“Without a warning and with no premonitory rumble, such as is the ordinary precursor of an earthquake, I heard a clattering on the roof, I felt like swaying of the earth, and the high spirited pony. I was driving dashed off ventre a terre like an arrow from bow. Amid a terrific roar of indescribable elements, we galloped along, missing by a hair’s breadth the wooden railing on the winding drive. The roads yawned open with cracks beneath our feet, the pine trees overhead shook and trembled as though under the influence of a mighty storm, and the pine cones showered an avalanche upon our heads.”

These lines from British civil servant Henry Cotton’s India and Home Memories describe the moment of the Great Earthquake of 1897 struck North East India. As the region was jolted again on the morning of April 28 by a quake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, people with a sense of history recalled the tragedy that occurred 124 years ago – and counted themselves lucky that Wednesday’s seismic event caused much less damage.

The “Great Earthquake”, the term used by Richard Dixon Oldham in his Report on the Great Earthquake 12th June of 1897, struck at 5.15 pm on June 12, 1897. The epicentre was the Oldham fault that forms the northern edge of the Shillong plateau. It had an estimated moment magnitude of 8.0.

As a consequence, the northern edge of the Shillong plateau rose upwards upto 11 metres, researchers say. The effects were felt over an area of 650,000 square km – buildings collapsed in Bhutan and Calcutta and the tremors were reported as far away as Peshawar.

Henry John Steadman Cotton’s memoir, published in 1910, is an interesting, exhaustive account of his 35-year career in India and has a vivid section about the tragedy. When the quake struck, he was Assam’s Chief Commissioner.

In Shillong, he writes, the quake destroyed the huge embankment that enclosed the beautiful Shillong lakes, the bazar, an iron bridge, the jail and many public buildings. Many citizens were left homeless and panic-stricken.

But mortality rate was low, at only 1,542 deaths. Since the earthquake occurred in the early evening, people were not asleep or blinded by the darkness of the night.

There were stories of people being swallowed up by cracks in the earth, Cotton said, but he dismissed these as superstitious anecdotes. His scientific conscience would not let him believe that the cracked ground could open and close at will.

An ICS family

Cotton, who graduated from King’s College in London, had been born to an Anglo-Indian family in 1845. Both his father and grandfather had been in the Indian Civil Service.

Before Cotton was appointed as the chief commissioner of Assam in 1896, he served as an assistant magistrate of Midnapur district, a collector and magistrate of Chittagong, a secretary to the Board of Revenue in Bengal and as financial and chief secretary to the Bengal government.

He begins his account of the Great Earthquake of 1897 by noting that he and his wife, who just arrived from England, narrowly escaped becoming victims of the tragedy themselves. He saw Shillong’s Government House, where they lived, collapse into a layer of red dust.

Cotton had taken up his post at the Shillong station the year before and was enjoying the pleasant hills. He would spend most of his time until he left in 1902 dealing with the aftermath of the quake.

Cotton writes how the first night after the earthquake was spent in a distressing sleepless manner as aftershocks could be felt almost every five minutes. Those who had taken shelter in the ruin of the Government House told him their own own stories of horror about how they watched the ground beneath them crumbling.

Workmen spent all night trying to find anyone who could be buried alive under the fallen rubble, trees and mud. “Of the Indian staff also I can speak in the highest terms,” Cotton noted. “Although their own losses were great, they devoted themselves to the public service unremittingly and without complaining.”

To make matters more difficult, it began to rain incessantly.

Among those who died was the Inspector General of Police Sir Robert Blair McCabe, who was crushed to death in his home. During his funeral, his grave was half filled with water.

Cotton expressed his admiration at the sight of his officers taking immediate measures to shelter those who had been rendered homeless, treating the wounded and feeding survivors. Every high-ranking officer was assigned specific tasks, such as clearing up the road or building huts.

He presents readers with the impression that the colonial administration under his leadership as Assam’s chief commissioner ensured that the effects of the calamity were dealt with smoothly.

One of the significant challenges was to re-establish communications. The telegraphic connection was in shreds. The roads and bridges were in shambles and the rain worsened the situation.

It isn’t if quakes were unknown in the region. “Assam is well known as a region of seismic disturbance, and earthquakes before this were not uncommon,” Cotton wrote. “But they had never been known on any previous occasion to cause widespread destruction.”

Though relatively few people had died in the quake, deaths began to creep up as cholera, dysentery and fever broke out.

Lack of funds

Cotton complains about the lack of funds he was granted to repair the destroyed province and get it back to action. Though he met the Finance Minister of India and the Viceroy, the financial allocation they made was insufficient. It was only when he was leaving Assam that Curzon, the viceroy, extended his help.

Some time after the quake, Cotton went on an inspection tour with Nightingale, the Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department, to guage the extend of the damage in the region. Although this journey had severely affected his health, he says that it was essential.

The earthquake had raised the level of the river beds and obstructed the natural drainage system, and the rainfall that year was quite intense. The Assam Valley flooded, disrupting the railway and river navigation routes. On one leg of their journey, they had a boat mishap, though everybody survived.

Because of the flood, cultivation came to a halt. Residents of towns like Barpeta were starving and the cattle were dying, he wrote.

But despite the challenges, Cotton claims that by the end of his term, the region had been beautifully rebuilt: the homes, the public buildings, the churches and roads. But the tragedy left him shaken.

“The great earthquake will never be forgotten,” he wrote. “It’s memory will live beyond the lives of those men and women on whom it is indelibly impressed. It was a great tragedy.”

Aditya Ranjan Pathak is a Research Assistant of Urban Ecologies, a research project based in the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, and the University of Cambridge.

Joyshri Pathak is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of English, Gauhati University.