It is time to worry about rain in the city

It is time to worry about rain in the city

It is that time of the year when the city’s residents worry about rain — either too little or too much of it. But that also led me to muse over how in the past hundred years or so, it is essentially during November/December that cyclones visit our city. In the 19th Century, this was not necessarily so, as I learnt when I was researching the history of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry for its 175th year in 2010/11. There are records of cyclones having hit the city in practically every month over the years, including the hot season of May/June.

All of this came back to me last week while scanning the archives of the Illustrated London News (ILN), courtesy the fine digitisation done by the Hathi Trust Digital Library/University of Michigan Library and made available on In its June 8, 1872 issue, the ILN carried a powerful image, an engraving of a ‘hurricane’ that struck the Madras coast on May 2 that year.

The description of what happened that evening is most vivid.

Caught unawares

It had been over sixty years since a cyclone last appeared in April/May, says the ILN in its report and so the city was caught unawares. There was heavy rain the previous two days and then the cyclone struck. As many as 30 vessels, English and Indian, were lying in the open roadstead, known as Madras Roads, about two miles into the sea. Except for three, all others were cut adrift and on the morning of May 3, the coastline, from the railway station (which meant Royapuram then) to the Presidency College was awash with wrecks and as many as “five or six large ships lay grinding to pieces on the surf”.

Officers from Fort St. George, together with many of the townspeople, were actively involved in rescue efforts, especially to “save the poor creatures who clustered on the stern of each vessel”, the report said.

That was a time when such large-scale destruction was further exacerbated by the nature of sea-faring vessels. Thanks to technology, both in terms of forecasts as well as materials used in shipbuilding, such enormous losses have been reduced over time. Which brings me to a question: what happened to the cyclones hitting Madras in other times of the year? Not that I am praying for these, but my guess is that the construction of the harbour changed the coastline to an extent and that made cyclones move further north, bypassing Chennai on most occasions.

The sketch that appeared in the ILN is most lifelike and the black and white only enhances the gloom and desperation. You can see the ships churning in the sea and on the coast are the men engaged in rescue efforts. They are straining to walk in the face of the wind and holding tight to their solar topis, an umbrella probably being dangerous in such weather. The scaling too is just right — the huge sea and the small human figures show how inconsequential man is in the face of Nature.

And who is the artiste who stood there capturing the scene? Our very own Robert Fellowes Chisholm, the man who gave us so many Indo-Saracenic architectural beauties to marvel at. It is likely that Chisholm did this sketch sheltering in one of the buildings he had constructed along the Marina — perhaps, the PWD offices or Presidency College. Or, maybe, the Senate House which was being built. How a sketch completed probably in mid-May in Madras made it in time to be published in the ILN of June 8th is a mystery to me.

(V. Sriram is a writer and historian.)

#time #worry #aboutrain #city