A severe typhoon affected Kosrae in the late 18th century. Some record this as 1775-1780s and others the 1790s (the latter being the more likely) which caused significant damage, loss of food, severe starvation and reduction in population by many thousands. It may also have led to the end of the construction of Lelu. The cyclone, and subsequent famine also had devastating effects on populations on Pingelap and Mokil, and may also have had a significant impact on Pohnpei. Extracts from publications that contain information on this typhoon are recorded below:
A typhoon of similar magnitude seems to have hit the eastern Caroline Islands sometime between 1775 and 1780. Traditions about it were recorded in the middle of the nineteenth century on Kosrae, Pingelap, Mowaekil, and Pohnpei. These four islands lie in a straight line marking the path of the typhoon. Kosraean record how the typhoon destroyed the island of Kiol, and the sea wall and western end of Leluh, the great artificial settlement built out into Leluh harbour. Almost half of Kosrae’s population lived at Leluh at the time. Many lives and all food crops were lost. Famine raged as the survivors fought each other for the food left in the forests and parties scoured the reefs. The typhoon is remembered as Man Sisik – the typhoon that destroyed Kosrae. European visitors in the early 1800s were informed that Leluh was now a mere remnant of its former self.
From the oldest times the natives recall only one very severe typhoon remembered under the name of the then reigning King ‘man sisik’. Traditions tells about it: It partly destroyed the island Kiol, further the western end of Lölö and carried away Jelpong, presumably a piece of the shoreland on the southern coast of Lölö-Harbor. Many people died and a severe famine broke out because the cultural plants had been completely destroyed, so that people started fighting over bush food . When this typhoon hit, cannot be said. It was in prehistoric time and must have been before 1800.
“The king gave an account of a hurricane that desolated the island when he was a boy. It came first from the East and then shifted to the other points of the compass. Their houses were swept away, their breadfruit and coconut trees were broken down and consequently a famine followed which swept away thousands of people. The stores of breadfruit that they had underground were soon exhausted and those that survived lived on fish. He said that in some houses there were twenty dead and dying at one time. They now keep large quantities of breadfruit buried. It is put into the ground raw, with the outside skin removed, and in this state it will keep, they say, for many years.”
It is argued here that major new construction at Lelu ended ca A.D. 1800. About this year, a great typhoon hit Kosrae. The destruction wrought by this typhoon on Kosrae suggests it may have been a super-typhoon with winds approaching 300 kilometers per hour (200 miles/hr). It is said to have caused great famine, indicating that trees were levelled (no tree crops) and taro swamps were flooded (no taro). Many people were said to have died. On a high island, ir is likely that the died not as a result of the storm, rather the famine.
This typhoon severely hit Lelu Island. An islet apparently near Lik (called Kiol and perhaps inhabited) was destroyed. The harbour side of the Mutunlik block of compounds and of Pisin, all at the west tip of Lelu, were heavily damaged. Today, the large foundation stones of Mutunlik stand by themselves ca 10-20 m offshore, suggesting a 10-20 m strip of fill was destroyed. (Sarfert (1919) said Langosak had to be filled to build the church, so the damage may have been greater). The Insruun tomb also seems to have been irreparably damaged during this typhoon. Sarfert noted “Jelpong” (Yelpong), a place near the entrance to the harbour (off Lik?) was also destroyed.
The cyclone may also have led to the abandonment of the settlement at Lela (between Mosral and Kuplu in Malem Municipality) and changes in the physical coastline (Swift et al, 1997):
Occupation of Lela continued through the late 1700s or early 1800s whereupon the site was abandoned. Historic accounts document a disastrous typhoon in the 1790s. It is possible that this typhoon led to the abandonment of Lela. Local history suggests that the survivors of the typhoon re-settled in what is today Malem Municipality.”
Both the northern and southern swamps are fed by the Inya Kupla, which flows to the southeast during the high tide and drains back to the northwest to Utwa harbour during low tide. An easterly trending, low-volume channel also drains the northern mangrove swamp. The southern mangrove swamps border the Inlulu Kupla lake. Presently the Inya Kupla is the only outlet for the Inlulu. Ethnographic accounts suggest that prior to major changes in the area’s geomorphology caused by a strong typhoon in the 1790s, the Inlulu Kupla was drained by an eastern trending, navigable channel.
Cordy, R.1993. The Lelu stone ruins (Kosrae, Micronesia): 1978-1981. Historical and Archaeological Research. Asian and Pacific Archaeology Series 10. Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
D’Arcy, P. 2005. The People of the Sea: Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania. University of Hawaii Press.
Gulick, L. H. 1932. A visit to King George of Kusaie. The Friend 151: 495–496, 502-503.
Sarfert, E. 1919/1920. Kusae. series II, subseries B, volume 4. In G. Thilenius (ed.), Ergebnisse der Siidsee-Expedition 1908-10. Friederic, Hamburg. xxvii+545 p., plates, maps.
Swift, M.K., Harper, R.A., Athens, J.S. 1997. Studies of the prehistory of Malem Municipality, Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia. International Archaeological Research Institute, Inc. Honoloulu, Hawaii.