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The Great Flood of Pest (1838)

By Hungary Today // 2018.03.12.

March 15 is a day of remembering the heroes of the 1848 Hungarian revolution and struggle for independence. However, only 10 years earlier, on this week in 1838, a devastating natural disaster occurred when the Danube flooded the entire Pest side of the later city of Budapest as the flat areas of Pest were not adequately protected against such elevated water levels.

Historians cite the 1838 flood that devastated the Danube embankment in northern Hungary, including the capital as the Great Flood of “Pest”, since the city of Budapest was not yet officially united. Parts of the city’s surrounding areas in Buda and Óbuda were also under water as the river overflowed and destroyed towns and small settlements all the way from Esztergom to Pest. The entire Pest side was under several meters of water; more than 150 people drowned and more than 50,000 were left homeless. The devastating human and economic effects of the Great Flood of 1838 have been compared to that of the Great Fire of London of 1666.

Plans to control the river (through flood control and flood protection systems) and the construction of a new river embankment were immediately launched as authorities did not want to see this tragedy reoccur ever again.

A marker outside Budapest’s National Museum, marking the height of the water on March 15th, 1848, the height of the Great Flood of Pest (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

But how do floods occur?

According to the National Geographic Institute, flooding is one of the greatest natural disasters globally that have killed more people so far than any other natural disaster. There are few places on Earth where people need not be concerned about flooding.

A flood occurs when water overflows or inundates land that’s normally dry. This can happen in a multitude of ways. Most common is when rivers or streams overflow their banks. Excessive rain, a ruptured dam or levee, rapid ice melting in the mountains, or even an unfortunately placed beaver dam can overwhelm a river and send it spreading over the adjacent land, called a floodplain. Coastal flooding occurs when a large storm or tsunami causes the sea to surge inland.

Most floods take hours or even days to develop, giving residents ample time to prepare or evacuate. Others generate quickly and with little warning. These flash floods can be extremely dangerous, instantly turning a babbling brook into a thundering wall of water and sweeping everything in its path downstream.

From the stories of survivors and rescuers

Johan Hürlimann’s colored aquatint of the Flood at Pest’s Szinház Square (today Vörösmarty Square)

Stories of the Great Flood of Pest have surfaced from historical records and archives. It is a lesser known fact that the description of Baron Miklós Wesselényi as the “boatman of the flood” (árvízi hajós) is attributed to Mihály Vörösmarty. The “Boatman of the Flood” is the title of a dramatic poem, which attempts to grasp rescue operations during the collapse of city infrastructure.

Vörösmarty visited Pest often, but he took up residence in the city only in the mid-1820s. In 1830, he moved to the so-called Jankovich-house. The poorly furnished apartment’s door had a message board hung on it. This is how the Szózat was written and posted. He often visited his friend András Fáy, whose apartment served as a literary saloon. They cooperated during good times and bad times. Lajos Hatvany remembers their efforts during the Great Flood: „I am recalling a window from which there was a ladder helping Vörösmarty carefully descend to the top of the roof of the Fay house. That is where he decked out with Fay during the wicked March wind and rain from the morning until the afternoon, until a life boat has come to pick them up. It was dusk by the time they reached Ludovica Academy through the water-filled streets.” 

Scores of people, possibly tens of thousands, were housed during the flood at Ludovica, which was a massive building. For a long time to come, those who lost their homes in the city used this building as a safe haven and emergency dwelling up until the next winter. Vörösmarty and his circle soon moved on to Pécel, to the residence of Gedeon Ráday. That is when the poem “Boatman of the Flood” was written, which, according to Lajos Hatvany was offered to the beautiful actress Róza Laborfalvy by Vörösmarty the following way: „My dear Rozi, I have brought you something to recite.”

Boatman to the Rescue – the Heroism of Baron Miklós Wesselényi

The best witness of the flood and the dramatic events unfolding surrounding this natural disaster was Miklós Wesselényi, who was not only an active participant during the rescue operations, but also kept a diary of the entire calamity. I found Kígyó street nearly completely under water, so first I inched forward in the swirling water up to my knees, then up to my waist without wanting to retreat, until I reached the city market area immersed in water up to my neck where I could not locate a single barge” – he wrote describing his day on March 14.

When I reached dry land, my clothes began to freeze onto my skin and by the time I reached Helmeczy’s residence in the Trattner-Károlyi-house (which was only a few hundred steps away) my clothing was covered with a layer of ice. At that point, I had to shed my clothing and jump around a little, until my limbs thawed somewhat. Later, János arrived with a barge to get home. I immediately got dressed into dry clothes and went to look for barges at the Sebestyén market, where I found heavy traffic with barges coming and going.

Wesselényi not only described the routes and circumstances of the rescue operations, but also lambasted some of the bystanders sharply when he felt it necessary. Among others, he criticized Baron Csekonics, who tried to save his horses during the rescue instead of saving people, or some aristocrats such as Albert Prónay, who smoked their pipes sitting on top of secure masonry buildings instead of taking part in the rescue.

A relief depicting Count Miklós Wesselényi, the “Flood Boatman,” saving people during the Great Flood

He was glad to find new men to row when others faltered; these replacements may have been a bit tipsy, but at least they could handle tragic events and horrific tragedy a bit better: „my boaters were all intoxicated a bit, which was helpful as it gave them extra courage to reach places they would not have dared to go while sober in order to rescue unfortunate residents.” A promise was important to him as well: those victims whom he promised to rescue found that Wesselényi’s boat returned every time, even if it meant extra risks for him and his crew. He also noted that he felt some extra adrenalin during the rescue. All in all, he did a lot for the residents (a maximum effort was exerted by him on behalf of the victims and survivors).

It should be noted that prior to the rescue operations Wesselényi was not liked by the rulers of the regime (the Habsburgs): there was a court order against him and he was ultimately given a jail sentence in 1840. Despite his heroic acts, for some time to come after the Great Flood of Pest, he could only look down on the city from his jail cell in Buda castle. He could only see the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts of the city that he loved so much from a distance.

Adam Topolansky

Images via Wikimedia Commons and szeretlekmagyarorszag.hu


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