Excerpts about the earthquake of 1897

Source: History of the Catholic Missions in Northeast India (1890-1915) Written By: Rev. Fr. Christopher Becker SDS. Translated from German to English by: Rev. Fr. G.Stadler SDB & Rev. Fr. S. Karotemprel SDB
Published by: Firma KLM Private Limited , 257-B, B.B. Ganguly Street, Kolkata – 700 012, India. Copyright: Vendrame Missiological Institute, Shillong, 1980

Pages: 188 – 193

Among all the mission stations, Shella, in fact suffered most from the earthquake of 1897, since it was precariously perched on a steep slope. What the earthquake had not destroyed was destroyed by the rocks rolling down to the valley. The chapel and the mission residence collapsed during the heavy tremors. The missionary ran out into the open in time. As he was trying to save himself from rocks rolling down the slopes he heard cries of help. They came from the Sisters and four orphans. The huge rock on which the house was standing had been shaken loose. Other rocks that fell on it were reduced to atoms! Fortunately, the Sisters had got out of their house after the first tremor of the earthquake. But in the open they were threatened by mounds of sand and stones rolling down the slope. Sr. Evangelista Hofmann was caught between two rocks and could not free her hand. The missionary seized an iron bar, which protruded from the residence, and ran across the heaving ground and the rolling stones to rescue her. He succeeded in freeing her hand without grave injury. Six orphans who had gone out to get foodstuff never returned: they were buried under a heap of falling stones.

The devastation caused by the earthquake in Shella was great indeed. Not a single house remained standing. It was a blessing that the catastrophe had not struck at night and that most of the people were in the market place. Several lives, however, were lost. Many were recovered dead or injured from among the ruins. Others were partly or completely covered by huge rocks and sand. They could not be saved. In spite of their cries for help they perished. The flourishing orange groves, the main source of income for the people, were completely destroyed. Misery and bitter poverty overtook this beautiful and prosperous village in the twinkling of an aye. Several people committed suicide out of sheer despair.

The missionary and the Sisters with their orphans followed the example of the others and tried to reach the village of Mustoh which lay higher up, about an hour’s walk from Shella. Night had fallen and the rainfall was heavy. There were, besides, continuous tremors and rocks kept rolling down on the small path leading up the hill. Drenched with rain and barefoot, for they had lost their shoes in the mud, they reached the village completely exhausted. Even here there was the same picture of devastation. A small shaky hut gave them shelter at last. There was no question of a change of clothing though they were completely wet, for they had lost everything.

At daybreak they went further on and reached the top of the hill and were safe from the rocks rolling down the hill. Even on top of the hill, in the village of Laitkynsew everything lay in ruins. Only huts made of light bamboos were still standing. Among these was the house of the catechist of the mission. The fleeing mission personnel could find at least temporary shelter there. The tremors were still continuing. Only at the end of the third day did the tremors begin to subside. But occasional tremors were felt for a fortnight, some of them severe.

The ridge on which Laitkynsew village is built is surrounded on three sides by hills, which, however, are separated by deep valleys. From here we could see day and night huge masses of stones and rocks breaking loose and hurtling down the steep slopes. They carried with them entire villages.

The missionary relates, from all directions refugees came here. Nobody knew where to go and what is worse nobody had anything to eat. A very poor variety of potatoes which the people usually give to pigs were the only food left for all. Most of the people wandered about the village aimlessly in the great chaos that followed the earthquake. In spite of the grim situation I could not help laughing when I saw a Khasi trying to escape carrying on his shoulder the heavy stone which they grind pepper, ginger and the like. I said to him, “Throw that stone away. There are stones enough everywhere.” But he did not look at me or even listen to me and continued running with the stone as fast as he could. Others were running with a birdcage or an empty basket and the like. A woman became completely insane and began to laugh at the top of her voice. I asked her if she had anything to eat. She showed me her empty betel nut bag and laughed. I took her along with me and gave her some potatoes. But instead of eating them she ran off again.

After the missionary had brought the Sisters and the orphans to safety he hurried back to see his Christians. They had to pass the whole night in the open in the continuous rain. They had to pass the whole night in the open in the continuous heavy rain, like all other inhabitants of Shella. Heartrending cries were raised when they saw him, and yet more cries were heard when fresh tremors threatened their lives. “Pray, pray”, (duwai, duwai) shouted everyone! The Hindus were running up and down with drums shouting and calling their god, Ram. Khasis of indigenous faith called on the evil spirits for help. The Protestants sang religious hymns. In the midst of the weeping of children and the dirges of women, Fr.Abele heard the confessions of the Christians, gave Baptism to twenty catechumens and prayed with them. Among the Christians none perished except an apostate.

