Mumbai News

‘The bay was strewn with shipwrecks’: A short history of Mumbai storms in the 18th, 19th centuries –

As Cyclone Nisarga headed towards the coastline of Maharashtra and Gujarat on Tuesday evening, Mumbai went on alert. The municipality made preparations to move people living in low-lying areas to safer places and rescue teams of the National Disaster Relief Force were put on stand-by.

The Indian Meteorological Department said that Cyclone Nisarga is likely to cross Alibaug across the bay from Mumbai on Wednesday afternoon, causing wind speeds of 100 kmph-110 kmph.

The coastal city is no stranger to intense storms. Most residents still recall with trepidation the cloudburst of July 26, 2005, which left 447 people dead and left widespread devastation. But the city’s experience with storms dates back much longer, as the 19th-century history J Gerson Da Cunha noted in The Origin of Bombay, published in 1900.

He wrote:

“Since Bombay has had a written history, great hurricanes, exclusive of frequent minor cyclonic disturbances, appears to have been visiting it periodically, at least once every century. After the disastrous hurricane of the 15th of May 1618, there was one other on the 11th of September 1742, and a third one on the 15th of June 1887.

Selections, etc., Vol. I., p. XLIV., have the following: ”On the 11th September 1742 Bombay was visited by a cyclone which brought great devastation. The Records state that the gale was so excessive, ’as has not been exceeded in the memory of any one now on the spot.’ Together with the wind, there was rain which poured down in torrents. all the ships in harbour were forced from their anchors. The royal ships ‘Somerset’ and ‘Salisbury’ running foul of each other were much damaged, and a large vessel belonging to a Mahomedan gentleman was driven ashore. The front house at Mazagaon was unroofed by the force of the wind, and a battery the Drive, the walls of which were of stones, and several small guardhouses were blown down.”

Referring to the hurricane of 1742, the Materials, etc., Vol. I., p. 280, says: “This day had an exceedingly hard storm of wind and rain. The ships in the road drove from their anchors, and a large Moor ship parting her cables ran ashore between Cross Island and Dongrie. The Somersett and Salisbury ran foul, the Somersett breaking her main yard and part of the quarter galley, and receiving, it is believed, other damage ; the Salisbury’s head was carried away and part of the cutwater. The gale was so excessive as not been exceeded in the memory of many now on the spot.” The Mazagon Fort house was untiled, the thatched posts at Cooley and Sidi Bandars were blown down; the Drong Battery, Suri (Sewri) buses and sheds were also untiled, and Kandala and Marine Batteries damaged.

Referring to a hurricane that occured in 1837, Da Cunha quoted the Monthly Miscellany: “On the 15th June 1837, Bombay was the scene of an awful form – it rained and blew, and howled furiously: trees and houses were torn down: the island was deluged with water; on the Bombay Green (the place now occupied by the gardens in front of the Town Hall), the water which had collected rose to the waist, numbers of shipping were tom from their anchorages and were driven up or down the harbour – the loss on that eventful night has been computed at not less than £300,000 to property in various forms; and the loss of numbers of lives.”

He noted that the Bombay Gazette of that week reported: “The bay was strewn with bales of cotton and wrecks of boats and ships; in the Back Bay, the dead were washed out of their graves and floated about the shore…The roofs of the terraces in the Fort were carried away in the mass and were to be seen floating along on the wind as if they had been but mere Pullicat handkerchiefs. Out of nearly fifty vessels in the harbour, scarcely more than six were to be found which had not suffered from the gale.” Four hundred houses in the town are said to have been destroyed, and the East India Company lost two steamers and two ships of its fleet.

The historian recounted:

“Besides these great periodic hurricanes occurring once in a century, there have been occasional minor cyclones not less disastrous in causing ravages. One of these took place on the 5th of September 1698, when Bombay was visited by a hard gust of wind from the east and south-east with thunder, lightning and rain, which continued for some time; but no great harm was done. Materials etc., Vol. 1., p. 14. On the 30th of November 1702, a furious storm destroyed all the small boats of the island, and the mango, jack and palm trees were blown down. The wind destroyed almost the whole produce of the island and wrecked the greater part of the shipping. p. 139; and Bruce’s Annals, III., p. 502-3. This terrible cyclone was preceded by an outbreak of the plague, which carried off some hundreds of its inhabitants, reducing the Europeans to the small number of seventy-six men.

On the 9th of November 1740, another frightful storm in Bombay destroyed three grabs completely armed and equipped. Again, on a Sunday, the 7th of March 1762, a very violent gale of wind did considerable damage to the small craft in and about the harbour, throwing down great quantities of the coconut trees, and in other respects greatly damaging most of the oarts (hortas) and houses on the island. Ibid p. 848. Then another terrific storm passed over Bombay in November 1799, but although the water was very much agitated not a single stone was displaced. Ibid. p. 431. This was followed by the great fire of 1803, which calamitous event caused the loss to the town of about twenty lakhs of rupees in house property and about thirty lakhs of merchandise apd movables. But to this great misfortune I shall refer again further on. The last severe storm was that of 1854, which also caused considerable damage to the island.”

Read The Origin of Bombay here.