When Nature’s fury tore apart Laccadives

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

A storm wreaked havoc in Lakshadweep islands, the erstwhile Laccadives, in 1847. The archives variously describe it as “bad weather”, “storm” and “gale.” But the magnitude of destruction was definitely large. Though the ravaged islands belonged to the Arakkal Beebee, the British administration too sweats it out to provide relief. Nature’s fury was such that it wiped out most of the inhabitants. Starvation and sickness were all around and the islanders, the lucky ones, sailed to the Malabar Coast on small fishing boats.

Disaster and after-effects

H.V. Conolly, the then Collector of Malabar, sends forth a series of letters on the urgent need to help the islanders. The first mention of the Laccadives crisis appears in Conolly’s letter to the Secretary to the Government of the Marine Department in Bombay. Conolly suggests that they send a steamer to find the extent of destruction on the islands. “It is very desirable to have early intimation as to the exact state in which the inhabitants of Androte – one of the islands under the Beebee of Cannanore,” he writes.

According to him, over the past two-three days, “More than 100 of them, men, women and children have come over to the Coast in small fishing boats all but starved.” The survivors narrate tales of suffering and destruction. One learns that bad weather had swept across the entire coast line and it does not appear like a mere storm that unleashed on the island. The island, writes Conolly, had “suffered severely from the bad weather which took place shortly before the monsoon — almost all its cocoanut and bread fruit trees on which they greatly depended for subsistence were blown down.”

Natural calamity, writes Conolly, was followed by disease and scarcity of food. Conolly’s account, probably gathered from the islanders who landed in Calicut, gives the extent of lives lost. “Of the 6,000 inhabitants the island contained, nearly a third have they say, been swept away.”

According to him, the Beebee of Cannanore has no means of providing speedy relief to the inhabitants. A steamer loaded with rice is the quickest relief that can reach the islanders, he says. “Further measures could be taken when we are more certainly advised of their necessity.” It is the calamity in Androte they are now familiar with and Conolly does not write off similar destruction on other islands.

On the next day, August 12, 1847, Conolly sends another letter on the same subject to the Chief Secretary to Government of the Marine Department at Fort St. George. In this one he mentions that he has given “some small pecuniary assistance” to the distressed inhabitants. The inhabitants who have sailed to Calicut were enabled to reach Cannanore to be under the protection of the Beebee.

Even as he writes these letters boats were docking at Calicut and the casualty in the course of the journey was immense. “Out of 26 who were in the first, 7 had died of famine and disease … out of 16 in the second 7 were drowned in consequence of the boat upsetting in the surf…,” he writes.

The crisis continues well into September. Evacuation on a large scale was happening at the Laccadives. In his letter to the Collector of Canara he writes, “All the boats which left Androte and Kalpenny, the only two of the four islands belonging to the Beebee of Cannanore …have reached the coast with the loss of only 19 persons out of the 890. They are at present chiefly supported by the Beebee to whom they made their way as soon as possible.”

Conolly spares some good words for the Beebee too.

Good marks for Beebee

Whatever be her faults, he writes, “she has certainly not failed in her duty to her subjects in this time of distress.” According to him, as soon as she came to know of the crisis that happened in May “she immediately dispatched a boat with supplies which I believe have principally enabled the other inhabitants to subsist till the present time.” Conolly says she also welcomed his offer to send further supplies by the steamer.

In another letter sent on September 20 again to the Chief Secretary at Fort St. George, he forwards a copy of Captain Young’s journal. Young toured the islands on the steamer Auckland. The British get a detailed account of the calamity from this journal. He writes, “All the Company’s Islands four in number and three of those belonging to the Beebee of Canannore have escaped with very little injury from the gale in April.” The fury was felt in the islands of Androt and Kalpenny and the journal describes the destruction there as “fearful.” Trees and houses were destroyed and the inhabitants had to spend the monsoons with “evils of exposure, famine and sickness.”

According to data 16 boats landed here from Laccadives between August and September carrying 1,210 people. On reaching the Malabar, some tried tp to earn a livelihood while a few others were still aided by the Beebee. “A few sick and weakly subjects are for the present under our care.”

According to Conolly, Captain Young’s steamer had left sufficient rice in the two islands for the people left behind which will last them a month. In addition, Conolly sends another 500 moodahs more of grain and condiments. He also writes about sending some medicines too to the island.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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