The Dread Visitor

The weather becomes unsettled a day or two previously and a long rolling sea sets in from where the storm is. The barometer begins to fall, the thermometer to rise, as the atmosphere becomes more sultry, and ultimately the appearance of a dense bank of cloud betokens that the dread visitor is at hand.[1]

---“A Catechism of Cyclones”, The Sunday Times, March 31st, 1912.

By 1912 the residents of Onslow, Roebourne, Port Hedland, and Broome had accepted that cyclonic storms were an inescapable fact of Nor’-West life, but that acceptance was the product of seventy years of difficult, defining experience. When a wild wind swept in from the sea at Shark Bay in February 1839,[2] members of George Grey’s exploring party were left to wonder if this low coast might, like the islands of the Caribbean, be especially vulnerable to hurricane. Although their suspicions would ultimately be confirmed, the blow of 1839 was an anomaly. Shark Bay was too far south to be hit frequently by the storms of the tropics. Only after a settlement had been established further north—near Nickol Bay in 1863—did the getting of wisdom begin in earnest.

In March 1867 the coastal trader Emma left Tien Tsin Harbour for Fremantle in restless, late-summer heat. The little ship and her complement disappeared entirely.[3] Beside the cataclysmic events of a troubled world, the tragedy was microscopic. In Bengal, the death toll of the Orissa famine[4] had passed one million, and in China fifteen times that number had been cut down during two decades of bloody rebellion.[5] But here on the coast of Western Australia, the 42 who disappeared with Emma represented almost one third of the white population north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The loss was profound.

In 1868, 1869 and 1871, summer storms narrowly missed the nascent North-West Settlement. The pioneer residents watched the sky and wondered what the results of a direct hit would be. The speculation ended p122on March 20th, 1872, when Roebourne received its first catastrophic visitation. A month later, when news of the disaster reached Fremantle, the Perth Gazette and West Australian Times began its coverage by declaring: “We have been favored with many personal descriptions of the fearful hurricane which ravaged, and completely erased from the map of Australasia, our Northwest Settlement.”

In his despatch to Colonial Secretary Barlee, Government Resident Robert Sholl described the storm at its height.

Shortly the native came and said that the roof of the Residency and kitchen had been blown off, and that the walls were falling. We had pushed against the door, which faced the wind, and kept it closed, but felt the front wall of the place gradually yielding. The timber was blowing about us from the Residency, and fearing some of it might penetrate our frail screen, I proposed going to the offices, which still stood. The children went with me, but Mrs. Sholl distrusted the offices and remained. We reached the offices with difficulty, crawling on hands and knees. If it had not been for the native I should not have made way against the wind; the children managed better. We could not (luckily for us) enter the building, and got under the lee of the back verandah. In the course of a few minutes, during a fearful and continued gust of wind, the building was unroofed and we had to flee. I was scarcely outside when I was driven before the wind, knocked over, and rolled along, the roof of the office falling around me, and small pieces striking me. Here I must have been struck heavily, but do not recollect it. When I recovered from insensibility I was lying on my face with my fingers dug into the ground. I found I could not move easily, or without pain. Attempted to go towards the bush hut, but in the haze, and with the rain beating in my face, went in the wrong direction, and was finally blown back. As I was rolling along, caught hold of a rock, and with difficulty got to leeward of it. I was here several hours, several attempts to get to the bush hut being unsuccessful, with the gale still at its height, and in my disabled condition. During this time the wind had not abated, but had gradually shifted from S.E. to E., thence N.E., and later, to the northward, when it diminished in force. It was moonlight, but the dense clouds and driving rain rendered it impossible to distinguish objects within a few feet. When the wind had veered North, and there was a partial lull, the sky was sufficiently clear to enable me to see by the misshapen shadows in the haze that every building was down.[6]

In the wake of near-annihilation, townsfolk launched into rebuilding, but that first flurry of activity spoke more of confidence lost than of confidence retained. Even Sholl wondered if stouter construction would, in conditions like those just experienced, make any difference at all.

p123From what I can learn it appears that all the buildings in Roebourne were destroyed within half an hour of each other. No matter how they were built, or of what material, they went in the direction of the wind. As a general rule the roofs were the first to yield. My watch, broken by the fall of the office walls, had stopped at 6.55 p.m. At about that time, the ruin of Roebourne was effected.[7]

Pessimism notwithstanding, the town was rebuilt quickly by settlers who saw no alternative. And if the buildings seemed different, so did the builders. The old stoicism was there for all to see, but superimposed upon it was a new fatalism: a shrugging acknowledgment that their homes and institutions would periodically, inevitably, bow to the will of the wind.

