The Problems With the Super Deadly 1737 Calcutta Earthquake

By accounts of 18th century sailors, in 1737, a massive earthquake in Calcutta not only leveled the city on October 11, it ended the lives of some 300,000 people.

There was only one major problem with this historical account. Calcutta’s population was fewer than 20,000 people in 1737. Also, there wasn’t an earthquake, not even a small one.

The accounts of the earthquake in Calcutta, which is modern day Kolkata, the capital of India’s West Bengal, remained in history book until the 1990s.

It was all built on the account of European sailors reporting six months after the fact. The problem with those accounts is that they painted the event in Calcutta as one of the ten deadliest natural disasters in history.

The facts demonstrate that it wasn’t even close. The reasons for the bad accounts are multifold, starting with limited experience of the sailors, but are also tied to an age-old problem of storytelling.

The more one orates a tale, the taller that tale grows.

Thomas Joshua Moore

East India Trading Company in London | openbuildings

Moore was a duties collector from the British East India Company, the same organization that led to the formation of British India.

In 1737, there wasn’t really an India as we know it today. There were regional settlements of local people, marked by European trade settlements.

Moore’s account estimated that some 3,000 died in the disaster, which he labeled as a storm, not an earthquake.

There was a surge in the River Ganges, the wind blew off roofs, and the force of the storm knocked down weaker structures.

It was a cyclone, which is the same event as a hurricane or a typhoon, depending on where they occur on the planet.

The Tale

Moore’s existence in Calcutta grounded his account of the event, whereas the versions that sailed on merchant ships and other boats to Europe had months to morph.

The European experience with disasters, at the time, was more closely tied to earthquakes than cyclones. Moore, on the other hand, was familiar with the seasons of cyclones, called the pre-1980 North Indian Ocean cyclone season.

Leading up to 1980, there was a season of cyclones from April to December, which were some of the deadliest cyclones on Earth.

From the 18th-century to modern times, dozens of cyclone records capture endless death and destruction. Swells were common, especially around waterways like the Ganges River.

The Evidence

Problematic with the earthquake version of the Calcutta disaster, which in some versions allowed for a cyclone and a small earthquake at the same time, were the factual discrepancies.

First, there was the difference between Moore’s account and those that reached Europe. Moore mentioned no earthquake.

Also, there may have been as many 20,000 people in Calcutta in 1737, but the population was much smaller, closer to 3,000.

The apparent devastation of the event was likely connected to the large percentage of deaths. There was hardly anyone left.

Like the way a child would describe it, gesturing with his hands, “billions and millions died,” or 300,000 in 18th-century terms.

The Press

18th Century British Sailors | teainateacup.wordpress

Journalistic integrity aside, London periodicals at the time told the version captured by the sailors. They didn’t even bother to Google the facts. (Joking, come on.)

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported:

“In the night between the 11th and 12th October 1737, there happened a furious hurricane at the mouth of the Ganges, which reached 60 leagues up the river. There was at the same time a violent earthquake, which threw down a great many houses along the riverside…”

It seems the media has always been more in the business of marketing than in facts.

Sensationalism sells papers and increases the value of ad spaces. Had they painted the story as a cyclone, the people of England wouldn’t have found the story as gripping (or so they believed).

What happened in Calcutta on October 11, 1737, was a good old-fashioned cyclone or hurricane if you prefer. That’s a concept most folks today can wrap their head and heart around.

Most of us would prefer to endure an earthquake than a hurricane. These days, we get a heckuva lot more warning than did 18th century Calcutta.