Special Collections Fossickings 16: Bigger than Yasi? - Cyclone Mahina

The Pearling Disaster, 1899: A Memorial, Map insert, p14.
Was Yasi the most severe cyclone ever to cross the Queensland coast? Maybe not.  Striking the Cape York coast on 4 March 1899, Cyclone Mahina is still regarded as Australia’s worst natural disaster since European settlement, with the loss of over 400 lives and dozens of ships. Clement Wragge, the subject of a previous Fossickings post, identified and named this terrifying storm but tragically his warnings were transmitted after the event.

With a central pressure of 27 inches (914mb) compared with Yasi’s 930mb, Mahina was even more intense than her modern cousin. Moreover the cyclone generated a combined storm surge and “wave run-up” of at least 13 metres, spreading  5km inland and causing many of the Aboriginal deaths.  A police constable at Barrow Point, 30 km to the south, found himself and his Aboriginal troopers in waist-deep water despite being camped on a ridge 12 metres above sea level.
Mahina destroyed several pearling fleets, operating out of Thursday Island, which had taken last minute shelter in Bathurst Bay, only to find this was in Mahina’s direct path. Of more than 320 souls lost from the pearling fleets the vast majority were from the Pacific or Torres Strait Islands, Japan or South-East Asia. Most of the Aboriginal deaths occurred on land, or indeed as they desperately tried to rescue the stricken pearlers.  Only 12 European deaths were recorded.

The Pearling Disaster, 1899: A Memorial, p29.
Caption: Captain W. F. Porter of Crest of the Wave. 
Mr. Arthur Outridge (Father of Harold Outridge) in Diving Dress
One of the real treasures in Special Collections must surely be the contemporary account, “The Pearling Disaster 1899 : A Memorial”, published by the Outridge family who lost two members aboard the schooner “Sagitta”.  The National Library of Australia is currently providing access to a digital copy of this book.  Hector Holthouse devotes a chapter of his 1971 book “Cyclone” to  Mahina, while Ian Townsend’s gripping 2008 novel, “The Devil’s  Eye” is based on events surrounding the storm and lists the names of nearly all the non-European victims.  All titles are held in the North Queensland collection.

Story by Miniata


Anonymous said…
Fabulous work - keep fossicking