[Darwin's impressions of the aftermath of the 1835 Concepcion earthquake and tsunami]
Concepcion Syms Covington Journal:
I went on shore to Talcuana, & afterwards rode with the Captain to Concepcion. — The two towns presented the most awful yet interesting spectacle I ever beheld. — To any person who had formerly known them it must be still more so; for the ruins are so confused & mingled & the scene has so little the air of an habitable place that it is difficult to understand how great the damage has been. — Many compared the ruins to those of Ephesus or the drawings of Palmyra & other Eastern towns; certainly there is the same impossibility of imagining their former appearance & condition. In Concepcion each house or row of houses stood by itself a heap or line of ruins: in Talcuhano, owing to the great wave little more was left than one layer of bricks, tiles & timber, with here & there part of a wall yet standing up. From this circumstance Concepcion, although not so completely desolated, was the more terrible, & if I may so call it, picturesque sight. The Earthquake took place, as we have seen at Valdivia, at half past eleven. It is generally thought if it had happened in the night, at least ¾S of the inhabitants would have perished. It is probable that not more than 100 have met their deaths; yet many must still lie buried in the ruins. The earthquake came on with tremendous violence & gave no notice; the constant habit of these people of running out of their houses instantly on perceiving the first trembling only saved them. The inhabitants scarcely passed their thresholds before the houses fell in. This is thought to be the worse Earthquake ever known in Chili; it is however hard to tell, for the worst sorts happen only after long intervals from 60 to 100 years. Indeed several degrees worse would not signify, for the desolation is now complete.
After viewing the ruins of Concepcion, I cannot understand how the greater part escaped unhurt; the houses in many places have fallen outwards on each side into the street, so that it is frequently necessary to pass over little hillocks several feet high. In other places the houses fell in; in a large boarding school, the beds were buried 8 feet beneath bricks, yet all the young ladies escaped. — How dreadful would the slaughter have been, if as I said it had happened at night. Mr Rous, the English Consul, told us he was at breakfast; at the first motion he ran out, but only reached the middle of his little court-yard when one side of his house came thundering down; he retained presence of mind to remember that if he once got on the top of that part which had already fallen, he should be safe; not being able, from the motion of the ground, to stand on his legs he crawled up on his hands & knees; no sooner had he ascended this little eminence, than the other side of the house fell in; the great beams sweeping close in front of his head. — The sky became dark from the dense cloud of dust; with his eyes blinded & mouth choked he at last reached the street. Shock succeeded shock at the interval of a few minutes; no one dared approach the shattered ruins; no one knew whether his dearest friends or relations were perishing from the want of help. The thatched roofs fell over the fires, & flames burst forth in all parts; hundreds knew themselves ruined & few had the means of procuring food for the day. — Can a more miserable & fearful scene be imagined?
I shall never again laugh when I see people running out of their houses at a trifling shock; nor will any onboard who now has seen what an Earthquake is. The earthquake alone is sufficient to destroy the prosperity of a country; if beneath England a volcanic focus should reassume its power; how completely the whole country would be altered. What would become of the lofty houses, thickly packed cities, the great manufactories, the beautiful private & public buildings? If such a Volcanic focus should announce its presence by a great earthquake, what a horrible destruction there would be of human life. — England would become bankrupt; all papers, accounts, records, as here would be lost: & Government could not collect the taxes. — Who can say how soon such will happen? — Talcuana is built on a low flat bit of ground at the foot of some hills; a great wave, so common an occurrence with Earthquakes, entirely flowed over the whole town; after the houses had been shaken down, the destruction caused by the water can be well imagined. Few of the inhabitants were drowned; for the unbroken swell was seen travelling onwards at the distance of 5 or 6 miles. The people ran for the high land; as soon as the swell came close on shore it broke & is believed to have risen 23 ft higher than the Spring tides; it was followed by two other lesser ones; in the retreat of the water many things which could float were carried out to sea; hence the wreck on Quiriquina. The force of the wave must have been very great, for in the fort a gun & carriage, which some of the officers thought weighed about 4 tuns, was removed 15 ft upwards. — 200 yards from the beach & well within the town there is now lying a fine Schooner, a most strange witness of the height of the wave.