The misery and the despair that hovered over the village on the day after the earthquake was beyond description! The continual tremors, the lack of food, the makeshift huts packed with people and the incessant heavy rains made people sick and desperate. The missionary and the Sisters were no better. They were all down with high fever. The missionary would have willingly brought the sisters to Shillong immediately after the earthquake, where they could have better care and shelter. But is was not possible even to think of it. The earthquake had destroyed roads, paths and bridges. Some paths had disappeared completely and were divided by deep crevices. People had to climb steep rocks by means of ladders and go down giddy slopes to pass from place to place.

Shella never recovered from the devastation of the earthquake. Only a few villagers rebuilt their houses. After such a disastrous experience, it would have been foolhardy to remain there.

Pages: 309 – 310

Dr. Omori, a learned Japanese, after completing his studies in geology and seismology in Germany was on his journey back to his home country. His government telegraphically directed him to proceed to Shillong to study and report on the earthquake of 1897. According to his view the earthquake of 1897 was caused by very extensive landslides in the interior of the earth at a depth of twenty to thirty miles. He calculated this from the range and the area of the earthquake. He opined that if such landslides or sinking of the earth were near the surface, the tremors would not have been extensive. An earthquake caused by gases exploding in the interior of the earth is generally accompanied by volcanic eruptions, and is always restricted to a certain area and the shocks tend to have a vertical direction. But the tremors, caused landslides in the interior of the earth, have a horizontal direction and these are more extensive if landslides occur at greater depths. In Assam (present day Meghalaya) the epicentre of the quake lay in the region of Shillong – Cherrapunjee – Shella, or perhaps in the eastern part of Garo Hills. According to Omori the shocks of lesser intensity, which followed the earthquake, were caused only by masses of earth, which were subsiding later on. An earthquake, he stated, of the intensity of June, 1897 quake could take place in the same area only after a century. It could however, arise from another cause, namely, the sinking of the surface of the earth, which is noticeable. In reality Assam had experienced some years earlier several severe earthquakes. The epicenters were different in each case. For instance in 1869, it was in Cachar, in 1878 in the northern part of Assam and in 1885 in the Garo Hills.

At any moment, an earthquake could occur in some corner of the country and cause damage in other parts as well. The great earthquake of 1897 was a sign and warning to missionaries that they and their establishments were, literally, on shaky ground. The continuous tremors of 1897 made them realize how little they could count on permanent foundations. Between the great earthquake of 1897 and the spring of 1902 more than 2000 shocks were registered in Assam. In general not a single week passed without experiencing dangerous and frightening tremors of greater or lesser intensity. Sometimes the shocks were isolated, at other times, in sequence as a series of tremors spread out over some days, or in quick succession within a few hours. With the passing of time one became accustomed to them and paid less attention to them. Only when the tremors become violent and if they occurred at night, did one have to pick up one’s lighted lamp and go out into the open to avert the danger of fire in the house, in case the rafter and beams should collapse !

A report from Raliang in Jaintia Hills about the 1897 earthquake

Pages: 217-219

Rev. Fr. Thaddeus Hoffmann who was constructing a church in Raliang with a great spirit of sacrifice and tenacious dedication, in spite of all difficulties was expecting its completion in the summer of 1897. But June 12, 1897, brought him his greatest sorrow and disappointment. The church, put up with so much sacrifice, indescribable and untold fatigue, was destroyed by the earthquake. Fr. Hoffmann wrote as follows of the tragedy and the bitter trial, which the mission experienced on that fateful day:

It was the most heart-rending sight to see the collapse of the walls of the new church, which was nearing completion. They resisted the first tremors, which shook the earth, but soon they crumbled before the fury of the terrible earthquake, fell with a loud crash. All the work of the last five years was destroyed in a single moment. All our joy and hope of having a new and worthy church, which was to be the first in the Jaintia Hills, vanished like a dream.

As the earthquake came, the Sisters ran out. Their house was shaking like a ship tossed about by the waves of the sea, and I feared that it might collapse at any moment. But it remained standing. The damage, however, was so great that it had to be pulled down and rebuilt.

Things were topsy-turvy in the temporary chapel. The candlesticks, the crucifix, and even the tabernacle had been thrown to the ground. The Blessed Sacrament had to be sheltered in a stable, which was the only remaining safe place. The missionary brought the Blessed Sacrament in the evening into the poor school of the orphanage, which was made of wood and was still standing. The mission personnel had to take refuge there until a new place could be built. The missionaries’ residence had become unsafe to live in.

The missionary concludes the report of the earthquake thus:: It is tragic to see the picture of destruction, and even the local people are shedding tears at the sight of the ruins. The Christians and non-Christians immediately gave a helping hand to remove the debris and to salvage what could be saved. It is a blessing that the earthquake did not come at night, or else, we would not be alive now for the crumbling walls would have crushed us to death. We must thank God that he has protected us all and what we have suffered is nothing more than fright. All our buildings have been completely damaged that we cannot live in them any more.

There was need for great self-control, courage and confidence in God to rebuild everything under such difficult circumstances.