1916: A Cyclone Visits Kolkata

Suchetana Chattopadhyay


When does a natural disaster take a catastrophic turn? The impact of cyclones on Kolkata during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are recorded in history. The cyclones on 11 October 1737 and 5 October 1864 were accompanied with tidal surge, destruction of ships, buildings, property and heavy loss of lives. The colonial initiatives during the nineteenth century to receive prior warning led to the origin and circulation of meteorological knowledge as a significant branch of scientific research; they were primarily aimed at conserving colonial commercial interests. In Bengal, this meant fortifying the super-profitable ports and lucrative urban commercial citadels while neglecting the villages. Government apathy meant people living in the rural areas were more vulnerable and at greater risk than those living in the towns and cities.[1]

In 1875, the colonial government established a meteorological department, with its headquarters in Kolkata. Calcutta, the Anglicised name of Kolkata, was the capital city of the British Empire in India till 1911. With the transfer of the imperial administrative headquarters to New Delhi in 1912, the headquarters of the Indian Meteorological Department was shifted to Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj and later to New Delhi.[2] The city remained one of the most powerful centres of colonial capitalist investment in mercantile and industrial terms. The observatory at Alipore continued to be maintained and regarded as one of the ‘first class centres’ for watching the climate and making weather forecasts under the charge of the Meteorologist, Calcutta. A report from 1917 proudly announced that Alipore possessed some of the finest and most advanced imported equipments at its disposal including a barograph, a micro-barograph, thermometers, thermograph and two seismographs. The observatory provided crucial information to the Calcutta Port and shipping; it disseminated readings of daily temperatures and made weather forecasts. In addition to special messages sent during stormy weather, the Meteorologist, Calcutta provided the European-owned shipping industry with daily information regarding weather conditions in the Bay of Bengal.[3] Its existence and functions were intertwined with the Empire of Capital.

How was the cyclone which swept over Kolkata and its vicinity in 1916 perceived? Life was particularly harsh during this period. From 1914, the city experienced sharp rise in prices due to the outbreak of the First World War. The deteriorating economic conditions of the middle-class and slum populations were deepened by house demolition drives. More than a million people inhabited the metropolis and thousands commuted daily from the suburbs. In 1911, the Calcutta Improvement Trust (or the CIT) had been formed by the colonial government to widen roads and construct thoroughfares which could accommodate modern vehicular traffic, take over old houses and slums and build handsome residences for the upper-classes in their place. The CIT was primarily driven by European commercial interests. Big Capital benefited from the dismantling and reconstruction of neighbourhoods. From 1914, this pre-existing and ongoing process of dispossessing the indigent middle-classes and the poor combined with spiraling food prices; a mood of deep social anxiety and dejection was generated. An overwhelming sense of helplessness found its way into Bengali, Urdu and Indian-owned English newspaper pages. There were many forecasts of doom and gloom descending on the city. To this was added the reality of political repression as the British government came down heavily on Bengali Hindu, Pan-Islamist and Punjabi Sikh revolutionaries in July 1916. They had been planning to overthrow colonial rule, taking advantage of the beleaguered condition of the British state which was fighting a desperate inter-imperialist competitive war with Germany.[4]

April and May 1916 had been extremely hot and dry. There was hardly much rain till August 1916. On 21 September 1916, a cyclone passed over the city and its suburbs.[5] Surendranath Kar, an artist and eye-witness, recalled the cyclone as ‘Asviner jhar’ (autumn storm) in his memoirs.[6] Pat Lovett, a British journalist, also noted the coming of the storm and its effects in his popular column, ‘A Ditcher’s Diary’. He wrote this column for Capital, an English periodical which described itself as a journal devoted to the interests of capitalists and employers of labour [7] Kar and Lovett, from divergent stand-points, were struck by the ferocity of the storm. Lovett praised official meteorologists for sending a prior storm warning; it was approaching a city of ‘jerrybuilt tenements, bungalows with exposed verandahs, leaky terraces and cranky windows’. He was happy to see that from their offices, the Sahebs were able to give the Memsahebs at home, a prior notice of this advancing menace; some humane employers even allowed their office staff to go home ‘to save their huts and busties from desolation’. According to Lovett, the cyclone did less damage to human dwelling than the heavy hailstorm of 30 April which could not be predicted by the weather office. What upset him was the cyclone’s destructive effect on trees in the wooded streets and the maidan, the open space at the centre of the city. Old trees, inherited from the colonial city-builders, were uprooted and lay in the streets. He was saddened by the poor effort of the Public Works Department or the Calcutta Corporation to save them. He held electricity wires for street lights responsible for adversely affecting the trees. Sometimes their roots had been ruthlessly cut by the municipality, leaving old trees with little purchase and vulnerable in stormy weather.[8] The loss of trees had a devastating impact on the gardens of Calcutta; this was described as a ‘catastrophe’ by Calcutta Gazette, a government publication.[9] The coming of the cyclone revealed the uncaring attitude adopted by municipal authorities in relation to the natural environment of the city. Driven to ill-executed electrification plans which were promoted by rich European residents and companies, they endangered numerous trees that had been planted by the colonisers themselves to provide the city with a green cover.