Before the swell reached the town it was seen tearing up all the cottages which were scattered around the Bay; some boats pulled out to meet it, the men knowing well that they would be safe if they reached the wave before it broke. In the confusion a little English boy 4 or 5 years old & an old woman got into a boat, but with nobody to pull them to seaward; the surf in consequence carried the boat with immense force into the town, where striking against an anchor it was cut into two; the old woman was drowned but the little boy clinging to the broken boat was carried out to sea, & was picked up some hours afterwards quietly seated on the thwart. The Ships at anchor were whirled about; two which were near each other had their two cables with three turns; although anchored in 36 ft water, they were for some minutes aground. — In another part of the harbor a vessel was pitched high & dry on shore, was carried off, was again driven on shore & again carried off! — The wave is said to have come from the South and in its road sadly devastated the Isd of St Mary; it is certain that it entered this harbor by the entrance nearest to the South. The permanent level of the land & water is, I believe, altered, but this Capt. FitzRoy will investigate when we return.
At this present time there are pools of sea water in the streets of the town; & the children making boats with old tables & chairs, appear as happy as their parents are miserable. — I must however say it is admirable to see how cheerful & active every-body is. Mr Rous remarked that it makes a wonderful difference the misfortune being universal: a man is not humbled, he has no reason to suspect his friends will look down on him & this perhaps is the worst part in loss of wealth. Mr Rous has a few Apple trees in his garden. He & a large party lived there for the first week & were as merry as if it had been a pic-nic. Some heavy rain after that period added much to their misery; many, Mr Rous for one, being absolutely without any shelter. Almost every one has now made a hut with planks. The hovels built of sticks & straw which belonged to the poorest class of people, were not shaken down, & they are now hired at a high price by the richest people. We saw many pretty ladies standing at the doors of such Ranchos. Those who have estates have gone there: The town is in such complete ruins that it is not yet decided whether it will not be better to change the situation, although at the loss of the close neighbourhead of the materials.
Heavy misfortunes are well known to make the bad worse; & here there were many robbers; there was a mixture of religion in their depredations which we should not see in England; at each little trembling of the ground, with one hand they beat their breasts & cried out "Miserecordia", & with the other continued to filch from the ruins. The necessity of every man watching what he contrived to save, added much to the trouble of the more respectable inhabitants.
With respect to the extent of the earthquake, we know it was severely felt at Valdivia; at Valparaiso they had a sharp shock but it did no damage. All the towns, Talca, Chillan, &c &c between Concepcion & St Jago have been destroyed, till we reach S. Fernando, which has only been partially destroyed. We may imagine the shock at this place & at Valdivia to have had the same degree of force, & looking at the map, they will be found to be nearly equally distant; hence Concepcion may be supposed to be about the centre of the disturbance; The length of coast which has been much affected is rather less than 400 miles. Mr Rous thinks the vibration came from the East, & this would appear probable from the greater number and & longest cracks having a N & S direction, which line would correspond to the tops of the undulations. — The Volcano of Antuco, which is a little to the North of Concepcion is said to be in great activity. The people in Talcuana say that the Earthquake is owing to some old Indian Woman two years ago being offended, that they by witchcraft stopped the Volcano, & now comes the Earthquake. This silly belief is curious because it shows that experience has taught them the constant relation between the suppressed activity of volcanoes & tremblings of the ground. It is necessary to apply the Witchcraft to the point where their knowledge stops, & this is the closing of the Volcanic Vent.
