In Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004), set in the Sunderbans, one of the protagonists, Kanai, recounts an unlikely but true story of a “lowly shipping inspector”, an “Ingrej shaheb” (‘English gentleman’). This inspector “had fallen in love – not with a woman nor even with a dog, as is often the case with lonely Englishman living in faraway places”, but instead with storms that he read, listened to, studied, and tried to understand. This labour of love led him to coin the term ‘cyclone’ .
The colonial officer Henry Piddington’s story is not improbable because he fell in love with storms. His love was for the science of the storm, which he fought hard to advance. His studies also allowed him to warn of the intractable power of the storm in the face of imperial expansion. The warning was specifically directed at the development of Port Canning, a port city being built on the fringes of the Sundarbans.
The Port Canning Investment Company, a private firm, planned to morph into a grand urban dock in the mid-19th century. The port was designed to welcome ships from all corners of the empire, promising to be a worthy twin to Calcutta, the colonial capital. The port was ultimately built – but it was also destroyed shortly after. What remains today is, as Ghosh puts it, a “horrible, muddy little ghost town”.
The Hungry Tide was written more than a decade ago, when the vocabulary and conceptual tools for understanding the implications of climate change, particularly for artists, writers, humanists and social scientists, were largely limited. Ghosh’s recent work, The Great Derangement (2016), is his attempt to attend to the blindness of literary fiction towards the present precariousness surrounding climate change. Piddington made a reappearance here as Ghosh anointed him “one of the first Cassandras of climate science”.
Piddington’s warnings about storm surges did not get much attention during his lifetime. The irony is that he would probably warn us of the exactly the same dangers now as he did then. And the history of Piddington’s cyclonology remains relevant as ever.
Piddington was born in coastal Sussex and arrived in Calcutta in the 1830s. As a colonial officer, he took an interest in an assortment of subjects – from coffee to iron ore – in his association with the growing scientific fields of the time, tropical agriculture and geology.
It was around this time that he first became interested in storms. Calcutta had experienced particularly inclement weather with torrential rainfall in June 1839. Col. William Reid had just published his book, An Attempt to Develop a Law of Storms, based on his observations in the Caribbean, which also experienced tropical storms. Piddington took it upon himself to take Reid’s research forward, assiduously collating data from ship logs and information from ship captains. This was combined with his own personal experiences navigating the route from Europe to India as a marine.
He also began corresponding with R.W. Redfield, who was investigating storms in North America. The marine department of the British Government of India also issued a letter in 1840 that commanded the “readiness of several public offices and peoples in assisting in the collection of materials for the investigation of a subject so important as the law of storms”.
The need to develop a ‘law of storms’ that could be circulated was greatly felt at the time because many colonies in the British Empire dealt with the wrath of tropical storms. The burden of reconstruction fell on colonial governments. Apart from this, the empire depended vitally on maritime trade. Ships were often destroyed and sailors perished due to storms at sea, adversely affecting colonial connectivity.
Between 1840 and his death in 1858, Piddington produced 20 memoirs on storms, published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. It was his magnum opus, The Sailor’s Hornbook for the Law of Storms, first published in 1848, and revised over several subsequent editions (even posthumously) that garnered the most attention.
Hornbooks have a fascinating history as childhood primers that were used from the 15th century. While not a children’s primer, Piddington’s goal for his hornbook was certainly pedagogical. His primary audience was sailors, who he thought had been victims of poor education that had “dulled [their] faculties for scientific study”. He wished to remedy this by providing sailors the tools for studying storms scientifically through the “new-fangled science” of cyclonology.
He also hoped that sailors would ultimately contribute to this scientific field and help it grow. In today’s parlance, this would be called ‘citizen science’. Many pursuits that had not been considered part of scientific knowledge per se received more scientific recognition through such efforts. The primary tool for this data collection was the “storm” or “horn” card. These were hand-drawn cards that served as an instrument for the sailor to use, one each for the northern and southern hemispheres. Piddington hoped that the data from sailors’ inscriptions on these cards would be circulated widely.
These transparent cards allowed the user to chart the track of a storm. The northern hemisphere wind-direction was shown to run counter-clockwise and the southern, clockwise. Therefore, no matter wherever in the world they were, the sailors would be able to apprehend the cyclone based on their observation of the rotation of the wind. It was this nature of the wind that also led him to coin the term ‘cyclone’.
‘Cyclone’ comes from the Greek κύκλος, which, as Piddington put it, signified “the coil of the snake”, distinct from a straightforward circle. He said this “neither affirm[s] the circle to be a true one, though the circuit may be complete, yet expressing sufficiently the tendency to circular motion”. The cyclone then signified the directionality of the wind with greater precision. He coined a new term for cyclones because he wanted to distinguish them from the more generic ‘storm’ in the scientific nomenclature.
The choice to liken the cyclone to the snake’s coil may have been largely inadvertent even though he did choose it over other meanings of the same word. Storms were objects of fear and uncertainty. As one of his grand-nephews, the Australian judge Albert Piddington, suggested based on the fear of storms, he could have been making a connection between Greek and Hindu mythology given that he wrote from India. According to Albert, as Lord Vishnu reclined on a serpent sans fear, so also Piddington’s science dispelled fears around the cyclone.
Piddington was quite sanguine about the human ability to predict and avert cyclones. So why then was he so opposed to the development of Port Canning?
It had a lot to do with the limits of scientific prediction in the face of environmental destruction.
In September 1853, Piddington wrote a letter with a report of his findings on the viability of Port Canning, in the marshy Sunderbans, to the then Governor General of India, James Andrew. Piddington was immediately dismissive of the idea: “… if in the approaching month of October, we are unfortunately visited by a heavy Cyclone passing on a right track, so as to occasion an inundation in the Sunderbunds near Calcutta, my deductions may be tested by a great experiment performed for us by the hand of Nature herself.”
He concluded by stating that “every thing and every one must be prepared to see a day when, in the midst of the horrors of a hurricane, they will find a terrific mass of salt water rolling in, or rising up on them with such rapidity that in a few minutes the whole settlement will be inundated … unless it be duly secured.”
The cyclone did not hit that year but came 14 years later, and three years after the port had been built — in November 1867. It caused widespread destruction in the flailing port city. The frequent recurrence of cyclones led to the colonial government paying greater attention to institutionalising meteorology as a predictive science that could prevent damage and losses. This finally led to the establishment of the India Meteorology Department in 1875.
(The cyclone had registered its impact in popular culture as well. One of the first science-fiction stories from South Asia, ‘Niruddesher Kahini’ (‘The Story of What’s Missing’), was published in 1896. Written by Jagdish Chandra Bose, the humorous tale details the curious case of an unpredictable cyclone being calmed by a bottle of hair oil. Predicting storms had become a thorn in the flesh of the empire.)
Canning had been imagined as a grand industrial hub with little to no consideration for the ecological uniqueness of the Sundarbans. Over 150 years later, we stand with the risk of a greater frequency of climate-change-induced extreme weather events, especially in the rim of the Bay of Bengal. There still seems to be flagrant disregard for environmental destruction when compensated with the promise of industrial development today as there was two centuries ago.
Mumbai was spared the potential intensity of Cyclone Nisarga, but Ghosh painted a grim picture of what could happen if the megacity built on reclaimed land were to be visited by the wrath of a super-cyclone from the Arabian Sea. We ought to learn more from Piddington and this episode in history, and steer away from unchecked industrial expansion towards greater ecological and scientific awareness.
Archit Guha studies the history of extreme-weather phenomena in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.