* * *

If March 20th, 1872 was Roebourne’s day of reckoning, Christmas Eve of 1875 forced a similar change of outlook upon the pearlers of Exmouth Gulf. From fragmentary accounts, two days of utter chaos were reconstructed. From the Fortescue River west to the Ashburton and beyond, boats were sunk or smashed. About sixty men—Europeans, Malays, and Aboriginal divers—were lost in a storm of almost indescribable intensity. The most troubling aspect was that large vessels had fared no better than small. The schooner Agnes, having stood out to sea, was swept from end to end, thrown on her beam ends and dismasted, but somehow survived. Further west, Lily of the Lake and the former coastal trader Wild Wave were run south into the Gulf, where their masters believed they would be safe. They were not; both vessels were overcome as the changing wind turned the enclosed water into a vast, confused expanse of rolling surf.[8]

The storm was reported as a hurricane but to the battle-scarred pearlers this imported label now seemed inadequate, and not merely because the storms of the Nor’-West rotated in the opposite direction to those of the Caribbean or the South China Sea. The phenomenon they were coming to know was more than a whirlwind of the open sea; it was a peril made unique by the work in which they were engaged and by the deceptive embroidery of the low coastline. In the end, the pearlers’ choice was natural and just. Their native divers already had a word for the spinning wind, and an uncanny sense of when it was needed. If the barometer fell and the black boys began chattering about wili wili,[9] their masters paid attention.

By 1880, “willy-willy” had all but replaced “hurricane” and “cyclone” in the Nor’-West lexicon. Its first appearance in print appears to date from February of that year, when the pearling correspondent for The West Australian reported:

We have forsaken Exmouth Gulf, partly on account of the threatening aspect of the weather—for the Gulf is an ugly place in a ‘willi-willy,’ as was proved towards the end of 1875—and partly on account of the p124superior attractions of our kind old friend Kate Carney Island, which always has something for us.[10]

Whether wili wili was traditional Yindjibarndi dialect or some kind of pidgin may never be known, because it was the pearler rather than the anthropologist that first showed a keen interest in the Nor’-West native. Either way, a visitor’s impression of Roebourne, dating from 1885, confidently attributes the term to the original inhabitants.

Upon approaching Roebourne a stranger is struck with the peculiar aspect of the buildings, which are of a varied and motley description, and nearly all presenting a low squab appearance. They are chiefly of wood, with roofs of corrugated iron fastened down with stout battens firmly bolted through the rafters. Upon closer examination the rafters will be found bolted to the wall plates, and in turn the latter are clamped down to the uprights. When inquiring why such a quantity of iron is used, the reply is, “willy willy,” the native word for cyclone, the meaning of which is very clear to all who have resided a few years in Roebourne.[11]

By 1880, many Nor’-Westers believed that they had the willy-willy figured out. The townsfolk of Roebourne had seen their buildings fall and rise again, and pearlers had lost boats and men to phenomenal seas. But none had yet seen the landscape transformed by a sudden, dramatic rise of the sea.

On Thursday, January 6th, 1881, twelve pearling boats were gathered at Mary Ann Patch, about thirty miles west of the mouth of the Fortescue River. As the weather looked threatening, John Brockman took his lugger Kate into Coolgurra Creek, where he dropped anchor in company with the schooner Ethel. The creek, he thought, would be perfectly safe in any weather. Twenty-four hours later, chaos reigned.

The gale had now increased to a hurricane, and we could only get about by crawling on our hands and knees. The glass was now below 27 deg. and still going down, and though not yet noon it was so dark that it was difficult to distinguish objects at more than a few yards distance. We now began to drag, and entered the Mangroves about 200 yards up the creek. Here we lost our rudder. The mangroves were now all round us, and waving ten or twelve feet above our heads, and the vessel was grinding and crushing them on all sides. All at once I heard the vessel give a great roll, and the water came up along the deck to the combing of the main hatch. She, however, righted again, and I then noticed that the mangroves had entirely disappeared.[12]

His boat now a plaything of the elements, Brockman could only hope that his wild ride would end on dry land. It did not.

p125A few minutes after this she gave another roll, and capsized. This must have been in the height of the gale. After clinging to the wreck until about five in the afternoon, it suddenly fell a dead calm, and the darkness cleared away enough to enable us to make out the land. After some difficulty we succeeded in righting and partially bailing out the only dinghy that had fortunately been lashed to the mast by a strong new painter, and got those of the hands into it who were unable to swim. We all managed to get ashore, with the exception of one poor fellow (a native) who we found next day entangled in the chain.[13]

By Friday evening, Brockman had reached some conclusions about what had occurred.

