Tsunami: Nature and Culture


An excerpt from Richard Hamblyn’s new book: ‘From the legend of Atlantis to the violent tsunamis of the present day, this book casts new light on one of the world’s most spectacular and destructive natural phenomena.’

The Kuwahara Store, the only building left standing on Hilo’s bayfront after the 1946 Fools’ Day tsunami. Photo: Terumi Koya Collection (Pacific Tsunami Museum).

One of the many stories to emerge in the wake of the 1946 Fools’ Day tsunami concerned the Kuwahara Store building, one of the only bayfront structures in downtown Hilo (Hawaii) to survive the inundation intact. A few days before the tsunami, according to the tale, an elderly Hawaiian woman had appeared at the door and asked the owner if he could spare her some food. The shopkeeper, who was well known as a kind-hearted man, sat her down on the bench in front of his shop and presented her with an array of food and drink. After she had eaten, she got up to leave, saying, ‘You know, you’re a good man. Something real big is going to happen, but you’ll be okay.’[1] And she was right: the shop survived, and photographs taken at the time show it standing alone among its flattened neighbours, eerily unscathed by the wave.

The tale, which was told throughout Hawaii in the weeks after the tsunami, is both a miraculous survival story and a variation on the legend of ‘the mysterious benefactor’, a curious new instance of which emerged in Japan following the March 2011 tsunami. In the weeks leading up to the second anniversary of the disaster, people in the small fishing port of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, began to receive gold bars anonymously in the post. The town had been devastated by the tsunami, suffering the highest death toll of any one settlement, and much of the wreckage had still not been cleared by the time the gifts began to arrive. The handful of gold bars so far received – which are thought to be worth at least $250,000 – will contribute to the rebuilding of some of Ishinomaki’s worst-hit infrastructure, yet no-one has any idea who sent them. No doubt, in the years to come, rumour and hearsay will inflate the number of ingots from a handful to a vaultful, with the whole town magically touched by some unseen Midas. But then this is how disaster legends have always arisen, phoenix-like from the ruins, and it’s how they will always thrive in the retelling.

As will be seen throughout this chapter, myths and legends, both new and revived, routinely appear in the aftermath of disasters, with storytelling playing a vital role in the process of collective recovery. In the case of especially traumatic disasters, these stories can persist for centuries, reverberating down the years as a form of spoken memory, a bulwark against the dangers of forgetting. As a child in Jamaica in the 1970s (my father was a marine biologist who worked for the island’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries), I heard stories of how the voices of the dead could still be heard under the water at Port Royal, the ill-fated harbour town destroyed by an undersea earthquake in 1692. The event had been utterly catastrophic. In the words of one contemporary account, ‘in the space of three minutes, Port Royal, the fairest town in all the English plantations, was shaken and shattered to pieces, sunk into and covered, for the greater part, by the sea’.[2] Following the powerful noonday quake, in which the ground ‘heaved and swelled like the rolling billows’, a sudden subsidence caused much of the town’s waterfront area to slide into the sea. Buildings crumbled and capsized, and as the land sank, the sea rose up to invade the ruins, abetted by a powerful tsunami that came not from the open ocean but from inside the bay itself. Waves of around two and a half metres (eight feet) struck all along Jamaica’s northwest coast, destroying wharfs and shipping, and even pitching the royal frigate, Swan, over several houses inland. Two thousand lives were lost in the cataclysm, and two thirds of Port Royal was sunk and destroyed, including the cemetery where the notorious privateer Henry Morgan – ‘the victor of Panama and Maracaibo’ – had been buried four years earlier.

Today, much of the old town remains under water, a magnet for divers and treasure hunters as well as a still potent source of myth and legend. I remember being taken on a school trip to the Port Royal Museum and reading an information panel that claimed – if you listened quietly – you could hear the bells of St Paul’s church, sunk below the waves, still tolling with the tide. More than three hundred years after the event, such stories still have the power to impress; the power, indeed, to make a passing animist out of anyone.


© Richard Hamblyn 2014

[1] Robert ‘Steamy’ Chow, interviewed in Tsunamis Remembered: Oral Histories of Survivors and Observers in Hawai’i (Honolulu, 2000), vol. I [no page nos].


[2] Cited in Karen Fay O’Louchlin and James F. Lander, Caribbean Tsunamis: A 500-Year History from 1498-1998 (Dordrecht, 2003), p. 56.

12 January 2014