‘Who could have expected such a disaster?’ How responses to the 1892 cyclone determined institutional trajectories of vulnerability in Mauritius

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Walshe, RA 

On the 29th of April 1892 an intense cyclone directly struck the island of Mauritius. The resulting devastation was considerable with over 1200 people killed, making it by far the deadliest cyclone in recorded Mauritian history. While this cyclone is commemorated in multiple places, the responses chosen (and rejected) at the time, their long term impacts, and their antecedent factors have never before been detailed.

This research draws from archive data in Mauritius to place the 1892 cyclone in its historical context. A context that includes uncovering the emergence of vulnerability within the early iterations of the cyclone early warning system in Mauritius (which is also revealed to likely be the world’s first) before the 1892 cyclone and the failure of this warning system in 1892. This research details the consequences of the popular and prevalent discourses of the cyclone being ‘unprecedented’, ‘unpredictable’ and without warning signs, that were central to the way the cyclone was experienced, responded to, and the long term recovery.

This article goes on to detail the institutional decision not to address vulnerability in the early warning system in 1892 (shaped by competing interests, a number of misunderstandings, and a lack of memory) and how this decision determined one element of the experience of cyclones and the trajectories of vulnerability in Mauritius over the long term and up to today. This article therefore adds to calls to consider the long term nature of disasters as fundamental to understanding the creation and perpetuation of vulnerability (referred to as trajectories) over time, and that decisions made in the distant past may be critical to understanding vulnerability today.

Mauritius, Tropical cyclones, Vulnerability, History, Institutional responses, Early warning
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Journal of Historical Geography
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Elsevier BV
This research was conducted as part of a studentship funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grant no. NE/L002485/1.