Poetry Madness

Saturday, January 22nd, 2005


Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions

by J Zeilinga De Boer

A review by Doug Brown

The recent tragedy in Indonesia demonstrated all too well how far the effects of earthquakes can reach. Three continents were directly affected by the tsunamis generated by the quake, and the entire world has been involved in the relief effort. As the cliché goes, only time will tell what the long-term effects are of this event. Until then, Earthquakes in Human History offers some illustrative examples of how other quakes have shaped history, politics, and economics.

After a straightforward layperson's overview of the causes and types of earthquakes, the first few chapters cover the history of earthquakes in specific regions, emphasizing their mention in literature and religion. Biblical accounts of quakes in the Dead Sea area fill one chapter, the effects of quakes on the Athenian and Spartan empires cover another, and the history of quakes in England fills a third. Quotations from contemporary histories and literature illuminate these chapters, showing that one of the constants in history is people using earthquakes as evidence of theological support for various politico-religious agendas. It seems every time the earth shakes, someone is ready to claim a deity made it happen because of displeasure with the his/her opponents.

The last half of the book features chapters on specific quakes that rippled through history due to their locations and/or severity. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 devastated the capital of a waning empire, thus hastening the empire's demise. It also precipitated a power struggle between the Catholic Church (particularly the Jesuits) and Lisbon's political leaders. The Church maintained the earthquake was God's punishment, and actively resisted rebuilding efforts. The Marques de Pombal, who was leading the efforts to put the city back together, stripped the Church of power to the extent he was able, both in Portugal and in its colonies. Later monarchs restored some of that power, but the Catholics never regained the full might they previously held in Portugal.

Of course the 1906 San Francisco earthquake gets a chapter, demonstrating that often post-quake fires create more devastation than the seismic events themselves. Earthquakes knock over stoves and furnaces, frequently starting multiple fires among the rubble. Making matters worse, water mains are also often ruptured, hampering firefighting efforts. Nowhere was this more heartrendingly demonstrated than in the 1923 Tokyo quake, where tens of thousands perished in the flames that engulfed the wooden city. A new hotel in Tokyo designed by a young American architect survived the tremors, thus helping make the reputation of a man who is now a household name: Frank Lloyd Wright.

More recently, a 1972 quake in Nicaragua helped topple a government. For over ten years the Sandinistas had been leading a rebellion against the corrupt Somoza regime. Through the '60s, they slowly gained followers, but were largely a rural movement. After the 1972 earthquake devastated Managua, the Somoza regime embezzled international aid money to better themselves, and allowed the National Guard to loot the ruins. Thus urban populations finally saw the light and the Sandinista movement grew exponentially, finally overthrowing the Somoza government in 1979. This chapter contains a fascinating but sobering history of Nicaragua, detailing America's historical meddling in the affairs of that country.

Written in an easy, accessible style, Earthquakes in Human History is a pleasantly breezy read. The authors have also written a companion volume, Volcanoes in Human History, which might appeal to fans of all things volcanic. Historians may quibble with the authors' seismic-centric view of sociopolitical history; but for a nonfiction book on history and seismic geology, there is plenty to appeal to general audiences.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.