Emergent Tropicality: Cyclone Mahina, Bathurst Bay 1899

Russell McDougall


In 1899 a Category 5 cyclone destroyed almost the entire pearling fleet of Bathurst Bay in North Queensland, sinking 55 ships and killing 307 people (approximately). Its historical status, however, is complicated. Measured by the numbers of lives lost, it is the most severe natural disaster in Australian history since European settlement. But most of the pearlers were either indigenous or foreign, excluded from the national imaginary. Hence the acknowledgement of Mahina’s status in national weather history had continually to be postponed. This is despite the fact that, in world weather history, Mahina holds the record for a storm surge, estimated at 13 metres (43 feet). It also contributed in a major way to making the personal history of the Queensland Government Meteorologist, Clement Wragge, who named it, for it was the first cyclone in world history to be given a personal (rather than a place) name. Wragge gave the cyclone the name of a Polynesian woman, predicting nonetheless that it would “not prove so soft and gentle as the Tahitian maiden of that name.”  (For tropical cyclones he preferred female names; for the “cold, blustery cyclones on the polar front” he reserved masculine names (mostly of politicians who refused to subsidise his work). 

Focusing on Cyclone Mahina and its aftermath, this essay explores the entanglements of meterology and indigeneity in colonial governance in colonial Qyeensland on the eve of Federation. In the context of these historical entanglements, the paper reads Ian Townsend's "tropical gothic" novel, The Devil's Eye, as a remembering and imagining of the nation as it was and might have been.


hurricane studies

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