The town of Concepcion is built, as is usual, with all its streets at rt angles; one set runs (SW by W & NE by E) & the other (NW by N & SE by S). The walls which have the former direction certainly have stood better than those at right angles to them; If, as would seem probable Antuco may be considered as the centre it lying rather to the Northward of Concepcion,2 the concentric lines of undulation would not be far from coincident with NW by N & SE by S walls: this being the case the whole line would be thrown out of its centre of gravity at the same time & would be more likely to fall, than those which presented their ends to the shock. The different resistance offered by the two sets of walls is well seen in the great Church. This fine building stood on one side of the Plaza: it was of considerable size & the walls very thick, 4 to 6 ft & built entirely of brick: the front which faced the NE forms the grandest pile of ruins I ever saw; great masses of brick-work being rolled into the square as fragments of rock are seen at the base of mountains. — Neither of the side walls are entirely down, but exceedingly fractured; they are supported by immense buttresses, the inutility of which is exemplified by their having been cut off smooth from the wall, as if done by a chisel, whilst the walls themselves remain standing. There must have been a rotatory motion in the earth for square ornaments placed on the coping of this wall are now seated edge-ways. — Generally in all parts of the town arched doorways & windows stood pretty well; an old man however, who was lame, had always been in the custom of running to a certain doorway; this time however it fell & he was crushed to pieces.
With my idea of a vibration having come from Antuco, the Northward of E, I cannot understand the wave travelling from the South. The cause however of an earthquake causing one, two, or three great waves does not to me appear very clear.
The effect of so violent a shock on the springs was of course considerable; some poured out much more water than usual, some were closed: in one place black hot water flowed from a crack & it is said bubbles of gas & discoloured water were seen rising in the Bay. Many geological reasons have been advanced for supposing that the earth is a mere crust over a fluid melted mass of rock & that Volcanoes are merely apertures through this crust. When a Volcano has been closed for some time, the increased force (whatever its nature may be) which bursts open the orifice might well cause an undulation in the fluid mass beneath the earth; at each successive ejection of Lava a similar vibration would be felt over the surrounding country; these are known gradually to become less & less frequent, & with them probably the earthquakes, till at last the expansive force is counterbalanced by the pressure in the funnel of the Volcano. — Where Earthquakes take place without any volcanic action, we may either imagine that melted rock is injected in the inferior strata, or that an abortive attempt at an eruption has taken place beneath the Volcano. — On the supposition of an inferior fluid mass there is no difficulty in understanding that gases, the results of the Chemical action of the great heat, should penetrate upwards through the cracks; or water that had percolated deep near to the regions of fire should by the motion of the earth be forced upwards. — Most certainly an earthquake feels very like the motion of a partially elastic body over a fluid in motion. The motion of this Earthquake must have been exceedingly violent; the man at Quiriquina told me the first notice he had of the shock, was finding both his horse & self rolling on the ground. He rose, hardly knowing what it was, & again was thrown down, but not the horse a second time; some of the cattle likewise fell, & some near the edges of the cliffs were rolled into the sea. On one island at the head of the Bay the wave drowned 70. The cattle were exceedingly terrified, running about as if mad, with their tails in the air. It is said that light articles lying on the ground, were fairly pitched to & fro. — The French Vice Consul mentioned a fact which if authentic is very curious, that the Dogs generally during an Earthquake howl, as when hearing military music, but that this time they all quietly left the town some minutes before the shock & were standing on the surrounding hills. — I believe other such facts are on record. — It is also universally stated that on the same morning at 9 oclock, wonderfully large flocks of gulls & other sea birds were noticed with surprise directing their course inland. I feel doubtful how much credit to give to this statement: I have not forgotten that the inhabitants of Lemuy, when we in the boats arrived there, exclaimed, "this is the reason we have seen so many parrots lately".
I have not attempted to give any detailed description of the appearance of Concepcion, for I feel it is quite impossible to convey the mingled feelings with which one beholds this spectacle. — Several of the officers visited it before me; but their strongest language failed to communicate a just idea of the desolation. — It is a bitter & humiliating thing to see works which have cost men so much time & labour overthrown in one minute; yet compassion for the inhabitants is almost instantly forgotten by the interest excited in finding that state of things produced at a moment of time which one is accustomed to attribute to a succession of ages. — To my mind since leaving England we have scarcely beheld any one other sight so deeply interesting. The Earthquake & Volcano are parts of one of the greatest phenomena to which this world is subject.
Went to Talcahuano the the following morning. We found the town in a most deplorable state, viz. not a single house habitable, the earth cracked in all directions, roads blocked up with fallen rocks, cliffs shattered to pieces on the sea coast, fish etc. left on the dry land; indeed, the whole country round spoke the devastation it had made.