Friday, March 18, 2011

Tsunami at Chatham Island, 1868

 Image from Wikipedia.

I probably missed this, when doing the post about tsanamis felt here in 1868 as a result of the 9.0 Arica earthquake, off the coast of Chile, because news got here to the mainland much later, via the schooner Rifleman. I'm reading an old Bateman's Contemporary Atlas of New Zealand (2003), and it referred to the devastating Chatham Island tsunami of 1868.

DUNEDIN, August 27.
The schooner Rifleman arrived at Port Chalmers this morning from the Chatham Islands, after a passage of six days, having left Waitangi on the morning of Friday, the 21st. She brings news of great disaster and loss to the inhabitants of the Chathams, who were suddenly awakened from their sleep by the water rushing into their dwellings, and were driven half-naked and trembling to the hills, while the receding waters carried away every relic of their property, and in one instance causing the loss of life. The following are the items as we received them.

Early on the morning of the 15th the Islands were visited with three immense earthquake waves, somewhat similar to those which visited the other islands of the colony on the same date, causing the almost total destruction of some of the settlements, and the loss of one life — a Maori. At the settlement of Tupanga, which was situated on the northern side of the island, the phenomenon was felt with greatest force. The settlement was entirely destroyed, and not a vestige left to indicate where once stood the habitations of natives — the whole place being covered with sand and piles of seaweed. The inhabitants, who were principally Maoris, narrowly escaped with their lives. They were roused from their slumbers by the first wave, which came rushing into their houses. They immediately fled in alarm to the bush, or sought safety on higher ground; but they had barely time to escape, before a second and larger wave came rolling after them, rapidly followed by a third, which completely destroyed and swept away the dwellings and everything they contained.

Captain Anderson's house, situate about four miles from Tupanga, was also swept away, the proprietor himself narrrowly escaping with his wife and children.

A Maori lost his life here while trying to save a boat; he was carried out to sea by the drawback, and drowned.

Further along the coast, facing south-westerly, Mr Hay, sheep farmer, lost his all. His house and other fixtures were carried to sea, leaving him without a shoe to his foot or a coat to cover his back.

At the settlement of Waitangi similar disasters occurred, and great loss was occasioned. Mr Beamish's accommodation house was wrenched from its piles, and a great quantity of Government stores and fencing were carried out to sea, together with some boats.

The beach presented a most disheartening spectacle after the phenomena had passed away. There was household property of all descriptions strewing the sands, intermixed with bags of flour and other stores, the whole being festooned with seaweed. How the people escaped is considered miraculous. On the eastern side of the island less damage was done — there being less to destroy. The only habitations destroyed were a few Maori huts. Some valuable boats belonging to the Rifleman, which was lying at Wangaroa at the time, fortunately escaped without accident; although in the same harbor some huge spars were carried away, and deposited high and dry on a flat on the opposite side of the harbor.

Wellington Independent, 29 August 1868


We published, some time ago, telegrams giving an account of the effects of the earthquake wave at the Chatham Islands. The Chatham Islands correspondent of the Hawkes Bay Herald has the following interesting account of the affair :—

On Friday, the 13th instant, the day was sunny and pleasant, with a very light breeze from the southwest, and during the day the sea was so low that rocks which had been usually submerged were high and dry. About one o'clock a.m. on Saturday morning, the first great wave rushed in with such force and terrific noise that the very fountains of the deep seemed broken up. This fortunately served as a premonitory warning, and without doubt prevented the loss of many lives. In ten minutes more, another wave, more terrible than the former, commenced its work of destruction, and, after a like interval, the third and list completed the catastrophe.

