The Great Assam Earthquake of 1897

By Jugal Kalita

All of us have seen the vivid pictures of the tremendous wreckage brought upon by the San Fransisco earthquake of October 17, 1989. There was widespread destruction, most notable among them being the collapse of the Nimitz Expressway (I-880) and the partial damage to the Oakland-San Fransisco Bridge. This earthquake measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. In this article, we will take you almost a century into the past, and present a brief description of the devastation caused by one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded human history that took place on Saturday, June 12, 1897 in Assam. This earthquake was 50 times more powerful than the tremor that hit San Fransisco. We have pieced together a short description from various sources from the turn of the twentieth century: old issues of London Times, and New York Times, and various journals of the period and a few relevant books. Assam is an earthquake prone country. Among all the earthquakes that Assam has suffered from, the earthquakes of 1897 and 1950 are among the ten biggest earthquakes in recorded history. The following is a list of the only 7 recorded earthquakes with intensity of 8.5 or above (10,11) between 1895 and 1989.

Date - Location - Intensity
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06-15-1896 Japan 8.5
06-12-1897 Assam 8.8
09-21-1897 Philippines 8.7
01-31-1906 Ecuador 8.7
12-16-1920 China 8.6
03-02-1933 Japan 8.5
08-15-1950 Assam 8.6
05-22-1960 Chile 8.5
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In this earthquake, initially a loss of 6000 lives were feared (5) although later the mortality was put at 1542 (16).

The London Times and the New York Times published several reports on this earthquake. Initially (1,2,8), it was reported as Calcutta-based. On June 17, 1897, the London Times reported that great damage was done to tea gardens in Assam and Cachar, and to the towns of Shillong, Guwahati, Goalpara and Dhubri. Due to complete breakdown of telegraphs and other means of communication, detailed reports from Assam were not available for quite a few days.

On June 18, 1897, The Times published telegrams sent by the Viceroy to the Secretary of State in London. He reported details of damages in Shillong, Goalpara and Guwahati. He reported that mortality rate was not high although property damages were heavy. The towns of Dibrugarh, Tezpur and Mangaldai were unscathed.

On June 19, the London Times published a report saying the Courts, the Treasuries, jails and hospitals were destroyed all over Assam. The loss of food supplies was enormous and the crops were greatly damaged. It also published telegrams from the Deputy Commissioners of Nagaon, Tura and Imphal, dated June 16, giving details of the devastation.

Shillong:

In Shillong, the earthquake took place at about 5:11pm June 12th. The shock was preceded by a rumbling underground noise which lasted for about 3 minutes (12). The actual earthquake lasted about two and a half minutes in Shillong. This noise was compared with the tremendous rumbling noise like a thousand ships' engines thumping away in the midst of a storm at sea (7). The shocks were so severe and prolonged that everything was leveled to the ground (2,16). Mr. F. Smith of Geological Survey of India who was stationed in Shillong at the time, opined that the earthquake was so violent that the whole of the damage was done in the first 10 or 15 seconds of the shock (9). He reported that all stone buildings collapsed, and about half ekrabuilt houses (wooden frame, reed walls covered with plaster) were ruined, but plank houses (wooden frames covered with plank walls, resting unattached on the ground) were untouched. Many people lost their lives at the Secretariat, the military lines and the bazaar. The London Times reported the death of 27 people in Shillong, 13 of them crushed to death in the Government Press (7). However, a year later, Luttman-Johnson reported the loss of ten lives at the Printing Press (12). The London Times also mentioned an unnamed district town of 750 perishing. This town probably was Cherrapunji where a landslide wrecked the Cherrapunji Railway and caused 600 deaths (16).

On August 10, 1897, the Times published letters from residents of Shillong. Rev. G.M. Davis was quoted saying that his church became a heap of stones in less than one minute. The water burst the bounds of the lakes making them absolutely dry within seconds. There was sulphury smell in the air coming out of fissures in the ground. He saw huge stones in the steps of his house literally bubbling up and down. Mr. M'Cabe, the Inspector-General of Police, who was sick and in bed was found crushed on his bed after an hour's digging of his collapsed bungalow.

