Abstract

Catalogs of historically devastating earthquakes (e.g., Dunbar et al., 1992) contain an entry for an earthquake in Calcutta in 1737 that is held responsible for the loss of 300,000 lives, thus rendering it one of the three most disastrous earthquakes in history. Yet, evidence for a severe earthquake is weak, consisting of anonymous reports conveyed to Europe 6 months later by merchant ships returning from Bengal. Official accounts of the disaster submitted to the East India Company headquarters in London list 3000 fatalities and omit mention of an earthquake. If the 11 October 1737 Calcutta earthquake is to remain on lists of catastrophic earthquakes, the following issues need to be resolved: the discrepancy between the 1737 urban population of Calcutta (<20,000) and the number of claimed fatalities, the difficulty in distinguishing between damage from shaking and hurricane force winds and flooding that occurred during the same night, and the contradiction between the number of nocturnal deaths and the apparent earthquake resistance of hatched roof dwellings typical of eighteenth century rural Bengal. It is possible that earthquake damage may have been minimal or nonexistent.

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