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Looking Back

Hell on Earth

/ 09:08 AM April 26, 2019

Typhoons and monsoon rains may be fickle, but Pagasa can, more or less, forecast their impact by closely monitoring their path. Earthquakes are something else—unpredictable as stray cats. That’s why the Jesuits who ran the 19th-century Manila Observatory in Intramuros collected data on them and plotted these in chronological order starting from the 17th century, attempting to discern a pattern that would help them understand, and perhaps predict, what was then feared as terremotos and temblores.

Faura barometers, popular before World War II, forecast weather for people on land and sea by showing both distance (near or far) and strength (violent or destructive) of a typhoon. For earthquakes, the Jesuits used a pendulum to track the movement of a series of terrible quakes and tremors that devastated Manila in July 1880. The pendulum moved almost continuously from July 18 to 2 p.m. of the 21st, and calmed down several times on the 22nd. These squiggles could be used by Malacañang today to create a more ridiculous form of the “Oust Duterte Matrix”!

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Francis Gealogo’s essay on the Manila earthquakes of 1863 and 1880 is a good starting point for anyone interested in disasters, without plowing through the primary sources in Spanish. Available online are two issues of “The Japan Gazette: A Fortnightly Summary of the Political, Commercial, Literary, and Social Events of Japan,” published in August 1880 in Yokohama, that contain eyewitness accounts of the devastating earthquake and aftershocks that terrorized Manila from July 16 to 22, 1880. Much of the reportage was compiled by the Hong Kong-based “China Mail” from the “Diario de Manila” and translated from the original Spanish. Details left out due to length can be accessed online in the pamphlet “Los terremotos en Filipinas en Julio de 1880.”

“The terror that overcame the inhabitants at the moment of the heavy shock is not possible to describe,” wrote one correspondent. “The movement of the earth was such as to deprive people of the use of their feet; even the coolest and bravest who did not, for a moment, lose their presence of mind, found it very difficult to keep on their legs; then the thundering noise of the falling buildings, the dust rising in thick clouds where the ruins fell, caused many people to cry out: Fire! Fire! This caused agony upon agony and the terror-struck natives (principally the women) threw themselves on the ground and, praying aloud, called upon their God in the most heart-rending tones… I am trying to brace my nerves and write plainly, but with the earth moving from your feet every now and then it is hardly possible to do more than make yourself understood, so I hope you will make out the letter.”

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We only endured two minutes on Monday; imagine repeated tremors for a week in 1880. Refugees slept outdoors in open fields, some paid exorbitant fees for shelter in countryside huts, and others sought shelter in ships on Manila Bay or cascos on the Pasig. Fortunately, the quake occurred in the daytime, and the first shocks were slight, giving people a chance to flee.

Ten people were reported dead and 29 wounded, with widespread damage to property estimated at $1 million. Those figures would have tripled had the quake occurred in the dead of night. With lighted kerosene lamps and candles thrown about, fires would have added to the catalogue of misfortune. Roofs of houses fell inward due to the movement of the quake, so pedestrians were not killed or injured by falling roof tiles. House posts of wood sank into the earth a fourth of their original length, and:

“In Santa Ana, all the brick houses came to the ground, some of them built at great expense, and with iron roofs. The church was rendered useless, and Mass was said yesterday in the middle of the field when all residents joined in a rogation. The church of San Mateo also came to the ground. From Cavite… large numbers of inhabitants have abandoned their houses to go to the neighboring village of San Roque, in view of the security offered by houses of light construction. The panic is great and terror is painted in all faces. Those who could not leave this place contented themselves by living in lower houses, fearing a repetition of the earthquake.”

According to another report: “People at Cavite saw Manila, on the occasion of the earthquake, enveloped in a dense cloud of dust, and thought that Manila was completely destroyed.”

People reported about pools and water tanks flowing over from Monday’s quake. Nobody reported on the Pasig River or Manila Bay, but there was unusual phenomena seen by people on ships and watercraft in 1880: “The water of the river, bubbling up and mixed with the black mud of the river, was all the color of ink… In the Bay the same bubbling appearance was observable on the water, and the shock was distinctly felt on board the ships.”

Columns of black or blackish water burst up from the Pasig, by the Colgante or suspension bridge, in the earthquakes of 1863 and 1869, a phenomenon that was not seen in Manila in 1880. But in Cavite, “columns of black mud were seen to burst up, with a strong smell of sulphur. In Canacao and other places,” the earth opened “and from them fine sand and dirty water were ejected.”

In 1880, people surely saw the disaster as a vision of Hell on Earth, or the end of the world.

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TAGS: earthquakes, Monsoon Rains, opinion, Philippine history, Philippines, typhoons
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