doing. One of her chimneys was also much displaced, and the whole or the awning aft had been ripped off, exposing all the passengers and officers to the weather, she came into the berth that had been vacated by the ice-ship, and having dropped her anchor, held her ground very well for the remainder of the gale, although she did drift a little; she was so close in shore, however, that at the ebb she lay high and dry, and was a conspicuous object to the sight-seers with whom the strand was crowded on the morning of the 6th.

It is needless to detail the mischief done in the city, as that is perceptible to all. It may be mentioned, that scarcely a tree within and for a long distance round the city was left entire, some having had all their large boughs wrenched off and only a stump left, and others, among which were a number of betel palms, than which no trees are calculated to resist the wind better, prostrated or broken. A cyclone of the strength and duration of the present one has certainly not visited the land for twenty-two years, and long may it please the Almighty to defer the next.

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