The cyclone was not kind to the colonised subjects. Ships and boats were securely fastened to the jetty but some of the Indian boats bumped against one another and developed leaks; the goods stored in them suffered water damage.[10] The British sources brushed aside the experience of the common people. Suren Kar, a struggling artist, could not ignore the daily hardships and scarcity. He offered a different perspective from the streets. He was among the panic-stricken people hurrying home, their offices having closed down. He overheard a lament from someone in the crowd: ‘I knew in the morning an apocalypse (pralay) will come.’ Another voice declared: ‘a storm like this one has not seen in the last 50/60 years or even before then.’ Most of the large mahogany trees on both sides of Harrison Road lay uprooted. The electric wires of the Calcutta Tramway were severed. No vehicle was to be found in the street. The Howrah Bridge was closed and tied with iron chains and ropes to prevent being swept away. Many passengers were stranded at Howrah station. Most trains were not running. The passengers, including Kar, organised a ‘gherao’; they forced the railway authorities to run a train so that they could reach their homes in the suburbs. The officials, with the aid of hand mikes, informed the passengers not to close the windows as the storm could overturn the train.[11]

These accounts indicate that despite prior warning and ‘meteorological knowledge’, the vulnerability of ordinary people was uncovered by the storm. A chaotic social situation could not be avoided. Though the losses were neither severe nor major, in a social climate of material hardship, rising alienation and political repression, the coming of the cyclone uncorked a public mood of panic, helplessness and psychological despondency.

The author teaches history at Jadavpur University


[1] For a summery and analysis of the historiography of cyclones in the South Bengal delta and their impact on Kolkata, see  Tirthankar Ghosh, ‘Cyclone, Vulnerability and Society: Disaster, Knowledge and Colonialism in Nineteenth Century Bengal (1864-74)’, Journal of History,  Vol. 31 (2016-17), pp.52-73.

[2] http://www.indiaweather.gov.in/?page_id=250

[3] Report on the Administration of the Meteorological Department of the Government of India in 1917-18, Simla: Government Press, 1918, pp.2, 7.

[4] Suchetana Chattopadhyay, ‘Fear, Scarcity and Repression in Kolkata during the First World War’, Syed Jaffar Ahmad (ed.), Challenges of History Writing in South Asia: Special Volume in Honour of Dr. Mubarak Ali, Karachi: Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi & Pakistan Labour Trust, 2013, pp.321-355.

[5] Calcutta Gazette, May 1917, pp.627-629.

[6] Surendranath Kar, ‘Smriticharan’ (Recollections), Sobhan Som (ed.), Rabindra Parikar Surendranath Kar (1892-1970): janmasatabarse nibedita sradharghya (Birth Centenary Tribute to the painter-architect Surendranath Kar, 1892-1970), Calcutta: Anustup, 1993, pp.2-4.

[7] ‘A Ditcher’s Diary’, Capital, 28 September 1916, p.693.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Calcutta Gazette, May 1917, pp.627-629.

[10] Lakshmi Narain Baijnath vs Secretary Of State For India on 13 February, 1923, Calcutta High Court. Source: https://indiankanoon.org/doc/459041/

[11] Kar, ‘Smriticharan’, pp.2-4.