Cyclones, fake news and history

Science and searching the archive

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  • Published 20190507
  • ISBN: 9781925773620
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IN THE DARK before dawn on 5 March 1899, half way up the eastern edge of Cape York Peninsula, five men camping on a sand ridge about forty feet above sea level and half a mile behind the beach found themselves waist deep in the ocean. Since midnight, the four Aboriginal troopers and a white officer of the Native Police had been huddled under a blanket as Australia’s deadliest cyclone, and one of the world’s fiercest, blew away their tents and killed or scattered their horses. Just after 5 am, as the eye passed north over Cape Melville and wrecked the pearling fleet anchored there, the ocean swept inland over the ridge, spoiling the officer’s watch.

The next day, the officer, Constable Jack Kenny, and his men began to walk back to Cooktown, where they arrived a week later to learn that the cyclone had drowned nearly 300 people. Kenny told his story to the manager of the Burns Philp store, Arthur Vidgen. By then, the disaster was international news and Vidgen wrote Kenny’s account in a letter to a friend in Brisbane, who showed the letter to a newspaper, which published an extract. Another newspaper used that as the basis for an article, and six months later that article was cut and pasted into an anonymous booklet. The rest, as they say, is history. Or, if you’re a historian, memory. Or for some scientists, data, because Kenny’s account has made its way from the anonymous booklet into the scientific literature and is now supporting evidence that the 1899 cyclone caused a world-record storm surge. But is it true?

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