In thinking over the whole matter, and judging from the appearance of everything this morning, I am quite convinced that we must have had a large tidal wave which carried us over the mangroves, and then overturned us, as it was done so suddenly—one minute they were waving many feet above the deck, and the next had entirely disappeared. . . . I have no means of ascertaining the fate of the other vessels which were lying near the Mangrove Islands, as the dinghy we got ashore last night was blown away by the wind in the night, and where we landed is now an island.[14]

The toll was high indeed. All but one of the twelve boats had been destroyed. Three white men and several Aboriginal divers had drowned. All stores, shell and pearls had been lost. But for Brockman and the others who survived to see the sun rise, the storm was a revelation. Several tiers of sandhills had simply disappeared. From high land, they saw that the sea had penetrated miles inland. And where rivers in reverse had cut paths to the interior, great tongues of sand were littered with the bodies of turtles and sharks, and fish in strange, petrified shoals. It was, The West Australian concluded, “altogether unprecedented.”[15]

Over the next few years, Nor’-West pearling changed dramatically. The year 1882 marks the beginning of a gradual northward and eastward migration of the industry, from Onslow and Cossack to the Eighty Mile Beach and Roebuck Bay.[16] Methods changed, too: in 1884, the first copper diving helmets appeared. By 1886, about three quarters of the pearling boats were using ‘diving dress’ and with each passing year the fraction increased.[17] In most conditions the native diver could not compete with the man in copper helmet and heavy boots. While the native dived and dived again, hoping to surface with a shell in each hand, the dress diver could remain below, studying the seabed, developing and following his intuition. Moreover, he could communicate: short tugs on the air line relayed his view and guided the boat above.

p126The transition to diving dress was rapid but not acrimonious. While the price of shell remained high, there was good money to be made using either method, and “native swimming boats”[18] often worked alongside the mechanised luggers of the new order. In 1886, when Chris Coppin and Jack Shepherd decided to give pearling a go, they chose the old way. They chartered the 60-ton schooner Jessie and engaged 21 native divers.[19] With George Woolbeck as skipper, they set out from Condon at the beginning of November 1886. Until Christmas they ranged south and west, but after returning to Cossack for supplies, they turned north and east, following report and rumour to Cape Keraudren and beyond. In the last weeks of the summer season they fell in with a large fleet of boats working a fine patch of shell off the Eighty Mile Beach.

When Jessie first joined the gathering, Coppin was surprised to see that none of the boats using diving dress were working. In broken English, the Lascar divers told him that the visibility below was too poor. This was a situation in which the ‘swimming boat’ had a distinct advantage, because the Aboriginal divers searched with their eyes close to the seabed. The dress divers worked standing up; they walked the seabed, stooping and scooping when shell was found. If the visibility dropped to six feet or less, they had trouble making out the seabed, let alone what clung discreetly to it.

In unsettled conditions, Jessie and her divers did extremely well: in one excellent day they collected 1500 pairs. The first-time pearling entrepreneurs were in no hurry to return to port, but laws recently enacted required that the influenza-prone Aborigines be returned to their homelands by March 31st. On Thursday, March 21st, Coppin and Shepherd decided to work two more days and then sail for Condon. Within hours their plan was obsolete. Before dawn on Friday, a strong easterly wind sprang up. When the anchor line parted, the skipper set one sail and allowed the wind to take Jessie off the shore.

Their diving prowess notwithstanding, Australian Aborigines are not seafarers. At first light the black divers were terrified by the waves and became agitated. In a huddle on deck they stripped naked and made ready to swim. The coast was now fifteen miles away, into a fifty-knot wind, but Coppin could not convince them that to swim for the shore was impossible. Only by making light of the predicament did he persuade them to stay aboard. That was a life-saving outcome, for both black and white. For eighteen grim hours, twenty-four men pumped and bailed to keep the schooner afloat.

