Mumbai News

Was the 1882 Great Bombay Cyclone a hoax? – Hindustan Times

Mumbai: As the city braces for possible impacts of the predicted cyclone making its way towards the Maharashtra coast, state officials might find it hard to call upon lessons of a previous cyclone alleged to have originated in the Arabian Sea and hit the Mumbai almost 140 years ago.

Available newspaper reports from the time indicate that a tropical cyclone had made landfall on June 6, 1882 in then Bombay that led to more than one lakh deaths. However, the Columbia University, New York, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune published a peer-reviewed research paper in May 2019 stating that the said event never occurred.

According to Dr Parthasarathi Mukhopadhyay of IITM Pune, one of the contributing authors, the purported event was nothing but smoke and mirrors. “After Columbia University professor Adam Sobel raised the query all the way from New York about the authenticity of the Great Bombay Cyclone, which has found its way in various research papers, books, and the like, internationally, we decided to investigate the source. After extensive research across a plethora of platforms, including archived daily weather reports, we found that the entire thing was a hoax,” he said.

He added that, though, there have been impacts of passing cyclones over Mumbai over the years. “The most impactful cyclone of these was Phyan, which crossed Konkan and the Mumbai region in November 2009, when high speed winds were recorded over the city. However, at least three of the five cyclones which took place in the Arabian Sea last year had impacts in the form that they increased rainfall activity over Mumbai and surrounding areas,” he said.

To base its findings, the paper says that no maps of the cyclone, which is a usual practise, are available from the time. “The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has maintained archives of cyclone tracks as well as daily weather summaries from 1877-1970 for both, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Maps are available in particular for all cyclones occurring in each calendar month during the period of 1877-1883. The map for June shows no cyclone originating in the Arabian Sea in 1882,” the paper said.

LS Rathore, the former director general of the IMD, however, contends otherwise. “This is not a hoax. Owing to improper dissemination of information at the time, the true facts were never published or recorded. Even if they were, they have been lost over time. Over the years, we were told that data had been lost since the then Bombay was a much smaller city at the time with hardly any infrastructure (compared with what it has today), and occupations were mostly dependent on port activities, which was most impacted due to the cyclone. However, one would have to speak to a historian for a more detailed description about the impact,” he said.

City-based historian Deepak Rao said there is no comparison between the situation today with what may have happened in 1882. “Extension of Greater Mumbai, including the suburbs of Mumbai, started from Mahim, which was added only in 1945. In 1882, the seven islands were not seen together as Greater Mumbai and the population would have been devastated completely if a cyclone would have taken place,” he said.

Dr. Mukhopadhyay added that if more than one lakh people would have died in a city as small as south Mumbai alone, the British would have documented it as a record. “But we found nothing,” he said.