Defining Moments: Mahina – Australia’s deadliest cyclone
MORE THAN 300 people died when Tropical Cyclone Mahina slammed into the north Queensland coast on 4 March 1899, making it Australia’s deadliest cyclone ever. Most victims were divers and seamen working on the Thursday Island pearling fleet.
Queensland’s lucrative pearling industry began after commercial quantities of pearl oysters were discovered in the Torres Strait in 1869. Pearl oyster shell was prized in the late 19th century for buttons, furniture inlay and personal ornaments and at the peak of demand was worth £400 (about $60,000 today) a ton. Northern Australia became one of the world’s major suppliers. Headquartered on Thursday Island, the industry employed a 2000-strong workforce by the late 1890s. Boat skippers, divers and crew came from the islands of Torres Strait and throughout the Pacific to work on fleets of two-masted luggers.
One of their greatest threats was stormy weather. Synoptic weather forecasting was well understood at the end of the 1800s and Queensland had a pioneer in the field – Clement Wragge, a government meteorologist from 1887 to 1902. Under his management, weather stations reported conditions and barometric pressure readings via an overland telegraph line that connected Brisbane to Thursday Island, via Cooktown. On 3 March 1899, Wragge described conditions between Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia as “suspicious”. And on 6 March 1899 he named a new tropical disturbance developing south-east of Vanatinai Island, PNG, as Cyclone Mahina. He also noted the development of a second cyclone, Nachon, in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
On 8 March Wragge wrote that he “feared Mahina will not prove as soft and gentle as the Tahitian maiden of that name, for it is likely to give us some trouble. Special warnings have again been sent to all coast towns and the storm signals have been hoisted for the benefit of shipping.” But Mahina had already hit Bathurst Bay, 167km north of Cooktown, at about 11pm on Saturday 4 March. As many as 1000 men, women and children were on board about eight schooners in the area and more than 100 luggers were anchored to offload shell. By 10am at least half the fleet was destroyed and more than 307 people were dead.
Of the Bathurst Bay schooners, only Crest of the Wave sur vived because its captain, William Porter, a New Zealander, cut down its mast to prevent it from capsizing.
The cyclone produced huge seas and a surge of water that swept far inland from where a number of Indigenous people were swept to sea. Witnesses also reported seeing grass ripped from the ground and dolphin carcasses 6m above sea level. British East India ship The Duke of Norfolk was first to reach the area on 5 March, and picked up Captain Porter’s wife and baby from their schooner but did not actively search for other survivors. News of the cyclone reached Brisbane on 8 March and a rescue effort was launched two days later. By then the local Indigenous people had buried the many bodies that had washed up on shore. There were survivors, and newspaper reports told stories of men and women swimming for days to reach land, carrying on their backs people who were unable to swim.
Mahina was a Category 5, as are all cyclones with a central pressure of 929 hectopascals (hPa) or lower. Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin in 1974, had a pressure of 950 hPA and Cyclone Yasi, which crossed the north Queensland coast in 2011, registered 929 hPA. Captain Porter reportedly took a barometric pressure reading of 27 inches of mercury (inHg), equal to 914 hPa, at Mahina’s peak. Recently discovered historical evidence suggests Porter recorded a much lower pressure – 26 inHG (880 hPa) – but no-one at the time believed that was possible. If Mahina’s pressure did fall to 880 hPa, it would make it one of the most intense tropical cyclones ever recorded and, according to current research, capable of producing a sea-water inundation of 13m.