Today sitting at my computer at home, I learned, from the pages of a book published in 1890, that the "Backergunge cyclone of October 1876" was the most destructive to life in 19th century Bengal. Considering the scale of the devastation, it was perhaps also one of the worst disasters worldwide. The hurricane is described as hitting the districts at the mouth of the Meghna River; today those areas are part of the districts of Bhola, Potuakhali, and Noakhali in Bangladesh. Perhaps as many as a quarter million people died as a result of that hurricane.
The book? The Handbook of Cyclonic Storms in the Bay of Bengal for the Use of Sailors. The author? John Eliot, Meteorological Reporter to the Government of India. Printed in Calcutta, the capital of the colonial government.
And how did I happen to read pages from this book? A new service from Google, called Google print (available at print.google.com).
I am excited by this new contribution from Google.
Google Print, still in beta, has scanned and made available thousands of books. Those in the public domain (whose copyrights have expired), are available for reading, front to end. Others, still under copyright, can be searched, and their contents, indexes, notes, and a few pages can be looked at. This opens up a huge resource on the internet.
I decided to search old books on Bengal whose copyrights have expired. Launching the service, I did a search for: bengal date: 1500-1923. The first page of hits brought up two editions of the book about cyclones.
Here is what it summed up about the impact of the 1876 cyclone:
"The most remarkable feature of the Backergunge cyclone was the enormous storm wave which it drove over the islands and low lands at and near the mouth of the Megna. The inundation was due to an unusually high tidal wave, followed very shortly afterwards by the storm wave. It was full moon on the evening of the 31st, and there was hence a spring tide, which flooded the low-lying land at the head of the Bay. High water was due at Chittagong at 0-30 A.M., and in the mouth of the Megna from 1 A.M. to 2 A.M. The pressure of the advancing storm prevented the tidal and river water flowing off. The storm wave was hence retarded over the shallow water near the entrance to the Megna and accumulated there and finally overpowered the down-flowing waters, and rushed with irresistible force over the islands, and low-lying coast districts, covering them to the depth of from 10 to 30 or 40 feet in the course of a very short space of time, probably less than half an hour. The waters receded very quickly as the storm passed inland and began to break up, and at 8 A.M. they had entirely retreated, after having destroyed all the crops and drowned a very large proportion of the inhabitants. The first estimate of the destruction of life was given as about 200,000. A later, and probably more correct, account puts the loss of life by drowning at 100,000, and the loss subsequently by disease (chiefly cholera), directly due to the inundation, as 100,000. It is therefore probably not too much to say that the storm wave caused directly or indirectly the death of nearly a quarter of a million of people."
I have long known that such ferocious storms have been our fate in Bangladesh. But the details from history were not, until now, at my fingertips.
The same search on Bengal also came up with the text of The Poison Tree, a book by the Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterji, published in 1884; Govinda Samanta, the History of a Bengal Raiyat (peasant) by Lal Behari Day, from 1874; Report on the Calcutta Cyclone of the 5th October 1864 by James Eardley Gastrell, from 1866; and the memoirs of numerous colonials, travel reports, histories, etc. In all, a treasure trove for history buffs, researchers, or writers.
Google Print no doubt will find countless other uses, but for me, today’s discovery was both chilling – to be confronted by the magnitude of a tragedy more than a century ago – and exciting – to be able to so easily muck around in history. There has been a story rattling around in my head, partly set in 19th century Bengal, and this resource may well boost the research for that piece.