Recalling the Typhoon of 30 June 1905 and its aftermath

by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

`Typhoons do not occur on Jaluit'. Words to that effect were frequently uttered by traders and skippers working for German firms in the Marshall Islands and faithfully reported by travel writers and ethnographers. Indeed, in the short time German and other traders had been working in the Marshalls, the effect of typhoons had been comparatively small. Some events had occurred, but none memorable enough.

All of this changed on June 30th, 1905. A typhoon struck the southern Marshalls, devastating Mile, Nadikdik and Jaluit and severely affecting Arno and Majuro. Over 227 Marshallese lost their lives on that day. In subsequent months approximately another 90 people died of starvation as a result of destroyed food stocks.

On Mile the wind set in with unusual strength at 8 am, coming from northeast. At about the same time heavy seas began washing across the islets. At about 9am three gigantic waves, one larger than the others, hit Mile Atoll, and washed over the islands. The storm wave effect was compounded by a high tide. According to eye-witnesses, the third and largest of the waves, was as high as the tops of the coconut trees. Even if we take exaggeration into account and allow for the crest of the waves to consist of wind-driven foam, a wave height of some 16-24 feet can be estimated. Some eighty people died.


Devastation On Jaluit

Neighbouring Nadikdik Atoll was completely washed over, with several inhabited islands completely eroded down to the bare reef platform. The population of that atoll, comprising some sixty people, was completely extinguished save for two boys who survived a 24-hour drift voyage clinging on a breadfruit tree to the southern coast of Mile.

Majuro lost a land area of a total of 3 miles length, when the waves breached the narrow strip of land on two locations on the southeastern coast, between Rairok and Delap.

The northeastern islets of Jaluit, were most severely affected with the passing over. Several were completely washed away and reduced to the underlying reef platform. Over seventy people lost their lives. The casualty figures for Jabwor, south of the eye, were comparatively light. One Marshallese had been killed by a falling roof beam, and several people, among them one of the Catholic brothers, had sustained broken limbs etc. caused by falling debris or by being hit by rocks and other debris while being washed about by the cyclonic surge.

When the typhoon passed over Jaluit a it was low tide and so the impact was substantially less than on Mile or Nadikdik. Had the typhoon struck at high tide, the number of casualties on Jabor would have been much higher. Despite this, 78 people drowned on the northern islets of Jaluit when the eye passed over.

Flooding occurred, also on Jaluit several ships sunk in the lagoon or were driven onto reefs by waves and winds. The entire European settlement was flattened bar one building: all expatriates and many Marshallese living on Jabwor congregated in the ware house of the Jaluit Gesellschaft, then the strongest building on the island.

Based on the damage shown in the available historic photographs, we can reconstruct that Jabwor, at the less dangerous southern side of the eye would have experienced sustained winds of 100-105 knots. The northern edge, however, would have been exposed to 130-135 knot winds. To put this into a modern context: this is approximately the same strength as hurricane Andrew which hit Florida few years back.

The typhoon then moved westwards, with limited impact and only small scale flooding on Namorik and Ujelang. Following a path not unlike that of `Paka', the typhoon moved northwest and on 5 July 1905 where it struck the islands Alamagan, Pagan and Anatahan in the Marianas devastating the copra plantation there.


After Initial Clean-up

The lagoon of Mile and to a lesser extent that of Jaluit were reported to be choc-a-bloc full of floating debris: trees, bushes, houses, broken canoes, wooden utensils and corpses. The concentration of drift material in the waters of the Marshalls during July and August 1905 was so high that it constituted a serious shipping hazard, making the very limited relief operations not any easier.

What is particularly unusual about this event is the lack of disaster relief that occurred. While Germans are normally noted for their efficiency and thoroughness, this was not the case in Jaluit.

The presence of the postal steamer `Germania' en route to HongKong meant that news of the event could be carried swiftly to Yap, where Germany had a telegraph station, and from there to Berlin as well as to the naval headquarters of the German East Asia squadron in Jiazhou (Quingdao, China).

It also meant that any steps taken to mitigate the impact could be implemented in the shortest time possible. The German administration, led by the old Pacific hand `Landeshauptmann' Eugen Brandeis, as well as the commercial interests swung into action. When the `Germania' left on 4 July 1905, the administration had reached the following decisions:

a) to order timber from San Francisco to rebuild the houses;

b) to hire (temporarily) Chinese carpenters in HongKong; and

c) to order supplies etc., as building supplies were in very short supply.

When the steamer had left, the German administration seems to have gone into some form of stupor. While the trading companies were intent on rebuilding their stations as quickly as possible, the German administration did nothing.

As the typhoon had come from the east, one would expect that the administration would take steps to ascertain whether the atolls of Mile and Arno/Majuro were also affected by the typhoon. Two two-masted schooners had been driven ashore in Jaluit, but could be refloated the following week. Thus shipping was available--but no action was taken.

In late July the German naval vessel SMS `Seeadler' arrived, having come to Micronesia to assist in mitigating the effects of an earlier typhoon in the Eastern Carolines (On 19 & 20 April 1905 it had devastated Kosrae, Pingelap, Pohnpei, Mokil and several other atolls). Even though Brandeis now had warship at his disposal, which could be used to investigate other islands, and even though by that time news of the devastation of the other atolls had filtered back to Jaluit, he did--nothing.

On these atolls, especially Mile, most of the fruit trees were either damaged or destroyed, leading to a glut of food in the first two weeks after the typhoon and then to extreme food shortages. The starvation period would last for six to nine months. Unless help would be provided, many deaths were certain to occur. Fortunately, the traditional responses to typhoons were still in the minds of people. A number of people moved from Mile to Arno, and the people of Majuro provided food for Arno to reduce the impact of typhoon and additional population.


Landeshauptmann Eugen Brandeis

Yet this was not enough. More than 70 people died on Mile of starvation. Deaths which could have been avoided if Brandeis would have cared for the people under his responsibility.

This government inertia continued even after early 1906 when Brandeis had gone back to Germany, having finished his tour of duty. His Deputy, Ludwig Kaiser, then in an acting role as district administrator, did nothing either. When the Vice-Governor of German Micronesia, Dr. Victor Berg was to arrive on an inspection visit on 26 May 1905, he found the German colony in confusion. Unable to face up to the lack of action, Kaiser had killed himself the day before.

Aghast by what he found, Berg, immediately swung into action. A man of a different caliber, he immediately investigated Mile, Arno, and Majuro and implemented the required food drops and organised increased evacuation of Mile to Arno. Almost one year later disaster relief finally occurred.

We are left wondering why nothing had happened for so long. True, the German administrators were not used to typhoons and no idea of their impact on the people and islands of Micronesia. But this is no excuse for inaction.

Jaluit, the pearl of German Micronesia, had been turned to rubble overnight. It is quite likely that the suddennes and extent of devastation overwhelmed the German administration. But even this is no excuse for inaction, certainly not for such a prolonged length of time.

One is left with the uneasy feeling that the administration at the time simply did not care what happened to the people on the outer atolls. And we can be grateful, that adminstrators such as Brandeis were the unfortunate exception, rather than the norm

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000) Recalling the Typhoon of 30 June 1905 and its aftermath. Albury. URL: http:/

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) Dirk H.R. Spennemann 2000