By dawn on Saturday the wind had swung to the north-west and abated. The exhausted crew steered toward the coast and, after sighting Mount Blaze, ran along the coast to Condon. Having no anchor to drop, they ran into the creek and secured Jessie among the mangroves. With their boat, crew and eleven tons of shell all safe, the men congratulated p127one other, but lightness of spirit would soon be overcome by grim news from the pearling grounds.

When the schooner Sree Pas Sair arrived off Cossack, dismasted and in tow behind the S.S. Australind, her master J. H. Haynes immediately telegraphed the colonial secretary in the capital.[20] An easterly gale, he reported, had caught the pearling fleet off the Eighty Mile Beach. Of 48 boats, very few had come through unscathed. There were drowned men floating about, he said, and more than five hundred crewmen remained to be accounted for. Of the boats still at sea, most were disabled, short of food and water, and drifting toward Rowley Shoals. He recommended that Australind be despatched immediately, to deal with whatever she might find.

The tragedy was not quite as Haynes had reported; indeed, the chaos at sea was almost matched by the confusion and speculation it spawned. As the days passed, the toll of boats and men steadily fell. The schooner Dawn, carrying sixty Aboriginal divers, had been seen on her beam ends during the storm but somehow survived to reach port. Other boats also limped home, some bringing lucky men plucked from the sea. And several, like Jessie, emerged from their refuges in mangrove-lined creeks to report themselves safe and tell their stories. By later estimates, six large vessels, twenty luggers and 250 lives had been lost in the single worst day in the short history of the Nor’-West.[21]

* * *

The tropical storms of southern latitudes often travel in a south-westerly direction. As the latitude increases, the westward progress may slow; the storm may then ‘recurve’, tracking to the south-east. For Western Australia, the positive aspect of this tendency is that severe storms often cross the coastline perpendicularly. Some of the worst have affected one town only, or better still, a small section of uninhabited coastline. But while the Nor’-West cyclone may have a nature, it is not in that nature to be corralled. Between sea and sullen sky it may choose any direction.

When a tropical storm remains over sea but tracks parallel to the shore, damage may be widespread indeed. Such was the case in February 1893, when a cyclone approached the coast near the mouth of the Ashburton River, but paused and did not cross. It turned right and followed the coastline of Western Australia for six days and a thousand miles. From the Ashburton the storm swept south-west across the Exmouth Gulf, catching the pearling fleet at sea. About fifty vessels, large and small, were sunk or smashed to pieces. The cutter Florence Hadley Harvey disappeared with two white men and seventeen Aboriginal divers, and one crew member from Smuggler survived 36 hours in the water to tell of his ordeal.[22]

Tropical storms decay quickly as they travel over land, but this unruly serpent was determined to be different. At the head of the Exmouth Gulf, it slithered across the peninsula and returned to the open sea.

p128In the town of Carnarvon on Sunday, February 25th, the locals noted the falling barometer and prepared for a blow. They had seen it all before. When the wind came, some sought refuge in the Government Residency, while others took their chances in the bush. Here, the storm was severe but not catastrophic; an early report from the town indicated that almost all buildings had been “more or less damaged” but the clean-up had already begun. The distances that parts of houses had been transported by the wind was the source of some amusement and distraction, but of greater community interest was the news, from stations upstream, that the storm had brough heavy rain to the interior. The Gascoyne was on its way and flooding was inevitable. There was nothing for the town to do but to wait for the wide embrace of its great, ephemeral river.[23]

A little further south, the storm struck Shark Bay. The settlement at Hamelin Pool was spared the worst of the wind but had a particular vulnerability to a storm passing to its west. It was situated near the end of a long shallow bay opening to the north. As the northerly gale came, the sea came with it. Very soon there was a foot of water in and around the police station. None could recall such a tide, but the incursion was more an inconvenience than a mortal danger. Upon this broad expanse, unmarked by ridge or ravine, there was little chance of drowning and even less of finding higher ground.