There were also several reports from Shillong in Luttman-Johnson's paper (12). In one report, a young lady mentioned that there were aftershocks almost every ten minutes on the night of the 12th and during the day of the 13th. Another letter was from a lady who was in a house which came crushing on her and who miraculously survived.

The Deputy Commissioner of Shillong mentioned the havocs in Shillong (12). Since he was unable to contact Guwahati by telegraph, he had to send two constables to go to Guwahati, 63 miles away, on foot to gather information from there. He worked through the night of the 12th supervising rescue operations.

Goalpara & Dhubri:

In Goalpara, the earthquake was accompanied by a tidal wave ten feet high which destroyed the bazaar and all the pukka buildings (2,9). In Dhubri also, all pukka buildings were demolished. There was a heavy loss of life in both Goalpara and Dhubri (2).

A letter dated June 17, written by an American Baptist minister in Goalpara described the damages done to their Mission building (4). He also mentioned that the Deputy Commissioner was living with them because his house was altogether in ruins.

Mr. E.F. Dobson, Civil Surgeon of Goalpara reported seeing the water in the beel behind the rest house in Dhubri rise about 12 feet in 2 minutes and overflowing, flooding a large area. Innumerable jets of water, like fountains, spouted up to heights varying 18 inches to 4 feet were instantly created on the ground near the beel Water covered the Trunk Road in many places. In the district, the iron bridges of Joldoba and Krishnai broke. A hill between Goalpara and Agia fell on the Trunk Road (9).

Nalbari and Barpeta:

Mr. P.R. Gurdon, D.C. Kamrup, who was at Nalbari at the time, reported distinctly observing earth-waves from his rest house. He saw the waves following one another in the large pathaar surrounding the rest house, the aahu rice falling and rising as the waves progressed. He also reported seeing water rise from vents and fissures to a height of 3 to 4 feet. Rai Bahadur Madhub Chandra Bordolai, S.D.O. of Barpeta reported that sand and water rose to heights varying from 2 to 12 feet (9).

Tura:

In a letter dated October 8, 1897, Miss A.J. Rood, a Baptist missionary in Tura wrote to Brother Duncan in Valley Forge, PA, that the damages to the Mission building were less severe because it was not made of brick (13). This was also confirmed by a report of Mr. A. Howell, the Deputy Commissioner of the Garo Hills (9).

Guwahati:

Luttman-Johnson reported that the earthquake struck at 5:15 pm local time and lasted for about 3 minutes (12). The Brahmaputra rose 7.6 feet and near the banks flowed upstream. The road along the river subsided in several places. At several places, springs of water with very fine sand, the color of Portland cement bubbled up and the bubbling lasted 24 hours. The Railway Lines also disappeared (2). The temples in the Umananda island (then called the Peacock Island) suffered badly (9). There were only five deaths in the town.

Nagaon:

Ms. P. Moore wrote a letter in the September issue of the Baptist Missionary Magazine 1897 which reported the damages in Nagaon (15). The court house, treasury, post office, circuit house and the deputy commissioner's bungalow were badly damaged. She reported aftershocks throughout the night of 12th June as well as the next day. A tea garden: On July 12th, 1897, the Times published a series of letters from a European lady living in an unidentified tea garden in Assam and ill at that moment. It drew a graphic picture of the devastation caused. The letters were dated June 13-18. She reported that it was raining when the earthquake came. Her bungalow swayed violently like a ship in a bad storm. The ground was going in huge waves and it was difficult to even run out of the houses. On June 14, she wrote that in her district, every brick building was flat on the ground; those that stood are like hers, wooden posts with grass walls. When she was writing the letter, there were three aftershocks, which she noted in the letter. She said that her doctor, who walked 14 miles to see her (because the roads were impassable to ponies, with large cracks and holes) sighted innumerable small volcanoes from many of which boiling water was springing. Some were throwing up dark, red sand, and others ashes.

Summary:

There was a detailed article on the earthquake by Mr. H. Luttman-Johnson, I.C.S., who had served in Assam for 18 years, in the Journal of the Society of the Arts April 1898 (12). He reported that Prof. Omori, a Japanese seismologist, who was deputed to Assam to make inquiries into the earthquake, thought it originated 20 miles below the surface. The velocity is said to have been 10,000 feet per second or 112 miles per minute.
The Assam Earthquake of 1897 was investigated in thorough detail by Oldham who published a book (9) on it in 1899 bringing forth several hypotheses to explain its origin. This book is considered as the initiation of the study of engineering aspects of earthquakes in India (11). In accordance with the orders of the Government of India, the book dealt with the earthquake from a purely scientific point of view. The information in the rest of the article is mostly obtained from Oldham's book.

