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The Mayon eruption of 1814

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Mayon Volcano is a major tourist spot not only for Bicol but also for the whole Philippines. This leads some of our countrymen to brag that Mayon has a better shape than Japan’s Mount Fuji, which is truly more photogenic, especially when snow covers its tip, creating a picture that launched a million postcards. Visitors to Bicol are often told that Mayon is picky and does not show her charms to everyone. Depending on her mood, the great volcano will impress by displaying all majesty or disappoint by hiding partially or even fully behind clouds.

This beautiful volcano may be active but it usually keeps its peace, providing slight occasional earth tremors and hot springs all around her. This week Mayon erupted and killed a number of climbers. That should make spectacular front-page news except that the death toll doesn’t come anywhere close to the 12,000 people who died during the 1814 eruption. In one of the reports of events in the Philippines in the early 19th century, as translated in volume 51 of “Blair and Robertson,” you will find this short text:

“On February 1, 1814, a fearful eruption occurred in the volcano Mayon, which partially or wholly destroyed many villages in Albay and Camarines; hot stones, sand, and ashes were poured forth from the crater, and villages were thus set on fire, and their inhabitants killed. The slain numbered 12,000, besides many more seriously injured; and those who escaped lost all their possessions. The most fertile and beautiful districts of Camarines were converted into a desert of sand.”

History has recorded the various eruptions of Mayon all the way back to 1616. The first to be described at length occurred in July 1766 when Mayon acted up for six days. Of the many primary sources on Mayon and its eruptions, one of the earliest and most comprehensive is Fedor Jagor’s “Reisen in den Philippinen,” which was first published in Berlin in 1873 and translated from the original German to Spanish and English in 1875. Jagor travelled in southern Luzon and devoted a whole chapter on Mayon. That chapter includes his own account of an ascent on Mayon.

Jagor says that while many Bicolanos had reached the top of the volcano, there were a few or no Europeans at all who had done so. Jagor, citing Bicolanos’ accounts, narrates that the first foreigners to do so were Scotsmen named Paton and Stewart; thus he contradicted the Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais (The Economic Society of the Friends of the Country), which struck a medal to commemorate the ascent in March 1823 by a certain Captain Antonio Siguenza and his companions. Surely other foreigners had gone there before them, only their feat was not recorded by history.

Jagor says that two Franciscan missionaries climbed Mayon in 1592 to show the Bicolanos that their God or their religion was better than the natives’. Only one of the pair returned and “although he did not reach the summit, being stopped by three deep abysses, made a hundred converts to Christianity by the mere relation of his adventures. He died in the same year, in consequence, it is recorded, of the many variations of temperature to which he was exposed in his ascent of the volcano.”

A description of the Feb. 1, 1814 eruption, drawn from eyewitnesses, is recorded by Jagor as follows:

“At about 8 o’clock that morning, the volcano suddenly belched forth a thick column of rocks, sand and ashes which rapidly rose to a great height… the slopes of the volcano were covered and disappeared from our sight. A river of fire appeared below, threatening to engulf us. People fled in search of higher land. The darkness increased… the fugitives were subjected to falling rocks…. There was no security in the houses because the heated rocks caused fire. Thus were converted into ashes the richest towns of Camarines.

“About 10 o’clock the rain of large stones ceased, substituted by a rain of sand; and (by) 1:30 the noise somewhat diminished and the sky began clearing up. The ground was covered with cadavers and the seriously wounded; in the church of Budiao were 200 persons and in a house of that same town were 35 people. Five towns of Camarines were completely destroyed and the major part of the villa of Albay. Some 12,000 people died, very many were seriously wounded, and those who survived lost all their property. The volcano had a sad and horrendous aspect; its slopes previously so picturesque and cultivated, could be seen covered with sand; the blanket of rocks and sand had a thickness of from 10 to 12 yards. In the area where Budiao was located, the coconut trees were buried up to their crown…The most beautiful parts of Camarines, the most fertile regions of the province, had been converted into an arid desert of sand.”

Wonder, fear or a mix of both are expressed in the various descriptions of Mayon’s eruptions over the centuries. Mayon is described like a human doing excretory functions: vomits stones, belches smoke, spits lava, etc. The language is colorful and terrifying at the same time, helping us to imagine what happened in the past. An eruption today can be documented by an amateur with a cell phone video that would leave nothing to the imagination or to the beauty of narrative.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu


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