To the west, in the path of the storm, the pearling fleets at Dirk Hartog Island and Monkey Mia fared worse. Trapped on what sailors call a “lee shore,” boats were thrown ashore or sunk at their moorings.[24]

By almost any measure the cyclone of 1893 was different. It confounded fifty years of observation and anecdote by holding its course and travelling far beyond the Tropic of Capricorn. Residents of Perth and Fremantle were already reading accounts of destruction in the Nor’-West when north-easterly winds brought great plumes of orange dust from the interior to cloak their town and port.[25]

For a few hours on Monday, February 27th, shipping chaos reigned at Fremantle. The port was well used to the hard north-westerly winds of winter storms, but this assault came from a different quarter. Three steamers—Saladin, South Australian and Flinders—were caught on the weather side of the jetty. As the wind and sea rose, the ships repeatedly struck hard against the fender piles, risking damage to themselves and to the jetty. Saladin was the first to move; she cast off her springs and steamed out to sea. South Australian prepared to do the same, but was called to render assistance to Flinders, which had not raised enough steam to help herself. The little steamer was now rising almost to the top of the fender piles and crashing hard against the jetty with every fall. With great difficulty a towline was passed. South Australian took up the load but as she neared the head of the jetty the line parted and both ships were again thrown against the wharf. South Australian stove a plate in just above the p129waterline, while the jetty took a further battering from Flinders until a new line was secured. To universal relief the second line held firm; the pair cleared the harbour and, with Saladin, rode out the storm at anchor.[26]

The great ocean traveller was not quite spent. Toward evening, wind and rain lashed the southern town of Bunbury, where a normally well-behaved estuary flooded orchards, filled wells with seawater and forced some residents to leave their homes for camaraderie if not comfort at the Good Templars’ Hall.[27]

* * *

Some storms are remembered for particular human drama rather than for greatness in the scheme of things. At midnight on Friday, March 27th, 1896, the postmaster in Perth received a telegram from his counterpart in the little port of Condon:


In the capital, there would be no further news until the steamer Albany arrived from the north a week later, bringing full particulars.[29] Throughout the afternoon of March 27th the wind had risen, but it was well after dark when the situation became serious. Traini’s Condon Hotel lost its roof at 10 p.m., and most of its walls soon after. Among the guests were Mr Paton, commercial traveller for the furniture and homewares firm Sandover & Company, and his wife, who had decided to accompany him on this tour.

To lose the roof from their hotel room would have been bad enough, but the Patons suffered the added indignity of losing two of their four walls at the same time. They could do nothing but huddle together in the one remaining corner. Exposed to the full force of the wind and rain, and debris being hurled about, it must have seemed that things could not get much worse. Not so: Condon, like Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay, sat at the head of a narrow inlet which opened to the north, from which direction the first hard wind had come. As the gale rose to hurricane force it dragged the rising tide with it, along the channel, over the jetty and into the town. In a matter of minutes the water reached the floor of the hotel and kept rising. For three hours the Patons sat in water to their waists, with little protection from wind, rain and sand.

Other residents could do nothing to assist. From the relative safety of a government building they heard the wind tearing strips from the buildings still standing. A little way along the street, a private house was demolished and all of its contents blown or washed away. Nothing was spared; even the piano, with part of the floor on which it had stood, was picked up and hurled against the wall of the post office.

p130Had the eye of the storm passed directly over the town, there would have been some brief respite, and an opportunity to rescue the Patons before the wind returned. But there was no lull; although the wind shifted, it did not ease. At about 1 a.m., publican Traini and local resident Matthews took their chances. They negotiated the wreckage of the hotel, reached the stranded guests, and brought them to safety. How the Patons coped with their ordeal is not known. It may have haunted them for a very long time. But as the furniture salesman and his wife sat in tight embrace with the homewares of Condon flying all about, some positive thoughts may have intruded.

The change in the direction of the wind brought another dramatic change: the water withdrew as rapidly as it had risen. Dawn revealed sodden ground and the full extent of the destruction. The deck of Tiffany’s Jetty was lying a hundred yards from its snapped piles. The receiving sheds had been levelled. The Condon Hotel had lost its roof, most of its walls, also its kitchen, stables and outbuildings. And beyond the settlement, the telegraph line lay flat on the marsh for miles.

* * *

The willy-willy at Condon was the first of four direct hits upon coastal towns in the space of three years. The greatest, and one of the first to be recorded in photographs, was the Cossack Blow of 1898.

For the crews of pearling vessels and coastal traders, a visit to Cossack was keenly anticipated. In other places, loading and unloading could be tedious, with goods transferred by lighter to beach or jetty. By contrast, the Cossack township was neatly stitched to the bank of a tidal inlet. Having enjoyed the modern convenience of a masonry wharf with a tramway and holding sheds, sailors could choose between drinking establishments immediately adjacent.

