Assam Earthquake – India – June 12, 1897

A violent earthquake of magnitude 8.7 struck northeast India in 1897. Destruction was massive all over northeast India and 6,000 people lost their lives.

The Assam earthquake of June 12, 1897 was a violent 8.7 in magnitude and reduced to rubble all buildings within an area equal in size to several New England states. Reports from north, south, and west of India all told of the earthquake having been felt in these places. Dacca, south of Assam, and now the capital of Bangladesh, experienced the largest number of deaths. In all, 6,000 people lost their lives and fifty miles of railway track were completely destroyed.

In Darjeeling in the far northwest of Assam, the tea industry was destroyed, including both buildings and crops. The eastern Bengal railway line was closed down due to several bridges having collapsed. The weather added additional hardship. Temperatures were 120 degrees in the shade and rain was heavy as the monsoon was just beginning. Cherrapunji, the world’s wettest place, is in Assam. It has an average of 450 inches of rain every year and in some years it is much more.

A lady living in a tea garden in Assam wrote to her friends in Britain a day after the disaster. The letter arrived several weeks later and gives a good picture of the devastation caused by the quake and also of the limited resources available at that time for coping with disasters. This lady was sitting in bed when the earthquake struck. She had been ill and was quite unable to get out of her house. The thunderous noise of the quake from below coupled with a general shaking of everything made her crawl toward the door where her native servant met her to take her free of falling objects. In her letter she told of the impossibility of standing. Her servant somehow managed to get her away from the building before it, along with everything else around, collapsed.

The earthquake was described as the worst she had ever experienced or even heard about. It was raining hard as the monsoon rains had just arrived and those buildings that were still standing were swaying backwards and forwards like a ship in a bad storm. The ground too was moving in waves like those of the sea. All communications with other places had been severed; that is, there was no telegraphic link, the only direct method of communication available in 1897, so this person had no knowledge of conditions in other places. Her concluding observations included masses of debris everywhere, deep holes in roads, and an ongoing series of earth tremors, aftershocks, which lasted for the rest of the day.

Assam is a plateau, often referred to as the Shillong Plateau, Shillong being the capital city for the region. It is set in the midst of a mountainous area where elevations range from sea level to that of Mount Everest, but the Shillong Plateau is less than five hundred feet above sea level. It is well watered by the monsoon rains and its soils are rich, the gift of the Brahmaputra River, India’s biggest in the eastern part of the country. The plateau rises in the Himalayas and flows through Assam at a point where it is still a thousand miles from the sea. Assam, or the Shillong Plateau, lies between several countries—China on its north, Nepal on its west, Myanmar on its east, and Bangladesh on its south.

It is no surprise that Britain, as the colonial ruler of the time, was particularly interested in this part of India. Its low elevation, warm climate, and good soils made it an ideal agricultural region, able to produce large quantities of rice, the staple food of the native people and the product whose surplus could be sold to secure a profit for Britain. Tea plantations were developed there to meet the British demand for this drink and Darjeeling, in the northwest of Assam, became for a time the tea capital of the world.

The British colonial authorities were totally unprepared for a major disaster. This was evident over a hundred years earlier at the time of the Bengal famine. Furthermore, colonial powers were mainly and sometimes only concerned with how to make a profit for the home country not the welfare of their colonial subjects. It seems that by 1897 they had learned a few lessons about the importance of native rights because their behavior was in sharp contrast to their former actions. There were no public medical services, no disaster preparations, and no established social services such as food banks and emergency shelters for coping with emergencies.

Anything that might help the native people who had lost their homes and were sleeping outside in the midst of the rainy season had to come from the generosity of the colonial governor. He decided to open all the government buildings that remained standing and allow the homeless to take shelter in them. At the same time he decided to donate the money planned for the Queen’s celebrations to help those in need of food. A celebration in honor of the Queen’s diamond jubilee had been planned for some time. This particular jubilee year, 1897, was the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne so it was an important occasion to recognize. Queen Victoria must have heard of these decisions because she sent a message of sympathy regarding the earthquake and congratulations on the action taken to help the natives.

It took many years of research and consultation to establish the cause of the 1897 earthquake. Nothing on this scale had ever been experienced anywhere in India. It was more than a century later that researchers from the universities of Colorado and Oxford finally arrived at certainty over the nature of the forces at work. They concluded that for the past five million years the Indian Tectonic Plate was restricted in its advance within Assam as it pushed against the Himalayas. As a result, there was a buildup of pressure against the Shillong Plateau and it was the release of this pressure that caused the earthquake.

Two adjacent faults, both of them about seventy miles long and located ten miles underground, slipped and triggered the earthquake. The slope of these faults was downward toward the south away from the Himalayas and they moved by as much as forty-five feet, one of the largest slips ever calculated for any earthquake anywhere. The extreme violence of the quake forced the overlying Shillong Plateau to shoot upwards by as much as fifty feet in a matter of a few seconds. Boulders, tombstones, and anything else on the surface, even people, were thrown into the air. Fortunately, an earthquake as powerful as this one only occurs once in 3,000 years.

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