The earthquake left an area of 150,000 square miles (about the size of California) in ruins and was felt over one and a quarter million square miles (about half the size of the United States) from the Western Burmese border to almost near New Delhi. The earthquake was accompanied by a very marked undulation of the ground, different accounts placing the lengths of these undulations from 8 feet to 10 yards, and their heights from 1 to 3 feet. The vertical range of these motions was at least 8 inches. Mr. Grimes of Assam Bengal Railway reported that in some places along the railroad, telegraph poles which were originally set up in straight line, were displaced to the extent of 10 to 15 feet. Also, in Lower Assam, carefully leveled rice fields were found, after the earthquake to be thrown into gentle undualtions with a difference of level of as much as 2 to 3 feet between the crest and the trough. Oldham's book contains many vivid photographs of destruction, a notable among them being a photograph of the terribly bent rails at the Rangapara of the Tezpur-Balipara Tramway. There were nine such breaks between Sessa and Rangapara (4 and a half miles), the largest distance between the parts of the broken rails thrown asunder being 5 and a half feet.

There were hundreds of aftershocks---some very heavy and some light at Shillong, Tura, Bijni, Guwahati and other nearby areas. At Bordwar tea estate, a week after the great shock, the surface of a glass of water standing on a table was in a constant state of tremor. At Tura, a hanging lamp was kept constantly on the swing for 3 days. According to reports in the Assam newspaper, in North Guwahati there were 561 aftershocks till the end of the 15th of June, 125 between 15th to 30th June, and 84 from 1st to 15th July. Most of the aftershocks were local and not felt over a large area.

In many places river beds or drainage channels were filled up with sand. Oldham reported that a large number of channels 15 to 20 feet deep between the foot of the Garo Hills and Brahmaputra, which normally were dry but were filled with water during the rainy season, were filled up with sand and earth to the level of the banks. This and other such riverbed fillings caused serious floods in 1897 which was most severe in Barpeta subdivision. This also resulted in many of the rivers and streams deserting their old channels and forming new ones after the floods of August and September. Fissures and sand vents occurred universally throughout Goalpara and Kamrup districts, the western parts of Darrang and the greater part of Nagaon. A few were seen in Lakhimpur (west of Subansiri) and in Sibsagar (west of Sibsagar town) districts. Landslips were formed by the earthquake in most hills; conspicuous among them were those formed in the southern edges of the Garo and Khasi Hills. A large number of such landslips were also formed on the deeply cut, steep sided valley on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, all along till just east of Tezpur.

References:

  • London Times, June 14, 1897.
  • London Times, June 17, 1897.
  • London Times, June 18, 1897.
  • London Times, June 19, 1897.
  • London Times, June 21, 1897.
  • London Times, July 12, 1897.
  • London Times, August 10, 1897.
  • New York Times, June 14, 1897.
  • Oldham, Richard D., Report on the great earthquake of 1897 Geological Survey of India, Calcutta, 1899 (reprinted 1981).
  • Lee, W.H.K., and M. Meyers and N. Shimazaki (editors), Historical Seismograms and Earthquakes of the World Academic Press, San Diego, 1988.
  • The Committee of Seismologists formed to facilitate Dr. A.N. Tandon, Seismology in India Indian Geophysical Union, Hyderabad, 1970.
  • Luttman-Johnson, The Earthquake in Assam, The Journal of the Society of the Arts Volume 46, pages 473-493, London, 1988.
  • Private letter by Miss A.J. Rood to Brother Duncan (in Valley Forge, Pa), dated October 8, 1897, Tura, Assam.
  • Private letter by a Baptist missionary to Brother Duncan (in Valley Forge, PA), dated June 17, 1897, Goalpara, Assam.
  • Moore, P., The Earthquake in Nowgong, Baptist Missionary Magazine September 1897, Boston.
    Encylopaedia Britannica, 1910.