There was comfort here, too. After a few hours at the Weld or the White House, a sailor could look forward to undisturbed sleep. At other places boats bumped, scraped and canted over with every ebb of the tide. But Cossack’s wharf projected into a deep, natural pool. Any vessel with a draft of seven feet or less could drop anchor and remain afloat—with masts vertical and bunks horizontal—for the duration of its stay.

Few among Cossack’s drinkers and sleepers ever gave much thought to the natural forces that had shaped Butcher Inlet. The body of water was not only a tidal estuary; it was also one outlet of the Harding River. At first sight, it did not look like the mouth of any river. There was no permanent freshwater flow, and the braided channels of the hinterland seemed strangely ambivalent. And yet it was to the river that thanks were due for the luxury of a good night’s sleep. The ebb and flow of the ocean had attended to the landscaping, but it was the periodic flooding of the Harding River that had done the dredging.

p131If residents or visitors had followed that line of thought a little further, they might have seen mortal danger hiding behind convenience and comfort. If a willy-willy from the north-east were to deliver heavy rain to the interior before crossing the coast west of Cossack on a high spring tide, the results would be catastrophic. The ocean would meet the floodwaters of the Harding in the middle of town.

That extraordinary alignment occurred in the late afternoon of Saturday, April 2nd, 1898.[30] The West Australian later reported:

The jetty has sunk down many feet and the goodshed is frightfully torn about by the storm. The sea burst in the door facing the creek and swept a quantity of cargo out. Fearful damage has been done to shipping. The s.s. Beagle is piled up on the rocks on the south side of the jetty in front of the Weld Hotel with her stern resting on the fallen wall of the jetty and her bows on the rocks. The schooner Maggie Mollan is a total wreck on the beach toward Japtown. The dilapidated jetty was fully loaded with general merchandise for Condon. The cargo is now strewn along the strand from one end to the other. The schooner Harriett is high and dry on the beach close to the north side of the jetty. The s.s. Croydon, which was moored near the stock jetty, on the opposite side of the creek, was carried fair on to high land. The cutter Rose has been washed up between the residences of A. Rouse p132and A. S. Thompson. . . . The only boat that remained at her moorings was the police boat. Not a single boat other than this is safe. Tee and Co’s. office, H. Wilson’s residence and buildings, the Weld and White House hotels and Paxton’s boarding house are scattered in all directions. The new Customs-house and the residence of J. Meagher have been unroofed. A great deal of other damage has been done. The buildings of the Nor’-West Mercantile Company were flooded, and the company are heavy losers through the damage done to their merchandise, which is floating about the stores. Japtown is one heap of ruins. The houses which are composed of wood and iron flimsily put together were felled like skittles.[31]

As residents surveyed the damage in disbelief, a camera bought for family amusement became a powerful tool of record and reportage. What its lens brought to unprecendented focus was not common mayhem; it was Cossack’s vulnerability to a once-in-a-century confluence of water and circumstance.

Cossack, 1898: the wreckage of the schooner Maggie Gollan on the beach by the wharf.

Cossack, 1898: S.S. Beagle aground upon the wreckage of wharf and tramline.

* * *

It had always been believed that Broome was situated too far north to be susceptible to cyclone, but two disastrous events in the space of six months demanded change in theory and practice.

On April 26th, 1908, almost four weeks after the end of the official cyclone season, the first of the two storms struck south of Broome. The p133combination of location and time could not have been worse. Most of the pearling boats had left port for their first foray of the new season, and most had sailed south to work along the Eighty Mile Beach. Complacency and poor understanding contributed to a terrible toll of men and boats. When the wind rose from the east, many stayed inshore where the sea was manageable, only to be caught on a lee shore when the eye of the storm passed and the wind reversed in direction. Almost forty boats and a hundred men were lost.[32]

The disaster brought new intensity to the discussion of tropical storms and the natural laws that might govern them. Some speculated that the latitude of greatest danger might migrate with the sun, moving south and then north as summer progressed, making Broome more prone to assault at the beginning and end of the season. When disaster struck again on December 8th, that view received tragic endorsement: another six vessels and forty men were lost less than a hundred miles from the scene of the earlier disaster. Heading the list of shipping casualties in the second storm was Mark Rubin’s beautiful 140-ton schooner, Kalander Bux. Her master Ancell Gregory survived hours in the water to reach the beach alive, but most of his elite crew did not.[33]

When the second storm struck, most boats had already returned to Broome for the summer lay-up. The master pearlers were acutely aware that had the storm come two weeks earlier, the death toll would have been horrendous. Without delay, the Pearlers’ Association issued new advice to its members.

