Australia’s far north is renowned for its wild weather. Each year, up to 10 cyclones develop in Australian waters, with around six of those hitting land. Unfortunately, some of those cyclones prove to be deadly, too. Australians have witnessed the devastation that came with Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy in 1974, and with Queensland’s Cyclone Yasi in 2011. However, many may not know that Australia’s deadliest tropical cyclone happened back in 1899.
Cyclone Mahina claimed more than 300 lives when it struck Bathurst Bay in Far North Queensland in March 1899. At the time, pearl oyster shells were a much sought-after material in North America and Europe – used to make delicate ornaments, cutlery handles and buttons. Waters in the Torres Strait had an abundance of these shells, and the tip of Australia became a major supplier to the rest of the world. Indigenous people had been using pearl oysters for thousands of years as tools, but it wasn’t until 1869 when the shells and pearls were used by European settlers for commercial production to the western world.
Captain William Banner pioneered the industry, and by 1899 there were over 2000 workers based on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait diving for pearl oysters. Companies began establishing and would use their fleets to take divers into deeper waters once all the pearl shell oyster population had all been farmed in the shallow waters. Divers and ship crew were a multicultural workforce coming from not just the Torres Strait, but also from India, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. Despite diving up to 36 metre depths to collect the pearl oyster shells, the greatest threat to the divers wasn’t sharks, crocodiles or drowning – it was stormy weather.
Unlike the technology we have today, the divers, crew and fleet captains of Far North Queensland had to rely on basic visual signals from stations, as well as wind direction and the tide to alert them of any severe weather changes. On 4 March 1899, with some inkling that wild weather was approaching, over 100 luggers anchored in Bathurst Bay, believing that they were close enough to the equator that the winds would change, and the cyclone would miss them. As such, Cyclone Mahina caught everyone by surprise. When the cyclone struck, catastrophic winds and huge waves washed over the fleet, destroying half the boats and killing 307 people. Although not confirmed, it was reported that over 100 Indigenous locals were swept out to sea trying to help the fleet. Post-cyclone, witnesses claimed to see marine carcasses, such as dolphins, up to six metres above sea level.
Cyclone Mahina’s deadly impact was recorded at 914 hectopascals – a cyclone pressure measurement with lower numbers being more intense; however, researchers have tried to change this figure to 880 hectopascals, which would make Cyclone Mahina one of the most severe throughout recorded history, worldwide.