Indeed the full wrath of the ocean seemed to battle with the island, in fierce resolve to submerge it. Houses, pas, and bush in proximity with the shore were carried away and engulphed by the drawback; but in many instances human lives were preserved almost by a miracle. At Terake, on the western point of the island, stood the substantial dwelling of Thomas Osborne Hay, Esq, and the inmates, Mr. Hay and Mr. Amery (a gentleman who resided with him), had so narrow an escape that it seems a special intervention of Providence. On the approach of the first wave, Mr. Amery awoke and, feeling assured that a tidal wave was approaching, such as had been adverted to by a scientific writer, he at once aroused his friend Mr. Hay. The second wave was now gathering, and they had barely time to rush from the house, with what scanty clothing they could hastily snatch up when a vast breaker actually enveloped the mansion, and in another moment it was a mass of ruins; even of a massive stove chimney not one stone was left upon another. Half undressed, the late inmates hastened on to the rising ground and awaited the approach of a third wave, which came rolling in with most awful grandeur and thousandfold power, bearing down out buildings and stout old skeakes, which broke and cracked beneath its fury like snatchwood, and tending its weeds and waters high up the grazing land and into the bush, carrying away young cattle, and scattering the debris of the ruins far away amongst the weeds and bushes of an adjoining swamp. This, however, was the last great wave, and the work of destruction was over.

We regret to say that Mr. Hay has, in addition to the loss of a well-appointed establishment, had some bales of wool injured, and lost a considerable amount in cash; in fact, the inmates could save neither boot nor shoe— nothing, indeed, but the scanty clothing they had hastily put on. On the break of day, they pursued their way shoeless to the adjoining settlement of Waitangi West, five miles distant, to find Captain Anderson and his family enjoying a bivouac in the bush, and, like themselves, homeless. Captain Anderson and his family like Mr. Hay had been aroused by the first wave, but from the position of his dwelling the force of the sea passed obliquely by, and moreover it was elevated from the beach and surrounded by a stone wall. Hence, the work of destruction was less complete, and he was enabled to save the most valuable part of his furniture.

Here, we regret to say, an inoffensive and worthy old man, named Makare, lost his life in attempting to save Captain Andersons whaleboat, which had been washed away, some two miles distant, to Teraikopakipa Point. He was holding fast to the boat, when an unusual rush of water came in and carried him out. Being a good swimmer, the poor fellow contended fiercely with death but, getting amongst the kelp, he sank at once. The body was found this morning about half a mile from the spot.

Tupunga is destroyed, two European houses are demolished, and the Maori pa completely washed away. The condition of the poor Maoris is most pitiable— neatly all their clothing is gone, and they have lost from £200 to £300 in cash. Unfortunately, they had disposed of their cattle and every other available commodity, in order to raise a fund to pay their expenses to New Zealand; but all is gone, and they are destitute. The Rifleman is still at Whangaroa, and some fears were entertained regarding her safety, but beyond an extraordinary swell no danger was felt.

By a Maori, just arrived from Waitangi, we are informed that serious damage has been sustained there, and some houses destroyed, but no lives have been lost. Of this, however, we cannot give a succinct detail. The only remaining settlement from whence danger might be apprehended is Kaingaroa, but intelligence has reached from that quarter.

Without doubt, Tupuangi and the west point of the island were most severely visited. Indeed, so confident were the Maoris of a general deluge that, when driven from their pa, the whole body of them encamped on Maunganui, the most elevated spot on the island, about 700 feet above the sea-level.

Southern Cross, 16 September 1868


  1. Nice post.

    As an is a pic of the dry dock at Lyttelton having water spill over due to the 1960 Chile Tsunami... hmmm who wants to live in Chile!

  2. Tsunamis were around before they had a name. Not so long ago we probably would have called them tidal waves, when they had nothing to do with tides.The eastern coast of Chatham Islands looks designed to embrace a tsunami from Chile.

  3. Tsunamis have been around since the tectonic plates started their slow dance across the face of this magma ball of ours, Andrew. Yes indeed, they were often mis-termed "tidal waves" through most of last century, although the name "tsunami" appears to have entered English, straight from the Japanese, around 1897. The derivation, according to the online etymologies, is "harbour" + "waves". Hardly comes close to describing the damage and terror they can inflict.

  4. yeah i'm of the 'tidal wave' era... Tsunami [as i recall] became known to me mid 70's i guess.


  5. Hi I'm Chloe. I am doing a school project on tsunamis and I would love to hear any other facts or news about this tsunami. Thanks!

    1. Take a look at Papers Past for starters, Chloe, and perhaps give NIWA a go.