Your Committee desires to draw your attention to the following observations that would, in their opinion, considerably reduce the disastrous effects of these hurricanes if attended to in time:

(1) To carry on no pearling operations between the 1st December and the 30th April, except in those waters from which shelter can be easily reached.

(2) To carefully note the barometer night and morning during these months, as it is an unfailing guide to the weather in the tropics.

(3) The barometer has two tides in the tropics, just the same as the ordinary water tides. It rises about 1-10th from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m.; falls about the same from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; rises again from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; to fall again about the same from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. High water by the barometer, 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Low water by barometer, 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. Any variation from the above pearlers should view with the greatest care.

The normal summer reading of the barometer is 29.90. A fall in the barometer of say 2-10ths below normal should always be taken as a danger signal, and this more especially if the wind is in the east. During the summer months—December to April inclusive—an p134easterly wind and a falling barometer is a sure indication of abnormal conditions in the weather, and pearlers should at once seek shelter.

The one great lesson of the last two ‘blows’, however, has been not to work away from the place from whence shelter can be easily obtained, and, secondly, not to seek the shelter of an open beach because the wind is in the east. Owing to Broome’s position, the centres of these dreaded hurricanes have invariably passed to the westward, and this means that as the storm progresses the change of wind will be from east to north-east to north to north-west to west. This places luggers seeking shelter of an open beach (merely because the wind is east) in a position of grave danger, and has undoubtedly been the cause of the great losses the industry has suffered during the past year.[34]

Although the visitations of 1908 were disastrous for Broome’s pearlers, neither storm did any great damage to the town itself. Indeed, Broome had never in its 25-year history been struck by a blow like those which had ravaged the towns further south. For a time it seemed that the pretty, poinciana-lined showpiece of the Nor’-West enjoyed some natural immunity.

Broome’s halcyon days ended abruptly. On Saturday, November 19th, 1910, the town took a direct hit from a storm with a devastating combination of features: it was large, intense and slow-moving.[35] Before dawn, an easterly wind rose to hurricane force but continued to strengthen for another ten hours. By midday, much of Chinatown had been levelled and the telephone system lay twisted and draped over fallen trees. By 2 p.m., uprooted trees were rolling before the wind and pearling boats were piled one upon the other. The wind that had so ruthlessly dismantled the camps and shanties now hurled corrugated iron through the better parts of town, where even trusted refuges were opening to the rain.

At 5 p.m. a sudden stillness descended. For a short while, in the eye of the storm, the sky was clear and Broome’s desolation was bathed in yellow late-afternoon light. But as darkness fell, the wind returned from the north-west. The second half of the storm was as powerful and persistent as the first, but chose different targets. Of the buildings that had survived the day, many fell to the night. And whereas the first assault had raked the pinions of the town’s prosperity into a pile on the east-facing foreshore, the second chose Cable Beach to display a grim harvest of the open sea.

Three weeks later, Koombana arrived in Broome on her regular Nor’-West run. As the ship came alongside the jetty at high tide, disembarking passenger Len Knight wondered what kind of place he had come to. Protruding from the water at odd angles were the masts of some forty sunken luggers. The scene was gaunt and apocalyptic. Along the tramline and in the town, naked trees and perversely twisted telegraph poles continued what the sunken boats had begun. Knight wondered if he p135should turn around, reboard the steamer and leave. He did not. He stayed and made Broome his home.

By the end of summer some colour had returned to the town’s streets, but like Roebourne in 1872 and Cossack in 1898, the community had been altered in character and confidence by its first great visitation. For the young Irish engineer Jim Low, who had left Koombana to settle in Broome a few months earlier, the cyclone—his first—was something he would never forget. Two years later, in a letter to his sister Jane in England, Jim wrote warmly of life and opportunity in Western Australia, but added:

Between Carnarvon and Onslow is the southern limit of the cyclone storms and let nobody come to the conclusion that I am talking through my hat when I say that I will have no hand in advising any of my friends to settle down within cooee of them. You can judge for yourself.[36]


1. "A Catechism of Cyclones", The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 31 March 1912, page 1
3. Henderson, Graeme & Kandy-Jane, Nedlands, WA, Unfinished Voyages: Western Australian Shipwrecks 1851-1880, 1988, pages 67-71, University of Western Australia Press
6. "Disastrous Hurricane at the North-West Settlement", Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, Friday 24 May 1872, Supplement p1
7. "Disastrous Hurricane at the North-West Settlement", Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, Friday 24 May 1872, Supplement p1
8. Henderson, Graeme & Kandy-Jane, Nedlands, WA, Unfinished Voyages: Western Australian Shipwrecks 1851-1880, 1988, pages 185-188, University of Western Australia Press
9a. Morris, Edward E., 1898, Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases, and Usages, Macmillan, London
10. "The Pearling Fleet, North West", The West Australian, Tuesday 17 February 1880, page 3
11. "Cossack and Roebourne", The West Australian, Monday 11 May 1885, page 3
12. "Disaster At The North West", The West Australian, Tuesday 8 February 1881, page 3
13. "Disaster At The North West", The West Australian, Tuesday 8 February 1881, page 3
14. "Disaster At The North West", The West Australian, Tuesday 8 February 1881, page 3
15a. "Disaster At The North West", The West Australian, Tuesday 8 February 1881, page 3
15b. "Western Australia", The Argus (Melbourne), Tuesday 29 March 1881, page 6
16. "Notes from the Nor'-West", The West Australian, Tuesday 28 March 1882, page 3
17a. "Our Pearl Shell Fisheries", The Western Mail (Perth, WA), Saturday 10 July 1886, page 18
17b. Edwards, Hugh, 1983, Port of Pearls, Rigby, Adelaide, Chapter 6
18. "Terrible Disaster on the Pearling Grounds", The West Australian, Friday 29 April 1887, page 3
19. Coppin, Christopher W., "A North-West tragedy: the big blow of 1887", Early Days (Western Australian Historical Society), December 1947, Vol. 3, pp37-40
20a. "Terrible Disaster on the Pearling Grounds", The West Australian, Friday 29 April 1887, page 3
20b. "Roebourne Notes", The West Australian, Friday 13 May 1887, page 3
21. Cairns, Lynne and Henderson, Graeme, Nedlands, WA, Unfinished Voyages: Western Australian Shipwrecks 1881-1900, 1995, pages 89-95, University of Western Australia Press
22a. "The Recent Gale on the North-West Coast", The West Australian, Friday 03 March 1893, page 6
22b. "The Storm at Exmouth Gulf", The West Australian, Saturday 04 March 1893, page 3
23. "Storm at Carnarvon and Sharks Bay", The West Australian, Monday 27 February 1893, page 6
24. "Western Australia", The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 01 March 1893, page 8
25. "Western Australia", The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 01 March 1893, page 8
26. "Western Australia", The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 01 March 1893, page 8
27. "Storm at Bunbury", The West Australian, Wednesday 01 March 1893, page 2
28. "Cyclone at the North West", The West Australian, Saturday 28 March 1896, page 3
29a. "The Recent 'Willy Willy At Condon", The West Australian, Monday 06 April 1896, page 3
29b. "Willy-Willy at Condon", The Daily News (Perth, WA), Saturday 18 April 1896, page 5
30a. "The Hurricane in the Nor'-West", The West Australian, Tuesday 05 April 1898, page 5
30b. "Cossack Hurricane", The Inquirer & Commercial News (Perth, WA), Friday 08 April 1898, page 9
30c. News, Northern Public Opinion and Mining and Pastoral News (Roebourne, WA), 09 April 1898
31. "The Hurricane in the Nor'-West", The West Australian, Tuesday 05 April 1898, page 5
32. "Another Pearling Disaster", The West Australian, Monday 14 December 1908, page 7
33. "The Broome Cyclone", The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Wednesday 30 December 1908, page 5
34. Edwards, Hugh, 1983, Port of Pearls, Rigby, Adelaide, Chapter 10
35a. "The Broome Cyclone", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Thursday 24 November 1910, page 9
35b. "Broome Cyclone", The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Friday 25 November 1910, page 9
36. Low, James Galloway, Letters, 1904-91, Battye Library, MN681, ACC2612A, Letter from Jim to his sister Jane, 21 June 1912